Three Years a Department Chair

I’m a writer, dammit! I don’t do budgets.

I spend my money until it runs low, and then I drink cheaper wine.

 

Wines

But this year I started a three-year term as chair of the Creative Writing department at the University of Texas in El Paso. Suddenly I have to not only understand budgets but schedules and reports and I must sit in endless meetings, often leaving with no more information that with what I arrived.

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It’s a real job, and for someone who spent the last 17 years as a writer and faculty member, basically going to campus for classes and office hours, I’m suddenly developing and using skills I never had before, or had but were hidden.

It’s a demanding job.

When my colleagues at the University heard I was going to serve as chair, they respond with, “Oh, I’m really sorry!”

Especially if they’ve done the job before.

This past summer I posted a picture on Facebook of a book I was reading called The Department Chair Primer, and I wrote about how I wanted to be prepared for the job.

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My Facebook friend, the writer Maxine Chernoff, chair of Creative Writing at San Francisco State, wrote the comment: “Nothing prepares you.”

When I tell my family that I’m department chair, they say, Congratulations!

Like it’s a good thing.

I’m only in my second week, but so far, I think the congratulation is more accurate.

Believe it or not, I love the job.

This doesn’t mean I want to do it for more than three years or that I have administrative ambitions, but during the three years I serve, I’m going to enjoy every moment.

The most amazing aspect of the job is the additional human interaction required on a daily basis, much more than when I was writing at home all day.

I’m talking to people everyday, in English and Spanish, and I am usually the first person someone goes to if they have a problem. This human interaction requires using a part of my brain that I wasn’t using so much before I became chair, so I know it’s mentally healthy.

And also, no significant amount of success can happen without human interaction.

It’s how we get what we want out of life.

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Even if my goal is to spend the rest of my life in a house by a river writing and reading and eating good food in the evenings, human interaction is required to negotiate the use of the land, the use of clean water, electricity, food.

Being department chair requires much more interaction than what I had when I was more troglodyte-like. (That’s hard to say. Troglodyte-like).

I love the interaction.

I love talking to people.

I guess what I’m learning about myself, is I love people.

Of course, there are some difficult people, but I am seeking to understand them, and in doing so I have to be aware that in their personal narratives, I’m the difficult one.

I suppose the most important question for a writer who decides to be department chair, is: Will it take me away from my writing?

Believe it or not, No.

I am a more productive writer as department chair than I was before, as if the structure of the day contributes to my productivity

Here’s some guidelines I follow, that keep me in my creative space. They may not work for everyone.

DON’T ANSWER EMAIL BEFORE 11 AM

In our house, we get up early enough to provide me with at least three hours every morning for creative writing time.

And yes, there is this voice occasionally telling me to attend to department business, but I have rejected that voice, and I don’t start my human interaction until 11 AM.

At first it was hard for me NOT to check email.

I know there are people who can not check email for days, and I admire them. Not checking email is difficult.

In the past, I would check first thing in the morning, and even if I didn’t read the emails completely, even if I said, “I’ll get to them later,” I saw who they were from, and thoughts of what the email could be about lingered and affected my creative energy.

I would be imagining what the email said, not what my characters were doing.

EXERCISE EVERY MORNING.

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It’s important that I run in the morning, because I rarely honor my commitment to run after I get home or in the evening.

But if I do it first thing in the morning, right after my coffee.

It gives me more creative energy in the morning, and I write more.

And it gives me energy all day.

It gives me physical energy, and I feel good.

 

THINK OF EACH DAY AS A CREATIVE ACT.

Any fiction writer knows that we are often surprised by what happens in our work. It can be no other way. Flannery O’Connor says if the writer isn’t surprised by what happens in a story, the reader won’t to be.

Everything I do out there in the field of human interaction is part of a narrative, a story, and I’m the writer, even when I’m surprised by what happens.

I love the surprises of the days, the twists and turns in the plots.

When I go into any kind of meeting or as I’m walking down the hall, I am existing not only physically, but creatively, looking around a landscape and often lingering just because.

 

DON’T BE IN A HURRY.

A few years ago I sold my car, because I wanted to see what it was like to not have one living in El Paso, a modern city built for cars.

I took the bus everywhere or I walked, and the biggest surprise of all was how much more time I had.

You would think I would have less time, because I can’t just get in the car and drive, but it gave me more time, more creative time. More time to observe. More time to think.

There is a similar concept in being department chair.

You would think I would have less time, but if I’m not in a hurry, if I don’t think everything needs to be done exactly now and I don’t start thinking about the other things that need to be done, I see how much time there is in a moment.

There is no hurry.

Things will get done.

Slow down.

You move too fast!

Slowing down also means that you’ll always have time to look somebody in the eyes and try to understand them. Slowing down gives you time, makes it yours, as opposed to time being something theoretical, a number on the wall that tells you to move along.

 

 

UNDERSTAND DESIRE.

Every single person that I encounter, students, faculty, administrators, janitors and campus police, are the protagonist of their own narrative, one they’re writing, whether they’re conscious of it or not.

And like all character-led plots, they are directed by desire.

Desire is a beautiful thing. It’s what keeps us growing and expanding, and I don’t think there’s anybody out there, even the biggest asshole in the world, who is not driven by desire.

Misdirected desire might be creepy, but focused desire is admirable.

I want to be able to understand what people want.

I want to know their stories.

 

And then, after three years of being a chair, I’m going to write about it.

Maybe it’ll be a novel called, When I Was a Chair.

Or….?

 

 

Days in a Bottle

In the morning, I tear the day off my desk calendar, fold it in half, and drop it in a large bottle. I’ve been doing this for at least two years.

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Today, I emptied all the days out, and I put them into a bag and wondered what to do with them.

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I should just recycle them, I figured, throw them into the bin. Why gather more things?

Part of me said, No, don’t throw them away!

I can use them for an art project!

But I knew they could just gather dust on some shelf in the garage or in some closet, and is that what I really want to do with my days?

I would trash them, and as I walked outside to the recycle bin, I couldn’t help but think of all the trite metaphorical possibilities to what I was doing:  “I have to throw out the past,” or something  like, “I must put the past behind,” “close the door on the past.”

It’s not just writers who cannot help but to think of metaphor in images. We all do this. Perhaps it rains on an important day for us, a wedding, a job interview, and we think it’s symbolic of how that day will turn out. Maybe writers just do it more often, and often just for fun.

I didn’t decide to toss out the days for any symbolic purposes, I just did it because I saw myself doing it, and I thought it would be beautiful to look at.

And it was beautiful.

I saw all those days that I lived in the last two years just falling away into the bin like worries.

It was nice, and I suppose if I had to consider the metaphorical possibility of that image, I could come up with something cool, and maybe this detail will someday appear in my fiction and the meaning will depend on the character and the story.

That’s okay if it doesn’t ever appear.

I still got to pull days from a bottle.

 

 

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My 99-Cent Novel. How I Feel About Seeing my Book on the Discount Rack.

My first novel can be bought on Amazon for 99 cents.

That’s quite a deal, less than a buck.

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One time I ordered three of them, just to give to friends.

You quickly learn that when booksellers on Amazon say 99 cents, they really mean four dollars and 98 cents, because shipping and handling is $3.99.

That’s where the booksellers are making what little money they do from my 99-cent books.

As you know, when writers run out of the free copies they get from the publisher, they can buy their own book at a 40 percent discount. Many writers earn what little wages can from publishing by ordering their books wth this discount and selling them at readings they do in the community.

Michele Serros talks about how she had the trunk of her car filled with copies of her book, and she went from town to town setting up readings, selling books.

So these 99 cent copies of my book on amazon were even cheaper than buying my  book from Simon and Schuster, which is still in print and available new for $12.52.

I ordered the three copies, and they arrived in such bad shape there was no way I was going to give them to friends.

They were from public and school libraries that decided not to keep them on the shelves.

They had given up on my book, I guess, maybe because nobody ever checked it out.

One of them came from the Eola Road Branch Library in Aurora, Illinois. On the side they stamped the book in red letters, DISCARD.

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I thought it might be insulting to give such a book to friends, so they just sat on my shelf at home, and last week I pulled them down, and here they are, before me as I write this.

How do I feel about this?

Great! What a gift!

***

 

About a year ago, a Facebook friend sent me a picture of my first book, Chicano Chicanery, that he had bought at a used bookstore in Seattle.

He didn’t tell me what he paid for it, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t above the original sticker price, that the copy had depreciated in value over the years.

And here’s the important, I mean, the really really crucial point to telling you all this:

When I published Chicanery, I was so unhappy, because I worried too much about book sales.

I was fortunate that Chicanery was reviewed by the Sunday New York Times Review of Books, because that helped boost books sales, and I could walk into bookstores all over the country and I often find a copy on the shelf.

But rather than being happy that my book was on the shelf, if there was only one copy, I would feel bad and say to myself, They only ordered one copy?

If there were five books on the shelf, like I once found in a downtown bookstore in Seattle, I immediately got depressed too.

Why are there still five on the shelf? I asked myself. Nobody’s buying my book!

I tortured myself with thoughts of selling books, and suddenly numbers became important to me.

When I would get the quarterly reports, the numbers could make me happy or sad, and when Amazon became so omnipresent in books sales, I started to pay attention to my Amazon.com sales rank, and it depressed me.

The day could be beautiful.

The sun could be coming into the window and warming my face.

I could be sitting on a soft couch made of Twinkies, and I would see the Amazon sales-rank number and suddenly all the beauty in the world disappeared.

All was darkness and sadness, and I was depressed.

 

Writers are not the only ones who are made sad by numbers.

We know for a fact that when somebody doesn’t get enough likes on social media, they can get angry, sad, depressed.

I remember one of my Facebook friends posting how disappointed he was with his “friends” because he didn’t get enough Likes for his recent post.

He said he knew what he wrote would be controversial, but he was brave enough to post it anyway, and he implied that we could not handle his courageous honesty.

I had no idea what post he was referring to, because the algorithm that makes choices about what appears on my Facebook feed didn’t include that post.

You can tell the guy that his “Likes” have little to do with popularity, but more with accessibility and algorithms, but nonetheless, that low number, maybe 12 likes, took away the joy of his day.

We give numbers have the power to change our perspective.

 

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Example: We could be full of light, walking down the open road on a beautiful day, monkeys singing in the trees, and we pull out our smart phones, check our bank account, and see the number. And suddenly, the world disappears, and we are plunged into despair.

Resist the tyranny of numbers!

I don’t think writers should care much about numbers, because what should matter is not sales rank, but development as a writer, expanding our voice.

What matters for us is that we get new readers every day.

Being a writer is a Becoming, not an Arriving.

Being a writer is a life’s work, and I think it’s great that somebody can get my novel for 99 cents (plus $3.99 for shipping and handling)!

And the shadows took him is used in some themed-literature classrooms at colleges and universities, and I hope students order it used.

I would too.

Like all writers, my goal is to be read.

My goal is to welcome souls into the landscape, have them walk around with my characters, have them enter doors and walk down hallways.

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In fact, anyone who doesn’t have a copy of my novel can write me.

The first three people who give me an address, will get one of the 99-cent novels pictured above, signed of course.

When fiction writers create stories and novels, we are creating a tiny universe, where the energy swirls within language and imagery and desire.

All a writer really wants is for you to come inside.

Come in! Come in!

 

ADDENDUM

 

I just sent out the there copies to the first three who asked.

They went quick!

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Why the Teachers Tell You Not to Write Idea

My fiction writing professors at Fresno State and the University of Oregon urged us not to write “ideas.”

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One time I told Steve Yarborough, who was my Fiction professor, that I had a good idea for a story.

“Stop right there!” he said in his thick southern accent. “That’s where you’re going wrong. A story should not be about an idea, but about a person.”

This same principle was differently articulated by many other of my fiction writing mentors, and, albeit, there are some valid reasons.

But as young Chicano writers, Andrés Montoya and I wrestled with the subject of didacticism, of a political assertion in poetry and fiction. We thought anything that contradicted our political statement was an attempt by the cultural oppressor to impede our voices. Stories and poems without political purpose?

Cracker Craft! Art for art’s sake!

Montoya used to quote Roque Dalton, calling nonpolitical poets clowns.

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But I think the important thing for a fiction writer is to not let the ideas give form to the novel or story.

When you use the sound of language to enter into a landscape, you cannot not help but to create one in your own image.

Your ideas and values cannot escape from being released into the universe you’re imagining.

If you believe something to be a true principle of reality, it will reflect strongly in the fiction you write.

 

I Think I Think for a Living.

When I was a kid, as I was worrying about something, I don’t remember what, maybe that the rain was going to seep into the ground in our backyard and flood the city of ants I used to observe, I don’t remember. I just remember I was worried about something.

I was using intense Creative Energy to run scenarios of doom through my head, when my mom suddenly said, “Danny, you think too much!”

My mother died very early, it’s been over 30 years now, and I can’t remember everything she ever told me, but that one comment sticks to me. I was probably seven years old, but today I can still hear her voice say it, “Danny, you think too much.”

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I don’t remember what I wanted to be when I was seven, maybe an actor or some other fantasy career a kid might want, but fate would have it that I ended up a fiction writer.

One of the greatest things about my life as a writer is the solitude, the quiet.

I wake up in the morning while it’s still dark, I run, and then I write.

What do I write about?

Things I think about.

Like one time I was standing before a painting at some museum, looking into the eyes of the subject, and she almost seemed real to me. It was spooky. I wondered if a painter could release souls into a  work of art.

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Maybe the dead can live in paintings, not only in the representation, but in the spirit of the brushstrokes, the energy of the colors. Hiding in the shadows.

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And maybe, when a fiction writer creates a character, unconsciously, we’re accessing energy from the dead, and we release souls into our language. Maybe that’s how our characters become so real to us, and we can’t help but care about them.

Maybe a work of art is a place for the dead to release their spirits, so they can go on to heaven or wherever their faith leads them, yet they leave a part of them behind with us. They are the ghosts in our language.

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I know, I know!

I think too much.

My mom was right.

Eventually this idea seeped into one of my novels, The Cholo Tree, about Victor, a young artist.

He discovers that every time he paints a tree, his dead father, a hardcore cholo, is swirling in the brush strokes.

The impulse for The Cholo Tree was Victor, a voice, a desire, a linguistic song in my gut. He was one of those characters that wouldn’t leave me alone. I didn’t set out to write about the dead, I just followed Victor’s voice, but his cholo father was violently killed by the police, and Victor himself legally died for a few minutes, and the dead started following him everywhere.

¡Méjico, Mexico!” by Frank Romerodead chicanos

When my mom said, “Danny, you think too much,” I was I was too young to have  heard that famous quote by Blaise Pascal: “All men’s miseries derive for not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

Writing is around 80 percent thinking and 20 percent butt-time.

I somehow knew thinking too much didn’t have to be a bad thing.

And now I think for a living.

And I think that’s great, if I don’t think about it too much.