Maple Fest

This past Saturday, the boys and I were some of the earliest arrivals for Maple Fest at the Ashokan Center. This is unusual for us—it’s usually a challenge to get two young boys out the door—but I convinced Toby that if we were there first, we’d get the freshest of the pancakes. In hindsight, I was wrong: being there first meant we did get the first pancakes, but the first pancakes were the ones that had been sitting out on the warmer for a while. Nevertheless, Toby ate two servings of them, after running around the empty music hall.

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Then we made sure to wash all the Ashokan maple syrup off our hands. Although rustic, the Ashokan Center features the joys of Xlerator hand dryers.

the joy of an Xlerator

We listened to Jay Ungar and Molly Mason do their sound check. I hope they didn’t mind.

Then we went for a walk on this beautiful, disturbingly pleasant, early spring day. First, the boys explored ruins on the property.

exploring ruins

Then we walked down a switchback trail to a covered bridge over the Esopus River that dated from the late nineteenth century. It had a great view of the waterfall coming off the mill pond just a little ways upriver.

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Even though it was a strange and mild winter, the Esopus still looked swollen—presumably from runoff, although I think the Ashokan Center is downriver from the Ashokan Reservoir, so presumably the volume of water there is not entirely natural, and controlled by the reservoir’s spillway to some degree (if that’s the right way to describe it).

In any event, it was a perfect opportunity for throwing rocks.

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We got back from the river in time to hear Jay and Molly’s first set. They closed with Jay’s most famous composition, “Ashokan Farewell,” the theme song to Ken Burns’s The Civil War (and one of the reasons for the Ashokan Center’s very existence). I got a little choked up.

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason

We also got to hear an Ashokan Center environmental educator perform the work of John Burroughs. Unsurprisingly, Toby was more interested in this than Emmett.

Then we hiked out into the woods on the mile-long path to the sugar shack. Along the way, our guides taught us that although hemlock is the name of a genus of flowering plant famous for being poisonous, it’s also the name of genus of evergreens. Eastern Hemlock, they taught us, is delicious and nutritious.

When we got there, they taught us the history of tapping maples. The kids got to help drill a hole in one of the trees.

tapping a maple, one of two

And they got to help hammer a tin tap into the tree as well.

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The strange winter meant that the season was short and early—but the sugar shack was still warm and homey, and it smelled absolutely delicious.

the sugar shack, looking up

Not everyone was as impressed with the place as I was, though.

Toby in the sugar shack

More Praise for The Year of Living Autobiographically

What follows—a blog post about a Facebook status update about a book about, among other things, avoiding Facebook—may at first seem seem ironic, since the first sentence of The Year of Living Autobiographically is “The plan: ditch FB for one year.” But what ended up happening (as you’ll know, reader, if you happen to have read the book) is that although my Oulipian self-dare meant that I stopped writing on FB, I did keep reading. In other words, it was my social media writing and sharing that went old school—paper, ink, and eventually, the post office—for 366 days.

But I could never totally and completely quit the thing. “I haven’t fully ditched FB, as I’d hoped I would,” I wrote on 12 December; then on 2 January: “I put my FB account on hold two days after my dad died. ‘It feels like an inadequate medium for the expression of grief,’ I wrote in an e-mail to friends and family.” It still feels that way to me, and I still wish I could have the fortitude to reject it. But I love the pictures of our friends’ children! And I love keeping up with friends who live far away.

And I love it when this sort of thing happens: I recently sent a copy of the book to Floyd Cheung, associate professor in Smith College’s English department, where I was very happy to teach an intermediate fiction workshop last spring (and where Emily served as the Elizabeth Drew Professor for two years). Floyd wrote an incredibly thoughtful and generous response to the book on his Facebook page; I’m sincerely grateful for his kind words, which I quote here with his permission:

I just finished reading The Year of Living Autobiographically by Tom Hopkins and feel compelled to comment on it in Facebook, since Tom set himself the challenge of writing a status update every day for one year from 2011-12. Apparently before 2011, FB had a 420-character limit on status updates. Tom adopted this constraint by writing precisely 420 characters every night before going to bed. During the course of this year, Tom writes about events major (his father dies) and mundane (what he eats for dinner). Along the way, he recounts, too, his experiences raising his young son, dreams, and workaday life as a teacher and writer.

The theorist Lauren Berlant observes that “life” is in danger of becoming a genre with set conventions. She points out that when we say, “get a life,” we project certain expectations onto our interlocutors about employment, partnership, possessions, etc.

In The Year of Living Autobiographically Tom successfully plays with the conventions of the typical autobiography–usually a book written later in life that purports to tell one’s life story. Instead of a late-in-life reflection, we get a sense of life as daily accretion. I believe this has a chance of redefining what it means to “get a life.” By writing about the music he hears at his son’s preschool, a butterfly that he thinks is dead, and his wife’s vitamin-taking habits, Tom gives them a kind of value. He doesn’t elevate these moments as much as he makes them add up to what we can call “life.” This achievement is at once modest and, potentially, life-changing.

A few times, the gift-economy experiment aspect of The Year of Living Autobiographically has resulted in marvelous and unexpected swaps, so now I’m really looking forward to reading Jazz at Manzanar, Floyd’s chapbook of poems.

By the way, I’m still trying to find a traditional publisher for the book. I keep getting the nicest rejections (one editor wrote “the searching and the fierceness of the love and hope and acceptance reminded me frequently of writers like Marilynne Robinson,” which buoys my spirit still), but no home as of yet.

If you, reader, happen to be an agent or an editor, and your interest is piqued, please drop me a line—I’d be delighted to send you a copy!

The Year of Living Autobiographically

Feature Request: Kindle Second Acts

A selection of my contributor copies.

A selection of my contributor copies.

The short version of my idea: 1) Amazon should open up the Kindle Singles program to include stories and essays that have been previously published by a curated group of print literary journals. 2) They should hire me to manage this.

The longer version: University-affiliated lit journals could partner with Amazon to make a little more money than they currently do, and benefit the careers (and wallets, a little bit) of the writers they publish. Here’s how:

Amazon has its Kindle Singles program, but at the moment, it’s only for previously unpublished writing (from the Singles Submissions Policy: “Original work, not previously published in other formats or publications”).

At the same time, we have this whole world of fantastic lit journals that have back catalogs of high-quality writing, much of which is only available in print, or for university-affiliated readers who have JSTOR access. Some lit journals might balk at the idea of a partnership with Amazon (see my one caveat, below). But if Amazon opened up the Kindle Singles program to include stories and essays previously published by a curated group of reputable lit journals who mostly publish in print, it would achieve the same purpose of having Kindle Singles be by submission and not a free-for-all. Essays published by AGNI have already been vetted by Sven Birkerts; stories published by The Paris Review have gotten the go-ahead from Lorin Stein. The cohort of lit journals itself would be curated (this is where I come in, Amazon)—again, to keep the program from being a free-for-all.

Lit journals and authors could split Amazon’s usual 70% royalty. Everyone wins: Amazon, the journals, and the writers make a little bit of change, and the writers get a slightly wider audience than they currently have.

I should add that I agree wholeheartedly with Emily Wojcik at The Massachusetts Review in her blog post from this past February (“Rethinking the Future of the University Quarterly”): “The capital offered by the university literary magazine is not financial but cultural, and should be measured accordingly.” I.e., I’m not at all arguing that university-affiliated lit journals are obligated to carry their weight. But I do think that a new way for journals to reach readers would be both a financial and cultural victory.

Here are some readers for whom this would be awesome:

The frugal: A reader might want to spend $2 for one story or essay by a favorite writer, rather than spending $10 or $12 to buy the whole lit journal in which it was published.

The curious: A reader might be interested in a particular writer, but isn’t sure yet whether she or he wants to spend the money and time on her or his whole essay or story collection.

The fans of the not-yet-collected: There are plenty of writers who have published dozens of stories and essays who have not yet had them published in collected book form.

The completists: A writer might have published a collection, or even more than one collection—but their book(s) might not include all of that writer’s work.

Have I covered all the possible scenarios? Let me know if not!

I want this program to happen for selfish reasons (and not just because I want Amazon to hire me to run it). I have a story collection manuscript, but I haven’t yet found an agent or a publisher for it. The collection has twenty-two short stories and short-short stories, twenty of which have been published. Some are online, but quite a few are not; none of the four stories in the ms that are over 5,000 words are available online. They’ve been published by amazing journals, ones that I’m honored to have had select my work—Printers’ Row Journal, One Story, The Massachusetts Review, Indiana Review—but again, $12 is a lot to spend if someone might want to read just my story “The Man in the Moon Is a Lawyer.”

Also, personally, I feel like you can read short-short stories on a web page, but a full-length story is a whole other business. I know not all readers feel this way, but I do think that many readers like the way in which either a physical book or an e-reader doesn’t have the constant temptation to multitask, to flip over to some other app or program that wants to take them away from the submersive experience of reading (what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream”).

Part of why I think this could work brilliantly is because Ploughshares is already doing it with Ploughshares Solos: for example, you can buy my friend Alix Ohlin’s (not-yet-collected) story “The Brooks Brothers Guru” for $1.99 either on the Ploughshares website or on Amazon. This is totally great. And it makes me think that surely there’s a market for a larger program, one that includes a much wider range of established journals.

Possible names for the program: Kindle Second Acts? Kindle Take Twos? Kindle Duos?

Once more: Hey Amazon! If anyone there reads this, and if you want to hire a tech-savvy editor with great literary/publishing world connections and to launch and run such a program: I’m available!

And finally, one small caveat: I’m well aware of the criticisms of Amazon—monopsony, the Gazelle Project, etc. But since Amazon’s not going away anytime soon, my feeling is that what they do incredibly well—what they do better than anyone else—can surely still be harnessed for the much vaster project of literature itself.

The World’s (Seemingly) Most Boring Set List

Emily and I had a great time reading at the Sunday at Erv’s series. Thanks to everyone who was there, and thanks to Madeline Stevens for hosting us! It was an amazing experience to read from The Year of Living Autobiographically for the first time. I was delighted to get more out-loud laughs than I’d ever expected.

I love it when writers—poets especially—share set lists for readings, so I’m doing the same here, in case anyone’s curious. I felt good about the entries that I read, but the list of dates, below, is not exactly poetry without the entries themselves.

Thanks also to everyone who made suggestions for what I should read. With any luck I’ll have more readings from the book in the coming year!

Saturday 15 October 2011
* * *
Monday 21 November 2011
* * *
Monday 12 December 2011
* * *
Thursday 15 December 2011
Friday 16 December 2011
* * *
Sunday 18 December 2011
Monday 19 December 2011
Tuesday 20 December 2011
Wednesday 21 December 2011
* * *
Wednesday 11 January 2012
* * *
Thursday 19 January 2012
* * *
Saturday 26 May 2012
Sunday 27 May 2012
Monday 28 May 2012
Tuesday 29 May 2012
Wednesday 30 May 2012
* * *
Saturday 23 June 2012
Sunday 24 June 2012
Monday 25 June 2012
Tuesday 26 June 2012
Wednesday 27 June 2012
* * *
Friday 29 June 2012
* * *
Tuesday 03 July 2012
* * *
Saturday 13 October 2012

Good News: The Massachusetts Review, Pine Hills Review, Poets & Writers

The Massachusetts Review

Three good things, all at once! My story “This Is a Test of the System” is in the spring issue of Massachusetts Review; Pine Hills Review published my story “What Would John the Evangelist Do?” (you can read the whole thing online); and 200 words that I wrote in praise of Hannah Tinti‘s editing are in the March/April 2015 issue of Poets & Writers, as part of a feature titled “The Moment of Truth: Eleven Authors Share Stories of Life-Changing Retreats,” edited by the great Kevin Larimer.

This all makes me feel kind of mid-aughts-ish: I wrote “This Is a Test” in 2005 at the Albee Foundation, “What Would John” feels like a story that could only happen in the early to middle years of the last decade (the two female characters met at the Radcliffe Publishing Course, for example), and my contribution to “The Moment of Truth” is a (true) story from April 2006. I’m going to include it here (with permission):

In 2006, I spent the month of April at the Ucross Foundation in Clearmont, Wyoming. A friend of mine, writer and editor Hannah Tinti, also happened to be there at the same time. I’d gotten my MFA from NYU the year before, and since I knew how to make a galley from my work at a small press, I’d self-published one hundred copies of my thesis: perfect bound, small trim size, matte pink cover. I’d been giving them away to friends, and I gave one to Hannah at Ucross; she liked one of the stories in the book enough that she wanted to run it in One Story, the literary magazine she co-founded and edits. We worked on “The Samoan Assassin Calls It Quits” over the course of a few evenings, when we were done with our writing for the day. I had the great experience of watching Hannah make masterful edits to the story. She made it better than it had been. In a small way, it felt like how George Saunders responded to the news that he’d won a MacArthur: “I feel smarter already!” I hope always to have brilliant writer and editor friends like Hannah, and I hope that unhurried, meticulous editing, and the slow time and beautiful isolation of places like Ucross, never go away.

More mid-aughts: here’s a picture of Hannah and me at AWP Austin in March 2006, taken by indefatigable indie publishing genius Shannah Compton:

Hannah Tinti, AWP Austin

And some related, mid-aughts-y old posts here: a picture of the little pink book, Some Notes on Wyoming, and a number of photos I took with a tiny, terrible camera that I loved, but that was rendered totally obsolete by new technologies like the iPhone: Wyoming One, Wyoming Two, Wyoming Three. (Also my idea for Red-County Tourism, inspired by Wyoming, which I still think could work.)

All posted back in the olden times, before blogging, too, was rendered totally obsolete!

The Daily Themes of Peter Matthiessen

I’m a tutor in English 450: Daily Themes this semester. It’s a legendary class; famous alumni include Calvin Trillin, who wrote about it for The New Yorker (“No Telling, No Summing Up”), and Peter Matthiessen, who died last April.

When I describe the class, I usually repeat the story that Matthiessen’s first published piece began in Daily Themes. But I’ve been wondering: is this true? It looks like it is. But what was the published piece? And what was the theme? What follows is as close to discovering the answer to those questions as I’ve gotten. (Which bring up more questions: e.g., was the story published before he graduated, or after?)

The next step, it looks like, would be visiting an actual physical library.

Daily Themes (now English 450), is a Yale Classic. Its disciples write a 250-500 word “theme” five days a week for every week of the semester—a practice that encourages odes to childhood and puppy love, eavesdropping at street corners for inspiration, and, eventually, an addiction to writing. Daily Themes has been in existence since about 1901, and its list of famous graduates is long.

Beinecke Top Tens: Daily Themes

Born in New York City in 1927, Peter Matthiessen published his first short story, written in his Daily Themes class, in the Atlantic Monthly in 1951, the year after he graduated from Yale.

Bright Pages: Yale Writers, 1701 – 2001, J. D. McClatchy, Ed.

Yet another member of Fenton’s spring 1950 fiction writing class was Peter Matthiessen, author of such major works as The Snow Leopard (1979), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) and Shadow Country (2008). Like many students in the class of 1950, Matthiessen served during World War II before enrolling at Yale. He showed tremendous early promise as a writer, publishing a story in the Atlantic Monthly while still an undergraduate. On the strength of that, Fenton arranged for him to return after graduation to teach in in Daily Themes and the Short Story writing class during 1950-51.

—Scott Donaldson, Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story

Encouraged by winning the prestigious Atlantic Prize for a story he had written as an undergraduate, Mr. Matthiessen found a literary agent, the steely Bernice Baumgarten, and sent her the first chapters of a novel.

—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt “Peter Matthiessen, Lyrical Writer and Naturalist, Is Dead at 86,” The New York Times, 6 April 2014

The Rubber Band

Emily and Toby and I wrote a poem. No day is ever perfect, and yesterday had its problems. But: we wrote a poem! (Which is perhaps especially awesome because of this: Emily and I were in the same section of David Layzer’s Space, Time, and Motion class in the fall of 1989, and our section leaders allowed us to cowrite an epic poem for our final paper. Emily and I both lived in Adams House. She would come over to my dorm room in E-11, where we typed it all out on my Macintosh SE. We wrote it in botched heroic couplets. It was about Aristotle, Kant, Alice in Wonderland, Hume, Plato, Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Reimanian geometry, Milton, Henri Poincaré, Einstein, and Virgil, among other things. It was terrible; it was glorious.)

If you put a word by itself on a line, Toby said, then you draw special attention to that word, and the reader pays special attention to it.

I love the poetry unit! I want to live in the poetry unit always.

The Rubber Band
by Toby, Mommy, and Daddy

streche    streche
Don’t let your brother eat that!
slingg—shot
Stretched wide in an O
FouR  EDGES
An infinite beige   rectangle
HLDS together tie-die   shirts
FIGUR    ATE
Cat’s cradle, a bundle of mail, preserver of bread
a    zero
a mouse bicycle inner tube
a   ginee   pig    guiTAR
The hairband of last resort
A    TITE    BRASLIT
Get enough of them, make a ball
thay    geT    OLD
THAY     get rough
little spaghetti
Ever-changing shape
BRAIDED
Tiny digeridoo
ants use them to power their
PROPELLER PLANES
and     it     SPRINGS     A N D     SPRINGS
A N  D    S    P     R      I        N         G           S

The Rubber Band

In Case It’s August of 2014 and You’re a Yale Student Interested in English 245a…

(Cutting and pasting, basically, from this.)

…Then I’d recommend reading what I wrote a year ago about applying to 134a. My suggestions about writing sample length and the letter of application both still apply.

And make sure to read what Emily has to say about how you can improve your chances of being accepted to an undergraduate creative writing workshop.

As I wrote before, I really hope these suggestions are helpful. I’m absolutely delighted to be teaching Introduction to Writing Fiction again. It’s a fun and challenging class.

Good luck!

Good News: Ten Things About “The Mohel Mulligan”

2014.08.17 Mohel Mulligan copies

Ten things about “The Mohel Mulligan,” published last week in the Chicago Tribune‘s Printers Row Journal fiction insert (hooray!):

1) The story, in its very first draft, was titled “It Takes Balls to Be a Dick.” This was something I said to a bunch of fellow musicians after a show at CB’s 313 Gallery. (When was this show? Maybe the Marc Rosenthal / Gloria Deluxe / Holly Ramos show on Saturday, 18 March 2000? (“[A]fterparty at Parkside Lounge,” says my calendar. I have vague memories of this being an amazing night.)

The line was the punchline to a story I don’t remember. I wrote it on an index card and put it in my mother’s old recipe box, where, pre-Evernote, I stored loose phrases and quotes and ideas. Starting grad school, I thought I should use it as a title for a short story. I’m glad I didn’t.

2) I workshopped the story twice at NYU. In workshop, it was titled “Blind Date.” Like me, the story is a lot more Jewish than it was ten years ago.

3) The draft I submitted to the Printers Row Journal was the thirteenth. It was the twenty-ninth time I’d sent out the story. (I’m grateful to Dan and Nicole and Jamie for encouraging me to keep sending it out.)

4) The story is an homage to / riff on Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s the same basic setup: four people drinking and telling stories. The narrator is named Nick; the husband of the other couple is named Mel. Terri and Laura become Abby and Molly.

5) Riffing/signaling-of-riffing in the opening two sentences:

Carver:

My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.

Me:

My new friend Molly had been praising the baby. She wanted to be a pediatrician, so I thought that gave her the right.

6) This is a completely fictional story. But it’s based on something that actually happened to me—a weekend-long blind date, at my date’s friends’ beautiful vacation house—which occurred on a weekend on which the sixth of July fell on a Sunday in 2003.

The real-life conversation that inspired the conversation of the story occurred on that Sunday.

The publication date for the story is the sixth of July, which fell on a Sunday in 2014.

7) The insert says $2 on it, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how you’re supposed to buy a copy. They may only be available in analog form, in Chicago, purchased with physical dollars. (Kicking it old school, Trib! This could potentially explain why the story does not yet exist at all on the Internet, according to Google. I don’t mean at all for this to sound disrespectful, but it does inspire a contemporary version of the if-a-tree-falls question: If a story is published in print, and no mention of it occurs on the Web, was it ever actually published?)

8) Emily will give some copies away on her Facebook author page. Which is an awesome reason to “Like” Emily Barton, if you haven’t clicked that button already.

9) The story-within-a-story is about a circumcision gone horribly wrong. I’ve been tempted, for a decade, thinking about that and thinking about Carver, to retitle the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Cock.” I’m glad I didn’t.

10) Film rights are available.