Small Talk

You’re getting a Master’s degree in psychology.  People want to know what that means.  They ask you if you’re going to be able to write prescriptions.  They ask you if you’re going to be testifying in murder cases.  They ask if you’ve been offered any decent jobs by the FBI.  They want to know if the things they heard on mushrooms last month mean they are schizophrenic.  They want to tell you about their love stories with “psychotic” exes (you explain that they probably mean “psychopathic,” but that that’s unlikely, too).  Often, they want to hear that not remembering most of your childhood is ok and normal and does not mean that they’ve repressed recollection of a ritual sex ring.  So you explain that actually what you’re training to be—what you’re already doing, only in internship so you don’t paid—is family therapy, or, if it seems more prudent, youth counseling.  Sometimes the fire of interest withers in their eyes at this point.  Sometimes they tell you how wonderful you are (especially if they also ask how much you’ll make).  Often, they want to know the harrowing details of your clients’ lives.  If you share anything, they want to know how you do it, how you leave your work at work and protect your heart.  You do fine with all of this, usually.  There is only one thing you do poorly with: when people—almost always older adults with grown children—express head-shaking sympathy for the poor parents of these fucked up kids that you serve.  Then you want to tell them in no uncertain terms what it actually means, this whole “family therapy” thing: that the state of a kid’s mental health is, nine times out of ten, a response to the family he or she lives in.  That we are only as “sick” as the family systems we form a part of.  That the next time a parent brings in a skateboarding “defiant” fourteen year old boy or a purging, self-harming sixteen-year old girl for you to “fix,” you’re going to have to take some deep breaths before responding.  

SOUR GRAPES (& a good point or two)



I’m so powerfully tempted to write this in the third person and distance myself from it in order to keep from sounding bitter.  There are few sounds more distasteful than sour grapes being chewed—I’m aware of this.  For better or for worse, it would also be disingenuous and wildly irrational for me to try to pretend like this was about some “other” independent-press published author. 


I’m not going to attempt to give a full sketch of the state of the publishing world.  That would be tedious and complex and too long.  Most people recognize that the foundations are shaking.  Self-publishing through electronic means and the zeal and dexterity with which many small and midsized presses have snapped up the leverage and power offered by e-publishing has cast the mainstream industry into frightened disarray.  Much like CDs, physical books are stacked on a precipitous downward slope that tips toward relative irrelevance (unlike music, I will always prefer a physical book to a file). 


Part of me—and I suspect part of many indie authors—cheers this transcendence.  After enough years of disrespect and betrayal and dishonesty at the hands of literary agents and mainstream presses, I can’t help but cheer the rapid entropy.  I can’t help but smirk when they bring lawsuits against Amazon and Apple and whatnot, trying to get their manicured fingertips in the dike.  I almost kissed the self-published author who recently told me that not only had she made the NYT bestseller list, but was enjoying turning down mainstream editors when they called her to buy her book out from under her. 


Another part of me, of course, is nostalgic for the days that ended long before I ever published anything—when it was the author’s job to write and the agent’s to sell and the editor’s to edit and the publicist’s to publicize.  And that was that.  The emotionally complex, right-brained artistes could rest easy in the cool shadow, wait to be trotted out après martini or two for a well-attended reading now and then.  Or perhaps it was never that way and it’s just a bittersweet dream some of us share. 


But we can’t have it both ways, I realize.  So I swallow my panic at the mandate to “self-promote,” my discomfort at “marketing” an elegy/memoir/love story that is so intimate and meaningful to me.  I swallow the daunting, unhelpful knowledge that I have no idea how to do this and…well, I just start doing it, because the book and what I hope it transmits means that much to me.


And I can’t even begin to claim the same duress of solitude that a self-published author can.  I have a mid-sized Canadian press putting my book out, and a team of PR Angels from the Neocom Group that have taken on my plight with tremendous heart because they, too, believe in my work.  But still, it’s a grind through a very dark wood with many moments of temptation to lie down in the snow and go to fucking sleep. 


One such moment is what I intended this essay to address.  Let’s say that there’s a certain bookstore in a certain city in Oregon that has gained a great deal of traction as a sort of indie lit clearinghouse and has earned a reputation as ground zero for independent literature in the city and the region.  This store is proudly northwestern in addition to being proudly indie. 


My good friend, an affable, well-spoken law student approached this store for me regarding Clearly Now, the Rain, and after following up once or twice, received this response:


“I looked into Eli’s book and our buyers elected not to carry that title in stores.  We don’t bring inventory into stores through events, so we would decline a request to host Eli….We just can’t carry every title that gets published each season.” 


So, an independent-press published regional author with excellent blurbs (quotes), a kick-ass Kirkus review, and a memoir that takes places majorly in the northwest who’s grinding hard to get some traction isn’t suitable for this store.  (This is the point where I am concerned about the sound of the grapes, but fuck it.)  This does cause one to wonder what is suitable for this store, does it not?  A quick visit to this store’s website evidences no shortage of mainstream press-published, bestselling author, front-list type of titles spotlighted. 


If a giant independent bookstore features these titles and turns down…Christ, let’s just say it: turns me down…what precisely does “independent” mean anymore?  And more to the point, how do brick and mortar bookstores expect to survive if they don’t demonstrate any particular interest in, solidarity with or affinity for independent authors?


In case I’ve been too harsh on the anonymous J bookstore described above, I should probably add that myself or people working on publicity on my behalf have been simply ignored by all of the bookstores in New Orleans, the University Bookstore in Seattle, and others.  I suppose the question I’m arriving at is: why do bookstores matter anymore if they don’t persist in being locales for literary life and allies in the struggle against corporate domination of art? 


And, of course, every single vendor online can indeed “carry every title that’s published each season” if they wish. 


(Of course this same Oregon bookstore is selling my book online)


Stubborn Ounces: A Question

I’m sitting in the offices of the Social Justice Fund on the 8th floor of an old office building in the heart of downtown Seattle.  I’ve spent dozens of hours in this space, watching dust motes in the sunrays and, alternately, discussing and debating grant proposals, race and class issues and strategies for social change.  I’m no longer a board member after four transformative years, but it still feels a bit like work—and a bit like a kind of home.  I’m back here to sit on a committee that will pool brainpower for the efforts of large-scale fundraising. 


On the wall is a handwritten copy of a poem by Bonaro Overstreet, which a staff member pinned to the wall to break open the last long meeting I sat through here (if memory serves).


Stubborn Ounces


You say the little efforts

Will do no good, they will

Never prevail to tip the hovering scale

Where justice hangs

In the balance


I don’t think I ever

Thought they would.  But I am

Prejudiced beyond debate in

Favor of my right to choose

Which side shall feel the stubborn

Ounces of my weight


On the way here this afternoon, Democracy Now’s daily podcast played in my ear through the new Bluetooth earpiece that I bought to raise my safety quotient (though on a motorcycle, it’s really neither here nor there since I wouldn’t likely be noodling my phone with one hand anyway).  As per policy, DN throws their beams of light around neglected corners of the days’ dark news.  In this case, that meant spotlighting the numerous and passionate street protests that have indeed erupted since the Zimmerman verdict came down on Saturday night.  Without the char and bite of blood and fire from riots in the air, the MSM would have us thinking that all was quiet on the sweltering blocks of America.  Not true: instead, as one youth activist stated on the show, young people are smarter than riots now—they have social media and savvy and history lessons and, just slightly, the momentum of the modern world on their side. 


But I wonder how all the young activists in the streets of Austin and New York City and Oakland and Tallahassee feel about stubborn ounces.  I can recall wrestling with this notion myself in college, long before I ever heard of the poem.  In 1997 I marched with the United Farm Workers through Watsonville, CA to protest the brutality and exploitation embodied by the strawberry industry (I also got tossed from an IHOP for distributing flyers to waffle-and-compote munchers, which felt carefree compared to the march under central Cali heat and the glares of state troopers).  I remember telling a friend who’d tagged along for the adventure of it that “I’d march even if I knew for a fact that it wasn’t going to do any good for the workers—it’s still the right thing to do.”  I was more thinking aloud than articulating a philosophy; I was asking myself the question more than stating a principle.  It just came out as conviction like so much of my hubris did then. 


But in truth I am not sure I’ve answered the question fully.  I’m not as sure as Overstreet.  When placing your stubborn ounces costs you tears, blood and sweat, does it make sense to place them when you don’t necessarily believe they will tally a victory or a change?  Does it make sense instead to place them on scales that they can tip?  And what does that mean?  What does that look like?  Should I finish my module on trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy instead of blogging about Trayvon Martin so I can serve my clients with more clinical skill tomorrow?  Should I go home and play with my son tenderly to inch him toward a man I can be proud of in this world instead of attending another SJF meeting?


What do you think?  

Jack London Bar: Writing & Healing (& Gratitude)

It was with tremendous trepidation that I descended the staircase into the dark, gritty space of the Jack London Bar (downstairs of the Rialto Room in old town Portland) last night to deliver a “lecture,” a proposition that would have, at many an era in my life, seemed unlikely or downright laughable.  A disco strobe swept the cavernous space and a brilliant young dude named Seth spoke eloquently about the history of mental illness in Oregon.  It was like a combination of a liberal arts symposium and a raucous bender.  But soon enough love and suppor trickled in, in the form of faces old and new–college classmates, activist colleagues, high school homies, and the occasional stranger.   I did my best to speak truth about the experience of writing & healing in my personal and professional life and found that, as I did so, I was weaving myself into a more real and integrated state.  I am deeply grateful to all the love–Lessie, Ben, Alex, Perla, Abel, Larry, Laurel, Paul–and the incredible guidance and support from savvy Mike and smooth Alexis of the Neocom Group.


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#clearlynowtherain #launched! @ #EBB






All due respect to the various kick-ass indie lit stores in Seattle, we all know where the mother ship is—well, you know if you haven’t been living elsewhere and missed the headline that the mother ship is no longer docked in drafty, desolate Pioneer Square and is now a crown jewel in the hipster crown of Capitol Hill.  Yes, I’m talking about Elliott Bay Book Company, the mecca of memoir, the coffee table of coffee table books, the real story of the novel, the palace of poetry, etc.  My good friend Amanda Carr’s parents founded the store some indecent number of years ago (I say indecent only because I just creaked out of my 35th year yesterday and am feeling it), and I don’t know if they knew what they were creating, culturally speaking.  I read at the original EBB in 2006, from my first book, Falling Room, and was daunted and humbled by the proverbial size of the stage I took. 


 One might think that seven years later, I’d be less daunted and humbled by taking the stage again, but that wasn’t the case.  The great Benjamin Percy was the last person I saw sit a folding chair in the soft glare of those track lights.  So when I got there Saturday and schlepped my pounds of beer and ice and sausage and cheese and wine through the underground catacombs and into the cavernous and cinematic reading room, I just sat up there, quiet and alone for a few minutes, looking out and trying to channel the poise of Percy—but I was already feeling the churn of emotion that I knew this evening would bring me. I felt incredibly grateful when Emily Holt, my colleague and friend from Pongo Teen Writing arrived and we started sitting that space together. 


It is one thing to pack the house for any literary gig (especially on a sunny Solstice eve), but it’s quite another to pack it with people from nearly every realm of my life: childhood homies, my late father’s employee-friends, my grandmother-in-law, my clinical internship instructor, my co-interns, activists and allies from social social justice work, family of blood and choice, kick ass writers of all genres, babies and toddlers and even if a few curious strangers!  And it’s another thing altogether to have all those people uncross their arms and lean in and show not only interest, but deep love and solidarity. 


I don’t want to make it sound like this reading was a therapy session, of course.  It was much better than that.  It was the launch of a love story that I’ve carried around carefully for many years.  And it had to happen at Elliott Bay Book Company. 




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I’m probably writing this now because it’s something I know how to do: write. Versus, say, pushing text and hyperlink pebbles around on Twitter. Or cold calling media figures with the hail mary request that they become instantly interested in my book and go out of their way to interview me. Or trying really, really hard for a really, really long time to figure out how to integrate my personal FB page with my “author” FB page in a way that make sense. I don’t know how to do these things with any dexterity and grace. I don’t know how to do these things without self-doubt and wincing. But I know how to write. I know how to write about pain, frustration, humor, love, dogs, toddlers, loss, grief, healing, masculinity and a lot of other things. I just need someone to put the fucking hashtags on right.


There is so much to say about the process of independently marketing a book. I dare to hope that someday I will be able to share what I’ve learned effectively, but for the moment I’m just praying—and scouring the web—for more resources that can guide me. Mike Philips and Alexis Dane @ the Neocom Group have been godsends, but they have day jobs, of course. I’m sure Guy Kawasaki would rock my world—but his webinars are always scheduled when I’m working. Bleary-eyed, I’ve perused the bookshelves for guerrilla marketing titles after long days of counseling young people about problems far graver than selling books, but none of them has felt accessible somehow.


This new era is a bitch. It demands equal parts social media/guerrilla marketing prowess and artistry. Since when do we find those two attributes firmly rooted together in a person? Very rarely. They literally require different parts of the brain. When I wax all wishful about a mainstream publisher that would just handle my shit for me in fine form, my friends chuckle at me—I’m too young to be nostalgic for that era. I never knew it. I just fantasized about it. Anymore, it doesn’t exist. And I’m sharp enough (at least after coffee and conversation) to know that those authors who are up and coming and somehow do get some sort of quasi silver platter treatment by big presses are actually being done a disservice in the long run, unless they can stick the dismount perfectly and transform themselves into the next John Irving or whatever. I say John Irving as if he doesn’t tweet. He probably does. Those of us that are being forged by this new era of self-promotion via social media will one day be grateful for it, I’m sure. When we read the epitaph on Random House our hearts won’t be as troubled. When publishers themselves have become irrelevant, the new humble rulers of the literary space will be people who know how—because they learned by necessity—to do it without big corporate hands.


I know this, even feel it in my bones sometimes—yet when I find two hours a day to drag my tired mind through Twitter feeds and message boards and Goodreads member logs instead of writing one of the twenty-six essays or stories that are thumping in the attic of my life, I sometimes wonder if I’m on the right track.

Badges of Hope

Cowlicks and peach fuzz, wilding dreadlocks and casual piercings and sleeves of green script tattoos.  Kids in here wear badges of cool intended to contradict the irremovable signs of their youth, which feel more like scars by the time they’re hunched in Echo Hall with Pongo mentors.  Many say they wish they were older—and why wouldn’t they?  All the liabilities of adulthood have been strapped on them since they were far younger than they are now; hunger for the relative privileges of adulthood is comprehensible.  I want to tell them not to hurry, but it’s too late.  I don’t know how to tell them to flip a U-turn on the interstate.  I want to believe and therefore be able to tell them that there are still carefree times to be had, but it’s a lie that I could only believe if I failed to examine my own life.  A liberal arts college degree and raucous rule-free dormitory are not in many of these kids’ futures.  To try to resuscitate childhood in this kind of dormitory—deadbolts and rubber tables, surveillance cams and plexi-glass—is a joke.  Often, the best we find here is eulogy for childhood.  Inasmuch as eulogy is intended to bring closure, it’s a worthy aim.


So this is the context for how I find myself thinking about the presidential election tonight: which candidate is likely to care about the welfare of these kids robbed of their innocence?  Which candidate possesses the empathy to witness these children as something other than statistics?  Which candidate has the ability to cut through fog of stigma around their actions and see the resilience manifest in their survival?  I’m under no illusion that “at-risk youth” or juvenile “justice” is at the forefront of either candidate’s mind anymore than climate change.  But, much like climate change, we can assume that one candidate at least believes that it’s a problem—and, much like climate change, it’s a problem that threatens our future.



Once upon a time a story was something that my father used to put me to sleep or my mother used to keep my mind off fatigue on a long hike up the damp throat of a North Cascades trail.  I’m not sure I thought of ET or Star Wars as stories as such, but those, in concert with the limitless world of Narnia and the golden yarns spun by authors like Madeline L’Engle represented escape and liberation from my own world that was cracking under the weight of divorce and discord and other humdrum sorrows.  More than sports, pulpy YA novels with the right measure of gore and fright got me through early adolescence and by the time I was pretending to be too cool to read, I had deciphered my own desire to write stories, something that was unique rather than odd, something I could balance on in the crucible of image that was high school.  If you slid off from an afternoon kegger with a red cup and a spiral notebook and scribbled away by your lonesome, it was decidedly more acceptable than cracking a book of any sort to read.  In college, textbooks shouldered out novels and stories for the most part, but in the brief slices of time between semesters I would devour literature with a stored-up hunger—and I could still find time to pen purple prose poems about heartbreak and the facades that sickened me.  Of course I still knew very little of sorrow, and when I learned, it was writing the stories of loss and enshrining the memories of what was gone in story that saved me from a crevasse that otherwise might have swallowed language entirely.  Specifically, had I not had stories to write about my gone father, I wouldn’t have returned to graduate school after his death.  Specifically, if I hadn’t had a month at the Vermont Studio Center in 2005, I might not have lived much longer after my best friend’s life ended on a cold street. In the first decade of this century, my love for story curdled and turned—on me, or me on it.  I was possessed with the urgency of my fiction, convinced that my life would be spent dashing out novels of searing political critique wrapped in human cloth, publishing them with far-reaching presses and collecting the permission to do nothing else.  As most manuscripts piled up unpublished, despair and humility fought for dominion of my writing life—and that fight has not yet finished.  But something else happened, too.  In truth I’d been wading around in the healing power of storytelling for a long time—both for myself and for my students—but it was uncouth and sometimes improper to make it intentional in the classroom, where the focus was on objective quality and measurable conventions and concluded, usually, with letter grades.  Then I found Pongo Teen Writing.  Through Pongo I learned about the power of alchemy that can happen through poems (which are stories by nearly any measure): from victim to survivor, from shame at what has happened to pride in having lived through it.  And from Pongo the leap into youth therapy was clear, if also daunting.  When I sit with troubled, sorrowful, manic, traumatized but resilient kids in session now, they tell me stories.  And I listen for morals, for holes in the plot, for lack of detail or too much and what either might suggest.  I ask questions and I offer advice for revision; I try to get them to tell a new version of the story, one that leads in the general direction of liberation, even if it’s just a horizon for now.  I don’t tell them that I know what it’s like when an editor steps in tells you’ve missed a great opportunity—that maybe you can keep the frame but have to start from scratch on the content.  I do tell them that the stories we tell ourselves about our lives can mean life or death, liberation or imprisonment.