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Q and A

Dec 01, 2010; Lady Asks:

Are you one of those people who tapes their rejection letters to the bathroom wall? Do you advocate burning them? Do you keep them in a drawer? Do you throw them away?

Stacey answers:

Hi Lady. As it turns out, I wrote a piece about rejection letters for the Mississippi Review. I'll put a link to the reprint of it in Fictionaut. Please click up above on "Stories on the Web," then look for the piece called "The Chair of Rejection."

Nov 18, 2010; Wag Asks:

Do you think there were liberal and conservative cavemen?

Stacey answers:

Sort of, yeah, but actually probably not. I'm sure there were different philosophies of life among prehistoric humans, but as far as I can tell dualism is a more recent way of thinking. Modern people have gotten very into right and wrong, black and white, good and evil, all that. We started to have more rules once we started to live together in towns, and have culture, and grow food, though Eastern cultures aren't as dualistic as Western ones so maybe it's not inevitable, or even logical.

Probably, back in the days of hunter gatherers, people conceived of time and life as being cyclical, and that doesn't lend itself as easily to dualism. If you look at very early narratives, like The Epic of Gilgamesh, you can see the more cyclical notion of time in action. (Also, it's just a great boys' adventure story that's fun to read). And since hunter-gatherers didn't live in towns, they probably didn't really need as many ideas about how other people should live--since liberal and conservative is really about that in the end--not how one lives oneself, but how other people are supposed to live.

I'm just guessing! Well, duh.

Nov 11, 2010; Samantha Noel Asks:

Fantastic. Since I have entered a blog on here, I have read several of your pieces. I have made connections and found interesting ties into similar focuses you write about (piano, men singing). I look forward to reading more of your work. I've decided to focus on the relationship you make with your readers, your characters, and the relationship you have with your dual self (both as a reader and a writer).

I wonder, if you try to target a specific audience, our it just comes naturally.

Stacey answers:

That sounds good, Samantha. I don't think you'll be surprised to hear that most writers don't think of their relationship with readers in the same pointed way as academics. I'm really just trying to do the best I can--just like you do when you make things, even if you haven't made art since fourth grade. My ideas about audience seem to come after I write, not during, and have the distinct tinge of fantasy--so that now my ideal audience is 200,000 cute, smart boys. Though I really write for women. See? It makes no sense.

Nov 03, 2010; Samantha Noel Asks:

I'm writing a research paper on you, after reading "The First Men". If you could say one thing about yourself you'd want a reader to know about yourself, what would it be. And if you don't mind I would like to quote you. You're a wonderfully talented and crafty writer.

Stacey answers:

Hi Samantha. Thanks for writing a paper on me, and yes, quote away. There actually is a Time-Life book called The First Men, by the way, and it was co-written by the great, pioneering gay writer Edmund White, who was my teacher once. I got the book in a thrift store and was shocked to see his name there, though I knew he once worked at Time.

As for the thing I'd want readers to know (and this isn't a jab at Edmund White), I'd say that even though I did take writing classes, I basically consider myself self-taught as a writer. I'm not sure why I want people to know that, except that everything I know about writing has been hard-won, and is probably mostly wrong.

Nov 01, 2010; not sure i can make out to dave matthews band music Asks:

I'm not a writer or good with grammar and punctuation, so this is hard for me to explain, about the way i feel about music, because i have favorites, i have things i tolerate, and then even things i don't know very well but I am still open to. But what if I get in my date's car for the first time, and he puts on some music I don't like "yet." I say yet, because often I don't like something or someone, until I "learn to." anyway, can you help me to not be so judgemental right off the bat or tell me your thoughts on first impressions, and if they really do mean anything besides shape our attitude/acceptance of others. l don't know how much of my standards are justified and valid, or if I am just a jerk sometimes.

Stacey answers:

All your standards are justified and valid, Not Sure, and somewhere deep inside, I think you already know this. Your taste is your taste! Music is full of emotion, it's important to people, your emotions are important to you. Making out to Dave Matthews Band music is only going to end in heartbreak. You don't want to end up like Latchkey's parents do you? (see below). You don't want to try and try to convince yourself that you're agreeable, and nice, and it's okay, and you like the things you don't, until one day you realize that you are so fucking angry about trying to fit yourself into the desires of others that you just have to just GET OUT. And what for? For Dave Matthews and his stupid band. Don't do it. Speak up now.

I don't mean you have to ditch the boy. If the boy likes you, he'll change the music. If the boy likes you, he won't care if you like things that he doesn't, or maybe he'll think it's interesting. And if not, you can just drop kick him. Because do you want to date a boy who needs you to like all the same things he likes? No. No. No. Are you getting this? No. Besides, he probably doesn't care. It's only girls who care about everyone liking the same thing at the same time. And remember, not liking things is not the same as being judgmental. It's just having a self. And there are lots of things you can say besides "I fucking hate this music." Like, "Let's turn off the music for a while." Or, "I made this CD for you!" Or, "I'm sorry, I have a weird aversion to the banjo. Can we change it?" Or, "I never could get into Dave Matthews. How about some smooth jazz?"

Oct 31, 2010; globalismo Asks:

Hours after reading your recent response to Latchkey, my mind is still reeling with variations and extensions to your light bulb riff: How do you do it?

Stacey answers:

I meant overcoming denial and seeing what’s there. I used the light metaphor because I didn’t want to hound poor Latchkey with psychobabble, though I consider denial a brain function on par with memory or planning, even if it was named by psychologists. In this I’m influenced by V.S. Ramachandran’s incredible Phantoms in the Brain, especially the mind-blowing chapter “The Sound of One Hand Clapping,” which discusses a stroke-induced denial called anosognosia. Anosognosia patients will deny the effects of their stroke (paralysis), despite ample evidence to the contrary (a wheelchair). Ramachandran does all sorts of clever experiments with these patients to bolster the idea that denial is something our brains evolved to do, whether we encourage them or not. I love this book! Before I read it, I didn’t think of myself as a Big Denier. “I know plenty of deniers, I am not one of them”; like that. But after Ramachandran, I knew I had to be a denier, and saw a lot. I could recalled denying specific things, and remembered how I did it. The lights went up. It was weird, and it made me sad, but that’s how I know it’s possible.

Here’s my theory: we’ve evolved brains that are good at ignoring information detrimental to our survival. Most of this information has to do with belonging to a group, despite the non-group promoting behavior of other people: lying, stealing, screwing, raging, sundry destroying. That’s why most denial is social and pertains to people you need to be close to, like family and lovers and close friends, and why sometimes the things you deny they do are pretty fucking unacceptable.

So if you want to turn on the lights in your own life, look at your family and friends. Consider: lying, drinking, adultery, boy/girlfriend-stealing, betrayal, and crime. Have they done any? Sometimes little instances come to mind but the bigger ones have receded, or you may have made light of them, or said everybody does it, or decided that a certain thing (Dad drinking fourteen drinks and singing funny songs) is charming in its own way, or just sort of not thought about it for a long time. If you can remember a little lie, try to think: what else have they lied about? If they acted odd, when else did they act like that? Was there a first time? The first time is the most upsetting, and it could be the time you first decide to let it slip into the dark.

But wait: why would you even want to look at your family and friends like this? Good question. You probably don’t. That’s why it works—you have a good reason for not wanting to dwell on this shit. Shit is shitty. Knowing that your best friend is a criminal and your father is an adulterer is repulsive; knowing that your mother is unhappy (like Latchkey’s) is also horrible, or that your boyfriend is a dork or less interesting than you (like Not Sure, above), or that your yourself are a dork or are too accommodating to boys or are lonely, is also awful. Or thinking about how we’re all going to die (I forgot to mention the subset of sickness-death denial), or how someone you know is very ill and miserable, and young, and will die, but not for a long time, and it can happen to you, is crushing. Why would you want to know? You don’t have to. It might not do anything for you. But I believe skepticism is a healthy habit. Whole groups ignore the truth too, societies—if you look at the history of the 20th century, there are plenty of instances where seeing others clearly was the best way to survive. At the very least, it can tell you when to run.

If you decide you want to look, here are some of the ways people reveal the nasty truth about themselves. 1) They clearly state the facts, hoping you’ll tell them they’re wrong or accept them anyway. But they’re not wrong (e.g.: “I am a pathetic drunk,” “I’m incapable of a relationship,”). 2) They express themselves in wishes that are the opposite of the truth. People in unhappy relationships trumpet their happiness; insecure people list their accomplishments, liars protest their innocence. Very common. 3) They criticize others for the having the same faults they have themselves: people who cheat say how much they hate cheaters, liars hate lying, etc. 4) They continually and emphatically state the truth of something about themselves—intelligence, prowess—despite ample evidence to the contrary. My favorite!

This nice story is a combination of #’s 1 and 4. At a private high school where my friend worked, one of the English teachers was always going on about his PhD in literature, making his students call him Doctor, and driving everyone crazy with his pretentiousness. He had done this for years. One day my friend taught for him and was stunned by the stupidity of his lesson plan, which involved memorizing the titles of books rather than reading them. But it took a new hire, a gay guy—who probably had experience with guys who said they were straight but dated him anyway—to realize that something was off. He was so certain that he checked the teacher’s credentials and found that he did not have a PhD. He’d been lying for years!

The part I love most about that story when the new guy decides to check the doctor's credentials. Because a lot of our lives can be verified now; you don't have to rely on pure acumen. In Latchkey's case, she could talk to family members or her parents’ friends—that would probably turn up a lot. She could play Second Life with her mother. She could read her mother’s email, or her father’s—I don’t mean secretly, I mean she could ask, and they might say yes; I’m not sure why, but people do that. Or she could snoop. Or she could just ask her parents flat out, in the most direct, mature way she could think of, which might work. Or it might not. All these ways, it seems to me, provide ample opportunity for disappointment. Not to mention disillusionment. But in a way, that’s the point.

Oct 28, 2010; kady Asks:

discuss the usage of metaphor in Eva Sallis' novel The Marsh Birds

Stacey answers:

In Eva Sallis' novel The Marsh Birds, metaphor is used as it is in every novel, which is to say that since everything is made up, everything is a metaphor: every image, every detail, every character. The house is not a house. The character is not a person. It's like a dream: everything is spun from the mind of the dreamer--or if you're a Jungian, you might say everything is spun from the collective experience of mankind. That's what literature is, a narrative made up of metaphors. I haven't read The Marsh Birds, but I'm pretty sure this applies.

Now go do your homework.

Oct 27, 2010; 30-year-old latchkey kid Asks:

How am I supposed to feel about my aging parents getting divorced? One day, out of the clear blue sky, after 30 years of a good, loving marriage to the greatest guy I know, never any fighting or stuff like that, my mom gets botox, starts playing second life all the time, and decides she resents my father for a million things she never once brought up and leaves him. She's 60. Can you tell me, what was she thinking? Can this happen to anyone? How can you trust anyone? Is it reasonable for me to believe in lasting love from this point forward? Do women just go mad after menopause? Is this sort of condition preventable? How do I help them?

Stacey answers:

Latchkey, you're killing me! I'm going to dive into the the most heartbreaking part. Q:“How can you trust anyone? ” A: You can't. Q. “Is it reasonable for me to believe in lasting love from this point forward?” A. No. Q.“Can this happen to anyone?” A: Yes. Q: “Is this sort of condition preventable?” No! No! Latchkey! Your parents skipped an important parenting step, the part where they systematically disappoint and disillusion you for years with escalating intensity, in order to indoctrinate you into the existential truth of the human condition. This usually starts with things like giving you cake when you wanted ice cream and outing Santa Claus, moving on to fighting behind closed doors while you beg for them to stop, criticizing each other at the dinner table and calling you a stupid idiot when you try to do math, culminating in social anxiety by proxy in high school, when they should have been dishing out hurtful comments about your physical appearance and sexual orientation, and, if everything was on schedule, begun making inappropriate revelations about their personal lives.

I'm sorry that they failed you in this way! Though I guess it was sweet of them to want to protect you from all the bad stuff. They tried really hard too, since you've been able to see them in a warm light for thirty years, and that makes me think they must love you very much. But now you're thirty, the planet's dying, so let's unscrew those warm incandescent bulbs and look at this under the glare of compact fluorescence. Relationships involve fighting. It's extremely difficult to get along with another person for years—fully, in an alive way—without disagreements. You were missing something, and your parents probably helped you miss it. But it was there. If you're truly convinced there was no fighting, I'd guess that one of two things was going on: 1) your parents, out of love for you, managed to shield you from their fights, or 2) one of your parents accommodated the other so skillfully that most fighting was avoided.

It's usually the woman who does the accommodating. This involves a certain amount of self-effacement, which almost causes resentment. Which leads me to your next question: "What was she thinking?" A: It's three things, probably a little of each: resentment, sexuality, mortality.

Resentment: your mom gave too much and got sick of it. Women tend to hold families together emotionally, even when the dads are great guys (and great dads aren't the same as great husbands). Sometimes the kids don't see it, and you've had the incandescent lights on, softly dimmed, for a while. But sometimes women sacrifice parts of themselves until they just can't do it anymore. They just can't. They feel emptied out.

Sexuality: I'm sure you don't want the details, so I'll spare you speculations. But it's entirely possible that your parents have a bad sex life. I know it probably doesn't seem like it, but old people are just like young ones, full of roiling emotions and longings. These may not be quite as urgent as they once were, but they're still a major engine driving human history, even the history of sixty year-old moms.

Mortality: Your mother turned sixty and realized that she's going to die, die, really die—full of resentment, with a shitty sex life, giving up parts of herself to her family—and she didn't want to go on living that way until she just died.

She wants a second life. That's the clearest answer of all—the one you gave yourself. But really, of course, I don't know what she's thinking. Why don't you ask her?

As for what you should do to help them, the best thing you can do is to try to stay on good terms with both of them, without taking sides. It's impossible to know what really goes on in another couple's relationship. I know you feel angry and betrayed, and I don't blame you, but I'm sure your mother had a good reason for leaving your dad. She's been so nice for so long—how could it not be a good reason? It just might be a grown-up human reason, a soul-based reason, a sexual reason—and it's going to be hard for you to see this in her, given that they've kept this side of themselves away from you for so long. But if you really want to see, you can see. You can brighten the lights and look.

Oct 21, 2010; Liam Asks:

Recently, I've been reading your movie reviews from the 90's. In the review for "The Truman Show," you dropped some Lacanian lit-theory on our asses. This invites the questions, "What are your thoughts on literary theory, in general?" "Has your view on it changed over time?" "Has it affected/informed/enhanced/etc. your work? How so?"

I hope this online query finds you well. :)

By the way, when you dropped that Lacan on us, I was all like "Awwwww sheeeeeeeeut, son! S-Ricky is FIRE!"

You don't even know, grrrl!

Stacey answers:

Hi Liam. Thanks for reading my film reviews! You're nice, especially since I had to write some of them so quickly that I was pulling a lot of crap out of, I don't know, my ass? I have mixed feelings about literary theory in general. At its best, it's smart and fun. I like ideas, and I like ideas about ideas. I like thought, and I like thoughts about thought. But I don't think it has much to do with literature. Rather, it is its own thing, with its own system of thought, and while it has plenty of merits, I'm not sure it needs literature to exist. Which is fine, I guess, but I don't know why literary theory needs English departments.

But I also kind of hate literary theory because most of it is written in a style that's absolutely impossible to read. I know that complicated thoughts can be expressed clearly and without jargon, without nouns turned into verbs and "to be sure's" and paragraphs that have their point buried in a subordinate clause. That smart people have collectively abandoned clarity enrages me. That this kind of writing has become customary in academic circles enrages me. What kind of person writes, say Marxist criticism that condemns elitism, in an elite dialect that can only be understood by other academics? It's retarded. Plus no one else has access to their ideas, unless they wish to be tortured by language. They're like priests saying the mass in Latin. It has a kind of aura. But only other priests can really get it.

Oct 04, 2010; Maddy Asks:

What literary type magazines do you like? I know you list a few, but what others?

Stacey answers:

Hi Maddy, I haven't forgotten you...I just want to do a little research to give you a better list. I'm not the greatest person to ask about literary magazines because I don't teach, and therefore I'm not as dialed in to all the great new stuff. I like Willow Springs, Fairy Tale Review, The Mississippi Review, Tin House, Zoetrope, and The Sonora Review, but I'll bet there are other great journals I don't know about. I'm going to ask a friend who's up on it and try to e x p a n d.

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