“Everyone tells me I need to write personal essays to sell my book, but I just spent 15 years working really hard to say everything I had to say in disguise.”

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 column comes to us from writer Andrea Lawlor.

Andrea Lawlor lives in Western Mass, teaches writing at Mount Holyoke College, and edits fiction for Fence. Their work has appeared in Ploughshares, Mutha, the Millions, jubilat, the Brooklyn Rail, Faggot Dinosaur, Encyclopedia, Vol. II, and elsewhere. Their chapbook, Position Papers, came out on Factory Hollow Press in 2016, and their debut novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, will be published by Rescue Press in November 2017.

Monday, September 11th

I am woken up at 5 by yowling cats and a request to “play ocean.” It’s my turn to get up with our kid, who is what parenting books call a “lark,” an early riser. Our kid is larkish in other ways as well, by which I mean generally delightful, or “gaily mischievous, frolicsome” (according to Dictionary.com). Even so, 5 a.m. is tough. I feed the cats, then lie on the living-room floor playing sharks and sleep-reading picture books until I find the internal resources to make coffee.

I scramble to catch the bus and spend the morning in my office, fiddling with my class website, approving students for independent studies, reading work-related emails, and making copies. I teach my first class of the semester, Intro to Creative Writing. We talk about creative nonfiction, they write, I assign Justin Torres’s “In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club” and Ocean Vuong’s “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read” for homework, and run to catch the bus back home, in time for a very early dinner and bedtime routine.

After we put our kid to bed, I fiddle with the syllabus for the class I’m teaching tomorrow. In a fit of anxious over-preparation, I go onto Facebook to quickly crowdsource extra short story recommendations, and then, of course, I’m at sea in the wide internet. I poke around book review sites and queer tumblrs, I read listicles, I scroll through #queerlit and #translit hashtags. I paste names and URLs into a spreadsheet, thinking I’ll helpfully send possible reviewers to my press, even though I used to work in publishing and don’t want to be That Author.

My first novel comes out this November, and I’m adjusting to a new life in which I’m not actually writing. I have a manuscript of poems halfway done, and another novel banging at the door, but mostly what I do these days (besides being a parent / partner / friend / teacher / human with a body) is prepare for this finished novel to be an object in the world, something a person might read on the plane. An early review came in a few weeks ago, and I’m adjusting to having been read by an anonymous stranger who’s seen things in my book that I didn’t know were there.

Tuesday, September 12th

As a true and romantic kindness, my girlfriend gets up with our four-year-old, letting me sleep in until 6:30. Preschool starts today, and we’re all excited for the return of the school-year routine, which ostensibly also means the return of writing time (though this record may show otherwise). After drop-off, I listen to Democracy Now! as I drive our tiny hybrid to the small liberal arts college where I teach, for the complete Western Mass experience. I still find this exotic, my whole life. I never thought I’d be a parent, I’ve mostly lived in cities, and I learned to drive at 38—it’s all science fiction from here on out.

I meet a work friend for coffee, make more copies, send more work-related emails, and chat with other work friends. All of us visiting lecturers have offices in a little house where the poet W.H. Auden used to have his office, a detail I can’t seem to stop myself from sharing. I think he was a visiting lecturer as well, though I suspect it meant something different then.

After my third coffee of the day, or maybe my fourth, I walk over to my class, Writing Fabulist Fiction. Before the semester started, I asked students to read Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, though I’m about to forbid fantasy fiction writing. I’ve never forbidden anything in a writing class, and I’m looking forward to enforcing genre boundaries in a course focused entirely on boundary-blurring fiction. What can I say—I’m large, I contain multitudes, etc. Or maybe we need to set up binaries in order to smash them? Binary bowling.

When class starts, I’m happy to note I’m not the only person in the room using “they/them” pronouns. I’ve only used “they/them” professionally for a few years; before that, I avoided personal pronouns, which is easy enough to do when you have a two-line bio and don’t talk about yourself in the third person. Now that I teach at a historically women’s college, I’m rarely the only trans or gender-nonconforming person in the room, so I feel less like Exhibit A, more free. But I also find that I need to come out more, now as “not a lesbian” (with all love to lesbians!), and the pronouns work well for that.

For next week, I’ve asked my students to write fictional origin stories that are also somehow their way of introducing themselves to the class, and when I look at the examples I’ve given (the beginning of Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes & Notorious Liars, a bit of Audre Lorde’s Zami, Sam J. Miller’s “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History“), I see that yet again I am making all my classes into Queer and Trans Writing, for which I am not sorry.

Wednesday, September 13th

Another 5 a.m. wake-up. I can’t remember what I did today. Probably I held office hours, probably I prepped my classes, probably I completed various administrative tasks on the Internet while listening to last year’s Icelandic electronica, definitely, I sat next to my girlfriend at a faculty meeting, which always feels like a date. Probably we ate takeout falafel or maybe made chili and watched Project Runway on her laptop after our kid went to sleep. Probably we stayed up too late, trying to wring a bit more pleasure from the day.

I remember now: in the background of this day, a low hum of anxiety about not writing this piece.

Thursday, September 14th

I had so many plans for today: I was going to write this column (about last week), I was going to take pictures for an Instagram feed I’ve been asked to take over for a week in October, I was going to research more possible reviewers, I was going to read an advance copy of a short story collection in order to write a review, I was going to scan a bunch of stories for class, I was going to apply for a travel grant for my mini book tour, I was going to fix up my website, I was going to queue up my tumblr with all these great scans I have of queer club flyers from the 90s, I was going to write really careful personal rejections for stories submitted to Fence (where I’m a fiction editor). I was going to do so many things.

What I do do, during my window of fresh-minded work time while our kid is at preschool, is write 42 emails to my girlfriend, mostly regarding logistics of childcare and transportation and grocery-shopping, with a few old-fashioned “have you seen this” notes thrown in (she’s not on social media and doesn’t keep up with Chelsea Manning’s current emoji usage, for example). We need childcare in order to plan our childcare.

Segue here: I’m thinking constantly about capitalism and surveillance, even as I write and re-write this column. I never know how much to reveal about my girlfriend and our kid. Should I edit out pronouns? Yes, probably. Okay, I did that. I’m back now. When our kid was a tiny baby, I wrote two essays about my experience as a parent, but now that our kid is older, I’m reluctant to write about anyone in my family publicly—I don’t want to speak for anyone else or draw attention that may be unwelcome in years to come. Everyone tells me I need to write personal essays to sell my book, but I just spent 15 years working really hard to say everything I had to say in disguise. I mean, I love reading about other people’s work lives (Studs Terkel’s Working, for example), but as a reader, I also rankle against the perfunctory spate of essays that inevitably appear, like a magical coincidence, right before a writer’s new book comes out. As a reader, I feel betrayed by the ever-present, super-subtle phrase: “X’s novel, Title Here, is forthcoming from Press Name Here in Month of this Year.” And yet, as a writer, I want you to read my book. Capitalism! Grrr. Argh.

Friday, September 15th

This morning after dropping my kid off at preschool, I finish rereading a draft of my friend M./Megan Milks’s first novel. I saw pieces of this book in grad school workshops years ago and have been waiting impatiently while they wrote a book of short stories and acquired a PhD. I mean, okay, fine, that’s fair—you do you, buddy, but I need that book!

The first two times I read the manuscript, I read on my computer device, but when I printed it out for my third read, I noticed a huge difference: the final sections which had seemed intimidatingly theoretical on the screen were lovely and inviting on the page. (Later, when I mention this to my girlfriend, she asks, then, what it means that we read submissions for Fence electronically, which makes me think of how most magazines and presses read electronically, that so many people are reading on devices now. I have no answer so I say, “Yeah, it’s a problem.”) I Skype with M. for about ninety minutes, talking about narrative structure, dysphoria, Kathy Acker, Southern whiteness, shifting points-of-view, fanfic, autofiction, and more. One of the real luxuries of my life is to have this kind of literary community with other queer and trans writers, both near and far.

After Skype, my girlfriend and I pick up our kid and drive back to campus where we eat ice cream and walk while our kid scoots around the lake. My girlfriend attends a meeting about the college’s new Makerspace, and I take our kid to a Makerspace demo, where we laser-print a tiny plywood hammerhead shark on the college’s 3D printer. Later, after our kid goes to sleep, our teenage babysitter comes over and we go to dinner at our friends’ house. In traditional dad mode, I fall asleep on their couch at 9:30 while people are talking about intense shit.

Saturday, September 16th

Another early wake-up—4 a.m. today—but I make it to the gym mid-morning for 45 minutes while a friend and her baby hang out with our little lark. At the gym, I am surrounded by other older dad types. I try and fail to use science to figure out why we’re all there at the same time. Back at the apartment, I hang out with our kid and our friend’s kid while my girlfriend gets some work done (and self-care, hello!). I try and fail to use my fiction writing skills to make an errand like “getting laundry quarters” into a fun quest, but we eat pancakes for lunch so I’m doing okay by kid standards.

My girlfriend takes over for a few hours while I write a bunch of work-related emails and talk on the phone to an old friend from the Lambda Emerging Writers Retreat, who helps me sort through a problem I’m having about how to categorize my book: is it gay fiction, lesbian fiction, bisexual fiction, trans fiction? Yes to all, but not entirely to any. Is it speculative fiction? Sort of. Is it YA? Yikes, maybe not. I have to pick one, so I pick “trans fiction,” because despite my own ongoing ambivalences and disidentifications this is the word that feels most true of these choices, both about me and about the book. I make a few notes in my head for this essay I am always writing/will probably never write, about how “dyke” is my heritage language and about how I’ve started using “they/them” because I’m a descriptivist not a prescriptivist. I hope as I type this that these sentences are enough and that I now won’t have to write a revealing personal essay that magically and coincidentally happens to be related to the content of my book.

Not long after this very helpful phone consultation, a dancer friend and her baby arrive for the night, we feed the children and send them to sleepytown, and then we adults stay up late talking. Someday we will learn to go to bed.

Sunday, September 17th

I wake up to a full house and try to get two frolicsome children to eat quietly while the moms sleep, to no avail. My girlfriend takes the kids outside while I make a couple of omelets for a brunch we’re about to have. Old and new friends come over in waves: the queer people with toddlers come over early, the queer people with teenagers come over later, and latest of all, the queer people without kids, who proceed to play with the children in the ancient manner of the kindly gay uncle.

Later I work on this very column at the Haymarket, with my best friend Jordy Rosenberg who lives downstairs from us and who also has a novel coming out soon, although their publisher is one of the Big Six (or is it Big Five now), so their publicity timeline is different. We try to figure out what kind of personal essays we might enjoy writing (does this count as a personal essay?), and they have such a good idea for something that is not a personal essay but which is both related to their book and also politically so smart. I wish I could tell you!

But that’s one of the strange things about being in this part of the book-publishing cycle: I’m always holding back some piece of information, or learning that someone was holding something back, because information needs to be released on a particular day, or because some announcement isn’t final. The stakes seem high from the inside where we all (writers, editors, copyeditors, publishers, designers, publicists, event organizers, booksellers, reviewers, prize-givers) are coordinating busily for years and months and weeks.

And yet on the outside, when we’re readers, we just happen into a bookstore to get out of the rain and we pick up a book because the cover’s pretty or we heard something about it somewhere. I know how the sausage is made, I’m making the sausage right now in fact, but I think of myself as a reader more than a writer, a fan. I never want to lose that.


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