What Kay meant to me – June 7, 2017

I knew of Kathryn Stripling Byer long before I ever had a conversation with her. Back in 2001, when I was a freshman at WCU, Kay was something of a superstar to baby English majors and aspiring writers like me. Long before I ever spoke to Kay, I fantasized about impressing her, winning her approval. I had never met a “real” writer before I came to Western, let alone a woman who had been published and honored for writing about the mountains. To me, Appalachia was not a fitting subject for poetry–it was simply the backwards part of the country where my ancestors had settled after the Revolution, that my parents and aunts and uncles had fled in search of better jobs, greater prosperity.

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At Western, naturally, those particular cobwebs got swept from my brain quickly enough. I was exposed to a wider world of literature there, and for the first time my ears were unstopped to the music of my grandmother’s dialect and my father’s accent. And I drew new life and strength from the mountains that surrounded WCU’s campus, connecting for the first time to the natural world that had sheltered my ancestors since they first came to the New World. Alongside all of this, at WCU, I was supported for the first time in my life by people who understood and encouraged my determination to be a writer. When it came time for me to return to my parents’ home in Raleigh at the end of my freshman year, I was sick with dread at leaving it all behind.

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The Productivity Paradox

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I’ve been thinking lately about how my writing career, such as it is, came into being. I’m pretty satisfied with the state of my writing life at the moment: with one essay due to come out soon, another in submissions, and a third in progress, plus an ongoing novel, I’m about as productive as I’ve ever been.

I pay a lot of attention to what other writers are doing as well. One of the nicest thing that’s happened to me in the last twelve months is that I’ve joined an email group comprised mostly of women who write for new media. A side effect of this is that I read a metric fuck-ton of essays and articles every week.

One particular theme comes up in those essays a lot—a theme that intrigues me, because I personally can’t relate to at all. People call it different things. Esmé Wang, a writer and entrepreneur whose work I admire a lot, calls it “hustle”, in this fantastic essay for Elle about the effect of chronic illness on productivity. I tend to think of it as the productivity paradox.

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Perils of the night

On a very old website of mine, I hosted the text of some writing I’d done in college–twelve years ago, that was what passed for my professional portfolio. I happened to be looking at the site today and I found that one of the pieces I’d uploaded was a meditation I’d been asked to write for a Wednesday evening Advent service at St. David’s, the church I attend when I’m in Cullowhee.

 

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I’ve copied the meditation here, under the read more. I was nineteen when I wrote it, halfway through my second year of college.

Reading it over this morning for the first time in over a decade, I felt a bit breathless. It just so happens that I’ve been more than a little preoccupied with themes of shame and judgment lately. If I didn’t know that writers frequently write things that are wiser than they are, I would be tempted to think I was much smarter 14 years ago than I am now. In some ways, I probably was.

My favorite thing about the Advent service that year was hearing the Collect for Aid Against All Perils for the first time, read out in a dark sanctuary lit by candles:

“Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers and this nigh, for the love of thy only son our savior, Jesus Christ.”

Every time I read that, I think about the scene in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising where Will and Merriman have to battle the powers of the Dark in an old church around Christmas.

The build-up to Christmas, to say nothing of the holiday itself, is a conflicted time for me, as it is for a lot of people. But this is my favorite part of it.

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Rage: A Calming Meditation

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Deep down, I know that I am a deeply angry person. But something happened this morning that ended up leading me down a twisty little thought-maze: why does my seething inner cauldron of rage rarely ever boil over onto individual human beings?

On reflection, I think it’s because I’m a big believer in managing your own expectations. I consider this a personal responsibility on par with saving for retirement.

This is how it works: any time I start an optimistic new endeavor, I set aside a certain percentage of that optimism for a rainy day. Especially when the sky is clearly cloudy. I happen to think that surprise is the root of most of my own interpersonal distress, and that anything that comes as a shock hurts me worse than identically unpleasant events that I’ve taken care to be emotionally prepared for. This isn’t always possible in a random universe, but it’s possible on more occasions than you might realize.

Say, for instance, that you’re starting a new job. Day one rolls around, and you find out the guy in the next cubicle has unsavory personal habits, like listening to aggressive drive-time talk radio shows. Later in the week you overhear him making racist comments about a co-worker. Are you going to waste your time clutching your pearls, or are you going to roll your eyes and file an anonymous complaint with HR?

I’m just saying, there’s no point getting angry with a professed Rush Limbaugh fan for saying racist shit. You might as well get mad at a dog for licking his testicles. Why does your dog still have testicles? What kind of irresponsible, non-neutering dog owner are you?

Taking steps to check someone’s bad behavior isn’t the same thing as wasting your precious personal energy in getting angry with them. You should save your anger for things that deserve it. Things like inanimate objects that fail to perform the function they were designed for.

This post was inspired by the fact that I hit my forehead on the corner of my bedroom door as I was cleaning out the cat’s litter box this morning. First, there was pain; then, there was rage beyond measure. I slammed the door harder than I’ve ever slammed a door in my life. A few seconds later, I was calm again.

Not once in my 33 years on this earth have I ever slammed a door because a human being pissed me off. But I have frequently slammed doors because the door pissed me off.

The logic at work here is impeccable. I don’t get angry with people because I take it as read that people are not to be relied upon. This is not cynicism! This is basic respect for human flexibility. People are complicated, and their lives are full of unlooked-for variables. Any intelligent person is going to change their opinion, or their course of action, based on new information and new circumstances. We’re adaptable creatures. People who remain fixed points in a changing age are blockheads. I take care not to associate with blockheads.

Inanimate objects, on the other, are meant to be relied upon. That is literally the reason they exist. A person who decides that a career in A/C repair is not for them is noble and brave for starting a new life as an interior designer. An air conditioning unit that decides not to cool your house in hot weather is scrap metal.

I maintain that there is no more worthy object of furious, blistering anger than a functional object that ceases to function. How dare it? It literally had one job. Failure to perform that job is a betrayal, and that object deserves the fate of all traitors, which is to be wiped off the face of the earth and blotted from memory.

If you’re my friend, and you call me at two in the morning in tears because your significant other is leaving you, I am going to listen with quiet sympathy. I will be thinking things like, You knew she was allergic to cats when you met her, and other justified sentiments that boil down to “what did you expect?”, but I’m not going to say any of them out loud. Because you’re a human being, and you’re complicated, and even assholes like me can have social skills.

But if I’m borrowing your car, and the car breaks down on the side of the road while I’m ten miles from home, then I’m sorry. Your car is now a rusting pile of component parts at the bottom of a ditch. That’s because I tore it apart with my bare hands. But I’m sure you won’t be angry about that, because now you’ve read this blog post, so you knew what to expect when you loaned it to me.

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Brittany’s car is currently an intact pile of rusting parts stranded at a friend’s house because she lacks the money to have it repaired by people who have more patience for non-functional inanimate objects than she does. If you enjoyed this post, please considering throwing a couple of bucks in the hat to help make it function again, as God intended.

Genre Writer

When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but not any particular kind. I wrote all sorts of different stories as a teenager, and the only goals I had were to entertain myself and to make my friends laugh and flail their arms and demand more.

My first novel, composed at age fifteen, was a magical girl story with heavy anime influences. The main character was an immortal queen whose life was tied to the life of the land she ruled. I was especially proud of the three crucifixions in the last chapter.

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(Anime was really fucked up in 1997, just saying.)

Another story followed the adventures of four young women, all thinly veiled portraits of me and my friends as adults, as they pursued successful careers in the arts in New York City. Another was a hardboiled mystery featuring a main character who was basically the Cigarette Smoking Man from the X-Files.

The real headliner of my adolescent writing career was A Society of Like Minds. I started Society the summer of 1998, when I was 16, and I worked on it devotedly over the next two years. Society was a work of historical fiction that reflected my obsession with the English Romantic poets. My characters were all vaguely aristocratic and vaguely scandalous: one had a French opera singer for a wife, one had a mysteriously dead husband, there were rumors of infidelity between sister- and brother-in-law, etc. They all lived together in Florence and had strong feelings about society and God. I am still convinced it is some kind of masterpiece, and I occasionally pour over the old manuscripts with giggling and glee.

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(Remember that time Gabriel Byrne was Byron and Natasha Richardson was Mary Shelley and Julian Sands made out with a woman who had eyes for nipples?)

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A Little Pretender

A few years ago, my mother asked me, rather plaintively, “Don’t you have any happy memories from your childhood?”

I get the feeling that most of my friends, to say nothing of the readers of this blog, will be surprised to hear this, but I think that as a kid I was happy more often than I wasn’t. My childhood, considered as an epoch, was not a happy time, but that just meant that the full force of my infant genius was focused on finding ways to make myself feel better. Kids are more likely to succeed at that than anybody else, I think.

It’s easy to forget that I was ever happy. For a long while I’ve been a bit worried that if I acknowledged having ever been anything other than abjectly miserable prior to the age of 18, the Authenticity Police would swoop in and tear up my abuse survivor membership card. And it’s complicated by the fact that the abuse shaped me in ways that meant that the things that made me happy as a child were a little weird. We’ve already discussed how between the ages of 11 and 13 my chief thrill in life was to contemplate how Anastasia Romanov died alone in the snow. So it’s probably not too shocking that at the age of 7, I spent a lot of time pretending to be Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, scrubbing floors.

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(The only true adaption of A Little Princess is the 1986 version. Accept no substitutes!)

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