I was chatting with an old friend the other day about my story. You guys know him as Steve the Pirate. He’s a DJ, and as I’ve written a DJ into my novel, I wanted to get his input, and he asked why, in all the time we knew each other back in the day, did I never mention that I was a writer?
I made a crack about being too dense to realize it. Sometimes I feel like it takes me a really long time to figure out the simplest things. Mitochondrial DNA and the Krebs cycle – no problem, but figuring out what I wanted to do with my life – that one took me a while.
Anyhow, he wasn’t buying the density argument, and it got me thinking that even though that’s what I fall back on as a canned response at cocktail parties, it’s not entirely true. I think the truth was that I was so afraid I would never figure out what I wanted to do that I was trying to test out every possibility, and never gave myself the time to see what was right in front of me.
So what changed that? What made me see the light?
Getting pregnant. Kind of.
What happened was that I got pregnant right as I finished a big film project, and by the time I was ready to take interviews anywhere I was bulging around the middle in a way that was hard to hide and the truth is, no matter what the laws say, no one is going to hire a pregnant lady and spend three months training her just so they can pay her to take maternity leave. So after a few frustrating tries, I gave up.
Daniel was in grad school at Stanford and we were living in student housing, so I just settled in and embraced my lazy self. And after about two days, a pattern began to emerge. I would take long walks, cook, read, and write. Left with no demands on my time, those were the activities I took up.
I wrote the first half of a terrible novel. I wrote a few short stories (and even submitted them to journals). I read Writer’s Digest. Not because I was on some mission to become a writer, but because those were just the things I felt like doing when I woke up in the morning. I had always loved writing, but because it came easy I never gave myself credit for being pretty good at, and I certainly never took the time to develop fiction writing as a skill.
That was when I decided I would apply to grad school, and really work at being a writer. And here I am. Five years later, a working writer.
It was being forced to slow down that finally opened my eyes. It reminds me of something a Buddhist teacher of mine used to say: “don’t just do something, sit there.” Sometimes you have to sit really still for a while before you know what you’re supposed to do next.
I’m very thankful I had that experience, because now, with two kids running around, and a full time job, I don’t think I’ll have time for any extended meditations for oh, about 16 years.
I didn’t post on Monday. I was busy drinking maitais by the pool in Hawaii. Okay, well, in truth, I was busy chasing the kiddos around the pool, which was even more fun, and I did sneak in a maitai or two.
I was ready for a little vacation. We went to a resort just outside Honolulu with my husband’s mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, cousin, and my mom. Here are a few photos (which you have already seen if you follow my Instagram feed).
It was perfect, but I didn’t blog about it while we were there because I always feel like blogging about being on vacation is like inviting people to rob you.
But now that we’re back I can say – it was lovely.
More than that, it got the juices of my deep deep memory flowing, and as a good little writer nerd, I’m proud to say, I did my fifteen minutes of writing every day and then some. I wrote almost exclusively about memories of other places, of the times in my life that I have lived on other, much less resort-like, islands. The smell of that thick warm air, jet fuel, cigarette smoke and plumerias kept transporting me, even as I loaded car seats in and out of rentals, to times I almost never think of anymore.
For two summers, when I was thirteen and then again when I was fourteen, my sister and I went to live with my dad on a small island in the south pacific called Kwajalein (here’s a map of roughly where our home wa
Then there were the four months I lived on the much drier, even even less populated, South Caicos
These are the memories that came up for me in Hawaii. It’s amazing how scents take us back. I wonder if I’ll ever actually go back to those places. They are so remote, it’s hard to imagine. The whole thing has me feeling pretty nostalgic. I suppose there are stories in these memories, but for now they are just notes in my journal, to be mined at some future date.
I have a new writing partner. He’s only two, and he actually doesn’t write at all, but since he insists on waking up at 4:45 in the damn morning, we’re sharing the predawn hours, just us too.
This is a mixed blessing, to say the least, insofar as he is really cute, but I’m not getting much done.
Usually, Daniel takes the kids in the morning so that I can write, but 4:45 is stupid early, so I’ve started just grabbing the little guy and bringing him upstairs with me so that Daniel and Celeste can get a little more sleep.
This morning, after I changed his diaper, he said “ducha” and marched toward the shower (ducha being Spanish for shower – he really speaks more Spanish than English at this point), because that’s what we normally do in the mornings, and I said, “no, no docha.” And as I’m carrying him up the stairs he says “oguurrr,” to which I responded “no, not time for yogurt.”
I sat him on the couch next to me. I opened my laptop, handed him a book and told him we were working.
Surprisingly, he actually seemed to get it, at least, for a little while. He sat and “read,” then tired of that and wondered around the living room playing with toys. After about half an hour he grew too curious to keep from trying to help me work and he started reaching for the keyboard, but thankfully by then Daniel and Celeste were up anyway, so they came to collect him and start the morning routine.
I’ve actually been thinking about getting up before 5, because another 15 minutes of writing would be awesome, but it seems too crazy. Then again, 5:30 seemed crazy at first, until I realized that I had to wrap it up by 6:30, and by the time the coffee kicked in, I only had about 45 minutes to write. 5:30 became 5:15, which soon became 5. Honestly, getting up this morning at 4:45 wasn’t so bad. (I can’t believe I just wrote that.)
So while I do hope the little man starts sleeping later, I’m actually thinking about making this a permanent schedule adjustment. Maybe I’ll just bite the bullet and set the alarm for 4 and get 2+ hours of writing in every morning. Who needs sleep when there’s writing to be done?
Okay, I will admit to kind of, sort of, maybe just a little bit being disappointed by the lack of apocalypse on Friday. It wasn’t so much that I wanted the world to end, it was more that I was ready for a little hell to break loose. I even went shopping to stock up on supplies, justifying the purchase of 25 pounds of rice with the fact that I really have been meaning to beef up our family’s post-earthquake survival stash.
So the world as we know it is pretty much just as it was a week ago, except that I’m much more prepared for seismic activity.
I think I was just feeling a little overwhelmed by all the Christmas business, and work, and family, and all of it. I wasn’t having any time for my fiction. I guess it’s pretty silly to think that in the face of the apocalypse I would be sitting down to pen a story or two, but such is my brain.
I think we all secretly (or not so secretly) get excited by predicted shake ups because even though we don’t know what would happen, we know life would be different, and the grass is always greener after the end of the Mayan calendar. You know?
Well, Christmas was great. The family is all still in town, but I went back to work today. It continues to be difficult juggling it all, but I did finally make some time for the fiction last night. I left all the relatives upstairs and brought a big old glass of wine to the bedroom where I began the task of mapping out the whole story.
It sounds funny to say that, being so close to done, as I am, but I find it a really good exercise to make a 3×5 card for each scene and lay them all out. I use different colors for things (blue for scenes in cars, white for flashbacks) so that I can see if they are all evenly spaced, or if the story is heavy in certain parts with certain elements. I also find that it pushes me to be very precise with my scene work.
There are some scenes, I’m realizing, that don’t really need to be there. For instance, I have a half-page scene where my character gets ready to go outside. Really, she can just go outside (and it can probably be assumed that she put her boots on at some point). I tend to over write a bit when I’m just drafting. And now it’s time to trim all that fat.
So that’s what I’m working on. It’s tedious and difficult, but the wine helps.
In retrospect, I’d much rather sit with my story and a glass of zinfandel, then fight to defend my 25 pounds of rice from looters who did not have the sense to go shopping before the end of the world.
When my husband and I went to our girl’s back to school night a couple of weeks ago, one of the things her kindergarten teacher asked us to do was to write a letter that he could keep in a file, to read to her in the event that there’s a major emergency and we can’t get to the school to pick her up right away. Apparently teachers ask this of all the parents, in all the schools down here in LA. It’s not a bad idea.
If you live around these parts, you know that it’s not if an earthquake hits, it’s when. I do try to be prepared. We have a stash of canned food in the garage (although I admit, it’s mostly chili and peaches) as well as some water (though not enough) and a first aid kit. But, as it turns out, when your kid starts school, you also have to prepare for what an earthquake will mean to them.
So I sat down to write this letter and the gravity of the whole thing hit me. The truth is, if there’s an earthquake that’s bad enough that I can’t get to my girl’s school, odds are, people have died and (here’s where my writer’s brain gets carried away) there’s really no reason one of those people couldn’t be me.
What’s more, as writer, I feel a certain obligation to write a really good letter. I mean, what if I do die, and this is the last thing she will ever hear from me? She will later remember me as a writer and, as she rereads that letter, thinking of her loving mother, a little part of her will be judging. Is that paranoid? I have this image in my head of her weeping at her profound loss, and then being momentarily distracted by my misuse of a comma. Needless to say, I felt pressure to perform.
I decided to write the letter with the assumption that I would not be dead.
I told her how I knew she was probably scared, and that I probably was too, but not to worry, I was desperately trying to get to her and hug her again, and everything will be okay – even if it doesn’t seem that way right now.
When I read it to Daniel (focus group of one) he pointed out that if she’s not already scared after the earthquake hits, that letter will make sure she is solidly freaked.
So I rewrote it.
Did I mention the teacher had given us a deadline of the end of the week? I’ve written for national publications with more lenient timelines. I wondered if the other parents were having as much trouble. I wanted to see what they wrote.
The whole thing reminded me a quote from Thomas Mann (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929): “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
I did finally finish the letter. It is now tucked away in a file somewhere at my girl’s school, and if The Big One should hit, her teacher will read it to her, and she will hopefully be reassured and comforted. I hope, at the very least, she is impressed by my careful use of grammar.
One of the things I like to note, when I’m out and about in my daily life, is the way people talk. Some people have little verbal ticks that you just can’t make up, so when I can I try to notice them and write them down for future use. Kids are especially fun, as they say all kinds of funny things. For instance, the other day, Daniel told our daughter that she was precious and she said “like a pol?” He thought she said pole, which he knew couldn’t be right so he asked her to say it again. “Pol.” When it was clear he wasn’t getting it, she clarified “you know, like the thing what’s inside an oyster.”
A pearl. And notice the use of “what.” Celeste spoke Spanish before she spoke English (due to her dad’s Ecuadorian heritage and our El Salvadorian nanny), and in Spanish the proper construction IS in fact “la cosa que es blanca” which translates literally to “the thing what is white.” For some reason, this little quirk in our girl’s speech remains, even though she retains only a few words of Spanish. This is the kind of language stuff I like to note for use in my stories. And our girl is a fountain of them lately. No, more like a fire hydrant.
She talks non stop. And I’m not really exaggerating. Her mouth is like a window to the inner workings of her brain these days. She narrates her own activities: “See when I hold the stick like this and throw it up like this it goes up, but then it turns a little and falls, and watch mommy, when I throw the stick in the air…” to the point that when it’s time to brush her teeth I have to remind her to stop talking, lest the toothpaste foam and go rolling down her face. I’m telling you, it’s non-stop.
And I know there are some adults like this, so I’ve been trying to take mental notes of how, exactly, she does it. I’m fascinated by it. To write someone like this, you would have to really understand what goes on in their head, how their brain takes certain turns, and loops back on itself. As an author it sounds exhausting. And how would one weave that endless chatter into a story that had any through line at all? I guess at some point you have to just write something like “her mouth kept moving, but my mind wandered back to the day…” Or else you’re retreading work done by Gurtrude Stein back in the 40s.
Still, I’m filing all this away under “character traits.” Maybe it will come in handy some day.