Honestly, don’t you think that’s a fun idea? An “advice column” where the columnist is the one asking for the advice? Hilarious!
Thanks to all of you, my summer reading list is set. I didn’t tabulate exact votes, but it was pretty clear how things shook out. I am going to read my five novels in this order, as per your advice:
1984 byGeorge Orwell
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James The Pale King by David Foster Wallace Tender is the Night by Ernest Hemingway
It was pretty close between Orwell and Tartt, but I think it’s okay for me to start with the shorter work before I dive into the really long one. Henry James was definitely in third place, and David Foster Wallace and Hemingway were neck and neck bringing up the caboose, but I decided to let Hemingway come in last. He so often comes in first, doesn’t he? He’ll be okay.
Once I’m finished with Orwell, I’ll bring you my book report. It’s interesting timing: I’ve been thinking about deleting my Facebook account. I was going to bring you the case and — wait for it — ask you for your advice. Reading 1984 with that in mind, that idea about deleting Facebook, will be most interesting.
*I’m not on a tuffet. I just needed to create a visual of some haughty Advice Columnist who thinks she knows everything and putting her on a tuffet seemed right.
A few weeks back, I put on my librarian hat — a fetching chapeau! — and did some organization and pruning of my living room library. (I have a library full of quilt history books, but that is in the office.)
As I worked through the shelves, I found lots of titles I was ready to give away, and it felt good to watch that pile grow. Most of the books I didn’t want I put up in my building’s laundry room on the cute “take a book, leave a book” shelves by the elevator. Right now, someone is enjoying a gluten-free baking cookbook and my extra copy of the Lapham’s Quarterly on “Time.” (Interesting how I bought that particular issue twice!)
While it felt good to shed extra stuff and hopefully make someone happy, it felt bad to see all the books I own but haven’t read. There aren’t that many, but it cannot be denied that I have a good deal of fabulous reading material that I’ve never cracked. I think this is true for most people who love to buy books. You can’t wait to read the books you just bought, but then you get busy or you get interested in something else and then it’s five years later and you never read that biography of Eleanor Roosevelt or the complete history of polka dots or The Brothers Karamazov.
For me, it’s always the novels I don’t get around to reading. I go for the essay, the article, the interview, the criticism. Non-fiction, in other words. But I do want to read a novel or two this summer for heaven’s sake, so I thought I’d ask for your help.
Here are five novels I own but have not yet read, and I want YOU to tell me what to read first.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt 1984 by George Orwell The Pale King by David Foster Wallace Tender is the Night by Ernest Hemingway
I thought about giving you descriptions, but, since so many of you are book-nerdy like me, I thought you might enjoy looking into the books on your own. Of course, most folks won’t need to look up Orwell’s 1984; that canonical work is pretty well known and I am horrified to admit that I’ve never read it! Me! An Orwell fangirl! But this is what I mean about books you own: Sometimes, you just never get around to them, even if they’re classic works of literature that most people read their sophomore year of high school.
I can’t wait to see what you think, gang. Some of the books are (much) longer than others, but I’m ready for what you all decide. Oh, and if anyone wants to read along with me, please do: I’ll write up a book report when I get done with each title.
It’s not always obvious. But there do come times when you know you’ve broken from something.
For example, you know you’re leaving a job you have your last day. You know you’re breaking from something. When the calendar hits that day, you’re like, “Okay. I am no longer living that particular life.” It’s pretty weird; it’s hopefully good. Another example: You finish school. Or you have your first baby. In these cases, it’s like, “Woah, I just became not a student after being one for X years” or, in the case of the baby, “Woah, I am no longer a person who does not have children.”
I know that was a lot of double negatives up there, but I’m trying to drive home the “I’ve broken from something” point more than the “I feel like I’m starting something new” point.
Well, I have broken from something. And it has to do with quilts.
The moment I decided that I wanted to make a quilt, I became part of the quilt industry. This wasn’t at the urging of my mother. The company that owned my mother’s company were the driving forces behind getting Fons The Younger into the game. I was excited to be a part of it all, make no mistake. I’m not pillorying anyone; it made sense that a Fons daughter who wanted to get into quilting would be fun to bring onboard in a public way. It was fun, most of the time. I made a lot of work I’m very proud of and I built many valuable relationships as a result of my hard work over the years alongside my mother and her former company.
Regardless, my life as a quilter has been one lived under extreme creative pressure. Every quilt I ever made, for almost 10 years, was made for public consumption. My quilt, whichever one it was, was made for a magazine; a show on TV; a show online; my book, etc., etc. I made quilts that I loved, absolutely, and I developed a certain Mary Fons aesthetic, but I only made quilts that had a deadline. I made quilts not purely for love or for fun; not purely for just giving. I made quilts for patterns or tutorials. Always, the questions: What are the learning objectives in the quilt? What fabrics did I use? Did I use a special tool?
That is now over.
I’m making the first quilt I’ve made in two years. (Grad school kept me pretty busy.) My quilt is ugly. It is gloriously, gorgeously unfit for television. It is not acceptable, this quilt. It is mine. It is not for you, and in saying that it is not for you, I hope you can understand that that is the highest honor and praise that I can give you if you are a quilter: You know how important a quilt like this is, you know how important it is to sit at a machine and stitch and let the world fall away. I am making a quilt that will never be on television. It will not be in a magazine you’ve heard of. I’m making a quilt that is simple and perfect and ugly.
I have never loved a quilt more in my life. It is perfect. May you all make a quilt not ready for prime time.
The caption under this photo in Wikipedia reads: “A sign indicating where jurors are to conjugate inside Hillsborough County Superior Courthouse in Nashua, New Hampshire.”
Wait a second.
I looked up the word “conjugate” because that’s … wrong. It’s adorable, but it’s wrong. It should be “jurors congregate.” Right?
Then I thought, well, maybe jurors do conjugate. The “j” and the “u” are the same in both words, right? I did some poking around and I didn’t find anything in a definition for “conjugate” that really made sense in the context of the caption. But I could be wrong. After all, I’ve not studied law; I don’t know what jurors do. I’ve not served on a jury. I took an advanced vocab class one summer during undergrad and learned a lot of Latin roots and suffixes and things, but there’s a lot I don’t know about words. Jurors conjugate. Why not?
It seems like a small thing, getting words mixed up. The person who did the captioning got it wrong, I’m pretty sure, but I’m not sure beyond a reasonable doubt. I’m glad I don’t have to stake my life on being right or the caption writer being wrong.
I’m thinking in this way because I’ve been watching some damnable series on Netflix called “The Staircase.” Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s a documentary in 13 episodes. The filmmakers tracked — exhaustively, relentlessly, remarkably — a murder case which took place over several years in the early 2000s. I have no recollection of this case, but it was a big story in mainstream media, as the series shows. I won’t tell you everything that happens because I haven’t seen the last four episodes and I can’t bear to go through it all. Just know that the story is painful, sad, tedious, shocking, depressing, and discomfiting in the extreme.
Man, I ain’t got time to binge watch anything but my email box, and here this show goes and hooks me! I was going to take a walk tonight, but no way. I had to watch, and now I’m scared of being sucked into a murder case. A real one. I haven’t killed anyone. I don’t plan to. I would hope no one is out to kill me. But “The Staircase” shows these things can happen to anyone! We’re all just one Kafkaesque scenario away from a different, bad world.
The trouble with watching TV like this is twofold: You can’t look. And you can’t look away.
It has come to the attention of The Management that some folks are having trouble accessing this blog. Unacceptable! I’m sure it’s got something to do with the mischievous internet goblins who know that I’m thinking of deleting my Facebook account. More on that later. Anyway, I’ve got a call out to my brilliant web wizard, Julie Feirer. I’m sure there’s something she can do. She must not fail!
A N N O U N C E M E N T N O . 2
I am writing thank-you notes to the folks who donated during the First-Ever PaperGirl Pledge Drive, but I’ve got a problem. You see, if you donated via PayPal, I could simply email you a thank-you, but this is not my style. Your PaperGirl is, perhaps not surprisingly, super into paper. The problem is that I don’t get a person’s mailing address with a PayPal donation, so I am going to have to ask for it. It will be a slight nightmare keeping everything straight, but I can try:
If you donated will you please email me your mailing address? (If you haven’t donated, why, there’s still time!)
I’d like you to use my school email, since it’s separate and it’s funny how after you graduate from a school, you don’t have to really send emails about school anymore. Here’s that address:
m f o n s @ s a i c . e d u
Use no spaces, of course, when you enter that address into your “To” field; I’m just trying to keep the spambots away. (Robots crawl the internet looking for email addresses to spam. You know that, right? If you have a website or a newsletter or anything, don’t put your email address on the screen without funky spacing. I think it’s supposed to help.)
The thank-you notes are being written. I have a huge bag already. It’s going to take time, but it’s important to me that I send you a proper thank-you note. My mama raised me good.
Google Maps tells me I live .7 miles from Lake Michigan.
That doesn’t seem very far, but it’s not a straight shot. I can’t lean out my window and see the lake. I can lean out the window and see over to Grant Park (when the Cubs won the World Series, I leaned out a lot) but I’m not rich enough yet for a close-up lake view.
But every once in awhile — it doesn’t happen often — a seagull from over at the lake will wing its way over to my block and sail through the sky past my 16th floor windows. The bird is bright white against the gray and brown and glassy blue of the mid-rises and the high-rises here in the South Loop. If a seagull comes through up here, I notice, even if I’m not looking at the window at all. The contrast is remarkable enough to catch the eye.
Just because you finish a degree; just because you decide to mention you’re seeing someone; just because you’re working a job you love — nothing is set. Ground shifts; it shifts again. In your case, maybe I should say that the air current changes and changes again or the rain stops, then it starts again. My point is that no matter where you fly, there you are, and just because you wanted the city to be different than the lake, that doesn’t mean it will be. I hope you find what you’re looking for, but like …
When a person in magazine publishing says she’s “in press” or the magazine she works for is “going to press” it doesn’t mean she’s physically squished between two large ink rollers, nor does it mean she’s about to push a big red button that starts a Gotham-style newspaper printing press spewing out special edition headline news in a Batman movie montage. (You know what I mean, right?)
Being in press means you are under deadline to get all the content, the photos, the captions, graphics — every jot and tittle you see in a piece of printed matter — corralled onto the pages of the given publication before you must sign off on the thing and send it out into the world. (Then you get your big red button moment, sort of.) Making a printed anything that is good at all is an impossible task, so press is pretty scary. The more text, the more photos, the more captions, the more facts you have to check, etc., the scarier it is.
In press, all the things you didn’t know you were missing are revealed. For a 180-page quarterly journal like Quiltfolk, we have about five days of press. That’s five days of anguish as you go through page after page, caption after caption, looking for ways to make it better, make it prettier, make it make sense, and above all make it not wrong. It’s terrifying. Quiltfolk is way more like a book than a magazine (no ads, all those pages, all those photos) so I have a job where we make a big, fat book, four times a year. And by the way: We’ve been workin on the issue since April. It’s just that this is the crunch time. This is press.
Yes, we’re in press right now. And I was going to put up a post that said I couldn’t say hi at all because we’re in press. But I can’t help myself: I’m a publishin’ fool. Press is exhausting and frightening, but it’s also a blast. I love it. I love to make type move and I love to select a photo and I love to communicate this way. I’m not good at so many things and I’m not even that good at this, but I have ink in my veins, I really do.
I’ll tell you more about Issue 07 of Quiltfolk soon. Maybe even tomorrow, if those captions don’t take me out first.
You know I don’t do a lot of pop culture commentary. I don’t do political commentary, either. I really only do Mary Fons commentary — and I think we can all agree that is plenty.
But this Kate Spade thing. I gotta talk about it.
If you didn’t hear about the recent, tragic end of the mega-successful accessories designer, I am impressed. The story of her untimely end is so all over the news, even I heard about it. (There’s an adage in the world of journalism: “If it bleeds, it ledes”, which means that if a story involves sex; untimely, preferably gruesome death; and/or life-destroying scandal, make it the top story, since what “bleeds” sells newspapers.)
Empire-builder Kate Spade took her own life. That bleeds.
It’s a remarkable story because suicide is violent and ruinous no matter what, no matter who commits it. But when the person who commits suicide was the founder of a worldwide brand built with vibrant color and buttoned-up whimsy; when that person’s exuberance fueled the spirited tone that launched her multi-million-dollar empire; when the person who hung herself in her home was a success by every single measure in our strange society … This should give us all pause. We should all consider what we think we know about other people. And what we think we know about ourselves.
Honestly, I was never a Kate Spade customer. I dress pretty preppy, but her polka dots were always a little too big for me, her green too Kelly; her patent leather a tad too shiny. But I liked that she had a point of view. I liked that she used the card pip for her logo. It all made sense. I’m sorry she felt she only had one option. I’m sorry when a person thinks that and I’m sorry we don’t know, as a society, how to help them better.
Remember when people in this country died of tuberculosis? Today, we say: “We could have helped them. If only we knew then what we know now. We know so much more about germ theory and prevention and medicine. All those people died back then, but no more.” We’ll talk about mental illness and addiction like that one day.
Here’s a quote from an interview the late Mrs. Spade gave in New York last year to an online channel. The host asked her what inspires her. I like how she answered, how she personifies color:
“People inspire me. [People in] the environment. I’d love to say something more intelligent, like ‘art’ or ‘museums’ or ‘writing.’ But I would honestly say people. I look at the street and I’m not sure I reflect the street as much as I interpret it … I find color optimistic and enthusiastic … and I adore it. I don’t know how else to say it.”
Everyone’s just nutty about all those subscription box things.
Well, okay: If you haven’t heard about the subscription box thing, you are proof that not everyone is nutty about them, but once I tell you what they are, you might go nuts. Everyone else is, already! Here’s the definition from Wikipedia, which one should not really use to define things, but I am in press for Issue 07 of Quiltfolk and have to get up before dawn to edit:
A subscription box is a recurring delivery of niche products. Subscription boxes are a marketing strategy and a method of product distribution. Subscription boxes are used by subscription-based e-commerce businesses, referred to as “subcom” for short, which follow a subscription business model.”
What do you buy that you probably don’t actually need? Clothes? Jewelry? Makeup? Toys? Snacks? Home decor items? Kitchen gadgets? All of these things can now be purchased via subscription box. Whatever company you sign up with — and once you pay them, of course — they put things in a box and send them to you. From what I understand, some subscription boxes allow you to send things back; other “subcoms” just give you your stuff and if you don’t like it, well, better luck next month.
I do not subscribe to any of these boxes. I’m not saying I never would, but I don’t want strangers sending me things I did not shop for myself. I can appreciate that it’s fun, that it’s like Christmas when you open a new subscription box, except … Well, you’re paying for it. So it’s sort of like Christmas for adults. Yay.
I thought of a few subscription boxes I would love to get. None of them are real but they obviously should be.
Ice Cream Box — Weekly
A new flavor every time, as long as the new flavors are always praline pecan, butter brickle, or salty caramel.
Massage Box — Every 4 hours A small masseuse pops out of the box and makes it all better.
Box of Money — Constantly Signature required.
Housekeeper Box — 3 x Week Just think: When you open the box, the person is already inside, ready to start tidying while you pack your suitcase to go back to the airport!
Jewelry Box — Whenever Lots of fance jewelry, all gold and sparkly things. Because you’re worth it and you’re nice to the UPS delivery person.
T H A N K Y O U I would like to thank you all on behalf of Hannah and my entire family for your reception of my sister’s TED Talk. Her presentation was a tough act to follow, but you did it in the comments. Your consideration and thoughtfulness proved it once again: We may not all agree, or understand, or know the answers, but around here, we listen to each other.
I didn’t mean to go dark for a few days after posting the video, but it happened. There were two reasons for it: For one thing, I wanted the most people to see the video before it got buried under more posts. I was also in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the annual advisory board meeting for the International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM) and y’all, they kept us busy. I was in meetings all day, then at functions that required me to wear certain attire. Then I was in a shuttle back to the hotel! And back! For days! I loved it.
Now I’m on a plane to Portland to make Issue 07 of Quiltfolk.
And so I’m on this plane. I’m pretty tired. I should answer emails. But I’ve been away from you and I don’t like that. I get hives if I’m away for too long. But I felt a little cashed an hour ago. I didn’t know what to tell you.
I don’t have “writer’s block” because … Well, I just don’t have that. Writing is an extension of my whole self, as automatic as breathing or blinking. If a “block” were to happen, it would be like an air block in my lungs or my blinking motor (?) and we would have bigger problems than missing a few blog posts.
However, I am committed to creating at least marginally meaningful content, so there are times that I scratch my chin and cock my head to the side and go, “hm,” and then I go, “HM!!” and I need to search for what to say that is worth your time, because this blog isn’t about me; it’s about you.
So when that happened just now, and didn’t know where to go with you, I used my trick. And the trick is the tip that perhaps you can use in your life.
A director told me once, “If I don’t know what to do with the play I’m directing, if I’m really in a quandary about how to fix a problem in rehearsal,” I walk to the back of the house.” (The “house” is where the audience sits; the back of the house is the very back seats, the nosebleed seats, if you will.)
“I go to the back of the house,” the director said, “and I say to myself, ‘I am going to walk to the stage, now. And by the time I get there, I will know what to do.’ And every single time, by the time I get there, I know what to do. Even if I walk almost the whole way up, my head just going in all these different directions; even if I panic, it always happens in those last few steps: I always come up with something. Something is all you need.”
What would I write for you tonight?
I didn’t know. So I got up from my seat. I walked to the front of the plane and hung back, waiting for the bathroom. And before I even got there, I knew what to do. I knew I’d write about that director, that I’d share what she told me in hopes it would help you.
Try it, sometime, when you have to solve something. Something small or big. Something awful or trivial or in between.
Set a distance.
Know that you’ll know what to do when you get there.
We are running through a field of tall grass at Meadowlark Farm, in Iowa, in summer. It is fun. I am happy. I am happy because it is summer and I am small and I am running across the field of my home, right where I should be: behind my big sister Hannah.
Hannah taught me everything. She helped me learn to read. We played imaginary games with stuffed toys and figurines for hours, days, years, crafting ideologies without realizing the intricacy in our methods, architecting whole galaxies together out on that farm that never had any animals except perfect dogs and cats. Maybe we were the animals: me and my two sisters. Maybe it was a farm where you grew three great kids, at least for a little while.
My sister Hannah is singular. She was always different from everyone else because (let’s face it) she was smarter than everyone else and cooler than everyone else. But she was different in another way that no one could identify, exactly, not even her, for awhile. I never had to identify Hannah as anything. I just loved her. I love her more than ever, partly because I haven’t followed her through a field in a long time. Nan, let’s go jogging soon. Like, now.
My sister gave a TED Talk recently about her experience as a person who is gender non-binary.
Ladies and gentlemen and everyone, everywhere: My sister, my family, Hannah Fons.
Fons ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ about ‘This Nick Fellow’ by P. N. Dennis
CHICAGO, IL — Writer, editor, and quilt world person Mary Fons announced today that she’s seeing someone named Nick.*
“Nick and I met back in November,” Fons said. “I had been on a string of truly hideous dates and felt sort of despondent about love in general, sadly. I was about to delete my [online dating] profile but then I saw this picture of this gorgeous guy with themost beautiful smile. I messaged him and we started chatting.”
It took several weeks before they could meet face-to-face, Fons said. “I told him, ‘Look, I’m in grad school and I travel. The first chance I could get together is two weeks from Thursday.’ It wasn’t a very sexy thing to say, but he said that sounded good.”
The two met for a drink at the Chicago Athletic Association. “When we saw each other, we just started smiling,” said Fons. “It felt so good to be excited about a person. It doesn’t happen every day.”
Nick, who was born in Chicago in the early 1990s, got his undergraduate degree in biology at Loyola University in 2015 and is currently applying to medical school. He works at several hospitals in the area and he is very sexy.
“I don’t think … you can say … Can you say that in a news article?” Fons asked, scratching her head. “It’s definitely true though. Nick is hot. Keep it.”
The pair traveled to New York City to attend a New Year’s Eve party held by Fons’s older sister, Hannah. They had a good time. In February, Nick brought a heart-shaped pizza to Fons’s apartment and that was nice. But Fons’s punishing schedule, a communication breakdown, and hurt feelings led to Fons “putting the brakes” on the relationship mid-February. “It’s a long story,” Fons said, rubbing her forehead. “But it was the right thing to do, to step away for awhile.”
As the months passed, there was communication here and there. Nick encouraged Fons as she approached the end of school. Fons checked up on Nick when he went on a med school interview, but there were no in-person encounters. Then, over the past few weeks, the two have been spending time together again.
“Mary is a very hardworking person,” Nick said in a text interview just now. “She is smart, understanding, beautiful, and kind. She’s got her stuff together. Mary Fons is a goddess and I will do anything for her, forever.”
“He said everything up until the ‘goddess’ line,” Fons said. “He didn’t actually say that last sentence. But all the other stuff he did actually say when I texted him to say what he likes about me.”
Fons admits being nervous about sharing relationship news. But as a widely-read blogger whose life is her material, she says she feels she owes it to her readers to provide some clarity at this point. “The truth is, I like Nick,” Fons said. “He’s smart. He cares about me. He fixes things that are broken. We help each other. He is very tender with me when I cry. And he is so handsome in those scrubs I just … Yeah.”
The two plan to have dinner at her place tomorrow night before Fons leaves for Lincoln, Nebraska, for the annual board meeting at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum.
Chicago Woman Files Paperwork, Deposit for Mini Maltipoo Puppy from Reputable Breeder by P. N. Dennis
CHICAGO, IL — Quilter and editor Mary Fons may have a puppy on the way.
After years of longing for a small, well-trained, hypoallergenic dog to help her stave off depression and anxiety, her application materials have been processed with a reputable breeder in Arkansas. A deposit has also been placed, making the dog — who Fons intends to name Philip Larkin after her favorite poet — one step closer to becoming a reality.
“It’s been a journey, getting to this point,” Fons said. “I’m excited. I’ve thought and thought about how it would all work; all the reasons why I shouldn’t do it; when it would be the ‘right’ time … I’ve thought rationally about all this for years. Then a couple months ago, I just totally broke down. I need him. I need Philip.”
Fons’s name is now listed on the “High Priority Waiting List” on the breeder’s website. The breeder (whose name Fons said she would wait to disclose until she had permission) was suggested some months ago by a reader of Fons’s blog, PaperGirl.
“For me to find Philip as a direct result of a PaperGirl reader is just … It’s perfect. They’ve been with me this whole time, you know? They’ve watched this develop.” The 38-year-old woman blinked back tears.
The breeder with whom Fons is now in close contact with is USDA Class-A licensed and sells registered puppies with full guarantee and microchip. The application process was apparently intense. “I wrote way more than she needed on every question, but [she] told me later she loved it, that she had full faith that I was absolutely ready for a dog. I filled out another form after that, sent my deposit, and that’s when I got on the list.”
Fons’s paperwork isn’t over yet. She has drafted a petition to her condo board to allow her to have her dog on special dispensation, as the building allows residents to have cats but not dogs.
“I’ve struggled with whether I deserve to ask for special treatment,” Fons said. “Anyone who knows me knows that’s been true for a long time. I’m not a rule breaker — and I’m not so special. But I am human, and my heart hurts. I will be responsible for — and with — my non-shedding, five-pound pet. I intend to train him and make him a source of joy for everyone he comes into contact with.”
And if the condo board denies her petition? “Well, it’s going to come with a strong letter of recommendation from my psychiatrist, so that would be some stone cold stuff,” Fons said, “but I would respect their decision. I’m not going to sneak a dog into my home. But my amazing Arkansas breeder isn’t going anywhere, so I’d just double down on my search for a new apartment and take it from there. But I would be sad.”
On the side of Fons’s fridge is a sheet of paper printed with information on neighborhood boarding services, pet stores, and groomers. “I’m going to be ready when [REDACTED] calls,” she said. Fons is listed on the waiting list as desiring a “small, male, apricot” mini Maltipoo; the next litter that would produce a puppy fitting the description could be 3-5 months from now. Possibly more. Fons says she’s waited this long, so it’s okay.
“It’s all so real now,” she said. Then she grinned. “Can you imagine what it’ll be like when I finally meet him? How am I going to blog with a tiny puppy on my lap?? I think I might have to skip writing words and post YouTube videos of me and Philip on the ol’ PG for awhile. They’re gonna have to see him in action.”
… vacuum out the pen cup
That’s right: the pen cup. That coffee mug or other ceramic vessel which holds things like pens, paperclips, erasers c. 1987, bent thumbtacks, pieces of three different eyeglass repair kits, etc. Ever taken all the stuff out of that cup and looked at the inside of it? It’s gross! Lo, I am a woman with many pen cups. One by one, they are being vacuumed to squeaky.
… wipe down the rocking part of the rocking chair
You think rocking back and forth in a chair keeps the dust off? Well, it doesn’t! Get that rag out!
… inspect and organize the tool box
Notice I did not say the “toolbox.” A “toolbox” sounds more consequential than the big, lidded, blue plastic tub where I toss any janky, tool-like object I encounter here at home. Today’s cleaning jag showed me I possess not one, not two, but three hammers! I’m not sure this happened, but meanwhile I have zero nails. I’m sure everything will be fine.
… vanquish Cord Hell All these cords for things that need to be charged or electrified … I am not a luddite! I enjoy many modern-day technological conveniences! But Cord Hell is a place. And that place is real. One day you’re connecting your phone cord to an extension cord and the next day, you’re in Cord Hell! Vanquish it and find peace. I recommend a) getting rid of everything you literally do not need; b) twisty-ties.
… forget to eat lunch I don’t like people who chirp, “Why, I just got so busy I forgot to eat lunch!” It’s annoying, right? Yes, but it happened to me today. I was so focused on — and so soulfully enjoying — organizing and deep-cleaning my house, I stopped for nary a snack.
I wanted an opening, I wanted a “new view.” Item by item, book by book, shelf by shelf, I’m making one right where I am. Next up: that red wall.
Speaking of updates, I owe you a few! I have breaking news regarding Philip Larkin; this Nick person I’ve mentioned a few times; extremely cool things happening with the magazine, and more.
Don’t miss a post! Who knows? Maybe I’ll get another hammer.
It’s wonderful. It’s a small-sized hand puppet (as opposed to a large hand puppet or a finger puppet.)
The fur is soft. The paws are perfectly shaped so that when you put the puppet on your hand and make it clap, the gesture is so darling you’ll just die. The kitten’s eyes are shiny; the ears are in the perfect place. I’m a sucker for animal hand puppets in general, but I’m telling you: This is a good one.
How did I come to have this sensational kitten puppet? Well, I bought it. When I lived in the East Village in NYC with Yuri, I passed the toy store on 9th St. and Avenue B and it was in the window display. The moment that kitty caught my eye, I went in and I bought it, partly because I loved her and partly because I was in love and partly because the person I was in love with called me “Kitten.” So this kitten puppet, which cost 13.99 plus tax, represented a lot of things when I lived in New York with Yuri three-ish years back.
Do you remember that? When I lived in New York with Yuri? I do.
In fact, I remember living in New York with Yuri every time I come across this little puppet, which happens from time to time because I don’t know what to do with her. I don’t know where to put her because — and I know this might come as a surprise to many of you — I don’t have a large puppet collection display case where I display my large puppet collection because I don’t have a large puppet collection. I have one kitten puppet. (Okay, okay: I do have a couple other puppets, and of course there’s Pendennis, but I swear I am an adult with a broken dishwasher, not an adult with a large plush toy, puppets, stuffed animal collection … and perhaps I’ve got it all wrong.)
Anyway, I am not a person who holds onto many material things. I’m not a hoarder. I’m a non-hoarder. I’m so much a non-hoarder, I have made mistakes in the past in getting rid of things too soon or without enough thought. (Remind me someday to tell you about throwing letters from my father into the fireplace.) But I’ve held onto this kitten puppet because she’s so adorable and it’s a puppet! And I might not have a puppet collection but I do advise anyone to have a puppet or two on hand for emergencies. But of course I have another reason to hang onto it.
I was Kitten. And he was Yuri. And he is far away and I am far away and that chapter is over. But it was real. And it was real important. It mattered, it changed at least two lives; it was love. Letting go of this puppet is weirdly hard for me. I’ve gotten rid of so much stuff in the past three years: Why not this little cat?
So I need some advice. I’m doing spring/post-school cleaning and I found her again, in a drawer. Before she went into the drawer she had been in a basket. Before the basket, I had her on a shelf. There’s no puppet display case and there’s no way I’m going to stow her away in a shoebox only to find her 10 years from now and have a Proust moment that destroys me completely.
Give her to a child, right? To enjoy? But what about … What about love?
Now that school’s really over, I feel like I’m taking sips from a balloon full of helium. Just sipping helium from a balloon, on and off, all day. It’s sort of pleasant and buzzy, but also I do not like it atall. Does that make sense?
Mind you, I don’t want to be back in school. I’m good on school for awhile. It’s too soon for me to miss it, you might say. And it’s not like I’m out of school and unsure what’s going to happen next. I think we all know there’s plenty happening that has been happening for awhile. Uncertainty is not my problem.
But this huge … opening has arrived. Not just in my schedule, but in my mind, too, I suppose. What do you do with an opening?
Does an opening in life make changes possible? Big ones? For instance: Is it time to devote some of my recently-acquired free time to volunteer somewhere? Start that quilt-related non-profit I’ve dreamed of for years? Perhaps I should go vegan or take up jai alai. Or squash. Maybe I should eat and play squash. Perhaps I should dye my hair a different color or sign up for tap classes. I’m feeling like any of those things are possible, in theory. That’s how open it all feels right now.
Many wise people would tell me — might tell me now — that I should just put one foot in front of the other and relax for a minute or two. But when you’re sucking helium out of a balloon, it’s hard to relax. You get a little hot. You feel funny.
Not the whole thing. It’s the righthand side. The righthand side of my tongue hurts a lot.
The reason it hurts is because there is a sharp, thin wire in my mouth that has broken away from where it ought to be and every time my soft, wet tongue moves in my mouth, it scrapes against this sharp, tiny wire. Over and over and over, when I say words, or eat, or just swallow, this wire stabs or scrapes my tongue. This started on Friday afternoon and now it is Sunday night.
Well, I got half-braces. I got brackets/braces on my bottom front teeth because a) it was what I could afford and b) … Well, I’ll tell you later because it’s a good story. Anyway, I got six brackets and a wire on the inside of my bottom row of teeth and this situation is called “sublingual” braces.
I’m trying to be a trooper, but so far, my sublingual braces have not been fun.
This is the fourth time I have had a crisis (relatively speaking) with my sublingual braces. Twice, a bracket has popped off my tooth and I’ve had to go in and get it repaired. And twice now, the resin they melt onto the end wire (so that the wire can’t poke my tongue) has broken off, which is bad. I’m really, really hoping this is just the way it is with sublingual braces and that I don’t have a terrible orthodontist. I also hope I’m not the reason this is happening, but I don’t think so. I’ve been eating soft foods and being careful to take care of my sublingual situation. My caramel popcorn and hard pretzel days are over, if you will, and have been over since I got the dang things installed.
This pain in my mouth … It’s tyrannical. I can hardly think. The whole world is my mouth. My tongue specifically.
And there are people — Buddhists?? — who would say, “Mary, the pain in your mouth is an opportunity. This torture you feel, the way the whole world has shrunk and you can think of nothing but the pain in your mouth, this is a chance to really experience the moment; you can really be present because your focus is so focused on this sensation.”
What are you, nuts?!
You can have your enlightenment. I wouldn’t wish this “sensation” on anyone. My tongue is swollen. It’s been stabbed for two days, traumatized and raw. What’s more, I’m in Portland till tomorrow night, so I can’t see my ortho till Tuesday at noon. I’ve tried to stick wax on it (which has worked in the past) but the wire that broke and is poking is too close to the gum line and the wax won’t stick. I actually cried earlier tonight when, after the fifth time trying to coat the wire so that it wouldn’t poke my tongue, it slid immediately off. Again. I put my tongue down and the wire burrowed into my tongue once more. It’s starting to drive me a little bananas
We’ve all had bigger problems. But mouth pain is tough — and I am no Buddhist. Here’s hoping your tongue goes un-persecuted this night!
I’m not sure why it happened, but it happened: I am a person who wears a sleep mask.
Not all the time — just when I sleep. And after about a year or so of sleeping with a sleep mask on, I find it almost impossible to sleep without wearing one. I need it to be dark when I sleep. I need to check out, go away, be in the state of sleep, not in the state of waking. I need darkness.
When I was a kid, sleep masks were so weird. Well, they were either weird or glamorous. You’d see them in movies, sometimes; Audrey in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, probably a lot of Bette Davis movies, etc., and that was glamourous. But there were other cultural cues that sleep masks were weird. I can’t think of any right now, but for a kid, it’s like, “Why are you putting on a blindfold at naptime??”
Oh, kid. If you only knew how badly adults need naptime and how much we want to be unavailable for comment while naptime is taking place. Blindfolds are good at communicating “I am unavailable for comment.” The sleep mask is that blindfold play — and I’m hooked.
I have a lot of eye masks/sleep masks/blindfolds. I’m becoming a connoisseur, you could say. Some are foamy. Some are silky. Some are cheaply made and don’t work very well; others are expensive but can’t work that much better than a regular old blindfold, can they?
All I know is that if I don’t “put on my eyes,” as Nick* puts it, I can’t get — or stay — asleep. Lucky for me, a sleep mask is pretty easy to get and maintain as part of my sleep hygiene.
It could be worse.
What if I needed to put on a chicken costume to fall asleep? How weird would that be? I’d have to travel with it! I’d have to get it cleaned and repaired. Every night. A chicken costume! A sleep mask doesn’t seem like a big deal, you know? When you put it that way.
Tonight was Sample Spree at Quilt Market. If you’ve never been to Sample Spree, allow me to offer a syllogism:
Sample Spree is to Quilt Market … as Black Friday is to Christmas.
It’s a shopping orgy-stampede, is what I’m saying.
At Sample Spree, vendors set up tables and sell special and sometimes limited-edition or otherwise promotional-only merch — at low, low prices — to Quilt Market attendees. Sample Spree is a big deal. It’s like a garage sale, except the people who are doing the garage sale are fancy and everything must go … except that it’s not old stuff, but new stuff. Let me put it this way: Sample Spree usually starts at 7 p.m. and the line starts a little after 4 p.m., every time.
Quiltfolkhad a table. We brought hundreds of copies of the magazine to sell cheap. We had our little credit card thing. We had our elevator speech. We were ready when the stampede began. And we sold out of everything in about an hour.
Of course, there are a few folks at Sample Spree that sell out in less than an hour; there are always a couple folks (ahem, Cotton + Steel) who have nothing to do 30 minutes after the doors open. But most folks sell for the full two hours and have to pack up what doesn’t sell. We were well stocked, though, and were still one of the first vendors to pack out of the convention hall with our empty boxes.
I’m telling you this for two reasons.
For one thing, it felt good to see that the project that I love so much is working. People get it. More people get it all the time. The world doesn’t need more ads, more noise. It needs more stories. That’s what I get to do with Quiltfolk. That’s pretty groovy.
The second reason I want to talk about Sample Spree is because you should’ve seen me and Mike and Bree, the company’s communications and customer service whiz. We were such a great team and I missed being part of a team! Certainly, I was part of a team at the paper; I loved that team. And I’m part of a team every time I go on location for the magazine. But there was something very … staff about tonight, very corporate in the best possible way. Me and Mike and Bree were doing the Quiltfolk thing together: pressing the flesh, autographing copies, making change for a $20, and so on. We had each others’ back.
The realization I’m done with school keeps coming over me in waves. I’m this person, now. I’m this working person. I’m part of a team. I’m working.
Years ago, I got a tattoo of an airplane on my wrist. It wasn’t an impulsive decision; I had wanted this tattoo for years. One day I did it.
Explaining a tattoo is tricky. If your explanation goes no deeper than “I was drunk in the Bahamas!” or “Somebody dared me,” it’s perhaps best not to explain.
But if the opposite is true, if your tattoo holds deep literal or symbolic meaning in your life/psyche, you’re also in a tough position. How do you explain in passing the varied, layered, complicated feelings that go into the desire to permanently mark something on your body? And why try? For people who don’t have tattoos — certainly those who are actively anti-tattoo — no explanation will be enough, however compelling.
Here’s what I’ll say about my airplane.
Something happens to me when I’m in an airplane. Something good. I sit still, for one thing. I’m stuck, so it’s easy to focus. Whatever I’m writing, at 35,000 feet, it tends to go well. But my love for airplanes isn’t just because I’m extra productive in my sky office; I’m romanced by the very existence of an airplane. Call me country, but the fact of flying amazes and delights me, every time, still. We’re flying? Like … like birds? No, no, it’s not possible.
But of course it is possible and I do it a lot.
I’m on a plane right now, in fact. I’m headed to Portland, headed to Quiltfolk.There’s a lot to do: Spring Quilt Market starts tomorrow, but being at the big show is just the beginning of the next five days. Mike and I are making serious moves at Quiltfolk; now that I’m done with school, prepare to watch more things move even faster.
So why am I on about the tattoo? That tattoo, by the way, that I regretted almost immediately and am now getting removed?
Well, I’m flying for this work trip and I’m on this plane, and I’m writing, and it’s the same. I feel happy, focused, right with the world, somehow. Except that this plane ride is totally different. I’m not flying to a gig. I don’t have quilts with me, I don’t have syllabi to hand out or patchwork to demonstrate once I get to where I’m going. I’ve gone to Market for years, but this is my first time with Quiltfolk, and that means I’m not pitching companies to buy ads for a web series or a magazine, like I did with Quilty, because Quiltfolk, like PaperGirl, doesn’t do ads. And I’m not in grad school anymore. I’m not a student anymore. I’m a … person?
The airplanes don’t really change. The tattoos don’t change. We change.
MARY is on the couch in her stocking feet. Her hair is wild. She’s crying and throwing things. Not breakable things, and she’s not throwing them hard; she’s just flinging notebook paper, a neck pillow — whatever she can grab that’s handy. PENDENNIS is typing on a laptop.
MARY: Pendennis! (MARY throws a flip-flop.) Pendennis, are you seeing me??Pendennis!
(PENDENNIS says nothing.)
MARY: Pendennis! I’m throwing things! I’m throwing things because I’m upset! Pendennis, I’m upset!
MARY: Pendennis, people are so nice! (MARY bursts into tears.) People are nice and I love them. What do I do, Pendennis?? What do I do with my feelings? How am I supposed to live?? Are you even listening to me?? (MARY throws grapes. PENDENNIS says nothing. MARY throws one grape at PENDENNIS and it bounces off his hat. MARY gasps, horrified. She sits up.) Pendennis! Are you okay?
(PENDENNIS gently tips to the right about an inch.)
MARY: I feel the same way. I feel crushed by the weight of love. It’s so crazy, this life, this blog. I’m going to write a personal note to the people who donated money to the blog. I don’t care how much. Anything. I’m going to write them a hand-written note if they have an address; an email if that’s all I have.
(PENDENNIS slips a little bit.)
MARY: Now that I don’t have grad school to do, I can make time for that, don’t worry. But what do I even say?? (MARY picks up a book and squeezes it. Then she wrestles it. Then she just throws it down.) It’s just … I guess you’ll just need to help me, okay? Just help me. (Beat. MARY looks up at the monkey.) That’s it! You have to write the notes! You’ll help! Yes, you have to help. Because I don’t know what to say.
(PENDENNIS says nothing.)
MARY: Okay, fine. Sure. No more throwing things, no more yelling. I suppose you want me to comb my hair. (Pause.) I’ll do it. I’ll put on my socks and stop throwing things and I’ll comb my hair and I’ll get the list of people who donated and said nice things. And then we’ll get some nice cards and we’ll write the thank-you notes.
(MARY gets off the couch and picks up the books, the notebook paper, the neck pillow, the grapes. She picks up the flip-flop, then she picks up the monkey. They pad across the carpet, and they get into bed, and they go to sleep.)
I had a whole thing I was going to write. I was going to list all the reasons why a donation to PaperGirl would be helpful — I have loans to pay, I work at a startup, I’m setting up for my doggie to come some day, my health insurance nightmare, etc., etc. Then I was going to link to popular posts or posts I thought were sort of worthy of a second look, like, “See? It’s a good blog!”
I was going to relay a conversation I had with a friend where she assured me it would be okay to ask for donations and I said, “But what if they hate me!” and she said, “They won’t hate you,” and I said, “But!” and she said, “Mary? You should’ve done it a long time ago.”
You can see it all got complicated — and long — and no matter what I did, it sounded like I was nervous about asking for a donation. Which I am. Asking for things is hard. It’s maybe the hardest thing for me.
If you like this blog, I’d be grateful if you would donate a few dollars to it.* A few people did that the other day and when they did, I realized how much it helped. (I’ll be writing thank-you notes this week.)
There are just three quick things:
I could make money selling ads on this blog. I get offers all the time. But I will never run ads. Ever. I hate them. I hate them for me, I hate them for you, I hate them because they are ugly. I won’t let “them” use our relationship to sell dumb things and steal our attention away. Not here. This blog really is free. Always has been. You’ll never see an ad. I will end the blog before you see an ad next to that monkey.
I work hard on PaperGirl — and I’m not going anywhere.
If you don’t want to donate money, I have a book wish list on Amazon. That would be really fun! Getting all the books I want. A book won’t pay the electric bill, but if I can’t read good books, who needs electricity?? Some of them are cheap, some aren’t — but it’s a wish list, not a shopping cart. I mean, that Gee’s Bend book? Sheesh.
Thank you, and I’ll keep writing even if you don’t give a cent.
*The donate button is PayPal. But if you want to use the mailbox, that address is here.
After the time away and the big announcements about graduation and Ken Burns (!), I’m feeling a desire for a good, old-fashioned PaperGirl post about something small but remarkable.
Do you feel me on this? I don’t want to do the pledge drive yet, I don’t want to make any grand proclamations, even though I have several to make. No, I just want to type up a standard-issue PaperGirl-Out-In-The-World observation, fold it into a digital paper airplane and sail it your way. Does that sound all right?
Let’s see, what have I got — ah, yes!
A couple weeks ago, flying home from Nebraska, I rubbed my eyes and pulled out my laptop. I was tired, but I had to read about Navajo blanket weaving for class. No sooner had I read the introduction did the most heavenly smell on the planet come wafting by my nose.
Fresh chocolate cake.
The sugary, buttery, cocoa-rich smell of a moist chocolate cake, thick with creamy frosting, was suddenly filling the air. The smell was definitely fresh chocolate cake and it was pungent, I’m telling you: This wasn’t some passenger’s cup of airplane hot chocolate I was smelling. The wholeplane suddenly smelled like a magic chocolate cake bakery. But where? Why??
I sat up in my chair and craned my neck around to find the source. It was dim in the cabin, so I couldn’t see very well. I continued to followed my nose until I saw her.
There, in the seat kitty-corner from me, a lady was happily — okay, blissfully — eating forkfuls of chocolate cake from the plastic to-go container plunked on her tray table.
I loved her for eating this cake. The wedge was huge. The frosting was so thick I could see it pulling on the cake as she lifted big bites to her mouth. She was talking to someone next to her but I don’t know they were tag-teaming this cake. I think this was her deal. I think she and her friend (brother? husband? complete stranger?) were at a restaurant in Omaha and they looked at the time and it was like, “Nope, we don’t have time for dessert; gotta get to the airport.” And she was like, “Well, in that case, I’d like your biggest slice of chocolate cake to go.”
I watched the woman for a minute or too and it was great. But better than watching her was watching everyone else watch her. Let me tell you what brings people together: the smell of chocolate cake. All the people in our immediate vicinity had the same reaction that I had when they smelled that lady’s fabulous plane snack. They sat up. They inhaled deeply. They looked around like prarie dogs. They identified the cake person. And they watched her with a little envy but mostly happiness.
A person going to town on a gorgeous piece of chocolate cake?
Something pretty cool happened last week: I got to talk to Ken Burns about his quilt collection.
If you got to talk to Ken Burns about his quilt collection, what would you ask him? After you asked him, would you hang up the phone and fall over on the floor and replay every second of the conversation in your mind to recall moments when you sounded like a dork or loser? Upon discovering that you probably did sound dorky at least at one point, did you console yourself that at least you interviewed Ken Burns??
That’s how it went for me.
Last weekend, Team Quiltfolk went to the Ken Burns quilt exhibit in Lincoln, Nebraska and we have worked tirelessly for the past 7-8 days (yes, I worked on it while working on my thesis) to bring you this free — FREE! — Quiltfolk Exclusive. It’s a 28-page, online-only PDF that you can by clicking this link and friends, it is very, very good. It’s been making the rounds on social media, but if you don’t use it much (like me), I hope this blog post gets to you.
Ken Burns was so nice. And the quilts are so beautiful. And Quiltfolk is so cool. I want this kind of wonderful experience all the time, this kind of blissful story to cover, but I know better. Some days, you just like, eat toast and you have to work on less-fun stuff.
It feels like I need to say “Hi!” again after being away. You look so good to me!! Hi!
First off, I want to say that I see the comments about the font needing to be a bigger and a darker, and I shall make it so. With the server migration, things got a little funky and I agree there are tweaks needed. Julie and I will work on it, I promise. Until then, you can always go up to “View” and click “Zoom” and you can make your screen bigger. Thank you for your patience.
As promised yesterday, I’m going to paste in the painstakingly crafted foreword to the thesis I worked on for so long. Before you read it, you should know what I’m foreword-ing, no?
My 1,512-page thesis was a compendium. It was everything I have published or otherwise officially submitted in two years of in graduate school.
I included all my essays, F Newsmagazine articles, Quiltfolk articles, Quilt Scout columns, other freelance writing, research projects, three lectures, one poem, the materials for the exhibit at the Chicago Design Museum next year, and … every blog post. That’s right: The past two years of PaperGirl is in my thesis. The whole way, May. And what’s really cool is that if you get a master’s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, your thesis is bound and kept in the library of the Art Institute. We’re in there, guys. You and me. We’re in one of the best museums in the entire world.
It literally took three 18-hour days to make the two copies of my thesis, partly because each section had its own introduction and title page and also because I hand-stamped every page (of both copies) with a page number using one of those cool auto-advance number-stamper things I think they use in law offices? It was fun, but I still have a bruise on my hand. (Seriously.)
If you’re new to the blog, I promise, promise, promise: Entires are never this long. But most days I’m not writing to you in the week I finish my master’s degree. And to make sure you know I care about the eyes of my readers, I’m going to boldface the whole thing.
F O R E W O R D
Christmas Day, Chicago, 2015. Half-past two in the afternoon.
I was standing at the kitchen counter at my sister’s house, wearing a sweater, jeans, and busted-up fuzzy slippers. Like everyone else in the room, I was drinking prosecco. My younger sister and her husband were both absorbed in something online. My mom and stepdad were playing Scrabble at the big table, picking at pie. Hannah, my older sister, was scrolling through Instagram on her phone.
“So I have news,” I announced to the room, then paused for effect. “I have applied to graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.”
My sister Rebecca looked up at me. “Why?”
Hannah stayed glued to her phone but shifted in her seat and from where I stood I could see the rise of one penciled-in eyebrow. Mark tapped out the score on the calculator he and Mom keep in the Travel Scrabble box. Jack bumped the power cord on his laptop then clicked it back into place.
“I want to study writing,” I said.
It was as if I had announced I was going to the store for a gallon of milk. Except there was hostility in the air, too, like I had announced I was going to the store for a gallon of milk and I had a history of stealing groceries. There goes Mary with her same old dairy-aisle kleptomaniac crap — and on Christmas!
“Well, I think it’s fantastic,” my mom said, and took a sip from her champagne flute. “You’ll be so happy you did it, honey.” My stepfather raised his glass but didn’t actually cheers anything.
“Thank you, Mother,” I said. Then, curtly, to the room: “Am I missing something? Is there something wrong with me pursuing a master’s degree in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?”
I was the only one in my family without a postgraduate education, so the bad vibes were not based in any anti-school sentiment. Something else was going on that made me sad and I felt the ruthless sensation of being alone among my own people.
My throat closed up, but I pressed the issue: Why was me going to grad school not a happy occasion?
It came out that no one had faith in an MFA program for writers. They were a waste of time, Hannah said, and besides, I had been making a good deal of my living as a freelancer for some time. My blog had thousands of subscribers. Why spend all that time and money for a piece of paper?
Rebecca agreed. She pointed out that SAIC is one of the most expensive schools in the country and when she worked in the Loop, she’d have to dodge throngs of SAIC kids every day at lunch. “It’s obviously a good school, but there are a lot of stocking hats and sad paintings over there,” she said. “I don’t think you’d like it.”
For the few brief minutes we discussed it, it was clear that no one was impressed with my announcement because they weren’t impressed with the plan and also because my family was used to this particular family member (me) making splashy life changes every few years. My decision to go to grad school wasn’t earth-shattering; it was simply the latest solution to the problem of Mary getting bored. The tears that stung my eyes were the result of knowing they were half-right, but there was anger, too: The half they were wrong about they were really wrong about. To study writing for real was something I had wanted pretty much my whole life.
Christmas Day three years ago was the first time I would have to defend why I wanted a master’s degree; why I wanted to get that degree in writing; why I wanted to go to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and why I wanted to do all of this now.
Katherine Hepburn said, “Never complain, never explain,” but Katherine Hepburn never went to grad school. Explaining the reasons why I chose all this was something I would have a good deal of practice with over the next two years.
You could say I’m explaining right now.
* * *
I went to high school in the mid-90s in a small Midwestern town. College prep courses may have been a thing on the East Coast by then, but in Winterset, Iowa, “advanced placement” classes were a novelty. The first one they ever offered, AP English, was offered my senior year. For the first time in high school, I was not dogged by my homework but exhilarated by it.
The teacher taught from one book: the fifth edition of a college-level composition textbook called The Bedford Reader. I loved its tissue-thin pages, how they felt like pages of a Bible or the Shakespeare anthology Mom had on the bookshelf at home. I devoured the readings Mrs. Chase assigned and as I did, I put myself in a kind of conversation with the book, scribbling notes in the margins, drawing goofy doodles and inside jokes for my friends on the front and back covers.
After 20 years of moves, boyfriends, a marriage and divorce, and countless cleaning purges that dispensed with plenty of other books, I’ve still got that Bedford Reader. Flipping through its pages now, seeing all those proclamations and exclamations, is an exercise in facial expressions: I see myself and my brow furrows; my eyes get wide; I wince. The sheer spunkiness of me at sixteen is excruciating. “I love Matthew McConaughey!!!” I write, and when I like something, I draw a happy face saying “YES!!!” When I don’t, there in green ink is, “What does the author MEAN??? Don’t KNOW don’t CARE!!!”
Two years ago, just before grad school began, I purchased a thick, black Leuchtturm notebook. A German-designed notebook of consequence, it was big enough to last through two years of note-taking in writing department classes, workshops, seminars, and advising sessions. I thumbed through it the other day, not long after I had pulled out my Bedford Reader, to reference the bibliography.
Then came the shock: The content of my notes and doodles in my grad school notebook are virtually the same today as they were 20 years ago. It was all right there. The exclamations and proclamations with the same liberal use of exclamation points, the same rhetorical questions to myself, the same conversations with an audience of one … The only difference, really, is a subtle weariness creeping in; as a 38-year-old, I write, now in black ink: “What does the author mean? Don’t know. Don’t care.”
Shocking as it was to see myself so plainly after all this time, there exists a sense of satisfaction in the continuity from one book to the other. I might be an enthusiastic idiot, but I’ve always had a strong sense of self.
But the apparently indelible blueprint brings with it a terrible weight, too. Can a person change? Can she learn? Can she become a better writer or is it predetermined how good she’ll get? We know that women are born with a set number of eggs; is a woman’s portion of writing ability also set at birth? Does studying it allow only for cosmetic changes and nothing deeper? Why, indeed, sisters, did I pursue a master’s degree in writing if, from notebook to notebook, year to year, I’m still holding my pen the same way?
* * *
Oh, please. Two years in a MFAW program has made me way better at writing.
You can’t really chart it. You can’t quantify it. You, the reader, or I may or may not be able to read from one end of this manuscript to the other and see that from August 2016 to May 2018 my sentences get tighter, my references more nuanced, my verbs more precise. You may or may not perceive how I got better at editing my own writing and the writing of others. You’ll see a lot of published work that didn’t exist before, but there’s no way to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that in grad school, the Mary Fons motherboard was rewired and has become vastly more complex (and definitely more expensive.)
Then again, I’m also two years older. That counts for something. This 1,500-page thesis may not be a lot of things, but it’s undeniable proof a girl’s been practicing.
Most of my cohort came seeking an MFAW because they want to teach. Many hoped to assemble an agent-ready manuscript. Some succeeded, and those novels and poetry collections will serve as their thesis, pages polished to gleaming (or gleaming enough) in advising meeting after advising meeting, over two years of workshops and critiques. I, too, took work through that laundering process. When I arrived, I thought that writing and polishing the essays included here was the point of all this. My colleague’s goals were the same as mine.
But as I rode my bike up the street to MacClean in the heat of September; as icy water mixed with street salt seeped through my shoes through two long winters, what I was getting from graduate school and what I’d been seeking changed. I started out making a quilt with someone else’s fabric, you could say, and then I remembered I had this huge basket of my own gorgeous scraps.
More than mastering a single essay — or a dozen of them — I discovered that my task was to understand the kind of writer I am, not the kind of writer I wish I was. My sisters were correct: Grad school can’t teach you how to write. But I learned that grad school can offer the chance to discover how you write. And if you care enough, work ceaselessly, and accept the way you hold your pen, then you can improve. Maybe you can improve a lot. That’s the real — and somewhat hidden — lesson. It was certainly the knowledge I came for, and after I learned it, it was the reason I stayed.
* * *
My family has heartily congratulated me on my accomplishment. Getting a master’s degree — even in writing — is way harder than stealing a gallon of milk. They’re proud of me.
My thesis doesn’t just double as a doorstop: It’s proof of concept. I am this person. I am this writer. If you’re interested in getting to know her, I suggest you get comfortable. You’re gonna be here awhile.