The Mysteries of Revision

When a former MFA professor asked me to come to her class and speak on revision, I immediately said yes. Not only was she a writer and an academic that I respected, there had been an ongoing, semi-inside, joke between me and some of my MFA cohort members about my desire to be acknowledged by this particular mentor.

And then—naturally, no big deal, so whatever—we’d become friends. I sent those same guys an e-mail with the subject Friendship Update and we all laughed.

The invitation came in January, a solid five months before I’d stand in a room of other writers and talk about revising book-length manuscripts. The length of advance notice seemed like an extravagance. Or at least, enough time that I wouldn’t need to immediately begin preparations.

And in the back of my head, a quiet voice reminded me that I was basically a pro on this topic. I’d revised enough book pages to choke a cow. Or at the very least, enough to feel comfortable putting the presentation on the backburner until, say, a month before I was to make the drive two hours north.

At the time, I didn’t know I would be stuck in the mud of my own revision, struggling with a book that is not only the best thing I’ve ever written, but also carries an immense amount of personal meaning. The other novels I’ve published are by no means lesser. But this one’s been rattling around inside me for fifteen years. It’s ambitious from a craft perspective, but also from a place of my own investment with the story.

For the first time, I felt like I was risking something and it was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

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Courting Babel

This month I thought it would be a good idea to take four hours of Arabic every week and an intensive JavaScript course all while working full-time.

I was nervous about the Arabic, scared that I wouldn’t remember how to read or speak politely after three years away from formal lessons, but strangely, it came right back. Maybe it was the pressure—a nervous stomach that forces letters into words and meanings.

I left the first class feeling happy, my brain overjoyed to have been given what it craves: a problem to solve.

“You’re so strong,” my sister said to me a few weeks ago.

But what I’ve been saying to myself several times a day is: “Natalie, you can’t be scared of everything, all the time.”

Maybe it’s the sudden summer heat, a combustibility that seems to feed a frantic impotence that can turn on a dime into panic, a chain of worry that feeds itself inexhaustibly. Until I’m too exhausted to feel it any longer: a welcome reprieve. [Read more…]

A Prayer for Kendrick Lamar

It occurs to me each time I listen to Kendrick Lamar’s new album, Damn: The award winning and much celebrated rapper laments over and over that he feels like nobody’s praying for him. It’s his greatest fear.

I’m not sure you can listen casually to a Lamar album. Each song demands attention to every word. Each song puts you on edge: Which of Lamar’s personas or characters will speak next? At the sound of Lamar’s anxious voice, we become anxious for some resolution.  It is no time to relax. Too much is at stake. He bends the past, with all of its scars and regrets, and the future, with all of its hopes and fears, into the present. The moment of decision is always at hand.

Lamar guides us along his wayfaring path where confronting his fearfulness shapes a fearsome faith. He shepherds us, trying to “find a way to make it on this earth.” You could say that “Kung Fu Kenny”—Lamar’s new persona—recognizes and seizes life’s opportune moments when he is threatened from both within and without. The problem is Damn provides no easy way. [Read more…]

Muddy River

an image of a black and white subway car moving in a soft blur through a subway station.By Jen Pollock Michel.

It was the summer of Leiby Kletzy, the eight-year-old Hasidic boy kidnapped from his Brooklyn neighborhood in broad daylight and brutally murdered. It was also the summer I almost lost my seven-year-old daughter Camille on a Toronto subway platform.

When I turned, from inside the train, to see my daughter—outside, standing alone—my feet became bricks of indecision. The doors chimed and began closing. A stranger jumped to pry them open, and I pulled her inside, smothering her small body to my chest. She didn’t even know our phone number.

Six years later, I am preparing Camille to ride the subway unaccompanied for the first time. Almost thirteen, she is the happy new owner of a cell phone. “You’re going to have to look for the stairs that say “Northbound’ on the way home,” I say, rehearsing the route she will take home alone.

The train rumbles in as we stand several feet behind the thickly painted yellow line that portends the sheer drop onto the tracks. I imagine the accident, the surprise violence that sends us, unprepared, over its edge. [Read more…]