Tuesday, September 16, 2014
This summer my family took a vacation much different than our others. Rather than spending a week in a specific place, we drove. We put 3,600 miles on our car, 4,800 in an airplane, seeing parts of the country my kids have never seen. We wanted to see Yellowstone, we wanted to hit Mount Rushmore, but more than anything, we just wanted to see the west. With the wide skies, the red rocks, the gentle hills, the open roads with no one on them for miles -- this is all so different than where we live with our forests and traffic jams and slivers of sky.
"Look at that!" we had to keep saying, nudging our kids out of their books and games. We had to constantly remind them, this isn't a destination vacation: the journey's the thing.
It's something I am realizing is true of my novel, as well. I harbor a sense of shame that it's been in the works so long. Three of the last four years have been wrapped up in this book. I should be done. Those are the words that whisper in my ear constantly. Why so long?
It's so easy to think that writing THE END, the destination of every novel, is the point.
And then I wonder, why am I so desperate to get to the end? I have no deadline. I have no agent tapping her toe, no publisher checking the mail.
I've done this before. I know what is at the end.
That's what's at the end. No more characters. No more chasing them through dark pages. No more laying at night wondering how they are going to survive, if they'll be okay. No more living in their world.
Right now, I'm on their journey with them. I have one chance to do this. One chance to travel this road, have my heart break with theirs, feel joy with them, wonder what is at the end. Not just the end of the writing, but the end of them. One chance to have them to myself before sending them out.
I know what it feels like to have the characters who have become like family to me arrive at their happy place, to be done with me, maybe before I am done with them. It's a moment filled with pride, and then days on end of missing them.
I am on the journey. And if that takes a little longer than I thought it would, a little longer than anyone else thinks it should, I'm going to savor every minute.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
In 1993, my husband worked for Dean Witter and spent time in the New York offices in the World Trade Center. He was there when the terrorists set off a bomb in the basement, sitting in the restaurant on the 107th floor, the building swaying with the impact.
The power went out, and it took him hours to walk down the dark 107 flights of stairs, coming out into daylight with a thick layer of ash blackening him except for the small circle around his mouth where he'd held his handkerchief.
It was serious, of course. It shook things up a bit. But the terrorist act was, on the whole, a colossal failure, and people seemed to move on without thinking too much about it. The ability for someone to hurt us, to really terrorize us, seemed remote.
Maybe that is why, in 2001, it both shocked us, and at the same time seemed like an inevitability we'd somehow missed.
We weren't in NY during the attacks on 9/11, and we are back in DC now, where I grew up, back where my father sat in his office overlooking the Pentagon and watched the plane barrel into the sides of it, into friends we hadn't yet made but soon would.
Not much is said outside DC about the Pentagon these days. There were not as many lives lost, of course, but also it seems there's a sense that it is less egregious to target the headquarters of national defense than it is to target a symbol of financial strength. Maybe that's not true, but it feels that way sometimes.
For a long time, there was a huge, gaping hole in New York City. We saw it once, on a trip with our kids. We stood at the chain link fence, peering through cracks in the plastic at that hole - how wide, how deep, how empty it was.
The Pentagon cleaned itself up. It patched the gaping black wound with marble white as a scar. There's now a memorial there, but it is as understated as it is solemn.
Everyone moves on.
There used to be a big memorial march. There were prayers held on the mall. There were walks that led from the Washington Memorial to the place of impact at the Pentagon. Each year, the things we do to memorialize have gotten smaller. This year, in DC, there was a moment of silence.
All we get now is a moment. And life moves on.
We can't keep ripping the wound open. I know this. We can't spend this day each year tearing at the rawness of that day.
But we should spend a little time remembering, and feeling a little less safe, each day a little less a given. Hug our kids. Call our friends. Say I love you. Say I missed you. Remember to laugh. Remember to pray. Remember to be a little more thankful for the little things that, were they to disappear, we'd realize are really the big things.
Sunday, September 7, 2014
(I wrote this blog post sitting in the car waiting for my daughter just a little over a week ago. It seems fitting that I couldn't post it here until now... because things have been so chaotic.)
Sometimes I feel like life is blowing up around me. I wake to the house rocking and shaking, the toiletry items falling off shelves. I walk through a maze of bricks and upheaved trees and mounds of red clay, the driveway under rubble. Our kitchen and stairs are tracked with a thick white layer of dust that won't go away, no matter how often I vacuum and mop.
I don't even live in California anymore. I live in a home being renovated. And while I knew it would be difficult, while I know what it will be is worth the what it is now, I can feel my heart clenching, my blood pounding under the stress of the chaos.
Everything is chaos now. Not just the house, which has parts of the roof ripped clean off so that you can stand in a room and stare up at the stars at night, but life in general is void of the order and routine I thrive on.
Summer is usually a bit lacking in constants, but this year has been worse. Three kids, three different schedules, three different sets of activities, and I find myself most often in the car, a hundred miles a day under my belt going no further than twelve miles from my house. Back and forth, pick one up, drop one off, trying to figure out where to fit buying more milk and eggs into the equation, nearly running out of gas because the gas station is not on the way to anywhere my kids go. And other people love this kind of craziness, but my stress levels are going up and the sight of more white cement dust and red mud tracked through the foyer is about to send my blood busting out the ends of my fingertips and tips of my hair, my face in a perpetual frozen state of The Scream.
I think part of my less-than-loving attitude about all of this is that I'm not involved anymore. Summers are usually are time to reconnect as a family. During the school year, the kids are out all day, home only long enough to do homework and drop into bed, exhausted. But the summer is OUR time. Time when we get to go hang out at the pool together, do crafts together, obsess over tv shows together, go explore DC and the zoo and museums, have picnics, go to restaurants and laze over milk shakes and burgers.
But now, I'm just the chauffeur and cheerleader. I'm the alarm clock in the morning, the laundrymat for their muddy, stinky, sunblock-smelling clothes. I buy the cases of water on one end of town and drop it off at camp at the other end. I fix breakfast and pack lunches and somehow try to squeeze in a homemade dinner that is well-balanced enough to replenish the kids' energy before they drop into bed.
I am with my kids in some form all day, but I miss them. I miss when summer meant you got to kick off the high-stress, packed days of the school year and sleep in, hike along the creek, lay in the sun reading books, stay up late and watch movies together and build forts in their rooms and watch the glow in the dark stars on the ceiling until they went dim.
I miss writing. I've hardly written at all this summer. This summer, when my novel was absolutely, positively, without excuses going to be finished. I haven't even read much. No time during the day, too tired at night, a few books started but not that made me want to finish them.
All the magic has leaked out.
I watch my daughter from the car where I am waiting for her. Her head is thrown back in laughter, surrounded by a group of equally giggling girls she hadn't known three weeks ago. She's found her place in the high school before the year has even started, happier than she's been in ages.
My son bounds to the car, asking if he can go with the guys to buy balloons and back to a friend's to spend the next hour filling them because his drumline is totally going to demolish the brass section tomorrow at the afternoon battle. I agree, because percussion rules, and I know this.
Parents stop to ask if I'll be there for the football game, if my youngest is going to help this year, too. Yes, I say, pointing to my youngest in the back seat, already decked out in her band helper t-shirt, a week early. We wouldn't miss it for the world.
Summer will end and routine will come back. The house will eventually be finished, the dust settled, the multitude of cars cramming our drive gone on to another project. I'll find time to write again. I'll probably still be in the car too much. But that's okay. My kids are there with me - most of the time my oldest now driving. And we'll crank up the radio and we'll sing along, and we'll talk about books and kids at school and band and art and politics, and everyone will be talking all at the same time, and it will be chaotic, but I will love it. This is the kind of chaos I can love.
We will eat on the run again, but together, and we'll go separate ways one last time before the summer ends and school begins. But there's one weekend left - one glorious weekend where we all will be home, after the crazy summer schedules and before the still-crazy school schedules. Maybe we'll fire up the fire pit. Maybe we'll roast some s'mores. And as long as the garage has no roof, we might as well just lay out there and watch the stars. The real ones. And maybe, if we can find a sliver of time, we might just build a fort under them.
Monday, August 4, 2014
Quite a while ago, my friend Leigh Rourks, a fabulous writer I met at Pacific, asked me to participate in a blog tour: a fun and easy way to share your work and the work of others. The idea is to ‘hop on,’ answer some questions about your current projects, and then ‘hop off,’ passing the torch to a couple of new writers the next week.
Of course, I went dark on the blog for a while, a mix of kids-home-for-summer, a new job at work, and using every scrap of free time to try to finish my novel. Also, vacation. The blog suffered. This is not unusual these days.
Also, the questions are so short and simple in appearance, but are deceptively difficult for me to answer well.
But a promise is a promise, so here I am finally.
1) What am I working on?
A novel called LIES WE'VE TOLD. I began this under a different name several years ago, finished it up, put it away after I began school, and have come back to rewrite it the past two years.
It began as a story I needed to tell, but every draft felt flat and lifeless, and while I was compelled to write and finish it (several times), I didn't love the book. Now, in this almost completely new form, with new plots and new characters and an entirely new beginning and end, I am in love with it. Passionately, unfathomably in love with it.
The story is told from the point of view of Kat, an abused girl who shoots her father and then flees the state, and Jackson, a teen whose parents die in a car crash and who is taken in by Kat's family. When Kat learns her mother is sick, she returns home to mend broken bonds. Before she can do that, her mother is killed, leaving Kat the main suspect in the murder and the only guardian of a brother she barely knows. It is up to Kat to find out what secrets her mom had been keeping that led to her death, even as she is falling in love with Jackson, who might hold the key to what she really doesn't want to know.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Although there is a murder and an investigation, this book is not primarily a mystery. I'd shelve it with literary fiction, the emphasis really on the internal journey of the two main narrators, the crime and its fallout merely a way to propel that journey. In that way, I suppose, it is the crime and mystery that sets this book in particular apart from other literary fiction.
This was true of my previous novel as well. Some Kind of Normal was not a medical or science fiction, but it involved a lot of science and medicine. I like this blending of genres, this incorporating elements of other genres into what essentially is still just the journey of a character trying to figure out life. It also allows me to indulge in great amounts of research, which I find entirely fun.
3) Why do I write what I do?
One of the things I learned at school that has really stuck with me is that we write to tell what it means to be human. I think this really is behind everything I write.I definitely don't write escapist fiction, or stories you wish you could be in the middle of. They aren't full of romance, and they don't often have happily-ever-after endings. But they are about about people I hope you can relate to on some level, people who are in situations you might never be in, but who still feel real.
There is a piece of me in everything I write. It isn't always the most obvious thing in a story, but it's a thought, an emotion, something that gnawed at me, a seed of something in my own life that grew into something entirely different but whose heart is still there.
4) How does my writing process work?
Messily. And slowly.
Everything I've every written has had its own unique process of developing. I've tried fitting it all into some neat process, but my stories don't work that way.
Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I start with a character that I have no idea what he's going to do. Sometimes I start with a plot idea. Sometimes I write to discover what the story is, and then have to do a million revisions to hone it to what I finally figure out it is about.
I always write, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite.
I write when I can. Most often late at night, but sometimes in the morning, if I don't have students to tutor. Sometimes in the afternoon when my kids are doing homework. Sometimes at the counter as I'm making dinner, lysoling the laptop as needed, just because the words are there, dinnertime or no.
Sometimes, I have to stop writing and just mull it all over. The middle of a scene will grind to a halt, or be heading in the wrong direction, and I'll just shut the computer for a few days and turn the ideas around in my head, trying things out until eventually (and usually around 1am), it all clicks. Then it becomes a race to get it all down.
I am passing this blog tour on specifically to Hannah Bissell, another great writer (and poet extraordinaire) . BUT... if YOU want to do it, consider yourself tagged and please blog hop!! I'd love to see what you have to say, too! Let us know in the comments you're going to do it so I can make sure I swing by and read it. :)
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Anyone that's been following this blog (or knows me) knows that I've been working on a single novel for a long while. Oh - I've done other things in between, of course. Went back to school, wrote short stories, wrote some flash and some memoir, even published it. I'm currently working on another article requested by an online magazine. But the novel.... it is the novel that will not end.
I've lost count how many revisions I've done on this story. Nine total and complete rewrites, beginning to end, I think, besides the smaller chapter revision. I've changed characters, I've changed plots, I've changed the title. I thought I was finished two years ago and then decided I wasn't really happy with it. It was okay. But it was not great. I started over, from scratch.
It got messy. Not in a bad way. Maybe not messy so much as complicated. I tend to be a simple writer. Tell a story beginning to end, one narrator. This story is different. I have two narrators who each know a separate set of truths and facts. There is a gun that gets lost, then found, then stolen, then used, and someone knows why and by whom, but not the narrators. There is a key to a bank box, but no one knows what is in it except the woman who is killed. There is a cryptic letter. There's an alibi that makes no sense. There are lots of people who know things they aren't telling.
There are, in short, pieces of puzzle that look nothing like a complete picture. I've spent the better part of a year spreading out these pieces, like clues that don't seem to have an answer.
But I've now gotten to the end of the book, and I'm putting those pieces together.
It is glorious.
I admit I was a bit panicky for a while, not sure how it would all fit together. But now I can see the entire picture, and it's that same feeling you get putting together one of those 5,000 piece puzzles and seeing what it looks like and having in your hands just the last three or four pieces that will make it whole. That.
I'm still not done, but I'm closer than I've ever been. Closer than I was when I had it "finished" the eight times before, because this time I know it's right. This time, I let it get messy and complicated and it is so, so much better for it.
Monday, April 28, 2014
A week ago I found this quote. I'm not sure it resonated with me so much as it hung around, clanking about in my head. It seemed right, mostly, I think, because it confirmed what I've most feared: I am no longer a writer.
From 2007 until 2010, I wrote nearly every day. I didn't make much money on it, and working strictly as a novelist, I spent far more time writing than I did submitting my writing. But I viewed it as my job, to work each day creating stories I'd hoped would one day launch a career. I called myself a writer.
For two years after that, I was a student, but still, writing every day. It felt more like work than writing ever had before. I had deadlines and revisions and people to please.
In the year since, life's been more a roller coaster, as I've added a "real" job - one with scheduled hours and a regular paycheck. I poked around a couple different projects, trying my hand at some non-fiction and flash between the novel I was working on. I submitted a few stories. But it's been sporadic... weeks of obsessive writing, then days, even weeks, without.
I felt guilty about this. The mantra among published writers is that you find time to write, no matter what. If you have a job, you get up a 4am to write. If you have kids, you stay up until 1am to write. You find time. And for years, this is what I've done. (Well, not the getting up at 4am. That is just crazy talk.)
The past few weeks have been exhausting, though, and not just work-wise and family-wise, but just emotionally. By the time I shut the work computer, carted my kids around, cheered them on, cooked dinner, tucked them into bed, I sat with my novel open and stared at it, then chose instead to read. Or watch TV. For years I barely watched any TV, but these days, the hours between 9:30 and 11:00, it's about all I can manage. And then, I've actually be going to bed rather than stay up another two hours to write.
The last few weeks, as I've struggled through a single chapter that has proved to be a bit difficult to wrangle, I've not been writing much.
The words of my husband last year kept reverberating in my brain: If you don't get paid for it, isn't it really more a hobby than a job?
Then I read this: "You are not a writer anymore, just someone who dreams about being a writer."
I let that sludge around my heart, every time I turned on the TV, every time I chose to read rather than write. I knew every time that I was making a conscious choice not to write, making a conscious choice to be a person who dreamed about being a writer but not really being one. This is, after all, the thing that is what writers pride themselves on - sacrificing personal time to persevere as though this were a second job.
Then I thought of my friends who love to scrapbook. They don't do it every day. Sometimes not at all for a month or two at a time. But they are scrapbookers. And my friends who knit, even if they only do it for stretches at a time, they are knitters. And the bikers, even if they only ride in warm months, are bikers.
Who is to tell us how to label ourselves, or tell us what name we are worthy of? Is there some star chart I don't know of where we get to put stickers on each day we write, and you only get to be a writer if there are a certain number of stickers per week? Seriously, peeps, is this the kind of regulation and guilt we need heaped into our lives?
So while I might not answer the question, "What do you do for a living?" with the answer, "I'm a writer," I am most definitely a writer. Even if tonight I choose to turn on the TV.