Monthly Archives: November 2009

Greetings from America

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Buttons Boggs, hardworking and off-line

Do you have relatives who are utterly clueless about the Internet? Who, when you try to tell them about some trivial thing that happened there, such as “X number of people visited my blog” or “so-and-so Tweeted that I have a nice name,” have no idea what you are saying? And act a little horrified, like you’re suddenly using casual nicknames for hard drugs? This would be most of my relatives, and especially my parents. I suppose it’s better than having your own mother friend you on Facebook. I don’t understand how anyone can say yes to that request, though I can understand why it’s hard to say no.

When I was little we lived on a farm and didn’t have a telephone. My brother once asked if we could go to “America,” by which he meant the mall. My parents have since moved to Walkerton, a town of about fifty people. They insist that they can’t get the Internet, not where they live, although they get a lot more cable television channels than we do. They were big fans of “The Wire” starting in its second season, which is more than you can say about a lot of people. Several of their six-toed feral cats (my mom calls them Hemingway cats, but they are not as nice-looking as that sounds) are named after characters from that show.

Though my parents will happily stay in $30-a-night motel rooms, I think they are actually afraid of the Internet. Instead of being vague and ephemeral, it seems to exist in an oddly literal space for them. They think it’s a physical place, sort of like a McMansion that someone built on top of a cute old farmhouse. As in, “I Googled you to find your story, and then they said you were in Facebook and I didn’t want to go in there.” I think this is partly the result of a particular class they took last year in computer literacy at my old elementary school. It was taught by my second-grade teacher, whose favorite form of technology, back when I knew her, was cursive.

I’ve tried to tell my mom about some of the benefits she’s missing by not having the Internet—online banking, for example, which frees you from even pretending to balance your checkbook—and I think she’d like Google Earth and Google Images. But then I start to think about all the communities and activities she’d be drawn into:

People who trap, spay, and then pretend feral cats are friendly

Tree of Heaven destruction forums

Mulch fever sufferers

Looking up arrest records of our relatives (she hates that my aunt does this, but I can see her getting into it, too)

International Dark Sky Association (I am actually into this myself)

My mom can spend the better part of an afternoon talking to someone from the butter hotline, where a sweet Southern lady will tell you how to fix a pound cake that came out too dry by poking holes in it and pouring brandy in the holes. Or arguing with public radio that The Capitol Steps are awful and not even a little bit funny (true). Or despairing of imaginary bad smells. Or hiding from stalkers who want her to take yoga classes with them. This suggests to me that her life is full enough without the Internet.

I’ll take some pictures of the “Hemingway cats” for you when I visit Walkerton again. Though I’ll have to wait until I make it back to to America to post them.



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5 Reasons I’m Not Doing NaNoWriMo

November 1 marked the beginning of National Novel Writing Month 2009, an annual tradition that officially started ten years ago. For a whole month, participants deprive themselves of sleep, establish rigid and demanding word count goals, solicit peer pressure through social media. The idea is that, if you write a certain number of words a day—say, two thousand—you will have the 175-page draft of a novel ready by December 1. Then you can congratulate yourself on a difficult task accomplished or begin the slow work of revision. The NaNoWriMo website encourages you to “aim low” and just write the damn thing. Last year, of the more than 119,000 people who began the task, only 21,683 people completed their novels (defined by NaNoWriMo as “lengthy works of fiction”). It’s hard to write a novel, even a bad one.

Recently there was an article in the New York Times about the controversy surrounding marathons. Too many plodders, the hardcore runners complained: how can you call yourself a marathoner if you walked half the race? I’ve never tried to run a marathon, or even much more than a mile or two, but I can understand the positions taken by both the chubby plodders and the ropy-limbed sprinters. Serious marathoners train for months, much the way (most) serious novelists spend months or years planning, researching, and drafting. People who just want the T-shirt are out there putting one foot in front of the other, trying to finish before they open the roads to traffic. NaNoWriMo participants are to some extent like these plodders: they just want to finish, hoofing their 50,000 words across the finish line.

Though I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo, I have written a novel and am trying to write a better one. I won’t be done in a month, and here’s why:

1. First of all, two thousand words is a lot to write in one day, especially if you’re doing this writing before or after a regular job. I don’t have one of these right now, but I think frequently about getting one, and even that takes up time. I usually write between 500 and 1,500 words a day, aiming for 1,000. I read an interview with Marilynne Robinson in which she said she didn’t believe in writing at all if she’s not inspired. Have you read the beginning of Housekeeping? That wasn’t written with “Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die” word counter on the screen.

2. Bad prose doesn’t inspire you to keep writing. My favorite part of the writing day is when I read what I wrote back to myself. This is no fun when the writing doesn’t sound nice.

3. It takes a lot of time to undo bad prose. Or ill-considered plot choices. When I think too hard about word count and page completion, I’m not at my best.

4. A lot of writing a novel is not “word-countable” anyway. It’s thinking about the characters when you wake up, while you’re at the post office, the DMV, the boring lecture, the art museum. It’s giving yourself the time to be influenced, to have your mind changed, to consider possibilities for character development, plot, language.

5. For the same reason I wouldn’t want to read a really great novel in a day, or an hour: I’d be sad when it was over too quickly. Writing a novel–beginning a novel–is a deeply enjoyable, frustrating, rewarding experience. It deserves more than 30 days.

Despite my reasons for avoiding NaNoWriMo, who know what makes something work for the individual? A family friend ran the New York City Marathon in the early 1980s. He didn’t train, smoked while he ran, and was a recovering heroin addict. The story goes that he finished in under four hours. He’s a marathoner if I’ve ever met one.


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“Homecoming” in At Length

One of the stories in Mattaponi Queen appears in At Length today. I wrote “Homecoming” right after moving from Brooklyn, where I’d lived for three years, to North Carolina, which is now my home. I remember feeling a little like Marcus–I thought a lot about all the great, unusual experiences I’d had, not my screeching daily subway ride or getting yelled at by homeless guys or being cold all the time in the winter. Of course, Brooklyn is Marcus’s home, and I always knew I was there temporarily.

I was also thinking about my former students, first graders who had convinced me, in a weak and crazy moment, to give them my cell phone number. A couple of them called me all the time: “Ms. Boggs!” That’s mostly what they said when they called: “Ms. Boggs!” They were waiting for me to supply the rest of the conversation, I guess. A lot of them lived in the Brevoort Houses, where Marcus lived, and they were good and smart like him but limited in opportunity and burdened, some of them, with absent parents. What are they up to? They’re in sixth grade now. I hope that, unlike Marcus, they’re staying out of trouble.

I also hope you’ll follow At Length, an online magazine that publishes work by amazing longer-form writers, such as Michael Jayme-Becerra, Alan Shapiro, and Erica Eisdorfer, as well as interviews with visual artists and musicians. From their website: “At Length is a venue for writing, music, and art that are open to possibilities shorter forms preclude. While each section represents the vision and judgment of a different editor, we share an interest in making room for ambitious, in-depth work.”

I’m honored to be published there. Here’s the link to the story:


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