My life in cats: Henderson

Presenting Henderson, also called Sweet Lady Henderson, which is a great name for both a cat and a blues singer:

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Henderson was stray until recently when she made camp on my friends’ porch. They fed her through the winter, and eventually took her to the vet, where they discovered she was older than they’d thought, and really not suited to go back outside. (Some cats do just fine as fed outdoor cats–she was clearly struggling.)

Mike and I fostered her for a little while. She’s a sweetheart. She wags her tail when she’s happy. I can’t even deal with how cute that is.

She would like to be petted, please. Constantly, if possible.

The vet had to shave her because her fur was a mass of angry tangles. So, she looks a bit like a furless, pathetic goblin. A purring, furless, pathetic goblin with a wagging tail.

She seems to have rustled up a home. If you have to be a stray cat, it’s good to be charming. And since her home is with friends of ours, we still get to enjoy petting the furless goblin (who will eventually be furred) and watching gifs of her wagging her tail.

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My life in cats: Aurora

Aurora

Sometimes I think I should document my life in cats.

My friend’s cat Aurora is a very intelligent, very grand-looking tortoiseshell maine coon. She’s very self-possessed and polite to me–but not overly so, because generally when I’m over, it’s feeding time. And if it’s “time to feed the kitty,” then focusing on anything other than food is not on.

Aurora has some rare behaviors — for instance, she will correct her behavior when my friend reminds her to remember her decorum. When my cats hear us tell them things like “respect boundaries,” they look up with wild eyes, writhe around in a circle, and then bolt across the room.

Many of my friends’ cats are female, where all of ours are male. I don’t know how much there really is a behavioral difference between male and female cats, but it always feels like there is. Ours are energetic, ridiculous goofs. Aurora has this thing called dignity. I’d try to explain what “dignity” was to our cats, but then they’d just look up with wild eyes, writhe around in a circle, and bolt across the room.

In Defense of “Slice of Life” Stories

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When I was in college, I insisted that any poem worth its words would have a strong idea behind it–something it wanted to communicate to the reader. I still think that, but I’ve broadened my definition of what an idea is.

Many poems attempt to communicate an impression or an emotion. A poem about nature might not be intended to communicate “here is an intellectual idea about nature,” but instead “this is what it looked like through my eyes” and “this is how it felt.” Fine art landscapes can be like that, too. They depict a place at a time, both transient, through the eye of the painter (where the eye of the painter may figure more or less into the image, depending on whether it’s a realistic painting, etc).

What this makes me wonder is–why are we so dismissive of this in fiction? Plots are excellent; ideas are excellent. But what’s so wrong with a slice of life, that we refer to it with distaste? Why can’t fiction be about rendering transient, momentary emotions? Why do we demand they always be in the context of a plot?

I expect this is a historical artifact of genre expectations for fiction. I think the prohibition against plot-less fiction is stronger in science fiction & fantasy circles, but it’s definitely something I’ve heard reinforced in more academic or literary spaces.

One factor that occurs to me — is this influenced by how we imagine the role of the author in fiction, versus in poems or paintings? A poem is not necessarily written from the perspective of the poet, even when there’s an “I” at the center of the verse. Culturally, however, the belief that a poet is the narrator of their own poems is so strong that in every poetry workshop I’ve been in (I’ve never been in one on the graduate level), the teacher has to remind people at least a couple of times that the assumption they’re making about the narrator’s identity isn’t necessarily true.
Paintings, also, are generally seen as being rendered by oneself. This doesn’t have to be true either–the artist’s eye doesn’t have to be the one that observes, and the painting doesn’t have to render what the artist would see. Our narratives about painting speak even more strongly against the idea that they are filtered through a perspective other than the painter’s, and it’s not hard to see why — we think about painters bringing models into their studios, or taking their canvases out into the open air to paint the mountains. Even less realistic work tends to be narratively fitted into the idea of painter-as-observer–for instance, the way we talk about the artistic work of people with mental illnesses (for instance, Van Gogh), suggests that the ways in which the artist’s vision differs from the objective eye is integral to their “madness”–that they literally see the world as they paint it.

I think we culturally acknowledge that life rarely has an actual plot or shape to it. Poems and paintings are more easily classified as themselves slices of life, so when they omit plots, that is consistent with our expectations from them. There’s more room in memoir than fiction for this sort of thing also (although it can be contentious), wherein the writer is expected to be relating something of themselves.

Fiction is seen as more of a pretense, I think. And while there’s a general acknowledgement that life itself fails to be narratively tidy or have plots, most people seem to expect that if you’re going to go to all the work of building a pretense, you should make it more aesthetically tidy than life.

Without taking anything away from plot- and idea-driven fiction (my personal bread and butter), I think that closing off the possibility of slice-of-life stories makes our body of literature weaker. I want authors to have access to a full range of tools so I can read what they build.

Drowning in Light

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In the middle of summer, at this latitude, it’s light all the time. Not literally–we’re not that far North–but it can feel like it as the hour passes eight thirty and the sun is still happily shining.

It’s not as oppressive as the dark. I’ve only been here for one Winter, and many things were going wrong then, but when darkness crowded out the mornings and the afternoons, it felt like the world was narrowing to a pinpoint.

It was an ominous, oppressive feeling, and I made a personal note to myself not to spend a whole winter here again without traveling to see some light. I also bought a sun lamp.

I was pretty well warned about the dark winters in the Northwest. That, and the rain, although I haven’t found the rain that difficult to deal with. I can’t remember if anyone mentioned the summers–how weird and suspended it feels to be constantly in the light.

Time seems to have melted away. Everything is an endless afternoon, until the sudden, late blink of nighttime. It’s giving me some trouble getting things done–usually, when the light starts to wane, I switch over to evening tasks automatically. I have a pretty good sense of internal time, so I don’t spend a lot of the afternoon checking the clock, and it feels like it could be three p.m. from noon to eight.

The sunlight is nice in a lot of ways. I’m not having trouble sleeping through the early sun this year, though I did last year. But it’s interesting to observe in myself how my body responds to light, and how much it matters to how I feel and what I’m doing, despite my perpetually troubled sleep cycle, and how much of the time I’m in artificial light, looking at illuminated screens.

I think of myself as located in my mind, but we’re all bodily creatures.

It’s summer! It’s graduation time!

It’s summer! It’s graduation time!

I haven’t paid any attention to these signposts for a long time. After you’re not in school for long enough, its importance just kind of melts away. For years, I noticed graduation season as that time when YouTube starts putting up graduation-related clips.

However! Summer has become relevant to my life again. We hang out with two teenagers a lot, and they’re both in middle school. Ugh, middle school. So they’ve been counting down the days for a while. (Also, during the summers, we get to hang out with them during the day, which is nice.)

My husband is also in graduate school part time, and he’s going to graduate in a few days after turning in a final project, and he is SO RELIEVED, I can’t even tell you.

Back to the kids, the older teen (I shall hereforth call her Adelaide) had her “promotion ceremony” from middle school last night. One of her friends came over, and they fussed over their makeup for a longer time than usual. (Adelaide is into really dramatic makeup–cosplay-type makeup.)

I didn’t dress up for my middle school graduation. I mean, I’m sure I wore a nice dress. I’m equally sure I didn’t spend time primping. I was just happy to get out of there.

Adelaide is happy to get out of there, too, but she’s also feeling sentimental as she stands on the brink of high school. “I cried so much my eyes hurt,” she told me last night, a few hours after the ceremony. “Still.”

I’m her friend, not a parent or anything like that, but I still feel proud that she’s made it through all the trouble and drama and awfulness that is middle school. It’s a hell of a gauntlet.

Adelaide’s life as a pre-teen is super different than mine was. I mean, I was certainly not doing makeup or ready to date anyone when I was that age, while Adelaide is a bit of a swain.

I really get hung up on how much queer rights have changed. When I told Adelaide that I hadn’t met an out trans person until college, she was floored. She’s openly pansexual, and she publicly dates other girls. Some of it is because we’re in a liberal city, but a lot is just sheer cultural progress.

I think about how my friend Clay came out at fourteen in high school, basically because he had to – no one was going to accept him as straight. The hate and disdain he got even when he wasn’t dating anyone was extreme. His family kicked him out for a period of time. He ended up taking a lot of drugs, being so isolated and miserable.

While Adelaide? She wore a rainbow tie to her graduation in support of queer rights, and so did her friends.

Here she is, looking great:
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How Long Does It Take To Write a Poem? Also, “Inside Her Heart,” and a class!

Verses of Sky & Stars: How to Write the Poetry and Science Fiction and FantasyI’m teaching an online class on writing science fiction and fantasy poetry on June 30 at 9:30-11:30 PDT. It’s a fun class because it draws people from many different backgrounds with many different goals. Some are dedicated poets, looking to sharpen their edge or find inspiration. Others are prose writers who’ve barely touched poetry before, trying something new, or hoping to pick up a trick or two to bring back to their novels and short stories.

As I prepare for the class, I’ve been going over some of my own poetry, thinking about how I wrote it, and what inspired it, and that kind of thing. I wrote “Inside Her Heart” while I was in graduate school, and although the poem is ostensibly about the mother’s loneliness, I think the emotion I was tapping was my own homesickness, living halfway across the country from my parents and my (then to-be) husband.

Inside Her Heart

by Rachel Swirsky

The morning
our youngest
leaves for college,
my wife sits down
in the breakfast nook.
“I’m done being a woman,”
she says. “I’m going to try
being a house.”

She draws a sweater
over her chest like
curtains, a wide hat
like a roof perched
atop her head. Weeds
spread across the linoleum
at her feet, littered
with forget-me-nots
and matchbox cars.

She moves from
the chair by the stove
to one near the window.
“Better neighborhood,”
she says.

At night, she
opens her mouth.
Lights pour out,
and scratchy music
like old records.

She beckons me
parting the curtains
so I can press my ear
to her heart and hear

tiny people’s footsteps
inside her, dancing
reckless, full
of opportunity.

 

I wrote a lot of poetry in graduate school. I always joked that I was writing poetry because I was in a fiction program–I knew I couldn’t turn it in for class, so it was lower pressure than writing something that I knew would be subjected to many brilliant-but-critical glares. I say it was a joke, but it was probably also true.

Poems are an appealing form because you can write them so rapidly in comparison to stories. You can start one in the morning, retype and revise it thirty times, and still send it to an editor in the afternoon if you’re feeling confident.

Well, sort of. First of all, I suspect the fact that I write poems (relatively) quickly stems from the fact that I don’t make my living on poetry. Just as they were low-pressure in grad school, they’re low-pressure now. I write something; it’s fun; I hope someone enjoys it; I earn enough money for something between a cup of coffee and a nice dinner. (At least I usually get paid — I’ve heard people refer to poetry as a “gift economy,” which is nice, but I like coffee and nice dinners and paid power bills.) Poets can treat their poems with every bit as much perfectionism as I treat my short stories. Poems can live on hard drives for decades, enduring a tweak or two every month when their file gets dredged up.

There’s also a lot of work that goes into writing a poem outside of the actual drafting, fingers-to-keyboard time. For me, sometimes that work happens before the poem is completed. It can arise as a kind of insistent, inchoate pressure that forms during my day-to-day experiences, from something as mundane as the ticking in my mind while sitting on a subway, to the whooshing blur of a dance floor–or, often, something shivery I’ve found in a book.

Sometimes, I spend the hours in revision, obsessing over where a comma goes and where it doesn’t. I do the same thing with my fiction–which I don’t necessarily recommend; there are diminishing returns on this kind of thing. Take it out, put it in. Take it out, put it in. Sometimes I can never really decide, and whether it’s there or not depends sheerly on whether I stop revising on an even pass or an odd pass.

Sometimes I hardly even notice the work I’m putting in. It seems invisible. A poem can seem to be begun and completed within hours. This poem felt like that–like something that just emerged. Of course, it didn’t–nothing does–I couldn’t have done it without years of reading and writing poetry.

The real work, though, was in my life–in the homesick experience of living alone in Iowa. Sometimes living is the work of poetry. Letting yourself feel, deeply. Truly engaging with the world and with yourself. Poetry begins with the examined life.

Wander the Kitten, Napping

Photographic evidence suggests that, as a kitten, the fluffball named Wander did nothing but nap.

Wander has a snooze

And nap:

Wander naps

And sometimes flop:

Wander lies down

But mostly nap:

Wander still naps

…but really this is because the rest of the time he was running around too fast for the camera to actually take a picture.

Come break the rules with me! (in a class. on Sunday. with Cat Rambo.)

Consider this your invitation: start (or continue) to Break the Rules with me in less than three days! After Daylight Savings Time is over and the clock falls back, I hope you’ll spend some time with Cat Rambo, me and your writing this Sunday, November 5th at 9:30am PST 

Breaking the RulesBreak the Rules!

Tell, don’t show. Dump your information. Write in second person. Write in passive voice. Use adverbs. To heck with suspense.

Rules mark what’s difficult, not what’s impossible. There’s a whole range of exciting storytelling possibilities beyond them. Not every story needs to be in second person, but when it’s the right voice for the right story, it can be magic. The right information dump, written perfectly, can become a dazzling gymnastic feat of beauty, fascination and horror.

“Break the Rules!” will teach you inspirations and techniques for rowing upstream of common knowledge. You can break any rule–if you do it right.

Register by mailing Cat Rambo at cat AT catrambo.com and specifying whether you would prefer to pay by Paypal or by check.

The cost for a single session live workshop is $99 for new students; $79 for students who have formerly taken a class with Cat (or Rachel). Classes are taught via Google Hangouts; all you need is a computer with a microphone and reliable Internet connection, but a webcam is suggested.

(At least a few secrets: If you register for this class, you’ll be able to learn from all of the other storytellers going first. If sign up for my newsletter, you can learn about when I’m teaching next. If you support my Patreon, you can learn what and where I’m writing first.)

My novel is going well! Yay! Here are some excerpts.

I’m really excited about how well my novel project is going. I’m close to a third done which is a big marker for me. I though tit might be fun to post a couple excerpts from the first two chapters (they each have a different point of view character). I’ve put some up excerpts on my Patreon before (where you can get a new story or poem from me each month for as little as $1, plug over, thank you.) These are new excerpts.

Chapter One

Smog hovers over the mountains ringing the valley, grey underbelly lit orange by the last rays of sunrise. In winter, Marie’s garden is filled with pale color, splashed with infrequent dapples of red from dogwood and witch hazel. The woodchip path threads from the back porch through the flowerbeds, pausing to circle the wide-crowned whitebud tree. Droopy-headed snow drops and star-shaped glories of the snow drowse along the path, clustered close to the ground. Crocuses, violas, and camellias grow in higher beds, pastel blues and violets shimmering like chiffon.

 

Breeze shivers through the whitebud’s branches, tumbling a snowfall of tiny, bell-like white blossoms. It stirs the evergreen hedges encircling the garden, casting shifting shadows across green, white and brown. Lavender hellebore scales the leafy walls, its contrasting color creating the illusion of depth, as if the hedges could continue forever. Marie’s roses remain a few months from blooming. Their branches scratch bare and thorny against the dawn.

Chapter Two

More kids arrived, and everything was glowy and strobey, and a bunch of people had put music on their phones and all the different genres rattled and clashed against each other, and some people asked if she wanted to buy something, which she did, but she didn’t have money. She set up singing near the front where there was better music, and some people stopped and told her she sounded like Beyonce, and a couple of guys told her she was a cunt, and someone else told them to fuck off.

 

So much spark. So much sizzle. Dancing wasn’t enough to get the lightning out of her fingers and her elbows and her toes. Her skull was full of electric fists that kept punching and punching and if she couldn’t break loose then they were going to hammer shards straight through her scalp and she needed to move, to move, to move.

 

Some guy danced with her and grabbed her tit, and she elbowed him in the ribs, but when another guy came up behind her later, she let him kiss her for a while until she got bored. There were other girls dancing and she watched them, the slither and sleek of their legs beneath their cut-offs, the chocolate dart of their eyes beneath jagged liner. She slipped between them and their bodies were close and press, and she licked the taller one’s neck, and her skin was salt and sweat, and Jamie was singing again, and someone’s hand was soft on the small of her back. There was so much smoke everywhere like haze, and people’s colored lights beaming through it and making everyone look pink and blue and weird and wonderful.