Saturday, November 20, 2010

Gathering Courage from Susie the Bear

I don't believe in writer's block.

Or, at least, I don't believe in it in terms or there being something in the way or that the muse has left me or that I simply have run out of things to say.

Or, that's not how it's appearing to me today.

Rather: I've lost my nerve.

I'm scared. Actually, physically, butterflies-in-the-stomach scared. It seems, in this moment, impossible. Writing anything. Writing my name. Writing that I am too scared to write my name.


Once, when I was in middle school, my bff at the moment caught me standing at the cafeteria trash can, tray of lunch remains in hand, getting ready to dump it out, but not. Not dumping. Just standing there, mouth slightly ajar, tray extended in front of me. I was thinking something, and who knows what it was. I only know my bf at the time--current FB friend--was laughing at me. She nudged the person she was sitting with and they both laughed.

Susan, what are you doing? I mean, you're just standing there?

Another topic for another blog, maybe, but what occurs to me now is that it's quite possible that every failing moment of my life is actually a select reincarnation from the sixth grade.

Horrifying, isn't it? To think we're living sixth grade moments over and over, to different degrees of humiliation, joy, and absurdity?


What works, at least for me, at least a little bit, now, is to read. It's the same thing that brought me to this writing life in the first place. So, this week, I've returned to an old favorite, my friend John Irving. I'm reading an old classic of his, The Hotel New Hampshire, (such unabashed weirdness!) and I find that Susie the Bear and the prostitutes upstairs give me courage.

No way would I, the girl standing gape-mouthed at the trash can, allow Susie the Bear onto my pages. But I have to. I have to go there and write up a girl in a bear suit or a boy whose ear has been bitten off by a dog or an endearing little midget with a screeching-screaming ordinary talking voice.


I have to write up to the courage.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Claremont, California

Some years ago, my family and I lived in a ranch-style stucco with a clay-tiled roof on San Benito Court. This was in southern California. In our front yard, we had a smallish tree with papery bark and in the back, a line of struggling lime trees. Beyond that, there was a playground with an Old West theme and beyond that, the scrubby foothills, legended to be full of rattlesnakes and coyotes. I often rollerskated between two streetlights on the sidewalk in front of our house in the early evening and could hear the coyotes, far enough away that I don't remember ever being afraid.

Further up the street was the house of my friend Elizabeth Stickers, whose brother was old enough to drive, and with whom I once got into trouble for putting up a lemonade stand when her parents weren't home. Out back, on the other side of the Old West playground and sort of adjacent to the foothills (my memory of exact locations is lacking) lived my best friends, sisters Angelica and Monica Guerrerro. It was with them that I got into trouble for another entreupenerial adventure: Together, we set up a sort of mini arts market, selling hand-woven eyes of god, hand-sewn purses (very crudely made) and stapled-together hand-written stories (I was into knock-offs of Gullivers Travels, the book, and The Incredible Shrinking Woman, the movie) out of the pretend jailhouse. I don't remember making a single sale.

I was in the third grade. Knickers and knee-socks were briefly popular. It was still early enough in the eighties that feathered hair was everywhere, though whenever my mother tried to feather mine, using a curling iron, a comb, and a ton of hairspray, it invariably fell out, and I was left with tangled dirty-blonde, shoulder-length hair. A mess. I wore braces in those days. My orthodonist gave me a t-shirt: Beauty and the Brace.

We lived in a cul-de-sac. At the end there was a family full of rowdy boys of various sizes and strengths, an older couple, and a woman across the street who vacuumed in a bikini with her front door open. One one side of my house, there lived an older lady with a precious dog who snapped when my sister and I tried to play with her, and on the other side, there was a woman, a former English teacher at an all-boys private school, who was married to a doctor and had a five-year-old boy named Andy. Her name was Mrs. Carney, and she was the first person to explain to me that the process by which hand-written stories were printed up, bound, and put up for sale was called getting published.

Right away, it was something I wished would someday happen to me. In fact, at the time, I had a half-secret wish--I only told other kids--to publish my first book by the time I was twelve. I remember explaining to one of the girls down the street, named Ginger, what published meant. It meant, I explained, she would be able to go to the book store and buy my book. "Oh," she said, "Wow."

In Claremont, my older sister had her first boyfriend. He was a boy named Scott and he liked her enough to play soccer in the front yard with me and my other sister, both of us little and constantly giggling. Shelley had another admirer who brought her a blue-frosted cupcake. But my father teased her mercilessly about the unusual gift, and the poor blue cupcake boy--named Robby, I believe--was turned away.

She was a freshman and she played clarinet in the marching band. One Christmas Eve, we serenaded our parents: she played and Jill and I sang a squeaky "Silent Night." We lined up in front of the fire place as if it were a stage. It was 1984. I chose a gift from my gruff and funny motorcycle-riding uncle all the way over in Illinois for the my one Christmas Eve present that night. It was a pair of fuzzy blue slippers too warm for southern California, even in December. My mother got us each a little coin purse with a key ring attached. We were moving to North Carolina in the new year, and we would keep the key to our new house on the new key ring. After the move, our mother would work full-time, and we were old enough now to let ourselves in after the school bus dropped us off in the afternoons.

My sister's boyfriend, who complimented me when I turned nine--almost into the double digits, he grinned--who had lived in Claremont all his life, who lives there still for all I know, asked my father, would it be cold enough for the ponds to freeze over in North Carolina? Hardly, my dad said. But there would be snow once or twice a winter, he promised.

Mrs. Carney and I made a batch of cookies and watched "Little Orphan Annie"--she had a brand-new VCR, the first I ever encountered--on my last afternoon at her house. My sisters knew Mrs. Carney, but neither of them ever attached themselves to her as I did. She'd already given me The Secret Garden and other books, but now, as I was leaving, she presented me with a beautiful, full-color illustrated Anne of Green Gables. Inside, she inscribed, To Susan: I hope you grow to love Anne as much as I did growing up.

There were others, in the years to come. I had a high school English teacher who helped me get a story published in a local education journal. Another who told me I could write about anything I wanted and make it interesting. (Maybe the best compliment I've ever received.) And my own father, who, upon reading a story I wrote in the seventh grade insisted I could be a professional writer one day if I wanted to. "It's a lot of work, though," he warned. "A lot of work," I remember him saying again.

Is it possible my father had a gift for that? For directing us towards our specific futures? He laughed at the cupcake boy; he tried to prepare me for all the work ahead of me. He took us all to North Carolina.

This morning, I'm remembering Claremont and my braces, my purple knickers, my friends, Mrs. Carney. My sister's boyfriend. The fuzzy blue slippers.

I'd love to hear about your own Mrs. Carney. Or about your braces. Your post-dinner, sidewalk roller-skating. Your forbidden lemonade stands. The blue cupcake boy of your own past. Please, tell. Tell me something you did as a child, or tell me about the first time it occured to you: I can do this. This writing thing. Tell me about the first time you heard the word published and understood it would be a part of your future.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

My Time in Goliath

Three hundred and ninety-six pages. I finished the rewrite, sent it off, and suffered a day or two of fuzzy/nervous/giddy-tired energy. I cleaned my house, a task that has not been properly attended to in five or six months. I googled recipes with ridiculous confines: low-fat, low-calorie, easy, five-ingredient, chicken. Then, added: fast. I fantasized about having an extravagent holiday open-house, adding a patio to our backyard, actually hanging up the curtains I ordered for the bathroom months ago. Reading every book in my to-be-read pile. I decided I would map out the rest of my daughter's home-school year, week by week. Plan a garden. I will read Einstein's papers, the Bible, Genesis to Revelation.

Then came the exhaustion, the true exhaustion. All the adrenoline leaked out sometime in the middle of the night and I slept like a dead person. I just didn't move. Two new cold sores popped up. A sore back. And, because there were sandcrabs mentioned late in the book, residual sandcrabs flashed at the oddest moments. They simply sprang to mind, and I saw it happen again and again: they crawled into miniature sand-dunes, a wave washed them out, and they went crawling, burrowing in once again.

What I was seeing was myself over the last several months: being washed out of Goliath, the small factory town that serves as a setting for my novel, and burrowing back in time and time again. Trying to find another sweet spot, another place in the wet sand to push in, enter. I think the writer can appreciate the tenacity, the single-mindedness of the sandcrab.

Giddy-energy, exhaustion, and now--always--gratitude. What amazes me is how the work continues to be its own reward. The harder I work, the more it takes from me, the sharper my writerly instinct becomes, the more stubbornness it requires, the better this writing life is.

Geez, I love this stuff. Love it, love it. Am I crazy?