Storytime

I had some storytime early this morning—and by that I mean time to play around with the short story I’m writing before I had to go to work. Sure, I was sitting between two nosy newspaper readers who kept glancing at my screen, sure, it was cold and my ears about froze off on the walk there, and sure there’s a lot of work to be done on the story, but still. Sometimes a tiny taste is enough.

Thing is, I’m not sure if working on only stories is enough. I know at the beginning of 2007 I said I had no real resolutions for what I’d set out to accomplish this year, but that’s pretty much impossible for me. I’m a girl of gradiose dreams, always have been, and in order to crawl closer to the dream I make little markers for myself to hit. It seems more attainable that way, even if it’s more attainable by the smallest smidge of a smidge. Always secretly hopeful, you know? So… for the first half of the year my plan has been to focus on the short-story collection. Write a story a month, that kind of thing. But there’s an itch—I feel it now—an itch to write something longer—a novel. Either a new one or the one I have from before. What is holding me back? Oh, that’s right: Fear. Fear of rejection (again). Fear of complete and utter failure. I really wish I could get past this.

But back to stories. Let’s just talk about stories because they’re smaller, and quicker, and when I’m working on a story I can see to the end. Also, you don’t need a literary agent to publish them. I like that a lot.

So speaking of stories, it’s been exciting—and fun—and just plain weird—to have people read my story I mentioned in the post below. Before going to bed last night I posted about it on Myspace and now some people I never expected to have any interest in a story published in a literary journal have read it and messaged me. It’s cool. Mostly. Also it’s like being exposed. I guess this is what those published authors feel when they’re up on the stage staring at an audience of people who’ve read their book—a million trillion times more, yes—but it is a bit like someone seeing your underwear and then feeling free to tell you what they think about the color, now isn’t it?

The Spammers Are So Prolific

Wow, the spammers have been writing a lot lately. I envy their productivity. Overnight I’ve been getting hundreds of spam comments, and if I let 5 minutes go by I get 15 more. They are not only about Viagra, Nigeria, and other medicinal or foreign locales, some have become quite complimentary: “Great job!” “Nice writing!” “Good point!” they say. I’m overwhelmed. I only wish I could produce so much.

Unforgettable

All this talk of stories and wishing on workshops (perhaps it’s just chatter in my head?) has got me lamenting the cold shoulder I’ve given one of my stories-in-progress. It really wants to be finished, and yet I had to put it aside for these recent deadlines.

I spent all weekend on a freelance copyediting project—I clocked in over 20 hours and now my neck burns. So the story didn’t get touched. Tomorrow is Monday and back to my day job—so the story won’t get touched. I have to write that spec chapter—and the little story, knowing no one, of such small significance I am writing this post instead of it . . . well, it won’t get touched.

I feel bad. I don’t want it to die on me while I’m out gallivanting around trying to pay the bills. So, until I can do something else, I am trying to find a way to keep the story alive and kicking. Maybe I could:

1. Print out what I have of the story so far and carry it around with me everywhere I go, even to (especially to) staff meetings.

2. Rest my head on it while I watch TV*.

3. Talk out loud to it when I’m on the elevator, or walking down stairs, or through the streets. If I’m lucky, it might answer.

4. Write the name of the story in my notebook like in junior high: Nova + Story Forever. Nova & Story. Story & Nova. Story Story Story Story Story Story all small and decorated with little stars and kissy lips and mascaraed eyeballs deep and twisting into the margin.

5. Repeat a line from the story in my mind until it becomes like an iconic song lyric that keeps replaying until I just can’t forget it and so MUST write it down in order to move ahead with my life.

6. Picture the main character sitting next to me, just hanging out until I have time for her, like a very persistent imaginary friend.

7. Keep the sentence where I left off on a sticky note and post it wherever I may be—like on my computer monitor or keyboard at work—or even in my pocket, against my hip, so I carry it everywhere, and rub it raw, and I forget I even have it… which might not help too much at all.

So, other busy-busy people, how do you do it? There must be some other more practical ways to keep an idea alive.

*Yes, I am busy, but I am very tired and sometimes I just want to watch TV.

Are you going to say that’s another reason I’m not writing the story?

Fine. How about…

8. Tomorrow, when I get home from work, maybe try not to turn on the TV.

Catching Up

That crash writing project left me reeling—I am very, very behind in posting here and reading all my favorite blogs. But what happened, you may wonder. Did I finish? I did. I did! So, yes, I would now like a lollipop.

In the past week, a scattering of things happened.

* A story of mine in a lit mag I admire!
One of my short stories appears in the latest issue of Small Spiral Notebook—an e-book of the issue is now available online until the printed copies are rescued. More info from the editor here. I hope you’ll consider supporting this incredible magazine. (And I’m not just saying that because they were nice enough to take my story, I swear!)

* More details on the crash:
So, somehow, with little sleep, many vitamin-C fizzy drinks, and intense drive, I made my deadline. The next night I had some extras to add in, and a few edits, and I made that, too. I would have expected to crash, literally, at this point—sleeping with abandon even through the alarm clock—but it was weird: I had caught a second (or third? or twenty-third?) wind. I wasn’t even tired anymore, just a little loopy. So I caught up on free episodes of Ugly Betty online, gazed intensely at the walls, fantasized a life near the Pacific Ocean, and went to bed as if it were any other day. Huh. I guess crash-writing isn’t so stressful after all. Good thing, because…

* Need a ghostwriter? I’m back.
I took a break, but after the crash project—same day as turning in the last little bits, in fact—I got asked to sample for another project. I have the spec assignment here, which involves watching some shows and reading some scripts to see if I can get the voice and then diving in for a sample chapter or two. I do hope it works out because I really like working with this editor. I’m also supposed to be sampling for something else; I might get the spec assignment next week. And why would I be doing this, after all I said about wanting to stay focused? 1) It pays. 2) It pays more—much more, when you add up the hours—than freelance copyediting. 3) There is something so incredibly fulfilling about seeing a book you wrote in print, even when your real name appears nowhere on it. I can’t explain that feeling. I mean, okay, the feeling is thousands of times better when it comes to the story in Small Spiral Notebook—nothing can compare to that. But since no book publishers are banging down my door begging to publish my real novel, I’ve got to do the next best thing. The challenge will just be finding a way to balance it with the writing that actually has my name on it. And I know it will be a challenge.

* A box of books on the floor of my kitchen.
Speaking of ghostwriting, two days ago I received a carton of novels I wrote, packed in a warped box filled with little styrofoam bits that smelled like someone’s cat. I picked up one of the books and sneezed. Still, I’m psyched to have them. Even if I have no one to show them to—except for my mother.

* And something to do this summer?
Also in the mail was an acceptance letter to a writers conference. I’m with W on this one–dying to go, but I can’t afford it—so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for any kind of scholarship they can offer. (This isn’t the one in Italy, though. Congrats, W!)

* Now back to the grind.
Just because I finished one deadline doesn’t mean I don’t have another. A copyediting project that was delayed for many months surprised me by arriving in my inbox, so here I am, two days to deadline, Webster’s 11th at my side, needing to stop this blog-updating and FOCUS. I won’t do a play-by-play on the editing, though. No “I’ve added a serial comma!” or “Typo #33!” I swear.

So all that was to say, this week was pretty decent. Now how are you?

Overboard!

Feedback from samples of what I wrote over the weekend came back with this response: Too long. Waaaaaaaay tooooooo looooooong. Have I ever mentioned how I can’t shut up? Like when I write posts here and I can’t stop whining and I drive everyone away? Like right now?

Oh, yes, I knew the manuscript was too long, and I’m chopping, clipping, reshaping now. I could say much more about this process. I could talk about how, when I was a girl, I was too shy to talk out loud in a roomful of people—espcially a classroom—and the only way I was ever able to communicate anything worth saying was to write it down. I could say I held in so many things for so long and that’s why now I can’t shut up. I could say that all I wanted was for someone to read what I write, and when something is actually being published, when someday soon people will pick up the book I’ve written and read it—even if, especially if, these people are twelve-year-old kids—I just get so excited I can’t stop myself. Ask me for a story and I’ll write you a novel. Go on, ask me. Or maybe you shouldn’t. I could say much more about this, but I won’t. I am stopping

right

about

now.

It takes great restraint.

Crash Writing (*Now in Real Time!)

A few days ago I agreed to write a crash freelance project. It is due next week, ideally Monday, but I asked for Wednesday to give myself a cushion in case I completely fall apart and start writing in tongues. The book will be 48 pages, but it will have photos, and it is an adaptation of something that already exists, so it’s not as bad as all that. This is possible. This is what freelance writers do, especially when they need cash for a new apartment. I am not crazy for saying yes. I am not going to mess up. I can do this this, I want this, I’m talking out loud to myself now, oh great. Really, I can do this. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah—I hope so.

Those ellipses above are me taking a pause between writing that introductary freak-out paragraph and this one. In that time—shown by the three little dots—I wrote 1 page. Huzzah, a page! Oh, and also I am getting a cold and sneezed appoximately 12 times. So, with this pace in mind, and with sheer devotion and breaks only to eat and sleep, I can finish this in, um, 45 hours and 540 sneezes. Wait. That doesn’t sound right.

UPDATE: About 4 o’clock, only on page 13, but tissues in good supply. How long do you think that line for coffee is, hmm?

4:51 pm: Page 14, head swimming, will make my way through the wind & ice home, try to write on the couch. Plus E is making soup!

And later: Stalled for the night; will reconvene tomorrow morning.

And the next morning: On page 18. So that’s, what?, just 30 more pages to go?

12:30 pm, Sunday: Just now hit page 22. Slowly, slowly it’s coming… Will someone bring me lunch?

Little bit later: Page 26. Just remembered protein bar in backpack. Think it’s two o’clock. Thoughts come only in staccato.

3:20 pm: Stuck on a sentence. I’m just sitting here, in the middle of the sentence, looking at it, knowing I have to shove some words in there. It’s an odd in-between place, the gaping middle of an unfinished sentence. I mean, where do I go from here? Oh yeah, I’m on page 27, but if I finish this sentence I can be on page 28.

3:23 pm: Did it. It took like 7 words. God, I’m pathetic.

3:43 pm: I just want to interrupt myself to say that I’m amazed at how long this takes—writing. Sometimes it floors me how many hours I’m at it and I look at the clock and I’ve only gotten this far? I AM ONLY ON PAGE 29, for real? I could bake a cake faster. I mean I can’t even really cook, but if I followed the recipe the thing would be half-eaten by now and I’d have crumbs all over my face.

3:44 pm: If you haven’t noticed, I think about food quite often.

4:39 pm: Talking about time moving quickly, a whole hour has passed. Now I’m on page 30. But in that time I wasn’t entirely working on page 29. Oh, I had page 29 open and I was making little spurts of attempts to work on it, but I got to playing around on Wikipedia, too, and I read all about Jonestown because there was a documentary about it on the History Channel last night—and I should say that this project is in no way related to Jonestown—and I look up at the clock and it says 4:39. Perfect example of how wasteful I am when it comes to time. In addition, as an aside, my fingers are very cold and that’s not helping with the typing.

5:02 pm: You know when you’re done but you can’t be done so you keep going? That’s where I am right now.

5:39 pm: I’m cheating. I’m a big fat cheater. I’ve moved ahead into the empty pages past page 30, just trying to note the events in order, plan out what I’ve got to do. Soon I will walk home. On my mind is the ticking of the clock and—if you must know—a great desire for homemade macaroni and cheese.

6:01 pm: Must. Leave. Building. I cannot sit in this chair any longer. I’ll find a new chair, at home, and sit in that. I haven’t given up for the night just yet!

7:09 pm: I am home. I am not writing. I am TALKING about writing. I am PRETENDING that I am going to write by putting the pages I am using for reference beside me and gazing at them absently. Soon I will pick up the pen (the keyboard) and start on the next page. Either that or I will eat dinner, which is tofu and broccoli in apple-sauce sauce over that good fluffy white rice, which I’m sure has a more technical name, but E’s the one cooking so he would know.

Early, early Monday morning: I’m back… still going…

9:30 am: Gotta head to work. On page 39… It’s going to be a long night tonight.

The Mailbox

I had been home a half hour when E asked me if I had picked up the mail from the box downstairs. I bolted upright on the couch. The mail? I had no memory of getting the mail when I passed the mailbox, but how could I have passed the mailbox without getting the mail?!

I am obsessed with mail. In the mail could be (1) an acceptance letter, (2) a rejection letter, or—more likely—(3) a pile of credit-card offers and bills. Every writer must know that feeling upon approaching the mailbox… good news could be in there, metered and stamped and buried at the bottom, just waiting to be torn open. It’s not like me to forget to check the mail.

E wasn’t concerned. He said we could just get the mail tomorrow.

But how could I leave the mail sitting there all night! I know myself: I’d dwell on it while eating dinner, I’d imagine SASEs while watching the movie we rented, I’d long for the mailbox, unable to focus on anything else. At night I’d wake every hour on the hour, itching to sneak down the stairs in my pajamas, I’d see little white envelopes in my dreams.

I couldn’t take it. “I have to go get it,” I said.

“You’re crazy,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

So I got re-dressed, found my keys, and climbed down the four flights of stairs to the mailbox in the lobby to find…

…one envelope containing tax forms.

Ah well. At least now I’ll be able to sleep.

Spam, in the form of an auto commercial

“Maryland Hyundai Car Dealer” has added a comment to this blog to ask me:

What do you think of the new Hyundai Sonata?

To be honest, Maryland Hyundai Car Dealer, I had thought nothing of it. I don’t even know what it looks like. In addition, I live in New York City, have no use for a car, and have never learned to drive. But I’ll tell you this: some of the happiest moments in my life have occurred inside a car made by Hyundai. The car was red; the boy is now my husband. Need I say more?

Oh, Maryland Hyundai Car Dealer, I can sense already that you’d like to know details. You want to know how I came to be inside your red car, how many miles we crossed in it, what we said to each other over the passing roads. You want to know our secrets. You want to know how far back I reclined my seat.

I’ll tell you that we once lost a tire—I think it was a tire—at least, it was a piece of your car, something important that fell off somewhere along Route 80. This was in the dead of winter, at night. We stood beside your car, shivering in the cold, hoping someone would come by and pick us up. Maryland Hyundai Car Dealer, this was when most people did not have cell phones, this was when we were young, when everything we owned was piled up in your trunk and on your seats. We were saved by a drunk man in a pickup truck. We knew he was drunk because he swerved, and slurred, and threw his empties out the window—we ducked. I think he may have laughed at your car, its pathetic little shape parked crooked on the shoulder of the highway. But he took us where he was headed anyway—the bar—and, there, we called for help.

And, Maryland Hyundai Car Dealer, do you know we’ve even driven your red car through your very own state? This is true—it was also winter then, we had come to visit friends who lived off the Beltway. I wonder, were you nearby? Did you see us in passing, on our way in, or out? Did you know that when we tried to leave we locked the keys inside and I can’t now, for the life of me, recall how we ever got them out?

But, Maryland Hyundai Car Dealer, you wrote to ask what I think of the new Hyundai Sonata. What I think is that I might like to borrow it, for an afternoon, if it comes in red. I can’t help but wonder if the engine stalls out in the rain, as the car I remember did, if the right side rattles, if it will one day end up as scrap. But more importantly, what do you think of the new Hyundai Sonata? You seem insecure. Don’t worry: it is quite possible to be happy in a Hyundai. You could drive through the night to see your girlfriend on the Fourth of July solely because you miss her. You could crawl your way over mountains—anything is possible. You could even fall in love.

The New York Public Library & Me

from www.nypl.orgAll I wanted to do last week was visit the public library, but by the time I got out of work on any given night, the closest branch was closed. On Friday I decided to actually leave the building for “lunch” in order to go to the tiny little branch six or seven blocks away… when, to my horror, I discovered that I had forgotten my library card at home. It’s bad enough when the library’s closed, but to be in it and be unable to borrow books, that I couldn’t handle. I’d have to wait another day.

Jefferson Market NYPL, from www.aviewoncities.comSo it wasn’t until Saturday, library card found, that I was able to make my trip. Even better, I could visit the Jefferson Market Branch on Avenue of the Americas, my favorite public library in the city. The building had originally been a courthouse and then a police academy before it was saved from demolition to become a part of the New York Public Library system. To get to the books on the second floor, I always take the spiral staircase, never the elevator, as the stone stairs wind up and up, light from the stained-glass windows showing the way. Upstairs is the reading room, with new fiction and nonfiction along one wall, and then the next room filled with shelves of fiction. As it was a semi-rainy day, there were many people inside, some—clearly—with no interest in the books but nowhere else to go. But also there were the avid readers, the people who, like me, peruse the “New” shelves with fierce attention. I always find one or two people like me by those shelves—some take the competition for a certain book so seriously they try to block the shelves from anyone else while they make their selections. I like to go backward, starting with the Zs and on up to the As. The spines glimmer and shine from their glossy cases and it’s all I can do not to stake out a spot on the floor and peek into all of them.

I’ve always been this way about libraries. I mark my past in this city by my neighborhood library, depending on where I lived. When I first lived in New York, the spring and summer I was 19, I lived near the Bloomingdale Branch uptown—not at all impressive. It looked like a trailer set off from the street, and the book selection was more suited for kids. Still, I’d visit at least twice a month, attacking the “New” shelves with the ferocity described above.

//encyclopedia.quickseek.comBack then, I had heard about the grand public library, guarded by lions, in midtown, so I visited but was confused about where to find the books. I didn’t understand the difference between a research library and a lending library, I guess. The lending library, the Mid-Manhattan Branch, was across the street. Years later, I would have a job on that very block—close proximity to that library was the only good thing about the job. I’d escape during lunch and just sit in the stacks, gathering my breath. I don’t miss the job, but I do miss the great fiction selection at that library. It’s worth a trip to Midtown.

In graduate school, the university library was like no other, but university libraries have books with boring non-shiny bindings. The spines all look alike in the low light of the stacks, taking away some of the usual excitement. It was the highlight of my time in grad school when a New York Public Library branch opened up at the corner of my very own street. It became a daily ritual, visiting whenever the branch was open, just to see what new novels were in.

But back to my trip to the Jefferson Market Branch this Saturday. I decided on a theme: I would borrow only short-story collections, since I’m in the midst of trying to write my own and, well, because themed library trips are fun. I’d take only short-story collections that I haven’t read, and mostly those by contemporary authors. I had two hours until closing… Go!

There was such pleasure in choosing the books. My stack of possibilities became so enormous that I couldn’t lift it myself and had to leave it on the windowsill while I kept on eyeing the shelves. A man was asleep, chair back, feet up, in front of the “C” shelf, but I didn’t let that stop me. Finally, I sat at a table beside a man doing complicated math equations and chose between over 20 short-story collections. Some, I realized, I had read already. Some, I discovered, upon popping them open and peeking at a few first lines, wouldn’t be to my liking. And, besides, I really couldn’t take more than I could carry the ten blocks home.

I came away with these spoils:

That’s: Things That Fall from the Sky by Kevin Brockmeier • Unkempt by Courtney Eldridge • A Place I’ve Never Been by David Leavitt • Beautiful Girls by Beth Ann Bauman • A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom • Lost Lake by Mark Slouka • Limbo, and Other Places I Have Lived by Lily Tuck • The Unsettling by Peter Rock • A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li

I’m only halfway through the first book but, already, I can’t wait for my next trip.

Kick Me

I am in need of a good kick in the pants. I thought, for some moments, that this weekend might be it: I ran into a fellow graduate of my MFA program and we talked about regrets before a row of sinks in the bathrooms. She had some, though she didn’t like to use the word. Neither of us had reached the attainable dream—it had seemed so attainable back then, how misguided we were!—of being a published novelist by now. She had moved on. I realize, looking back on our conversation, that she may have assumed I’ve given up. I haven’t given up! Not even close!

I felt a touch motivated after the meeting. And then, the next morning, it all fell away and I didn’t get much done. I kept going between stories—tweaking something here, slipping in a new line there—unable to just roll up my sleeves and commit.

I should try something new today. I shouldn’t be afraid to fail. I should throw out my Airport card so I can’t connect to the Internet. I should—oh, the advice swims in my head. I just have to remember why I’m here: like that guy in the Memento movie had tattooed his reasons all over his chest. Where did I put mine?