…Well, maybe not for all of me, but you can bid for some time with my brain—I’ll critique up to 100 pages of your YA or middle-grade novel. And you’ll also get copies of my books—I’ll send you signed copies of Imaginary Girls, Fade Out, and 17 & Gone (once I have copies of 17 & Gone this winter, so that one will be sent separately).
And this is a part of the KidLit Cares talent auction series, organized by the amazing Kate Messner and Joanne Levy. All money raised will be donated to the Red Cross* relief effort to help communities recover from Superstorm Sandy. It’s an honor to be a part of this and to be able to help.
This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is Elana K. Arnold revealing hers on the eve of her debut YA release, Sacred…
Guest post by Elana K. Arnold
It was the summer of 2009. My little family and I were staying at a KOA camp just outside of Astoria, Oregon. I watched my kids play in the pool—an indoor pool, because of Oregon weather. The whole room was wet with steam, and kids’ screams reverberated off the walls.
There were lots of families, but one mother caught my eye. Her children were a little younger than mine, also a big brother with a younger sister. I liked the way she spoke to her kids, the way she looked into their eyes, the way she smiled.
Making friends as an adult woman involves a wooing process. You make eye contact, you smile, you try not to get too much into her personal space, you compliment her children the way a young suitor might compliment a lady’s hair, or her dress.
I saw this woman and I wanted to be her friend. I had friends back home, but the thing was, I didn’t plan to go home.
* * *
Back up four months. I stood in my kitchen, stirring something in a pot, waiting for my husband to get home and listening to my kids screech on the trampoline in the back yard. It was a beautiful yard. Even though it was in Santa Ana, California, we had chickens in it. For a while there had been a pig named Igor.
Everything I had was poured into that home, that yard, and those two children. Their childhood was magical. I had made it so, along with my husband’s pretty significant salary and a job that may have been slowly draining his vitality.
It might not have been that very evening, but it was an evening like that one when Keith came home, sort of a wild look in his eyes.
“How was your day, Honeyman?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “I got laid off.”
He could have gotten another job. We could have kept the beautiful house. The yard. The chickens.
* * *
Back up another month or two. There was my husband, alone in the garage, smoking another cigar. At first it had just been once in a while; now he was up to two a day, maybe more. I hated the way he smelled. He worked long days. It seemed to me that he spent his evenings hiding from us—from me—in the garage, in the smoky cloud of his cigars.
He was not a happy man.
“I don’t care what it takes,” I told him. “Buy a boat. Have an affair. Do anything. Just get happy.”
So when Keith announced that he had been laid off, we did the math. It was simple math. We could pay our mortgage for two months. I remembered what I had said—Get happy.
I had meant what I said. And I continued to mean it—with most of my heart—as I watched my husband come back to life in the three months that followed, as we finally finished the kitchen remodel and put the house on the market, as we sold it for a price that would allow us to pay the bank what we owed but would eat up all the money we’d put into it, as we sold or gave away nearly everything we owned, as Keith built a bonfire in the backyard, whistling, happy, and burned our scrap wood and broken chairs and sandbox frame.
And then we were away, away, and my children and I were by turns ecstatic and scared and free and lost. Keith was pretty steadily ecstatic.
I think that when I saw the woman at the pool, I heard in the way she spoke to her children an echo of how I hoped I spoke with mine, even as I’d uprooted and displaced them.
I introduced myself. “I’m Elana.”
“Cheryl,” she answered. We shook hands, maybe. I don’t really remember.
She asked me what I did. I answered, without hesitation, “I’m a writer. I write Young Adult novels.”
Now, the truth was, I had never written a Young Adult novel. I’d never written a novel, not really. But the words came out, and they didn’t sound like a lie.
“I’m a writer, too,” she said. It turned out, she’d sold a novel, published essays, was working on a memoir. She was, I thought, a real writer. Her name was Cheryl Strayed.
What had brought me to that moment, that introduction of myself as a writer?
I had written for most of my life, off and on, though all I’d published was a couple of short stories in obscure little journals. I’d studied writing in school, I’d survived graduate workshops. But I’d never introduced myself as a writer. It would have felt presumptuous.
I always intended to one day write a book, but in the years since conceiving my firstborn, it was like I had amnesia. All my creative energy was poured into gestating, into nursing, into nesting. I didn’t seem to have time for writing, or a need to.
But now that the house was gone—and with it the pots and pans in every size, the never ending cycle of washdryfoldputaway, the rearranging of toys, the painting of walls, the machinations of housekeeping—now that I lived with my children and my husband and my dog and a ferret in an ugly brown RV… maybe it felt like I didn’t have the right to claim motherhood and housewifery as my job, anymore.
I didn’t leave the KOA and magically write a novel. We parked the RV not too much later in Corvallis, Oregon, and I got a job teaching at the university—first ESL, and later composition. We rented a house on Roseberry Lane. Keith got to be a stay at home dad. I slogged through stacks of papers.
I got sick. We moved home to California, living first with family and later in a rented house that may or may not have been possessed. I got better. Keith got another job, and I was home with my kids again. I set up house. We were back where we’d started, in a way.
But it was out there—those words. I’m a writer. And though motherhood was still beautiful, though it still filled me up in a way nothing else could, I wanted to make the words true. So I wrote.
Maybe it was because the bad thing had already happened—we’d already lost the safety net of a good job with health benefits, the furniture and the pictures on the walls. Even the walls. Maybe it was because I’d met a woman who was both a mama and a writer, who was beautiful and strong and seemed so sure of who she was. Maybe it was just time.
I don’t know exactly the ratio of what caused it to happen, what brought me to say those words. But that day in Oregon, with the clouded-over sky and a whole world of possibilities to choose from, when I opened my mouth to define myself, I named myself a writer.
Elana K. Arnold completed her M.A. in Creative Writing/Fiction at the University of California, Davis. She grew up in Southern California, where she was lucky enough to have her own horse—a gorgeous mare named Rainbow—and a family who let her read as many books as she wanted. She lives in Long Beach, California, with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of animals. She is represented by Rubin Pfeffer of the East/West Literary Agency. Sacred is her debut novel.
Just two nights ago I was reading by flashlight in our cold apartment, a boiled bottle of water under the wool blanket with me, caught in lower Manhattan with promises that our power would be back on “soon.” I’d felt hope in the morning when we heard on the battery-operated radio that most of Manhattan would have its power back by “end of day.” We took that literally and said to each other—“day!”—meaning we’d have power back before dark. We heard on the radio that the East Village got its power back. We heard that SoHo got its power back. We heard that Chelsea got its power back. Those are the neighborhoods above and below and to the east of us. We were surrounded by lights, but ours were still dark. It was ten at night. It was eleven. I began losing hope and thinking it wouldn’t be coming for us. I shivered under the covers and E boiled more water to keep me warm. We heard shouts in our dark building’s pitch-dark corridor and thought at first it was ConEd come to check that our building wouldn’t catch fire so they could turn the lights on—something we’d heard on the radio about why there were delays. It was only cops yelling, for some unknown reason, at someone in an apartment on the floor above. No one was arrested. Then quiet. And darkness, still. I went to bed before midnight, in defeat, the power not yet on.
The power came back at 4:25 a.m. Saturday. I know because I woke up immediately, as soon as the overhead light came on and leaped out of bed in utter relief.
We had no power in lower Manhattan for five nights. That’s all. That’s it. It’s a small thing to complain about, knowing what everyone else was dealing with… and still are.
Because on Saturday I emerged. And started reading and watching the news. I put pictures to the things we’d heard only on the radio, things we hadn’t before seen. And it was so much worse than I realized.
While we had no power, we also had no cell phone service in our apartment. For the first couple of days, we had to go outside and walk some blocks uptown holding out our cell phones for a roaming signal so we could text family and check on them upstate and in Philadelphia and let them know we were okay. (My mom also had no power for days.) But on that last night of the blackout, we discovered that if we restarted our phones, we had service for about 30 seconds before it stopped. In those seconds we’d send tweets or texts or download emails. Sometimes I’d catch glimpses of Twitter and realize how everyone else’s lives were going on just as before, mostly outside the Northeast, like this wasn’t even happening. It was a weird feeling. Then when I emerged and saw what was happening to others in other parts of the city and Long Island and New Jersey and Westchester and elsewhere, I felt bad for even being so upset and frustrated during the days we had no power.
Because we were lucky. So lucky. We had a gas stove we could light with a match and cold running water—a surprise, since the last time we lost power, the water to the building stopped. Every time I turned on the tap and freezing-cold water came out, I expected it to drip to a stop like last time and when it didn’t I was so grateful. We could flush the toilet. We could drink. We could take sponge baths. And we could warm ourselves by boiling water. We had Korean hot stone bowls full of boiled water on the floor by our feet. E washed my hair for me in the tub by pouring hot water over my head while I ran the cold.
When we ventured out in the streets, most stores were closed. On the first couple days, even bodegas were closed (unheard of!). But there were a few local restaurants that were open and cooking for the neighborhood by candlelight and I am so appreciative for the delicious warm meals. Thank you SH Dumpling & Noodle Bar and Ben’s Pizzeria for coming out here the day after the storm and staying and opening every single day until we had power back. La Lanterna was open and even had a cell-phone charging station set up for free outside for anyone who needed it.
We got power back Saturday. Like I said, we were lucky.
One little hiccup is that my trip to the artists’ colony got delayed. I was supposed to arrive with all the other artists last week. I could have walked uptown out of the dark zone and made it to a bus, apparently. (We didn’t know much of anything in terms of travel or resources with our phones not working.) But even if someone had handed me a map, I wouldn’t leave E alone in this. There was absolutely no way I would leave him in the dark, in the cold, by himself, and gallivant off to a writing retreat he wasn’t allowed to accompany me on.
I feel weird leaving New York City now, at a time like this, even if I do have my lights back on. I should stay. But my residency couldn’t be rescheduled to next year (I did ask), and if I didn’t go, I’d lose it. So I’ll be on an abbreviated retreat a few hours north even if my mind is on other things. I’m leaving tomorrow and I’ve been scrambling trying to deal with everything I couldn’t get to when we had no power. I shouldn’t even be writing this blog post. But I wanted to tell you how strange I feel.
Thinking of all of you. Hoping everyone without power gets it back soon.
Thank you to everyone who came by and read the What Scares You? series this week, during and after Hurricane Sandy. This may be a bit of a wizard-behind-the-curtain moment, but you may have noticed that the posts and tweets continued through Halloween as if nothing else was going on. That’s because I pre-scheduled the whole series to run without me, which I do normally… This time, though, while the series was going on, I was in lower Manhattan, where we lost power Monday, the night of the hurricane, and just got it back early this morning. I’ll keep my experience of Sandy to another post.
Apologies for the delay in announcing blog giveaway winners and in approving blog comments. I’ll announce giveaway winners as soon as I can.
Thank you again for reading—and thank you to all the authors who took part in the series!