I don’t wanna.
What do you want to do instead?
Go back to sleep? Check emails? Have a snack? Watch TV?
I could apply to jobs. That’s productive.
What kind of jobs?
I don’t know.
What do you like doing?
Teaching creative writing.
Then be a goddamn creative writer, and do your creative writing.
Is it too late to become a lawyer or something?
But I can’t write. Nobody’s telling me how.
They’re not going to. You have to figure it out for yourself.
But I can’t figure it out.
Then the book won’t get written.
This book is going to suck.
I don’t want it to suck.
You have a choice. You can try writing it, knowing that it might suck, or you can walk away now.
What if I walk away?
You went to school for writing. You went into debt for writing. You told people you were a writer. You wrote stories and got them published. What would people think?
They’d think I was a failure.
Wrong! Nobody cares. You could spend the rest of your life sleeping or snacking or watching television, or even becoming a not very good lawyer, and no one would care. The real question is: What would you think of yourself if you walked away now?
I’d think I was a failure.
So what’s your other option?
I can try writing it, knowing that it might suck.
Right. So buck up, muster a little dignity, and try to finish this fucking thing.
The novel received a starred review in Booklist today! Here it is:
Self-Portrait with Boy | Lyon, Rachel (Author) | Feb 2018. 384 p. Scribner, hardcover, $26.
Lu Rile is a struggling photographer working a series of minimum-wage jobs to pay for film and the rent for loft in a converted warehouse in early 1990s New York City. As an artistic exercise, she challenges herself to create a self-portrait a day. Self-Portrait #400, taken in front of her window, accidentally includes a child falling to his death from the building’s roof. Lu is horrified by the photo but also immediately recognizes that it is the best work she has ever made. Intending to show it to the boy’s parents and seek their permission to share the image, she instead finds herself under the weight of greif. Through Kate, Lu secures an opportunity to exhibit the photo and launch her career, but doing so will mean destroying their friendship. In her gripping first novel, Lyon sympathetically portrays Lu’s struggle to make this impossible decision and to deal with its repercussions.
This Christmas Eve my short story Tripping Sunny Chaudhry was republished in the very awesome Short Story Advent Calendar. It was really exciting to be part of this project. The editor of the calendar, Michael Kingston, kindly interviewed me about the story and my process. And I was amazed to look at Twitter that night and find that none other than amazing comedian Patton Oswalt (!!!) tweeted about the piece:
"Everyone's shitty. Everyone's hurting." If I ever publish a collection of short stories, I want Patton Oswalt to do the blurb on the front.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn included Self Portrait with Boy among their roundup of novels to read in 2018! They write: "We’re always up for novels dealing with artists and the ethical quandaries in which they find themselves, and Rachel Lyon’s debut falls squarely into that category. Throw in a detailed portrait of 1990s New York, and you have our full attention."
I woke up this morning to find that me and my book appear in a lovely little feature in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, or PAW. A few of my cohort acquaintances have been featured in PAW over the years, for instance my good friend the comedienne Nikki Muller, and the remarkable playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. As a second-generation college graduate who had a difficult time in college, I feel a particular kind of emotion appearing alongside them in these pages.
What is such an emotion called? It's similar to how I felt sixteen years ago (!) when I was informed of my acceptance into that elite school in the first place. It's more complicated than gratification, prouder than humility, sadder somehow than pride. Perhaps there is a German word for it: the feeling of having been welcomed into a club where you never thought you'd be a member.
Switching perspectives in the close-third person—"She liked his voice" followed by "He didn't tell her…" a paragraph later—is generally thought of as a kind of crime in creative writing classes, and indeed many beginning students do it unwittingly. But Min Jin Lee does it so frequently—and deliberately, and gracefully—throughout this beautiful book that it becomes a kind of style.Read More
A little over a year and a half ago, my friend Rachel and I did an interview together for Luna Luna about our partnership in accountability. Rachel lives in France; I live in New York. We are partners in accountability. We write emails back and forth between languages and time zones, to cheer each other on and hold ourselves accountable on our respective creative projects.
It's amazing how effective it has been for me to have a partner in accountability, particularly one as inspiring as Rachel. Over the course of maybe 200 emails, from November 2015 to today, we have kept track of our goals and accomplishments, small ("I want to email this person I know," "I organized my files") and large ("I'm planning on traveling to a refugee camp for research," "I sold my first book!"); concrete ("I assembled all these pieces into one portfolio," "I got a rug for my writing room!") and abstract ("I want to get through this mucky feeling," "I want to purify my language"). We have read each other's lists and encouraged each other, even if all we have time to write is, "Awesome! Way to go!" I really believe it's due in part to our correspondence that I ever finished my first book.
Still there have been long lapses between letters. Months have gone by with no accountability emails at all. But then one or the other of us will feel the need to share what we are up to, and we will pick up the thread again, or start a new one. Today we find ourselves in the first few episodes of Accountability Institute, Season 3. I like thinking about our project as happening in seasons, like a television show. Our characters have developed. New narrative threads have unfolded.
The simple act of writing to a dear friend about what I want to do makes me feel as if I can do it, which means I am far likelier to. And yet sometimes I find it difficult to pick up that thread, or even to respond, although I want to. What is that about? Why would I avoid something that's so productive and enriching?
I guess it can be overwhelming to take stock of all the things I want to do. It can be embarrassing to realize that I've dropped the ball on this or that longterm goal. It can be frustrating to feel as if I haven't made any progress on something or other, frustrating to admit, "I'm stuck on this."
There are ways of getting around those issues. I have to remind myself of them frequently. Here's what works for me: Separate tasks into bullet points. Keep each bullet short. Sort groups of bullets into three categories: Past (Accomplished), Present (Ongoing), and Future (To Do). Account for and celebrate even the tiniest victory. A project needn't be finished to be counted; it is enough to say, "I'm working on it." It's okay to keep a goal in Future (To Do) indefinitely.
This post is copied from my weekly Writing/Thinking Prompts newsletter. Subscribe at tinyletter.com/rachellyon.
It's such a delight to learn a new word. It's also so difficult to keep up with blog posts. After learning the wonderful word "brachiate" last week, I decided to start keeping a vocabulary list, as I used to do in high school. Here are the new words I encountered over the course of the past week, along with, in some cases, the contexts in which I encountered them:
acanthus |əˈkanTHəs| noun 1 a herbaceous plant or shrub with bold flower spikes and spiny decorative leaves, native to Mediterranean regions.acanthus 2 acanthus 2 [via Latin from Greek akanthos, from akantha ‘thorn,’ from akē ‘sharp point.’]
From Counterman, Paul Violi: “The lettuce splayed, if you will, / In a Beaux Arts derivative of classical acanthus”
brachiate verb |ˈbrākēˌāt, ˈbrak-| [ no obj. ] (of certain apes) move by using the arms to swing from branch to branch: the gibbons brachiate energetically across their enclosure.
fleuron |ˈfləränˈflo͝orän| noun a flower-shaped ornament, used especially on buildings, coins, books, and pastry. • a small pastry puff used for garnishing.
From Counterman, Paul Violi: “…form a medallion with a dab / Of mayonnaise as a fleuron.”
kenosis |kəˈnōsəs| noun (in Christian theology) the renunciation of the divine nature, at least in part, by Christ in the Incarnation. DERIVATIVES kenotic |-ˈnätik| adjective ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from Greek kenōsis ‘an emptying,’ from kenoun ‘to empty,’ from kenos ‘empty,’ with biblical allusion (Phil. 2:7) to Greek heauton ekenōse, literally ‘emptied himself.’
From a student: “My most important argument with myself is about self-sacrifice. How much self to let go of. The great religions call for some, idealize complete self-sacrifice here and there. Kenosis.”
pelisse |pəˈlēs| noun historical a woman's cloak with armholes or sleeves, reaching to the ankles. • a fur-lined cloak, especially as part of a hussar's uniform. ORIGIN early 18th cent.: from French, from medieval Latin pellicia (vestis)‘(garment) of fur,’ from pellis ‘skin.’
poltroon |pälˈtro͞on| noun archaic or literary an utter coward. from French poltron, from Italian poltrone, perhaps from poltro ‘sluggard.’
From Jane Eyre: “What a miserable little poltroon had fear, engendered of unjust punishment, made of me in those days!”
sitzfleisch |ˈsitsˌflīSH| noun informal, chiefly US a person's buttocks. • power to endure or to persevere in an activity; staying power.
solander |səˈlandər| (also solander box) noun a protective box made in the form of a book, for holding such items as botanical specimens, maps, and color plates. ORIGIN late 18th cent.: named after Daniel C. Solander (1736–82), Swedish botanist.
"When an ambitious young photographer captures an unthinkable tragedy—and creates an accidental masterpiece in the process—she is forced to make a choice that will define her future.
"Thick with the atmospheric grime of early 1990s New York, Lyon's haunting debut hinges on a single instant: the moment when recent art school graduate Lu Rile, broke and ruthless, sets up her camera for a self-portrait—the 400th in her series—and captures, by chance, the image of a little boy falling from the sky. The boy is Max Schubert-Fine, the 9-year-old son of Lu's upstairs neighbors, and now he is dead, having slipped off the roof of their building, a crumbling Brooklyn warehouse not officially zoned for tenancy. The building's motley crew of residents—all artists; who else could live there?—come together in the aftermath of the tragedy, rallying around Max's beautiful mother, Kate, and offering Lu, until now a loner, something like community. In the weeks that follow, Kate and Lu form an intense and complicated friendship, united in loneliness, held together by a flicker of unspoken attraction. But Lu doesn't tell Kate about the photograph of her son falling, the photograph that could—that will—fundamentally change the course of Lu's career, offering her an escape from both poverty and obscurity, a name and a paycheck. (God knows Lu, whose father is ailing, needs the money.) From its first sentences, the novel is hurtling toward its inevitable and nauseating conclusion as Lu chooses between her friendship and her art, a choice that wasn't ever really a choice at all. More than a book about art, or morality, it is a book about time: Lyon captures the end of an era. Lu, after this, for better and worse, will never be the person she was before the photograph. And as the warehouses get developed and the rents rise, the city won't ever be the same, either.
"Fearless and sharp."
Ryan Sartor, who runs the Difficult To Name reading series, asked me three short questions after I read with his series this past weekend. Read our brief interview about Joyce Carol Oates, Muriel Spark, and the beach: http://www.ryansartor.com/brief-interview-with-rachel-lyon
I've been working really hard on my TinyLetter recently and it's been making me really happy. I have nearly 200 subscribers! Which doesn't actually sound like that much. But considering I don't really promote it or anything, I don't know. It feels good. Last week my grad school friend Ryan Teitman mentioned my TinyLetter in his own TinyLetter, and I got six new subscribers. Two of them were mutual friends/acquaintances of ours from Indiana University. It felt good to see some familiar names, and know that they're interested in what I've got to say.
I feel like my TinyLetter is a good way for me to keep track of what I've been thinking about, and sort of turn my thoughts inside-out. It's also a good way to keep track of what I've been doing in my classes. Most weeks at least one or two people unsubscribe. But often I also get really good responses. Sometimes people write and say that a certain letter meant a lot to them, and it fills me with pleasure and conviction.
Check it out here: http://tinyletter.com/rachellyon
I taught my first class for the School of Making Thinking last week, and we came up with a bunch of categories for types of dialogue. Because there was no chalkboard in our classroom at the Abrons Art Center, I took notes on a big piece of butcher paper. If you are reading this, can you add any other categories to this list?
- Egging On
- Free Association
- Word Salad
The novel is such an imperfect form. It is the sum total of a zillion tiny fragments, gathered over hours and minutes and years. It is like a wall that has been painted and repainted, and repainted again, and again, but only very rarely stripped. I am on draft 3 or 4 or 6 or something—it's hard to keep track—and still I am finding woefully nonfactual details, mismatched leftovers from several drafts ago that no longer go with the document of today.Read More
As I work on edits to my book I've had to do a find-and-replace for the word "water" several times. Going through the left-hand panel on Microsoft Word I found that the incidences made their own sort of poetry.
An incomplete list:
- The uneven basement floor was flooded with puddles of stagnant water that seemed to be generating clouds of mosquitos.
- What I mean is have you heard the seagulls call at the water’s edge in a gray rain?
- Nude, I filled a pot of water and put it on the stove.
- I picked up the pot with two potholders and lugged it back into the studio, careful not to spill any boiling water on my naked skin.
- The water level rose.
- Hot water sloshed onto the floor.
- I hopped back from the scalding water, perspiring heavily.
- I held my dad’s old meat thermometer in the sink, took the temperature of the water, and waited.
- The rice and water came slowly to a boil, and I filled a short glass with ice and a shot of the cheap Polish vodka I kept in the freezer.
- My eyes watered as I tried not to cough.
- Water and snapdragons spilled all over the concrete floor.
- I washed my hands and splashed water on my face without thinking to take off my glasses.
- A catalog from B&H, a water bill, a reminder from my optometrist’s office that it was time to get my eyes checked.
- When I turned around I saw she’d already wandered in, and was browsing the art books lined up on the raw two-by-four shelves I’d bolted into the walls, noting the pot in the sink, encrusted with burnt rice and full of cold soapy water.
- I could make coffee. Wait, no. I’m out of beans. Water, then.
- Water or vodka. Or tea.
- The penthouse was skylit and wood-paneled, and totally incongruous with the tar-topped skyscape of broken windows and water towers that surrounded it.
- Can I get you two anything? A beer? Soda water?
- Got down on my knees and cleaned deep in the cracks between the poured concrete floor, scrubbing with soapy water until they were mud.
- She said, My rent is five hundred. What? I said, laughing. Do you get, like, heat and hot water that the rest of us don’t have? She raised her eyebrows. My smile faded. That son of a bitch, I said.
- I went back in, leaving the front door open, and washed my face, brushed my teeth, and splashed some water in my hair.
- I’d look out at the glowing city as a ferry went by, its lit windows casting unsteady light on the water’s surface.
- The kitchen was clotted with dishes and pots and pans and glasses, the dining table with ten or twelve empty bottles and plates that held the remains of pie and empty ice cream cartons and scattered utensils and more glasses half-full of water or stained with wine.
- The water was frigid so I let it run.
- The water ran ten minutes and never got any warmer.
- She came back out with two glasses of water and set them on the table. I’m sorry, she said, that’s just not good enough.
- The Pontiac's axels whined and water sloshed in the tires as I eased it through the wide and shallow lake of saltwater between the reeds.
- In the rearview mirror, a stretch of wetlands reached out toward a horizon black and jagged with trees, the water afire with sunset sky.
- A cloud passed and clean white sun flooded the sand, refracted off the water.
- As the pharmacist went to work on her prescription she browsed the aisles, picking up and putting down water wings and sunglasses, vitamins and douches, with fidgety disinterest.
- I flipped through the pages. Glossy color photos of young green forests and beaches at sunset. Waterfalls that had been photographed on a long exposure so that their cascades looked soft and blurred as mist. I said, I hope this didn’t cost you anything.
- But my mother. Jesus, my mother. Waterworks the whole fucking time.
- I vomited until I had nothing left. My throat stung, my eyes watered, my hands trembled.
- He began talking very quickly: I was minding my own damn business—listening to a little music, heating up a little water to wash up—when I hear this fucking banging on the door.
- In the dark basement they stepped into a lake of inch-high, half-frozen, stagnant water and a thick layer of stinking smoke.
- The day we had no more hot water, no more heat, that was bad. The day I found roaches in the kitchen, rats under the bed? That was worse.
- The East River is not actually a river at all, but a saltwater tidal strait, all quick dark current glistening under bridges and out to sea.
- In our little castle on a hill we are beholden to several simple guidelines: we must feed the children, of course, and keep them warm in the winter, and provide running water so that they may wash their grubby hands.
- I got as close as I could to the water and looked up and out, skin prickling.
- I kept turning to go, then stopping myself—no, not yet—and turning back toward the water.
- The waterfront property he wants to convert to luxury condos is, unfortunately, infested with tenants and other animals.
- I walked home in a daze, through the lush tree-lined streets of the Heights, down the hill, toward the water.
- They were all drawings and paintings on paper. Many had been done in simple charcoal, but some had been done in tender watercolor, or had wrestled with streaks or splashes of gouache.
At some point, after teaching creative writing for a few years, I decided that for many writers flashback is a crutch, and made a big stink about how I don't like it. I tried to be funny about this, and to roll my eyes at myself when I said so, but basically my message was: don't use flashback within the context of a scene unfolding in present action. It breaks up momentum, and short-circuits the story, telling us things we could fund out in a separate section or in exposition.
Recently, though, I received this question from a student, quoted below with her permission…Read More