The Story Behind the Story: The Mind-Body Problem

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A few years back, I attended the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop as a guest. This was one of the perks associated with being a reader for the magazine, but I’ll admit, I felt like an interloper, sitting in on the craft talks and lectures among those submitting their work for review by the Authors of Great Renown–moreover, attending the workshop meant returning to the Reed College campus and sitting in the same lecture halls I had occupied, briefly, as an undergrad.

Briefly, because I only attended one semester of my freshman year before dropping out–due to a combination of factors I might summarize, today, as academic culture, climate, and depression, but which I could not, at the time, summarize at all.

I only knew that whenever I tried to talk with anyone there, I felt as if I’d lost a pint of blood–and that after a lifetime of general confidence in my own intelligence, I no longer felt sure of anything at all. I was also having trouble eating. And staying awake.

I’m sure I wasn’t the first high-achieving freshman who, when faced with Reed’s combination of secret grades (you get them, but you can’t see them), dark, dank winter weather, philosophical inquiry, and academic rigor–the introduction to which is known as The Foundations of Western Civ–suffered an affliction of this sort.

But though I’d returned to the campus a time or two since my return to Portland in my thirties, I had not yet really begun to grapple with what in the hell, exactly, happened to me there.

After one of the craft talks at Tin House, I remember, I was making my way slowly across campus, headed toward my car, in a trancelike state–overwhelmed by emotion, and by the truth of remembering, which is not the same as summarizing, and not at all the same thing as the words we use to convince ourselves that we understand our own story.

What I remembered, clearly, from that semester at Reed was the sense that I had stumbled onto some fundamental truth about Western civilization–the rot at the very heart of it, which was tied to the split between the mind and the body, the abstract and the Earth, and between men and women as well–a truth that would ultimately lead to its downfall.

Remembered too the sense that I had taken a wrong turn in my life, and if I didn’t get back to my original timeline, I would be inundated with further revelations of this sort, and might, in fact, lose my mind.

As I crossed the campus that day in 2014, lost in thought, I heard a voice from behind me–it was Jess Walter, the Author of Great Renown, whom I’d met in the course of my MFA program at Pacific. He asked me how I was doing, and I told him the truth: I felt a bit haunted.

By the ghost of who I’d been, and by the life I might have lived if I had stayed there.

But perhaps most of all, haunted by the sense of promise I’d had, on that exquisitely beautiful college campus, when I was eighteen years old, right off the train across the country from the Midwest–and how quickly that sense of promise disappeared.

Jess said, “Doesn’t everyone feel that when they return to their old college campus?” And almost immediately, I felt a sense of relief. Whatever this was I was experiencing, however weird it was, I was not alone in this.

And then he said–of course!–“You have to write about this.”

A year or so later, Gigi Little of Forest Avenue Press put out the call for stories in the tradition of Weird Tales set in Portland, and I knew the time had come. I wrote “The Mind-Body Problem” as a kind of ghost story, about a mysterious book that appears to students at Reed College when they’re in danger of dying, or when they’ve been marked.

Marked by what, exactly, I’ll leave you to say.

“The Mind-Body Problem” was published last October in Forest Avenue’s City of Weird anthology, a Powell’s bestseller–and this October, to mark the one-year anniversary of its publication, I’m releasing this story to my Patreon subscribers.

Patreon is a crowdfunding platform that provides ongoing support for artists, funding the time it takes to produce creative work. Since the spring of 2016, my patrons have funded the creation of fifteen original short stories/chapters, most of them at a level of $1/month.

Want to read “The Mind-Body Problem”? Join them, and support my voice and vision in the world. Or purchase City of Weird here.

Thanks for reading–and thanks for your support!

SD

 

Recommended Reading: Season of the Witch

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In this month’s column for LitReactor, I share six dark fairy tales that everyone should read–by the end of the month, of course–by the women who reinvented the form: Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Kate Bernheimer, and Karen Joy Fowler.

The term fairy tale is often deployed for things that seem too good to be true (say, a fairy tale romance). But of course that’s misleading; real fairy tales are as dark as stories come.

The term has also been deployed to diminish the weird work of female authors—who, in eschewing the cold, hard truths of realism, it has been assumed, must be writing for the nursery.

Of course fairy tales have long been loved by children. But the tender tots of yesteryear—prone to a whole host of deadly diseases—were raised on harder stuff than Disney, and in recent years, the walls between the fantastic and the realistic, genre and literary, have in many ways come tumbling down.

And it’s about time, is it not?

After all, when our ancestors gathered around campfires, they did not tell realistic tales of the bison hunt gone wrong; they told stories of monsters and giants and talking animals. As such, the fantastic is not some odd little outgrowth of the narrative tradition, but rather, the root of the narrative impulse itself.

Below are six dark fairy tales everyone should read, by the women who’ve reinvented the form.

Read the rest of the post over at LitReactor.

An Open Letter to Young Writers

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For anyone young, serious about writing, and anxious about the great gamble that is a career in the arts, I’d like to share a version of a talk I recently gave to the creative writing students of the Interlochen Arts Academy, the boarding school I attended as a teenager, in Northern Michigan.

In the final leg of a book tour spanning the better part of a year, on and off, and around twenty events, this one was special. Because Interlochen was the place, more than any other, where I became a writer.

I composed my remarks to these kids in the course of the two-hour ride up from Hart, fresh off of my appearance at my hometown library, brimming with emotion. It was the same journey I had made at eighteen, on the cusp of a move that would set my trajectory in life, perhaps more than any other.

Please feel free to share with any young writers in your life.

What an honor it is to be here today.

I’ve sat where you’re sitting today, in these intimate sessions with authors like Peter Mathiesson, Stuart Dybek, and Jamaica Kincaid–groundbreaking, world-class authors, literary heavyweights.

I’m not going to stand here today and claim to be one of them.

But I am one of you, twenty years in the future.

Walking these halls makes me feel like a time traveler–like, at any moment, I could step around a corner and come face to face with the younger version of myself, the one who was a creative writing student here.

And if I were to come face to face with that person–the one who pushed the dress code to its breaking point, sporting the dreadlocks that her Norwegian grandmother would graciously offer to help her comb out on the morning of her graduation–perhaps she and I would enter into one of those paradoxes of time travel that would cause us both to disappear.

Or perhaps we would enter into one of Hofstadter’s strange loops, and I’d thereafter inhabit those same twenty years, always returning to the past at the moment of this encounter.

But if I did, as magical as that would be, as fantastic, it surely would not be the most magical or fantastic thing that has occurred on the campus of the Interlochen Arts Academy. A friend and fellow alum describes this place as the Hogwarts of the arts, and I think it’s true: you all are in the process of learning magic–or at least, the closest thing to magic that any of us will ever know–and it’s a great privilege to return here, twenty years hence, as a published author.

Back in the nineties, I was a scholarship student from rural Michigan, and I remember that when I came to school here, I wanted very much to impress someone–certainly my peers, but especially my teachers. Because as you know, the teachers at Interlochen are extraordinary people, brilliant and empathetic and accomplished authors themselves. They were who I wanted to be when I grew up.

The problem was, I was surrounded by other students equally intent on the same thing. And I soon discovered that my peers were just as smart, just as dedicated to the craft, and just as competitive as I was–moreover, many of them had attended much better schools before matriculating to Interlochen, and they knew more than I did. At that point in our lives, they were simply better writers.

That year, my senior year, I found myself working harder than I ever had at public school–really, I was working hard at school, at writing, for the first time in my life. And finally, eventually, I seemed to produce something that had the desired effect.

My instructors had some kind things to say about this work–one cycle of poems, and one short story–and here, at last, I had managed to accomplish what I had set out to do at Interlochen.

But just as soon as I’d satisfied one burning desire–the desire to impress my instructors–I was consumed by another. Because there was something I wanted these instructors to say to me, something they never did.

I wanted them to say to me, essentially, “You should send this out for publication.” Or, “This is good enough to get published.” Or, “You should send this to my friend at [X publication].” Or even, “I have a friend at a journal. Let me send this out on your behalf.”

Of course, that’s not something I could admit at the time–it’s embarrassing to admit it even now. But I am admitting it, because it’s the truth, and I think it’s an important truth to acknowledge: As a young writer, I desperately wanted the validation that comes with publication.

Twenty years later, I’ve had my work published in a wide array of magazines, journals, and anthologies. I’ve also achieved a dream I’ve had since childhood, which was to have a novel published. And I can’t say that it hasn’t meant a lot to me.

But if I were to run into that younger version of myself here at Interlochen–the one who wanted her first publishing credit so badly–there are a few things I, as a time traveler, would want to let her know.

The first and most important thing I’d want her to know is that publication, while it can indeed be validating, is often quite hollow. Which is something even most adults have no sense of.

I see it at creative writing conferences and author events all the time–those in the audience are generally more interested in how the author managed to get published than in what it took to actually write well enough to do so.

Don’t get me wrong: getting published is brutally necessary to establishing a literary career, and if you want doors to open for you in almost any corner of the literary arena, you will have to pursue publishing with what will feel at times like nearly as much dedication as you pursue your art.

But I think when you’re just starting out, there’s the suggestion that publishing will quench this deep longing in you, this almost unbearable desire to be heard and seen, and that’s not always the case. In fact, it very often isn’t.

What will satisfy that longing is connecting with people over the things you have written, whether that’s with your peers or instructors in a creative writing workshop, your friends and family members, or, later in life, members of your writers group, or the audience members at a reading.

This is not to say that people will not respond to the work that you have published–only that publishing can often feel like shouting into the void, or checking off a box in building a CV, rather than that actual longed-for thing, which is being seen and heard and known, and connecting with others of like mind.

Out of the many places I’ve had my work featured, it wasn’t necessarily the most prestigious publications that provided that sense. It was the column I wrote for the alternative monthly in my small mountain town, the one that everyone read and wanted to talk to me about; it was the anthology of local authors in Portland, Oregon, that introduced me to the work of younger writers I’d never heard of and connected me with older authors who were way above my pay grade–connections that made me part of a larger community.

And yes, publishing a book has allowed me to connect in this way, with people who have been moved by my work, who want to talk to me about it, who feel the urge to grapple with the ideas and emotions and images I have shared, with the vision I have presented.

But it’s been twenty years from where you’re sitting to where I’m standing now, and there’s been a whole lot of longing in between. So part of what I’d like to suggest–part of the advice I’d like to give you, as a time traveler–is that rather than expending all your energies in trying to impress each other, or impressing your instructors, you offer each other that thing you yourself are longing for.

See each other’s work, the heart of it, the ideas behind it, the unique point of view and potentials behind it. Take the work of your peers seriously; do your best to understand not only what it is but what it could be, and learn to share those insights with professionalism and kindness.

These are gifts that will return to you tenfold in the years to come. And in the end, that’s what writing is about–not just the words on the page, but the connections they create, from one mind, one heart, to another.

All of which put to mind a few other pieces of advice I might have for you, a young writer, as a time traveler:

(1) Take care of your body

The life of the mind can be hard on the body. Like many of you, I’m sure, I grew up hating sports, in part because of how seriously my rural community took them, and how little love it seemed to have for the arts. I hated the brutishness of sports culture, the aggressiveness of high school jocks, the shouting and frenzy and pointless spectacle of it all.

But as you get older, you may begin to appreciate what physical discipline will do for you, in terms of both your health and your sanity.

Also: many people will say that writing is simply a matter of applying butt to seat, but studies in neuroscience suggest that staring at a screen is not necessarily the best way to engage your brain.  If you want to improve the way your brain works, especially when you get stuck on a project, move your body.

(2) Take care of your community

If you’re serious about establishing a career in the arts, you’re going to have some hustle around that, which will likely include the jockeying for position with publications, awards, and other forms of recognition.

But I think it’s important to look up from all of that on a regular basis and remember that writing and reading itself–not to mention critical thinking and empathy–are themselves under assault in this country, and in many places around the world. Don’t miss the forest for the trees; we’re all in this together, and what we’re doing is vitally important to the future of our culture.

In this, I think it’s especially important to connect with and encourage writers who are younger and less experienced than you are, even if their work is not yet well developed or suited to your tastes. The same thing is important whenever you meet people who read–take the time to connect with them on that, to encourage them on that, no matter what their tastes may be.

Along those same lines, if you spend the years of your apprenticeship–which, with writing, tend to be long–boosting the signal of other authors and celebrating the work of great presses, journals, and literary curators, you’ll find that when your moment in the sun arrives, you’ll have an entire literary community behind you.

(3) Take care of your poets

This note is really for the prose writers in the room. Because out of the three genres generally found in creative writing programs–fiction, nonfiction, and poetry–it’s the poets who tend to have the most difficult time in the world.

Poets are often the most sensitive individuals in our community–the most tuned in to what’s happening at the fringes of society, its frontiers, at the edges of possibility, at the edge of human experience and thought. Moreover, they are the least supported in society as a whole, which has largely decided that poetry is unnecessary.

But prose writers, remember this: We need poetry. We need people working tinkering in the laboratory of language, people pointing out to us what’s beyond the scope of ordinary awareness, people showing us what’s next, what’s coming down the line–particularly poets from historically marginalized communities.

Read the work of Natalie Diaz, Layli Longsoldier, Morgan Parker, Terrance Hayes, Ocean Vuong, Tyehimba Jess, Danez Smith, Jamaal May, Claudia Rankine, Patricia Smith.  Buy poetry. Talk about poetry. Be an ally to poets, and you will be richly rewarded as a writer of prose.

I read poetry each morning at breakfast. I recommend this practice as an antidote to despair.

(4) Read for a journal

Finally, if you’re serious about getting published, nothing will open your eyes to the realities of publishing more than volunteering with a journal. You can do this in your undergrad years and you can do this in grad school, if you go on to grad school, but you can also do it outside of the academic system.

The world is full of journals that are a total labor of love, on the part of people irrationally committed to the future of literature, and to the persistence of critical and empathetic thinking. They will welcome you you with open arms in this scrappy and vital enterprise.

But more than anything, don’t give up. If it feels sometimes like the world is trying to wear you down, trying to push you into choosing any other path in life, remember, the arts are the very closest thing we have to magic, and that magic can change the world.

Coming Home to Hart

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I’m from a small town in rural West Michigan, and this week, I returned to my hometown library a published author.

Though it wasn’t a huge crowd–maybe twenty or so–extra chairs had to be brought out to accommodate those in attendance, among them my old teachers, former neighbors, and high school classmates. The questions were personal and intelligent and heartfelt, full of love for both me and the written word.

Friends, it meant so much to me.

Whenever I remember to take pictures, it’s usually when an event it over. But here’s what I can share–the text of the presentation I gave.

 

Thanks to Kay and Theresa and Sherry and everyone at the Hart Public Library for having me, and thanks to my mother, Sally DeFreitas, for helping to set up this event. As many of you know, my mother is an author herself, and I’d like to start off by offering a shameless plug for her latest book, a memoir entitled Shipwrecked Three Times—the true story of a Michigan farm girl who went to sea in the Caribbean in the 1960s, and I know I’m biased, but I think it’s a both a really fun adventure and a great read.

Many of you here have known me since I was a kid, and many of you know that I’ve been serious about writing since I was young, and that I’ve been many places since leaving Hart, my hometown. For my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to attend the Interlochen Arts Academy, where I’ll be reading tomorrow; for college, I went west to Prescott College, and I decided that I liked the little mountain town of Prescott so well that I wound up spending the next fourteen years of my life there. Then, around thirty, I moved up to Portland, Oregon, for my Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing—these days, I split my time between there and Charleston, South Carolina, where my husband is from, and where he has received a two-year contract position.

And although I’ve had a book launch at the Powell’s in Portland, which is the largest independent bookstore in the world, and read at Peregrine Books in Prescott, where my debut novel is set, and where many people recognize very specific things that I’ve written about—I have to say, it’s a particular thrill to read at the Hart Public Library.

All writers start off as voracious readers, and as a kid, the Hart Public Library was my perpetually restocked buffet. Of course, this was the old location, which looked right out over the playground, and the playground and the library in my imaginative geography constituted one thing: a place to dream and play. (This internal geography was further extended for me when I started doing plays at the State Street Gym, which of course once stood where the new library stands today.) And so this section of town still has a sort of shine to it for me, a sort of special allure.

I started off as a reader with middle-grade mysteries (like the Trixie Belden series) but quickly moved on to historical fiction, as well as science fiction and fantasy. Some books from the Hart Public Library that wound up having a big impact on me:

A series of historical novels featuring plucky girl heroines—I remember there was a series of 50, with each novel bearing the title of a different state. Not a bad way to learn some US history!
Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME, which is now being made into a movie featuring Oprah (is anyone else as excited as I am?), as well as MANY WATERS and A SWIFTLY TILTING PLANET.
A fabulous mystery for smart kids called THE WESTING GAME. If you’ve got a puzzle-lover on your hands, I highly recommend it. Same for another book I loved, THE EGYPT GAME.

As I grew older, I read my way through every genre in the Hart Public Library, including mysteries and thrillers, biographies, pop science, historical fiction, fantasy and sci fi, and even horror and romance (thank you, discreet library ladies, for not telling my mother!).

Years later, I’ve found that this is something that sets me apart from my peers, both in terms of authors and editors. Because while those years at Interlochen—and later Prescott College and Pacific University—definitely gave me a taste for the sort of top-shelf fiction that people tend to think of as literary (or even literature), I still love all the genres.

I love the whole world of writing and reading—the way it creates a kind of intimacy between the author and the reader, and the way it really can give you access to another person’s mind (in a way that TV and movies really just can’t).

I love the way reading can open your mind and expand your horizons, especially when you’re from a small town.

That’s why I love libraries—especially small-town libraries, and the Hart Public Library most of all.

I also love this corner of my hometown, which I think is a good reminder in these fraught, politically charged times, of the good that can come when we invest in civic life, in our kids, in education and the arts and in the basic infrastructure that supports families raising kids.

I could go on about that, but I imagine if you’re here, you’re probably interested in this book that I wrote, called HOT SEASON.

I’ll say first that it took me a whole lot longer to get a book published than I thought I would. I won the Young Author’s Award in three different categories when I was a kid, as well as some awards for theater, and I received a scholarship to attend Interlochen; I thought I would have my first novel published before I was 20.

It only took me another 20 years to make good on that goal.

As it turned out, writing a novel was a lot harder than I’d thought it would be, and so was publishing one. In my twenties, I wrote and rewrote the same novel over and over, and eventually I realized that it just wasn’t working. So I went back to school and got my MFA, and during the course of that program, I wrote a collection of linked stories set in a fictional version of that high-desert Arizona town I’d lived in for so long, Prescott. These stories were based on real events involving the struggle to save the Verde River from development, which is a struggle that continues to this day.

My sense was that this book was not the sort of thing that would interest the big houses of the New York publishing industry, so I went directly to the small presses. And I did find a fair amount of interest for the book there—but no one wanted to publish it as linked stories.

So I took the manuscript back to the drawing board and cut it apart, and eventually I decided to rework the first third of that big manuscript as a novel, and that novel is called HOT SEASON.

The novel is a coming-of-age-story set in a town called Crest Top, Arizona, and it follows the fortunes of three roommates—two freshmen and a senior—all of whom are involved in the fight to save the Greene River, and all of whom are seduced by the same young man, who may or may not be an undercover agent.

Set in 2004, it’s a novel that explores the way the US Patriot Act, in the wake of 9/11, really impacted the way the government treats activists, and environmental activists in particular, under antiterrorism laws—when in fact, you know, these people are not terrorists, in any thing approaching the same sense as those who attacked the Twin Towers. These are really just everyday Americans exercising their First Amendment rights and trying to make a difference in the world, in the face of some really horrendous destruction affecting the natural world, which we’re seeing these days, and will be seeing even more of in the days to come, with the future of life on earth on the line.

So it’s a political book. But it’s also a book about college, about young people trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for and what they’re willing to do about it—trying to figure out what sounds good philosophically but is in fact maybe really a dumb thing to do in practice. As such, there’s a lot of humor in it as well.

And while this little small-press book of mine, which launched last November, certainly hasn’t wound up on any bestseller lists, it has racked up some cool accolades. It was a 2016 Staff Pick from Powell’s Books, and The Portland Mercury wrote a review claiming that my book was better than Jonathan Franzen’s latest. Oregon’s state’s largest newspaper named me as “One of 25 Oregon Authors Every Oregonian Must Read,” and the Arizona Daily Sun called it “A brisk read with a potent mix of wit and edge.”

HOT SEASON has also received national recognition: The Huffington Post called it “a stunning debut,”; Read It Forward and BookRiot both recommended it. And in May, HOT SEASON took the 2017 Gold Independent Publisher’s Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West.

But my favorite review comes from an anonymous Amazon customer, who had this to say:

I loved this book, it is so beautifully crafted. The author’s words weave through the plot and setting with such lyricism, that the story truly casts a spell around the reader. The story is told from the viewpoint of four young women, whose lives intertwine not only through proximity in a small university town in Northern Arizona, but also through similar political and love interests. The plot heats up just like a hot desert day, each degree adding to the risk of wildfire, both in the inner and outer landscapes of these women.

The book leaves the reader pondering some big questions. How far are we willing to go for our beliefs? Can we ever truly know the full impact of our actions? In the face of uncertainty is it better to risk everything or stay on the sidelines? DeFreitas takes us on that journey, showing us characters who struggle to save a river, even as they struggle to find themselves. The very different paths taken by these women all come together in an intensely dramatic climax that leaves the reader reeling, both heartsick and hopeful all at the same time.

Set against a very vivid southwest backdrop, Hot Season is based in part on real events, making the story just that much more compelling. I highly recommend this book, and am giving it five stars.

I’m going to read a bit from the book, then I’ll open it up for questions.