The Day* the Internet Did Not Exist

(*Okay, the morning.)

I got it in mind to try an experiment. I would write, on my laptop, as usual, with one significant change: the internet as I know and love it will no longer be in existence.

Yesterday, I had all day to write. But yesterday was a day in which the internet existed and with it at my fingertips I produced, omigod this is really sad and embarrassing to admit, just 2 pages.

Today, the day—fine, the morning—in which there was no such thing as the internet, I produced 13 pages. And it’s only 2:05 p.m.

What conclusions can I draw from my experiment? I would do much better in a time and place where I couldn’t go online. Like, my life back before the internet was ever invented, like what? 1992. Like, the MacDowell Colony, where the studios had no wireless access and no phones. Like that time the cable went out. Like, oh I don’t know, the here and now if I had a little more self-control and could do this more often.

I may try to do this more often.

Rearrange Your Furniture

There are things we do to get ready to write. Personal rituals. Soothing routines. I guess mine would be the walk here. My street is always quiet in the morning, the bars closed, every once in a while a dog being walked, only the bodegas open. I walk to my writing spot and just let my mind go blank. I like walking. I like how I know each stretch of sidewalk, each block. I don’t think about much. The walk is maybe seven minutes, ten if I take it slow. It seems to quiet the noise in my head. Then I get here and I place my order (sometimes I’m one of only two people here) and I find my favorite table and set up.

I’m at the café now and I’ve been watching another woman get ready for her day. I’ve only been coming here for about a month, but I see her here on many mornings. Before she can start, she must neaten the room. This involves rearranging the café’s furniture to her liking. There are a great many chairs and little tables, three couches, and small table-and-chair sets scattered throughout. She will go around the large back room, moving a couch here, a chair there, setting up tables between them. She straightens tables and chairs, adjusts angles, stands to appraise her work and if it’s not satisfactory moves back in. I have to admit that—to me—it’s a little distracting. Then again, I’ve only been coming here for a month and who knows how long she’d made a habit of morning furniture rearranging. It’s her ritual. So I just sit here and wait for it to end (hope she doesn’t try to move the chair I’m sitting on)—at most it takes a half hour. She is an old woman, heavily made up and coiffed, not very friendly. I think it’s a bit strange. Not that I dislike strange.

Next week I might be giving up my new favorite writing spot, though I’m conflicted. Basically, it is imperative that I get to work at the time I am supposed to, and the subway line near this café keeps letting me down. What can be a twenty-minute trip door to door on one line can be up to forty-five minutes on this new one. But it’s completely unpredictable. I’ve given it 32 minutes three days in a row. One day I was early. One day I was exactly on time. One day I was late (and I practically ran from the subway station to my office, or I would have been later still). For someone with enough anxiety issues as it is, thank you, getting stalled in dark tunnels at every station between 8th Street and Midtown is agony. The local train will stop and so I’ll cross the platform to the express and then the express stops and the local goes—it’s infuriating. With attention being paid to the time I get in, all this means is I might need to return to my original café, though I like the mochas here so much better. But I think time is more important than mochas. And being near that express subway spot could gain me twenty-five whole minutes. That might not sound like much, but to me, at that prime point of inspiration, it is.

I’m really torn. I wish time wasn’t an issue. Or, better yet, I wish I could fly to work.

Progress, at a Cost

Also, didn’t mention in my last distracted post, but I’m making real progress with the novel… I wish I could write all day and every day, though I know physically I can probably only do concentrated bursts of, at the most, four hours at a time. So I’m sandwiching it between time at the day job, and I’m finding small ways to make it work. This means sacrifices though. I’ve had to cancel plans made after work. I cannot return phone calls. I can’t do favors anymore. I am not coherent after 7pm. I may not be a good person until after I finish this novel and then I might need to rest for a month, so maybe I will be good again in 2009.

…If I ever was good at all?

Somehow this blog seems to help me move forward. Makes no sense. Maybe all the typing warms up my fingers for the real work ahead. So thank you for reading. I’ll be here until I drop!

Write What You Know: Gossip Girl Edition

On my mind lately has been this one cliché you hear in writing workshops and how-to books: “Write what you know.”

I might be facing a battle if I admit this, but I believe it wholeheartedly. I think my writing is more authentic and so much better when I’m writing something I have first-hand knowledge of. As a reader I hate the generic, unspecific, and bland. I get very aware when something feels inauthentic. I suspect the author doesn’t know what s/he’s talking about. And so I lose interest and look for something else to read.

Yes, I’ve embraced this writing cliché wholeheartedly. I believe this so much that I think there are things I can never write about. The last adult novel I wrote fails because of this. I learned my lesson. I’ll be writing what I know from now on.

To those of you who don’t know—or don’t care—the new season of Gossip Girl will be airing Monday night and some people are extremely excited about it. I was pointed to Gawker, where script sides from an upcoming episode were leaked. You might not want to click this link or read below if you’re worried about a spoiler.

Okay, so there’s this kid Dan. He’s in high school. His first story ever sent out in the world (by a friend, without his knowledge) was published in The New Yorker. I almost threw a rock at the TV when that happened. I mean, kill me at your easy privileged existence, Dan, I hate you. No but seriously. In the scene that leaked, Dan is having nice little one-on-one meeting with some guy who is supposed to be the editor of the Paris Review. (The Paris Review!) The editor is helping Dan with his writing samples for college. No joke. I might throw rocks. No really but seriously**, the Paris Review editor says Dan’s stories suck. He says:

Editor: You sent me five stories, all about a sheltered young man with girl trouble who lives with his daddy in Brooklyn. You think that’s going to knock the Yale English Department off their tenured asses?

Dan: I just– I thought a writer was supposed to write what he knows. This is what I know.

Editor: Then learn something new! Get out of your comfort zone. A cardinal rule of writing: if your work’s too safe, do something dangerous.

Dan: I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Editor: Then find someone who DOES know. When I was young, Bukowski* put a shot glass on my head and blew it off with a pistol. Find your Bukowski, then get back to me…

So there you have it. The imaginary editor of a real literary magazine agrees with me about writing what you know… sort of. If you want to write about something you don’t know, go out and try to know it first. Even if it hurts. You’d probably get a good story out of it if it hurts. Knowing where my interests lean, I think that could be very dangerous. Though I do think there’s a way of knowing that doesn’t have to be so literal. But for me, a writer with a pretty limited imagination, I must have a taste of something before I can put it down on the page in any real way. I don’t want to copy what I’ve seen from books or movies—I want it to feel like it came straight from life. Surely this limits my stories, but let’s see how I do. Anyway, after getting the imaginary TV editor’s advice stuck in my head, I suppose we should all be glad I’m not writing about prostitutes anymore.

Thoughts? Arguments? Is this post so trashy you can’t even respond?

——–
* A Gawker commenter pointed out this should probably be Burroughs, but whatever.

** Seriously? The whole subplot last season with 16-year-old Dan becoming a published fiction writer in The New Yorker of all places on his first try was so upsetting and ridiculous I can’t let it go. Kids, it ain’t so easy. Believe me. Wow, I really have to stop taking things so literally.

Delicious and Deadly Distractions

I’d like to design myself a web page that my browser automatically goes to when I’m trying to write but am attempting to visit any page that is not Pandora (which contains my own personal radio station for writing, so I think I should be allowed to keep going to it). The web page would be plain white. On the screen would be these words in the biggest font allowable in html:

NOTHING TO SEE HERE.

WRITE.

Maybe it would have a big red hand in the background, like a stop sign. I once worked at a company where we weren’t allowed to check personal email. If you went to Gmail your browser would show a giant red hand saying something like: “Access Denied.” Of course, that big red hand filled me with rage because I cannot go eight hours on a weekday without checking my email (in case the glorious acceptance letter can be found there; it has happened), but… It’s not so mean if I do it to myself, is it?

Then again, if I was writing and came up against those words and a big red hand, I might get mad at my computer and want to pitch it across the room.

I like writing in public cafes—so long as they’re not too loud. I can be around numerous distractions and just zone out and live an hour inside my own world as if no one else is there. I’ve gotten very used to it, living here in New York. Still, the internet is destroying me. The internet has too much on it. News and weird stories and this election and things and people and places to look up on Wikipedia and your blogs, all of them, where I want to read and comment, and don’t even bring up Facebook, which I’m losing interest in, but because of it a whole bunch of people I never otherwise would be in touch with are in touch, and I’m pretty sure I owe a dozen reply messages. I love this cafe, but I really wish it didn’t have wireless internet.

It doesn’t matter. I will finish this chapter today.

There is nothing to see here. Look away, I tell myself. Write.

From Can’t to Can

Some days I think I’ve caught that sickness where you’re in the midst of doing something singularly important, something that has the potential to change your whole entire life, and you know it, and we all know it, and there’s no one who doesn’t know it, but for some reason you want to curl up on the couch with the latest monster issue of Vogue, or turn on the monster TV. Or, wait, maybe that’s just me.

My own ability to sabotage myself with doubt and excuses and distractions (look! I have a blog for no reason!) has been well-honed over the years. It’s as familiar to me now as my mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese.

Fact is, I’m making progress with the novel. Progress in pages, undeniable pages. There are just a bunch of chapters planned, and I tend to write very long and then cut later, so… I might have a lot of pages, but I still have a lot of chapters still to do.

So I will not let myself catch the can’ts right now. I can’t!

It’s like getting those first hints you’re catching a cold and slurping those vitamin-C fizzy drinks to keep it at bay. Here I am with the metaphorical sniffles, a full-on metaphorical sore throat. But I can keep it back, I can I can I can.

Oh look, I’ve become the Little Engine That Could. I always did love that story as a little kid. You can if you think you can, so goes the Little Engine philosophy. And I have to start thinking I can so I will.

Drops of Possible Wisdom

I learn new things every day, about who I am as a person, about who I am as a person who writes, about who I am as a person who worries herself into such a state she can barely even write and then complains about it. For example:

If you have a book contract you will need an author photo. Thus, you should probably get working on that when the contract goes through and not be caught off guard when the publisher emails asking for it, as I was, especially if you are uncomfortable in front of a camera and have nothing to use. A very wise person—she knows who she is—told me to try getting a photo taken by someone who loves me and finds me beautiful. That someone became E. We did three separate photo shoots up on the roof of our apartment building. In each one I got more and more relaxed. His patience—with me, with the sun, with our flawed digital camera—was astounding, and I have now chosen the photo to send in. I’ll wait for the publisher’s response before showing it. I’m not sure if it’ll be on the book or not. But I’ll describe it for you: My hair is down (even though it’s usually up during the day, I feel most myself when it’s down). It’s a bit of a mess, but I don’t care. On my face is the faintest hint of a smile, no grimace. I’m looking straight at the camera, well, really, I’m looking straight at E. Maybe you really can look almost beautiful when the person who finds you beautiful is the one doing the looking. I hope the photo is acceptable to the publisher; I’ll get a test print made and then send it in next week.

Email your writer friends back. They may inspire you. (And I’m not the only one to think so.) I’ve been letting my email inbox pile up to such heights that I tend to panic when I look at it. But there was one email, especially, that I wanted to write, to a fellow writer I’ve known since college—he knows who he is—and I kept putting it off because it didn’t deserve a one-line, dashed-off response. It deserved a patient, honest response. It deserved, well maybe not the anxious rant it turned out to be, but it deserved time, something real. I wrote to him yesterday. He wrote me back. And somehow I feel energized by it. To hear how he’s working on his novel, and know I’m here working on my novel. These novels, they can be solitary pursuits where it feels like you’re in it all by yourself and no one understands and there’s no way out, but that’s not true. Chances are you know quite a few people in it too. So take the time to say hi to them.

Don’t you give up on that lost shoe. I lost a writing slipper about a month ago, one from the pair I bought in Chinatown, and I scoured everywhere looking for it. I finally determined that I must have, somehow, dropped it in the street when I was carrying it in my bag between home and my weekend writing spot. So I’ve been writing without my slippers, and I’ve felt off somehow, imbalanced. Like, I buy a pair of $3 Chinatown slippers and I can’t even keep a hold of them? How am I going to finish this novel! Yes, dramatic and irrational, all from the loss of one shoe. Then last night I was home at my computer, and I happened to look down. And there, on the floor beneath the very table where I sit every night, was my lost writing slipper. I don’t know how I didn’t see it all this time. Now it’s on my foot, and I finished one chapter today and wrote an entire other one. (Don’t freak. This book has short chapters; I’m not that prolific.) But listen. Sometimes the thing you lost comes back to you at just the right moment. Sometimes you haven’t lost what you think you lost at all. Sometimes, take a moment, look down: it’s been there all along.

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m trying to tackle another chapter. I have been photographed, I’ve emailed, and I have on my shoes. What more could I ask for (except a month off from work to write my book, but that’s a whole other story)?

Either way, lessons learned and filed away for later, or for the next time I lose a shoe.

Pictures of Me*

I’ve been asked to send in an author photo by the end of the month to be used for the upcoming fall launch. I can specify that it can be for launch only, and not for other marketing purposes or to use on the book, which I may have to do, because I have less than two weeks to find a viable photo of me.

At the moment I don’t have any usable options.

Sure, there’s the one where I’m hanging upside down and my hair’s all up in my face and my nose looks like a big white blob because I’m holding the camera so close to my head…

And, sure, there’s the one where I’m trying to smile and one eye is suddenly revealed to be bigger than the other…

And, sure, I have a whole series of self-portraits taken in my studio at the writers colony when I was playing around instead of writing, such as the photo of my head in the fireplace, my head on the table, my head in striped shadows on the dirty floor, my head on the piano, et cetera…

And, oh right, there’s the one where I’m stiffly sitting in a chair and my hair is sticking out to one side and my eyes look dead…

A great favorite is the one of me when I just had my wisdom teeth out and look like a pained, drugged-up chipmunk. Do you think people will want to buy the book if they feel sorry for me?

I’ll come up with something. Unfortunately, of all the talented photographers I know, none of them live in New York City anymore. How is that possible!

* Thoughts of the Elliott Smith song run through my mind. (Oh, Elliott Smith, you are missed.)

Sisters

The best present my mother ever gave me was a baby sister. I adore mine, always have. Things about my sister: She loves books; we have very similar taste in fiction. In most cases, I think she’s my ideal reader. I love her taste in music and many of my favorites came from her recommendations—she recently introduced me to Bat for Lashes. Some of my favorite Cat Power songs are her favorite Cat Power songs. She has incredible style. She wears giant movie-star sunglasses and looks stunning. Behind those glasses, she has beautiful brown eyes, my favorite kind. She’s extremely independent. She works hard. If I ever go to a foreign city I want my sister there to keep me from getting lost—you should have seen her acclimate to Paris when we went there just the two of us. French people would see her on the street and ask her for directions. When she was born, I was nine. I saw her birth—literally: it was a home birth and I was right there in the room—so I can honestly say I’ve loved her from the moment she entered this world. I did my fifth-grade science project on her: on how a baby reacts to different kinds of music, with photos! (she preferred Madonna). She’s supported my writing for years, and her encouragement means more than she realizes. She helped E get into his top-choice film school: She acted in the short film that got him in, a whirlwind weekend with him, her, me, and a rented Bolex in which she stayed up all night and dug around in dirt in the boiler room beneath our apartment building wearing only a nightgown all to make one little movie. She’ll eat anything—she has fearless tastes. She’ll make you laugh and be unable to stop laughing; she’ll tell you ghost stories on a dark road in the backseat of a car that’ll send chills up your spine. Her poems are sad and strong and shocking. She taught me how to put makeup on properly when I was in my twenties and she was in junior high. She’s gorgeous, she’s fun, she’s smart, and more than that, she’s wise. I can’t imagine my life without her. I wish we lived in the same city.

Today’s her birthday. Happy Birthday, L.R.!