Fixing: seeing the opportunity for improvement

 Photo on 2015-01-02 at 21.58

Susan says: Since I have a one year old son, I am always doing a lot of fixing of situations in the form of acquiring, organizing, cleaning, and inventing fun as well as order. I can be very good with emergency situations—small or more serious emergencies. I tend to not panic easily, and even if I’m terrified, I’m often able to strategize quickly. First thing! Second thing! Third and fourth thing! Once you get to the third or fourth important thing I’d say any situation is a lot more under control. My dad actually used to say about me: Susan is very good in emergencies. It’s the day-to-day monotony she has trouble with. That’s been true. I’ve gotten better about day-to-day but one part of that is accepting myself as someone who likes a lot of change throughout the week. I’ve been job juggling for a few years now and I’m pretty sure I prefer it to just one job, if the pay is right. Another example of this is that my partner and I heard that you could read the same book every night to a pregnant belly and then the child would know the story and enjoy it as an infant. We said this idea aloud and then proceeded to read various books or poems at random to the belly—there was no way we could stick with one. We do have regular meals and bedtimes, but the things we do in between change a lot day-to-day.

I’ve kind of gotten off topic here, so I’ll go back to fixing: I’m really good at strategizing with people to fix their writing at a sentence level. I’ve worked with many ESL clients who can barely put two English words together but I manage to find out what they want to say, help them find the right words, and point out every error in what they’re writing. They always appreciate it. Regular American college students often don’t want teachers fixing their writing as much because they feel they’re expressing their individuality and already know how to write. I don’t work as well with these students or with having people argue with me—I’m not that great at fixing conflicts; I’d rather they’d just not happen. Sometimes there are American students who really want my feedback—of course, these are students who really appreciate writing and the revision process. I currently help other adults fix their novels and nonfiction by providing critiques. I don’t know if the manuscripts actually get fixed, because most people can’t spend a more money on a subsequent critique, but I think I’m very good at seeing opportunity for improvement, which is a form of fixing. My hope is that those writers I help will become passionate about fixing their writing themselves, and begin seeing the success they want, which is why I try always to explain the things I want them to fix.


I wish that more businesses, publications, and entertainment industry people wanted to fix their writing, even in simple ways like not having a ton of errors in a promotional beer glass. They probably don’t care, because in the average person’s eyes, if you can understand it, it’s not broken. But so much writing out there could stand to be improved and I wish my friends and I could make careers doing it. Some people I know are—writing marketing copy for a corporation, doing book press publicity, working for an academic press, freelance copywriting for websites—but really very few people I know with advanced training in writing and editing can manage to make a living actually doing it. That’s because many people just don’t care about the quality of the writing around them, least of all the people producing it. Since their businesses are succeeding on other merits, they don’t spare the cash to do anything about making the writing better. It will remain part of our writing culture that you drive by signs with apostrophe errors or look at menu misspellings, find atrocious writing in best-sellers, etc and think “Why doesn’t someone do something about this??”

Alison says: I like the point you made about not wanting to argue, which sounds like for you is a distraction on the way to fixing. And how many people say if you can understand it, it doesn’t need fixing. But as writers and teachers and editors, we know to ask: who is “you,” and might “you” change?

I like to fix things, and I’m trying to figure out which things are constructive to try to fix and which things are better off left broken–or, for that matter, which fixed/broken things are really none of my business.

I like when there are things in my life that have a very specific fix, like my students’ MLA citations. They know about, and I know they know about, (a website where you can simply plug in bibliographic information and the website creates a citation for you) but I told myself that we were learning something useful by looking up citation format in the textbook and attempting to follow it just with our eyes and minds. Then I take them home and correct them. I am not sure if this is indeed useful, or I’m just indulging in my fetish of fixing.


DeWitt says: When you’re young, it’s fun to break things. You realize how easily stuff can be destroyed. And that’s exciting. Until the day you break something you love, like a fish you try to take out of the tank to pet and, coincidentally, its fin falls off. At those times, you find yourself seeking an adult for a fish bandaid, except none of the adults can help you because, turns out, in spite of consumer demand, they don’t make fish bandaids. Then you don’t know what to do; so you cry and cradle that stupid fish with your stupid fish ruining hands.
Fast forward twenty years later and that describes most of my relationships.
The point is that as adults we are as fascinated by repairing as children are with destroying. Grown-ups stand in front of open car hoods and stare at a problem they know they cannot solve. People try to fix tables and stereos. People try to fix people. Get your pets spayed and neutered.
We devote a lot of time to trying make things better, even when we know they don’t sell make-things-better bandaids. We find more efficient routes to work. While shaving a few seconds off a commute might seem like an accomplishment, it’s really only worth the one high-five.
The old saying is “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” I’d add that even if it is broke, maybe you still don’t fix it. Not all that’s broken needs fixing. Sometimes you should just learn to enjoy the chipped paint in your apartment, sometimes you have to settle for a broken heart. Sometimes problems do solve themselves. Sometimes they don’t need to be solved. Your favorite pair of shoes aren’t shiny and new. Your car drives fine with the engine light on.
Figure out what doesn’t work and needs to, enjoy the rest for what it is.
Or remember the youthful glee of destruction and buy a very large hammer.
Alison says: Yes. A lot of my students turned in personal essays last week and 95% of them were about someone breaking something of theirs–trust, confidence, love, or the worst, a dream they had. And then grading them felt horrible–like, here’s a C for this incredible act of vulnerability.
I’m a fixer. I tried to fix something until I had to stop because I was forgetting who I was. I felt like a storage carton. I felt like a rough tote.
And then I found this valentine from elementary school when I was picking up the remains of a large rubbermaid trunk filled to the brim with my childhood diaries and notes. I tugged at it, from where it sat in a deep shelf above a closet, and I yanked, and I let it fall to the floor and crack open. Even rough totes weren’t built for that.
I have never felt like a babyface. But to someone, about 25 years ago, I was.

Susan is here! #1 and another thing

Susan arrives, and DeWitt and I say hello.

I ask Susan a version of “are you a writer and what’s that about” that I asked DeWitt.

She thought, and then said, “I feel like a writer if either a) I am writing something every day or b) I know someone, even just one person, is reading my work and taking it seriously. It’s easy to feel like a writer when you’re in an MFA program, because both of those things are true, in a big way. The sad part is—when you get out your work is better but fewer people might be reading it for a while and you might struggle to do the same amount of writing, because you’re not being asked to do it regularly for a class while being given a graduate stipend. Having to work at a job-job cuts into writing time, which is why I’m trying to work part-time.


There are times when I’m unable to write, because there’s too much to do outside of that. I think that’s painful for me, not only because I’m not getting closer to my goal of publishing, but because I feel good when I’m writing. Even if everything else seems wrong, my writing can be there for me, kind of like exercise, and some of it can seem kind of cool sometimes, which I think is a normal writer feeling. Writing is kind of like dreaming, and dreaming makes me feel good—even if I have a bad dream, it’s kind of like an exorcism of feelings I was having trouble with. Through writing or dreaming I recover from a fear or deal with the fact that I have that fear. It’s an efforts toward problem solving, no matter how you’re doing it. Also, writing lets me travel, and travel feels healing to me.”

pathI liked Susan’s answer, so I brought in a bunch of dirt and made a path to the rug where we all are sitting. Susan is sitting on a purple velvet chaise lounge and I pulled up a cool footrest made from the trunk of a tree for her.

Question maybe-#1: to DeWitt/He has a whole couch

I drag a large white leather couch into the Beached Whale for DeWitt. I think he will like a cashmere blanket, two-tone, purple and blue, so I drape it across the back of the couch for him.
Susan hasn’t arrived so I use my most stilted, awkward question on him to break the ice.  We eat Cheez Its and sip Buffalo Trace.
I said, “The last time I saw you, you were being a writer. Are you still a writer? Or are you a writer yet? Does it have anything to do with what you spend most of your hours doing?”
DeWitt said, “I am not a writer, I just dream. I guess it doesn’t matter too much what you consider yourself since we spend most of our lives unconscious and maybe because I like to dream while I’m awake, I’m more properly asleep.What does it mean to be a writer? Is a writer what I do, what I say, or what I leave? Is it for readers or myself?Writing is the very least of creating. Who wouldn’t prefer writing one important piece to a thousand insignificant ones? Typing words into a document doesn’t take all that long, even if you’re hunting with your pecker.

There is the conception of a writer. The fancy one someone archetyped before people paid for their espresso with an iphone. It’s not appealing except for those who ignore the horrifying effects of syphilis untreated.

This concept tainted the word for me, because most of those people rarely produce anything more interesting than a bad credit rating.

Writing feels really good when it’s good and terrible when it’s not working. It makes it stressful to sit down and try. But if you’re always thinking; if your strategy is to find something interesting and recreate it within the constraints of language; if you masturbate in the bathroom at work a few too many times; if you want to see things differently; if you consider the semicolons: you’re probably are a writer.

Better than that, you’re alive. The need for writers is debatable. Everyone needs to be alive.”

Photo on 2015-01-02 at 21.58

I also installed two blue doors inside my head for my friends for when they want to come and go, and want to come and go at the same time but separately.


Refurbishing the inside of my brain/Beached Whale/for guests

I covered the ceilings of my mind so when my friends look up, they will see something like an old bank building tile with a red fan.ceiling












Then I wanted to be sure and keep everyone grounded so I spray painted this on the side of my brain.

blade or die







Then I bought a lot of half-price holiday white lights and made fake tree branches inside the Salon.

rooseveltThen I took a selfie.

ali bw glasses


Clearing dead weight/in me/ so the Salon can Begin

Welcome to the Beached Whale Salon aka the inside of my head/the living room in my mind. Picture the inside of a parade float in the shape of a whale–it’s about 10 feet high and 6 feet wide. At this point, memory of Chewbacchus’ whale float weakens, and I use my imagination to decorate the interior of my salon for my friends. I am scrambling around, trying to get ready for their visit. Susan and DeWitt are coming! I’m all aflutter with excitement. I double-check my stock of fancy whisky and white wine. I verify that the onions are sequestered to the back of the fridge, far away from cheeses and pancakes and poboys and the makings for pizza. All of the stuff my friends like–you have to know these things before a salon.

We are in my head, a.k.a. the Beached Whale. There is really no room for anything superfluous; and so I start by downsizing my books. I’m the sort of person who holds onto everything, in the hopes (or fears?) that everything will one day come “in handy” again. And so I save prescription medicines from over a decade ago, bags of make up I’ll never wear, postcards and holiday cards and old address books and yellowing teacher planners, half filled. Oh, mostly-burnt candles, business cards from once-glistening avenues of friendship and more. I shake open a few trash bags. If the inside of my head is to host two witty friends with discriminating tastes, I must be ruthless in my quest to make the inside of my head habitable, hospitable, & hairball-less.

The Beached Whale Salon can’t tolerate all that hanger-onner stuff. The space is tight. I want to make sure my friends are comfortable, so I take a hard look at all the baggage I cart around with me–and today I see my possessions with new scrutiny. A travel guide to Los Angeles from 2001? Lesser-loved novels by writers I generally adore? Photography books pushed on me by well-meaning friends 12+ years ago, yet to be read by me? Page turners that would delight new eyes, but won’t be cracked again by these hands? I found around 100 books to donate today. I loaded them into bags in the backseat of my Honda, and drove them to local little libraries posted in front of people’s homes across the city.discard booksThere is something satisfying about parting with books that have eyed me from bookshelves, collecting dust for years. I noticed I have more of a relationship with the color and design of their spines at this point than I do with their contents. Having Black on White: Black writers on what it means to be white and Bisexuality Reader  meant I was a certain type of person. By lining them up on my shelves and nodding at their titles every day or so, I had credit in my interesting person account. I pay money and spend time moving these books from city to city, never to share new experiences with them. Well, you know what? Aime Cesaire and Franz Fanon and This Bridge Called My Back. If I no longer own those books, do I lose points in my Aware and Interesting Person account? When I get rid of The Bisexual Reader, does bisexuality cease to exist? Does Ruth Ozeki’s plot structure stop amazing me if I put A Tale for the Time Being in the donation bag? The book on how to draw like Picasso, inscribed by an ex-boyfriend, along with that women’s self-help guide gifted by a mother of a California middle school student I had around the time of 9/11… they all perch hopefully in miniature libraries across New Orleans now.

“To Alison on her 13th birthday. Love, Mari.” is inscribed in a large hardcover copy of The Ghost Stories of M.R. James. Now someone else can be edified by all of these interesting voices.

Who are we when the stuff we’ve collected to bolster us is gone? Guess I’ll find out. There’s no way Susan and DeWitt could sit down in here with all this crap taking up the floor space. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that friends are what keep our brains working and hearts pumping, not stuff.

broken legoAlmost ready to host my friends. Just need to clean up the big pile of Legos in the floor. I will unroll a nice big rug so my friends can take their shoes off if they like. And I will move the solid pine coffee tables into the Beached Whale so people can put their drinks and snacks on something stable. After that I will find them each a special chair.