On writing

I Have Returned with News of My Wanderings

I guess by now it’s clear that if I don’t post for five months it’s because I have been head-down-and-go on yet another “final” draft of this novel I’ve been working on. I still can’t write “my novel” without wincing internally—I can’t claim ownership of the thing that contains every ounce of my inner life for the last seven years. Who would put all their spiritual eggs in one basket like that? Just who do I think I am?

I feel like I’ve just shat out the digital equivalent of an overstuffed drug balloon (switching metaphors, sorry), I’ve been hiding in the handicap stall of an airport restroom and after five months I’ve managed to coax this massive thing out of my most shameful orifice and then watch it sink to the bottom of an unfamiliar toilet bowl. Relieved, I now pull up my pants (i.e., start blogging again) and stare at it wondering if I should fish it out and try to sell it to someone so they can possibly enjoy or benefit from the drugs contained therein (i.e., email it to my agent), or if I should just flush it away so I won’t embarrass myself further. Would you like some butt drug? Knowing that it may be so weak you can barely feel its effects, or so good it will give you a high that will last for days and you’ll think about it the rest of your life. That’s all—a modest goal, that’s what I’m shooting for, to provide a life-changing transformation for you, triggered by the thing that fell out of my butt and into the hands of a literary agent who will slit open the balloon, put a little bit on her pinkie and, I hope, say, Hmm, yeah. We can make a lot of money off of this.

LET’S GO BACK IN TIME, SHALL WE?

January happened and we got to February and I stopped noveling long enough to attend the Santa Barbara Film Festival. My friend is a stringer for one of those celebrity grocery-store magazines and she makes decent money covering red-carpet events, but she wasn’t available for part of the festival so she asked me if I could do it.

The magazine sent me the event schedule for the weekend they needed me: Rami Malek (Friday), Glenn Close (Saturday), Melissa McCarthy (Sunday), all of whom were accepting awards for standing out in their fields. I had to DuckDuckGo Rami Malek (I am old enough to be his mother), and immediately thought, Oh no. I hadn’t seen his movie, the Freddy Mercury thing, and I couldn’t figure out a way to make that happen before the event. So I looked at some stills from the movie, wondering what I could possibly ask him that would be relevant. Here are some sample questions I came up with:

  1. Were the fake teeth uncomfortable?

  2. Did you like the way you looked in the fake teeth?

  3. Did they let you keep the fake teeth?

  4. etc.

Glenn Close I was a bit more relaxed about. I hadn’t seen her most recent movie, either, but I have, in fact, seen Glenn Close movies. My Glenn Close questions were going to be:

  1. What are you reading these days?

  2. Kindle or hardcover?

  3. Blah blah, comfortable shoes and general DGAF stuff, just between us pre-elderly gals

Sadly, the celebrity magazine gave Glenn Close a hard pass, because of the usual ageist bullshit. And my friend would be back in time to take care of Melissa McCarthy. So I put on my giant Trapper John coat on a rainy winter night to wait on the other side of a metal crowd-control fence hopefully until Rami Malek walked by so I could shout the questions that the magazine wanted me to ask:

  1. Have you tried the keto diet?

  2. What’s your skin care regime?

  3. Who do you think is going to win The Bachelor this season?

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Fortunately for me, Rami Malek ignored me completely (possibly because of the usual ageist bullshit, or possibly because I was dressed like Elliott Gould) and chose to talk to the adorable reporter from the UCSB Daily Nexus who was standing next to me. So I just stuck out my phone and recorded their entire conversation, figuring celebrity magazine could use those quotes if they wanted to. But that wasn’t the end of it. Next I went into the Arlington Theatre (and got grilled by the Daily Nexus girl about how I got the sweet gig reporting for celebrity magazine) and discreetly held my phone to record Mr. Malek being interviewed by a film festival guy about his entire life from birth to the Golden Globes, and then went home and transcribed everything so celebrity magazine writers could have every audible word by six o’clock the following morning.

The interview was interesting, and I came away with respect for Mr. Malek and the work he’s put in to get this far. But I have never cursed a job so much or as often as the three-and-a-half hours it took me to transcribe his one-hour-and-ten-minutes of talking. I finally got to bed around two-thirty a.m. after eight hours of this nonsense, and you know what I mainly learned? There’s no glamour on this side of the camera.

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That photo on the left? That was the red carpet, the whole thing. It was duct tape and klieg lights and tired venue managers and some anxious reporters for local news web sites who came an hour early just in case. I was fortunate to be standing next to a photographer (above, right) who was willing to chat to pass the time. When he told me his name was Rod Rolle, I was all, Like Esther Rolle? And he gave me this look, like, You remember Esther Rolle? And he said she was one of his cousins and I yelled, NO WAY! startling the gen-Zers all around me who did not share my fond cultural memories of Good Times and Maude. That was the most glamorous thing that happened to me that night, meeting Esther Rolle’s cousin. That and Lucy Boynton’s gorgeous peacock dress and Chinese-opera eye makeup. Thank you, Lucy, for bringing your A game to our little duct-taped award ceremony. And thanks also to this guy:

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Joe Mazzello played the bass player in the Freddy Mercury movie and none of the reporters was making much of a fuss over him, but I got a bit giddy when the actors started showing up and I yelled, “Nice shoes!” at him, and he perked up and said, “Thanks! I don’t know what kind they are. The suit is Top Man, that’s all I know.” I pretended to write that down, and then I asked him if I could take a picture of his shoes and he was fine with that. The light was terrible but we both acted like that was also fine, and I was relieved to have had at least one low-stress conversation with an actor that night, because this whole celebrity thing drives me a little bit nuts. I get uncontrollably star-struck, mostly when in the presence of writers I admire, but I found myself getting super anxious as Rami Malek got closer and fans started screaming his name. It’s an important practice for all of us but for me in particular to remind myself that people, if you’ll forgive me, all have the same share of cosmic divinity. I mean, as an American I know we’re all equal in theory, but it’s never really true, and I often involuntarily elevate some and denigrate others. There’s a wonderful Buddhist story about an old, venerated monk coming to visit a small temple, and all the temple monks lined up to greet him, but one monk noticed that his thoughts about this visitor were making him anxious, so he went away and meditated for twelve years until he realized that even a venerated person is still just a human being.

So if I don’t post for another twelve years, you’ll know that’s what I’m doing.

LINKS OVER TROUBLED WATER

Here’s a music video by the guy who directed Chernobyl! It’s a little bare-bones, visually, but the tune has been embedded in my mind for a week and caused me to follow two Deee-Lite-themed playlists on Spotify.

I have a bunch of interesting links to share with you but they deserve more than to be tacked onto the end of an already too-long post.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Fearless Inaction

I got into my first #BlackLivesMatter argument with a stranger! It was not #superfun.

The organization I work for has a sidewalk sign and we change the message every week. Usually it's a short, inspirational quote, but it's a liberal organization so I'm often on my guard in case someone walks into the office and has a problem with whatever's out there. It's not really my job to defend the organization and its views -- I'm not a member, I just work there -- but often the higher-ups have better things to do than argue with strangers so my job sometimes entails defusing cranks.

Unfortunately, when Mr. All Lives Matter called our office this week, I did not have on my Welcoming Hat of Patience and Respect. Instead my plumage was bright with righteousness and spread wide about me, and soon, as witnesses will attest, I was just talking over the guy and he was talking over me and we were getting nowhere.

And I hate confrontation. You really have to push me hard before I snap. But after a couple of fruitless minutes where I'm sure my heart rate doubled, my many years in customer service finally kicked in and I just shut up and let him rant. Normally that's a good technique to use with angry customers, to let them explain the depth and breadth of their problem unimpeded. And maybe he just wanted to be listened to by someone he perceived as the problem, or the enemy, or just ignorant and in need of educatin'.

The second technique that works with angry customers is to find something neutral to apologize for -- "I'm so sorry this happened to you," is almost guaranteed to get them on your side and to believe you're actually going to fix their problem* -- but since there was no way on God's green earth I was going to apologize for my defense of our beleaguered Black brothers and sisters, Plan C was just to wait until he said something I could reasonably agree with, which he eventually did. 

"Politicians are all crooked, they're not going to fix this!" he said, almost pleadingly, which allowed me to jump back in and say, "I agree, this is not something politicians can fix, the people have to do it." This gave us both the out we were looking for.

"You know, I learned something from you today," he said approvingly, "and I hope you learned something from me, too," though what he taught me was to get to the listening part a lot faster next time, and then tell him to put it all in a letter to my boss.

*Do not try this with me, Blue Shield, I see right through you.

The best thing to counteract all the office drama was the fact that, because I work in a historic landmark building, it's also a Pokemon Gym, so all throughout the week people were standing around the courtyard or sitting on the steps staring at their phones and battling with their Pokemon. I admit, I tried to pit my completely underpowered Rhyhorn against a champion Charmeleon, who immediately handed me my own ass.

My editor.

I am now on what appears to be the final draft of my manuscript, and that is #superfun! I love editing and rewriting, it's the best part of all of this. I would tinker with this book for years, I would polish and touch up until I die but Jack would probably kill me first (I know that makes no sense but believe me, he'd figure out a way).

I still have no health insurance, but I've been assured by my insurer that should anything happen to me while they're untangling the unholy mess they made, I'll be covered retroactively. Jackson would like someone to look at his shoulder but I haven't made the appointment yet because I don't believe either Blue Shield or the state will reimburse me. I know that sounds like I value my money more than my son's health, but his vague discomfort is not pressing enough for me to start writing checks to an escalating cadre of specialists. Please use this post as evidence of my neglect when Jackson's NBA career is cut tragically short by a career-ending rotator cuff injury.

You bitch!

Lastly, I'd like to recommend a few newsletters I subscribe to. Alice Bradley's Weekly Newsletter, of course. The Awl has a great one called "Everything Changes" and it always manages to say just the right thing when I need it. Sean Bonner's "The Crowd" always points me in good directions. And Meaghan O'Connell's "Like This" is a wonderful chronicle of her life as she writes a book and lives with her husband and young child while feeling somewhat adrift in the Cayman Islands.

Leaving so soon?

Apology Accepted

I got a lot of writing done this weekend. I took Sunday off (my normal work week runs Sunday to Thursday so I always get Friday and Saturday off), and then Monday was a holiday, and so I magically created a four-day weekend for myself without realizing that because I haven't worked at this job for a year yet, I don't actually have any vacation time accrued yet. 

So I may not be a genius at calendar-using and job-having, but because of those four days I am about 95% done with my novel. It's been four years, Mrs. Kennedy, you might be saying, How long could it possibly take a person unable to read an employee handbook to plumb the depths of the modern human spiritual condition?

Well, first of all, you need to stop being so sarcastic (you were being sarcastic, right? It's hard for me to read your tone), but I'll answer your question anyway, Jeeves. It takes as long as it goddamn takes.

Okay, I'm sorry for cursing, but you have to stop creating so much drama all the time.

Actually, I was the one creating all the drama because by Monday I was unaware of my own mental exhaustion and took to stomping around the house, angrily folding laundry, and loudly blaming my husband for the boredom I was facing because he didn't want to go get ice cream with me. Then I stomped out of the house, intending to go get some goddamn ice cream by myself, but the sun was so hot that I literally got ten feet down the street and turned around and came back. Then I pounded on the door (because who brings a key when they're taking an angry walk to punish their family for already knowing that it's too hot to walk and get ice cream?), stomped back inside when Jack let me in, threw myself into bed, read five pages of the new book I'm reading, and promptly fell asleep for two hours.

Then I woke up and apologized to everyone. I am a giant toddler who just needs to go down for a nap sometimes. 

This is what I saw when I woke up.

I do some thinking on my walks to work, and this morning I was wondering if I should write some sort of farewell post for Peewee's Instagram account, or if I should just let it go. I mean, the Instagram bulldog subcommunity is pretty involved so I'm sure I'd get some nice comments, but on the other hand, the thought of thinking up something to say makes me tired and sad. 

Then I wondered if I should just blow it off and start a new Instagram for the kitten, but the thought of trying to write funny captions and take cute-but-not-too-cute photos every day made me tired all over again. The only thing I like about the idea is picking a new username. Unfortunately, CASSCAT, ASSCAT, and CATASS are all taken. Sorry, Cassie. No Instagram fans for you today.

She will sleep for six straight hours if you let her.

Small Desire

Last night I was reading the book I'm reading about Zen Buddhism and I came across something that I had to read three or four times until it all really sunk in:

The first thing great human beings need, according to Dogen, is "small desire."
Dogen quoted Buddha, who said, "People of abundant desire abundantly seek gain, and so their suffering also is abundant. People of small desire never curry favor and bend in order to gain the minds of others. They are level in mind; they are without worries and fears; when they come into contact with things, they have latitude; and they are constantly free from dissatisfaction."
Notice that we're talking about small desire here and not some imaginary state of desirelessness. We can never be completely free from desire, anyhow. But the less desire you have, the less of a pain in the ass your life will be. It's only when you desire things that you can't be yourself, and that you end up worrying way too much about what everyone thinks of you.

I feel like the last sentence is grammatically a little weird, which is part of the reason I had to read it over a few times, but I'll go ahead and assume it was the author's clever way of making sure the reader stops and puzzles the concept through. You can't be yourself when you desire things, and when you desire things you also end up worrying way too much about what everyone thinks of you.

Desire things like what? I mean, I desire a job so I can help pay the rent, I don't think that's too much to ask. But it's the unbalanced desires that make you miserable. Sex comes to mind (as it does occasionally, despite my advanced age). I was always the girl who got totally tongue-tied and shy around boys I really, really liked because what did I want? I wanted them to like me back so much that out love would consume our very souls and melt us into some sort of pillar of eternal, mystical oneness, but I was too embarrassed to say all of that so I just acted quiet and creepy and, gee, I wonder why they'd never pick up when I called?

But more than that this quote makes me happy because it directly addresses the main fear that blocks people from their own creative expression, whether in writing or with music or, I don't know, wearing homemade hats to church. Because when you desire approval/success/fame, it's harder to just let loose and see what happens when you express yourself and then shape it into something unique that makes you glad. 

We now turn to this Shouts and Murmurs piece from a few years back that I photocopied and stuck to the staff bulletin board at the library because I loved it so much. No one ever commented on it so I can only assume that all my coworkers were too ashamed to admit that they were illiterate. If you haven't clicked the link and read it yet, which I'm sure you'll do in just a minute, it's entitled, "Book-club Guide to a Remaindered Book," By Rebecca Mead and George Prochnik, and it's a wonderful list of discussion questions for an unsuccessful book of fiction. The Venn diagram of Buddha and the New Yorker overlaps in the very first paragraph:

1. When the author’s agent initially asked the author who he thought the readers of his proposed book would be and he defensively replied, “Everyone,” do you think the author should have immediately realized that there is a thin line between everyone and no one?

True wisdom is everywhere.

I love you enough to keep waiting like this

Some time ago a friend told me about a birthday or Mother's Day card her now-adult son had made her when he was a kid. Not one for Hallmarkian displays of sentiment, inside it he wrote, "I love you more than five hundred bucks." I always thought that was a pretty good approximation of how much love you can have for some people. Five hundred bucks is a lot of money whether you're a kid or not; I don't have anywhere near that in my wallet right now. I briefly had more than that in my bag a couple of weeks ago, after we'd sold a bunch of my deceased mother-in-law's jewelry to a local guy who only paid in cash, but I only had to worry about it for about fifteen minutes or so.

  • I love you more than how anxiously I drove to the bank to deposit that cash before someone realized they should rob me
  • I love you more than the relief I had afterward (and the spinach and goat cheese crepe you bought me for lunch at Le Petit Valentien)
  • I love you more than 7.5 hours of sleep per night, which I keep not getting because of you (JACKSON)
  • I love you enough to spend two years knitting a sweater even though I'm worried it won't fit you very well when it's done
  • I love you enough to watch three seasons of a show you adore even though I have to concentrate more than I'd prefer to follow the plot
  • I love you enough to wash, dry, and fold your laundry, but I will not put it away because I am not your maid

And now a word from our sponsor.

This link is sponsored by The Prowl.

(The content of this post is not sponsored by The Prowl.)

Thank you, The Prowl.

I finished the first draft of my novel on Monday, 49,000 words, all of them mine, every stupid last one of them. The manuscript is a mess and the ending is awkward and the number one thing that feels great about it, apart from the sense of achievement (I wrote a novel! No, you can't read it yet!), is the fact that I went to bed on Monday night going, Hmm, well, now what? and I woke up Tuesday morning finally understanding the whole purpose of the thing and knowing everything I had to do next to get it into shape. I was just lying there and it came to me. Because I am magical.

And then I forced myself to take the day off and not think about it. (I have a lot of blogging, drawing, and knitting to catch up on.)(Oh, god, so much drawing!)

My blind hope when I started working on this book last September was that if I just trusted and typed out words that made English sentences, maybe something deeper would activate while I worked. I recommend this process if you're interested in becoming more comfortable with uncertainty and don't mind running around in circles for a year. It's totally demoralizing, but in the end it kind of works. I also recommend Alan Watt's The 90-Day Novel, which totally spoke to me on the woo-woo level where I spend half my time anyway (though in my hands it became The 385-Day Novel).

When I started I didn't have a plot, all I had was an interesting situation for two people to be in, a husband and a wife, with some sort of offspring (male? female? toddler? high school sophomore?) to be determined later. Almost as soon as I began writing I realized that the husband needed to be the wife's character and the wife needed to be the husband. When that finally felt right, then the age (fifteen) of their child (daughter) suddenly became clear. Next, other characters began popping up and doing what they needed to do, situations began suggesting themselves and were duly explored, paragraphs were written and either kept or shelved, and third-person omniscient changed into first person halfway through and then back to third and I'm really not looking forward to sorting that out.

Some days I'd write 90 words, some days I'd write 2,000. Sometimes it felt like I was trying to build an air-conditioned birdhouse with no blueprints, or put together a jigsaw puzzle of the sky, or flex a muscle in my head that I wasn't sure even existed. One day about six months ago I felt the barest glimmer of something new inside coming to life, and (I don't know how to describe it without sounding like I've lost my mind) what I was doing suddenly felt so precious, felt so sacred, that I didn't want to move or think or breathe for fear of scaring it away. I sat so carefully and gently, building my birdhouse so respectfully -- because suddenly a bird that was supposed to be extinct was on my windowsill looking at me.

Along with that bird came a feeling that I thought was extinct. It felt like being in a kind of love. And I apologize for all of this if the book ends up being total horse shit, but it felt like finding the thing or the one who (perhaps? maybe? if I don't push or get clingy and ruin it?) was going to fall for me, too, all the way. The feeling was completely mutual. It's something that I haven't felt for a very long time, not since I used to write poetry. It seems particular to writing, for me? It didn't last for very long, maybe a day or two, but it was the luckiest, scariest feeling in the world while it was in bloom.

It faded a bit after that, but everything fell into a nice routine. I began to really trust myself now. It felt like I/we were building something with a lot of potential. Of course, there were times when I felt like picking a fight, or ignored it for days on end, but that all felt like part of the process. On bad days I was bored and just went through the motions. But I didn't want to throw in the towel so I talked it through with a third party until I reached a new understanding. I apologized for being so distant, I resolved to try a different approach, to be attentive and adjust my pace, to take breaks when I needed them, but to keep showing up. And that's how we made it work.

The Rules of Writing an Interesting Story say that you're supposed to be throwing bombs at your characters all the way through so they can battle their way past every obstacle in search of their goal, their grail, their Rosebud, their Revolution, their Happily Ever After, and through this journey they refine their fondest wishes and grow and change and become worth following for 300 pages or so. Maybe that's old fashioned, to tell a story like that, and that's fine. I'm interested in seeing what happens when you follow those rules, and then maybe to see how far they'll bend. As we all know, you need to learn the rules before you can throw them away, if you're going to say anything new.

Now onto draft two! This post is too long! Here's a photo from my dog's Instagram account. Peewee always has something new to say.

the wee

Not that you'd want to injure a dog

One thing I've noticed about writing is: it's fucking hard. Why is it so hard? I have a good idea, I start writing, and BANG! I hit the wall, every time. Abandon project! Abort! Abort! It hurts, I hit the wall so hard my nose feels broken, I need to lie down, open up a bottle of Beaujolais. And then I think, well, I must not be a real writer because it's not hard for real writers to finish a novel. I imagine Philip Roth just typing away for eight hours a day in his leather slippers, so engrossed in his own genius that his butt never hurts, his stomach never grumbles; squirrels twitch at the picture window behind him and hurl nuts at his head and he never flinches from his deep yet gentle and encompassing concentration.

I know. And I've never even read any Philip Roth.

But then there's this e-mail I got from the NaNoWriMo guy a couple of weeks ago, maybe you got it, too?

The writer Edith Wharton once described novel writing like this:

"The beginning: A ride through a spring wood.
The middle: The Gobi desert.
The end: Going down the Cresta run."

As you move from the spring wood of Week One into the trying climate of Week Two, one or all of the following are likely to happen:

1) The fun, good-time feel of the first week will evaporate.
2) You will decide that your book is a miserable failure, that you are a creative fraud, and that novels are best left to novelists.
3) You will put 1 and 2 together, and decide to cut your losses and drop out now while the getting is good and the fall TV season is still relatively new.

I cycle through these feelings every year I participate in NaNoWriMo, and I have two words for anyone who finds themselves falling into a similar Week Two funk:

Cresta run.

Yep. The greatest toboggan run in the world is just one week away. Make it through the grumpiness and self-doubt of Week Two, and you'll be rewarded with renewed energy and an eerily improved outlook on your novel. Work diligently through this, the hardest week of NaNoWriMo, and you'll see the tangled mess of your story begin to unknot, and your book begin to soar.

I know it's hard to believe. But look at all the work you've done already. You have characters! You have settings! Your manuscript has grown large enough to injure a small dog!

Not that you'd want to injure a dog, small or otherwise. But still, you've done more in the last seven days then most writers accomplish in seven months. You've made it through the first huge week of NaNoWriMo.

Now dig in for one more challenging push.

It's going to be tough. But you can do it.

Oh man, can you do it.

See you in Week Three, author!

It kind of cracks me up just to read that again. "See you in week three, author!"

So, today I'm going to write, no matter how much my nose hurts, even though I've already squandered two hours on e-mail, t-shirts, and my flickr friends. It's the last day of National Novel Writing Month and I have four pages; 1,182 words. But with you as my witness, by god, by the end of the day I'll probably have, like, 1,183.

Aloha

Jack and I kind of bobble back and forth between financial responsibility and complete ruin. On the one hand, we're carrying a hunkin' chunk of debt; on the other, we always pay on time and above the minimum due. On the next other hand, we just got a unexpectedly ginormous tax bill; but on the one other other hand, we'd already booked and paid for a ten-day vacation this month and BY GOD WE'RE GOING TO TAKE IT.

So I'm saying Aloha for a week or so, and with any luck I'll find time for a post that prominently features brain death and resuscitation by pina colada. I'm getting every last t-shirt order out before I go, and when I seal that last envelope tonight after everyone else is asleep I'll take a moment to wonder why the fuck I signed up for National Novel Writing Month.

Oh, I remember! I got a nice e-mail from Brooke suggesting it would be just the thing, and at the time I believed she was right -- a little competition, and the knowledge that everyone else was out there sucking just as hard as I was. And now, well, I haven't written a goddamn word and I'm nine days behind. At six pages a day I need to crank out fifty-four pages by midnight just to stay in the game.

Or, you know, I can just continue to receive their witty motivational e-mails while I gear up for next year.

So, yes, Aloha! Wiki wiki! Pakalolo! See you soon.

Mean less

Here's a nice link I found when I Googled "old fashioned clip art"

The 39 Steps: A Primer on Story Writing

1) Step one in the great enterprise of a new and preferable you in the house of fiction is: Mean less. That is, don't mean so much. Make up a story, screw around with it, paste junk on it, needle the characters, make them say queer stuff, go bad places, insert new people at inopportune moments, do some drive-bys. Make it up, please.

2) Don't let it make too much sense.