Music inspires so much written art, and it’s fun to think of the music that my characters might listen to. With that in mind, the Huffington Post just published my soundtrack written in the characters’ own words (Natalie, Travis, and Creature from This Is The Part Where You Laugh). Read here, and click the links to listen to each song:
Quite a few fans of THIS IS THE PART WHERE YOU LAUGH have sent me emails or messages on Twitter saying that I should write more romance (after reading Creature’s romance novel in progress, The Pervert’s Guide To Russian Princesses). Then there’s my friend KT who says I should write only romance. Just skip the rest.
The problem is, I don’t really know how to write romance. I’m not well versed in the genre. So I’ve decided to make an attempt. But to up the ante a little, I’m only going to write awkward romance scenes.
To begin, I’ll give you this:
“Making Out With Mao Tse-tung”
(The military leader of communist China who lived from 1893–1976)
There are more than eighty biographies of Mao Tse-Tung, the late Chinese communist leader, but this is not a biography. This is a short memoir of one of my intimate moments with a special man I liked to call “Mao Mao”:
We hadn’t seen each other in three weeks. Mao Mao strode into the room in his military uniform – green coat with the red collar turned down. Red “Soldier” armband. Yellow writing on that band.
He was taller than me. 5’11” and 190 pounds. He didn’t acknowledge my presence when he walked in. He turned on his heels and commanded his personal guards to leave the room.
They bowed and closed the door behind them.
Then we were alone.
Mao Mao’s demeanor changed. He walked over to the bed, slipped off his shoes, climbed up on top of the comforter, and got on his knees. He was right there – not far from me – in his white socks, looking young again. That sad look in his eyes.
I smiled at him, but his face didn’t change. It was as if he had lost his mother once more, as if his first peasant-army’s defeat was fresh again in his mind.
I said, “Mao Mao,” gently. Let my voice drop.
He smiled – just a little – and began purring, like a cat, soft at first, then louder. More distinct than the purring of any house cat.
He beckoned to me and I walked over to the bed.
Before we touched, I looked at him. His uniform was always so rumpled. Frumpy. I felt bad during his speeches, embarrassed for him. I wanted – so many times – to mention his need to iron his clothes, but I didn’t want him to be annoyed by me. We were only able to see each other every few weeks. The rest of the time he pretended to like women.
He was right in front of me, on the edge of the bed, and I leaned in. Nibbled the mole on his chin. Sucked at it.
He breathed against my cheek.
As his personal physician was always saying to the press, Mao Mao didn’t brush his teeth. Ever. He simply rinsed his mouth with tea, and ate the wet tea leaves after, from the bottom of the cup. That was what he did instead of tooth-brushing, so his teeth had a greenish hue, a plaqued film over the top of them, with a consistency like soap-stone.
His breath was unique.
We began to kiss, and I ran the tip of my tongue over the mossy sheen of his incisors.
Mao Mao unbuttoned my shirt. Slid his index finger down the straight line of my sternum. I thought of all the places that finger had been. I lifted it to my lips and kissed it.
He leaned into me then. I smelled the musk at the back of his scalp, saw the white flakes of dandruff in his straight black hair. I nuzzled my nose along the horseshoe of his receding hairline. Felt his chapped lips rasping against my throat.
He was breathing heavy – we both were – but he put a firm hand on my chest. Pushed me back. Said, “I’m sorry.”
“No,” he said, “It’s that…well…I struggle with impotency.”
This is something I already knew. Not a mystery. It was not our first time together. I said, “It’s not your fault.”
He started to say something else, but I cut him off. Put a finger to his lips.
I said again, “It’s not your fault.” Then I placed both of my hands on his shoulders, the green wool of his military coat over his soft shoulders. I said, “It’s okay, Mao Mao. It’s really okay.”
He dropped his head forward. Purred softly now. I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear his tears dripping.
Then I held him for a long time.
Knopf, Random House, and the book blog Me, My Shelf, and I are teaming up to give away 10 free hardback copies of This Is The Part Where You laugh.
Following my book release of THIS IS THE PART WHERE YOU LAUGH last week, I appeared on a new podcast from Ben Leroy and Adams Media.
Click on the book cover to hear the interview:
Also, there’s a question of the day at the end of the interview:
“Are some kids beyond help?” Basically, are some young people too messed up to ever rehabilitate? If you’d like to, give your take on that question in the comment section below.
I have a brain injury. There. I’ve said it. Publicly. It’s so much easier to not say it, to not admit it, to not talk about it. Because I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t want to explain how I feel, or discuss my symptoms, or detail how my healing’s going. I’d rather my injury not be there (and I know how obvious and stupid that statement sounds). I’d rather not be injured, but I am. I have what neurologists classify as a traumatic brain injury, a TBI.
Specifics: For the first time in my life, I can’t spell. Since the car accident on December 4th, 2014, I’ve had to relearn more than 500 words. Sometimes simple words. Three days ago, I relearned the spelling of the word “sandwich” (a complicated word – I know). Yesterday, I relearned the spelling of the word “wiggly.” Today – to copyedit this article – I had to relearn the spellings of “dissipate” and “avocado.”
Small words sometimes. Uncomplicated words. The thing is, I don’t know what I don’t know until I come across it. I’m writing, and I have to spell a word and I start typing…
…and a vast blankness appears in my mind like a gray sheet of paper has slid in front of my eyes. There’s nothing there, and I have no idea. I can’t even guess.
Also, I have headaches. Regular and significant headaches. If I get stressed or it’s too loud or there are too many things happening all at once, I get a dull ache above me eyes, and the ache spreads its spider legs into my cheekbones, down along the top of my nose, over my scalp and behind my ears. I have to spend 10 minutes in the dark, or try to go to sleep, or take migraine medication, or do all three of those things. Sometimes I put a pillow over my face and lay on the floor, waiting for the throbbing to dissipate, feeling ridiculous.
I get confused a lot as well, sometimes about little things, memories, who said what when, and whether or not I know something that I do or don’t know. I’m not sure. I ask people to tell me things twice. Three times? I sometimes ask the same question five minutes apart. I feel foolish when people tell me that they’ve already told me the answer to my question that I’ve already asked. For me, it can be a new thing each time I hear it.
So I’m not able to teach right now. Obviously. I’m on medical leave from the school district and will be for the rest of this year while my brain heals. Everyone’s going back to school tomorrow – after spring break – but I’m not. And just this week I got a letter about “permanent disability,” a term I don’t even want to think about.
This is a crazy new reality.
But there’s the issue of writing as well. My other job.
This last year, while dealing with the aftermath of the car accident and its effect on my brain, I struggled through the revision of my new novel This Is The Part Where You Laugh and the first four drafts of my next novel Too Shattered For Mending. I’ve never worked so hard to write so slowly. I didn’t always feel creative. I never felt talented. I did my work – completed my revisions and turned in my next novel – but I’ve never worked the way that I did. I’ve never struggled the way that I struggled. To make my brain work. I still loved writing (I always will) but writing this last year sometimes felt like three 1000-piece nature puzzles heaped together on a single table like some kind of cruel joke. I was the little kid trying to put all three puzzles together.
Is this the border of the undersea puzzle?
Or the border of the Yellowstone vista?
Or the edge of the stream in the Appalachian forest?
So many shades of green.
So many variations on the color blue.
I think of the Apostle Paul writing, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…”
Consider it pure joy…
Whenever you face trials…
Why would he write that?
And how is it possible?
How is ‘pure joy’ created in a time of trial?
It’s a difficult question – something I’ve come back to again and again – and this is what I’ve decided: Because we have to take joy in the trials and the triumphs, the whole of life, this complicated yet singular experience in it’s entirety. To enjoy life as it is – real life – we have to know struggle as well as ease. Pain as well as wonder. Suffering as well as comfort.
The understanding of life’s duality means learning empathy, acknowledging true differences, finding the capacity for a diverse and vast love.
Also – and this is not a small thing for me – I may have a brain injury, but my life isn’t filled with struggle. I may be experiencing some difficulty currently, but I have a wonderful life. I have a life I don’t deserve, great joys that outweigh any number of trials I’ve experienced. So focusing on joy is then a choice I can make.
With that in mind, I think of all the good things, and begin my own gratitude list:
Sitting with Jennie next to a warm fireplace and reading together or drinking coffee on the porch on a sunlit morning while the neighborhood is waking up.
Rock climbing at The Columns with Roo, or hiking up the hill together and chilling in that one oak tree that overlooks the Washington/Jefferson Street Bridge and the western half of the city.
Buying ice cream with Rain while we make sarcastic jokes in our local Safeway, then standing in the kitchen back at home and eating Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked, laughing about our days.
Reading a book in a chair, barefoot on the grass.
Listening to new music on the radio while I drive, or listening to old rap CDs in my kitchen while I do the dishes.
Going on a family night-hike by the light of the moon.
Watching Jupiter rise like blazed chromium in the east.
Camping in the desert and seeing my dog Bob Dylan run coyote circles in the afternoon dust.
Reading contemporary poetry.
Viewing collections of art.
Hanging out with friends.
Hanging out with my dad or Maddie.
Joking with the student leaders in my outdoor program.
Eating dark chocolate or avocados or quesadillas or breakfast-for-dinner whenever I want to.
Finishing a good novel and starting a new one.
Also, I realize what an amazing life I’ve been given in this country, how I’m part of the global 1% economically with my house and my car and my refrigerator and my bank account and my bicycle and my book contract and my backyard and my hammock and my laptop and the clean running water that comes out of the tap, water that I can drink any time without fear of dysentery or cholera or water-born parasites. I live such an easy life in a home set to 67 degrees right now while it’s 44 degrees outside.
Realizing that my list could go on forever (that I stopped myself from writing fifty other things), I understand that gratitude creates an infinite capacity for joy. This is the wonderful life I live, and if my life is this good, this easy, then what will I do with my hours? How will I help other people? How will I encourage and love and foster and develop?
Also, what am I holding onto that doesn’t really matter? What do I call “important” that has no eternal value? What objects am I grasping in my tightly-clenched pathetically-weak human fists?
I keep Mary Oliver’s famous poem “The Summer Day” next to my bed and I’ve reread it ten or so times lately. To end that poem, Oliver writes, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”