My New Year

So okay this year I want to: finish this freelance assignment on time, write that other novel that’s in the works, and finish also the first draft of that very exciting other novel, do the next assignment I said I’d do, get a few more stories published, get an agent FINALLY, go to the summer workshop, and while we’re at it become a full-time freelance writer living beside the Pacific Ocean with two cats and my filmmaker partner who is making his movies and maybe all our debt is erased because the loan companies think we’re very nice people or else there is always the lottery and I learn how to surf and I’m killer at it and my skin somehow toughens and I stop burning so much and I am intensely prolific and life has meaning and I see my baby sister all the time and I dye my hair dark blue and learn how to bake perfect chocolate cupcakes and when I go to sleep at night I dream happy dreams like I’ve heard happy people dream if happy people exist in their houses on the beach with their two cats and their perfect chocolate cupcakes.

Not so much to ask, no?

In the meantime, all I ask of today is to finish that plot summary I promised the editor. Simple, yes?

Not really. But I’m trying.

Older, Slightly Wiser, and Stuffed Full of Blueberry Pancakes

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I am one year older today. All the things I’d wanted to accomplish this year didn’t happen, but I’m not beating myself up over them. I thought last year might be “my year”—but now that I’ve been through it, I can tell you it wasn’t. I’m not down about it, though. I think it helps that I’ve physically removed myself from my usual reality and am sitting here in a hotel. The view out the window is of my beloved city. I tried to photograph the lights of the skyline last night, but they wouldn’t come out for some reason. I guess you just have to be here, separated by a river from the island, looking out on what you used to be in. (Now updated with a better picture above.)

Two days ago was e’s birthday, and yesterday the anniversary of the day we were married. I ordered room service last night, leaving the menu order on the doorknob. It came just on time: a mochaccino and blueberry pancakes. Such decadence. I couldn’t even finish the pancakes!

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So here I am, in this hotel suite that is bigger than my apartment, casting my eyes through the fog after the snowstorm to try and find my neighborhood on the riverbank across the way. My dreams haven’t changed over the years, only solidified. Two years ago, I can’t help but remember how I had a difficult moment at my birthday, so I’m happy to be apart from my mailbox today. I’ll return to my island, and my foggy real life, tomorrow.

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Loving It

Sometimes you have these moments when you’re well in it. You’re carving your sentences into these perfect shapes, you hit a new word, and BAM, all is exposed. Your character is sitting across the table from you—she loves where you’re taking her. She even winks. You read over what you have so far and your heart goes pitter-patter, which is that hopefulness that’s so rare you forget you even have it, and you find yourself thinking: I like this. I actually LIKE this.

Some days revision is gold.

This is not a fast-food commercial. Today is just a happy day to be a writer and I don’t want to forget it. You know, in case I self-destruct again tomorrow.

Why Not?

Early this morning, when I stumbled out of the bedroom all bleary-eyed second-guessing my idea of getting up before the sun has come up, I sat myself down at the table to check my email. It’s a little maneuver I do to keep from going back to sleep on the couch. This morning my email inbox gave me a simple missive: “Thank you very much for submitting work to [Magazine]. Although this submission isn’t right for the magazine, we hope you will keep us in mind for future work.” The end. No surprise there with this rejection, as it’s a kick-ass magazine, but still my reaction was, Why not?

Why couldn’t that have been a yes? I mean, would it really have messed with the balance of the universe if my story had been accepted for publication? I doubt it. Please try to explain chaos theory to me, because I don’t get it.

To most everyone, it would have been the blink of an eye, this yes. No one would have noticed. But to me, it could have meant the world.

I don’t understand the universe sometimes. Seriously, how could it hurt? Seriously, why not?*

*I guess the story wasn’t good enough. But still!

I just realized that I went down a notch in their rejections. The last one said: “Thank you very much for submitting work to [Magazine] and our apologies for the delayed response. This piece isn’t right for the magazine, but please keep us in mind for other pieces. We are interested in reading more of your work.” Now I don’t even merit the last sentence!

You know what I’m going to ask: Why not?

Make-Believe: My Day as a Full-Time Writer

It occurred to me this morning, while heading out to my usual weekend spot on a day that happens to not be a weekend, that it’s almost like I’m a real writer just for the day. I know my definition of being a “real” writer changes depending on my mood—a “literary” writer, a “successful” writer, a “working” writer—but today I felt like a real writer would just write and do nothing else. A real writer would not have a day job, certainly not the non-creative day job I have. A real writer would, I don’t know, sashay out the door at whatever hour she found herself up and have creative visions while crossing the park, sip coffee leisurely while contemplating her first page, and then just pound out the brilliance, filling up pages and pages with those rich perfectly rhythmic sentences that make you want to read them out loud just to appreciate the shape of them, until she called it a day and went home. Sounds very realistic, no? I may as well aspire to float through life as a balloon animal.

But no, my point was that I have the day off from work today—national holiday and all—and I have writing deadlines, so today will be a good exercise in seeing how I would handle the life of a full-time writer. Like how serious can I be when I set my own hours and act as my own boss?

It’s 2:44 pm. So far today I:

Walked to my writing spot.

Put bag down, arranged stuff on desk.

Went out for coffee.

Came back. Rearranged stuff on desk.

Wrote maybe a page.

Went out for a walk. Excuse: birthday shopping.

Returned to desk. Wrote maybe another page.

Thought about doing the revisions an editor asked for as soon as possible. Felt nervous. Felt afraid. Decided to do it later this afternoon, when I feel more confident.

Stared at screen.

Bit friends on Facebook, making them vampires.

Wrote a few more pages.

Bit a friend, making him a zombie.

Went out again. Excuse: lunch.

Read.

Am back. Sitting here in this chair. Staring at my stiff pages. And all around me are working writers writing. Look at them go! I can tell for sure they’re not pretending.

Conclusion: I don’t know if I’m cut out for this. If this is a game of make-believe, I don’t think my heart’s in it today. So where do I sign up to be a balloon animal?

10 Signs a Book Might Be Written by Me

Charlotte at Charlotte’s Web tagged me for this meme, which honestly, as memes go, seems like a very worthwhile thing to do as a writer. This is not a distraction at all! So, do I have a distinct style, one that would be recognizably me? I hope so. Let’s see…

I will try to be positive here, rather than burying myself in my usual doubt and negativity. Mainly because I’m trying to shoot out 50+ pages this long weekend, plus revise three chapters of a whole other project as soon as possible as was asked of me, and both seem like overwhelming prospects, and if I think myself into a hole I won’t get anywhere.

So.

Here are the 10 Signs a Book Might Be Written by Me:

1. Voice will be front and center. Voice will be what pulls you in. Voice will shape the story, reveal or not reveal, drive forward, in whatever direct or meandering way it can, the plot. It could be one voice, or two dueling voices—for a future book, I’m considered trying three. If you don’t like a strong voice, most often first person, chances are you won’t want to read my books.

2. Language, and the telling of the story, might take a front seat to a formulaic plot. I’m trying to balance this better, but be warned.

3. Something—or more likely—someone will go missing.

4. Characters do disappointing things to other characters, just like with real people in real life. Hearts are stomped on, disregarded. Fathers leave. Mothers fall short. People lie, dangerously. People try and fail. People get caught.

5. Somehow, at some point in the story, the characters will find themselves in or around the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. It could be the whole story, or one quick take, but somehow those blue mountains will find their way into the story, even in a passing scene.

6. Childhood memories will not be forgotten. A long-dead memory—blocked out, misremembered, or misunderstood—will likely factor in to the plot in some significant way.

7. If there is a love interest, he or she will have deep, dark brown eyes, my most favorite kind. (Hmmm, e, I wonder why.)

8. Tangents abound. Tangents take you to places that might seem like diversions, but really they’re touching on what I really mean to say, so I shouldn’t call them “tangents,” should I?

9. If you know me or know where I’m from you might recognize street corners, train stations, ice-cream shops, bridges, specific people, specific things said.

10. The end will not necessarily tie everything up.

I’ll tag the following writers if you haven’t found yourself tagged already: Bloglily, Heidi at Light-skinned-ed Girl, Maht at The Moon Topples, Susan at ReadingWritingLiving, and Yojo at Burning Like Water. I could go on. Jump in if you want to try…

Alone Time

There’s this quirk in my personality: I desperately need time alone.

Sometimes this desire—this need—gets exacerbated by daily existence here on the bustling island of Manhattan: partiers in the apartments just below and above us, commuting on the subway, work, and, like this weekend, a sold-out showing of a very long movie at the big theater in Union Square.

Two nights a week, e teaches jiu-jitsu and then I have three hours to myself. You’d think I’d be mighty productive, pounding out pages or reading my sentences aloud to check their cadence, even folding the laundry or doing the dishes. But no. Usually all I do—all I can do—is put on the TV, eat dinner, then lie prone on the couch, unwilling to move. I just shut off my mind, think absolutely nothing. It’s almost beautiful. Problem is I don’t really have time to be doing this. I can’t return phone calls. I can’t answer blog comments or emails or call the loan company or figure out why my retirement fund randomly sent me a check. I can’t do much of anything except stay in that one spot, doing my beautiful nothing.

Sometimes it feels like I’m gathering up all my energy to regenerate a limb.

*

I also take both days on the weekends as “alone time”—my writing days. While I am not physically alone, as would be next to impossible in this city, I am not talking to anyone, I am not here but inside my own head, running through my own thoughts. The idea of giving up a writing day for a social engagement, or for a trip to see family, is sometimes unbearable. It is rare that I make plans on weekend days. I need these days to stay sane, even if I just produce one sentence. In this way, I have alienated some friends and family. The people who are close to me in life understand this need of mine, though. E has never once complained that I spent every Saturday and Sunday—my only two days off—away from him. Sometimes we meet for lunch. My mom understands; yesterday she was asking me a question on iChat then said she should go because she knows this time is “precious.”

It is.

*

Something I read this weekend made me think of this, how it’s not so much a quirk of my personality but a quirk of a writer’s personality. Perfectly normal, you might say.

When I was at the book fair at the AWP conference, I picked up some free copies of a magazine called The Writer—oddly, something I’ve never read before. This weekend, I was paging through the February 2008 issue, figuring I’d leave it in the kitchen at my writing spot, to share with another writer who might want to page through it, when I found an article that was first published in 1964. It’s called “My Rules for Writing” by Patricia Highsmith.

She says:

“Writing is a way of organizing experience, or of organizing something imagined, of making something perfect and beautiful—even something as small as one sentence—in a world that may be at times chaotic, wretched, ugly, and upsetting.

“. . . When writing becomes a habit and a necessity, the writer need never give a thought to discipline, because writing is a pleasure. Then friends and relatives will say, ‘Ah, what discipline!’ on seeing the writer at work, not realizing that it would take more discipline than they dream of for him to spend the next few hours in their company.”

How that rings true for me, is that awful to admit?

*

I feel so much closer to my writing on a day when I don’t have anything else to do but that. A writing morning can be easily crushed with obligations: nine a.m. kills me. That’s the time I have to leave for the subway if I want to make it in to work on time. A phone call in the midst of a good spree can shatter everything. The question “What are you writing?” is best left—when it comes to me—unasked.

Here, Patricia Highsmith says:

“It is astounding how after days of being with people—sometimes out of necessity, social or economic—a good and exciting idea becomes pale and wan, vague and not worth writing. It is just as outstanding and thrilling when, after a day or so of solitude, silence, daydreaming and loafing, the same idea comes alive again, beautiful and bright like a wilted plant that has been given a good soaking in the rain.

“It takes a few years to learn this. It takes a lot of skill and scheming, make-believe and trickery, to preserve one’s enthusiasm through the hideous periods of reality, of people, of obligations, of non-privacy. It is sometimes necessary to avoid thinking about one’s story in the midst of people, because it can be crushed like a violet—a violet tossed on a subway platform during rush hour.”

*

So it is the start of a new week, that “hideous period of reality.” But this weekend, when I was alone, I sat frustrated with the scene I was trying to write and happened to glance out the window to see a white sheet of plastic from a construction site come loose and perform aerial stunts in the billowing wind twenty stories above Broadway. It was a dancing ghost in broad daylight. Then the ghost lost hold of its body and the sheet of plastic became again a sheet of plastic and fell in one swift swoop for the street below. There were windows everywhere, but it seemed, in that moment, that I was the only one watching.

I was perfectly, beautifully alone—even in a room surrounded by people, in a city surrounded by people.

Then I turned back to my computer, put my fingers on the keys, and wrote.