12 Amazing Staircases around the world.
LitReactor is rocking it on craft essays. Their most recent newsletter groups together 10 of the best.
Steve Almond’s open letter to his daughter, about love.
Sandie Friedman’s essay on “the unlived life” at The Nervous Breakdown is one of the most affecting pieces I’ve read in awhile. I have very different views on this than Friedman, but her take is enormously sensitive, poignant, and smart.
“Grab the Lapels” is a new online review venue, by and about women writers.
Have a girl-crush on literary agent Nicole Aragi, especially after seeing her in the Vogue spread awhile back? Me too. Here she is, interviewed at Guernica.
Graywolf, Milkweed and McSweeny’s get props in the op-ed, “Book Publishing’s Big Gamble.”
Anis Shivani offers 5 ways to fix publishing.
And then there were these hippies, stranded in Salt Lake City…
So I’m just back from Other Voices Querétaro, and blinking in disorientation. I was in Mexico for a month: two weeks with my family and two other families, all sharing a dilapidated, majestic old house full of chandeliers and leaks; then they all departed and the faculty for OVQ arrived. Things had been looking bleak. Raging forest fires were threatening Pam Houston’s ranch in Crede, Colorado, and for days we had oscillated about whether or not she was coming; finally it became clear that there was no way. Pam’s students tend to have an almost spiritual affinity for her, and to be blunt we were afraid of some kind of mutiny. A whole workshop demanding their money back, getting on the next flight home. Many of them were already in the air by the time we knew for sure that Pam couldn’t show. Rob Roberge and Josip Novakovich were more than game to absorb her students, but when someone has their heart set in one direction, even a Booker Prize finalist can seem like a consolation prize. It was a What Was I Thinking? kind of moment. The house where faculty was living and all the programming would take place was–if fucking gorgeous–kind of a hot mess. Workmen kept appearing with ladders and buckets. The expat house manager was perpetually perched in the dining room babbling on her cell phone in Spanish at the speed of light. Water was falling through the roof of the upstairs bathroom, into the deep, glamorous tub. There were puddles in the kitchen. In Josip Novakovich’s downstairs bathroom, we had to coat the shower walls in plastic because the sandstone tended to fall out in chunks when wet. One day we woke to no water whatsoever. Sometimes, when closing the romantic French doors to the patios in the evening, chunks of wood would fall out on my head…
I’d decided to launch an international writing program last fall. On a lark, suddenly we had a website and applicants. Stacy Bierlein and Rob Roberge, two of the four (remaining) faculty, are pretty much my partners in crime, and it had seemed a fab way for all of us to get to Mexico ensemble. Now Pam wasn’t coming and the house was perhaps not what people were imagining. In the final weeks leading up to the launch, a flurry of people had dropped out due to back injuries, evictions, resurfaced autoimmune diseases–I had consented to return everyone’s money even though common sense would dictate that you don’t get all your money back if you drop out four days before a program starts. Still, common sense wasn’t going to help me look in a mirror. We hadn’t even started yet and it looked like we were going to be in the hole. Rob was refusing to accept any payment. Josip’s salary had been knocked down by two thirds. I had spent money to make money but it didn’t look like that was panning out. The grounds for mutiny by Pam Houston’s students seemed fertile, and I was going to have to eat it, and my husband and friends would shake their heads. This was the first bank account I’ve had in my name alone since I was twenty-two. Clearly there was a reason for that.
Then everyone arrived. And it was one of those things where you have spent months worrying that the plane will go down–that you will never actually land in China and have someone hand you twin babies and say they are now yours–and you realize you’ve spent so much time fixating on what will “inevitably” go wrong that you are not prepared at all for what happens instead. For the whallop of love that knocks you sideways when you have the weight of two babies in pink split-pants squalling in your arms. For the air of excitement and comaraderie when fourteen students from all over the United States show up in Mexico–many for the first time–entrusting their next ten days to you and your colleagues, and ready to offer up their work to you for growth, and ready to cling tight to one another with that manic, accelerated bonding of travel friendships, where layers of skin are peeled off from the get-go. And suddenly, there we all were. We were a program. Rob and Josip were knocking it out of the park, because that’s what they do. Stacy and I were playing Alice from The Brady Bunch, running for pasteries, making copies, gathering dishes, buying wine (with the help of J Ryan Stradal!), and then having panels on publishing in the evenings. Our youngest student celebrated her 19th birthday early in the program. Two women shared antibiotics. Both turned out to have lived through brain tumors…and I had been worried that a few ceiling leaks would fell them. One of them told me that she had at first been thrown and depressed that Pam wasn’t with us, and then realized she had the choice to look at this change of events as an opportunity. The night before the last workshop, she and Rob Roberge, her new workshop leader, sat on the ramshackle marble staircase of our main house talking for about two hours. At the closing night party, several participants read their work aloud for the first time. Emotions were running high. People didn’t want to part from one another. One of the greatest gifts in the world is to have found something good enough to not want to leave it. My Facebook feed was exploding with photos the students had taken of one another, with inside-joke captions. Several of the final readings made me cry. I saw my own longtime assistant, Leah Tallon, in a new light after hearing her work, which she always keeps under self-deprecating lock and key. The thing is…she’s fucking good. She’s whip smart and funny as hell in real life, but her poetry is vulnerable and tender and angry and full of raw beauty. People can surprise you. Situations can surprise you. In the end, the program just about broke even. I didn’t have to pay Pam a salary, but I did have to pay for her hotel room because it was too late to cancel (apparently the hotel manager had no such qualms about looking in the mirror), and Josip and Rob both got more than I had originally planned, and deserved twice what they got. I recouped my costs. Economically, things were pretty much a wash. Emotionally, on the scales that matter, they were anything but. We’re going back next year, and this time maybe the roof will blow off the house and one of the teachers will be in a half-body-cast or something. But there’s an alchemy that happens–a magic–when people who want to create and connect get into the same room, in a new place that compels and confounds them, and I have re-learned to trust it.
Did I mention that on a horseback riding excursion outside San Miguel de Allende, our guide regaled my daughters with tales of local kidnappings, and a horror story about a rancher held for months inside a seven foot box that was brightly lit at all times and blaring music? After we got back to our car, my daughter Madeleine said to me, “Jesus Christ, why would she tell that story to a bunch of kids? Now I have to spend my time imagining being stuck inside a seven foot box!” We learned later that this story is real and some Lifetime (or some equivalent) movie has been made about it. The man and his wife moved to the United States after their ordeal was over, but the wife–after spending months frantically raising the money to free her husband–recently died young of cancer. This story has been haunting me. What people will do to one another. How far we can go before we hit the breaking point. It’s easy to say you’d eat a gun before being kept in a seven foot box for five months, sure. But sometimes there’s no gun in the box. We don’t always get to choose our own limits. There have always been scarier lines to cross than death. Maybe we fear death so much to distract ourselves from that fact.