Rick Perry and Kurt Vonnegut in the Pacific

This week, I published a piece in Guernica magazine about a recent visit Rick Perry made to Palau. I’m sharing it here, and hope it offers some insight into the current state of what I call a kind of “new Pacific Theater,” emphasis on the theatrical: island stages for dramatic performances, political and strategic and largely international. It’s been seventy years since World War II raged through the Pacific, but the effects are still felt in the islands — how far and wide run the ripples of war?

You can find the essay here: “Don’t Mess With the Other Texas.”

After I wrote the Guernica piece, I read two books that I found immensely good reads, and quite by accident, very thematically relevant: The Master Blaster, by P.F. Kluge, which is set in Saipan but shares many Palau parallels, and entertains as much as it sharply depicts the reality of the post-WWII U.S. Commonwealth; and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradleone of the 70 books that made the excruciating final cut for shipment to Palau (thank god my sister was there to talk me down).

In Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, we’re given the fictional island nation of the Republic of San Lorenzo, which has been “reorganized” by foreign nations over the years, most recently the U.S., and which every year celebrates the national holiday The Day of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy: “San Lorenzo conscripted a hundred men to fight on the side of democracy. These hundred men were put on a ship bound for the Untied States, where they were to be armed and trained. The ship was sunk by a German submarine right outside of [San Lorenzo’s] harbor.”

Vonnegut illuminates the futility and the ironies of war and colonization, and the ripple effects of the atom bomb–critically, satirically, but not hopelessly. I remember Vonnegut giving a presentation at Tufts when I was an undergrad. He was a humanist; he believed we were capable of more than this. And so I’ll sign off with an excerpt from this fictional speech commemorating the Hundred Martyrs:

“My soul insists that I mourn not a man but a child. I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same. And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind. Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.”

Incidentally, in Rick Perry’s speech commemorating the Battle of Peleliu, the American flag was conspicuously missing. Instead, two flags waved side by side: Palau, and the great state of Texas.

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The Writing Process Blog Tour

E.B. White wrote from his boathouse. Joan Didion re-reads her day’s work in the afternoons with a drink. Ron Carlson never allowed himself up from the desk unless he knew what was going to happen next.

I know this because writers are infinitely curious about the writing process, as if exposing motivations and working conditions might reveal something to us about art and mastery. Or maybe it’s that writing is such a solitary pursuit. Access to someone else’s secret world of composition makes us feel less alone.

In this vein, a Tufts professor-turned-mentor-friend of mine, Carol Houlihan Flynn, invited me to join the My Writing Process Blog Tour, a meme in which writers answer questions about their writing process and then nominate others to do the same. The result? An ongoing writer/reader community that grows exponentially by the week, demystifying and illuminating the creative process one blog post at a time.

I must thank Carol for the invite and insist that you all go to her website, the-animals.net, and then directly to your local bookstore (or Amazon) to pre-order her forthcoming memoir, The Animals, out this month. I had the privilege of reading an early version of the book, in which Carol brilliantly recreates her family’s history with pigs, dogs, cats, turtles, goats—more animals than you can believe—in order to construct “an economy study of love and loss.” She writes, “For the animals are all, every one of them, down even to the smallest newt, born out of our desire for love. And that is where the problem lies.”

Damn. Buy it already!

After I wrap up, I’ll introduce next week’s writers, who I also insist you read.

So, without further ado, my answers to the Blog Tour questions:

What am I working on?

A new draft of my first book, a memoir-in-fragments about coming of age in rural America in the 1980s–a Material World of Pentecostalist televangelism in which I was “cured” of severe hearing loss by preachers and lost faith in the middle of a mission trip abroad. It’s an all-American tale of salvation and redemption! It’s got miracles! It’s got scandal! It’s got death-defying feats and lots of explosions! Okay, one of those things is only partly true. But who knows? I haven’t finished it yet. We’ll all have to read the book to find out.

Of course, I’m always simultaneously fiddling with other things. Essays, old and new. Travel pieces. Blog posts on Palau. A short story about a girl who reads romance novels, which I like to tinker with when I’m feeling especially distracted…

Also: My freestyle stroke. The perfect homemade ginger beer. Guitar and ukulele. Focusing my wandering mind. Breathing.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

With this book in particular, I am experimenting with structure and chronology and, to an extent, point of view, to explore larger themes I always go back to: religious subcultures, quirky Americana, feminism, the human mind and its wacky impulse to compartmentalize, define, classify, and create hierarchies. I am drawn to ordinary subjects, everyday absurdities, human folly. In general, I’m after something universal in experience. I love research, so everything I write has a lot behind it. And I try to write with loads of empathy.

Why do I write what I do?

1. Because I tried to write other more practical things. Reporting, copywriting, advertising–jobs that offer regular paychecks and guaranteed audiences. But my heart wasn’t it.

2. Because dabbling in sentences—finding the mot juste, rearranging words and images and scenes in service of an idea or effect—is my idea of a good time.

3. Because I grew up in on a lake in northern Wisconsin. I can’t not write about place, which is not setting alone, but character and context, at the heart of all experience, human desire imposed on landscape, or nature’s indifference to it.

4. On that note, once I left home, I found it impossible to be inside other landscapes, cultures, architectures and ideologies and not to be utterly astounded wherever I went.

5. My mind can’t contain it all. Writing is how I process.

6. Because Joan Didion. Because E.B. White, Annie Dillard, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mark Twain. Later, others. But these first.

7. And all of the above luminary essayists because my first semester of college I was assigned The Art of the Personal Essay, the fat anthology edited by Philip Lopate in which writers wrote on every range of subject, in every range of form, employing all the techniques of poetry and fiction inside the art of fact. In a writing workshop, Patricia Hampl suggested the genre ought to be called non-poetry instead of non-fiction. I concur.

8. “Literary nonfiction is all over the map and has been for three hundred years. There’s nothing you can’t do with it. No subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own form every time.”—Annie Dillard, “To Fashion a Text”

9. Because although the idea of writing personal narrative mortifies me sometimes—it goes against all my Midwestern sensibilities to write about myself—for now, it’s the shape of the story I feel compelled to tell: the story of a Midwestern family, the American dreams we dreamed, our shortcuts to salvation, our belief in the power of invention and a good sales pitch, the notion that perfection and healing might lie just around the next bend, in the next purchase, in the portrait of Jesus on the mantle.

10. Because my mom taught us to read before kindergarten and filled our chaotic house with books, kept taking us back to the Rhinelander Library even after we were banned (again) for overdue fines and lost titles. The librarians were probably having a bad day (again), Mom said, repeating, “You never know what someone else is going through.” And so even though we lived a hundred miles from anything, in a town of less than 1,000 people, I could read about New York City or the Congo or Wonderland, Holocaust survivors, pioneer women and Hobbits, and I could inhabit those worlds and learn what other people were going through.

11. And thanks to this early conversion experience, I believe in the power of art in general and stories in particular to bring us thismuch closer to understanding that we’re all really the same.

How does your writing process work? 

I used to self-identify as a procrastinator, but graduate school served as a cold-turkey recovery program. If I had ten minutes, I used those ten minutes to write. And that’s how my process has worked—fitfully, squeezed into cracks of time—until this year.

In Palau, I have the strange and unbelievable good fortune to write full-time for a year. Whole, long days on a laptop at the kitchen table, sunlight pouring through the open shades and the ocean rising and falling with the hours. And so I’m faced with the opposite problem, if I dare call it that: unlimited writing time!

I’ve tried to create a structure for myself, mirroring Brian’s work days. I’m up at 7. I do a little meditation and yoga. I brew coffee. I write until lunch. I spend more time than I should on the sentence level. I get carried away. I feel some kind of elated momentum, followed at some point by a sense of dread or self-deprecating insecurity. I call my sister. We do simultaneous long-distance goddess poses. I go back to the computer.

Sometimes it’s a slog (strong correlation between my recurring insomnia and slogginess). Sometimes I start to panic that it’s all been a waste of time, or that all my efforts will end in failure. At home, I would go for a run to clear my head. Here, I swim. I keep notebooks all over the place. I read books at a wild clip. These things help. Brian helps, reminding me to see the forest, not the trees. And I always have my professor Kim Barnes’s voice in my head, like a Zen master, her mantra: “Trust the process.”

THE TOUR ROLLS ON…

I’m thrilled to introduce next week’s tour lineup, three outstanding writers, teachers, and overall human beings I feel lucky as pie to call part of my extended writing family—quite literally, in the case of Brian’s sister, Katie. Kim and Joe are part of the great Idaho MFA tribe. They’ll be posting a week from today, so be sure to follow up with them on the 22nd and in the meantime peruse their sites for your next favorite read:

Kim Barnes (kimbarnes.com) is the author of the memoirs Hungry for the World and In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and received a PEN/Jerard Fund Award. She is the author of three novels: Finding Caruso; A Country Called Home, winner of the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction; and In the Kingdom of Men, listed among the “Best Books of 2012” by San Francisco Chronicle and The Seattle Times. Kim has co-edited two anthologies, and her essays, poems, and stories have appeared in The New York Times, WSJ online, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Good Housekeeping, Oprah Magazine, MORE Magazine, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She is a former Idaho-Writer-in-Residence and teaches in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Idaho.

Katie Quirk (katie-quirk.com) is the author of A Girl Called Problem. Set in Tanzania, East Africa, this middle-grade novel  received a starred Kirkus review, a glowing review by School Library Journal‘s Elizabeth Bird, and a write-up in the New York Times Book Review. Katie’s current project, Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate, is a memoir of motherhood, adventure, and coming to terms with not always “having it all,” set in the mountains of southern India.

Joe Wilkins (http://joewilkins.org) is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, winner of the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the 2013 Orion Book Award, and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. He lives with his his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.

On Mermaids and Miley Cyrus

Unsurprisingly, Palau has inspired plenty of writing outside of the book I’m working on while we’re here. With this absurdly lucky, lucky gift of one year of writing time while Brian clocks in at the court, I have found no trouble at all motivating myself to clock my own hours (and luckily, our many guests over the last four months have been supportive of me stealing off for the occasion). Instead, I’ve had to work to rein in the feeling that I MUST WRITE IT ALL WHILE I CAN! Old essays! New essays! Travel pieces! The memoir! That short story I’ve been tinkering with…the novel I started in that fiction workshop…because I’m fairly certain that life is never going to get any better than this, and I may never have a full-time writing gig again, ever, and before I know it I’ll be back to squeezing writing in the cracks between jobs, so I must use these remaining 153 days to write all the things.

I try to combat this by taking a lot of deep breaths and indulging in the occasional brief creative flight. Below are links to a couple of short, island-inspired pieces I’ve published recently. Hope you enjoy! Now where was I? Oh yeah, writing that book…

On mermaids: “Sirens” — Sweet: A Literary Confection, cool little online journal out of the University of South Florida.

On Miley: “Making Peace With Miley” — The Mindful Word, great online and print mag on all things mindful.

Audio Essay Featured at The Missouri Review

My first-ever attempt at a “This American Life”-style audio essay managed to win The Missouri Review audio competition this year, and it’s now up on the TMR website for your listening pleasure! “In Search of Magic Kingdoms” is about growing up on televangelism–specifically Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL network–and a Vodicka family trip to Heritage USA, the Bakkers’ Christian theme park in South Carolina, just before the ministry fell into scandal.

If you’re not already familiar,  The Missouri Review is not exaggerating when it calls itself “one of the most highly-regarded literary magazines in the United States and for the past thirty-four years.” So while this piece is not perfect–I would have loved to give the writing a final revision–I am thrilled to place it with TMR, had a ton of fun throwing it together, and look forward to trying my hand at more audio in the future.

I’d like to give a shout out to my partner and co-engineer, Brian Quirk. I learned about the contest two weeks before the deadline, so this was a crash course in Logic recording, which he re-learned in order to teach me. He also patiently endured listening to seemingly endless loops of Susie Moppet singing “Jesus takes a frown/and turns it upside down/and oops! There comes a smile.” (Now he knows how my parents felt!) In gratitude, a portion of the proceeds will go toward his pepperoni pizza fund.

I can’t stream it from Palau, so you’ll have to tell me how it turned out! Hope you enjoy: “In Search of Magic Kingdoms”

The Good News & The Bad News

The Good News is…

1) While Brian’s dream of flying remains distant, we are regularly suiting up, strapping heavy metal on our backs, and leaping into spaces unknown to participate in what he calls “the next best thing to a jet pack.” We were promised that the scuba diving in Palau was some of the best in the world, and six dives in, we’re believers. Brian Quirk is even more relaxed underwater than he is on land, if you can believe it. Anna is grateful for such a competent diving buddy, especially since it looks like those white tip reef sharks have a thing for Blue Finned Blondies. (We’re told they’re harmless, but when they’re swishing under your elbows and looking so…sharky…it’s a little nerve-wracking.)

2) Anna has some exciting stuff happening on the writing front:

  • Her essay “As Seen On TV!,” originally published in Ninth Letter (a hip little journal out of the University of Illinois-Urbana Champagne), was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013 by the venerable Cheryl Strayed (guest editor) and series editor Robert Atwan. The essay is available in print only through the 9L link above. If you’re the instant gratification type, you can watch a super cool chick named Diane Park do an ambidextrous drawing using excerpts of the essay here.
  • “On Modesty,” an essay she published in Shenandoah, was shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize and received Special Mention in The Pushcart Prize XXXVIII: Best of the Small Presses 2014 anthology.
  • What this means: Twice in two weeks, Anna did a little dance in the living room—she didn’t make the final cut, but she did manage to rise up through the slush pile into the company of some of her favorite writers and writer-friends—and we popped the bottle of champagne we bought for a special occasion. (The $18 Barefoot brand was a splurge, second shelf up from the $16 Andre. That’s right. The stuff we bought for $2.99 in college has a 500% markup in Palau.)

The Bad News is…

Come to think of it, “bad” is relative. We are out of the typhoon zone. We don’t have ticks or cockroaches or geckos taking up residence in our apartment (well, the occasional gecko, but those guys are pretty cool). Our previously-clunking car got totally fixed up for a mere sixty bucks. We hear that the U.S. even managed to avoid a government shutdown! (Trust us, it looks even more absurd from a distance.) And while Brian has taken to wandering the apartment singing “What does the fox say? I don’t know, ‘cause I don’t have the Internet,”* we are happy to report that we have no idea what Miley Cyrus is up to these days. Life is pretty damn good.

*While we appreciate your YouTube links, songs, audio clips, etc., we can’t stream them. We hereby request that all viral videos be translated and reported to us in written form. Keep us posted.