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The End of Summer

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.

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Hesitating Before the Dive

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.

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A Little Story

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.

Happy Hallowe’en!

 

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Human Moments, No. 8

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.

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El Presidente

Superior_Funeral_Home_hearse_2012_07_08_Memphis_TN_002-740x365I 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.

 

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Human Moments, No. 7

Brennnessel_1“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.”

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The Power of the Few

notepad-691250_640On 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.

Just the ones who write.

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Happy New Year!

blue_new_year_greeting_card_266209I spent the last day of 2015 switching between taking care of a sick baby, a sick cat and sorting through boxes of my mother’s things.  It’s not just my mother’s things — we are hoping to move in the spring, so I’ve spent the last week decluttering our basement storage so that when we show the house to potential buyers that it looks like a place where you can put things.  I’ve been going through all the stuff that we’ve forgotten that we owned, like fish tanks and snorkel fins and Halloween decorations, and trying to find new homes for them so that our house looks like a place where someone else can put their forgotten stuff.

Ironic, isn’t it?

The upshot is that Baba and the cat are both on the mend.  Our eighteen-year-old tabby tore out the dew claw on his hind foot on Christmas Eve, which led to him spraying blood all over our kitchen floor and being very indignant about all the antibiotics and pain medication that I’ve been force-feeding him for the last week.  He’s also been cordoned off from the back yard, which wasn’t too big of a deal until he started feeling better.  It has been Howl O’Clock ever since.  On Thursday, I strapped Baba to my chest and slung the cat carrier over my shoulder and went back to the vet for the follow-up exam.  Baba ate much of the furniture in the exam room while we waited, but the cat’s prognosis is good, even if he is still forbidden from his backyard prowling for another week.  Howl, howl, howl.

Baba is a little slower to heal, and we’ve spent most of last few nights attending to her cough. It wasn’t exactly my plan for ringing in 2016, but it is what it is. In a sense, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to ring out 2015 than to stumble around with exhaustion after a long night of baby tending.  Here’s to more sleep in 2016.

After a hard week’s work, I am also beginning to see an end to the basement clean-up. It is a fitting project for the end of the year — trolling through old photographs, journals and letters puts me in a deeply reflective mood. I’ve now outlived enough of my relatives to have accumulated  generations of memories, so many of the letters and photographs that I’m rediscovering aren’t even mine.  Now, I am saving them for Baba, in the hopes that some day she will care as much about our family history as I do.

I did find my childhood diary, which has only fuelled my recent desire to take up journalling again. For a writer, the benefits are obvious.  I have journalled privately on and off through the years, but it has been off again since Baba was born.  I already struggle with finding enough time to work on fiction and this blog, and journalling was competing with that time.  Time may be a finite resource, but I find that I’ve missed the clarity that journalling gives my thoughts and emotions.

And yet, after finding my mother’s diaries, I am not certain about leaving behind such a detailed written record for Baba to find one day. My mother died suddenly, decades before she expected to. Her journals are filled with beautiful writing, but it is clear that they were an outlet for her when she was troubled or struggling with the depression that always chased her. This isn’t the picture of her grandmother that I want to leave behind for Baba. Every time I find my mother’s journals, I can barely stand to read more then an entry or two, because I know they weren’t meant for me. I know that I should destroy them, but I also can’t seem to bring myself to do so, knowing that they might have answers to some of the questions of my early life. They provide context to my memories, which my mother might have been able to do if she had lived longer.  I was raised thousands of miles from our extended family, so I don’t have the network of shared memories from cousins and siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents that so many people do.  I just had my mother, who died too soon.

In this cleaning, I found a baby memory book that she wrote for me, which has satisfied my curiosity about many questions that I’ve had this year. No one remembers when I began to walk, but my mother wrote it down for me. I found when I got my first tooth, grew my head of hair, began to sit up. I’ve wanted to know this all year so that I might know what to expect with Baba’s development. And here is a book that tells me everything!  I was so excited by this that I turned around and ordered a memory book to fill in for Baba, in case she finds herself in the same position that I am in now.

What if there are more answers, more context, in my mother’s journals and letters? I remember my mother, mostly as the grinning, silly, playful person that she was much of the time. But Baba would only know her through these very painful journal entries. That isn’t a fair picture at all. And yet, my mother kept journals from 20 years before she died. Did she want us to find them?  Could she just not stand to them go?  There are some questions I just can’t answer.

For now, I’ve put the journals and letters back in labelled boxes and pushed them to the back of our storage area.  I tell myself that after we sell our house and move that I might pull them out and read through them, but I know that a thousand things will take a higher priority.  They are journeys into the past and it is, after all, a new year now, ripe with the excitement new stories and memories to come.

Happy New Year!

 

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November, NaNoWriMo, Some Falling Down

Some time between August and November, Baba changed from being a baby to being a little person — a little person that is brimming with opinions and ideas and curiosity.  I don’t know how it happened, but I suspect the when was sometime around when the plates in her skull fused together, transforming her from mewling newborn into a person.  An actual person, who spends every waking minute trying to find out more, more, more about her world.

Almost overnight, she had a child’s face and head, and a child’s thoughts to go in it.  Two days after she learned to crawl, she tried to stand, dragging herself up on anything that she could grab.  Now that she can easily stand with help, she’s trying very hard to stand without help.   She manages to succeed for brief moments — a few seconds here, a few seconds there.  She’s taught herself to fall, so when her legs buckle, they buckle neatly beneath her, bringing her down onto her rump.

Most of the time.

My writing journey has felt much the same lately.  I’ve had a second short story accepted for publication and I have been holding off on writing here until I have the details to share with you, but it’s been nearly a month now, and the details haven’t come.  So I will share that I hope that things are happening.  The journey continues, but it does so haltingly, a wobbly baby step at a time.

In the meantime, I decided to distract myself with NaNoWriMo, because I have deeply missed first draft writing.  I am working on an existing project — the novel that I began in graduate school — and I have been furiously burying myself back in the 18th century in order to do it.  Trying to write this intensively while taking care of my Baba has been a constant exercise in acceptance of my own humanity.  Although an experienced NaNoWriMoer, I am nearly 5,000 words behind where I should be. I am only scribbling off this post now because today’s writing went well enough that I started to close the gap.  This year, it’s not about winning NaNoWriMo — it’s about getting back to writing something new every single day, which I haven’t done for months.  On a day like today, when the baby slept and the trains were kind, my success fills me with energy.  I want to stay up all night and crow from the roof.  Tomorrow, well, tomorrow is, as they say, another day.

And so it goes.  The days pass and I watch Baba, whose journey feels like a reflection of my own.  In the garden, the leaves turn and fall off of all the bushes and vines that I’ve planted, and I know that they too will be back to their productive summer glory…one of these days.

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Easy Come, Easy Go?

Kiera Knightly in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
Kiera Knightly in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Mr. Bennet treated the matter differently. “So, Lizzy,” said he one day, “your sister is crossed in love I find. I congratulate her. Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions. When is your turn to come? You will hardly bear to be long outdone by Jane. Now is your time. Here are officers enough at Meryton to disappoint all the young ladies in the country. Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I had planned on sharing the news with you today of my first publication, a flash fiction story about two people who meet in a diner near a college campus.  “The Diner” was due to be published this morning in The Saturday Night Reader, an online and print magazine that specializes in stories under 1,000 words.

Instead, I must share with you the sad news of the end of The Saturday Night Reader, as I received notice this past weekend that they closed their doors for good on Sunday.

Well, okay then.

It is far worse news for them than it is for me,  of course, but I must admit to a deep disappointment.  After so many years of writing privately, it was a great relief to have a story sell so quickly after I started submitting.  To finally be able to call myself a published author was a validation that all of this time and effort actually was leading me somewhere.  I know that I will get there again, but I need to grieve a little first.

So there.  That’s the grieving done.

One piece of writing advice that you hear over and over again is that you need to have a social media platform to have any chance of success with traditional publishers.  This is because the publishing industry is struggling enough (thanks, Amazon!) that taking financial risks on unknown authors is harder to do.  Having a successful social media platform tells a publisher how many fans the author already has, which lets the publisher make a guess at how much money they might make off that author.   It’s just business, baby.

Other than this blog, I had held off on spending time developing any of this, because it felt like I was wasting time that would be better spent writing.  But with a publication pending, I finally set up a Twitter feed and set myself to learning about marketing.  It…has been an interesting learning curve.  After nearly a month of “interactions,” I still haven’t figured out how to get meaningful conversation and contacts out of it, even though I gain new followers daily.

My greatest puzzlement has been my followers — the first of which found me before I had posted any content.  I quickly discovered the game of Twitter, as it applies to the writing community, which is to follow lots of other writers so that they will follow you back.  We all win from this — we all appear to be very popular.  But does it translate to book sales?  And, when you follow thousands of people, how do you get any meaningful content out of the Twitter feeds that you read?

I admit it.  Social media does this introvert’s head in.  Won’t you be my friend/reader/mutual followee anyway?

So here’s a serious question for you Twitterers and writers.  What tactics do you use to make social media worth your time?  How do you turn the constant chatter (or the loudest-chirp contest) into something that works for you?  Did playing the follower game translate into professional success?

While I puzzle over the mystery that is the modern world, I’m back to working on polishing some more short fiction for submission.  Stephen King gave a piece of advice in his book On Writing that I have kept close to my heart over the last few months.  If you have enough work submitted, then it doesn’t matter when the rejections come — you still have hope for the fate of the submissions that you’ve yet to hear back on.

So, cheers, Stephen King.  I’ll clink this glass to yours as each rejection comes in — after all, I’m one of your 971,000 nearest and dearest “friends.”

 

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