On the Lammys, writing, and faith


[NB: Scroll down for a list of this year's winners, and links to purchase those books from an indie bookstore!]

A while ago, I threw my hat into the ring for a grant that I didn’t get, but one of the judges for that grant had kind things to say, notably that there were so many strong applications, so not being chosen did not necessarily mean my work was without merit. I always paused in the cynicism of my heart when hearing this condolence. Could it be true?

Last night I attended the 26th annual Lambda Literary Awards, and had the pleasure this year of serving as a judge. This experience has taught me that it is true — it is so true. There is more talent in the queer literary world than there are awards. Serving as a judge introduced me to scores of poets and writers I hadn’t heard of before, and am so grateful to have read.

I always float home from the Lammys, as they’re affectionately known, on a pink cloud of euphoria and determination. It’s so validating to see so many hard working, fantastic writers receive recognition for their books. Last night, Alison Bechdel accepted the Board of Trustees Award for Excellence in Literature, and talked about winning her first Lammy in 1991, and how it felt just as validating all these years later. Kate Bornstein won the Pioneer award, and gave an incredibly moving speech, imploring us to not judge one another. “Please pioneer a queer community that does not eat its own,” she said. Debut novelist Nik Nicholson thanked all of the people who encouraged her as she wrote “Descendents of Hagar” (now on the top of my TBR pile). Luis Negron dedicated his award to booksellers, for selling our books and keeping bookstores open. (I unabashedly shouted, “Yes!!” when he spoke those words.) A. Naomi Jackson won the inaugural E. Lynn Harris Award for Excellence in Black LGBT Short Fiction, and presented the Lammy for best LGBT YA to David Levithan and Sara Farizan, who tied for the award. I clapped so hard–David was the editor who generously published my first story in an anthology years ago, and Sara is someone I met in my MFA program who deserves every shred of praise for her novel “If You Could Be MIne.” I remember sitting in a roundtable discussion with Sara, and her saying she was writing a YA novel about two girls in Iran who are in love. Some people in the room blinked, some people cocked their heads, but I remember thinking, That is a book that the world needs!  It’s such a joy to see her book make its way into the world, and be so welcomed and recognized.

I know I’ve said this before, but writing takes such a tremendous amount of audacious faith. Writing itself is solitary, and that’s why I always relish the Lammys–the bright community and enthusiasm for writers and stories. So many times in this past year I’ve sat at my little desk and thought, I don’t know what I’m doing. Or, this must be a mistake. But sitting in that audience last night, watching so many writers be honored and loved, I thought, I have to write this book because that’s the thing I want most in the world. I skipped the after party, mostly because my routine of late has been to wake up an hour before my alarm goes off and write before going to my day job. I’ve had to accept that the time and money to write are something I could chase forever, or I could take what I have and use it. Above my desk I’ve tacked the Doris Lessing quote: “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” So this morning I fed the cats and stumbled to my desk and opened my laptop and wrote. Brooklyn was quiet. The conditions weren’t perfect, but they were my conditions. And buoyed by the Lammys, they did not feel so impossible.

You can buy all of the winners’ books from an indie bookstore, or direct from the small press. Here are links to winners’ books from my personal fave indie bookstore, WORD, which ships anywhere, and often at media mail rates. Or you can find your local, awesome indie bookstore here. It’s worth the few extra bucks, to support queer writers and indie bookstores at the same time!



























Alison Bechdel


Kate Bornstein


Imogen Binnie & Charles Rice-Gonzalez


A. Naomi Jackson


Radclyffe & Michael Thomas Ford


pep talk

Dear Courtney of November 2013,

Hi. This is Future Courtney. I can’t quote exactly when/where I’m writing from, but I wanted to drop you a line. You’re five days into this month and have received rejection notes from three literary magazines, one residency, and one grant.


You’re a really good cheerleader. I watch you all the time, sending encouraging notes to writer friends, giving virtual internet high fives when friends get good news, and constantly telling everyone you know: Keep going! Have faith! Rejection means you’re closer to acceptance! Don’t give up!

I’m writing to you because while you’re a great cheerleader for others, you find it really hard–painful, even–to cheer for yourself.

In fact, sitting at your fold out Ikea desk in a frumpy sweater after working all day, with the daylight fading before 5PM, you feel despondent. It’s just a few rejections, you’re thinking, what the eff are you so sad about? I mean, you’re right, they hate you. And they really hate your writing. How could you have sent that out into the world?! That was dumb. This is all dumb. You’re probably just meant to be an editor, not a writer. This won’t ever work out. 

You can stop right there. I mean, negative thinking, self-doubt, blah blah blah, you’ll never really conquer it. But I thought I’d give you some cheerleading. I thought you might like to know what the future is like.

First off, in the future, there’s a lot more rejection. So much more rejection. The residencies you’ve always dreamed of, the literary magazines you most respect, the fellowships you picture yourself winning — they’re not gonna happen. But something else will. Acceptance will come other ways. You’ll go to residencies, they’re in your future, in ways you haven’t yet thought about. You’ll win one grant, just once, and it will be incredible. The literary magazines and editors who publish your work are out there — maybe not right now, maybe not at this time, but they are. You will publish your first book, and then another. (Maybe more — I’m only Future Courtney, not Know It All Courtney).

I can’t tell you about these books, because you’re still writing them, and true writing means allowing the end result to be more magnificent than the pea-sized idea you started out with. It takes humility, yes, but above all it takes perseverance. Remember the story you wrote when you were eighteen? How different that was from the one you first published when you were twenty four? And how that one was so different than the stories you sent with your graduate school applications? And how far from those stories the one you published this year was?

This cycle is still unfolding. The pattern that’s always been true — writing and hard work lead to better writing and more hard work — is still true. It’s true here in the future. It’s true at that small desk where I’m watching you write right now.

Your first book? It’s received the way you imagine it will be — the most heartfelt love coming from the family and friends who have always believed in you. The magic will be that it’ll be your hard work, your name, your words made of ink pressed to pages. Who cares when it happens? As your future self, I can only disclose that it’s coming to you.

Recently you wrote a letter to a writer friend who’s living abroad, and in it, you drew him a little map of his writing life line. It’s high time someone drew one of these for you, love. Here:


True, you’re still beginning. And the beginning is the worst. The beginning is so crazy. And one of the worst traps of the beginning is Other People’s Success. At a wedding recently someone said, “Can you imagine being thirty three with two books and a baby?” And you wore a big grin, but your heart crumpled and you thought, Oh dear lord, I’m thirty one, this is a terrible idea and I will never have two books, or one, or even a Pushcart nomination — I don’t even want a baby!

They were just making conversation, Courtney. Everyone loves you as you are, admires the success you’ve had so far, and have faith in what you do. This faith is your best defense. This faith is your magic elixir. Drink it up. Borrow some of mine. Borrow someone else’s on evenings like this one, when it is dark out and all you can think of is rejection. Clutch faith like a talisman.

Just for fun, here are some of your favorite examples of faith:

When Mary Karr said she threw out two 500-page drafts of Lit, with the faith that she could write a better one

When Tayari Jones shared of the five year period when she received no positive reinforcement for her work, but kept writing anyway

When Marie Helene Bertino said at a reading that of her award winning debut story collection Safe As Houses, one story was rejected fifty times, and another story was rejected thirty five times before being published and winning a Pushcart

When Stephen King admits that he originally threw his first draft of Carrie in the trash (his awesome wife Tabitha King fished it out and told him it was worth writing)

When Junot Diaz said, “The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.”

When Cheryl Strayed wrote “Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.”

Go ahead. Wallow in faith. I mean, you’re right that writing is crazy. You’re correct that you’re far from the finish line.  It’s not going the way you planned. But do you know why it’s not going as planned?

Because the way it’s unfolding is better than what you can imagine.

Chin up. Do the work. Shake it off. I’ll be here anytime you need me, pom poms waving.

Love and faith,

Future Courtney

back to the internet

Hello September and hello internet! I’m back from my one month hiatus and feel partially overwhelmed (Facebook! So busy! So much to look at!) and partially wonderful (a long-read essay on why the movie Clue is so awesome? YES PLEASE!). Here’s what my internet-free month looked like by the numbers:

Books I Read: 11 (plus 5 poetry/essay manuscripts for friends)

This includes two books for book reviews, along with Vampires at The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith, the first four Lying Game novels by Sara Shepard (I know…I know), Freak of Nurture by Kelli Dunham, Portrait of An Addict As A Young Man by Bill Clegg, The Dinner by Herman Koch, and like half of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Words Written: 22,199

…and I constantly berated myself for not writing more — writers! We’re crazy!

Number of Crap E-mails I Got: 827

Lesson learned: e-mail — It is mostly crap! It is a lot of junk from J. Crew! The most important e-mail I got over the entire four weeks was one telling me I was awarded a residency I applied for (!). They sent it on a Tuesday and I saw it on a Sunday — life goes on!

Times I Cheated And Just Had To Google Something: 4

How to Make Cake Flour, How To Get a Brooklyn Library Card, How To Stretch Pizza Dough, and when the Union Square Greenmarket is because I just couldn’t handle calling 311. And technically I forced my girlfriend to Google Beyonce’s new haircut because, c’mon. I had to.

Times I Had To Peek At My E-Mail Because I Forgot A Password For Some App I Decided Wasn’t The Internet: 3

Songza, Seamless, and My Fitness Pal — a true internet purist may have skipped all internet-fueled apps, but there were some that I just couldn’t pass up, including Netflix, ABC Family (to watch Pretty Little Liars, duh), Songza, My Fitness Pal, my bank app, and Seamless — but I only used Seamless once because it felt like total cheating when I could call the pizza place myself.

Number of Letters And Postcards I Sent: 6

Number of TV Shows I Gorged On: 3, including two seasons of The Lying Game, four episodes of Pretty Little Liars, and three seasons of Skins

Many people were skeptical that I wasn’t online but I was watching Netflix. And seeing how I watched hours upon hours of bad television because of this loophole, I get it. But when it’s eight pm and I’ve baked a cake and written for two hours and read for four hours and meditated and rode my bike to get groceries and watered my plants — guess what? I wanna veg out and watch Netflix. It was a vacation, after all.

Number of Facebook Notifications I Had: 92

Number of Times I Missed Facebook: 0

But to admit, when I did finally log back on and see my friends’ names and photos and links to hilarious Buzzfeed articles I thought, oh! My friends! I missed them!

Number of Times I Read A Cookbook Instead of Googling A Recipe: 21

Cookbooks — who knew?! So relaxing. So wonderful. I cruised through many of the Smitten Kitchen cookbook recipes, and also got real intimate with Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything (and How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, which, I realize is redundant alongside the Everything one). I’ve now perfected making my own pizza dough (it involved the one cheat — I mean, how do you stretch it?! How?!) and also made Smitten Kitchen’s caramelized peach pancakes four times. So good.

Things I Am Dying To Google:

Beyonce’s haircut (again. I know.), baking soda vs. baking powder, free financial planning courses, cruiser bike, that drake song with the chorus “still got it”, is neutral milk hotel back together?, why was the lying game cancelled?, when does scandal start again?, what classes are at the gym by my work, best yoga videos on netflix, drywall anchors, december 19th beyonce tickets, new york times subscription discounts, september asbury park weekend rentals, outdoor summer movies, why is everyone talking about miley cyrus?

Biggest Takeaways From This Hiatus:

It’s nice to wake up and not check my e-mail. I kept replacing it with Wake Up And Play Spell Tower but once I deleted my games I seriously curbed the hit-snooze-and-squint-at-my-iPhone habit.

The internet time-suck for me comes via many avenues, but especially Google. In my first return-to-internet day, I watched myself have a thought (how would I make gluten free cornmeal pizza crust?), stop to Google it, and spend eight minutes reading recipes. This happened in bed with a book in my lap at eleven at night — WHY?! Why did I need to know about cornmeal pizza crust right there and then? Instant information — it’s too dangerous for me. I’m gonna try and keep my information seeking on a need-only basis.

Give me a big hug, internet. I kinda missed you.

get off the internet: one month without

From August 6th through September 3rd, I’m giving up the internet. This has become my summer tradition: a detox from Facebook and Buzzfeed lists, compulsive e-mail checking and scrolling Instagram before I get outta bed. I did my first internet detox in 2010, taking one week off, and last August went for the full month. A huge nota bene here is that I have the entire month of August off from my job, so it’s relatively easy to avoid the internet.

My rules for this year’s detox will be the same: one hour of e-mail checking every Sunday, plus permission to hop online to submit book reviews and other freelance projects. I’ll make a hard copy of all the resources and guidelines I need for upcoming residency and fellowship applications. And I’ll be allowed to binge on episodes of The Lying Game on Netflix. But mostly, I’m just gonna read and write and ride my bike and bake and see friends and stare out the window. I’m someone who’s madly in love with the internet, but also seriously lacking in self-discipline. I walk around with my nose tucked not in a novel but an iPhone. It’s lovely to take a big break.

Photo from Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, SC.


cropped-lacy-banner-3When the Postmasters Podcast introduced me as “Brooklyn essayist Courtney Gillette,” I straight up swooned. Postmasters is a new podcast put together by the fabulous writers Audrey Camp and Lacy Mayberry. We crossed paths at Lesley, and they gave me the honor of being their first interview for their podcast about life after the MFA. Postmasters is a fantastic new resource for creative people, and Lacy and Audrey are putting their own MFAs to work with it. Brava!

Talking to Audrey & Lacy was a total delight, and you can listen to the full interview here. I do some weird cackling, chat about stories I’ve published and why I applied to an MFA program, and use the word gay about nine times in twenty six minutes (holla!). It’s beyond heartwarming for these literary darlings to be such awesome LGBT allies and feature diversity in their first interview. And for the record, the UT Austin MFA program gives out $27,500 to each student every year for three years (yeah, you read that right). And while I do love lots of things about Texas (including sweet Lacy!), my favorite thing about Texas is totally Wendy Davis. You go, girl!

One million thanks to Audrey and Lacy for such a fun interview! Feel free to follow, like, or subscribe to the Postmasters Podcast — I’m excited for what these gals do next.

libraries changed my life

imgresAt the Lambda Literary Awards in May, I met the badass children’s librarian and activist Ingrid Abrams, who is one half of the brilliant creation of Libraries Changed My Life. She asked me to contribute to their Tumblr and I was only too happy to oblige. You can read it here and also below.

From Libraries Changed My Life:

The Magicians

I would like to write a very belated thank you note to the librarian who ordered a copy of Sleater Kinney’s Dig Me Out for the Chester County Library in 1997. When I was a teenager in small town Pennsylvania, I’d go to the library once a week and flip through every single one of the compact discs and cassette tapes there, hunting for anything that looked better than the Top 40 on the radio. I discovered Red Hot & Rio, Patsy Cline, a British import of Bjork’s Debut with an unheard bonus track — it was like a treasure hunt. Flip past the Rod Stewart, the Aerosmith, the over-circulated Backstreet Boys album, and there, nestled between them, were the gems.

I hadn’t heard of Sleater Kinney. It felt like I lived planets away from the crucible of riot grrrl and grunge on the west coast. I picked up Dig Me Out because the album featured three unsmiling women with alternative haircuts, including one playing an electric guitar. This will sound strange, but until that moment I had only seen women play acoustic guitar. Seeing a woman play an electric guitar struck a tuning fork deep inside of me — oh, shit.

I checked the album out from the library, and from the moment I put it on my stereo in my Christmas-light decorated bedroom, from those first chords — remember them? — I was changed. I made a copy of the CD on a cassette tape and listened to it over, and over, and over, long after I’d returned the treasured album to the library. At seventeen, the worst place in the world to me was small town Pennsylvania, and the only thing I had to look forward to was getting out. I passed the hours before escaping to college by lying on the nubby carpet in my bedroom, listening to Dig Me Out until the tape warped, and I raced back to the library.My heart leapt when I saw it there, still in the music section, still available to me.

The second track on that album, “One More Hour,” was my mantra: In one more hour I will be gone. Ceremoniously, the morning my parents drove me to Manhattan where I’d be going to college, I listened to that song it on my walkman over and over, slamming the rewind button until it came back. It was finally happening. It was finally coming true.

Years later, I realized that that Sleater Kinney album didn’t appear there by magic. Someone — some librarian — had ordered it. Someone in my boring small town had chosen the albums the library should own. Somebody made it happen. Maybe it was the same librarian who put Annie On My Mind in the YA section for me to discover. Or the librarian who shelved the hardback copy of Queer 13: Gay & Lesbian Writers Recall The Seventh Grade, which I found one afternoon by running a finger along the cellophaned spines of the entire Dewey decimal system until I found something I wanted to read. The magic, perhaps, was that I grew up in a small town with a badass library. And the librarians themselves were the magicians.


On June 29th I had the honor and delight of addressing my graduating class at Lesley University’s MFA graduation ceremony. Writing a speech was one of the hardest writing tasks I’ve ever faced. For months I scribbled notes, e-mailed myself little tidbits, agonized over how my speech would compare to the beauty that’s come before me, and made crooked notes at three a.m. when I couldn’t sleep. No matter how difficult it felt, though, I always knew I’d come up with something good, if only because my muse–twenty-two writers and the two years we’ve spent together–was absolutely incredible. Below is the speech I gave, humbled and grateful and bright.

meow meow meow[Photo credit Jodi Sh Doff]

Friends and family, faculty and students, and my beloved cohort –it’s an honor to be presented the opportunity to address you all here today. Thank you for being some of the most generous and outstanding people I’ve ever known. I consider myself really lucky, because I walked in here in June 2011, and for some fateful, awesome reason, so did all of you. Whenever someone asks me what’s best about this MFA program, I say, the people. You cannot ask for better people. Parents and family, please know that you have raised some truly fine human beings. Friends and partners, this is a reminder that you’ve hit jackpot. And to the children of any writers on this stage, you may not believe me, but your parents are terrifically cool.

One of the stories I sent with my application to Lesley was “You Want A Social Life With Friends,” the title of a Kenneth Koch poem I memorized in my early twenties and once used as a way to charm literary girls I fancied. It didn’t really work. The poem, though, has stuck with me, and while gearing up for graduation I remembered it. It’s very short, and it goes like this:

You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What’s true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.

There isn’t time enough, my friends–
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends–
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day’s end?

Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.

It occurs to me that Koch may never have met a low res MFA student like us. I think we’re pretty good at having all three. Part of what appeals to us low res folk is that we get to write without leaving our lives behind. We juggle rent jobs, children, spouses, exes, medical bills, college friends, surgeries, weddings, all five seasons of Breaking Bad, cats, mortgages, girlfriends, internships, and, above all else, writing. I only stand here today because I am so blessed by the trifecta of family, chosen and real, friends, and writing. And judging by the crowd, you all are blessed by this trifecta, too. Yes, we’d all write more if we declined invitations to birthday parties, lived alone, never had to see family on holidays—no offense– and had stretches of time before us in which to court the muse. But if that was the case, whatever would we write about? A friend of mine in New York was in a traditional MFA program, and when I asked her how it was going, she said, “I go to a lot of parties, and do a lot of drinking, but not a lot of writing.” If only she had been low res. The trick, I believe, is to stuff all of your parties and drinking into nine days twice a year here in Cambridge, then take the rest of the year to write. I will be the first to admit that if life were always like residency, if Matthew always lived down the hall, or Karalyn was always there when I came down for breakfast, or if, god forbid, I lived around the corner from Cambridge Common, I don’t think I’d get a lot of writing done, either. It’s what makes these residencies so sweet, the magic ingredient of absence making the heart grow fonder.

From the moment we began our last semester here, there has been a lot of talk about not wanting to graduate. It’s really hard to think that this could be ending, this blend of deep friendships and generous mentors, the built-in deadlines, the soothing balm of student status. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, this impending ending, and it’s lead me to an idea that I am going to earnestly propose today.

Let’s not graduate.

It may be unconventional to give a graduation speech in which I suggest we all not graduate. But there’s nothing conventional about getting an MFA in Creative Writing, either. I’ve got it all planned out. There’s going to be a third year for us, and it starts today. Tuition, for this third year, is free. Deadlines will be the same, the first Monday of every month. And while this third year cannot afford us the loving guidance of our faculty mentors, we can press ‘send’ on manuscripts to each other. If we’ve done this for the last two years, why can’t we do it for one more? One more year of neglecting the yard work or the bathroom that needs to be repainted, one more year of living with a roommate while we work part-time, or rising at five a.m. to write before leaving for our day job. One more year of banging out drafts the day before they’re due. One more year of pushing ourselves, of cheering each other on, of sitting and doing that work that drove us here.

To the friends, family and loved ones who’ve tolerated our incessant keyboard tapping and grumpy isolation, if you thought you were getting us back after today, I hate to say it, but you’re not. We’ve got work to do. That work has only begun.

In my journey here I applied to seventeen MFA programs, and for a while I had my heart set on a three-year program, because I heard from writers that the third year is where the writing gets really real. The third year is where you hit your groove and the demons have loosened from your back and you can burst through the thin membrane between doing enough and doing your best. Gaining momentum takes three times as much energy as sustaining it. The plates are spinning on their sticks. I dare us to keep them spinning.

Recently when I told someone I was graduating, they asked me what I was going to do next. This puzzled me, only because the answer seemed so obvious. What was I going to do next? The same thing I’ve been doing. I’m going to write. Yes, it can feel very silly to have a degree you do not run out into the world with. For us, the best place we can to run to is the desk. When you get home, before the suitcase is unpacked, before you open your mail, before you return that phone call or e-mail, write something. Honor what we have worked so hard to do here. Hold your home life at bay for just one hour, and write. It won’t be easy, but it’s our third year. Our first deadline is August 5th. You better get a jump start.

I think of you all when I’m writing, because you are the first writers I met who showed me their writing selves. We never see writers writing, we only see them having written. In the past two years, when I have sat down to write, when the self-doubt begins to creep in, I take solace in the fact that somewhere in the world all of you are actively writing. The beauty of a low residency program is that there’s a wide constellation of us. I can picture Evan at a desk in his apartment in Pennsylvania, after work. I imagine that Ericka & Jasmine write on the same candy colored laptop that brightened every classroom we’ve been in. I think of Julie writing with a window nearby. Katie, I bet, writes in the morning; maybe Pheobe writes at night. I know that July likes at least one cat in the room in order to write. Wherever Clinton writes, I figure that it’s cold. Michelle, who worked on her thesis in an arm-chair late at night during AWP conference this year, could probably write anywhere.

These imagined desks where you write — the rings from coffee mugs, the post its stuck to the wall, the bills shoved out of the way — they buoy me when my own desk — a fold out Ikea table in a corner of my small bedroom — seems too dark. When the writing seems too hard. I picture you all, your faces in the glow of your computer screens, your stubborn faith that we are doing the right thing, and then I can keep going. It is always with you that I will write.

I will forgive Kenneth Koch’s limited view of writers having it all because he wrote a line of poetry that has rang in my head since day one. How Lucky To Run Into You When Everything Was Possible. How Lucky To Run Into You When Everything Was Possible.

Congratulations, it’s just begun.

Hilary Mantel on memoir



“Memoir’s not an easy form. It’s not for beginners, which is unfortunate, as it is where many people do begin. It’s hard for beginners to accept that unmediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene. The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record: this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint. But she has to make it as true as she can. Writing a memoir is a process of facing yourself, so you must do it when you are ready.”

From The New York Times Book Review. Illustration by Jillian Tamaki.

a catalog of the things above my desk


postcard of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s typewriter

birthday card from my father

“Don’t forget to show the grace and humanity.” — advice Dorothy Allison gave Justin Torres at the Lambda Emerging Writers Retreat

a gold mask from my brother’s wedding

a sticker of a dinosaur that says “Fuck!”

“…and with a tiny prayer I say down to write.” — Eileen Myles

“Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make. The only rule is work.” — John Cage

“I wrote a little day, without hope and without despair.” — Isak Dinesen

round mirror facing the door for feng shui

postcard from July Westhale

clip of a panel from Adrian Tomine’s New Yorker cover about the life of a book; this is the first panel: a woman hunch-shouldered at a desk with a laptop and a cup of coffee

“How old will you be when you finish writing your novel? The same age you’ll be if you don’t write it.”

woodcut of a cardinal with the number 22

“Regaining momentum takes three times the energy as sustaining momnentum.” — DHP

watercolor of Beyonce

“Go live your scary life.”

plate of a gently closed palm

photo of my father in the navy

sticker of a raccoon saying, “Things didn’t turn out the way I had planned.”

my business card from Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls

“Meditation is the simplest and fastest way to change your state of mind.”

typewriter necklace from my cousin

significant objects drawings by kate bingaman-burt

the universe and forever venn diagram from 20 x 200

“Writing is always hard. Is coal mining always harder? Probably.” — Sugar


that’s my cat

If you enter the phrase “when to put” into Google, the first suggestion that appears is When To Put Your Cat to Sleep. The suggestion is followed by: When To Put Your Dog To Sleep, When To Put A Child In A Booster Seat, and When To Put In A Baby In A Toddler Bed.

I was trying to answer the first question.

I had no plans to become a cat person. I considered myself, at most, a guinea pig person, although I hadn’t owned one since I was ten. We had a dog when I was in high school, but she ran away a month after my parents’ divorce, two weeks before Christmas, never to be seen again. When a guinea pig was ready to die, they just died, and you would wake up to find them stiff and cold, head tucked under some newspaper, or hiding in a shoebox in their cage. I’ve never had to put a cat to sleep. I’ve never had a cat.

I realized I was a very good candidate for a cat: single, writer, loves reading in bed and knitting. Lesbian like whoa. Five years ago I quit teaching to be the secretary of a sweet little nursery school downtown, and everyone at this nursery school had a cat. Next to my desk was the door to the office, which was called the Door of Pets. Photos of everyone’s pets–teachers, speech therapists, kids, even the mailman (who has like seven cats, no joke)–were scotch taped up there, the pet’s name sharpied underneath. My first week there, one of the teachers stood by the office door waiting for something, and together we gazed at the Door of Pets.

“Do you have a cat?” she asked.

I told her no.

“You will,” she deadpanned.

Not long after this, and not long after a series of cat sitting gigs that warmed me up to the awesomeness of cats, there was an e-mail posted on the listserve for my beloved Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls volunteers. The e-mail was about a cat that needed urgent adoption. It had been found in someone’s backyard in Bushwick, and when it was taken in for shots and neutering, they found he had feline leukemia, which meant he couldn’t live with other cats. It also meant that if he was taken to a shelter, he’d be most likely put down. Currently, he was living in someone’s music studio, sleeping in a bass drum. He was a black and white tuxedo cat, and his name was Professor.


Out loud to myself, at the desk crammed against the bookshelf in my tiny bedroom on Pacific Street, I shouted, “That’s my cat!”

Backing up: what is feline leukemia? What the hell was I getting into? I turned to trusty Google to help me with FeLV. My understanding became that it was a condition that weakened a cat’s immune system and shortened their life, usually to 7 or 8 years. They were more susceptible to other diseases, and since FeLV is transmitted by fluid, they couldn’t live with other cats. One wacked out source I found described some woman’s plight to nurse a feverish kitten with FeLV to good health by feeding it iced spring water with an eye dropper, and after a lot of praying, she was blessed to have a totally healthy and cured cat.

I can be a little bit pollyanna sometimes, but of all the things I read, that one made me decide it was okay to adopt a cat with feline leukemia.

If you are one of those people who think that pets find their owners, and that animals can come into the right person’s life at just the right time, and that there is some awesome universal force at work pairing pets with people in the name of love, then yes, please add the tale of Professor Gillette to your evidence.


Professor would run and greet me when I came home. He liked to sleep on my head, waking me up with what I came to refer to as his snorkel-purr, circling my pillow before throwing his weight, ass first, onto my face, with a whump.  He chewed on pens, purred on my chest while I read, and became territorial about my desk when I wrote, knocking off everything in sight (sometimes with his paws, sometimes with his butt) until there was a wide swatch of space for him to melt into. This eventually lead me to give him his own inbox.


He had his issues. He liked to get my attention by pulling books off the shelves, and tearing at the pages with his claws. He bit the ankles of anyone I dated. He wet the bed — a lot. He’d get anxious if I didn’t wake up when my alarm went off, mewing and kicking my head and shredding books and knocking over water glasses and pissing on my down comforter until I got out of bed.

06944B4A-CBC5-46AB-9B17-50281C1C5A2DLater, he’d develop a codependent habit that I totally got ensnared in. In the middle of the night he would wake me up with a panicked meow, kicking and yowling and pulling books off the shelf until I got up and followed him to his food bowl in the kitchen, where I then had to watch him eat. If I walked only part way, he’d mew pathetically at my feet, motioning in his little cat way to follow him. He’d vacuum the food into his mouth, pausing every so often to turn and make sure I was there, half asleep against the refrigerator, wondering about the quality of my life. Only after this 3 or 4 am ritual would we both be allowed to sleep. He’d return to my bed, snorkel purring all the way, and–whump–attempt to sleep over my face.

8DB758ED-10AF-41BE-83AB-D94D20C1123AThere’s a Margaret Wise Brown book that the kids at the nursery school love — The Good Little Bad Little Pig. And that’s Professor. The good little bad little cat. Okay, so I owe my roommate like $450 in damage (that leather ottoman? not a scratching post, Prof), and I’ve thrown out so much bedding over the years I don’t even wanna talk about it. But man, he was a damn good cat. This is a photo of him showing odd interest in 8 Minute Abs, back when I thought I would actually start doing 8 Minute Abs. I spend a lot of time at my laptop, and Professor never ever expressed an interest in anything on screen, until Jaime Brenkus came on. The few times I did get down on the ground and do the routine, Professor would come and lie on my stomach, mewing if I moved too slowly.

The first time I applied to graduate school, I read every one of my eleven rejection letters with Professor, taking the mail into the bathroom of my old apartment to sit on the toilet and open the thin envelopes and say to Professor, “Well. At least we’re not moving to Alabama.” (Or Arkansas. Or Texas. Or Minnesota. Or Colorado.)

In my bedroom, I tucked Prof’s fleece bed under my red reading chair. Many nights, he slept there while I read, and if it was quiet enough, I could hear him purring. Home felt so perfect to me in those moments, like I’d done something right, like I’d cultivated the best life for myself in New York.

0A86911D-42D0-4BEE-8F87-3FCE8C9169A4When I moved apartments, I took my current place in part because I could picture Prof on the wide windowsills in all of the rooms. In the warmer months, I’d sometimes ride my bicycle up to my apartment and find Professor sleeping in my bedroom window. He’d perk up, and if I called up to him and waved–here, in all my awesome crazy lesbian cat lover glory, waving to a cat while wearing a bike helmet on the streets of Bed Stuy–he’d meow, and jump down, and run to greet me at the door.

Seven to eight years. According to the birthday the vet randomly gave him at his first check up, Professor would’ve turned five on December 5th. By the time you read this, he’ll be gone. I only got to have him in my life for three and a half years.

About a month ago, he began sleeping more, being Professor less. He stopped eating. He was hot to the touch. This was the week of Hurricane Sandy, and so with the trains in my hood down, I was lucky to wrangle a friend to drive me and Professor to the vet. He had a fever of 105.9–a high fever for a cat is 102. “Oh man,” the vet said, shaking her head gravely. “No bueno. A fever like this in a cat with FeLV? No bueno.”

There was a three-day hospital stay. There was blood work and there were ultrasounds and antibiotics. It could be an infection. It could be cancer. It could be this rare fatal disease that doesn’t have a cure called FIP. They weren’t sure. On his second day there, I realized I could visit him, and rode my bike about 45 minutes to see him. When they brought Professor in–head in a cone, IV in his forearm, belly shaved, wrapped in an orange towel–I burst into tears.46530_10101479864915649_1176496648_n

I was never supposed to be a cat person, you guys. I was never supposed to fall in love like this. And when I did, it was supposed to be for seven to eight years, at least. It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast. It wasn’t supposed to cost $2,600. It wasn’t fair.

They allowed me to bring him home, even though his fever hadn’t quite gone down, and they were still waiting for test results for a real diagnosis. The trains still weren’t running. The city was still a wreck (and will be a wreck for a long time). Another friend miraculously had the gas and time to drive me and Prof home. I let him out of his carrier and he went to curl up in a ball on the rug, same as he’d been when he’d gotten sick.


I was never gonna get my old cat back.

The vet was 95% sure it was FIP. Confirming this would’ve taken an expensive biopsy surgery. And what could that other 5% be anyway? Nothing good. Professor was dying. They put him on steroids and said it’d help his appetite come back. They thought he had weeks, hopefully months to live.

That was on a Wednesday. A week later, I was Googling When To Put Your Cat To Sleep.

I’m writing this and he’s still alive. I’m writing this and he’s asleep in half of his cat carrier, fashioned with a pink towel and his beloved catnip corn toy. I call it his incontinence bed, since he’s lost the ability to make it to the litter box and has peed on me in my sleep the last two nights. He can drink water, but never cared for food again–not the wet food, not the dry food, not the tuna, not the baby food. He can purr. He can knead his paws against me. I’ve taken to sleeping with his little incontinence bed in my bed, turned in such a way that I can fall asleep with one arm around him in his box. Usually, though, I wake up and pull him against my chest, and we fall asleep like that, my head on the pillow, his little face pressed against mine, his paws wrapped around my neck. I can feel the weight of his body change as he drifts to sleep.

CA8D5CD9-E981-42EA-B7FA-61569D4C1E54If you are still reading this, you are either a dear friend of mine, my dad, one of the incredible people I work at the nursery school with, or you are a crazy cat person like me. I mean, this is an effing 3,000 word essay about a dying cat. I am writing about the most maudlin, sentimental, cringe worthy crap you can choose to write about. My cat–still alive–is asleep on a towel in my living room. I haven’t even made the appointment yet. I haven’t even picked up the phone.

The last time we were there, the vet asked what Professor had a PhD in. When I adopted him, he had a nasty stomach bug, which lead to the joke that he had a PhD in Farting. I told the vet this, and he laughed. “I figured he would be a doctor of awesomology,” he said.

0E730F8D-1164-49A6-AEF2-7251765FA384Here’s how it will go: I imagine I’ll have the support and company of any one of my awesome friends (truly, do not attempt to become a crazy lesbian cat lady in your life time without a badass resource of rad, loving friends). I’ll choose to hold him while they put him down. I know that it happens through an IV, and it’ll take eight to twelve seconds, and that they’ll ask if I want a few moments alone with him afterward. I’ll bawl. I’ll bawl on the way there, and during the thing, and afterward. I’ll bawl when I put this on my blog. I’ll bawl anytime I see a stupid photo of a stupid awesome cat anywhere, anywhere, for a long time. I’ll bawl as I throw out his litter box, and his food dishes, and the collar I never made him wear. I won’t throw out his beloved corn toy. I’ll keep a lock of his hair in a little box inside of my desk.


When To Put Your Cat To Sleep: when he can’t walk, and he won’t eat or drink, and he dry heaves, and wheezes, and cries loudly when he can’t breathe, and his white paws are stained with urine because he won’t let you clean them, and he looks miserable, so you spend the entire day on the couch together watching Friday Night Lights until your friend arrives to drive you to the vet, and you wrap him a towel and take him out on a cold November evening because it’s time, it has to be time.

I can’t get it out of my mind: the moment the vet leaned forward, pressed a stethoscope to his chest, and confirmed that he no longer had a heart beat. There’s no sadness in the world like that sadness. Later the vet sent a sympathy card. He wrote, “I imagine Professor is up there lecturing all the other animals on awesomology.” There’s no goodness in the world like that goodness.

The same week Professor was in the hospital, a woman in my neighborhood found a cat carrier stuffed with five eight month old kittens in the middle of the street. No one would help her with it, so she took it to her backyard. Two of the kittens ran away, but three of them she and her husband took in, with their rescue dog Stanley, in the hopes of fostering them. The week that Professor died, someone from rock camp (I love you, rock camp) posted photos of them on Facebook. Help! she wrote. Kittens need homes!

Tonight I’m adopting one. I’m going to name her Sappho.

Thanks, Prof.