I am writing to you-in-the-future, which, thanks to the wonder of being able to schedule when a blog post publishes, is something I generally do. But I’m not used to speaking to you from several weeks in the past and I find it a little nerve-wracking. There’s an election between now and when you are reading these words and perhaps the world has changed in ways that make these words seem trivial. It has always been an uncertain world out there, but we have been on such a trajectory over the last two years that it feels even more perilous to hope to chat to you about cheerful things two weeks from now.
Presuming that the world is still mostly in place and we can spend some time talking of dreams, then I will tell you that the me of today, of November 15th, 2018, is certainly a more exhausted and exhilarated soul than the one that actually typed these words.
That is to say, it is Nanowrimo time and 2018 has been, quite simply, the year that I write my novel. The November Nanowrimo event is my third Nanowrimo event of the year. I wrote 50,000 words for Camp Nanowrimo in April, then another 30,000 words in the July Camp Nanowrimo. And here I am, about to set off the journey of putting the final 50,000 words on the first draft of my manuscript, or, well, however many it takes me to get to THE END.
That’s hardly the end of the work, of course. Then there will be the months of heavy rewriting, revising the early chapters of the novel with what I know about the characters now — but I am looking forward to finally being able to get the bear of the first draft off my back. When I logged into the Nanowrimo site this year, I couldn’t help but notice my first attempt at conquering these characters was nearly four years ago.
I’m several versions down the road from there, because I struggled with the right way to tell this story, which is not really mine. But now I understand where I am and where I’m going with it, so I can only hope that by the time you read this, I will be nearly there. I’ve learned so much about writing a story of this length this year and I can’t wait to share the results with you all.
Until then, I hope you are well. We will have so much to tell each other in December.
I’ve spent much of the summer not engaging with the Internet, which is only part of the reason why my last post was months ago. There is so much that the Internet brings to my life, but it also brings a world of distraction with it that gets in the way of writing.
And how I long to be the kind of writer that can pound out weekly blog posts and keep up her writing goals and also meet all of the demands of every day life. Do these writers have a potion that they drink to keep the words flowing? Where does the time come from? What is the problem always, but time, time, time?
I’ve thought of shutting down Ordinary Canary a dozen times over the summer. But every time I start taking the steps to do so, something in the back of my brain just won’t let me do it. It’s hardly a success, as far as blogs go. I have no sponsors. My regular readers number in the dozen and that’s only if you include all of the ones that are related to me.
And yet I have been writing journal entries on the Internet since 1997, since before there were fun little software packages like WordPress, before LiveJournal and Diary-X, when telling the world how I felt meant hand-coding the HTML for every entry. Updating links. Pirating pictures from a world wide web that was still a shadow of the information dump that it would soon become.
The Internet has grown up. So have I.
I have been hard at work all year on a novel that I’ve tried to write several times before, but this time I seem to actually be doing it. It’s a historical fiction biopic, based on someone that you might know about if you know your classical music history, but most people don’t. I don’t want to say much more than that, for I read some advice that the more time you spend talking about your project, the more energy you take away from actually working on it.
And working on it I have been. I’ve done two Camp Nanowrimos this year and fully plan to be writing the last chapters of my novel in the real Nanowrimo this November. I discovered a neat little tool that lets you run your own personal Nanowrimo all the other months of the year and track your statistics, and so for most of the other months, I’ve been doing that too.
That is to say, I write or edit nearly every day. I’ve passed 150,000 words and still have another part to go, which tells me a great deal about how much cutting and revising I will be doing. Perhaps this is because it is my first novel, but I am certainly not a very efficient writer. I never have been, which is part of what makes keeping to blogging deadlines so difficult for me. Writing takes time. It always comes back to time.
And so, Ordinary Canary has been put on the back burner for now, but for the absolute best reasons. For now, I just have to keep my head down and the words flowing. And when I raise my head again, finished draft in my hand, I can only hope that all of you will still be here.
Perhaps it is the middle of June, but out here on the island, the weather has finally just reminded us of what summer feels like. We’ve shed our jackets and dug out our shorts to swelter in the heat. I finally covered our porch in potted plants that I think might actually survive the night temperatures now. At last, the weather matches the long hours of sunlight that have been making bedtimes with Baba more than a little insane.
“It’s NOT bedtime, Mama,” she says every single night. “Look, it’s still daytime.”
“Alexa,” I ask our Internet overlord, “what time is it?”
“It’s seven o’clock,” Alexa says, backing me up with her calm and robotic voice, as though hours and minutes are a thing that Baba actually cares about.
“ALEXA!” Baba shouts. “IS IT DAYTIME?”
I feel this is a good time to mention that nothing in the baby books prepared me for parenting a three year old.
And yet, I’ve caught the itch too – it’s impossible to do all the sensible things that you know that you should when the world is glorious and filled with light. And it sure it hard to go to bed after spending far too many hours convincing your toddler that she really does need to lay down and go to sleep right now or…
There is no or. Although absolutely every neighbor and every book confirms that this is a sign of my inept parenting, the three year old is in charge, as it apparently illegal to actually staple her to her bed. Between bedtimes and potty training, my life has been consumed by her needs. By the time she finally gives in and accepts unpleasant states like lying down and closing your eyes, it is generally about half an hour before my normal bedtime, which is just not enough time to settle down and relax. And so I stay up far later than is wise, night after night after night.
I know they warned me, but this motherhood trip sure is intense in the first few years.
I was walking home from the train station the other night, enjoying the glory of the sun still out and about, when I suddenly thought about how I am now only a decade younger than my mom was when she died. She was absurdly young, but women in my family have a tendency towards overachievement, and racing to the finish line is no exception.
But then, the inevitable next thought always comes: But I have not yet done what I always knew that I should do with my life. I have published only one story. I have written the majority of several novels. One of them should even have a finished first draft by the end of the, dare I say it, by the end of the summer. But it’s hard to not to despair that it has taken me so long to get this far. What if the same thing happens to me and I leave all of that work incomplete?
My Beloved is approaching retirement in the next decade and so we are beginning to talk realistically about what that next stage of life will look like. How will we afford it? Can I retire anywhere near the same time? When I was younger, I thought that I would retire early – or at least semi-retire – because I wanted to travel. But travel in the way I had pictured has lost much of its appeal, as my life grows to make my home the place I really want to be.
So perhaps not that. Perhaps I will retire just to find a second career. I’m not certain. But I know that whatever I do, it will be arts based. That is who I have always wanted to be: someone who creates something that matters to other people.
But what does even that look like?
Like most fiction writers, I dream a lot about what would happen to my life if I managed to write that best-selling dream novel. Who does not? Isn’t it fun? Just one success and then your money worries go away for the rest of your life. Get optioned by Hollywood and then pay off your house. You’ll take the lump sum of your earnings that year and invest them in ways that keep turning the money into more money. Maybe you’ll take a part-time job, just to keep the brain cells flowing. Maybe you’ll work on writing your next ten novels without having to balance another full time job. Maybe you’ll spend your days just sitting in the garden, enjoying the kind of time you never used to have.
Creativity needs space and time. Executing the dream, the work of the doing, that takes time too.
At the end of the day, every dream I have is really about freedom, not money. It’s about being able to buy the time that I feel so starved of now, here, in my present life that sometimes feels like it’s lived entirely in service to the needs of others. How is it that I’m spending my days folding laundry and going grocery shopping and and not doing, doing, doing the creative things that would satisfy this longing?
This feeling is only temporary, I tell myself. It’s just a few more years before Baba can fold her own laundry and cook her own meals and won’t want me around. How I’ll long for her then, this sweet-skinned babyish form of hers that crawls into my bed and curls against me and says, “Mama, I just want to sleep on YOUR pillow,” as if that makes all the sense in the world.
And then I will miss this time, this hard, frustrating time that is filled with a thousand small moments like that one.
And so. So I carry on, scribbling when I can, as best I can, and trying to be gentle on myself for staying up too late, for forcing myself exhausted through the motions of each entirely forgettable day, for not doing the work that will satisfy my dreams.
Somehow, Baba’s summer break snuck up on me. Each year, her day care closes for the last full week of August, as the school prepares for a new year. Since I have the more forgiving job when it comes to vacation time, I take it off each year to take care of her for a week of full-on motherhood. This year I didn’t even realize summer break was here until Wednesday of the week before, so I had very little time to plan or prepare, either for my leave of absence from work or for activities to keep Baba busy, which is rather a requirement if I have any desire of keeping my house from utter destruction.
As it happens, I recently started sharing my car with my brother, who is working far enough from home for the first time that he needs reliable transportation. That seemed like a great idea until I remembered my time off and that he’d have my car for each afternoon. So…homebound for half the day with a two year old or limited to how far our feet could take us, which is a shorter distance than you might immediately suspect, since Baba still badly needs naps, but refuses to take them when she’s at home with me. That added some challenges.
Every time I spend a week doing full-time parenting, I am bowled over by how hard it is. This year, Baba has enough friends that we could fill most of the week with play dates, so it was less lonely than past years have been. But now that she is so much more mobile, I could barely sit down all week. (And there is that issue of no more breaks naps.) My feet are throbbing, my back hurts and my calves ache enough that I have developed a potentially unhealthy loathing of stairs. As much as I’ve loved the extra time with Baba, who has developed just enough logic and vocabulary to have become hilarious, I am very much looking forward to sitting at my desk for a blessed six hours in a row tomorrow. Sitting on a train, sipping my morning coffee, writing another scene in another chapter on my novel — this feels like an unbelievably civilized way of living.
Seriously. It is 7:30 p.m. and I am writing this from bed becuase the thought of having to hold my head up on my own is simply untenable.
Alice Munro frequently mentions that being at home with three children was why she got so good at writing short stories, as she never had the focus to work on anything longer. I’ve always loved her work, but when I think about that and the last week, I can’t help but admire her more. This blog post is the first writing that I’ve done all week, because my days started when Baba climbed into my bed and only ended after the fight to get her to go to sleep. By then, I was so exhausted that I could barely climb onto the couch and feed myself dessert, much less put together words in an order that could possibly make sense.
But tonight my frustration with my lack of progress this week finally manifested as enough energy to actually get some work done. And, wouldn’t you know it, as I opened up my copy of Scrivener, I realized that the notebook that I’ve been writing in has gone off with my car to my brother’s job, which might as well be Timbuktu for as reachable as it is to me right now. It will return to me in the morning, but doesn’t it just figure?
Virginia Woolf was so right about that room of your own. If you’re not familiar with the essay, her point was that the men of her day were expected simply to work, while the women were expected to take care of their families and households, so if they were writers, it was that much harder, since they had no space to sit and think and no one working out their meals and laundry for them. As a working mom, I feel this intensely, since every minute of my day is planned long before the day arrives, which is the only way to keep a job and a household running and still have some energy each day to spend actual quality time with Baba, much less my Beloved. And I’ve certainly been frustrated with how much that slows down my writing, since I must write in 45 minute chunks of time, since my train commute is the only spare time I have all day. But that hour and a half each day is a gift and I have missed it, even as my time with Baba has given me more experiences to write about.
In the morning, Baba will go to a new classroom, with the same children that she’s gone to school with since she was four months old. She’ll have a new teacher and spend her days with her friends, who she has missed while she’s been stuck at home with me. And I will go back to work, both grateful to get back to my normal challenges and deeply regretful that I will have to wait for hours for Baba to throw her tiny arms around my neck in that clumsy strangehold that always takes my breath away.
There is a moment in Olympic diving that every diver takes as they walk out to compete on the world stage. They climb up to the diving board, then breathe in deep and square their shoulders. After this moment, they walk out confidently onto the board, which bounces predictably beneath their weight, the way it has done thousands of times before, and then they take their shot.
Although my athletic prowess is limited to being able to run three consecutive 10 minute miles without immediately dying, I love watching Olympic sports. The divers are a particular favorite, as they combine gymnastics and swimming — two areas far beyond my wildest dreams of ability — and fly through the air, bending their bodies in ways that seem impossible and then slip into the water with barely a splash to mark their passing. They inspire my imagination, even as they please my love of beauty. They are tremendous, frightening, inspiring people.
I’ve been thinking a lot of that sigh at the beginning lately. I haven’t spoken much of it here, but I am at a similar point in my writing. I’ve spent the last three months deep in research and plot, scrambling to work in the small bits of time that I have each day for writing, and putting together a framework that I can only hope will be strong enough to carry the weight of the story that I want to tell. It’s a story that I’ve already told many times, over glasses of wine and lunches, to friends and family who listen politely and nod and tell me that it all sounds very interesting and they can’t wait to read it.
And now it is time to begin the actual writing. Yet I’ve found myself delaying over the last few days, as I’ve taken a much needed break away from the ideas so that I can approach them again in a fresh and objective frame of mind. I’ve never been the kind of writer that falls in love with the sound of her own voice; I will actually cringe my way through most of the rereading that I’ll do before hitting publish on this post. And this isn’t the first time that I’ve tried to tell this story, so I keep hearing the echoes of where the past efforts have stuttered out, even though I know that my new angle is much stronger.
Wasn’t it Thomas Edison who said he never failed, but just found a thousand ways not to light a lightbulb? I certainly have learned from the two previous beginnings, but there are only so many times you can take 40,000 words and throw them into a folder that you’ve named “Old Manuscript” without wanting to shy away from similar grandiose sacrifices.
And so, here I am, having climbed the rungs of the ladder, trying to take that deep breath that will propel me out onto the board, to bounce in a place that is more familiar to me than standing here on the edge, wondering if I have the courage to go on. In another day or two, I will come back to the page and take those first steps out onto the board, just praying that this time, my mistakes will only propel me forward, as I finally learn what it is to write a full novel.
It is October and I have been writing short stories for most of the past year, among other things. More on that later. But I was reminded the other day of my favorite Hallowe’en story, read by one of my favorite authors, so I thought I would share it with you.
The world might be dark and scary outside, but I just wanted to remind you that literature can make it even scarier.
The moment is right. The days of slow percolation are over, as the months of procrastination disguised as thinking have finally come to a close. The notebook with the rapidly jotted notes is taken from the commuter bag and consulted, with a final nod of satisfaction at the contents.
The writer has an hour, a simple hour before her train pulls into the terminal, before she has to turn into someone else for an entire work day. She competes for a seat by the window, in a carriage with few people in it, in the hopes that no one will talk to her. The train whishes-whishes-whishes as it speeds along the miles, and she focuses, thinking about the plots and the scenes and the characters that she’s imagined for weeks prior to this final moment.
At last, she begins. She opens her computer and clicks open the program that she’ll spend the next year working with, gnashing her teeth at, sweating blood on. It pops up a dialogue box.
“File name?” it asks.
“Crap,” she mutters. The entire process grinds to a halt, while precious minutes tick by.
I am pleased to share with you the news of my short story “El Presidente,” which was published at Punchnel’s a few days ago. It is a lightly fictionalized account of some true events and I hope that you will enjoy it.
This is exciting news. As this is my first professionally published piece, I am amused to find that all I can now see in the story are things that I would change. I have a bad habit of dwelling in editing longer than I probably should, to the point where I find myself alternating between the same two edits on subsequent revisions. When I’ve reverted the same sentence back to its previous form multiple times, then I know that it’s time to put the story away and let others see it. I hadn’t read “El Presidente” in six months, so reading it again now makes me itch to edit, even though I know it is really time to move on and celebrate and work on different things.
So, fly away, little finished story. I wish you well, in your new home out in the big, wide world. This author has other stories to tell.
“I don’t know how he did it. Our father used to take us fishing and let us wander through the woods after we got bored of it. We’d fish for maybe twenty minutes, and then we were off for our adventures. Just free, like. But now I don’t understand how you could do it.”
We are lying in bed with the lights out. It’s late and I can feel the sleep drawing on me, which is just the hour when my Beloved is most prone to reminiscing. “Maybe he secretly hoped you’d be eaten by bears.” I suggest. “I know the kind of child you were.”
“Ireland doesn’t have bears.” He pauses and thinks. “Or snakes. Or large cats.”
“This sounds like a very pansy sort of island. Don’t you have any real predators? What about wolverines? Or maybe wolves?”
“There’s badgers. But they’re mostly underground during the day.”
“Badgers! I said real predators. Not ones that just slap their tails at you.”
“Badgers can really hurt you!”
“What about foxes? They have sharp little teeth.”
“Oh, those would be well off, gone before you even saw them.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fox, outside of a zoo. Isn’t that sad?” I pause. “You must at least have seals. Or selkies. Or trolls.”
“That’s hilarious.” The only sound in the dark is the cadence of fingernails scratching against a day-old beard. “Well,” he says, his voice hitting that special soprano pitch only available to Irish men, “we do have nettles. You’d be sorry if you ran into a patch of them, to be sure you would.”
On the third Sunday of each month, I pack into my car with a folder full of writing and drive down to the beach town by my house for a morning of writing workshop and coffee. A few months ago, I found a new writing group, which has been forcing me to produce new writing on a regular schedule. We are small but mighty: just a group of three people that are writing different genres, but who are dedicated to actively writing and supporting one another. Our deadlines have snuck up on me once or twice, but having this group has forced me to put out at least a first draft of a short story each month.
At best, my writing has been very unstructured over the last year. Being a working mother has made it so that there are days when it doesn’t feel like I have stopped sprinting all day, but if I let too many of those prevent me from writing, I know that I’ll miss my monthly deadline. Because we are such a small group, I can’t miss a week or tell myself — as I’m afraid that I have fallen into doing with this blog — that there are other writing projects that need a more immediate focus. I simply have to produce something worthy of discussion. It’s been really good for me, as losing the structure of grad school means that it’s all too easy to allow the urgent demands of motherhood and being a worker bee take priority over my writing.
And now, a few months into our new group, the beautiful thing has happened. One story lead into another. In our monthly discussion, I asked one of my writing group friends about the antagonist in her story, because I wanted to know what led him to the moment where he does the unforgivable thing. And then I started asking myself that same question about my story. I realized that I wanted to try to answer it, because my characters were complex enough that the first story had only scratched the surface of who they are.
As the characters in one story stepped into the beginning of another, I felt my heart race a little. I started to really feel the characters, to wonder what they were getting up to when I wasn’t thinking about them. I wanted to know their history better, to understand the before and the after. A second story followed and, as the word count expanded, I realized that I wanted to know yet more. There is a third story coming, which I believe will be an ending of sorts. Perhaps. I am very fond of triptychs and trilogies. Can I publish three stories together? Is that a done thing? Does it matter if it is?
This last month also introduced some technical difficulties. My writing laptop has developed a serious enough video problem that it had had to be shipped back to the manufacturer and my loaner laptop is a beast! It is so big and heavy that commuting with it is risking a shoulder injury. I am already fighting with an ankle that just will not heal (because being in your late thirties is amazing), so I’ve decided to be prudent and leave the laptop in the office. My only reliable writing time is my forty-five minute train ride, so to be without a computer on my commute is challenging.
I’ve had to start writing in a notebook. It is much slower process; my hand cramps and my…uhh…creative handwriting is not improved by the bumps and vibrations of the train carriage, so decoding it back into digital form is a true test of my intentions. But slowing down has its perks. My notebook has no distractions. I am both alone with the page and alone in the page. When the writing goes well, I forget my cell-phone talking, Long Island drawling, opinionated and whingy seat mates. By the time we arrive at my stop — sometimes as I am racing to record my last thought as I shove my notebook back into my bag — I have been so immersed in story that I have completely forgotten the details of my work day.
It is this immersion of thought and mind that always brings me back to the page. Even if I never publish a thing, I would still keep writing. As I grow older, I find that I need art to keep my life authentic. Even when I am writing about the darkest parts of my life, the writing frees me to feel without judgment, to dwell in the hardest moments of my life without having to face the real life consequences again. When that happens, I can close my notebook without ever needing to read those pages again, and feel satisfied that I have done something worthy and good.
But then there are characters like the ones I am writing now, who demand to be seen again, to be taken out of the first draft and into the next. And that is a different kind of creation. In this case, it is a preparation to share a deeply vulnerable part of my history with the world, to use these characters to visit a place that I don’t often share with even my closest friends.