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“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This month’s “Banal and Profane” column comes to us from writer Tenea D. Johnson.
After time well spent in alphabet cities-NYC, ATL, and DC-Tenea lives near the beach where she writes speculative fiction and creates compositions of prose to music. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including Necrologue: Diva Book of the Dead and the Undead, Whispers in the Night: Dark Dreams III, Tangle, and Arise. She is the author of the poetry collection Starting Friction and, so far, two novels, Smoketown (Blind Eye Books) and R/evolution (counterpoise).
Raking the leaves. Out in front of my house there’s a huge old oak tree, 300 years old maybe and nearly five stories tall with a crown that dwarfs the house and the one next door. The tree sold the house and I love living in its shadow—until of course I’ve let the leaves accumulate, thinking of the last time I had to get rid of the leaves. Now I have to do something about them or just write off the lawn completely (which a good number of people in my city do, what with all these oak trees). I’ve tried raking and “arduous” doesn’t begin to describe it. I have no choice but the leaf blower, which is ironic because I’ve always hated leaf blowers. They seemed the mark of everything wrong with a certain kind of life: loud, inefficient, and lazy. But now I understand its necessity, the leaf blower. As I’m blowing what will end up being 24 bags of leaves, I’m thinking that writing is this way, like the tree: mighty beautiful, wiser and older than me, but still so much maintenance, all the little tasks, all the little moments drifting away until they accumulate and I’m left looking at a mountain of what I need to get done before it chokes out the life underneath.
1000 words. I write short so for me this is usually a good amount of space, but for book excerpts I quickly learn as I try to get the right feel and back-story that 1000 words is not much space at all. I got up early to get the excerpts done and sent off before work. I just barely make it before I have to leave.
After work I endure bridge traffic to get to a show. Soon I’m sitting in a front balcony with a Jack and Ginger in my hand waiting for a sold out Mary J. Blige concert to start. I’ve started going to concerts alone and I have to say I’m a fan; soul music seems to be the best for this. If you pick the right show it’s like church without the religion: thousands of people gather to experience something that connects them with themselves and each other, some memory or moment that’s so alive it pushes its way out of them in the form of mostly off-key singing. But first they get dressed up, and wait for it, sitting in this strangely intimate space. At some point if the artist is any good most of them lose themselves – hopefully at once. For this, Mary J. Blige definitely delivers.
Have you ever heard 2000 women (and about 150 men) sing every lyric to “I’m Going Down,” with all their hearts and absolutely no prompting? I have, and it’s pretty amazing. What’s even better about this particular tune is that it’s not originally her song. So once upon a time it affected her (I’ll go out on limb here and say maybe it wasn’t a purely sales/marketing decision to record the song) and now it’s affected them, these 2000 or so women singing with abandon.
I record them on my phone and later play it for friends, and myself when I want to smile.
Conference schedules: all your latent interests exposed. Conference panels are so odd, or at least oddly titled– these topics you’d never think about, really, until someone decided to sit down and do so, mixed in with others that you just have to witness as soon as you read the title, and then there’s the stuff that’s so esoteric it may never be spoken of again. I wonder, is that reason enough to go?
Looking over the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts schedule I realize that I have a poetry reading, which is one more reading than I thought I had: cool. It’s during China Mieville’s reading: not so cool. And this means maybe I should write some poems in the next 48 hours: normally quite cool, today negligible. I make dinner arrangements for ICFA and turn to the day’s unpleasantness: PR/Marketing—essential and unnatural. I am learning to overcome my first instinct and just do the damn thing. Working up pitch ideas for profiles, look for more places to review R/evolution, followed by internal debates about ebook pricing. Does less expensive seem like a bargain, low-risk way to try out an emerging* author or seem less valuable? This comes up at my day job as well. There are too many things in my head; I go workout.
Have a new story coming out soon, “Only Then Can I Sleep.” I’ve decided to post the audio up to publicize a bit more and to get myself back to recording. I have a fiction album slated for release this year and between PR for the novels, looking for a new job, and working on the second R/evolution book, I’m not getting enough done on the music. After much ado, I end up not recording “Only Then” yet. I’ll need a second voice anyway. Instead I listen to the music I’ve already recorded to decide what to work on more, which melodies to develop, and what to trash. I’m stunned at how many snippets and full blown songs I’ve totally forgotten about. 75 pieces to review. Two of the tracks for the upcoming album are effectively done, but perhaps need to be remastered? Ugh. Essentially I just want to put mastering effects on the final tracks, tweak a couple of other effects, call it a day. But really there are only so many things you can do if the initial recording has issues. This is why I’m not a studio engineer. My mind starts to wander back to R/evolution Book Two and I jot a few sentences down where I sit. I go to the computer to get it down before it floats away, leaving everything on in the studio I realize a little while later as I sit typing. Maybe the album will be an LP instead of an EP.
*Emerging from what? I always wonder when I hear this.
Work. All errands, all day as I finalize job tasks at the end the short work week and get ready for the conference. Search for cheapest gas, fastest free/ healthy foods. Look over online listings for a new job.
I contemplate website renovation and draft a target schedule for fiction album release. After it’s a search through local newspapers to get a better idea of who to pitch for the local author angle, a momentary worry about generating more income and what a pain in the ass looking for work is. Work out at the gym. After, I’m up till 3 am reading about the Trayvon Martin case and international news. I hash out two new poems, and think briefly of dating.
Up last minute early for the conference so I can make Jeff/Nalo/Jeff reading (Ford, Hopkinson, Van Der Meer, respectively). Traffic is blessedly light on the way to Orlando. I get to the host hotel just in time. The reading is a winner as I knew it would be. Check in at the hotel and nap after. Apparently 4 hrs sleep wasn’t enough though it usually is. Up in time for a presentation of short indigenous SF films. They’re fantastic. I make a note to pick up the anthology. Waiting in line for a parking pass, I’m starting to get a little irritated and a woman standing there seems to know me by name, which is nice but it reminds me to try and control my expressions more. If I don’t control it it’s always all right there on my face. Watch that.
8:30 is awfully early for a reading. But the fiction reading went quite well – did a bit from both Smoketown and R/evolution. I always enjoy doing readings though. Ditto for storytelling to music performances. Fielded some panel questions with Rebecca Rowe and Will Ludwigsen who give great answers to go with their great readings. Next, I drop in to watch an editing panel. I’m looking to glean any relevant bits for the best-of lesbian anthology I’ll be coediting with Steve Berman next year, Heiresses of Russ, and to get a feel for each editor’s philosophies and penchants. Lots of discussion of gender parity, also some about including other authors of color, as well as the pact between the editor and reader. A couple of the editors are clearly getting a bit off-put with the discussion. There is talk of “bringing the discussion back to editing.” I’m sure I make a face, one of many. This time it’s in my favor though as one of the panelists nods her head and laughs. After the panel, she approaches me for a bit of commiseration. “I know exactly what you were thinking,” she says. And I’m sure she did.
I check out some paper presentations on Octavia Butler. Controversy over the use of quotes and “Butler’s misanthropy” ensue. I almost feel bad for the guy presenting. The thing about ICFA is most of the papers presented are by students and many of the people in the audience are professors, or often even the authors being discussed—or the author’s friends. It can be a steep learning curve for the presenters, but sometimes the scholarship is quite rich. I keep running into a woman who sits in the audience and knits during presentations. Or perhaps she’s crocheting. I’ve never been very clear on the distinction
Off to find some other authors to get a drink with. At the outside bar, it’s sunny and the perfect temperature. I quickly find Rebecca, Jeff, Kit Reed, Christopher Rowe, and a host of others. This is the number one reason to go to a conference – catching up with folks you haven’t seen since the last con. Note to all: Professional writers are really good conversationalists.
Poetry reading went well. Got to hear a piece in Icelandic; it makes me itch to travel. After, I bond with Kij over being one of the few speculative fiction Johnsons, and meet up with some folks I’ve been hanging out with at the con. Though I’m going home tonight, I stay to hear Kelly Link’s night reading. Superb. Quick check-in with a reading curator for an upcoming NYC show and, just after with Kelly (we seemed to keep missing each other at the con, but I did get to meet her and Gavin’s daughter who’s walking around beguiling folks by making them hold hands, which may give you some indication of how long it’s been since I’ve seen them. This lovely child did not exist the last time we were face-to-face).
Earlier, at drinks, a friend said that I’m getting “in through the back door.” No need to hide my smirk. It’s true. Though I had two novels come out last year, many of these people have no idea who I am—or often they think I’m Nalo or Nnedi (Black women, dreadlocks or used to have dreadlocks, well-known speculative fiction authors; you do the math). Trust, there are worse people to be mistaken for, but name recognition is part of this unnatural necessity. I have no publicist or Big 6 publishing deal, but still I am here. I’ve got this notion that I can make the work do the work for me, that people love an underdog and I won’t absolutely need these things to succeed—of course, I’m sometimes susceptible to romantic notions. I leave the conference without any of the novel copies I brought. This is a good thing.
Tried to sleep in, but no dice. Lately I haven’t been remembering my dreams. I used to be a lucid dreamer and now, nothingness. I assume they must be too boring to recall. Grocery shopping. My friend Brianna and I go to the Joffrey Ballet as a very belated birthday present. Our seats are surprisingly good and the show is swift and lovely. Watching dance, and usually phenomenal dance, is one of the things I still miss about NYC (Add to this list: FOOD; indie films in theaters; Brooklyn Academy of Music; playing in bands; gorgeous, out women of color; maximum diversity; and the train, yes the train. You meditate your way and I’ll meditate mine). After the show, we go to a friend’s birthday party: lots of familiar faces and a drink or two with my name on them. I beg off early, make a mental note to go to the club soon (I’ve never entirely understood going out to drink with no dancing) and that night, I dream—about what I’m not certain.