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Hard Way on Purpose CoverLord, I lived inside those books.

And they were not books that, conventionally speaking, you would choose to live inside, were you choosing to live inside some books. You would choose smart, new volumes: coffee-table books on hibiscus or vintage Vespas, I think, or you would choose something well glossed and shrink-wrapped, written by someone unthreateningly attractive and slightly more clever than you, someone like, say, Elizabeth Gilbert or Calvin Trillin, with whom you could put up for a while, like a hiking partner on the Appalachian Trail. (Yes: you would choose Bill Bryson.)

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On the morning of September 16, 2013, my writing mentor Les Plesko committed suicide. I heard he fell backwards off the roof of his apartment building. At first, I chose to assume he’d been drunk and walked too close to the edge. I wished I’d been there to catch him. But I learned that when other attempts were unsuccessful, he went to the roof.

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My mother is adamant that I was distraught the evening my father committed suicide. I have no recollection of that. She insists I continued to be very upset the next day. I have no recollection of that either.  In my mind I was stoic, calm, in control, but the events during that time don’t exist in my memory on any type of continuum or even as full scenes. Rather they are present as moments that stand out against a blurry backdrop, so it is possible she is right. I begin to lose details just seconds after my sister finished saying the three words she had called to relay: “Dad shot himself.”

seattle-awp-starbucks-logoThis week in Seattle (Feb. 26 to March 1), at the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 writers will congregate in what has become the largest such literary gathering in America. There will be more than 450 panels on every aspect of professional advancement, and a bookfair hosting more than 650 exhibitors, each of whom will pay a hefty fee to be seen among fellow indie presses. A parallel conference of countless off-site events will occur simultaneously, so that anyone with any gumption will have an opportunity to read and promote themselves.

15,000, you say? Does that boggle the mind? Do the colossal numbers to which this professional guild has grown signify the health or sickness of writing?

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The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself.  —Charles Darwin, “Voyage of The Beagle”

 

After my father died, we left New Jersey with its death and dying and cold winters and fled to Southern California. We were the three of us in a station wagon—my mother, my sister, and I, and it was a simple case of “should we turn left or right?” Which, I’ve come to realize, is the way most of life works.

If you’ve been online at all in the last several years you’ve probably noticed something: everyone is outraged. We’re offended, constantly, about everything. Social media has birthed this bizarre hazing ritual of unmasking and publicly shaming people who say idiotic things; a growing quota of our online activity involves participating in these social smugathons where crowds gather to cast moral aspersions on the hapless rube who did something awful that week. Outrage is a milieu in which we’re engaging others, and our boundless hunger for schadenfreude demands that we toss a new victim into the volcano every several days to keep the conversation going. It’s exhausting.

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In November of 2004, I was getting my BA in Feminist Studies and debating if I should move to Canada because, really America, another four years of W? Ugh. Aside from the anti-Bush sentiments slapped on my truck–“The Only Bush I Trust is My Own” (and underneath that I wrote “and my girlfriend’s”), “Not My Government” and “F the President”–some of the other bumper stickers on the tailgate of my black Ford Ranger were:

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I have never come extremely close to dying—let me just say that up front. I have been very sick and in very bad situations, but my body has never begun the process of actually, physically failing.

Thirteenth Note

By Art Edwards

Essay

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When I started playing bass guitar at fourteen, I had it in my head to do something revolutionary with the instrument. I’m sure I was like other kids in the eighties who bought axes and imagined they’d summon their inner Eddie Van Halens to become some kind of wunderkind. The path to this land for me was murky, but the end result—being crowned the Undisputed King of the Bass—was clear. I had only one clue to finding this Valhallic destination, and that was the thirteenth note.

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I live in an incredible area. It’s a tough inner city hood boasting an elite private boys school, where doss houses sit alongside mansions and where strip clubs jostle with Portuguese butchers. Six months ago, one of those strip clubs, the iconic Sydney institution, the Oxford Tavern, closed down.

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January is a month for beginnings. This isn’t a new concept, nor is it one that I’ve ever particularly subscribed to: calendar dates are mostly arbitrary, rarely aligning with actual historical events and watershed moments. The president was inaugurated, again; the trees remained bare and scrawny; winter quarter at the university commenced. For me, though, two very new sensations appeared: my arms and legs began to shake uncontrollably, vibrating as if by some odd, latent tic; and I became convinced that I didn’t exist.

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SUE: For a couple of years I was having these episodes where I felt like I was dying. I couldn’t breathe; my heart would race. I went to the hospital something like five times, a couple by ambulance. They’d check me out and tell me I was fine.

 

JEFF: I was in Canada shooting a documentary on hookers. I was lonely as hell, isolated, and I started drinking. I know I shouldn’t. I get out of control. I’m self-destructive. One night, I wrote drunken Facebook messages to people I’d done stand-up comedy with, comedians I hadn’t spoken to in years. I also wrote Sue. I’d always liked her. I was pulled to her the second I saw her. I’d never said even a hundred words to her. Hammered, I unleashed: “I fucking love you! You belong to me, bitch! You…Are…My…DESTINY.”

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First mammogram.  The machine’s clear plates squeeze in on my right breast.  A sticker clings just above the nipple.  Extreme’s “More Than Words” plays in the radiologist’s office.  I laugh when I should be holding my breath.  We have to start over.  One, two, three, now don’t breathe, the technician says.  She’s not laughing, anyway.  And she didn’t laugh when I told her that the sticker she applied, at a glance, looked like a sound-effects splat in a comic book – kapow!  The sticker marks the place where my doctor, one week prior, found something under her rolling fingertips.

Right there?

Right there.

bellocqsadeleCarriSkoczekTwenty years ago I published my first book with a small press, and it won an award my hometown newspaper described as “the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award.” My father still thinks that’s the award name, though he says The Prestigious Flannery O’Connell Award. All writers hope that getting their first book published will change their lives. It does, variably. I got a teaching job, also firsthand insight that hardly anyone reads a small press book with a good award except writers and aspiring writers—especially an aspiring writer enrolled in your class and perhaps his mother. One day a student a few years younger than me told me his mother had read my book. I braced myself. I was in one of my grim starter marriages, and my grim father-in-law had weighed in. He’d skimmed my book and grimaced. “Trying too hard to be naughty.” He compared me unfavorably to Shakespeare, whom he couldn’t have read closely.  “Why sex?”

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I first learned to knit while living in Dublin, Ireland the fall after my mother died. I was 20 years old and felt profoundly alone in the world for the first time. Having suffered a dance-related injury to the point I couldn’t walk, and stuck living with my elderly Auntie Peggy and the few books she kept on hand, I was bored out of my mind. To pass the hours and to get to know each other, she suggested we knit. It sounded like a terrible idea to me – I have not the smallest bit of patience and was sure I’d fail miserably at the project. But stranded as I was in a foreign country with only two television stations and a raft of religious books to distract me, I became willing as only those who have no other options become willing.