Fumbling in the Dark

Every morning—on mornings I am a good writer and not a bad writer—I wake up while it’s still dark and while my other half is still sleeping. I climb out of the loft bed to turn off the alarm—every morning expecting to fall off the ladder, and every morning somehow just inches short of falling off the ladder. After I shower I sneak back into the bedroom for clothes. Imagine a dark box lined with soft loose objects, some hanging, some on the floor, some on chairs. Imagine moving through that box naked, trying to find something. The barest peek of light comes through the window so all you can see are the faintest hint of colors. And, of course, most of the clothes you and your husband own are black. This is your clean laundry, this blind mass of fabrics. Now imagine trying to search through the dark, in the piles of dark things, through the hanging eaves of dark things, seeking some wearable object that will not get you laughed out of work. I am lucky if I find my own pants. It is a near miracle to find two of the same socks.

Every morning I fumble through the dark looking for something to wear. I don’t turn the lights on because E is sleeping. And I can never find a working flashlight when I need it. This is my life. You would think I’d have learned by now. You know, to, I don’t know, sort the clean laundry so all pants and socks are in one particular place I can find in the dark. Or, huh, pick out an outfit the night before? Buy batteries for the flashlight? But no. Every morning I go through this. Every morning I say it’ll be different tomorrow and every new morning it is the same as it was yesterday.

That’s how I feel about this novel right now. Fumbling in the dark looking for that bright, solid idea that’ll help me make it to the end. But I’m getting somewhere. I think. I see a hint of colors. I’ve found one sock. I can’t wait till I can see where I’m going with this. What a day that will be.

Home?

I was talking to a coworker the other day and the town of Woodstock, NY, came up and I said, “You know that’s where I’m from, right?” But that’s a funny thing for me to say. Because, really, Woodstock is just the last place I lived with my family before I went off to college and my real life started. I went to high school there, but it’s not my hometown in the way other people have hometowns. My family has since moved away. There’s nothing there to go back to. So when E and I talk about what we’d do if my company had layoffs and if I lost my job—the only thing making it possible for us to stay in New York City, and also the only thing making it necessary for us to stay in New York City—we discuss where we’d go. Because we couldn’t stay here, though it breaks my heart to realize that. I love this city, but I have no family here either, no one to help us out. It would never occur to me to move “back” to Woodstock. I never felt truly at home there, though it was better than any of the other places where I lived. So the question is: Where would we go? Where is “back home”? And what do you do when you don’t have one?

I’ve never felt more at home than I do now, living in downtown Manhattan, a place where I know I don’t belong—I’m well aware—and yet I’ve been an impostor just enough to pull it off all these years. But I don’t think a place becomes “home” just because you walk the same streets every day, take the same shortcuts, stop at the same cafés, ride the same train. You have to belong there. And in my neighborhood, I walk around and think only rich people really belong here. Maybe the town where I went to college is more of a home—it would be maybe, if the college was open. Then again it’s in Ohio. How can Ohio be my home?

I guess I’ve never had an actual hometown—not the town where I was born, not the town where I lived as a toddler, as a young kid, not the one where we lived when I was in elementary school, not the one where I went to junior high, not the dark spot of a town where I spent the ninth grade, and not the last of the towns, not even that one. We moved enough as a kid that I never felt connected to any one place or house or town or group of people.

I guess the state of New York is my home, since it’s had me longer than any other. But will I cross the bridge to Queens and find my home there? Is it uptown, where I went to grad school? Is it upstate, the place I write about more than any other? Is it Woodstock after all?

I wish I knew. The economy is so bad right now that this is the time you want to fling yourself back there, to “home,” your fail-safe, the one place you can go when everything else crumbles. I heard two girls talking on the subway. They said if it gets really bad, if it’s impossible to keep up with the rent and the bills, they’ll just move back home to Chicago. And I sat there listening, because they were talking inches from me, and I thought, Chicago, will you take me? I wonder…

15 Minutes in the Spotlight

Yesterday evening I stood on a raised platform before rows of seats and read words I’d written out loud to few friends and mostly strangers. The light was on me, on the square where I stood, but not on the people in the audience, so when I looked out I saw only the faint outlines of their heads, the sense of them out there in front of me, waiting for me to say something. So I read. I read though my throat was dry. Read though I couldn’t see my E, and so our hand-signal arrangements would not help me now. Read without microphone. Read while standing instead of sitting on the stool for fear (realistic), that I might fall. Read though my left leg was inexplicably shaking. Read for 15 whole minutes—I know because I’d timed it beforehand. Read.

Then done, then actual applause.

Sounds terrifying—it actually wasn’t. I think I was more anxious beforehand wondering if anyone I knew would show up. My friends didn’t—busy or bad timing or sick. My family didn’t—too far away. But two VIPs did come, two people I most wanted to come: my DANI editor and her husband. Can you believe they came! I was so touched.

Not so terrifying when you’re up there. Not bad once you open your mouth and the words start pouring out. The words in question were from a short story that was once a part of a novel. I’m turning it into a story so I have more things to send out on submission. (I’m also toying with the idea of a page-1 rewrite with a kernel of the idea, turning it into a YA novel.) I should have said, before I started reading the pages, that I was reading an excerpt. Not a whole story. But I don’t know what I said. I was just suddenly standing up there reading. I looked out for E in the darkness—pretended I could see him—and just read to him.

People came up to me after to say nice things. That’s what happens when you read: Strangers hear you. They hear you. They comment, and they ask questions, and they tell you to make a movie based on your story, and they ask if it was real. So you can’t throw it away, can you? Thanks to yesterday, I am not going to throw those pages away.

(Fact is, some many months ago, I almost did.)

There were three other readers too—all so talented, and such good readers, I hope I held my own. Thank you to the magical person who organized this reading and asked me to take part. I am so thrilled I did it.

This is the Day You See Your Cover

It’s a weekday morning. You wake up. You head to your desk job. Your subway train is stalled in the tunnel for five extra minutes, which causes you to run to the office to make it on time and you narrowly avoid skidding on the slippery sidewalk and you step on your own scarf in the elevator, but no one sees so it’s okay. You sit at your desk and do your work and send your emails and enter dates into the system and check twice to make sure you entered the correct dates into the system and fix typos and hold pages close up against your face to hopefully catch more typos. Pretend this is your usual life and nothing special. Your shoes don’t fit, one heel is splitting. Your pants are too tight. You have another paper cut and forgot again to get Band-Aids. Also, you are parched. You get a drink of water. You come back to your desk. You open your email to find—

YOUR BOOK COVER!

You blink. You take another look.

YOUR EDITOR HAS JUST SENT YOU YOUR BOOK COVER!

She says everyone at the covers meeting loved it.

IT’S YOUR COVER!

You are floored. You stare. You think:

THE BOOK I WROTE HAS A COVER!

And it’s beautiful and it’s moody and the title of your book is in dark purple letters and you adore dark purple and how did they know that? and you

LOVE IT

and yet you must contain yourself because you are at work and cannot go running down the serious halls squealing

I LOVE MY COVER

and you tell your editor how much you love it and you tell your husband how much you love it and you change your Facebook status to announce that you love it and you send vibes out into the universe to hope the artist knows how much you love it and then you pause, and just look at it and think, quietly, to yourself

I have a cover

And everything feels different, for a few minutes, like you’re a real writer or something, with a book coming out, like this is really, really real.

* * *

That’s what happened on Thursday. As soon as I get permission I’ll post it so you can see!

Oh, January

January has not been treating me so well. And not just me—the world. When I’m silent for an entire week you can be sure the reason is the usual: I’m feeling low. I’ve spent the past week sitting in my ditch. From here, I can see people passing in their cars, on foot, whizzing by on bikes. I can hear them talking. I can hear them pointing out my mistakes. You get dirty down in a ditch—breathing in the exhaust fumes, dodging the litter thrown at your head. And it’s lonely, and it’s pathetic, and you berate yourself because hopelessness is all the worse when there’s no real reason for it. Try to write a novel when you’re in a ditch. Just try. It’s hard to even hold a pencil.

So I’m getting up. As of this morning.

Think of the good: Next week we get a new president. Monday is a holiday and my office is closed. The plane landed, everyone survived. The cards say I’m heading in the right direction. E’s hair is growing slowly and is still at the perfect length, especially the bangs, and if I hide the scissors it can stay that way for days.

And last night I finished a beautiful book. I’d been lamenting on Twitter how we’re broke right now and I couldn’t buy this book I wanted, Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun, and—not days later—an amazing person sent it to me in the mail. Unprompted. Asking nothing in return. Just as a surprise. I couldn’t believe it, truly couldn’t. The book came at the right time. I started reading, savoring every paragraph. But I was barely surviving work that week, so I didn’t really dive in until last night. And finished it in one swallow. And closed it, and held it against my ribs, and just didn’t even know what to say after finishing it. To put to words how, why I loved this book. This book about a runaway girl in New York City. I just… loved this book.

Coincidentally, I’ve been looking back at a short story (stolen from what was once a novel) about a girl who wants to run away. I’ll be reading excerpts from it in front of people on January 25. I’m so thrilled I was asked to take part! (Thank you, you-know-who.) So if you are in New York City that evening, please come.

I’m rolling out of my ditch now and am trying to make it to the road. See you there?

Lessons in Pie-Making

I made a pie last night. Well, I tried. It was brown-sugar-cream pie, a simple enough recipe: you mix up sugar and whatever else in a pot, you pour it in a pre-made pie shell, you bake, you pull pie out of the oven without dropping it, you eat. Not so!

I trudged out into the falling snow to get the ingredients, but the pie ending up not fully setting, even after an entire night cooling in the fridge. And it also has a weird floury aftertaste, so I wonder if I accidentally used the 1/3 measuring scoop instead of the 1/4. I dunno.

Anyway, the pie was an utter failure. E loves pie, so he was very determined to enjoy it this morning. He tried. He found, if he eats the goop just around the crust, it sort of does seem like custard. I appreciate his dedication, but he could get sick and I think I should throw it out when he’s not looking.

My thoughts about making pie are this: It’s not as easy as it may seem. But you know what? Writing is far, far harder. I mean how many times have you spent all this time and careful energy crafting a piece of fiction only to discover that it’s actually flat, or jiggles funny, or tastes off, or explodes all over your oven? For me, countless times. Writing something good is the real hurdle. Making an edible pie? I will do it right, I can. I’m trying again next week.

Terrible Week of Fakeness, Wackness, Slacking, Dodging Umbrellas, Sleeping In

This was not a good week. My exhaustion followed me everywhere, forced me to sleep in, walked with me to work, made my eyes and limbs heavy, my brain a static-filled TV on mute. Tired physically. Tired mentally. Tired of the fake hellos and the shoulds and the shouldn’ts and the people who cannot be trusted so I don’t want to talk anymore. Tired of being imperfect. Tired of the bills. Tired of the noisy neighbors. Tired of the lines and the trudging up subway stairs with all the slow people ahead of me like we’ll never get out and will be stuck down in there forever. Tired of being poked in the head with umbrellas.

Just tired.

Guess why?

My guess is that it’s because I didn’t do much writing this week. Slept in three days and had to go straight to work instead of writing first. Slept most of the day Sunday, wasn’t feeling well. Slept, and somehow felt more tired. And in the midst of this I stopped work on my new novel. Slowly filled up with doubts like an ugly, lumpy balloon begging to be popped and no one, nothing would do it.

But the week is over.

THE WEEK IS OVER.

Trying to focus on the good: At work—finally caught up. Working on a beautiful novel that I get to return to on Monday. At home—e’s hair is at the perfect length, I love how his bangs fall into his eyes. At my writing spot—have a table in the back corner, a mocha in hand. Friends—saw one of my oldest friends this week, I love her. Writing—have a new novel if I can only find my way into it, can be a writer for two whole days so stop complaining. Reading—finished Cracked Up to Be (could not put it down, so good!), and I’m so excited for the talented writer! Random—I might bake something this weekend. I’d like to attempt a pie, but I also do not want to start a fire in the kitchen.

I feel a little less tired at the moment. A smidge. Then again, it might be the mocha. And is there anything wrong with that, a good mocha that can take the icky edge off the rest of life? No, there is not.