Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Process, or, Cate Hates Craft Books

Thanks to some excellent teamwork between Dunes Review, the official publication of Michigan Writers, and Traverse City's Brilliant Books, the unofficial coolest bookstore around, I was recently able to participate in both an in-store reading and an online interview as the author of a poem--"Rn (86)"--featured in the most recent issue of Dunes. Caitlin Marsh, the social media manager at Brilliant Books, gave me the option of answering some or all of the questions she posed, and I exercised my right (write?) to ignore a few of them, because I didn't think I had good answers. They were all about the writing and manuscript-sharing parts of being a writer.

Turns out I hate to talk about process, because it's boring. Not unimportant, mind you: mundane, uneventful. This is probably why I rarely made it to the end of any craft book ever assigned to me (five years out of grad school, now I can say things like this with impunity). Except for John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist. Fuck that book, which I stopped reading on its own (lack of) merit.

This is undoubtedly coming across as a little hypocritical of me, seeing as how much of my blog content stems from me trying to give advice about how to write. But I'm doing it in a way that makes sense to me: a little at a time, one topic at a time, not unlike the way Writer's Digest and other periodicals address craft. Too much, and it feels either preachy or stifling.

But I recognize two things here: first, that process IS important to all of us who write, and we can't ignore it. Second, that writers are lucky to have people who can--and are willing to--talk about it so we can deepen our understanding of the writing life. Many thanks to those people (yes, even John Gardner). You do important work, even if some of us are stubborn about addressing it.


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Season's Greetings from Retail Land

Throughout my working life, both in retail and academia, I've endured any number of indignities: long hours, truncated lunch breaks, dirty looks, and the like. About two months into my most recent retail experience, however, I was on the wrong end of the worst insult I've ever received on the job.

Let me preface the insult itself by saying that I work in the beauty industry, and of course my employer has a makeup dress code, so I put a full face on every time I'm scheduled. Also, if you've ever met me, you already know the next part: I suffer from what the kids call Resting Bitch Face, and it's genetic; both of my parents look perma-stern. I've accepted this part of myself and moved on with my life. Some people, however, apparently have not.

This terrible customer, for example.

After insulting my brand, holding up my line, threatening me with a mention of my manager, and then berating me for not doing something I was explicitly trained not to do, one disgruntled customer decided that I was smirking at her, and the conversation took a turn for the even worse.

Cate: That's just the way my face looks.
Customer: Well, it's a terrible face for selling beauty.

Yes, the woman actually said this to me. But I have to be honest with you here. The insult itself is not what I found outrageous in this situation. Rather, it was her sense of entitlement. 

I'm not even going to expand on this, except for adding a single comment: DO NOT BE THAT CUSTOMER. Retail workers deserve better than that, and you were almost certainly not raised to be such a piece of trash, especially during the upcoming holiday season.

Please and thank you, from all of us to you.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

From Whence You Came

My father recently asked me a question that I have sometimes mulled over privately, but which I never expected to have to answer for realsies, given my level of absolute non-fame: do you consider yourself a Southern writer?

First, some background. Some of you know that while I was born in North Carolina, I was raised in Michigan, yet I have also spent the bulk of my adult life living and working primarily in the South (specifically, North Carolina and Louisiana). As a result, I've often--sometimes inadvertently--been immersed in the world of Southern literature or Southern writers. However, I've also spent a great deal of time around New England (particularly Boston) writers because of my grad school experiences.

Also, there is some debate about what constitutes Southern literature, because there is much debate about what actually constitutes the South. The Line isn't always the most effective way of answering this, because there are many out there who will swear to you that Kentucky, Virginia, and even North Carolina aren't really Southern states. Then there is the issue of Maryland, which is tricky because it is now Northern in character but historically was considered Southern.

So how do we categorize someone like Edgar Allan Poe? Personally, I don't consider him to be a Southern writer, but I suspect that he would categorize himself that way, given the opportunity. Meanwhile, I absolutely consider Mark Twain to be a Southern writer, although he spent most of his life in Missouri, Connecticut, and various Northern cities (with stops in California).

As far as that goes, who do we consider to be American writers? Sylvia Plath provides a good example for this question: undeniably American (born, raised, and partly educated in Massachusetts) and influenced in part by other Boston Writers (such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton), yet entrenched in British life (studying and living out the most prolific part of her career in England) and surrounded by English and Irish writers (Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney) while still communing with other expatriates (like WS Merwin). Most people would probably categorize her as American, although there is also a case to be made for her as an English writer.

A similar debate can be had about Gertrude Stein, another famous expat. She was American by birth but dwelled in France for much of her life. If anything, I would think the best designation for her is international, as she spent her time moving in artistic circles populated by people from many countries, including America (Ernest Hemingway), France (Henri Matisse), and Spain (Pablo Picasso), among others.

My basic response about my own situation was, "I don't think anyone has ever accused me of being a Southern writer, and I hope they never do." This has nothing to do with my opinion of Southern literature, which I appreciate and sometimes even love (here's looking at you, Faulkner). Rather, it has to do with my perception of myself as well as my priorities and my style. I would categorize myself as a Michigan writer, and a proud one.

What other people call me is, ultimately, their business, I suppose, but I feel like I would be vocal about this one thing, were I in a position to do so, because I do have strong feelings about it. But on the other hand, it's nice just to be called a writer at all, even if I sometimes have trouble giving myself that designation (in spite of my enormous ego and repeated declarations on this blog). 


Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Awhile back, Dad and I went to hear a panel discussion/reading by authors from the anthology And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017. It was a good time, and if any of the authors happen to come through your town, I recommend hearing what they have to say if you are at all interested in the UP or Michigan writing in general.

During the event, one of the authors mentioned that he is always eager to get back to Detroit; he appears to have arrived at a point in his life where he wants to be back in HIS PLACE, which I absolutely understand. Later that night, Dad asked me about this, and I realized something I've never really considered before: homebodiness can take two distinct forms.

The first, of course, is homebodiness of the house, or what we think of as the classic homebody--in other words, someone who enjoys being in their home, would rather stay in than go out, and enjoys solitude. I am this type of homebody at least 80 percent of the time.

The other variety is homebodiness of place--in other words, someone who wants to spend their time in their neighborhood or city (or, I suppose, even specific other places, like a theater or library). The author mentioned above is of the second type.

When I consider it, I'm surprised by the number of people I know who could be categorized as homebodies. But the more I think, the more I realize it's probably a lasting effect of our tribal past: staying in the same location because we know it's familiar and safe.

This isn't a criticism at all; I think it's very beneficial to have a connection to your surroundings, as you can be an effective guide to visitors or transplants, are more likely to keep your dollars in your area and thereby support its economic development, and build a stronger personal community for yourself.

So yes: I am all for homebodiness of place!