Happy President’s Day, Here Is Some Knowledge About Washington and Lincoln

(George Washington & Abraham Lincoln. You were expecting someone else?)

Lately, I have been paying my rent by ghostwriting history books for a an independent Kindle publisher. I say “ghostwriting”, but, as a friend pointed out, it is technically just authorship without royalties. Once a month, I crank out 35,000 words on a topic set by the publisher, researched for its marketability: the Third Reich, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War. The publisher picks my nom de plume. It’s always a man’s name, by the way, in case you thought sexism was dead.

The publisher pays me more than he pays his other writers—$500 to their $300. This is because the skill level of the average Kindle writer-for-hire hovers somewhere just above blatant illiteracy. I would know, because most of my other gigs involve editing these books. I get paid more than the next slob because, as I pointed out to the publisher, he saves the price of a proofreader on my writing.

Look, it isn’t easy to find freelancing gigs that pay biggish lump sums of cash. The $500 I get for writing a crap history book once a month pays my rent. And it only takes me about half the month to write it, if I hustle, so I have time left over to make money for things that aren’t rent, and to write for my personal projects. I consider my writing these books partly a humanitarian project: when I accepted the offer to write the book on the Third Reich, it was because I was genuinely frightened that it would otherwise get written by a literal neo-Nazi. The direct-to-Kindle publishing world is, like most dark corners of the internet, a dank, humid breeding ground for crazies. I edit a conspiracy theory manual and at least three crank health fad books every month.

So what’s the pay-off for me, apart from being able to pay my rent without having to leave my bedroom and the company of my cat? Well, so far, it involves being able to write off history books on my taxes, and getting to know George Washington and Abraham Lincoln really well. In fact, my due date for the Lincoln book was February 12th—Lincoln’s birthday.

Anyway, since today is President’s Day (for non-Americans, a holiday normally commemorated by mattress sales) I thought I would share my new knowledge about our two most famous presidents. In no particular order, then:

1.) Washington and Lincoln were both ambitious as fuck. They knew exactly how talented they were, and they knew that their states and their countries would be better off with them in charge.

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The 2015 Good Things Jar

I have traditions now. Which is strange to me, because the very idea of doing the same thing over and over again used to freak me out, be it from day to day or year to year. Literally every mental health professional you talk to will emphasize the value of routines in maintaining mental health. But the idea used to make me panic. It was like I’d channeled so much energy into making myself infinitely adaptable to handle the chaos in my life that I’d never learned how to function without chaos.

I also felt rebellious about the notion of routine/tradition/orderly time management because in my imagination it felt so much like submitting to the control of another person. Why? Leftover teenage hypersensitivity, I suppose. Gradually, it dawned on me that establishing some repetition in my life, along lines I was comfortable with, was actually a way of taking things back into my own control. Seems obvious enough, but you try reasoning with my panicky hindbrain some time.

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I’m really proud of the things that I’ve managed to accomplish this year. Which is nice, because pride in myself is not something I’ve felt for a long time. I wrote about some of them in my recent Medium post, but apart from major life events like starting a freelancing career, I’m also proud that I kept a daily planner all year long, and made a 10 point to-do list nearly every day. When I close that planner for the last time tonight, I’ll be able to look back through it and see exactly what I did with my life over the last 365 days. I’ve never been able to do that before.

A lot of good things happened to me this year. I can tell, because for the last few months, I’ve been having trouble stuffing any more folded-up sticky notes in my Good Things Jar. When I first started keeping the Jar last year, I intentionally picked a tiny one. My life was a wreck, I reasoned, and my pathetically small quantities of goodness would seem less pathetic in a smaller jar.

I think I’m going to graduate to a larger jar in 2016. Maybe a Mason jar. We’ll see.

The Second Annual Reading of the Good Things Jar

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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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The 2014 Good Things Jar

I can’t remember where I got the idea now, but it was almost certainly from a Tumblr post with eighty thousand reblogs or something. I didn’t save the link.

The project was to write down everything good that happened to you over the course of the year on small slips of paper. You put them in a jar, watch the jar fill up as the months pass, and then open the jar and read everything back on the 31st of December.

I really like these kinds of  incremental, year-long projects. In 2013 I did the one where you take a photo every day (and made it as far as July!). I wanted to do this one, but the way the last few years have gone for me, I knew there was a chance that my results at the end of the year might be disappointing.

So, I did the clever thing, and used a really small jar.

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(I’m not sure what else you’d keep in a jar that size apart from folded up post-it notes Pickled quail’s eggs maybe?)

It’s like how eating from a smaller plate makes it look like you’ve got more food on it. I can truthfully say that I filled my jar up! I could have squeezed some more in there, but I think I made a respectable showing, especially since the jar was packed away with all the rest of my things between April and June. It’s also worth pointing out that I didn’t write down every single that made me happy, like “today the froyo place had marshmallow creme!”, even though marshmallow creme is very important to me. I saved the jar for the things that were extraordinarily nice. Some of them are more private than others, but here are the highlights.

4 January – I saw Rachel today for the first time in ages and met her daughter Hannah for the first time. 

4 February – My productivity system is working. I read and write and do things every day.

March 17 – Saw the Welcome to Night Vale live show in Durham.

30 August – My essay was accepted for publication by The Toast.

13 September – 15,000 words on the new novel in four days.

17 September – Rachel came to stay for the weekend . We drove new places, had good food and alcohol, and good conversations.

31 October – Discussed Measure for Measure with a group of cool, smart people.

14 November – My roommate Nitah invited me to be a surprise witness at her wedding.

8 December – Sold another essay to The Toast, will appear in March.

15 December – Found a home for the support group I started.

17 December – Got two bags full of Christmas presents from an anonymous family who “adopted” me through my therapy clinic.

I regret that I didn’t make a point of digging the jar out and keeping up with it while I was moving place to place over the spring and summer. On the one hand, that was definitely the low point of the year, but I’m sure nice things must have happened to me. That’s the point of the jar–to preserve the memories of the small things you’ll forget about otherwise.

I did take some pictures while I was traveling, though. This one is the hotel room where I lived in Richmond, Virginia for two weeks.

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Living there was awfully depressing, but the photograph makes me feel like there was something interesting about it, maybe in a mid-century male novelist travelogue sort of way.

I plan to start the jar over tomorrow. I actually got a bunch of glass jars for Christmas; maybe this time I’ll be optimistic and go for a bigger one.

Happy New Year’s to everyone, and may your projects yield fruit.

my dear acquaintance, a happy new year

It’s Christmas day, the chief delight of which, for me, is that Christmas is now practically over. I can finally stop stiff-upper-lipping it and settle in to enjoy my actual favorite time of year: New Year’s.

New Year’s has been my preferred holiday since 2010, when I made a resolution for the first time (finish my novel by May) and succeeded in keeping it. Also, my birthday is on the 22nd. Having a January birthday kind of reinforces the sensation that everything starts over fresh in the first month of the year.

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(The author’s mental image of January, as a concept. Peaceful, no?)

2014 was a strange year for me. I remember it starting off well. I did a lot of reflecting last Christmas, and I came to some sobering and potentially useful realizations about myself. It felt like the beginning of a new period of sanity. I was optimistic about what the next twelve months would bring.

That didn’t last.

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In the Bleak Midwinter

1. If you’re going to write about Christmas, you have to pick a side: pro or anti. Indicate that you are “meh” about Christmas, or that you can “take it or leave it”, and no one will believe you, not really.

2. The Christmas that you were 6 years old, you had trouble finding your shoes when it was time to leave for the 10 hour drive to your grandmother’s house. You nearly cried because you believed your parents when they said the trip would have to be cancelled because of your shoelessness.

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3. You were 12 when the big annual Christmas trip to Kentucky became something to dread rather than look forward to. There was an overlapping church retreat you wanted to go to instead that year. Presents were less exciting than people for the first time ever.

4. By high school, you were dreading Christmas so much that you gave all your friends your grandmother’s address and made them promise to write during the week you were gone. This was 1997; your grandmother wouldn’t have internet for another decade.

5. The first Christmas after you started college, you got presents for everyone, joined in the cooking, and tried to act like an adult. It lasted until the first time your mother ordered you to do something, and you found out that nothing makes you act like a child as much as being treated like one.

6. The Christmas your uncle was home on a brief leave from Iraq, you gave an Oscar winning performance of a person who was enjoying herself. It was so good, there were moments when you forgot you were faking.

7. When you were 27, your cousin and her friend took you to a bar and a drag revue on Christmas night. You had 6 Irish car bombs and didn’t throw up. It’s still the best Christmas you’ve ever had.

8. The first Christmas you didn’t go see your family, the complex was so deserted you felt like the sole human survivor of the apocalypse. While your roommate was away, a cat came to visit. You ended up naming him Beau and keeping him hidden in your room for the next six months.

9. The next time you went home for Christmas was the last.

10. Last Christmas, you were dating someone, and you got the world’s most amazing Christmas package in the mail, complete with a stuffed stocking. You lied and told her you wouldn’t look in the stocking until Christmas morning, but you were too excited to wait.

11. These days, your Christmas traditions involve dropping roommates off at airports. You make hot buttered rum and watch all the QI Christmas specials in a row. Your favorite part is digging out the ornament collection you’ve been working on since you were six and decorating a tiny tree.

12. The really difficult thing about Christmas is that it’s no longer the time of year when everything stops in its tracks for a week. You don’t go new places or see new people. Your life carries on the way it did the week before and the way it will the week after, unless you make yourself stop. And it’s difficult to stop, or see the point in stopping, when you’re alone. Are you happier alone? Usually, you think so. On the whole, you probably are. But there’s no point pretending it’s a normal day, and anyone who tells themself otherwise is selling something.