what matters?

Middle Age = Adolescence?

No, of course not. Middle age does not equal adolescence. But there are some similarities, at least in my life, which I first posited in my last post. Bear with me.

The Great Medical Drama of 2015 (which henceforth I will refer to as “GMD15”) first prompted this line of thinking. If I was going to lose my hair anyway, I thought, why not get the haircut I’ve always wanted? So I did. I went and got myself a blue mohawk, and I loved it, and I vowed that as soon as my hair came back, that was how it was going to be. So far, I’ve stayed true to that, though I’m not dying it anymore (it’s a pain in the ass to keep it looking good).

Anyway, beyond haircuts, GMD15 got me thinking about what’s important in life, and revealed to me that a lot of what I thought was important was actually bullshit. I’m not going to make a list here of bullshit items—instead, here’s a list of what I realized IS important:

  1. love,
  2. being kind,
  3. empathy and/or objectivity, depending on the situation,
  4. genuine connections with other human beings,
  5. self-care (don’t stop reading!), and
  6. creativity.

“Self-care” is one of those woo-woo terms that has no meaning until you realize that it DOES have meaning—“mindfulness” is another good example. . . . It’s such a dumb word, and yet what it signifies is so incredibly important. (Welcome to another linguistic/epistemological/existential crisis! My name is Kate, and I’ll be here all day!).

Let me clarify. Let’s get a little bit personal, in the name of trying to establish genuine connections with other human beings.

Graduate school made me into a robot. All I did was work, to the detriment of my relationship, my family, my friendships, and my health. I thought working was capital-I important, so that’s what I did, convinced that I was going to live a life of the mind, and that emotions were stupid. Early iterations of Liz Boyle, my mystery protagonist, even reflected this . . . dare I say . . . ideology. Emotions were stupid, and intellect could conquer all.

But then there was legitimately something wrong with my body, and I had all kinds of emotions about that fact, and I couldn’t intellectualize them in a way that made sense, so I had to feel the emotions as they occurred in real-time, which, after much agony and soul-searching, led to this new list.

THAT’S what I mean when I say that middle age, for me, is a lot like adolescence. It’s like figuring out who I am, all over again, but maybe minus the reams of bad poetry and general sense of doom/gloom (which I’ve worked to eradicate, ‘cause strutting around with a case of the surlies doesn’t do much for me anymore, although I did write a bad poem the other day).

Creativity is tied to everything that precedes it on that list, at least for me. For example, prior to GMD15, I’d all but given up on the idea of being a mystery writer, but I kept working, and now my first novel is going into line editing and has a cover design. I’d all but given up on the idea that what I do every day at work (I’m a writing professor) matters, because I didn’t end up with the coveted tenure-track job. . . . But I kept working, reinvested my time and energy into teaching and creating community with my colleagues, and now I can say that I’m happy at work. I’d all but given up on myself, too, but surviving that whole ordeal—which I’m being deliberately opaque about, since I don’t really feel like getting into it right now—brought me back to what matters. It brought me closer to my partner, and to my friends, and to almost everyone with whom I interact, because I’m not a robot anymore. I’ve allowed people–yes, PEOPLE–to see that I’m actually as vulnerable a human being as anyone else is, and it’s made life a whole helluva lot more meaningful.

So I guess, in some ways, coming out of GMD15 was like being born again, kind of literally and only if a confirmed agnostic can do such a thing.

I’ll end today’s post with a question: what transformative experiences have you had, during or after which you reevaluated your life and generated a new list of What Matters? How’d you get there? Was it easy, hard, or somewhere in between? Did it happen all at once, or was it more of a process? Indulge me, fellow human beings!


teen angst, part 1

After a brief blog hiatus, during which I finished content editing THE FLATS, did a couple of freelance editing projects, and finished all of my spring grading, I’m back to the blog. I’m setting a new goal, too: write at least one entertaining blog post a week. It’ll be up to you to tell me whether I meet the “entertaining” requirement.

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I was thinking this morning, on my way to campus and possibly prompted by the death of Chris Cornell (one of two remaining grunge** icons who just died in an especially sad way—please stay with us, Eddie Vedder!), about the first—and only—‘zine I ever participated in writing.

The year was 1993, and I was a freshman in high school who had the good/misfortune of befriending mostly seniors. On our way home from a Nirvana show on Halloween (no lie), four of us decided that, in response to the escalating threat of a real and permanent dress code at our public high school, we should rebel. We should start a ‘zine.

“They’re doing it all over California and those places,” my friend K. said.

“Yeah, we should do one. I think people would dig it,” my friend T. replied.

“What do we have to do?” B. asked.

You have to remember that this was in the days of primitive dialup internet, so it isn’t like we could just go online and find examples. We had no touchscreen computers in our pockets (as a result, I have no photographic evidence that I saw Nirvana on Halloween of 1993, though I assure you that I did), and . . . NO GOOGLE.  

Screenshot 2017-05-23 12.33.06

I had subscriptions to Rolling Stone and Spin, though, so I thought I had all the answers. “We get people to write and draw stuff, and then we put it together. Like a magazine.”

That’s exactly what we did. I no longer remember the title of our ‘zine, but I do know that we assembled a bunch of anonymous stories, poems, and illustrations (most written by K. and me), cut them up, and went to Kinko’s to make copies. We handed them out at school. I’m pretty sure no one read them, but we treated the project with the seriousness it deserved . . . we were in DIRE NEED of this ‘zine, and I was prepared to blow my curfew to get it done.

I wrote a poem about how dress codes in schools was akin to orange jumpsuits in prisons. I’m pretty sure I drew a picture of the school with bars on the windows, too. This took on what felt at the time like national-security-level-importance, especially when we were (permanently and in a decidedly real way) kicked out of Big Boy, where we would drink coffee and smoke cigarettes for entire evenings.***

Shortly thereafter, I joined a “punk-rock collective,” which was a sort of Marxist rebellion against what I now recognize as late capitalism, but which also exemplified the DIY aesthetic of the mid-90s punk rock scene.

Lately, I’ve been ruminating on and returning to my roots. I’m starting a band called Gutter Smut and, though we have yet to write any songs or even practice, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a punk-blues band. Largely prompted by the fact that the Great Medical Drama of 2015 appears not to have killed me, I’m getting tattoos again—my logic is that life is too short to behave like an adult (whatever that means) all of the time, and I can balance paying the mortgage on time by having art inked onto my body.

Many of my favorite bands and artists from back in the day are coming back in a major way (Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey, Helium, Pixies, the Breeders—I’m looking at you), and I’m going to shows again, because life is too short not to.

What I’m not doing again? Smoking cigarettes. That shit will kill you.

It occurs to me that middle-age, which I’m approaching with terrifying speed, is kind of like adolescence, something to which I’m fairly certain anyone who has experienced a midlife crisis, first- or secondhand, can attest. Just go with me. I’ll write about that in a forthcoming post.

**One of my interns recently informed me that I am “grunge.” What she doesn’t know is that I’ve been waiting since approximately 1997 to be cool again. She didn’t say I was cool; I’m making that inference.

***We picketed the Big Boy and I was featured in our local newspaper, brandishing a sign about restaurant fascism. My dentist, of all people in the world, kept the photograph in my dental chart until he retired.

beer and dilettantisme

Right now, I’m listening to jazz and drinking (quality, Michigan-made) beer. Don’t judge me.

I feel the need to state the obvious: I haven’t written a blog post in a while.

But I have a good reason: I’ve been editing. Correction: WE have been editing. My editor is a wonderful soul, with whom I share many good, hearty laughs, mostly at the expense of my own prose. I look forward to our conversations, and I’ll miss them when we move into production of the book. I think I might call her while I’m finishing the draft of book two, just because I like her.

Production of the book. Who knew? Who ever would have thought, back when I drafted the thing in three weeks, that I’d have an editor and an agent and a book? I asked her, the other day, what the rest of this process would look like. Apparently my manuscript will be queued for line editing (even though she and I are both killer line editors, I’m sure there will be something) at the same time it goes into cover design.

Cover design, people. My editor says this is the moment when writers lose their shit, and I’m sort of worried that I’ll do just that. I mean, I’m a visual person. I care about negative space and color theory and whatnot.

Here’s the thing. Writers don’t write because they want to shove their writing into the proverbial shoebox under the bed. We write because we want people to read our prose (once it’s been edited). We write because we feel like we have something to communicate.

It’s like any other medium, really. For example, I spent three years in art school, learning how to communicate visually, and there are still times when that method is the best—hence the worry that I might lose my shit in cover design phase. Another example: I like to play loud instruments, and there are times when loud instruments say more than my prose ever could. Since finals week—a product of my marvelous day job—is coming to an end, I fantasize about busting out those loud instruments and making noise. I probably still remember how to play, right?

It’s the curse of the creative type, the notion of being a dilettante. I posted something on my personal FB page a while back: “I may or may not be a dilettante.” Look it up if you don’t know it. It may or may not describe me.

In other news, and since I’m clearly a dilettante, I’ve been thinking about two new research projects. One takes up the subject of “contingent labor,” whatever the hell that means at the university level, a category in which I fall (I’m a union member!) but resist labeling that way. Another takes up the idea of medical consent—when you sign that consent form to give your legal consent, are you also giving genuine consent? Over time and through my Annoying and Somewhat Tragic Medical Drama, I’ve signed that form approximately 1,582 times, so I’m interested. Thoughts?

Tweet me. FB me. Reply here. For God’s sake, just respond. 🙂

Here’s a picture, from my Instagram, of about a qaurter of my summer reading list. You can respond to that, too.


risks > mistakes

“Take risks and be willing to learn from those mistakes” has sort of become my catch phrase over the past couple of years. Like many catch phrases, one might wonder whether the person uttering it practices what she preaches . . . at least I would.

The answer, in my case, is that I usually play it safe, especially at academic conferences (see this old blog post for hilarity). I’m typical, nothing special; I string words and sentences and paragraphs together, diligently cite my sources, and go for high theory.

I mean I did. That’s what I used to do. I don’t do it anymore, because it feels meaningless to me.

This time, I went for the mic drop.

I wanted people to feel something; my goal was pathos.

I was terrified.

I didn’t sleep well for days leading up to the presentation, because I was laying myself bare; I was exposed; I could have been judged; I could have been thrown out of the club I was trying to join.

As it turns out, and in spite of what various people who know me might allege, I really don’t like talking about myself. And I sure as shit don’t like talking about fucked up bad shit that’s happened to me.

But I read “Titanium Tits,” an essay that is half hilarious and half tragic, complete with a pretty killer slide presentation (if I do say so myself). They responded. A guy approached me the next day and said that I moved him. And that, my friends, was the goal.

In other news, I want to move to Portland (Oregon, not Michigan or Maine). It suits me.

I took a risk, and it turned out not to be a mistake, which feels pretty badass.

As for thirteen-hour travel days? No. Not badass. A huge mistake. Lesson learned.

method writing

About a month ago, I gave my first book reading in an oddly-lit room at an otherwise gorgeous public library. It was, I hope, the first in a series of readings from said book, a book from which I finally feel a healthy sense of distance.

What I mean by that is this: there was a time when I had a hard time separating my imaginary friends (my characters) from my everyday life. I don’t mean that in a pathological way—of course I could separate reality from fiction, at least as much as anyone can—but I was consumed. Obsessed. I used to joke that I followed Stanislavski’s method, only I’m no actor; I’m a writer, and it turns out that method writing is great for the writing but less great for living.

Until graduate school, I was a voracious reader, and then I became a voracious writer, and then I got hired to teach writing at a major Midwestern university, and now I occupy some weird, liminal space, occupying a shadow somewhere between “writing professor” (my day job) and “writer” (my night job) and “reader” (something that my day and night jobs preclude, because sleep is necessary for normal functioning).

I do other stuff, too. I’m kind of a fitness junkie, and I love, in no particular order, food and wine and yoga and television, and my partner and I do things such as playing euchre with other people (wine) on the weekends and attending rock and roll shows (wine) and planning vacations (wine) that, if we’re lucky, we can afford to take. Method writing doesn’t lend itself to this; method writing must be something I did once but don’t do anymore.

I think my point is this: method writing got me to a first draft of a novel in less than three weeks. For the next three years, I revised that novel what felt like a million times, and now I’m in the final revision stage: I’m working with an editor who is going to publish my book. Editor, who deserves her own blog post, is fundamentally a teacher, and I find myself internalizing all kinds of stuff that’s going to make finishing the draft of book two both easier and harder.

It’ll be easier because I know my characters so much better, now that I’ve spent time away from them and returned to them with a sort of cold calculation that I didn’t imagine was possible, way back when. It’ll be easier because internalizing Editor’s voice is making me a better writer and a better teacher of writing, and I already see the fruits of that labor.

It’ll be harder because, ultimately, writing a draft is an uncontrolled experiment. It’s like playing with a chemistry set in a dark basement—it’s both exhilarating and terrifying, and too many internalized voices beget self-doubt and existential angst. It’s best to just let it happen and fix it later. If you want another metaphor, it’s like cleaning that same basement, assuming that the basement is a hot mess. One must make a bigger mess before one can put things in their right places. 

I should take my own advice, which I stole from Ann Lamott and dispense to other writers like it’s Pez candy. Just get the first draft out of your head and onto the page, and then you can make magic happen in revision.

Maybe, this time, I can do that without going bonkers. Time will tell. This summer is all about drafting book two. 

Here’s a Radiohead song that lends itself well to 1) this blog post, and 2) my general mood. Everything in its right place, dudes.



Disclaimer: I have four talented young interns who inform my every social media move. They’ve suggested several blog posts for me, and I promise that those are forthcoming, but in the meantime, I have some rambling to do.

When I was a kid—and I say this deliberately, given my tender youngish-middle age and  simultaneous desire to use the word “kid” for anyone under 30—I discovered the public library. I was ten or eleven (an actual kid!). . . old enough to be let loose in the downtown library, you know? 

Anyway, my precocity back in the day led me to the magazine files. It led me to the multimedia collection, which at that time in my life meant cassettes. Cassettes, which I’d take home, copy on my dad’s cassette deck, and then return.

One of the cassettes was Louder than Bombs, by the Smiths.

Morrissey wrote this song about the YWCA, and it’s been in my head since. It goes like this:

Call me morbid, call me pale

I spent six years on your trail

Six long years, on your trail

And if you have five seconds to spare,

Then I’ll tell you the story of my life:

Sixteen, clumsy, and shy,

I went to London, and I,

I booked myself in at the Y . . . WCA

I said, “I like it here, can I stay?”

Right now and per usual, this song leads me to a complicated fabric of memories involving my cousin, a boombox, and road trips through Northern California. A follow-up post is already in the works. Maybe more than one, given the weave of the fabric.

Listen to the song. Does it make sense, in the context of the library and cassettes and feeling hashtag-old?

Half a Person – the Smiths

reading in poor light

Reading at WNBA/Lansing 1.26.17

That ^^ links to a video of me reading from The Flats: A Liz Boyle Mystery. Many thanks to Alex Hidalgo, a talented filmmaker, for taking this video on her regular camera, and to the Women’s National Book Association / Lansing Chapter for inviting me to read at their inauguration.

The light is bad, as artificial light tends to be. Here’s a better photo. Best thing about this photo? It was taken in Cleveland, where the book is set, right before we saw one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.


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