books i love (#amteaching corner)

Hi friends and readers,

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to describe the books I love. Mostly because of a recent chat I had at AWP, but also because it seems like an important thing to be able to do. The kind of books I like to read are pretty broad in terms of style and genre (and their impact on what I write is very roundabout and wonky), so it’s taken me a while to figure this out. What NEEDS to be there in order for me to really enjoy a book?

There’s been a lot of talk on the twitter and such about what books people shouldn’t enjoy and what it says about them if they do enjoy them, or even if they enjoy decent books for the “wrong” reasons (e.g., liking Lolita b/c Humbert Humbert is an “antihero,” liking Holden Caulfield b/c he’s “relatable”). It’s starting to rub me the wrong way to talk about books like that, not because I’m concerned about the reputation of the guy for whom Chuck Palanhiuk is still super edgy (b/c really, f that guy), but because it develops a habit of defining the positive via the negative. This is a broader trend in the fiction workshop as well. My class typically spends more time talking about how a student’s story fails as opposed to how it succeeds — which is legit, first drafts need work. But when students are talking about why they liked a story, they tend to fall back on personal taste: “I happen to like stories about [x]”; “I have occasionally thought what [x] character has thought”; “I like descriptive writing / fast-paced plots / female protagonists”; etc. In the end, everyone seems to develop an extensive objective vocabulary to talk about all the ways they don’t like a story and maintain a limited and subjective vocabulary to talk about what they do like.

And maybe this is because what someone likes or enjoys reading is perceived as so subjective. I frequently assign students stories and novels I love and it takes them no time at all to come up with reasons why they didn’t like them / were bored by them, and how this or that literary giant failed to produce characters that they, personally, could connect or empathize with. I have been there. I have failed to connect with great writing, have pigeonholed what I love to read into superficial categories, have failed to realize that some of the stuff I thought I was indifferent to did in fact contain the essence of what I love to read, just in a form I didn’t expect and couldn’t see.

For me, what I look for is strangeness. That’s what I really want in what I read, the pleasure and tension in feeling like I’m on unsteady ground, that the world I’m seeing on the page is only a piece of it, that just off the page, hidden from view, is something  frightening or sublime or uncanny or revolutionary. There are endless ways writers can do this. In my literature class, we’ve been reading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is about the interior lives of clones. Clones don’t die; they “complete,” and the enjoyment there is in the chill of that word…a seemingly small but precise neologism that carries with it a massive psychological shift. I love that.

This might explain why I enjoy non-realist narratives so much, though it’s more than a genre thing. I see strangeness as any profound shift in perception, the gap between a character’s consciousness and their reality, the capability of language and the acknowledgement of its failures, the unsaid thing. It’s in the chilly prose of Alice Munro, the surreality of Toni Morrison, the unsettling, co-dependent character dynamics of Katherine Mansfield and Ford Maddox Ford, and all the other authors I enjoy reading, some of whom I learned to enjoy only once I identified the strangeness in their stories. I learned to enjoy poetry by identifying its strangeness, and it’s why poetry that makes any move at all toward platitudes (which are fundamentally un-strange things) loses my interest almost instantly.

And that’s why I go looking for strangeness now.  That’s why I’m tempted to critique students stories by saying, “I wish you’d just go back in and make all of this weirder.” I’m at the point where I feel that a story doesn’t work unless it has this quality, or is working toward it in some way. I’m starting to think you can’t reach toward profundity without also reaching toward strangeness.

I’ll leave y’all with a list of some of my favorites. This doesn’t include books that I love for nostalgic reasons (the Harry Potter series, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens) because I think that’s a different category to be talked about at a later date. There’s also no poetry on here because I’m still looking to expand my poetry repertoire and develop my tastes there. Message me if you have suggestions.

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake | Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others | Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance | Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier | Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God | Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the Day, Pale View of Hills | Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle |Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis | Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom | Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, The Left Hand of Darkness | Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners |  Katherine Mansfield, Stories | Lydia Millet, O Pure and Radiant Heart | David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (currently reading Cloud Atlas, which I’m also loving) | Tony Morrison, Beloved | Alice Munro, Open Secrets, Runaway | Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty, Jane: A Murder | Alissa Nutting, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls | Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories | Ruth Ozeki,  A Tale for the Time Being | Carl Sagan, Pale Blue DotContact | Colson Whitehead, Zone One | Virgina Woolf, Orlando

 

Stay weird, you weirdos,

J

 

 

 

snow sounds and other more important events

Hi friends and readers,

So I’m two weeks in to the spring semester following a long and restful break in North Carolina. The weather on the NC coast was lovely. The weather here in Pennsylvania has been less so, with a snow dump on the first weekend of the semester and a freakish 40 degree spike to follow. In between writing, lesson planning, and KonMari-ing all my dresser drawers, I’m learning to become less startled by the sudden roar of a large sheet of snow rolling off the roof. The first time I heard it, I thought the house was tearing apart.

Fortunately, the house has not torn apart. In fact, everything has gone smoothly this month, with classes off the ground and running. An open schedule in February will give me some time to plan for March, which will be hectic and wonderful and, let’s face it, exhausting. But this is where I’ll be, if you’re curious:

March 7: Charleston, South Carolina. Thrilled to take part in the Crazyhorse Reading Series at the College of Charleston. Thank you, Original Mentor Tony Varallo for helping set this up for me. I can’t wait return to my undergrad campus as an author, and to see all the students who were exactly where I was eleven years ago.

Mar 22-24: Winston Salem, North Carolina. I’ll be teaching a seminar at Press 53’s High Road Festival of Poetry and Short Fiction. My seminar focuses on point of view, one of my all time favorite things to talk about, specifically how to write first-person narrators.

Mar 27-30: Portland, Oregon. The AWP Conference. I will be there this year, rooming with my genius-mentor Joanna Eleftheriou and taking needed breaks from the chaos in the Emily Dickinson Quiet Reading room (yes, they have that). I’m not a fan of these massive conferences — but! Good things abound. Moderator Michael Pritchard brought me on last minute to participate in a panel on historical fiction (I’ll be stepping in for Allison Amend, whose books look fascinating; check her out immediately). I’ll also be selling books there, and plans for a couple other events are in the works, times and locations unconfirmed.

If you’re going to be around for any of these events, I’ll be happy to see your face.

In the meantime, stay strange (and warm)!

JJ

good ambient (#amwriting corner)

Dear friends and readers,

At Allegheny, we are fast approaching that post-semester crunch time, that point where you are tired, and your students are tired, and at the beginning of class you just kind of look around the room at each other with thousand-mile stares. Do we want to talk about point of view again? Anybody?

Fortunately, I’ve got a lighter week coming up — lighter compared to the underground grind it’s been over the past couple months with class prep, and the collection coming out, and rewriting materials for the job market, and screaming inwardly about the job market, and sorting out the details of a new novel project, and rebooting an old novel project, and tending to basic self care, like sleep and showers and socializing with other humans, etc.

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…Actual image of the infinite hellish yaw of work you will never get done…

So in this temporary space of calm, for those who might be approaching a similar period of stress, I want to share some ambient sounds. Ambient has become a weirdly significant part of my working and creative life, and which, in overwhelming moments, either helped me to be productive or chill the f out.

No, not kidding. According to Science™, it can actually lower your blood pressure. And who am I to argue with Forbes?

And I say “ambient sounds” because some would say it really isn’t music. It’s an ambient, and an ambient is not a song. I do like songs — they’re great — I just can’t really work to them because I want to sing to them, and I can’t write my own words while singing someone else’s. There is no urge to sing along to an ambient, as you will see:

 

Nautilus by Loscil

Album: Submers (2002)

This one has a “beat.” That’s unusual for Loscil, whose tracks otherwise give the impression of swimming in a gray sea, which is also haunted. Seriously though, Loscil is some of the best writing ambient I’ve ever come across. There’s just enough sound variation to keep the tracks interesting, and enough tension to keep the ambient from sounding cheesy, or, as one of my friends once put it, “too satisfied with itself.”

 

Microscopic by Gas

Album: 0095 (1995)

Also a good writing ambient. I don’t know why, but I work very productively to anything that sounds like it was made for those science safety videos I watched back in the early aughts in high school. My favorite Gas track is actually “Vapournaut,” which is featured on this album, and nowhere else in the world. It is not even on iTunes, so it may as well not exist.

 

Jupiter by The KLF

Album: Space (1990)

Ok, another obscure thing from the 1990s. The KLF is probably best “known”(?) as a British hip hop/techno/trance duo. This whole album though, each track is a planet (Mercury, Venus, etc.) and it is utterly committed to its subject matter. I especially like the part at the end of this track, where you get a rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” that sounds like it’s being sung by the inter-dimensional space mice from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

Procedural by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Album: Gone Girl Soundtrack (2014)

Fun fact: Trent Reznor attended Allegheny College, which is where I currently teach. This was the only question I could answer at a trivia night consisting entirely of questions about Meadville, PA. (Our team still lost.) But yes, I get excited about a good ambient film soundtrack. Gone Girl and The Social Network are both in my library.

 

Shinsen by Susumu Yokota

Album: Sakura (1999)

A good chill ambient. I like this whole album, though it’s quite varied, and this is the only track that features that creeping, mesmerizing harp. Yokota is probably a better “known” (again ??) ambient artist. Of course, Brian Eno is the big daddy, the visionary who was manually stitching together the choral harmonies in Music for Airports back in the 70s, long before everybody with a Casio was able to call themselves an ambient artist.

 

Last Place by Broken Social Scene

Album: Feel Good Lost (2001)

This almost entirely instrumental album was the lesser-known debut of Canadian indie darling Broken Social Scene. It’s steady and hypnotic, like the pulsing underwater tones of Loscil, but there’s actually something warm about it. Makes me feel like I’m riding a train with a group of quirky friends. All of us riding far and away from the academic job market.

 

Radhe Shyam by Alice Coletrane

Album: Transcendence (1977)

Technically jazz, and not an ambient, but I had to plug Alice Coltrane, wife of John Coltrane, and a talented musician in her own right. Some of Alice Coltrane gets a little too high-octane to work or relax to — there’s one track on Astral Meditations that sounds like a ritual exaltation to a fulminous Sun God. It gets pretty intense.

 

I’m sure there are many for whom ambients are not helpful. Some writers I know prefer to work in silence, or with the conversations and noise around them in coffee shops. But I’ve also heard some folks I know say they wish they had better music to work to. So this is what I work to, and which has genuinely helped me when I’m stressed. When it’s hard to untangle words from brain to page.

Which — that’s the hard part of writing, isn’t it. The writing bit.

I’ll end this post by thanking everyone for their support in recent months in regard to the book release, to my editor, publisher, and amazing blurb writers (Emily Cataneo, Bryan Hurt, and Trudy Lewis). And thanks to everyone who bought a copy of Earthly Delights or voiced their enthusiasm — it truly meant a lot. I hope you enjoy the stories. (And for anyone who still wants to buy it, you can do so here or here!)

 

Stay strange, my friends

J

my first allegheny commencement & other thoughts

So this. This has been quite a year. 🙂

I have a book contract with Press 53, a publisher in my home state, and a first collection of short stories that will be coming out this October. I have now taught two semesters of fiction at Allegheny, getting to know some of the most earnest, dedicated, and talented students I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. For the first time, I’ll be attending a commencement ceremony as an educator in full regalia, fancy tam and everything. I’ll get to see students, some of them my students, cross a stage and achieve a milestone, just as I did at my own graduation ten years ago.

I’ve also been doing some looping, some slipping-out-of-the-present, as I typically do when big things are happening. My graduation year was actually kind of rough. I had just had an exceptionally painful falling out with a high school friend, what had been the most intense relationship of my adolescence (not romantic, but still intense). A lot of old teenage comforts had become stifling, and though I’d done my part to discard them, in some cases even abuse them, it was still an experience that, at the time, felt like an exile. That fall, I entered my MFA at UNC Greensboro, anxious and adrift, not really knowing what kind of person I was and carrying around the nagging insecurity that I should’ve figured that out already.

That hasn’t exactly changed. Not really. If you’re like me, you live, sometimes excruciatingly, with a need to make sense of things. It’s most definitely why I’m a writer. Everything in the world is loops and links and metaphors and symbols. Every small thing is connected precariously to every huge thing. This is useful when you’re an educator. But sometimes it’s exhausting.

So tomorrow at commencement, I want to try to turn that introverted energy outward. Out to the students and their families and their future lives. I want to wish them great things, that they should have all the love and support and lucky breaks that I’ve had, that they should know themselves and make themselves while avoiding the paralysis of self-doubt. Cheers, students! Cheers, Allegheny seniors! I know it’s cliche, but this is just the beginning.

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Happy dreaming,

JJ

 

job market joys / woes

Dearest friends and readers,

I have a story to tell with a (temporary) happy ending. After another year and an exceptionally depressing academic job market, I’ve been offered a full-time two-year position here at Allegheny College. I feel lucky and relieved and so thrilled to continue teaching creative writing workshops. It’s true that I’ll complain to anyone who will listen about the snow here in Meadville (there’s too much of it), but Allegheny is a special school filled with supportive faculty and many eager, talented students. I’m already looking forward to a busy fall semester, plus two new classes I’ll be designing over the summer (one of them a sci-fi lit class !!! ).

Of course, my experiences with the market aren’t over, and in time, I’ll once again start rolling the boulder back up the hill. Word to the wise: nobody is their best self while going through an academic job search. The process is impersonal and demoralizing and masochistic and anxiety-inducing, and to my academic friends who are still searching or will begin searching in the years to come, you are all brilliant and deserve better than this meat grinder.

In the meantime, I’m thankful for the chance to keep teaching young people and instilling in them the love of writing and fiction. More updates to come this spring as I prep for my new classes.

stay strange,

JJ

 

 

 

steampunk tarot cards are BACK

Happy Saturday dear friends and readers,

My Steampunk Major Arcana cards are back in time for the holidays! If you aren’t sure what to give that cool witchy friend celebrating the Winter Solstice, or that friend who still can’t stop talking about the 2001 Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, then this is a good gift for them, I promise you. Or you could buy a pack for yourself. Or you could by two packs and keep one and gift the other.

And what else makes a good gift? Original artwork. Do I still have original artwork for sale? Yes I do. Again, jenjiwarrior is the name of my shop in case the links don’t work. Art trades still optional, just DM me.

stay strange,

JJ

fall updates: new art, tarot cards returning

Kindest friends and dear readers,

My first semester at Allegheny College has been an absolute blast so far. These students are so eager and talented, and in between teaching fiction workshops, I’ve been able to work on a new project of my own, a dystopian novel that I feel pretty excited about. Meadville is a tiny town, filled with mossy old cemeteries and dusty antique shops —  the kind of place that really leans into the fall season. I am not, however, looking forward to the apocalyptic snow dump that we’re supposedly in for this year. For a Southerner like myself, the novelty of snow wears off pretty fast.

More news: for the upcoming holidays, I’m  selling some witchy new art through my Etsy store, and have placed a new larger order for the Steam Tarot Cards, in case anyone is on the hunt for gifts. I’m also interested in commissions and art exchanges, so please feel free to DM me if you are too. Here is a link, and if that doesn’t work for whatever reason (interntetting is hard), my shop name is jenjiwarrior.

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(Deliver yourself some love! <3)

Lastly, in case you missed it, check out my newest published story, “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy,” in Beecher’s Magazine Issue 7. It’s all about magic portals and magpies and such, and was selected by Carmen Machado as Beecher’s 2017 Fiction Prize WINNER! Since I have been embarking on the uncertain process of re-kindling and re-embracing my teenage love for the occult and the folkloric, this was some nice validation. Onward!!

More to come. Stay strange, my friends.

J