This has been my most public year, ever, in my life. It’s been wonderful… and it’s also been somewhat of an adjustment for a shy person like me.
So much of 2015 has been about teaching. I really made this goal a priority to have better balance in my life—the ultimate goal was to get a lot of experience so I could get a job at a low-residency MFA program, and I had a specific school in mind—and I’m astounded at how much I did this past year, and how, even before the year was over, I made my goal come true.
I’m going to talk about some of the not-so-good stuff, but first, let’s focus on the good…
Last week I was in Texas, at the Writing Barn, Bethany Hegedus’s wonderful retreat center in the heart of Austin, leading what was billed as A Week in Residency with, well, me. This was a weeklong workshop-retreat for YA and middle-grade novelists, and ten wonderful, enthusiastic writers signed up to spend the week with me. We workshopped, we did writing prompts, we talked, we got inspired, we had guest authors visit, we did readings, we had a real whirlwind… I was so thrilled by how well it all went, and I miss the writers now that it’s over. My TA Jess Capelle (one of my former Djerassi workshop writers!) helped me through the whole week and was rewarded one night by a visit from a possible chupacabra making noise on the rooftop of her cabin! I left the week feeling really inspired, really content and excited, and I hope the writers who worked with me did, too.
Here are some photos from the truly fantastic week (I am sorry to tell you there is no photo of the chupacabra):
I may as well take this moment to tell you that if you’re reading this post thinking it might be nice to take a workshop like this with me, I’ll have to calm down with the outside teaching very soon, because I’m now on faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. BUT, I am still committed to teaching this last weeklong workshop in 2016, at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California, quickly approaching in March. Apply now, before the deadline of December 17!
And I should tell you that Bethany has some wonderful programming upcoming at the Writing Barn in 2016, and keep an eye on the website!
Now a breath.
I do need a breath. It’s been a busy year of events, teaching, and coming to a great realization about the book I was writing, which meant shelving one thing and starting fresh on another.
I have one last thing before the year is out. In case you’ll be at this conference in Minneapolis, I’ll tell you:
This weekend I’ll be at NCTE/ALAN (I’ll be signing The Walls Around Us on Saturday, November 21 2-3pm at the Algonquin booth 525–527, and I’ll be on a panel at ALAN first thing Tuesday morning).
But after that I need to go quiet. The teaching and appearances have been important, but know what also is? The writing.
So what about the writing, you may ask? What about the writing…
I know I made the right decision about my next book. I know that in my heart and my gut. But what I don’t know is what’s ahead for me, for my writing career, and the weight of that has been pressing down lately, pressing down hard. Being online and seeing all the news of book deals flashing by makes me happy for the writers… and mad at myself for not being faster, more prolific, more career-minded, more smart. This ugly game of comparison is something that gets a lot of us down.
I’m worried my negativity is seeping out. Not to my students, no, not during my workshops—not when I’m talking one-on-one with another writer about her novel and wishing her all the great and lovely things. I mean when I’m alone with myself, in my writing corner, as I am today, when it’s just me and the page and my whole future is reliant on what I do there, what words come out, and how well they sound and how slow or fast they dribble onto the page.
Sometimes all those doubts and second-guesses and ugly thoughts get animated into a creature that follows you and wants to take you down: a chupacabra on your rooftop, and you’re huddled inside wishing it would go away.
I think what would help is some time off from social media (Twitter especially) and my bad online habits (Googling myself to see if there’s something I should know and seeing snippets of bad reviews of my novels by accident in the search results… Clicking away incessantly on distracting, unnecessary things… Comparing myself again and again to everyone else, when I have always and only been myself in all things and I need to remember that).
I may take off the month of December, apart from sharing the Djerassi deadline and book news, when/if I have things to share.
I may hide from the chupacabra for a while. I know so many of you understand.
I want to make real progress on this novel before 2016 gets here, so I can look at this year and see that I didn’t just make my teaching goal come true… I also moved forward as a writer. That’s what I am first and foremost. (Otherwise, why even bother teaching at all, right?)
For those of you feeling like you let this year slip away from you in some places… it’s not over yet. We still have time.
What if we wrote a ton of words that we felt good about to round out the end of 2015?
About five years ago, I was under deadline to complete the first draft of a contracted novel and stressing the hell out over how I would finish on time while working my full-time job as a senior production editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. I had somehow sold my novel on proposal and agreed to a deadline that had seemed very doable at the time (in my haze and shock and delight, when the book was sold). But this was a serious, demanding day job that required eagle eyes and a very sharp mind, and I am a perfectionist at my jobs, so I could not phone it in. By the end of each week, I was exhausted and had little interest or energy in looking at any more words, even and especially my own. At the rate I was going, I would finish my novel in three years, and it was due in about four months. And to top it all off, after years of slowly working my way up in the publishing industry, the company had to consolidate offices and the children’s department moved into the same building with the adult imprints, giving us far less space than we had before. For me, this meant I had just lost my window office for a cubicle, which somehow made the job feel even harder.
I was facing a terrifying decision: Should I quit this day job so I could finish the book on time? Was that stupid? Too much of a risk?
While I was contemplating this and holding it in quietly in my new cubicle, I got a letter in the mail. It was from a famous artists’ colony up north that I had applied to on a crazy what-if whim, never expecting to get in: Yaddo. They had accepted me, to my shock, and given me a month-long residency.
I remember thinking this was a symbolic form of communication from the universe. My day job would not allow me to take four weeks off to go away to write. If I went to Yaddo for those four weeks, I could not have this job.
Was the decision made for me?
Is this stupid? I asked myself again. Is this too much of a risk?
I knew what I wanted. And, deep down, I knew that I would not be able to keep myself from taking what I wanted. It was a now-or-never moment, and if you know me at all you know I took the leap.
Let’s be honest. It was stupid, and it was too much of a risk, but I did it anyway and gave my notice at HarperCollins a week later. By the next month I had become a full-time writer (who still did some copyediting freelance work on the side), without health insurance and without a net. I wrote my heart out for the novel that you may know as Imaginary Girls, and I did turn it in on time, and I did go to Yaddo, and health insurance did come later, as did other opportunities, wild and exciting, including other artists’ colonies and books to write and teaching opportunities, and I know, looking back, that I would have done it again.
My life has been a series of leaps like this: chasing dreams, chasing better situations, falling flat on my face, getting up again, thinking I would regret it more if I didn’t try. It’s been kind of romantic and, I’ll admit, very irresponsible. But I’ve had these five great years, and I’m grateful. No regrets? Well, mostly no regrets.
I remember going to my first Teen Author Drinks Night here in New York City and sitting at a picnic table in the outdoor patio of a bar, admitting to some authors that I had just quit my day job. This was my first time meeting all of them. Barely anyone knew me. I’d published one book before this that no one had read. I don’t drink, so I sipped a nonalcoholic glass of juice and ice I’d snuck at the bar, feeling like a child at the adults’ table. One author, a successful male YA author with many more books under his belt, said he didn’t quit his day job until he’d published three novels, and the undercurrent of the conversation was that I’d done the most idiotic thing in the world.
I asked myself: Did I just do something horribly stupid?
I had a growing sense that I did.
Then I remembered Yaddo. It made quitting seem a little less insane, and I know how insane that sounds.
As I write this post it is a little more than five years after I gave my notice at HarperCollins, and I am about to leave for another residency at Yaddo, just like I was then. I haven’t been back there since. Going back now, of all moments, feels strangely, frighteningly symbolic. I feel like a chapter of my life opened with that first Yaddo letter, and I am not sure if it’s now about to close and a new chapter is getting ready to start.
Yaddo is in Saratoga Springs, New York, a city I slipped into The Walls Around Us before I knew I would be going back. Did you know “Yaddo” is meant to be pronounced like the word shadow? One of the founders’ young children named the estate this nonsense word, before dying soon after, which makes it seem all the more like a dreamland to me.
That’s where I’m headed, as of early in the a.m. on Thursday, for the rest of December. I will be trying to stay offline as best I can. This will be easy, because there is no wifi in the rooms or studios. I will be trying to keep a quiet space in my brain. If I don’t answer emails, please wait for me to return to the real world in January.
This week I visited the Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, which is a retreat center for children’s and YA writers, to be a special guest speaker at a Whole Novel Workshop. My task was to do a lecture on something craft-related (my choice), something hopefully inspiring, and then the next day read from my upcoming book The Walls Around Us, and soak in some of the good writing energy while there.
Just calling it a “lecture” made me unsteady. Doing a reading from my book is easier—all the words are already down on the page; I put them there. I can read them, make eye contact every once in a while, and just have the book speak for me. Talking about something smart is a whole other animal. Lectures are so very serious. Lectures are done by experts. What am I an “expert” in, distracting myself on Twitter and revising paragraphs 101 times before I can move on to the next paragraph?
I spent days trying to figure out what I would say. My topic kept shifting. Then, in a bundle of nerves, I asked for advice from Libba Bray, who a few years ago I saw give a talk at the annual SCBWI winter conference in New York City that made me crack up laughing and ended with me in tears. I felt so connected to her after she did that keynote, though this was before I had ever met her in person, and it was because she made us laugh with her and at ourselves, she blew our minds with brilliant writing advice, and then she brought it in close to herself and touched our hearts. She’s an incredible speaker… wise and eloquent and hilarious. I knew I couldn’t steal her away in my suitcase to Pennsylvania and have her pretend to be me up at the podium, but still I asked if she had any advice about how I could go about giving this lecture.
She told me that the best lectures about writing aren’t the ones just about craft. They’re the ones that combine a craft talk with something more personal. This gives the audience something to connect to—and it’s true, I think I connected to her talk years ago because of this. When it’s just writing advice coming at me, no matter how brilliant, I know sometimes I fade out and lose focus. (Rewind many years to me lying down on my aching back in the rear of the auditorium during Robert McKee’s STORY workshop, which I was forced to attend by my day job, and which I am kind of thankful for now, but that’s another story. Story, hah. Anyway, the point is, it was a lot of lecturing, and my brain shut down.)
I went home after talking to Libba and starting writing what I would tell these Highlights writers, hoping I had something worthy to tell them. I thought of all the books I’ve written, and not just the ones I published, and the craft lessons I learned through each one, because each book for me is a different beast. Each one put me through a new struggle, and gave me a new life and writing lesson along the way. …Even, possibly especially, the ones I never published.
I really do believe you grow from this process of writing, even when the end note isn’t your book on the shelf of a bookstore or library but in a box under the bed, where two of my unpublished novels still live, along with over eight years’ worth of my life spent writing them. These are not failures. It’s just a part of the process.
I’ve learned through the mistakes and missteps and I’ve learned from the glitzy successes and the high, high moments in which I felt like I was soaring and would never come down, until I came down. I learned a lot about having patience and listening to myself as a writer and trusting myself. And none of this came easy. Is anything worth doing ever easy?
The lecture went so well, and so did the reading, and I was proud of myself for making it through. The writers asked me so many wonderful, thought-provoking questions, and I felt very honored to be there speaking to them. (Special thanks to Sarah Aronson for inviting me to speak at her Whole Novel Workshop, and to the rest of the faculty: Nancy Werlin, A.M. Jenkins, Nicole Valentine, and Rob Costello. And thank you to the Highlights staff for being so helpful and accommodating! I only regret I didn’t stay longer.)
With that, my short visit to the Highlights Foundation was over, and I was being driven back home, to Manhattan, over the George Washington Bridge. I was wondering what possible life & craft lesson I’m in the midst of right now, writing this new novel that’s got me stuck, that’s challenging me, because I do want every new book I write to be a challenge, and yet that’s not always such a glorious experience when you’re deep in it tearing out chunks of your own hair. It’s impossible to know how best to handle myself at this point—nothing ever makes sense to me except in retrospect.
All I know is that if I look back on this year, this time in my life and in my career, I may just see it as the year I pushed myself, publicly.
Lectures and talks. Readings and more readings. Taking on every teaching opportunity offered me—and pursuing many more, some of which involve people never ever answering my emails and some of which involve people actually giving me a shot and allowing me to rise to the challenge, which is what I’m striving for right now.
I know what kind of working author I want to be. It’s just a matter of finding a way to get myself there.
(Oh and finishing my book, of course. Back to it.)
If you are near Tempe, AZ, I will be at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe on Wednesday, September 17 at 7pm. Author Elizabeth Fama is joining me! Please come.
My next workshop and retreat at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program will be in June 2015. Applications aren’t due until February, but if you’re itching to apply now, the announcement is now up and we are accepting applications!
The ARCs of The Walls Around Us are now available—and look for a giveaway through my publisher next week to get a signed ARC of your own!
I am home now, from a stroke of good luck: a two-week “emergency residency” at the MacDowell Colony, a perfect artists’ colony in New Hampshire. I decided to do something different while there. Instead of my usual slow, plodding pace for writing a first draft of a novel, where I circle in on myself and revise as I go, thus stalling me for weeks on end, I told myself I’d write forward. Only forward. And I’d also try to give myself a daily word count. The word count started off as 2,000 words a day… but things were going so well that I upped it to 3,000.
Every morning in my live-in studio in the woods, I would get up at 6:50 a.m. and walk to Colony Hall for delicious breakfast—I was obsessed with breakfast—then back up my writing from the day before in the library and go back to work through the whole day until dinnertime, at 6:30. After dinner, I’d work, too, which meant I sacrificed so much of what being at a colony is all about (hanging out with other artists, seeing every single presentation, sharing my own work with everyone, which I didn’t do this time, and playing games like Ping-Pong and Scrabble and “PIG” on the pool table, which should be said I am terrible at, but I try very enthusiastically, hey, I try), but I was desperate for words, words, words. That’s why my emergency residency had been approved, after all: My deadline was November 1. And I was determined to write as much as I could.
Oh, wow did I.
Here is a peek at some of the scribbles in my notebook while I was away:
Final count of new words written, in just two weeks?
I kept track every day, so here’s a breakdown:
I’m not bragging. I’m just kind of stunned and want to document this. I’ve never written that fast before—and keep in mind, these are first draft words… there will be changes, there will be cuts, many cuts, there will be deep crimson flushes of embarrassment when I read over some of these words later. Even so. Even so! I’ve never written so much in so short a time. I probably never will again. I just want to remember these two short, productive weeks for always.
Another thing I did that I don’t usually do in my writing life at home is map out my book’s plot on the walls. It was only because I walked into my studio (usually a studio used for dancers and photographers) and discovered a GIANT space and white walls with push pins, empty and waiting to be made use of.
So I rearranged the furniture a few times, finally settling on having the desk toward the center of the big space, and did this…
That is a working map of my book’s plot on the wall.
I posted my word count on Instagram while I was away, and author Beth Revis asked about my process, if I’d done anything different to get all these words. It got me thinking.
Beth said, “I’d love to know more about your process here. What caused such a huge word count? Being in a new place? The ability to focus? A new method?”
And here’s what I answered her:
I think part of it is this place itself… I knew I’d be productive here, which is why I wrote them and requested the emergency time before my Nov. 1 deadline. But I never never expected to be THIS productive. I think it helped that I pushed myself to write forward and not tinker and revise as much as I usually do. I only let myself work on a few pages from the day before to get momentum, then pushed forward. I also gave myself a daily word count. And I also mapped out the book visually on the wall and spent a lot of time looking at it. But the biggest thing was probably this: there is no internet in the studios at the colony (one of the big reasons I wanted to come). No TV either. Just me and my book.
Also! I did a lot of reading (instead of TV watching). During this time of writing all these words, I was hungrily borrowing books from the fellows library, and I read 9 books! On #10 now!
But so much of it was the place. The colony whose motto is “freedom to create.”
I am forever grateful to the kind and generous people in admissions who approved my emergency residency and made room for me for two weeks in this heavenly place. I feel like I was hit by a miracle, and still can’t believe all the words I wrote.
Most. Productive. Residency. EVER. When I die, I’m giving my fortunes (ha) to the MacDowell Colony so I can help gift weeks like this to future writers.
But my deadline is fast approaching and I desperately needed a cave to escape to.
Then E—who was witnessing all of this—made a suggestion. I took a chance and asked for something.
And the answer came back a YES.
I’m about to leave on a last-minute two-week what they call “emergency” residency at the MacDowell Colony. I can’t even tell you how grateful I am for the time.
The first time I visited the MacDowell Colony, I had not yet published any books. I was so horrifically shy, I couldn’t even look Michael Chabon in the eyes because I admired his writing too much. (He was then a writer in residence; now he’s chairman of the board of directors.) I stayed in a composer’s studio with a chandelier. I wrote pages of a book that never ended up being published and my heart was about to be broken over it, but I didn’t know that yet.
Fast forward years.
The second time I visited the MacDowell Colony, it was winter, months before Imaginary Girls came out. I was about to publish the book of my heart, and I was terrified, and I had every right to be. I stayed in a little fairy-tale cabin with a green door. I came out of my shell a little, made a fool of myself attempting to play pool, and made some wonderful friends. I wrote pages of a book that was published earlier this year.
Now I’ll have the opportunity to be at MacDowell for a third time, at the exact perfect moment, and I can’t even believe it.
I love the place so much, and I am so amazed and touched that they came through for me and gave me this emergency residency, that I am fully expecting to be writing the MacDowell Colony into my will. Let’s hope I become more successful so I can afford to leave them more than a piece of IKEA furniture.
I leave at 4:45 in the morning on Monday for the bus. There is no internet in the studios, so I will be mostly offline while I’m away. I will go to the library to check email once a day most likely, but I may not be replying to emails unless they are urgent.
I am going to immerse myself in this book like you’ve never seen. Oh, many of you are writers. I am sure you have seen. So you know what’s awaiting me.
If you want to snail-mail me a good-luck, happy-writing letter or postcard while I am away, email me this weekend for the mailing address. I might send you a MacDowell Colony happy-writing-right-back-at-you postcard in thanks.
I will be back home in action in the corner of the local café on September 25. Until then.
Sometimes, when I’m writing and barred from Twitter and blogging and all manner of distracting things, I keep a journal in which I talk to myself. I did this while I was away for a short residency at the Hambidge Center in Georgia, and I wanted to share selected bits with you. Some of the more personal things—and all the specific thoughts about my novel-in-progress—have been removed. But there’s a lot about process and being at a colony.
Here are some selected bits from my journal…
Day 1: June 12, 2013
I am happy to say I was able to sleep last night without any tricks beyond keeping the bathroom light on and closing all the blinds so no night creatures (more about creatures later) could look in and watch me sleeping. Usually at colonies I have the most terrible time sleeping. But for some reason here in this place I could sleep. I also made sure to lock all the doors and lock the screen doors. I slept. I woke up to a headache, but I slept.
Headache from all the travel yesterday. And lots of talking to the other artists once I got here, and I’d taken a Dramamine and I just don’t think I’d recovered. After dinner I went back to my studio in the trees (Foxfire), and my ears were buzzing and I started reading a book: Tell the Wolves I’m Home.
There are six other artists here, but I can tell already that they are far more social than I want or can be while I’m here. This is a work retreat for me, really, and I have to focus. I can’t fuck this up. But it’s a short time and I’m sure people will understand.
The thing about being at a place like this is you can be as social as you want to be—or not be. You can spend all day sleeping. Really, the time is yours.
The time is mine. Mine!
This weekend I want to hide away and focus and get so much done that I’ll look back on this and know it saved me.
This is a boring update. I should tell you what the place is like. Foxfire is a little studio house hidden in the trees, but very close to the main house and the main office. The walk to dinner is maybe five minutes, seven tops down a dirt driveway and then a dirt road. The studios seem really close together, but I don’t see anyone from my windows. It feels private enough (though I can’t let myself think I’m alone; I still remember when I was at MacDowell the last time and two people, an artist and her guest, wandered in front of my window while I was writing, and it was a good thing I had clothes on). It’s nice to have a kitchen and food here, it’s nice to have a shower here, it’s nice to not have to go anywhere until dinner. That makes me feel like I will get some work done here. I mean how can I not? If I can’t here, then I don’t deserve to be anywhere.
I fell asleep.
And I had a weird dream that ended up with two girls outside my door trying to get in and then rescuing food and messages left for me from a tall pole, and a dying cat thrown into the road for mercy.
Hambidge has this in the welcome booklet:
“Know that the time is yours to use in any way that supports your creative journey. After all, creative ‘work,’ as we all know, is not always recognized in terms of Mr. Webster’s definition. Above all, be kind to yourself, honor the muse that guides you and believe in your talent.”
Day 2: June 13
I shouldn’t have taken that Benadryl so late last night. (I started having some weird panicked, nervous reaction before I left, and I think the heat here is making it worse, so I took a Benadryl, hoping the antihistamine would help… only I took it past midnight.) I kept waking up every two hours, sounds jolting me awake, like reflexes, like someone was in here or right outside and I had to defend myself. It was nobody and nothing. (Though I killed a great big enormous bug in the bathroom around 4am. I’ve noticed that the bugs here seem to be generally even larger than the ones I’m used to in the city… there was a moth that first morning that clung to the kitchen window and I swear was as big as a bird.)
Georgia blueberries aren’t as good as New Jersey blueberries, just so you know.
Goal today is massive work on the outline. I’d like to email a chunk to E.
I should shower soon.
It’s good to be here with a deadline. It really pushes you along. Otherwise, I can’t be trusted not to sleep in even later and spend my whole time just reading every book I brought on my e-reader.
I don’t know. I have to say this. I’m sitting here working on my novel’s outline, adding in a new character, thinking hard on the arc and playing with the reveals, and the fan is going and there is a nice breeze and I’m wearing these new red soft shoes and a striped tank top, and there’s a fresh crunchy green apple beside me, and speaking of green, I look out this wall of windows outside my studio and it’s all green: the trees are filled with color, and the wind makes the leaves move, and I can’t be dallying about on the internet, and I don’t have to get dressed for dinner for two hours, and I can hear the rush of the wind and it’s so nice I don’t even have music on, and this novel is coming alive under my fingers, each new hour put in helping me see more and more into it, all these scenes begging to be written in this sweet exciting little thrill of a way… and hey, this is nice, being here. This is great.
There are the weeks of stress that always happen before I head away to a colony—mostly traveling, which I am just not good at, especially when it involves a plane or a car, and this involved both. And the being away from E … But even so, even with the stresses of being apart and the anxiety that I had in getting here (which I still have a rash from, I think), even from that, I’m glad I’m here.
I know I will have to be antisocial with everyone over the next week, and I am sorry for that because it does take away some of the creative inspiring aspects of being at a colony with other artists. But this deadline awaits, and I kind of love that it awaits. It pumps through my blood. It makes me sit up straight and drink another cup of jasmine tea. It makes me love this novel even more than I did just yesterday.
I really don’t mind all this time to myself. I actually thrive on it. This just cements that the colonies where you live in a house with all the other artists and cook and clean together like on some warped socially awkward reality show are not the best ones for me. I like the solitude of this live-in studio. I know I am here for free thanks to the NEA grant, but I even think this is worth paying for: the $200 a week. I wonder if, in the future, I might come again and just go ahead and pay for it. This studio is kind of perfect for me, and the quiet is even more perfect for me… and I love being alone with myself. I am, more and more, loving alone time, especially alone time that keeps me disconnected from the rest of the world. It’s the internet, on the outside, that really murders me and makes me less of a person and a terrible writer. I wish I could find a way to have this more, in shorter bursts and with E a part of it—but I wish this could be a part of my real life, instead of a special present I can get once a year if I’m lucky.
It rains. Faint rolls of thunder in the distance. Birds calling. Rain pattering the leaves of the trees, so not all of it hits the back deck of my studio. That sound. The warm drops on my bare shoulders. I stepped outside for a bit.
Day 3: Friday, June 14, 2013
I didn’t reach my first goal. Which was to write to a certain point by last night and send it off to E. And I know it was because I wasn’t sure of my character O., like how I can’t get my finger on her somehow. Then, sometime in the night or in the haze of the morning, when I wasn’t sure where I was and had ignored my alarm and wasn’t out of bed yet, so kept drifting off with confused dreams putting me here and also there, in the city, until I remembered where I was again, which was here, I thought of her. O. And a click.
Something wonderful: There is a composer right now in the studio down the hill, the one I think I can see the door of through the trees, and I can hear the piano rising through the air to reach me through my windows. It’s a wonderful sound, distant but touching me all the way up here. (That was not meant to sound gross.)
Voices carry here. I can hear—though I can’t make out their words really—two artists talking in the road.
Today is June 14. When I saw the date this morning, I immediately knew what it signified. It’s my IMAGINARY GIRLS pub date. This was the day, in 2011, that the hardcover came out, and this was also the day, in 2012, when the paperback came out. Now, it’s no day and nothing comes out for 2013, but it will still be a special day for me. That book meant everything to me, still does. I wish more people had read it… but hey, I wrote it, and isn’t that all that matters?
Day 4, Saturday, June 15
Last night I couldn’t sleep. Or I couldn’t STAY asleep. I did send stuff off to E, but it wasn’t nerves. It was that annoying fear of sleeping in a strange place all alone.
E and I talked on the phone. Mostly we talked about how what I have so far is jam-packed full of stuff. Too much, maybe, and maybe too many stories I want to hit. Sometimes it feels like this is the last novel I’ll ever get to write and I want to shove every single last idea I ever had into it… like the world is about to end or something.
I need to focus, and make choices.
And I need to remember: This won’t be the last novel I get to write. I have a two-book contract! There’s a whole other novel after this and we haven’t even talked about what it might be! I don’t have to cram everything and the kitchen sink into this. I can save some things…
How to wake from an illicit nap:
Roll over and happen to look, woozily, out the window at the head of the bed. Find a strange brown Georgia beetleish-roachlike insect staring at you, its antennae pointed skyward, its bug eyes settled on you. Leap out of bed with the reflexes of a much younger you. Smash bug with nearest, hardest shoe.
I always go through these humps after I get feedback on something. I’m going to start calling it a hump. Because it slows you down, because sometimes you have to stop altogether and find a way to climb up and over in order to keep going. And also because sometimes you want to stand up there at the top and you’re afraid to leap back down and keep going, because fear is always there.
I guess I just need to think for a while. So much thinking goes into the writing of a novel, gah!
But, hey, listen: It’s Saturday night—and you don’t need to go anywhere. You even napped (woke up by beetle/roach) and so that means you might just be alert enough to work through the night until bedtime. And also: You finished your book, and maybe you shouldn’t start a new one just yet… Short stories only maybe. That way, reading can’t be such a distraction, because the last book (Where You Can Find Me by Sheri Joseph) was so phenomenally good.
Listen: You have tonight. And listen: You have all of tomorrow and Monday. You don’t have to call the office about the photograph on Monday… you can wait till Tuesday. And I think you can wait to do laundry on Wednesday, though it will be dire on Wednesday and you’ll really have to be sure to make it happen. But you can maybe not wear socks Sunday and Monday, if you’re staying home anyway, right? I think we have enough underwear; it’s more the socks. (Can’t use laundry machines on Mondays or Tuesdays.) If you start getting stressed out about this tomorrow night, you can do laundry, but only if the writing is going really well.
So listen. Stop writing ABOUT being here and write WHILE you are here.
Day 5, Sunday, June 16
Today is a day I get to spend all by myself. I don’t even know the last time I did this. I don’t have to dump out the garbage today if I don’t want to. I don’t have to do the laundry today. I don’t have to go anywhere at all. It’s funny how my natural instincts come out when I’m left alone in a place: I eat. I read. I isolate. I write some. I talk to myself in these journal entries. I don’t even want to sleep all day. I want to wake up and be alone with myself. And I love the idea that I don’t have to go to dinner at 5:55, or whenever to be there at 6, for two whole days. I don’t have to do anything at all except be here and be alone with myself, if that’s what I want.
I started reading Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon last night. I know I should be sticking to the short story collections because they are easier to pick up and put down, and so I won’t get distracted wanting to swallow a whole novel instead of working on my own today, but I kind of remember what happens because I saw the movie, so maybe the urgency of needing to finish to find out won’t overtake me this time. and also it’s all about writing, the protagonist and narrator is a writer… and the particular miseries and circular thoughts of being a writer working on a novel and feeling like the novel has gotten way ahead of you and beyond your capacities as a human and certainly your small talents as a writer. There’s a lot to recognize here. And some of it amuses me, makes me laugh.
I should shower. There were so many bugs—beetles, spiders, and daddy long legs—in the bathroom today. I squashed some, ran some down the drain, and saved some with a glass and a magazine to let loose on the back deck. But so many. I’m kind of on edge still, thinking of them all.
Is this what it’s like to live in the country? Bugs galore first thing you wake up in the morning? Do they gather around and fester in every night?
Bugs… I should add that to my novel. Write that down somewhere you’ll find it later.
Today is Father’s Day. I have no comment on that.
I am here. I have all night. I have at least four good hours, possibly five. I can do sprints of bits. I can write forward. I can plan. Then I can take chapter-reading and snack-eating breaks as motivation.
But it really is true that I am coming into my true self here. I don’t want to go outside. I don’t want to get bugs on me or have to get dressed or put on actual shoes. I want to eat whenever I’m hungry and whatever I want when I’m hungry and I don’t want to have to follow mandated mealtimes. I want to take breaks to read—and, boy, as if my true childhood self is rising through the mush and haze of adulthood, I sure do want to read A LOT. This is how I used to be as a kid, as a teenager, as a college student, and then… I guess I grew up and my true self got crushed. I have to go out all the time at home because we have nothing there: my morning stuff is out. The mocha (which I’ve just been enjoying green tea, and have to say, I’ve been fine) and the bagel (and we don’t have a toaster at home), but as I was telling E, I think my true natural state would be to stay in if I could. If I had a writing room at home, if we had a house and food enough to last a week, would I ever leave? He said he’d be afraid I’d become a recluse. I am thinking my actual natural state is that of the Writer Recluse. I wonder if I’ll become more myself as I age into my forties and turn into that.
Staying silent online has been pretty nice, too. It feels good to not insert myself into insignificant conversation. To not pay attention, and also to not be paid attention to. Probably no one is thinking of me. Probably no one notices I’m gone. In a way, that’s nice. In a way, really, I like disappearing. I’ve always loved the idea of disappearing, haven’t I? I always like to slip out of places unnoticed if I can—how many times in life have I done just that at crowded parties? And Twitter is like a crowded party in which most of the time no one wants to really talk to me anyway.
Oh blech, I sound like I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’m not. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling happy. I’m feeling like I’m having a good weekend here—except for having trouble sleeping and missing E, especially at night, and hoping he is okay up in New York right now.
SIX DAYS LEFT!
You have to be better at working. You have to be better at forcing yourself to work. You need to try tomorrow—and you need to carry that discipline home with you to New York, where the internet and the distractions and the home and the people and the copyediting projects await you. serious.
And you have to be a better writer. You have to be better. You are not good enough yet. You are not good enough yet. You need to be better.
You have to change who you are and how you act. There’s no time for all the self-doubt and small-making. I mean: fuck you. are you trying to sabotage me? I think you are sometimes.
Day 6, Monday, June 17
I am very, very aware of what little time I have left here.
Today, I woke up and it must have rained last night. I tried to get a big moth out of the studio, but it just wouldn’t go out the door I kept opening and pointing the broom to, I lost another moth, I relocated a spider out to the back porch, and I had to kill a little crippled moth that was living in the bathtub and wouldn’t leave.
I don’t have a book to read today. I keep looking longingly at the reading chair… but that’s not what I’m here for. I read a bunch of books. I have them in my mind now. But now, today, I need to finish what was I was supposed to finish, according to my schedule, I think on Friday! I’m really behind. I had a whole plan for what I’d accomplish here and I’m not following it.
But I have today. And I think maybe it helps with the panic if you think of one day at a time—one task for the day that you want to accomplish. One goal in mind—and have your eyes set on it all day. I know what my goal is for today. It’s doable.
Day …. 7! Already Day 7! Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Should I be surprised at how slow I am? I am always so surprised—and yet I am always so slow… and the funniest thing is how much I believe in myself in those initial moments of giving myself a crazy deadline.
I’d wanted to finish the whole thing this weekend—by Sunday night. (Even though I kept pushing it out.) But I gave myself till Sunday night when I was trying to be realistic.
Ha ha ha ha ha. And ha.
I panicked while falling asleep. I woke up, occasionally, in the night, to panic. And I got out of bed instead of letting myself drift with sleep because 1) had to pee and 2) couldn’t help but panic.
[No entry Day 8—must have written up a storm!]
DAY, WHAT IS IT DAY 9? 10? THURSDAY JUNE 20
Something clicked in my mind, suddenly, or I should say finally. Last night it was eating at me, last night I needed it to come and I felt like I was forcing it, like the army of moths that slam at bat at the window screens at night, trying to get in to where the light is, and they were going insane last night, as was my imagination, trying to form into an orderly line and get these ideas articulated onto a page in words in English. I mean, what the fuck, why is creating a novel so hard? Why is every stage so hard? Why do I try, each new time, with each new novel, to make this easier on myself and each time I seem to fail?
There is no way to make this easier. It is always going to be hard. Why can’t I learn this.
Anyway, here I am today, and the ideas are flowing and the words are moving and I will tell you the secret because hey, it’s an obvious one and I think it will be recognized by writers (and artists) the world over.
I MADE A POT OF COFFEE.
I mean, damn, I’ve been doing 2, 3 cups of green tea a day, but I ran out of my favorite jasmine tea and the green tea substitute I have tastes kind of muddy and I was beginning to suspect there was no caffeine in it at all because I felt so woozy this morning and then it hit me: I had an emergency bag of Starbucks coffee I could brew in that little coffeepot. And I also had hot chocolate packets I could sprinkle in.
FUCKING COFFEE WHY DIDN’T I MADE COFFEE BEFORE THIS?
Including today, I have just three days left before I leave here for Asheville.
Not to panic.
Back to it.
DAY 10 I think, FRIDAY JUNE 21
There is a married couple here now—they met at another artists’ colony, but have separate studios in which to do their own work. I am hyper-jealous because I wish E were here with me. This is what happens when you’ve been with someone and grown up with someone and changed and grew and came into yourself with someone over a span of almost twenty years. Also he reads every word I write and is very helpful, actually essential, no one even realizes how essential, and I guess not all writers can live in an isolation tank away from close feedback from people who know your work best and he’s my Someone and I’d like him to be in the tank with me. (Also, he’s home and not feeling well and I am worried about him.)
I took a slice of cake home from dinner last night and I’m so going to eat it today. It’s coconut. E hates coconut. I feel like I’m doing something illicit.
I have not allowed myself to read a book in days. Punishment.
E told me to go out and get some sun. I don’t want sun. I want words!
I am running out of food—well, food I want to eat—and I have no way of getting to the grocery store on my own.
But I leave Sunday at noon, so there’s nothing to worry about.
Basically, I have: some Rice Krispies. Some black beans. Some frozen corn. And peanut butter and bread I froze in the freezer. An old mushy apple. And a bunch of chocolate I hid from myself.
DAY 11, SATURDAY JUNE 22
TODAY IS MY LAST DAY.
I realized last night that sometimes, when I am falling asleep, I imagine the sound of sirens and it calms and soothes me and lets me drift off. The fan, when heard with my ears at a certain angle, can sound like faraway city sirens in the strangest way.
If this was meant to be a diary about being away at an artists colony, I’m afraid it’s turned into a diary of deadlines and panic and being a working writer trying desperately not to disappoint your new editor. A diary of a recluse. A diary of how utterly boring and painful it can be at times to write a novel.
I mean, it’s supposed to be romantic, yeah? Magic?
The lesson here could be that you don’t want to go to a colony stay when you have a deadline because you don’t want to spend your time panicking. Then again, the best way to make a deadline is to have all this time ahead of you and no distractions, and the colony stay, for me, came at the perfect time. Except it was too short. I could have used another week, I think—only, I’m missing E too much for a whole other week.
I don’t have any colony stays planned after this. This is it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get invited to one of these again. And I didn’t get to see a bear. I had a bell to ring on my keychain if I saw one on the path, too—apparently the noise will alert them that you are there? And then they’ll leave you alone? I don’t know, the little tinkly bell sounds very enticing…
Either way, no bears.
I’m feeling reluctant to go back into the real world where the internet lives. So I need to find a way to carry this experience with me. Well, everything except the bugs. If I carry a big spider back in my suitcase I will freak the fuck out, let me tell you. I am going to shake that thing out before I start packing. Wish me luck.
This colony stay was different than others I’ve had: More time with myself, which I loved more than I expected. No game-playing (I miss pool-table PIG, though I lost every game). And a constant sense of the ticking clock, which I think is mainly because I was only able to come for two weeks. But that’s the beauty of colonies: You make the experience into what you want. I did that. My only reget is not taking leftovers back to my studio of Rae’s mac and cheese.
Yeah, I’d come here again. Hey. How soon can I come here again?
The next deadline to apply for a residency at the Hambidge Center in Georgia is September 15. APPLY!