Re: The Thing You Wrote, Which Was, at First, So Promising

McSweeney’s just rejected this because they get a lot of rejection-themed pieces (unsurprisingly), but I still think it’s funny, so I’m posting it here. Is it possibly based on a real-life letter I got this week?? Who knows!

Anyway, at least I’m submitting stuff, right?



Dear Writer,

First off, let’s just say: wow! We, the editors of this good literary magazine, are writing directly to you to say just how much we liked the thing you sent us. It had emotions. It had a lot of very, very interesting parts. It was actually smart, in places. Obviously, not everything we get sent is, which is why we – though we have a lot of other stuff to do – have chosen to spend part of our day writing this message to you. You should be proud of the thing you made.


It just had so, so many words in it.

Now, we like words. Obviously! Or else our magazine would be some other kind of magazine – a picture magazine, maybe, or a smell magazine. We are not well versed in other kinds of magazines. We are, as we said, word people, and certainly we want our magazine to continue to be made of words.

But that many words?


We started off really liking your piece, like we said in our first paragraph. However, somewhere along the way, we found a bad word. Not an actual swear word – just, you know, a word that made our mouths go, ugh.

Maybe it was too long. Maybe it just hurt our eyes, in addition to our mouths. Who can say why it was wrong? All we can say is that it was.

It made us start looking, and it made us keep looking.

And our suspicions were correct. You sent us a lot of really good words, but also a lot of not good words, and so that is why we are not going to put any of them – good words or bad – in our magazine.

We are sure this must be difficult to hear. If you have questions, we are sorry to say that we cannot answer them. We don’t want to presume to tell you which words did not work for us. We are not presumptuous people. Not like you, writer, who mailed us this half-rotted lettuce-leaf pile of language under the assumption that we would like every single bit of it.

We are wondering – although we, yet again, really don’t want you to write back to us – just where you get off. Where do you get all these words, and the self-esteem to believe that someone, somewhere, might actually like all of them?

This is the twenty-first century, writer. Nobody uses so many words anymore. If you continue to do so, you will use them all up and there will be none left for the rest of us. That’s just how it works.

In conclusion, may your children’s mouths be parched with lack of sentences.


All best,

The Editors


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This is just to say

that I have been to the stats page

where I can tell who has searched for me


and apparently

there are lots

of you lately


it is delicious

so strange

and so mysterious



*One of my favorite activities to do as a teacher is to make teens write William Carlos Willams homages until they fully understand why his poem This is Just to Say is, for lack of a better word, a little fucked up.

I recognize that a blogger trying to ask blog readers why on earth they have Googled her bears no resemblance to the experience of a speaker informing another person that they have eaten some plums that were in the icebox (and which the other person was probably saving for breakfast), but writing like William Carlos Williams is kind of a blast, so why let teens have all the fun, haha, right…

Anyway: who are you, random people search-engining to my blog, and what do you expect to find here?? It is POORLY UPDATED if at ALL



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Meg’s Place

In a fit of decadence, I bought myself a ticket to Iceland from November 1-11. This was perhaps too long (as a Minnesotan I feel deeply guilty about having any kind of vacation at all, much less a week-and-a-half-long one), but in my defense I suffer horribly from jet lag, and also I had a friend who was willing to not only host me, but to cook pretty much every meal. Really, I was saving money by going, and so I did.

Meg and I have been friends since we were both students in the Junior Year in Munich program, which she found after painstaking consideration of her many junior year language study options (she’s a polyglot), and which I found by googling “junior year germany study abroad.” Not much has changed in the subsequent nine years; Meg is still an exacting taskmaster who regularly publishes translations in respected journals, a self-taught scholar of multiple languages, and I am still, well, me – a pleasant person, but one a little too apt to be swept by the winds of fate.

A lot happened in Iceland, and I don’t want to exhaust my store of anecdotes here, since I’ll be dining out on them for months. (Partying with the parliamentarian! Shouting at the businessmen! The underground museum! Wheelchair John getting pushed up cobblestoned hills! These, and more, you will likely hear if you hang out with me.)

However, I do want to write briefly about what it’s like to live in a friend’s life. I hadn’t been in Meg’s living space since college, when we both lived in grim shoebox-sized German apartments, haphazardly decorated – she put plastic wrap on the walls and asked people to write on it, while I smeared stew everywhere and draped scarves over every available surface. How surprising to fly across an ocean and find her, all at once, such an adult.


  • A true poet, she lives across the street from a murder house, where a man beat his wife to death, did a short stint in cozy Icelandic prison for the crime, then came back and was, in a fugue of poetic justice, himself beaten to death in the same apartment. I’m unclear on specifics but agree that the building is certainly creepy.


  • Her street rolls with the sound of suitcases. Tourists clatter past in the rain, languages babbling – it’s a parade of delighted people every day, and appropriate for a translator’s apartment.


  • She lives with two hairless cats who like to lick armpits and hide under my blankets. They aren’t truly hairless – they grow down in the winter, and feel like what I think baby lambs feel like.


  • Every square foot of her two-room apartment has been meticulously considered, and yet she has never Instagrammed any of it. It seems just not to have occurred to her. I keep telling her that she’s living the dream of some 20-year-old misfit in Arkansas – she’s a translator! Who lives in Reyjkavik! With hairless cats! – and that if that misfit only knew it, they’d be wracked with jealousy and certainty that her life is unattainable.


  • On the wall above my couch, there’s a rack of perfumes that Meg has made herself, each named after a different poet. Sharon Olds is chamomile in oil. One has a peppery tang. I can’t remember which is which, because the jars are fragile in my big dumb non-crafty hands, and because Meg has, in a pique of fancy, turned the labels to face the wall.


  • Half of her bedroom is a wall of dresses in neutral tones, shading from opalescent gold into glittery black. To sleep on the bed is to be watched by a fleet of depressed socialites. Colored clothes, of which there are not many, hide in the closet.


  • Because the cats will steal and hide my engagement ring, Meg has concealed it in a glass candle-holder for safekeeping. My job is to remember to tuck it there at night.


  • Another one of my jobs is to turn the sofa back into a sofa each day, swaddling it in its blanket of fur to conceal the egg-carton bedding, folding the pastel sheets. I have so little to do in Iceland that even this feels like a grand undertaking.


  • Every day, the fiance and cats send videos of themselves cuddling – where are you, is the subtext, and why aren’t you here? It’s a good question. The apartment – I think that’s what I’m getting at – feels like an answer, like it knows something I do not. To be here is to capitalize on that certainty, because it’s been too long since I’ve put into the world any of my own art.


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Extinction Rebellion

Last weekend, I attended my first meeting of the wholly wholesome protest sect Extinction Rebellion. If you’re a government agent reading this, I’d here like to state that they are not, in any way, a terrorist organization, despite the fearsome name. This is a post about what they are instead.

I think I suspected, while dressing (what to wear to a climate activist meeting, I fretted? Answer: literally anything) that it would be me and about six other people. Instead, they kept having to bring in more chairs.

I did not take photos, but if I had, a panorama of the room would have revealed:

  • Older women in vibrant attire.
  • Earnest couples in their early thirties, all definitely here for the first time, and probably, like me, wondering whether we can justify having kids.
  • Some timid young men, heads bent over phones.
  • Many people who used they/them pronouns. (“I respond to everything except “it,” said a person in a skirt, charmingly.)
  • In the corner: two children curled over a tablet, occasionally yelling in delight.
  • At the snack table (nuts, chopped vegetables, hummus, and fruit), what I’d later learn was the art contingent, the people who make all the fancy buttons: two smiling and highly-capable-looking women in their mid-forties, the sort of people who wear cat-eye glasses.

Everyone except the organizers seemed nervous that someone would stop them and question their activist credentials. And no one did, because it was the opposite of that kind of meeting.

In the windowless meeting room, all crunching nuts, we began with a land acknowledgment, as well as a reminder to big talkers to shut up and non-talkers to start talking. Then we went around the room and every person introduced themselves. It did not take forever, because a lot of people seemed surprised to be asked and said only their names, but the ones who talked said things that made me, and everyone, tear up.

“I don’t want to just be alone with the climate disaster,” said a young woman, summing up my feelings succinctly.

“I’m here because I’ve been without hope for so many years that I thought, well, I might start hoping again,” said a wry older woman who, as she’d later reveal, is writing a book about the Black Panthers.

“I’m here because I was watching YouTube and stumbled into the IPCC report and became scared, and then afterwards Extinction Rebellion was next in the queue, and it was the only thing that made me feel better,” said a quiet person named Sunny.

“I’m here because if we don’t figure this out, everything else will be a moot point,” shrugged a man.

As always, in this sort of situation, I took notes in order to quell my oncoming nervousness about next being asked to speak. Then I kept taking notes, compulsively, filling eight or so pages in the notebook my brother Joe gave me for my birthday, and when it was my turn I was surprised, and ended up echoing the man’s point.

I said, “I’m here because I work in the book industry, and I’ve realized what total bullshit that will be if nobody’s around to read because the world’s on fire.”

It’s true. My purposes are selfish. The few people who could hear me laughed, though.

The organizers went on to give us a brief history. Extinction Rebellion (XR) began in the UK only last year, in the spring of 2018. The theory behind it is that people work more easily in small, non-hierarchical groups – XR is designed to splinter, to break into smaller and smaller contingents to get things done. “When the government has failed in its fundamental duty,” said the professorial man quietly, everyone leaning in – he was a great speaker – “which is to keep us safe, that’s when it’s time to rebel.”

XR London, after its founding, worked quickly; enough people flocked to it that in November 2018, they were able to arrange protests that effectively shut down five massive bridges in London. After a winter of activism, this May, the UK’s government – despite Brexit and everything – declared a climate emergency, making it the first country to do so.

Extinction Rebellion’s theory is that if 3.5% of the population mobilizes, that’s enough to force governments to take action. They’re counting on people like the ones in the room (everyone had an air of schoolteacher or grandmother or public servant about them) to create protests that make everyone in a city take notice, and for those protests to snowball. These protests don’t, the organizers explained, necessarily have to take the form of civil disobedience; those who participate won’t all have to get arrested or superglue their hands to government buildings. Instead, what’s required is creative action, and a lot of it.

In a little more than a year, XR has spread to every continent except Antarctica. It’s been combined with other groups – the Ghanaian contingent is linked with the anti-colonialist movement Stop the Maangamizi, and the German group works with Ende Gelande, who are fundamentally anti-coal. I’ve been following them on the Internet for a while, and was wondering when they’d show up here. Now, here they are – in a library in St. Paul, trying to gather more followers.

XR Twin Cities was founded earlier this year, and was, the organizers said wryly, six people who had no history of activism and no clue what they were doing. They shared only anger and friendship. Their first action was a banner drop over a bridge in the frigid winter air. They got some honks, stayed for a few hours, then went home, shrugging. Now, they’re everywhere: at all Open Streets festivals, at the State Capitol with friendly lawmakers, and sending an open letter to MPR demanding climate-responsible reporting.

It is, in short, my kind of movement: it’s very fucking fun, and requires little commitment. In the Twin Cities, it’s possible to become involved at the highest levels – as a member of a working group planning actions – or by simply showing up to events. I have no idea what I’m doing yet, but it’s going to be something.

This Saturday, tomorrow, they’re doing Green Emergency on the Greenway, an after-dark open mic that shares love for endangered species. (Word people, they’re still looking for performers.) Every Tuesday, the fun art ladies hang out at a house in Powderhorn from 1-4pm and do crafts, mostly jewelry and buttons intended to spark curiosity from people who don’t know. “Ask me about my earrings,” said one, leaning in to dangle them more prominently. “Go on, ASK ME.” (If this is something you’re into, message me – I’ve got the address.)

And next month, in North, there will be another meeting much like the one I attended – on Saturday August 17th, from 2-3:30pm, you yourself can come to North Humboldt Ave and feel better.


It has been hard, hearing all this news, existing in the polar vortex, watching the rivers flood, to know what to do. I’m aware, every time I bike to work and cook tofu, that counterbalancing me there’s some dude buying a truck and eating only steak. I’m aware that even biking to work and eating more vegetables isn’t enough. I hang out in the Star Tribune comments section and despair about all the people from the suburbs who are calling our warming earth liberal bullshit.

I think the best thing going to the meeting did for me was to give me hope. It’s like writing: if you don’t have hope that the thing you’re working on is going to turn out, well, it won’t.

This is something that the organizers of XR, a year and a half ago, fundamentally understood – that in order for activism to change minds, it can’t be shrieky or preachy. It’s got to be fun and inviting.

It’s got to be a room with ample snacks and people named Santa Eric Riese (who rocked a dressy skirt, a THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE T-shirt, a pair of pigtails, and a magnificent white beard) saying, “Minnesota is so nice, so curious. We protested on roller skates, and for weeks afterward people were stopping me in Uptown, saying, what is this? What were you doing? How can I get involved?”

So I have written this somewhat slapdash blog post – my first in a year – to say that if you too occasionally feel too sad about the planet to keep going, well, there’s something you can do. It’s right here in the Twin Cities, and it’s friendly as shit. And it’s enough to show up, because if enough of us do it, who knows what can happen?


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Why I’m Not Voting for Keith Ellison Anymore

It’s the day of the primary, and now look: another rising DFL superstar has been taken down – or might be, depending on how today goes – by loudmouthed women, just like poor Al Franken and Dan Schoen. Is there a conspiracy? Anything’s possible, these days. Because look at them! Likable guys on their way up, funny men, nobody you could picture molesting anyone or shouting at them or pressuring them into sex – but now here she comes, another lady marching in to say he –

Did what to her, precisely?

In this case, the evidence is maddeningly hidden. There’s a videotape, allegedly, but it’s in a storage locker somewhere on a flash drive; who does that to a piece of damning evidence? At least the Franken ass-grabbee marched back to her husband and expressed her outrage, which… thank God she at least told him, he’s a credible witness. The best this woman’s got is an angry son, who sort-of knew all along, then found the video that confirmed it. Only now he can’t find it, either.

All of this makes good Democrats suspicious. “I mean, how would you record it?” said an older man to me last night, a good person. “Was she, like, recording everything in their apartment?”

Implicit in that question: if you recorded everything anyone ever said, wouldn’t you find something to get a politician on? (We’re talking normal politicians, here.) Doesn’t everyone say and do things that are probably objectionable taken out of context?

(I think, with shame and gratitude, of times when I’m glad I haven’t been recorded.)

The objections continue. Wouldn’t you find something like this, the man I was talking to said-without-saying – our beloved congressman walking into his bedroom to find his girlfriend lying down, listening to a podcast; getting angry and saying that he told her to take out the garbage; when she didn’t respond, yanking her by her feet off the bed and shouting at her that she’s a bad guest?


Anyone can concur that this video isn’t a good look for Ellison. Well, if it does exist.

Still, the fact of its existence seems suspicious – why was she recording this one time? She’s mentioned, in texts, the fact that she’s writing a memoir about him and their relationship; was she trying to blackmail him? Just taking something – well, not innocuous – but something private – public, out of context? Why record his one moment of wrath?

I do, unfortunately, have an answer. I wish I didn’t.

Isn’t it more likely – I say-without-saying hesitantly – that shit like this happened every night? And this just happened to be the one time she had her phone in her hand, could stealthily press the camera into life?

Well, maybe not every night. Fine.

Isn’t it almost worse, though, if it happened irregularly? If not every night – if some nights were normal and good and snuggly even, went by without blowups – then every two or three, or once a week at minimum? Enough that she could calm herself down, thinking it was over – saying to herself, maybe it really is done, I’m not a bad guest anymore, I’ve fixed the bad-guest part of myself, the stuff he dislikes – but then two days later she finds him looking despondently at potato peels between the garbage can and cabinet side, and it starts again: baby why do you throw the peels on the ground not in the garbage can, can’t you see we live here, it’s such a mess, do you want our house messy, what is wrong with you, why are you such a slobby person – then on and on into everything else that’s wrong with her – because she is, as it turns out, not fixed, wrong in all the ways, thank God he’s here to fix her, he’s saying this out of charity.

It’s only awful in the way he repeats himself, keeps doing it. He says there’s nothing wrong with these – he doesn’t call them arguments but Conversations, even though she doesn’t talk during them – but still he’s always careful to do it in private. In person, in public, he is such a Catch. She has to catch herself and shake herself sometimes, say to herself – this man, the one that all your friends envy you for dating – remember what he does, when the door is closed and nobody else can hear it.

So, I say-without-saying, am only saying here, in the safety of print: that’s why she records. Because this one time, she wants someone else to see it. Or she wants evidence of it, for herself, later, so she can prove she’s not crazy, that all of this really happened.

Here’s why I’m not voting for Ellison (which, just 24 hours ago, I was so excited to do):

His ex-girlfriend is saying that the tape exists, but that it’d be too shameful to show anyone. She says she’s buried it so deep in a storage locker that she can’t find it.

This is, paradoxically, the same thing that makes her sound like  a Russian sleeper agent. You picture a man in a fur hat, going Da, darhlink, go, say zese zings ze day before ze primary. Yes, you too! Provoke ze infighting! HA! Picture it so much, the unlikeliness of these hard-to-prove accusations, that it starts to seem like – well, a conspiracy, a slop job, yes, but come on, do we always have to believe women? Isn’t this a little Salem-ish?

Why can’t she find the tape?

I know that damn feeling.

She says she doesn’t want to go public with it because it would be so embarrassing for both families: it being the sole evidence of the way he was in private, all these Conversations in which he convinced her how bad she was, how delusional she was being, how lucky she was that he was staying with her even though she was so awful.

I’ve felt that embarrassment. I’m feeling it now. I should stop typing, I should delete this.

See, the thing with these – relationships with men who like to have Conversations – is that you get out, however you do. (Unless you don’t.) You beg a deposit from your parents. You get into an unlikely grad school and move across the ocean.

For a time, you Try to Make it Work. That’s the funny part, the times you send emails or texts saying you love him – if it was so bad, why wouldn’t you cut ties entirely? Why would you leave this whole paper trail of very sane-sounding messages of love in your wake? I think it happens because you’re trying to convince yourself it was as he told you – that the two of you were in love, only you were bad, too bad for him, and so had to leave him, regrettably. You tell yourself that if you were better, you could be together. Or if he just changed a little bit; stopped taking everything so much to heart all the time.

With distance, he peters out, meets other women. His voice gets quieter. You separate fully. He’s only in your head, anymore, any time you chuck a potato peel on the ground instead of in the can by accident.

Maybe you dash into a relationship with someone else, someone antithetical to him, someone meek.

Maybe your friends say you seem happier. Maybe you start to tell them, bit by bit, what it was like to live there in that room, the blanket over your head, his voice not diminishing no matter how much you cried.

But the shit thing is, it’s very hard to talk about.

There’s never a One Thing to point to, not unless you’ve been savvy and taken a video. He never broke your arm or left bruises. He still thinks of himself as a person who treats women fairly; he never hurt you, just tried to isolate you from your family and then yelled at you til you wanted to walk into the river, and cops can’t prosecute that. Besides, your memories are so hazy.

Later, you learn that this is something your body does deliberately, and it really bums you out, the way you’re suddenly comparing yourself to a Real Victim.

You say, I should write about it. You want to have some proof that it happened, even though there was, in that room, only him and you, and it’s not like he’ll ever corroborate. But what would be the point? Maybe he’d message you awful things, try to take down your computer from the inside, come and try to beat up your lovely boyfriend. It’s not worth the risk.

And then… he’s the DFL nominee. And you see his face everywhere. And your child is angrier and angrier.

Alternatively, and then…

His second-to-most-recent ex-girlfriend sends you a Facebook message out of the blue. “Hi Jessie,” she says. “I don’t know if you know who I am.”

You definitely do. Four years ago, when they started dating, you stalked her profile out of a sense of real obligation. You remember marveling at how beautiful and accomplished she was. How lucky for him that she is perfect and that he likely had nothing to complain about anymore.

She says, after explaining that they dated for a while after you two separated:

“Now I’m just starting working up the past….I realized lately it still depresses me in some way. This sounds a little bit strange and I understand if you don’t want to, but I thought maybe we could talk a little bit about our experiences? It’s hard for me to put it in words, thought maybe our conversation could help me understanding what happened.”

You exchange anecdotes: how he was very good at interrupting your job interviews, calling and picking a fight just before you were about to walk in. How the night before she had an exam, he’d shut off her alarm clock because it disturbed his rest, and she’d oversleep. How when you expressed a desire to meet other Americans in the city you both lived in, he was genuinely confused, distressed: why, he said, would you want to be friends with other people? Aren’t I enough?

You are both so goddamn relieved to be talking about this with someone else. You feel like you should form a Facebook group, should pull in his other exes, all the women he told you were so crazy.

She finds out you’re a writer. She asks you to write about it, please – she’d like to tell his current girlfriend, just drop off the link and leave it.

You’re not sure. You’re afraid. Is this the right time? Why bother? It’s all in the past –

And then it keeps coming up again. Not in the form of you, your current relationship, but in other people’s lives: this woman rising up to claim Keith Ellison, and the world rising up, in trade, to deny her, to say, you’re lying, you’re a sleeper agent, you’re conveniently timed, you’re not even good at presenting evidence, you’re obviously… Even good men are so shocked, so skeptical.

You don’t have to believe her. But you should believe me, believe us. Because believe me: I have nothing to gain from revealing this.



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Questions re: gun logistics???

Dear President Trump,

I am so excited about my gun, I can’t wait! I’m glad you’ll be sending them to us teachers. We are so trustworthy and so eager to protect our students. Hooray, hooray.

I just, I mean, I’m sorry, sir, but I have a few tiny little questions. The main one is, I guess: where am I supposed to keep it?

Sorry! It’s just, female professionalism and all…  I usually wear things that don’t, like, have pockets. So: if you want me to keep a gun on me, am I supposed to start? Should I go out and buy a bunch of dresses baggy enough to hide a holster?

Haha. No, of course not! I might be kind of old, at twenty-eight, but these gams have a few years of shapeliness left, all right. Of course you wouldn’t want me to wreck my lines like that.

Okay, so…. no pockets, no holster. What if I just held it? Like through the lessons? It might help me keep order! Ha. But I should warn you – I am kind of flighty and quirky. I lose things like my phone and my coffee mug about four times a day, and I stop class to make my students find them. (They love this game.) The same thing is going to totally happen with the gun – I just know that I’ll forget it’s a gun and like set it on the whiteboard ledge or something. And I guess I don’t need to know too much about guns to have one, but that seems like a real faux pas.

Okay, so: the desk, right? Because that seems like an idea! Desks have a lot of pockets. (Ha, sorry. So excited. On a desk they’re called drawers. Desk pockets!) A drawer it is! Much safer.

I’m just trying to plan my day, the way we teachers like to –  you know, really walk through the activity before we do it. So. Bam bam bam, oh no, it’s a shooting. I stop close-reading that story right away, perk up my head, throw down the marker, and run for the gun! Right?

Second question: do the students know I have a gun?

I mean, I can see it either way. On the one hand, maybe it’s better if nobody knows the gun is there, because then any teacher could at any time be the one with a gun. Perhaps you don’t always want to arm the bald Republican gym teacher! Maybe it should be, you know, me, the one with the MFA. Students will learn to eye my desk with suspicion and awe. (As they should!)

Or else they won’t, and one day they’ll just find it while a sub is in and they’re hunting through the drawers for candy. Who knows?

Maybe it’s better if they do know I have it, because that way it’s going to be like you say – they’ll come to school all relaxed and chill and confident, no hint of the sitting duck about them. They’ll know that their English teacher will be poised to leap into action the second the bullets start flying!

But then, hm. When the hallways start a-war-zonin’, the kids are obviously going to want to help me find the gun, right? They are so helpful.

Yeah. Mostly I teach middle school, and they love being heroes. But they’re not qualified to wield a gun, not like me, the teacher, with her advanced degree in creative writing.

So probably the gun should be locked in there, the desk, behind a code. I mean, we have codes for iPads, why not guns! Boop boop boop, there’s the gun, I turn around, I destroy the intruder, I am a hero.

A question: that’s going to take me a little bit of time, even if I totally remember the code the first time through. (Which I probably will not, because hopefully – God willing! – the gun code is not going to be one I’ll use a lot of the time. Sorry! Plus, you know, panic.)

Do you think I should rearrange the seating chart? Like…. really consider who should be closest to the door?


Anyway, thanks! I hope you have some answers. (I know this is kind of long for you, but I really tried to write it with short enough words. As we English people say, know your audience!)

So excited!!!!!


Ms. Hennen




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My Night Job

For a while, I thought that to be a writer meant that you could not have a day job that brought you joy. I had been seduced by Ann Patchett’s tales of feverish slogging on the floor of a chain restaurant, the vest festooned with pins, the endless bus-trays of dirty dishes; I read in Truth and Beauty that she’d lied on her resume to get the work, had put in instead of her Iowa degree two years at a community college and multiple waitressing jobs.

So I tried my best to be that person. After finishing grad school and my teaching fellowship, the first job I applied for was the State Fair, ripping tickets as my arm (as I’ve had my character Claire say when she works the same gig) learned to hurt. From there I went to French Meadow, making people coffee as I dreamed of my future fame. How jubilant they would all be to learn one day that their latte girl had written all of their favorite books!

I thought, it’s true, that this novel-process would be faster. That’s how I made it seem, to everyone; like the book was just steps away from being printed, and that soon I would be whisked away on a cloud to New York, where I would be feted and dined and wined. I chattered with eager plans of my future advance: the burnt-orange Beetle I would buy, its lovely stereo, the house I might or might not purchase.

Instead, it’s four years later, and here I sit: still not-famous, still revising.

It’s only: there came a day at French Meadow when I simply could not go into work anymore. It was January, and I started to cry. I stared into the massive mirror that was one wall of my room and I thought, I am just a barista, I am a forever-nothing. The rage that seized me – I still remember it, how full-bodied it was, how it trembled my hands and shook my lips. I wrote a feverish letter that I never delivered, and I quit.

I went back to substitute teaching, because that felt like doing something instead of nothing; even if the days were fuller and the paycheck less, even if I no longer had mornings to write, I wasn’t striving all the time to return the restaurant to zero, to make it look as if it had never been filled with customers. I was talking and my words had meaning.

I still don’t know. It’s true that my best work was done when I was in Germany, in a relationship that felt like a trap and a day job full of vacant hours. I sat at the nanny-family’s giant wooden table and I wrote fiction to save myself, adding pages to a novel I didn’t think would ever go anywhere, crafting odd little dark stories about a woman trapped in the walls and the dissection of a formaldehyded-cat. I don’t feel that desperation anymore, and I worry sometimes that what I now do is taking the energy I used to expend in prose and using it elsewhere.

But I don’t think I can be any other way.

“You are really terrified of routine, aren’t you?” said my new intern as we drove back from the Loft on Friday, our car full of unsold books and a bag of cash we hadn’t used. I laughed, because she’d only known me for two days – how was it possible for someone to be so right?

I am. Faced with the choice between a life of drudgery interspersed with bits of brilliant fiction and a life that’s like my life now, which is a chain of pearls, wonderful novelties and interesting faces, productivity waning but everything else really going quite well, I pick the latter, and I insist, stubbornly, that it’s got to be in a way good for me, for the writer I still know I’m becoming.

This is self-indulgent, isn’t it? I’m being the sort of person I hate: someone who talks endlessly about their artistic process. If you’re here, if you’re reading this, I beg you to forgive me. I’m still figuring it out, the balance between stories-that-are-interesting-to-me and stories-that-are-interesting-to-everyone. Vonnegut once said that if you are writing, it is not wise to “open a window and make love to the world” – he believed you should write to one specific person, one interested friend, and then the rest would follow. But I’ve always been unable to do that, since undoubtedly that one interested friend would soon become exhausted. There are just so many words I want to say, so please, world, bear with me.

My job, currently, is to plan events. As of three months ago, I work at this platonic ideal of a bookstore; it smells like a horsey potpourri of moldering pages. It has little ladders on tracks, for God’s sake – I haven’t yet swung on one like Belle, but believe me, it’s coming. It is the sort of good soft place in the world that with its mere presence begets more delight.

I do not always love being there – sometimes I am too overwhelmed by spreadsheets, by the harsh fluorescence of the upstairs and the sheer volume of emails to be answered and the wealth of social media postings I could make – but in those times, I have learned to merely walk downstairs and spend some time petting the books, caressing friends’ covers and opening, here and there, something that looks interesting. Then I breathe and go back up to my job.

This is a real-person career, something that tests me, uses skills I didn’t know I had. There is an endless amount of things I could learn. There is always something I could be doing. I return home exhausted and scroll Reddit for an hour before falling asleep. On walks, I think not of my book but of fun events I could plan. Am I in danger of falling forever into a trap of easy joy, or am I exactly in the place I should be?

My parents think so. “You’re doing it,” they whispered when they came to a talk on inequality and automated systems repressing the poor. “This is a perfect Jessie job.”

My friends think so. “That was a good introduction,” said Paul and Christine, leaning back in their folding chairs amidst the crowd that had assembled to hear from the writer of Call Me By Your Name. “It was just the right amount of quirky.”

That event, really, was what sparked this, my sudden return to the blog after five months away – because I want to remember it, when I look back, how well it went. It’s wrong to brag about your successes on the Internet, but please, bear with me: on Saturday night, I did a very good job. We knew it would be big, and it was. My boss, the bookstore owner, went folding-chair shopping and returned with twenty-four seats jammed into her SUV. She roved around dusting them off while I fluttered upstairs and down, readying the system we had come up with to call the crowd up in groups instead of a line. People started arriving at five, and the reading wasn’t till seven. At six the writer himself showed up, and I brought him to our employee lounge, where Patrick Nathan, the moderator, a delightful local author whose book has just come out, was waiting with a stack for him to sign ahead of time. It was my job to sit with them in the break-room chairs and talk about fiction for twenty minutes before roaming away to check on everything else.

At 7:05, I got to walk out and say, “Minneapolis! How y’all doing tonight!” which is something I’ve always wanted to yell, and I got to watch the crowd cheer.

I eyed the people sitting in the aisles and standing against every available shelf. I got to talk about fire exits, and then I got to say, “Hold up the little slips we’ve given you, please,” and then I got to watch everyone dig in their pockets and hoist them up above their heads.”You’ll note that they are all different colors. We’ll be calling groups up in this order,” and then I got to run for the visual aid I’d prepared and let it accordion-fold down to the floor. “It’s a rainbow,” I whispered into the microphone, and everyone laughed.

And then I got to sit in the very front and watch the writer himself, this man who created the book that the night before had left me sobbing in my bed, read the scene in which Elio declares his love for Oliver – obliquely, abstractly, but in a way that means Oliver gets it, that they’re on a path into a new and uncertain land. In the video I dutifully recording, everyone watching looks moved.

My favorite part was what came after. I called us a Lyft and we got in, me and Patrick and Mr. Aciman. We felt famous simply being by him, though the driver had no idea; I had to resist the temptation to lean over and whisper, “The man in your back seat wrote the book that became the movie that will probably win the Oscar.” We played tour guide, pointing out the place where, as Patrick said, “you can buy both a cock ring and a mocha.” (The Lyft driver went, “Whoa whoa whoa! Conversation’s getting interesting in here!”) I motioned to the stadium; we sneered at it and called it a monstrosity. (Mr. Aciman, plaintive: “But then why did they build it?”)

Then we arrived at the bar that had co-sponsored the event. I don’t think I can adequately describe, in print, the giddiness that overtook both of us Minneapolis folks when we walked in: apparently some tour buses had stopped by, and so now the whole place was packed with suburban twentysomethings and a DJ shouting into the microphone, “Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots!” And here we were with this kind man who had a punishing tour schedule, about to sit down and order martinis.

But our nervous laughter cleared, and soon we were sort of talking about fiction. One of the queens came by with two copies of his books, and he signed them gamely, inscribing in the light of an outstretched phone.


I said, finally: “Well, I’m a writer too. I went to Iowa.” (I hated myself in that moment, but I wanted him to find me significant.) “I have an agent and a book, only… it’s been through like three drafts, and I started it four years ago, and it’s really taking a while.”

“Four years?” Andre Aciman’s forehead wrinkled kindly. (Always he was like this, that evening; he did not want to talk about himself, he wanted only to respond to everything around him.) “But that is a very long time. You are…” He drummed his fingers next to the empty plate from the quesadilla we’d shared. “Not the same person you were when you started,” he said finally.

I am not.

I still think it’s going to work, the book. If anything, I’m more cavalier and savvy than I was – a better editor, less attached to it. It’s just that all my eggs aren’t in that one basket anymore. They’re spread around, and they’re not very breakable eggs, not if I can, with some emails to a publicist and a bookstore that’s willing to work with me, have a night like this.




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