Getting My Embouchure Back


It’s been ages. I know. I don’t know where I’ve been, probably buried under paper grading, dealing with teenagers and even worse adults that act like teenagers, trying to figure out the balance between discipline and patience (in regards to the toddler that now shares a roof with me and Mr. One Mean), doing hot yoga a couple times a week, attempting to do something with my lawn, and the like. That rut I was telling you about ages ago still plagues me. I can’t quite seem to find myself. I have been writing and publishing and working towards that elusive academic job, but, of course, to absolutely no avail. This past year was my best writing year in a long time, probably since grad school, but as Mr. One Mean likes to remind me, who is calling to grant you that interview? Dude is tough, but he keeps it real. I appreciate that. I need that.

I keep trying to visualize myself on a college campus, making a living wage, in my office with students who want to discuss craft. It’s a real dream. In terms of the craft of teaching, I’m definitely improving. In my classrooms (high school and college), I’m doing good work. I can feel it. My students seem to be receptive, hell, some of them might even be learning. In regards to the rest of my life, that is not the case. So much of it is messy and chaotic and I definitely am in the midst of an existential crisis, though what writer isn’t?

So, as summer approaches, I’m eagerly beginning to form my writing plan. Look, I know a lot of you are already on summer vacation (lucky academics!),  but where I live we still have 2 more instructional days and 4 days of exams. It’s really quite horrible. As much as I enjoy teaching (and strangely enough I’m kind of passionate about it), I’m ready to not see the stinky faces of the teenagers I’ve attempted to impart some knowledge on. Everything is moving in slow motion, and I just want summer to be here because summer (even the oppressive heat that comes with it) is the greatest time of year. You pumpkin and fall lovers need to can it. The leaves are pretty, but raking, while an excellent workout, is not my idea of pleasure. I mean come on, multicolored leaves versus lush green and hazy, hot days? There is nothing better. Okay, the crisp air is nice in October. Hush. I’m coming around to the other seasons.

Summer has often meant laziness for me. It’s been a time to decompress the daily interactions with young people that I so love but often find myself getting irritated by. It’s writing that helps me quell the crazy. This summer I’m definitely going to need to get some of that crazy out. I need the nourishment.

Recently, I started writing a short story. I hadn’t written fiction in years and while I teach the craft of fiction and am specialized in fiction, I find the personal essay a more natural form, so when this character popped into my head, I thought, “One Mean, you need to get this chick out of your head and onto a Google Doc.” So I did. And it’s been fun, but I’ve totally hit a wall, and frankly, I don’t think it’s the character or what I presume will be the plot of the story that is stalling me. I fucking rusty, folks. My fiction chops need warming up.

Years ago–like high school years ago–like when volcanic rock was beginning to form land masses in the ocean–I played the trumpet. I was (am) a terrible trumpet player. I was good enough to get through the music and not good enough to warrant pursuing a career as a jazz artist. I was self taught and was transiting to the trumpet in order for the marching band to have balance. The band didn’t need another flute player. I was a good flute player and decent enough musician that I taught myself the notes on the trumpet (mostly by banging the keys of the piano at home and matching the pitches on my trumpet) and called it a day. Honestly, I have to think my poor parents regretted the day they brought home that piano and then later the flute and that trumpet. Anyway, I digress. The hardest part of learning the trumpet was getting my embouchure right. The flute was vastly different from the trumpet, both required the same muscles but not in the same way, sort of like nonfiction and fiction. My mouth was sore for months. My lips would feel numb, though I have been told–not that I would know because I’m such a prude–brass players make the best kissers. In high school a dated two boys, one in band (a baritone) and one not, and I can attest to the fact the baritone was hands down the better kisser so maybe there is some truth to this. My band director was a trumpet player, so he took great care making sure the brass sections were warmed up. We would buzz on our mouthpieces, take great care with our breath, buzz without mouth pieces to enhance the strength in our mouths, and we’d finally put our mouthpieces in our horns and play. When concert season would start, I’d happily put my trumpet away and resume (Confession: I never stopped practicing the flute, which is why I was first chair) my flute practice. My flute embouchure was always working (just like my nonfiction chops are stronger), but in the spring when we’d reveal our fall season opener, I’d have to dust off my trumpet and once again the soreness to my lips would return.

When lips are sore from playing a brass instrument, the whole mouth is involved. The sides of your mouth–the muscles you forget are there unless you play an instrument–ache. Your lips feel mushy (I know I’m so articulate) and numb. It feels as if your lips are full of push pins or maybe what tenderized meat would feel like if it had feelings if it was, you know, alive. When you cool down your lips (like the way you cool down after a jog), your lips don’t fully regain feeling until you’ve had a cold drink. In fact, drinking cold water during a performance is frowned upon–nay, forbidden–because all that warming up gets washed away with the ice.

It is in this way that I feel about my fiction writing. I’ve been practicing my trumpet for a few hours, and my chops are busted. My brain mushy and numb. I’m dusting off my instrument after several seasons of it being enclosed in a case and stored on the top shelf of my closet. The case nearly falls onto your head as you stand on your tip-toes to reach it. It’s heavy and cumbersome, but when you open the case, you’re glad you did because you know good times are about about to roll.


Revision is Scary. Psycho Scary. Screaming Out Loud Scary.

For months I’ve been mentally preparing myself to revise my novel. It’s sitting there on my flash drive, backed up in my email, and in my Dropbox account. I’ve been trying to prepare myself to sit down, reread it, and finally decide what the hell I need to do to it. When I finished it and had people read it, I was told “the skeleton is there, you just have to flesh it out.” It’s historical fiction and I don’t think I’ve done enough research, and I feel like I don’t know the right details to make it strong. To make it believable. To make it good.

I should mention my mother said it was “alright.” While I’m blessed to have a mother who is honest, oftentimes brutally so (seriously who tells their kid their novel is okay, that’s messed up right?), it still hurt to hear. When I defended it to my thesis committee, I felt that they didn’t think it was literary enough and found it to be more of a genre piece. This was also painful. There is an element of a “love story” in it, and when I was told it was “marketable” it wasn’t in a small-press-get-recongized-for-being-profound way, it was more of a stay-at-home-mothers-would-appreciate-it way. Although Nick Sparks tapped that market, so yeah I wouldn’t mind owning a boat and not being in debt. I think love stories scare professors or something. There is definitely a danger to play with cliches. While I wasn’t expecting my committee to tell me I was the next Aimee Bender, I did feel like I walked away having disappointed TC and my committee and still not understanding what the eff literary even means. Frankly, by the time the process was done I was so over it. I wanted to chuck it and never look at it again. I was told by FH, TC, and my mother that I held back. Held back from what? What am I so scared of?

Now that some time (okay too much time) has passed I think my eyes will be fresh, and I can look at it less critically. I know what needs to be done. The arc is there. For the most part the novel needs to be filled in. It covers a very long period of time and there are gaps in time that don’t necessarily need to be covered but addressed, and there are storylines and details that need developing. I also need to do some major research. I suck and hate research. Research is why I will die when I decide to finally get my PhD. Seriously. I hate research. My future dissertation is going to be my death. I’ll be buried under books about Beckett or Borges or God knows who else unable to breathe shouting, “How am I not myself?”* This is how I envision my death. At least there are books involved.

As of right now, the novel is about 200 pages long, maybe a little less. When I started the project and presented it to TC, I was told I was writing a 500 page novel. I laughed and told TC that I was not. I’m sure when I start rereading it I will finally realize TC was right. I’ll have to finally dig deep and pump out another 300 pages. Although a page a day is less than a year of writing. That’s not so bad.

The past couple years I have been really struggling with my fiction. My non-fiction is not an issue. I feel very comfortable writing about myself. Possibly because I’m a narcissistic, selfish bitch (it’s true readers, and you know it) and because writing about myself and my family is something I’m very comfortable with. For years I’ve been saying my family could be the next Kardashians, only likable in our craziness. Not to mention, watching rich people be crazy is annoying. Watching real people be crazy, that’s entertaining.  My issue is with my fiction. I have hit a road block. I have a short story sitting on my computer that I have no clue what do with. I don’t even know if I’m halfway through with it. I don’t know if it might be  part of a novel. I just don’t know.

There is some strong writing there, I think. I have the horrible habit of reading my writing and wanting to rewrite it immediately after it’s been processed by my brain. I’m so self-conscious. I think it all sucks. Frankly, when go through some of these blog posts I wonder why some of you come back for more. I’m grateful that you do. I don’t tell great stories like Wide Lawns does. Now that girl can write. I feel like I don’t have any ideas. None. Zip. It’s an empty space up there.

For sure my fiction is suffering because I’m not reading enough of it. I’ve been trying to get through some short stories and I’ve finally sat down with the Marquez. I’m also reading a book about running because I’m training for a half marathon (got to get skinny for the wedding). I’m hoping that as life begins to stabilize I’ll be able to get some fiction going. Actually, screw that. I’m not going to hope. I’m going to do. I think feeling ready to revise the novel is a big step for me. Huge. Lately I’ve been dreaming about my characters, worrying that they are lonely in the world I’ve created for them. I swear those suckers are alive sometimes.


After some small errands and a fierce workout I’ll sit down and finally start digging in. I’m scared to death I’m going to want to throw it in my fireplace. Good thing it’s hot as hell outside.

Why is revision so effing scary?


*If you didn’t get this I Heart Huckabee reference hurry up and put that movie in your Netflix queue. Seriously. Do it.

Do You Have a Workshop Style?

During the Spring semester I organized a three session community workshop for the summer. It’s been a small group (three to four people), but it’s been fun. I have always loved workshops. Yes, even when I bitched about workshops here, I still enjoyed them more than I hated them. That is of course, with the exception of hating the one and only poetry workshop I took during grad school. Poets and prose writers are so different, and frankly, I don’t really understand how poets, who have the reputation of being so sensitive, can be so effing mean. Anyway, I digress. The community workshop has been such a pleasure.

When I emailed TC about it, TC was very supportive and said something about how it was great how I had created an opportunity to teach something I like. This has been my teaching challenge, feeling nourished. The workshop has been quite fulfilling. I’m totally enjoying it.

Of the four participants, two of them have never been workshopped. Of those two only one of them has been writing regularly, the other submitted this mishmash of a story that wasn’t actually a story and turned out to be chunks of a bigger piece. The other two participants have been in workshops before, and I get the impression that they were the top of the class, but in a group where the writing was rough. They are also good friends, and one is clearly more talented than the other.

When teaching a workshop, I am generally pretty free spirited. This is actually my teaching M.O. I don’t like to dictate topics, or length–really anything. This is so unlike how I am in my life. I’m not really free spirited, although on occasion I am spontaneous. When I am being workshopped, I’m quiet and like to listen and take notes. I’ve noticed that my two veterans don’t take notes when they are being workshopped. How do they remember what people said, and how do the mark the moments that need to be fixed? They also talk a lot after they have been workshopped. They don’t ask questions, they instead explain and give excuses for why their piece wasn’t working, or why the group is wrong.  Personally, I don’t like to talk after I’ve been critiqued, unless I have a question, but that is just me. What is your workshopping/being workshopped style?

Still, it is so fun to be talking about writing with people who are just getting into it. It’s also great to discuss fiction with people who want to be there and are prepared.

Man, I needed this.

The Steak Beckons

While I love a good four day work week, my unemployment situation has me all confused. My eating and workout routine is all off, my book a week challenge came to a halt, my sleep schedule is messed up, and on and on. I’m kind of glad America is back on schedule, because maybe I too can get back on schedule.

The dietician and I created a schedule for me. I have officially (it’s on the fridge so it’s official) set aside time for job hunting, writing, watching TV, and working out. I was supposed to be on this schedule last week, but couldn’t get into it.

I’m a TV whore, and love watching The Today Show. I always get caught up in the Money 9-1-1 segments, or the fashion segments, and I love Hoda and Kathie Lee. I swear I’m like an old lady stuck in a twenty something (late twenty-something)’s body.I get back from my 6 am torture spin session and Matt Lauer, Ann Currie, and Meredith suck me in. Then after two hours of having done nothing but made my breakfast, I find myself unable to get focused. I also love watching reruns of Frasier, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Friends. There isn’t an episode I haven’t seen at least a dozen times, and yet I sit there laughing.

I’m a loser.

I don’t know if I can give up the Today Show, but I will try to turn off the TV tomorrow morning and actually utilize my schedule. Who knows, maybe I’ll actually get some writing done. I’ve been working on a few short stories, and an essay, but my novel needs major revision and my memoir needs work too/needs to written. In grad school, I had a writer friend who called short stories “fun fiction” because he’d work on the little projects in between the big projects in order to get  through the sometimes hard ass drudgery that is novel writing. Since I’m not working and have plenty of free time I’m going to try and use that mentality.

I think I need to read more short stories though. I’m always in novel mode because I’m always reading longer works of fiction. I have a few collections I’ve been meaning to check out since grad school. I bought them and they are sitting on my bookcase getting dusty. As far as teaching, I love teaching stories, but I love reading novels. What about you? Do you have a preference? I should devote a post to this.

Well, now that my brain seems to be cleared of the cob webs, it seems like forever since I’ve been in contact with you readers, I’ll get to work on some other stuff.

Other stuff includes:

a) the thawed steak on my kitchen (it’s kind of early for dinner, but that’s never stopped me before).

b) the essay I’ve been meaning to write for about a month. It only has to be about 1000 words. Honestly, get it done lazy bones.

c) I have GOT to outline my memoir. I’ve been having issues with the organization of the memoir. I don’t know if I should read more memoirs or just get writing. I can’t decide on the structure, the tone, really none of it. Also, should devote a post to this.

d) I need to reread what I have of my novel, so I can decide what I want to do with it. After letting it marinate in my file cabinet and on my flashdrive for about a year, I think it’s finally time to finish it and send it off. It would be super awesome to get that thing out into the world by the time the wedding comes along.

Sometimes, after I write these random journal/diary-like entries, I wonder what you readers think of them. So please, tell me. Do you hate them? Want me to focus more? What do you want?

I can’t promise I’ll give up these random here’s-what’s-going-on-in-my-brain posts, but if you hate them, I can limit them for sure. Or warn you at the beginning of the post.

Okay, the steak beckons.

Random thought…thoughts

For a Monday I wasn’t as productive as I would have liked. Still, I got some writing done, both fiction and personal.

Lately, I’ve been reading the letters that writers like Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson wrote to their wives and I think that this is where some of their best writing was. It’s overwritten yes, but it’s good and when you read these letters, they move you. Most of these letters were written before they were famous and I wonder if they wrote these letters hoping they’d be found and published. Probably not, they were just good writers. If they were writing in the hopes the letters too would be published it would make me sick. There is only so much narcissism a person can take.