Rachel X Russell interviewed me ages ago—in fact, it’s one of my favorite interviews ever—but for some reason I can’t find the blog post where I told you all about it. It’s probably somewhere on my site, called something like “How Not to Be a Pirate, or Why Ninjas Make No Sense,” which would be why I can’t find it. But, anyway, I’ve been sort of tidying up my blog (I know, I know) and creating a page for all the interviews I’ve done over the years on others’ sites, and of course I need a blog post pointing to Rachel’s interview.
But, as it turns out, Rachel herself has had trouble with her blog in the meantime. So she and I have agreed to re-post it on her new blog under the title Hit Me Again, Dorothy L. Sayers.
Just kidding. We didn’t name it that. But she did re-post it at Interview: A. Victoria Mixon.
Seriously, you guys—Rachel asked me some of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked. Such as: whom would I hit with one wall of my office if I could? And how do you hit someone with a wall, anyway?
Except she sneakily made that question about purses.
Please join us and find out how my father could have been in Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp (true story!).
Today’s story is even stranger than the one about how gardening is like writing or how dancing makes the Internet humane or even me spattering glue all over myself.
But it is utterly brilliant, and I never get over watching this woman doodle:
DOODLING IN MATH
This is someone named Vi Hart, whom I have never met but I love. She is a something called a mathemusician at Khan University (I think she, like Shakespeare, makes her own words up) and the only person I follow on Twitter who is not all about writing.
She explains the most amazing, complex mathematical concepts by doodling apparently-aimlessly all over the pages of her notebooks while she rambles on about how much she dislikes math class and is not listening to the teacher.
She makes all kinds of doodle videos about math, and I love every single one of them.
This particular video I’m linking to today is about Fibonacci Numbers and Lucas Numbers (I don’t even know what those are) and how a plant decides where to grow its leaves and why they don’t all use the same system, much less grow them randomly. She shows you the ends of pine cones so you can see the growth patterns, and she slices up a plant stem so she can create a little model out of torn pieces of paper in order to draw her own pattern of leaves.
It’s all very casual and entertaining. One of the plants she uses she refers to as a “whatever-this-is.”
In fact, very early on the plants are suddenly wearing googley-eyes and looking at you, and then a snapdragon starts talking to the camera. (Remember being a kid and making snapdragons talk?) She uses googley-eyes to show how scientists have studied repulsion, and she doodles comments as she talks, so the plants demonstrating these mathematical principles are saying, “Hi! I’m a plant!” and the sprouting doodled leaves say, “Go away,” to each other.
It’s all just incredibly wonderful and hilarious and educational.
And at the end it turns out the whole point of her story is that she’s just demonstrated the growth patterns of plants are not only possible. . .they are inevitable.
She says, “That’s why I love math. Because it shows how the patterns of life are inevitable.”
Which is, coincidentally, exactly why I love fiction.
Remember, we’re all lost together, everywhere the same.
—Garry Schyman, Alicia Lemke, & Matt Harding, “We’re Going to Trip the Light”
Here’s another story for you all today about how life works and who we are.
There’s this guy named Matt. You might know about him. He’s a perfectly ordinary American guy who lives in Seattle with his wife and baby. Some years ago Matt and a friend made a short video of Matt doing a bizarre little awkward dance he does, in dozens of quick moments in dozens of countries, all edited together and set to music.
He called it Where the Hell is Matt?
And he released it on the Internet.
It went viral, and by the next year he was getting pretty well-known for his random global dance (he calls it “bad dancing”), and he got a sponsor. So he made another video, this one slightly more coordinated. In some places he’s dancing in front of historical monuments, and in other places he’s dancing in nowhere in particular. In Rwanda a small gang of laughing children dances with him. But he’s still mostly just dancing his heart out alone, all across the planet.
He called it Where the Hell is Matt? 2006
And again he released it on the Internet.
Then something utterly extraordinary happened.
It occurred to Matt that the small gang of laughing children in Rwanda is the whole point of his story. (You all knows about the whole point of a story, right?) So he and his crew made another video, this one set to a haunting piece of music, “Praan,” sung in Bengali by a young woman named Palbasha Siddique. In the beginning of the video there’s Matt, still dancing like a fiend all over the world, one scene after another, the sheer epitome of optimism about this great world in which we live.
And then people start running into view around him, scene after scene, while Siddique sings. And suddenly, in a sort of primeval explosion of exuberant insanity. . .the crowds of people are dancing with him.
One scene after another. Madagascar, San Francisco, Tokyo, Botswana, all over Europe, all over Africa, all over Asia, all over the South Pacific, with native tribal dancers of Papua New Guinea and children from every continent—there’s Matt, lost in a crowd of people dancing their hearts out in their own random awkward little global dances, all to this haunting, beautiful song. There’s a single, brilliant moment when he’s dancing with a group of women in India and he suddenly breaks character to do their choreographed dance with them.
The result is beyond moving. Simply seeing with your own eyes the unbelievable diversity and beauty and humor and humanity we all share. . .it will make you cry.
He called this video Where the Hell is Matt? 2008
And my husband found it on the Internet.
When I saw it I suddenly realized what an unprecedented force for good the Internet can be. Yes, I know it’s teeming with lowlifes and spammers and hackers and thieves. I know our shared etiquette of what’s honorable and what you just don’t do to other people has taken a massive hit through the advent of trolls.
But, still, the open, grassroots nature of the Internet can unite us, every human being alive in this moment of coordinated (and uncoordinated) joy. Our entire species can be given to us—homo sapiens—by a handful of lunatics inspired by one person who just keeps pursuing what they love and know to be good and true.
This year Matt and his crew have gone beyond, again, the bounds of their last video. Again, he saw the whole point in that one, brilliant moment of dancing with the women in India. So this time, although the crowds are bigger and more enthusiastic than ever, it’s no longer just random awkward dancing.
It’s thousands of people from all cultures all over the planet moving in choreography to music, creating beauty out of their bodies together.
Where the Hell is Matt? 2012
Happy Summer Solstice.
This is another of my really long posts, but if you want you can just skim the famous names in bold and go straight to the big, bold title centered at the bottom. That’s the unpublished memoir of the decade.
It’s an unbelievable story.
In the first part of the twentieth century, the author Paul Bowles changed literature.
I don’t know how many of you have read him, but if you haven’t do.
His short stories could get extremely freaky for his era—he moved to Tangier in the 1930s and in a few of his stories he wrote about the most violent aspects he could find there of Arab culture, all in perfectly stark, unemotional, beautiful prose. His literary prowess was inarguable, and many decades later his first novel, The Sheltering Sky, was made into a Bertolucci movie starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich.
Paul was something of a mentor to William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and their friends, who traveled to Tangier to meet him in the 1950s and ’60s. Paul himself was mentored by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who admitted when they met the 18-year-old Paul that they’d pictured him from his correspondence as an elderly shut-in.
As a matter of fact, Paul was credited by Norman Mailer with launching the genre we now consider ‘edgy’ literary fiction (which is not, I hasten to add, the same thing as bad genre horror).
Paul “opened the world of Hip,” Mailer said, “and let in the murder, the drugs, the incest. . .the end of civilization.”
You know what else Paul Bowles did besides invent literature as we know it today?
He traveled everywhere, in an era before world travel became the globe-trotting it is now. He was actually a professional composer and at one time wangled a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and sponsorship from the US Library of Congress to travel around northern Africa recording tribal music, which was just then being demolished by the advent of radio.
He wrote a travel memoir, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, an amazing record of parts of rural north Africa and India in the 1950s.
In later decades, Paul switched to translating and writing down the oral storytelling of his Morrocan boyfriends in books like A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard—an extraordinary illumination of the very roots of our human relationship to stories. (He lived into his nineties and died not too many years ago.)
Now, I got onto the subject of Paul last week with my client Scott Warrender (short story writer, novelist, and musical theater composer and lyricist, e.g. his co-authored Annie Award nomination Lion King II: Pride of Simba, “My Lullaby”). Scott had asked me to recommend some excellent fiction, so I’d recommended Paul’s novel of Morocco, The Spider’s House.
Scott just wrote to me Friday morning to say, “By the way, I’m almost done with The Spider’s House, and I’m loving it.”
Okay, well—as it happens, I actually interviewed Paul’s primary biographer, Millicent Dillon, a few years ago.
We originally planned a two-part interview: the first part on Paul’s wife Jane Bowles, an equally-brilliant but very different writer, and the second part on Paul. (We even did the interview on Paul—and let me tell you, it was fascinating—however, it turned out later that my tape-recorder didn’t record it. We still intend to do that one over eventually.)
Jane’s one novel, Two Serious Ladies, had at the time of our interview recently been re-issued in England, an extraordinary novel that had been out-of-print for decades.
Jane was my favorite author for many years, not only because her literary style was both deeply profound and utterly unique (and I mean unique—I don’t think you could imitate her if you tried). But also because of her incredible personality and life, which I’d read about in Millicent’s biography of her, A Little Original Sin, and Jane’s collected correspondence that Millicent edited, Out in the World.
Jane would have made the most perfect protagonist on earth: she was so perpetually and devastatingly torn between her mutually-exclusive internal needs that she actually wound up poisoned with a love potion by her Moroccan lover and had a stroke at the age of 40, dying in her 50s of the effects of that stroke after sixteen years of completely bizarre behavior.
This is all made much clearer in A Little Original Sin.
But, anyway, that’s drama.
Coincidentally, I was also trading email with Millicent last week. She lives south of San Francisco not far from me. I met her when, after fifteen years of idolizing Jane due to A Little Original Sin, I finally summoned the courage to write Millicent a fan letter. Now we are friends.
Millicent is considered the foremost living authority on Paul and Jane Bowles and gets invited to speak every time someone holds a Paul Bowles festival. She was once his literary executor (for about a year, I think, until he forgot—Paul smoked an awful lot of hashish).
And Millicent herself is one absolutely riveting human being.
She is actually a theoretical physicist and worked at Oak Ridge secret atomic facility when she was 21 in 1947—in the pivotal years right after the atomic bomb was so horribly demonstrated in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Millicent and a friend once had a private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the opposition to the bomb that was growing among atomic scientists. Her friend says the three of them met for almost an hour and she did most of the talking. She remembers sitting across Einstein’s desk from him and looking into his twinkling eyes and feeling—a very young woman speaking to this impossibly brilliant and famous man—stunned into vision, a sense of the spiritual. . .the luminous.
Years later, when she became a fiction author, Millicent won five (five!) O. Henry Awards and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner for her novel on the American atomic spy, Harry Gold.
Truly—a woman of staggering intelligence.
She’s also one of the most gracious people I have ever met in my life. When we had lunch together to discuss Paul and Jane Bowles, she spent part of the time questioning me with sincere curiosity about the blogosphere, especially Twitter.
“What is it?” she wanted to know. “What do you do on it? And what do you call that, what you do?”
“This is quite embarrassing,” I said. “They’re called ‘tweets.’”
Imagine saying that with a straight face to a scientist who’s spent an hour in private conference with Albert Einstein.
And when I brought her a copy of my brand-new first book on writing, The Art & Craft of Fiction, she not only read it, she gave me a glowing blurb for it.
A PEN/Faulkner nominee, you guys. A five-time O. Henry Award-winner.
Then about a year ago, Millicent finished her memoir, which her agent is right now shopping around. The Believer Magazine published an excerpt from it called, “In the Atomic City,” which is of course fascinating. My husband and I were both completely bowled over.
So the other night over dinner, my husband—who is quite visible in the open-source computer industry—mentioned that encouraging women in Science, Technology, Electronics, and Mathematics (STEM) is a huge thing these days, and he couldn’t wait to read Millicent’s full memoir. He said he knows a number of top women in his industry who would love it, and he wondered if her agent was getting any traction.
So I wrote to her to ask. And she sent it to me.
Millicent Dillon sent me her unpublished memoir.
Now I can hardly bear to do anything but read it. It’s so wonderful—the meeting of theoretical physics and storytelling in the mind of a woman who’s made history in literature.
Please, everybody—run to any publishers you know and tell them about it. Her agent is at Harold Ober Associates.
THE ABSOLUTE ELSEWHERE
This book must be published.
Hey, everyone—I’ve been interviewed on a new blog and community forum called the Meta Game, owned by Cody Barrus.
He’s kicking off his blog with a special category called Interview with an Expert, and he’s very kindly asked me to be his first expert. You’ll notice he also lists me under the category of Genius. The man’s totally worth listening to.
Cody got me to say a number of things I don’t normally say in interviews, including a reference to my cats (how did they get themselves into an interview?—they weren’t being interviewed) and why I believe literature is the only thing standing between us and rank insanity.
Cody even mentions our #teammixon Twitter hashtag, which was invented on the Lab by Stu Wakefield.
So please join us today over on the Meta Game with Cody for A. Victoria Mixon, Interview with an Expert.
Don’t bring any insane cats.
Here’s my story for you guys for this week.
Because I’m a storyteller:
Yesterday I was at the kitchen table while my husband baked a complicated type of Italian bread (in between bouts of gardening—the man’s a miracle to live with).
I was doing our monthly household bookkeeping, which I do with old-fashioned pen and paper in a big ole binder like my bookkeeper mother did and her businessman father did before her.
I do this partly because I have always done it this way and partly because I want my son to see that handling money is a tangible, three-dimensional, non-virtual thing that plays a very real part in real life (and partly because I’ve learned too many software programs and plug-ins for social media, so my brain is already full).
Prepare your patience
Now, this bookkeeping yesterday happened to require that I cut-&-paste a tiny little piece of bookkeeping paper over something that someone (me) should not have written they way they did (in ink).
And when I say “cut-&-paste” I don’t mean click-&-drag, I mean “cut with very old and dull scissors” and “paste messily with Elmer’s Glue.” (There is of course an even more old-fashioned way to paste, but that stuff was rumored to be made out of horse hooves and tasted like peppermint. Not that I would know. That’s just what the other kids told me.)
Assemble your tools
Bookkeeping paper isn’t difficult to find around our house. They sell it at our local art store, and I keep piles of it in a drawer in the creaky old pine hutch in our kitchen.
Elmer’s Glue isn’t difficult to find, either. Between me and my bookkeeping and my son and his zillion projects throughout childhood, there are always a few almost-empty containers of Elmer’s in the drawer in the hutch where we keep all the broken pencils and pens that don’t work.
However, Elmer’s Glue can sometimes be a little difficult to access, because of course it dries around the nozzle.
So I sat at the kitchen table wrestling valiantly with a brand-new container of Elmer’s while my husband kneaded dough.
I didn’t want to have to ask him to open the glue for me because I actually have pretty strong wrists, and besides, you know, he bakes bread. So when I couldn’t get it open I simply concluded it was “too new” and returned it to the drawer in exchange for a container I knew for a fact I’d opened numerous times with success.
That one was stuck too.
Take a chance
So I said brightly, “Want to see me spatter glue all over myself?” and before he could answer I whacked that thing on the edge of the table to loosen the dried glue around the nozzle.
The nozzle shot straight across the table, trailing an arc of glue from its blast zone all over my jeans and T-shirt and bookkeeping as though I’d planned it. The result was so sudden and unexpected—and yet inevitable—that it was exactly like having a literary epiphany. . .except covered in glue.
But you don’t need me to tell you this step.
If you’ve been writing for any length of time at all, you already know about this step.
Last month we talked about my cat, who is not a writer (or else who is, depending upon how many opposable thumbs you think it takes). We also watched a video about working with me made by the wonderful #1 Kindle Best Selling author Stu Wakefield.
Now this morning the cat is asleep on my feet, Stu is on the rocky Orkney Islands researching his novels, and I am sore all over from working in my garden all weekend.
So let’s talk about writing and gardening.
Because you’d be surprised at the similarities.
Gardening is hard work
This can be news to those of us not raised by gardeners.
I happen to have been to be raised by farmers, who are gardeners gone lunatic. My grandparents and great-grandparents owned large potato farms in Southern California, to which they’d migrated from Lodi (when my grandmother told me she was born in Lodi, I said, “Oh, Grandma. Nobody was born in Lodi”), to which they’d migrated from South Dakota, to which they’re migrated from the great Russian steppes, where I have no doubt at all those people farmed potatoes.
They were Germans. What else would they farm?
So everywhere I lived in my childhood, I was surrounded by fields and fields of agriculture, mostly potatoes. And everyplace we moved, my parents put in a kitchen garden.
Now I do it too.
Which is why my husband and I have spent the last few weekends outdoors busting our heinies in the garden. We happen to have very, very heavy clay soil here, so when I say “busting,” I mean parts of our bodies were actually breaking and falling off.
You know why I do this?
So when I come back indoors on Monday I will be all rested up and primed for the seriously hard work:
Gardening is about the big picture
On my pauses between client manuscripts, I like to lean on my office windowsill and gaze down from the attic upon my garden below. My garden is very nicely-planned, because I am a past-graphic-designer and also extremely OCD. I picture it in my mind bursting with opulent green leaves and massive vegetables and the undeniable good health of a garden well-loved.
Even though it spends a lot of its life just looking like a whole lot of dirt.
I know, in the back of my mind, that I do this every year, that every year begins with whole a lot of dirt backed by a whole lot of optimism. Some years I get the opulence, and some years I get a bunch of scraggly dying stuff surrounded by weeds, which all but grabs me by the collar and begs me to put it out of its misery.
At such times, I ask myself why I keep at it.
And I answer myself, “Because this is what I do.”
Gardening lies in the little details
I always worry every spring about the tiny seedlings out there struggling through sun and wind and rain to extend their root systems and buckle down to photosynthesis and eventually maybe—just maybe—one day be the proud green parents of the fruits of their labor.
Then I go back to my clients, who are also knocking themselves out to extend the roots of their knowledge of this craft and buckle down to producing scenes and maybe—just maybe—one day be the proud bookish parents of the fruits of their labor.
I know all about how many complicated and even contradictory techniques a writer must master in order to result in a completed story.
They usually don’t.
So I teach them. Slowly and carefully.
I try not to burn their tender roots with too much information too fast. And I encourage them to produce scenes, knowing many of those scenes will not add to the finished story but will assist in photosynthesizing the fuel for the final scenes. And I keep reminding my clients that the goal is not a whole lot of dirt—as necessary as that is for results—or even opulent leaves.
The goal is fruit.
You can’t always control the outcome
Sadly, there are things bigger and stronger than gardeners. We call it weather. We also call it wildlife, insects, fungus, and pure bad luck.
Part of the craft of gardening lies in learning each of these challenges and the many techniques developed by gardeners throughout the ages to meet them. And part of it lies in learning to be good sports.
Because life is not just gardening.
Life is being alive, whether the gardening goes well or not.
We talk constantly here on this blog—in my books, on video, on my advice column, on my writing Lab, in my Ask Victoria column on the Writer Unboxed newsletter, even on Twitter—about the zillions of techniques of writing craft designed by writers throughout the ages.
But part of this work lies in learning to be good sports. It’s not always going to turn out the way we want.
We’re not always going to be up to the task of realizing the visions in our imaginations. And even when we are, the rest of the publishing industry (agents, acquisitions editors, marketers, booksellers, reviewers, other bloggers, and most importantly readers) are not necessarily going to cooperate.
And that has to be all right—life is not just writing.
Life is being alive, whether the writing goes well or not.
Gardening is only worth it if you long with all your heart to garden
Sometimes when I guest post I hear from the readers of other blogs (never here—I don’t think anyone following this blog has any question about the meaning of the work we do) that I seem to expect an awful lot from writers, when they’re really only in the game to make big bucks with this new self-marketing gizmo about which everyone talks so much.
“I’m only writing to finance my real love,” I hear, “competitive afghan-knitting or professional spelunking or entreprenureal self-marketing or, you know, my art.”
And I respond with enthusiastic, heartfelt encouragement for them to do what they love.
Writing is not a way to finance your real life.
It’s not even a way to finance writing.
In spite of JK Rowling, Stephen King, and Amanda Hocking, writing is and remains a passion. Writing is something we do not because it always bears fruit (it doesn’t) or because the big picture is a snapshot (it isn’t) or because the myriad details ever end (they don’t) or—certainly—because it’s possible to guarantee the results of our writing will turn out just the want we want (they never do). . .
But because it’s our real love.
Oh, people. We can’t ask life for more than that.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Scott regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his WIP Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.