My Favorite Witch

Halloween is today, which means the big parade hits the neighborhood tonight and we’d better make sure we get off the subway on the east side of Sixth Avenue or we’ll be stuck behind the barricade and forced to walk, costumeless, fifteen blocks to make it across to the other side. (We know this from experience.)

The Halloween I knew, living outside the city, did not include parades. It was all about trick-or-treating in the dark, wooded towns where I lived. You’d go with a few friends, a pillowcase for all the candy, and glow-sticks hung around your neck so you could be found if your mom drove around looking for you. I remember dressing up as a pirate with a stuffed parrot on my shoulder, as a gypsy, as an alien from Venus… what else?

One thing I have no memory of dressing up as is a witch. Which is strange, because I love witches. I wanted to be one. I decided this around age thirteen—I would be a ballerina, a witch, a novelist, and a single mother when I grew up. I took ballet classes, I read books, the boy I liked didn’t like me, and so what was left? Witch research. But big problem: becoming a witch involved having to be friends with other witches so you could form a coven. Um… Where was I to find a group of other girls who also all wanted to be witches in the middle of nowhere Upstate where barely anyone even wanted to come over to play the Ouija board with me? Also, being a witch involved a lot of recipes, and doing things by rules, and memorizing stuff, and… let’s just say I talked myself out of it and did not succeed in becoming a witch then, and I am not a witch now.

My witch fascination is probably due to my most favorite series of children’s books EVER. Who else devoured the picture books about Dorrie the Little Witch by Patricia Coombs? They’re out-of-print now, except maybe for one, and I do wish they would be republished. I can’t even express how much I loved these books. Dorrie was a little witch who lived with her mom, Big Witch. I don’t remember a dad—which seemed ideal to me. She had a black cat named Gink. Dorrie was clumsy and had the messiest room and she always wore two different colored socks, just like I did then and still do. In each book she got into trouble, but her mom always forgave her at the end. Dorrie was a witch I could relate to. She was my most favorite witch ever. So who’s yours?

Just a side note: My family is not allowed to make fun of me anymore for reading the “Blood Witch” book on the train! Seriously! Not funny.

Now I am all grown up. I am not a single mother—falling in love foiled my plans to be single, and my biological clock must’ve dropped out somewhere back around West 3rd Street because it sure isn’t ticking. I am not a ballerina—I got as far as going en pointe and then quit so I’d have more time to go out partying when I was seventeen. I am almost a novelist, or I’m trying to be. So I guess one of my dreams is on the way to coming true.

Happy Halloween. I’ll be dressing up as someone who is not dressing up today. What will you be?

Tell Me

Think of me as if I’ve just gone blind, pushing my way into a room with my arms held out. I’m feeling for obstructions, seeking pathways, needing to know when I’m good and when I’m in danger. The end table is there, so you tell me to turn left. A potted plant is coming up on my other side, so you tell me to go right. Closer, closer, closer you coax me and—there—I’ve found the couch and can sit down safely at last.

The room is my novel. I have no way of knowing where the floor gives out, if I put a table where I shouldn’t, if I’m about to hit a big bunch in the rug. I am at that point where I don’t know what’s good let alone what’s bad. I can’t tell where the voice shifts, really, I have no idea.

Last night E told me about a scene in a chapter that he loved. It was my best writing in the book so far, he said.

So I peeked. I went back and read the scene and chapter in question to see if I could figure out what was especially working. I may have to meditate on that some more, compare it to other scenes to get a real sense of the difference. All I can tell you is that, as I read the good scene back, I remembered what it felt like to write it. I felt so “on.” I spent days on that scene, but the longer I worked on it, digging into it, pushing and pulling and prodding it into shape, the better I felt about it.

I was excited. And you can see that excitement in the writing, obviously. My words showed it without me having to say.

This makes me think of a workshop I was in this summer. Our workshop leader was saying that you can read a story and find the places where the writing becomes alive—where the writer is excited—and the places where it’s forced. Keep what’s alive, cut what’s forced. What do you have left when you keep only what’s alive? She said it much better than I just did. I hope one of my workshop participants is reading this post because I cannot remember how she explained it and I could use to hear it again.

Anyway, it helps me to know what works and what doesn’t—knowing what’s good is just as helpful to me as knowing what’s bad. I’m not fishing for compliments… I just really need a hand sometimes.

Does anyone else feel blind when they read back their first-draft pages?

The Last Word, Except Not

I just, not five minutes ago, typed the last word of my novel.

The last word on the last page—though it’s a first draft, so the last word will surely change once I get my hands on it and start editing.

I also have to add a missing chapter to the middle. I hope it’s just one chapter, it could be two. I’ll figure that out tomorrow.

But even though I’m not done-done, I’m almost done! Nearing done. Seeing a glimpse of done and getting jazzed about it.

I did something I’ve never been able to attempt before in order to make it through this manuscript and keep up my excitement: I skipped ahead. I’ve been known to get caught on the middle of my stories, and this time, seeing myself get stuck, I decided to skip the plot points that were confusing me. I’d write the last act and then see what needs to happen in the missing sections to merit the end. I’ve written final pages before to get a feeling for the last scene, but I’ve never skipped ahead this significantly without knowing what would happen. I always had to write in order, I forced myself to do it that way. But I broke my own rule this month and guess how it feels? Exhilarating.

Middle: I think I know just what you need now. I’m coming back for you. Get ready.

I Wish…

I wish I could do NaNoWriMo again this year. Fact is, my deadline for this first draft is November 15, and I will need every moment up until probably 11:59 of that day to have this ready to be seen by other human beings who are not my poor husband made to read my early drafts because he loves me and knows to be gentle. I don’t even have time to gather feedback from readers as I’d planned… I’m really up against this deadline. So, what that means is of course writing a whole new novel starting November 1 is impossible. And I am sad!

Last year was the first year I took part in NaNoWriMo. Here’s how it ended: 40,607 words, 143 pages. Lotsa words, yes, but I didn’t get a full 50,000, so I didn’t “win.” I also, if you want the truth, have left that draft of the novel in a ditch and haven’t gone back. From writing it, I learned what I want the novel to be about. Which means I will now have to start again from scratch. You might think that makes last November a complete and total waste, but I don’t see it that way. I feel more centered about the project, more excited. I lost some work I did on it when my hard-drive died, but even that hasn’t ruined the project for me. I won’t give up on it. In fact, I would have been writing it this past year if another novel didn’t come to the forefront in a way I couldn’t ignore.

So… who’s doing NaNoWriMo this year? I’m excited for you, and also majorly jealous. I’ll keep my jealousy at bay, though, and cheer you on. 30 days, 50,000 words, you can do it! Anyone, anyone?

(I have no idea why my page on the NaNo site says I am an “official participant” this year. Wishful thinking? Guilt trip? Because I may have logged in to turn off the automated messages for this year, but I did not sign up, I swear!)

Every Day

Write on Wednesday asks: Do you make time to write every day? Don’t you think everybody should?

I used to not write every day. My excuse was that I had a full-time job, and there was no point in writing only an hour before work, an hour was nothing. And when I got home from work I was burned out, and there was no point in writing while burned out, I said, because the writing would be awful and I’d just trash it anyway. I could write on weekends, I told myself. That would be enough.

Then I’d have stuff to do on weekends, friends to see. Next weekend, I’d tell myself. Soon.

And years passed. My manuscripts took forever to finish—if getting too discouraged to continue and stowing them in the closet counts as “finished.” I did not get a book published. My successes were successes, sure, but they felt like small successes because they didn’t fulfill the so-called Dream. Not to worry, I told myself. I have time. Soon, I’ll quit my full-time job and have time to write. Just wait, I told myself, it’ll be awesome!

Then this argument began to falter. I need a job. The time I have is the time I have and wouldn’t change anytime soon. I found a sense of urgency. I think it came—and stings, to this day—seeing all the successes of my MFA classmates. They are the ones in magazines, on bookshelves, at readings, having reached the Dream. And somehow I got left behind. I’m not trying to be jealous—I’m excited for many of them, especially ones I read in workshop and believed in. But I wonder how I’ve messed up, why I can’t make it happen, why I got close but couldn’t cross the line.

The answer for me had to be writing. Writing more. Writing every day.

So here I am today. Writing is urgent for me now, it’s something I can’t live without. It’s not just that I have a deadline—know, though, that I sought out this deadline, I pitched for a book knowing I’d have a short time to write it. It’s not about deadlines, real or imagined. It’s about the Dream, that fantasy, that impossibility, and being unable to let it go. I blame myself for every failure: I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t write the right thing. I didn’t write enough. I didn’t write every day. And, yet, as I pursue this fantasy, my writing has moved beyond that line in the sand I am desperate to cross. My writing doesn’t care about the line. I write because I love it. A day in which I write is a good day. Writing, simply put, just makes me happy.

Now I try to write every single day. I’ve told you here how I get up early in the mornings before my day job and write—I usually get in a good two hours. I do it first thing so it can’t be taken from me later. It literally and figuratively comes first. The best part of my mind goes to the writing and everything else that comes after can get what’s left. And I write on Saturdays and Sundays too. I am afraid to give myself a free day. In truth, I don’t want a free day. I want to write—or try to write. If only it came out just when I sit myself down with this laptop. So, really, I should say, I try to write every day. I have to try.

And I’ll admit: there are days I don’t write. Sometimes I don’t feel good. Sometimes I sleep late. And those days only make me want to write all the more, because I feel terrible guilt. I feel like I may have missed something, which is probably very true.

Now the other question… don’t I think everybody should write every day? If you’re serious about being a writer, I do think a commitment helps. Some people are just lucky: They write one story over a weekend and it all falls into place from there. Good for them. I’m not as lucky—so much of what I’ve gotten came from hard work, so I expect if I want more I should work harder. That’s what I’m doing. I’m writing this book, and I am happy to have the opportunity, but what I really want has not yet been granted. I may never get it, and I realize this. But I don’t want to look back and blame myself for slacking anymore.

I am going to continue trying to write every day—even after I meet this deadline, even when no one is watching. Will you?

Isn’t She* Pretty?

I have printed. Well, I’ve printed what I have so far. I am not yet done with the first draft—must finish the scene in chapter 19, one more short end-note of a chapter to go at the end, one or two more chapters to insert into the gaping hole I left in the middle… not to mention the frenzy of line-editing that will take place before I send this in. But, for now, I have 179 pages. They exist in the world in physical form for the first time ever, and there’s no denying it. Look! Here they are sitting on the table:

I should have dressed them up for you. Or dressed them up for me. I guess it’s like when people dress up their dogs in those little sweaters and take them on a walk in the park. I almost want to carry my pages outside and parade them around Washington Square. “What’s that?” someone might ask, a dog-walker or a hippie guitarist or a drug dealer or an NYU student, and I’ll say with pride, “It’s my novel.” And they’ll nod and say, “Cute hat.”


* Yes, my novel is female. Obviously.

What I Did on My Staycation

I have today and tomorrow off from work. These are the last of my vacation days for 2008 and were meant to be used for an anniversary trip. I had an island in mind, dipping my toes in the Caribbean or the Pacific, frozen strawberry drinks galore, walking on the beach, long perfect days spent only with E, I could go on, but this did not happen for three reasons: scared off by a very aggressive hurricane season, a sudden reluctance to get on a plane, and—most significantly—no money. I was also too sick a few weeks ago to plan on going anywhere and we weren’t sure if I’d be better in time. The island will have to wait. Even so, I kept my days off. This means I will not have extra days around Thanksgiving or Christmas, and I just heard that a friend will be in town around Christmas, so I apologize for that. Anyway, I have these days, and here I am on the island of Manhattan, though it’s far too chilly to dip my toes in the water of the Hudson—and besides I wouldn’t want to, that’s just gross.

Just guess how I will be spending these glorious two days of my staycation. That’s right! Working harder than ever. Working till I drop. Maybe even skipping lunch like I did yesterday. I really have to finish this novel. I got up early and am here at what is usually my weekend writing spot, hunkered down at a good desk in expectation of a long day. I have a top-secret goal I will not tell anyone about, but if I reach that goal by tomorrow, that point in my manuscript, that line in the sand, I will be very, very happy and you-know-who will be allowed to have chocolate. If not, I will be very, very disappointed and will go to bed with nothing. (I am banking on the power of a good guilt trip.)

I write far slower than I would like to. A faster writer—I know a few—would have finished this first draft already. But I am the kind of writer who can take a whole day to write one page and then read it back and scrap it tomorrow. Therefore, it’s probably a good thing we could not afford an island vacation. I actually really need these two days.

I have taken the desk I usually try to snag on weekends. It’s not near a window. It’s against a wall and sort of dim if you don’t keep a lamp on. I like it that way. I am realizing, as I type this, warming up my fingers for the long hours ahead, that this desk may well be someone else’s favorite desk too. It’s Monday morning and by now I’d be on the subway headed to work and this desk would be empty. A woman came around the corner, books and laptop in her arms and stared at me for a long beat. Then, seeming put-off, she chose the desk just behind me. Sorry! I guess I got here first. I feel bad, though not too bad because there are a sea of empty desks around the room. Seeing someone else covet my seat gives me a great sense of responsibility. I must get out some good pages while I sit here.

I want to share with you my beautiful view, but I forgot my camera. So close your eyes and picture it:

Laptop open and shining bright. My page is magnified to 140%. Times New Roman, single-spaced, to trick myself into not caring about page count. In the middle of a scene, start of a new paragraph, waiting for the words to come. Now all I need is a strawberry daiquiri and life will be grand.