Hello readers and welcome back to this (very) occasional series I started for the blog three years ago with varying results. As noted way back then, this series began as a file in my Google Drive entitled “What’s a writer for?” and morphed into these posts in a somewhat organic manner. First involving my science fiction novel and then looking at other items such as failure and listening to editors, the most recent post had to do with productivity in a time of global pandemic.
As I noted in a recent website update, I was diagnosed late last year with bipolar disorder, and it has cast a wide shadow on all of my writing these past months. I wanted to share some more about this experience and show how even when tasked with such seemingly insurmountable odds writers can still overcome them. But as I am in the middle of doing so I thought I could at least catalog a bit of what it’s like to write with such a diagnosis. I took a recent writing day to get down the events of my breakdown and ended up with ten-thousand words added to a document that I hope will turn into another book someday. Getting it down helped me to own the events, some of which I will share here for the first time.
The hardest lesson for me to understand was this was a year(s)-long event, beginning in the final months of 2020 and spreading through spring of last year and exploding in the winter. I was having major issues in the relationship with my wife and made the (in retrospect) rather stupid decision to set all of my fiction writing aside for half of 2021. I also became quite controlling over the communication side of my marriage but did not realize this until about a year after the fact. Thankfully I have tons of manic inspired notes written down from that time to always make me remember how this started. But the real breakdown occurred in December of last year, when I spiraled into a series of paranoid delusions about a neighbor recording me through my phone and other devices, which then expanded to my maintenance guy and then to other entities at large. I won’t go into the details as it’s still hard for me to reckon with but suffice it to say if my wife Mary had not intervened I would have been in an even worse position. I spent almost a week at Saint Joseph’s hospital in Saint Paul, and by the end of it I was put on medication for bipolar disorder. After trying various other medications (and finding their side effects to be even worse) over the next months I wound up back in the hospital this past March and on different medications. Finally as I write this today I am back on the original meds I was put on in the first place, which seem to be the kind that now work for my life.
All of this is to say, how does one possibly work as a writer when such events occur? It’s a good question and one I’m still grappling with in my life. The diagnosis and aftermath was the most difficult period and now that I’m back on a stable medication regimen I am beginning to figure it out. I attempted to re-draft my manuscript during the worst of it (when I wasn’t sleeping very well at all) and I am quite dissatisfied with the result. I had a lot of notes from my editor and while many of them were well-founded, I did change parts of the manuscript a bit too much and wound up with a draft that is going to need more re-working this summer if I am going to be ready to submit it to agents.
I did want to delve a little into what it’s like to have this disease. Imagine having your brain running on overtime and then that it attaches itself to any little thought you might have and blows it way out of proportion. That is just a slight example of the racing thoughts that manifest themselves daily if one is not medicated. Also imagine your emotions flown way out to either end of the spectrum (either manic and feeling great, or more often, depressive and feeling horrible) and that may begin to explain how I am dealing with this every day. This is indeed the most difficult thing I’ve faced in my life as a writer, and just trying to express it here is not going as well as I’d hoped. But I wanted to explain a little bit about the diagnosis so those of you who do follow my work can know what’s going on with it.
I may be back with another update in the coming year and I hope to return to the Writing Life series overall as I have plenty of other topics to cover in the same sporadic fashion. Thanks to those of you who have read my stuff for years, and please take care of your own mental health. It really does matter.
Hello readers and welcome to the second entry in this year’s Reading List. As mentioned, now that the fiction list is back (and committed to reading more contemporary female authors) I am trying to read more BIPOC authors. To that end I decided to read one of the all-time classics of African fiction, Chinua Achebe’s stunning 1958 novel Things Fall Apart. I have been meaning to reconnect with this book since coming across Achebe’s lecture deconstructing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness back when I tackled that influential work in 2017. I was also assigned to read this book during an African Studies course in my college years; regretfully as a sluggish young student I failed to read much of it. After grappling with a fairly difficult and elaborate first read of the new list it was somewhat pleasant to encounter Achebe’s free-flowing and simplified language in this volume.
The novel has gained an immense amount of prestige over the decades since its publication, and for good reason: it is quite possibly the first African novel of its time and has influenced generations of authors over that period. The story of both the village of Umuofia and one of its “strong men” Okonkwo, it is also a study in colonization and what happened under its legacy. Not only do we see the culture of the village and its people, we see it from a perspective of understanding and one that is not western-centric. While some might consider the culture of the village (and that especially of Okonkwo) as chauvinistic it is important to understand that not everyone of the village acts this way, and women play an important role throughout the society. This becomes somewhat ironic as halfway through the story Okonkwo is banished to his maternal side’s village due to his hand in a tragic accident.
I also read this book in a different ironic sense given that I was raised in a church that espoused much of what the white colonial Christians do in the third part of the novel. I was taught that our church needed to send missionaries to these parts of the world to spread our version of the faith just as Mr. Brown does when he establishes a church within the tribal society. This becomes problematic as clashes within the English society render the Ibo people supplicant before the new colonial masters, and turned the notions of how I was raised on their head even more than they had over the last few years of my life. This is the power of good writing and shows how such language can affect thought and reconsideration over the life of both the geopolitical stages of the world and in people’s minds.
This is a highly regarded novel and I’d wager most of my readers have either heard of it or read it, but if you haven’t I would definitely recommend it as it’s one of the most influential of the (few) non-western books I’ve read for the list. Up next I’m taking a turn toward the contemporary (and female) with the 2020 novel A Burning by Megha Majumadar. As always, thanks for joining me on this reading journey.
A Note on Sourcing - Minnesota II
Hello readers and welcome back to a new series for the website, which as I stated last time began as an outgrowth of a file that’s been sitting in my Google Drive for months now so I thought I’d just break out some of the more important elements. That initial post was called “What’s a Reader For?” and was going to take a look at all the sources we bring into account each day as we try to understand the world. In the age of the internet and social media I realize that could be an infinite amount so I’m going to break it down into the sources I try to follow.
So what are some more important resources for finding out what’s going on in the great city of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota? The first post collected my major “go to” sites. But if you’re interested in even more, here's a handful of others, many I get direct to my email inbox whenever they publish new content.
I’ve written before that my wife comes from the great northern region of this state, and has helped me understand its rich history and customs. Another person who has helped me understand the culture of “Up North” is Aaron Brown. Aaron has been blogging about life in that part of the state for as long as I can remember and also has a daily column in a newspaper (he’s also finishing up a book’s worth of history of the area). I would highly recommend him for anyone looking to understand how the northern areas approach politics and life and how this has changed, especially in the last decade.
Another great site for radical info and people’s struggles is Fight Back! News. They cover protest movements and (lately) strikes and are a great source for learning about actual progressive and leftist struggles both here and around the country and world.
Another site that I’ve been following via newsletter since it launched two years ago is the Minnesota Reformer. Now some of you may know I’ve had some issues with this site’s editor but I can’t deny the quality coverage it has provided, especially during the Minneapolis Uprising of 2020 and beyond. I’d also like to single out their state reporter Ricardo Lopez as he’s broken some major stories in St. Paul over the years.
I will also mention here that the City of Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Council have decent email newsletters providing information about resources and what those entities are doing on a weekly basis. I’ve waxed and waned (on Twitter) about how they get covered by journalists here, but there’s no doubt a ton of information about municipal affairs in their newsletters.
I’d also like to quickly shout-out the last of the “old school” Minnesota blogosphere tenants still going strong: Sally Jo Sorenson of Bluestem Prairie. Sally has been a great source for news about southern Minnesota and is worth checking out for her incisive commentary about all of state politics. Another “old schooler” that I just recently became aware of again is the Minnesota Progressive Project.
And finally a quick look at some email newsletters that provide coverage of art and music and other things. The MPLS Art newsletter is a great roundup of local galleries and helps me know what’s showing where. Other great newsletters can be found from the Minneapolis Institute of Art (I’d recommend their latest supernatural exhibit), the Soo Visual Arts Center, and the Walker Art Center. In terms of music, while I don’t usually have time to peruse it, the Electric Fetus has a great roundup of newly released music and vinyl, and while my wife and I haven’t been in years, the Minnesota Orchestra has great ways of reaching us with their newest lineups. Other options include the Landmark Theater for film, and the world-class Guthrie Theater which offers a newsletter to broadcast its stage shows each year. I’ll wrap up this list with a few others: Minneapolis Climate Action is a great activist collective I’ve followed for a while now; Friends of the Hennepin County Library hosts tons of literary events (many online these days); and Housing Link provides a huge amount of resources and their email newsletter is invaluable for housing information (needless disclosure: I am also friends with someone who works for them).
Here are a few more links to round out the set: Open Streets Mpls has been hosting events and lobbying for a more pedestrian-centered mindset in our fair city; the Weisman Art Museum is yet another phenomenal gallery; and Hennepin Theater Trust is a collection of all the great stages adorning that street in Minneapolis.
Once again feel free to post comments or reply to the email regarding your own source lists. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but there’s only so much time in the day to read. Upcoming areas this series will be taking a look at include: Books/Literary, News & Journalism, Environment, Politics, and a few other topics. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome back to this long-running series for my website, the Reading List. As you may recall, the list took a hiatus last year and I read several non-fiction books over that time (The Shadow Factory by James Bamford and Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman). Now my fiction list is back and I hope it reflects a broader move by the publishing industry over the last few years to include more BIPOC authors overall. To that end, my first selection was a stunning and elaborate 2020 novel by Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies.
This book got a lot of coverage at the time so if you would like more of a plot run-down it shouldn’t be too hard to find in reviews. My interest piqued in this novel upon watching Dessa interview the author for a Rain Taxi event in 2020. This was a masterful, eloquent book that was also fairly difficult to decipher at times. On one side the title is a perfect metaphor for Akhtar’s life in the United States as he gained notoriety as a playwright. But on the other it is also a crying out for how Muslims have been treated in this country, especially after the 9/11 attacks. As has been noted in many reviews this could be considered a piece of “autofiction” as the main character just happens to share Akhtar’s same name and profession and the only other name change that I noticed was not using his step-sister’s real name (or including her much at all). This is an interesting concept but it did confuse me as it seemed this book was a straightforward retelling of the author’s life story that very well could have landed on the nonfiction side of things. But as I’m not quite sure how much the author drew from his own life (it seems like a lot) I am going to review it as it stands.
The book revolves around many major themes: racism, capitalism, religion, and other weighty objects that resonated with me as I am dealing with my own issues in life. Crucial among these are the author’s relationship with his parents and how he has turned away from their version of Islam in favor of his own relationship to that religion and the unknown. The parts in which the fictional “Akhtar” deals with his parents were familiar to me as I have also dealt with overbearing religious parents for much of my life and it was very relatable. But the story winds its way through those parts leading to more challenging perspectives such as the plight of Muslims in America and how they have had to adapt over the years. There is a strong portion of the middle of the novel in which his car breaks down outside Scranton, Pennsylvania and he is taken for a ride by the repair shop that illustrates just how badly people still treat those with brown skin. This is balanced out with the author later joining up with a billionaire “merchant of debt” named Riaz, who ends up getting investigated by the SEC for saddling municipalities that refused mosques with incredible amounts of debt, which his company then bets against. Akhtar is masterful in concluding sentences, like this one from the Scranton repair shop bit: “I was going to stop pretending I felt like an American.” And as he finds a significant other (later discovering she transmitted to him a sexual disease) who claims their meeting was ordained by her psychic, Akhtar comes clean with his own belief in a power guiding him through life via dreams: “I have to own it, this brand of crazy is fully baked into me.”
I found this book to be quite difficult to read at times and had to look up more than a few words from the author’s remarkable breadth of language. There were also many Muslim and Pakistani words I had not encountered before and gave an even more lucious illustration to the world Akhtar paints throughout. But despite this I would highly recommend this book as it deals with every major thread of the past few decades, the narrative of the fictional “Akhtar’s” life tightly wound around them. I am still wondering how much of this book was based on real life and how much was embellished but perhaps that is the point. The real Akhtar, as the video interview shows, is quite erudite and this makes for a riveting page-turner despite the immense and flourishing language. And I have to say again the parts that spoke to me the most were when the author had to deal with his ailing parents. As somebody who has turned away from that I found these bits moving as they resembled my own struggles with the Christian religion and belonging as an atheist.
Up next I will continue the path of reading more BIPOC (and women) authors in taking up a novel I haven’t looked at since my college days: Chinua Achebe’s 1958 landmark novel Things Fall Apart. Thanks again to all readers out there for bearing with me as I take up this series once more for the website.
A Note on Sourcing - Minnesota I
Hello readers and welcome to a new series for the website. This is an outgrowth of a file that’s been sitting in my Google Drive for months now, so instead of laboring over it for another few months I thought I’d just break out some of the more important elements. That initial post was called “What’s a Reader For?” and was going to take a look at all the sources we bring into account each day as we try to understand the world. In the age of the internet and social media I realize that could be an infinite amount so I’m trying to break it down into the sources I try to follow.
To start I thought I would mention how this has changed for me over the past few years. I try to always start via my Gmail and then go to my other ways of getting information - feedly and Instapaper and some days, Twitter. I used to try and find out about world events first, but in the last few years have since tried to shift my focus to a more local angle, finding out what’s happening in Minnesota and more closely, Minneapolis.
So, what are some great sources for finding out what’s going on in this state? Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two places I have contributed to: Streets.mn and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. StreetsMN has been around for over a decade and covers a lot of great transportation and land-use issues and many of their contributors write for other places too. The Spokesman-Recorder is one of the oldest Black-owned newspapers in the country and focuses on all types of important issues, both here and nationwide.
Another great place to get a rundown on what’s happening is MinnPost. I try to check their “Glean” page every day as their editors find many important local stories twice a day. I have cultivated a decent relationship with one of their reporters and try to check out what he writes as often as possible. I would highly recommend checking this site out every day if you want to know what’s going on at a state level. They also have a bevy of important e-newsletters that are worth your time.
I will also shout-out two other hyper local outlets that do a great job: Sahan Journal, which covers immigrant stories (and plenty of others) and Racket, run by former City Pages staff and attempting to create a sustainable model via subscription service. And I should also mention Wedge LIVE, another hyperlocal operation (and podcast) run by a single person that tries to encompass much of Minneapolis news. (John Edwards also gave me some quotes for an article I did a few years back.)
I know I’m leaving a few outlets from this post so I’m going to do one more in the coming weeks regarding a few other notable sources in the Twin Cities. You may have noticed I’m not including places like the Star Tribune or the other local corporate news outlets. If you know my journalistic side, you’ll understand why I didn’t include them, but I won’t berate you if those are your own sources. I just don’t think they’re very good compared to the wealth of independent news places that have come about in the Minnesota area over the last decade.
But again, feel free to post comments or reply to the email regarding your own source lists. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but there’s only so much time in the day to read. As writers we need to make the most of that time in order to understand the world. Thanks for reading!
Hello to those of you on my email list or following me on social media. I know it’s been a long while since I’ve updated my website about my writing career, so I thought I’d do a quick one.
Where the heck have I been? You might recall the Reading List took a hiatus last May. I have a new batch of novels to read this year and will get to them after I finish the incredible nonfiction journalistic work Manufacturing Consent.
Speaking of journalism, in case you missed it I was lucky enough to work with Mel Reeves (RIP) and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder last September on an important piece concerning the Minneapolis Charter Commission. I’m now finishing up a final piece that will (hopefully) drop within another month or two.
A major event that happened last December was my having a mental health crisis over the holidays. Thankfully my wife Mary helped me through it, but it did raise some uncomfortable questions about my life and how I endure it. I was diagnosed as bipolar and am now on medication, but the path has not been easy. Please take care of your mental health as we experience this pandemic on a societal level. I know it’s cliché to say “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything” but after living that for a while I’d have to say it’s true.
Finally, the novel. I am diving back into the twelfth draft of Spheres of Influence, using my editor’s notes as a guide to expanding it. I will have more updates as I finish the draft. I am also planning on revising and writing new short stories once I get to that point.
I mentioned on Twitter recently that I've been working on a blog post called “What’s a reader for?” This dovetails with a similar query to my readers on a possible new series: A Note on Sourcing. That is, what are the many (many) sources that we as writers (or readers) try to take in each day, week, or month to understand what is going on in the world? Personally I try to focus on Minnesota/Minneapolis news and then expand to national news, but it’s a constant struggle to keep up with everything (else).
So for a query to you: what are the most important sources you follow each day? This could be email newsletters, actual newspapers, websites, blogs, whatever. Heck, it could just be Twitter or Instagram. Not everyone uses “old school” services like Feedly or Instapaper as I do. Feel free to respond to this with your lists, and I hope to compile them into a blog post someday.
And if you’re looking for something to read you can check out either of my novels, which are available from North Star Press or as e-books through B&N as well.
Thanks to all of you for reading my work over the years; there will be more blog posts in 2022!
Reading List Hiatus
Hello readers and welcome to what would have been the final installment of this part of the Reading List. As stated last time, my intent was to finish up with a non-fiction title. However I have since learned that the author was forced to resign in disgrace several years ago due to a sexual assault investigation. In the interest of standing with survivors of sexual assault, I will not be posting about this book.
This is unfortunate but does coincide with my plan to put the Reading List on hiatus for a while (at least a few months, possibly the rest of the year). What began as an initial experiment for this blog turned into a yearly series, and as I wrote in my final “reflections” post, will be ongoing for my career. Few other things have taught me so much about how to write and about my blind spots as an author. This fits in with an overall withdrawal that I will post on next month as I take some needed time away from my writing career.
Thanks to everyone who has read this blog for the past half-decade. The Reading List will return (eventually). jA
Hello readers and welcome to the penultimate installment of this leg of the Reading List. (ICYMI: As I stated in the final “reflections” post, this will be an ongoing series for the rest of my career.) I am continuing the genre detours and am now heading back to a few kinds I haven’t gotten to in a while. First up is Chris Ware’s 2000 graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.
First serialized in the Chicago alt-weekly Newcity and his own Acme Novelty Library, Ware’s genre-defining work was collected as a book by Pantheon and went on to win several major awards after publication. I have been reading graphic novels for a long time now but haven’t gotten to many classics of the form until the last few years. I feel I can state Jimmy Corrigan was quite possibly the best I’ve ever read. I have never encountered such a graphic work that blends story, thematic elements, palette and setting to tell such an engrossing tale. The book centers around an autobiographical protagonist of Ware (Jimmy). But the story follows far more than just this character as Ware weaves a rich backstory of both the history of Chicago and the Corrigan family within it.
A minor complaint I had (being an addled almost forty-year-old man) was that in some of the 19th century parts the cursive handwriting could be difficult to read even with my new glasses. But therein lies the draw, as small works very well for Ware through the panels, most of which use tiny lettering to paint a rich conversation among the expansive setting panels. There are also a few ludicrous craft pages that are hilarious and worth the effort to scour for detail. Overall the artwork makes this book a true masterpiece of its era.
The narrative deals with some heavy and important issues such as loneliness, depression, and racism in some quite profound ways. I would recommend it as one of the greatest examples of the form. I am looking forward to reading more of Ware’s work.
Next I am taking a final stop into a different type of non-fiction book (*gasp*) I haven’t read in years: the “how to write” category. This will also finally be my first Graywolf title, Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Thanks for joining me on this reading journey.
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the Reading List. (ICYMI: As I stated in the final “reflections” post, this will be an ongoing series for the rest of my career.) Starting out this year will be a continuation of the genre detours I have established over the last few months, and last time I looked at a very interesting poetry anthology. As promised I am now going in a completely new direction, reading a (according to The Wikipedia) “young adult coming-of-age epistolary novel,” Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 book The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
This isn’t exactly an unknown title, being made into a quite successful film by Chbosky in 2012 (and the original impetus for my wanting to read the book), but I had forgotten in the intervening years how much the story is similar to my first novel from North Star Press. Before I get too deep into the comparisons I must say Chbosky wrote a far superior book and I’m glad he got the accolades. I also think he made a good call in using the epistolary form (something I tried to do with a diary) to tell the story as it allowed for a very intimate look into the main character’s life. Also (somewhat *trigger warning* if you need that) there is an incredible and sad revelation about abuse at the very end of the novel that made me think about how to layer in such an impactful moment and have it resonate.
Regarding those similarities, major themes in common would be (*spoiler* for my book, I guess?): suicide, drug use, and being an outcast (albeit a more religious way in my novel). But striking more to the core of it, despite the turgid anger of my Twitter feed these days, I was like Charlie for most of my life. Observing people rather than “participating,” trying to be someone I was not, and in general feeling sensitive toward the world rather than being active in it. I tried to wrangle all those things (much more a part of me in high school) for Our Senior Year along with some of the other crises I was facing in my “real” life at the time circa 2013. This “young adult” novel, despite a few quibbles of my own, does an incredible job of displaying what it is like to navigate this type of world and make it.
I wish Chbosky had focused the narrative a bit more on the “major” themes, but even that’s pretty personal. I also was a lot more repressed about homosexuality growing up and perhaps that understanding continues to limit me. That being said, growing up believing I needed to be a bigoted jerk about it does explain why in the novel (and played so freakin’ well in the film by Ezra Miller) Patrick needs to be careful with his identity. For those people in my own high school who felt that type of loathing from me, I know it’s far too late, but I am sorry.
Up next I’m switching over to a genre I haven’t returned to in a few years, the graphic novel. To wit, one of the utter ground-breaking classics of the genre: Chris Ware’s 2000 opus Jimmy Corrigan. (FYI the text is very small and a recent trip to the eye doctor confirmed my continuing addled decomposition, so this one might take a while.)
Thanks for reading and following my work. -ja
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the Reading List. As I stated in my final “reflections” post, this will just be an ongoing series for the rest of my career. Starting out this year will be a continuation of the genre detours I have established over the last few months. As promised, the first book is this twentieth century lyrical work by Edgar Lee Masters.
This was a collection my wife has recommended to me for years and I thought it would be another good look at a different way to use language. The anthology is made up of cemetery epitaphs, some connected and some philosophical, that tell the story of the residents in the fictional town of Spoon River. The epitaphs are connected through stories and lives, and while most connect page to page others take longer to understand. At the end is an epic, Homeric type poem entitled “The Spooniad” that brings together many of the intertwining tales.
I thought this was a great read, and took my time with it. I would sit with ten to twenty of these epitaphs per session and think about them as they revealed similar mystery and passions that roiled any small Midwestern town over the last century. I kept being drawn to my own memories of fall and how little everything seems to change, even as it does. Some of the best epitaphs reveal hidden secrets behind everyday occurrences or the unvarnished truths about life. And while the overarching story concerning the pillars of the community (bank and church etc) collapsing due to corruption carries over and wrecks plenty of people, not all let the moral backwardness of the town rule their lives.
I would definitely recommend this collection for anyone looking to understand both the weird history of this country, but also those wanting to see how to tell a story in a different format. I would suggest checking out a stage version as well; this video I found on the series of You-Tubes has some great performances.
Up next I am going to wind even farther away from my normal patterns, yet reading a book I have been interested in for a long time: Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a young adult novel published (*adjusts spectacles*) over twenty years ago. Thanks for joining me on this reading adventure, and stay healthy out there.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.