Monday, April 25, 2011

Sad but Good

Some years ago, I journeyed home from a year of teaching abroad via a rather convoluted route. My teaching buddy Lisa and I began with an overnight train from Vologda, Russia—where we’d been living—to St. Petersburg. The next morning, we caught another train to Helsinki, and there, at the airport, Lisa and I parted ways. She flew to NYC and then to Richmond. I, on the other hand, flew from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Cincinnati to Greensboro, NC, where my parents lived.

It had been a wonderful, absurd, terrifying, lonely, and exhausting year. We had been living in a dormitory with swampy bathrooms and a door-less toaster oven and a hotplate for cooking. It was Russia; it had been cold. I spoke embarrassingly little Russian. We ended up, through one adventure, thrown out of Ukraine. We were stranded in Moscow. We had slogged through months of mud. (The muddy months were a thousand times worse than the snowy ones.) We had each survived the year on a single suitcase’s worth of clothing. I had gained, over a year of potatoes and blini and ice cream Snickers bars, twenty pounds. Twenty. Pounds.

Our students had thrown us a big end-of-the-year party, complete with dancing, Irish poetry, gifts for us, and awards for our students. A few months earlier, we had spent the night at a student’s dacha where we buried something to cook it—I think it was a chicken--drank too much bad beer, told jokes around the fire, used an outhouse, and crossed a broken rope bridge.

Before that, there had been a spectacle of winter sports that I really, really, really sucked at: ice-skating, cross-country skiing. Walking on icy sidewalks. (I fell. More than once.)

We had marathon tea parties with our friend Olya. A parody of the Dating Game in our American Cultures class. A fifty-something businessman in our adult class who, struggling with American idioms, announced, I feel myself very horny. (The sentence is modeled after how emphasis is done in the Russian language; the horny was a slip. He meant to say corny.)

Months earlier, when we first arrived, we gobbled Pepto Bismol tablets constantly. I went into a store on one of my very first solo shopping missions to purchase a can of tomatoes and came away instead with Italian canned bovine. A little girl stole food from our makeshift kitchen. Lisa and I cut each other’s hair. We—two non-singers with bad colds—sang “Country Road” to a packed auditorium.

The night we left, fifty-some students gathered at the train station to bid us good-bye. That was almost all of them. Lisa and I cried together in our little sleeper-room, the train pulling out. We waved good-bye.

There, on the platform, our beautiful Olya stood holding a scrap of paper on which she'd written: “SAD BUT GOOD.”

Olya, one of our least proficient English-speakers. She understood us perfectly.

Before we left, Lisa had told me I should call the airlines, get a more direct route. It was crazy, what I was doing, zigzagging across the country like that, spending the night in a Los Angeles hotel. I had the same suitcase I'd come with but its contents were completely changed; I’d thrown away almost everything I brought--most of my clothes had disintegrated--and kept the birchwood trinket boxes, the silver ring my students had given me, and a year’s worth of photographs. I flew home wearing a gift from Lisa, a t-shirt with scraps of fabric sewn to it. The scraps were Cyrillic letters that read, Co-ed Naked Banya Team.

I could have called the airlines, but I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t. I realize now what I dimly recognized then: I needed the journey home to be long. I needed to spend hours in airplanes. In airports. Places that didn’t feel like places at all. I needed the first people I heard speaking English in public-—too loud!!—-to be strangers. I needed to sit in a plastic chair at an airport in Cincinnati, before the last flight into NC, and just watch people walk by.

I was going home to start my life. I’d already applied for teaching positions, already had some ideas about where I wanted to live. On my own for the first time. Already had plans to re-connect with friends, to spend time with family, to drop twenty pounds.

Before, I had thought my year teaching abroad would be a throw-away year. A year between college and my real life, a year when I wouldn’t really accomplish much. Just a year to live elsewhere, to see some things, do a little traveling.

SAD BUT GOOD, Olya had written on that scrap of paper. SAD BUT GOOD. Sitting in that airport, waiting to board, I began to put it together. SAD BUT GOOD, yes; but also, it was SAD because it was GOOD.

I rarely get a chance to fly anywhere, but when I do, I still like layovers. I arrange them. I like time off the road on trips across the state to the beach. A half-hour in the McDonalds in the middle of a town I’ll never be in again. I’m there in the restaurant, but I’m not really there, in a town whose name I likely don’t even know. Pausing between where I've been and where I’m going. Drinking a diet coke. Thinking. And sometimes, yet, I wonder: is it really possible to waste time? My throw-away year wasn't throw-away at all. And neither is the time in between.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Desire and Humility: A Glimpse in the Mirror

Two books you have to read: How Fiction Works by James Wood, because it does exactly that, and From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler because I have never, ever, ever seen anyone explain the intuitive level of fiction-writing the way Butler does in this book.

If Wood is mostly--and exactingly, almost painfully, absorbingly--concerned with the mechanics of fiction, Butler is concerned with its alchemy: "Please get out of the habit of saying that you've got an idea for a short story," Butler says in the first chapter, "Art does not come from idea. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you."

Fiction is a most magical, true artform. It has to come from a magical, true place.

And yet, there's trouble here: if fiction comes from dreams, its origins are as mysterious as dreams' origins are. Which are as mysterious and unexplainable as the human psyche itself.

Butler says we must write from where we dream, but where is that? It reminds me of birthing class. The instructor tells expectant mothers on how to push the baby out: "Push from the same place you use to blow up a balloon." Excellent advice. But, then, how do we isolate that muscle and call on it specifically when there is no balloon to blow up? It's different from ordinary breathing, even ordinary blowing--it's more focused--but it's very difficult to pinpoint exactly how it's different. Or where, precisely, that muscle is.

In the same way, how do you locate--and write from--"the place where you dream" in waking life?

Butler discusses at length what "the zone" is--this white-hot center of the writer--and how to get there, and he outlines a very doable approach. How to literally take notes from the musings and impulses of your intuition. He also explains, in chapter three, titled "Yearning," what we're, in our first drafts, looking for: "Once you have that link to your character's yearning, only then does the real work of literary fiction begin."

Desire. In both real-life and fiction, our most basic, most gutteral desires are the truest expressions of our deepest selves.

And this is where we need to pause and realize just what an act of humility fiction-writing is, or what it should be. I believe that in order to identify and really grasp that yearning in our character, we have to humble ourselves, own up to our humanity.

We go about our lives with a trained aversion to looking down, into our murky, odd-smelling desires. We don't want to glimpse the things that are way down deep there, our most embarrassing selves. This aversion to looking--the keeping of our gaze at a comfortable level--protects us. It keeps us from going crazy. To carry out the tasks of our day-to-day lives, we need to avoid looking down. And yet, as fiction-writers, we also have to go there. We have to look. I believe this is one facet to Doctorow's assertion that writers are "not just people who sit down and write." Instead, he says, "Writers hazard themselves."

I'll give you an example I've used in this blog before. Frank Wheeler, in the opening chapters of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road goes in to comfort his wife, who has just bombed on the stage of community theater, and he casually, unconsciously, resorts to pampering his own ego. He is standing behind his wife April who is seated at her mirror, removing her makeup: "He looked at himself in the mirror, tightening his jaw and turning his head a little to one side to give it a leaner, more commanding look, the face he had given himself in mirrors since boyhood and which no photograph had ever quite achieved, until with a start he found that she was watching him. Her own eyes were there in the mirror, trained on his for an uncomfortable moment before she lowered them to stare at the middle button of his coat."

Here is desire in a character that only a writer who has allowed his own eyes to slip down--to see himself--can portray. This is bald, embarrassing humanity.

Because we've all done it, haven't we? Made faces in the mirror? Looked for just the right angle, the exact right tilt of the head, the wrinkle in the forehead, the precise somberness that renders us beautiful?

I haven't got it entirely figured out. How the dream-self ties into desire in the character which in turn ties into desire in the writer which is only accessible to the writer through the writer's humanity which is in turn accessed largely through the writer's humility.

I know that humility is a tricky blessing. Hard to want, good to possess.

And, what do you think? Does this morning's rambling make any sense??

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Waiting Place

For my hair to grow. For the coffee to perk. For two pink lines to show up in the little window. Christmas. Sunshine. Vacation. Weight to drop. Husband to come home. Quitting time. Nap time. Dinner time. The snow to melt, the roads to clear, the cookies to cool. The glue to set, the paint to dry. The checker to check, the waiter to wait, the reader to read. The words to come. Nighttime. Daytime. The mail to come. Good news. Bad news. Any news.


We are writers; we spend much of our lives in the Waiting Place. (Thank you, Dr. Seuss.)


I was nine years old when I sent off my first story. It was about a pair of orphans, a brother and a sister, who lived in a tree. My mother read it when I wasn't looking and lamented: how could I write such a sad story? They had hammocks in the tree, I pointed out. And each other. I can't remember how the story ended, but I'm pretty sure I left them in that tree. Yes, sad, but at the time, I thought: brilliant.


I sent it off to Highlights on the sly--I didn't want my mother or anyone else to know I was trying to become a published writer, in case I failed--and haunted the mailbox for weeks. I told my mother I was waiting for a reply to a letter I'd sent to John Schneider, which was true, though I don't know why I thought fan mail to Bo Duke would be any less embarrassing than trying to be a short story-writer for Highlights.


The wait was short in ordinary human time--just a few weeks--but those few weeks dragged on for what felt like years. Not surprisingly, Highlights passed. My first rejection.


Is it the worst part? The waiting?


The hardest time I ever had with this was when the man who would become my agent was reading my novel. He sent me an email about a week after I sent him the ms and said he was "really enjoying it so far" and would be in touch "in a few days," when he finished the book.


Do you know what I did? I actually googled "few" to see what other people thought "few" meant. An unbearable weekend came and passed. I tortured myself by googling the agent and everyone on his client list. It was around Thanksgiving; my kids' activities were suspended, there were family gatherings, Black Friday to celebrate--my mother and I may not agree so much on what constitutes great literature, but we are a formidable shopping team--and every night, there was laundry to fold. This was my allotted worry time. I buried my face in warm towels straight from the dryer. I closed my eyes. I prayed-hoped-worried-waited.


There was a happy ending to this particular waiting season, but it doesn't always work this way, and regardless, the waiting is hell. It turns out that in this arena of the writing life, an obsessive nature--incredibly valuable when you're trying to get a scene right or when you're working on draft number 48 of your novel--is a major handicap.


So, how to get through? I fold laundry. I drink cheap jug wine and watch last season's 30 Rock on Netflix. I call emergency meetings at Panera Bread with my best writing pals. I get up early and run the loop around my house until I'm too weak to worry. I bake. And sometimes, I just give into it: I simply sit at my laptop and hit the refresh tab on my inbox page again and again, hoping, hoping, hoping something will come through. Right now.


The best advice is to get back to work. Plug right back into it, get on with your life, already.


I agree with that. But, I also say this: let yourself hope a little. Whatever it is you're waiting for--and, you're a writer, so I know you're waiting on something--remember, it really could happen today. Celebrate that. Living the writerly life--one where you're actively or at least infrequently submitting--means good news really could happen any second. Somewhere out there, an editor could be reading and loving your story. It could be happening now, as you read these words.


Also, remember that you are a writer but that's not everything. I love writing--I would count it one of the most important things in the world to me--but it's not everything. I was put on this planet to build relationships and to ponder really exciting things, big and small, and writing is a celebration of this--it's a celebration of everything, I think--but it's not everything.


I'm thinking of you today. Whoever you are. I'm thinking of you, there alone in your waiting place--I'm thinking of all the wait-ers--and I'm rooting for you. I'm hoping today is your day.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Planet Named Tom

So, the other day, I’m in the supermarket with my four-year-old, and as we’re turning to corner into the cereal aisle, he remarks, “Hey mom, guess what? There’s a planet that rhymes with mom. You’ll see it on your way to heaven. It’s a surprise.”

People wonder how I can stay home with my kids, homeschool my daughter, and write. And, it’s true, it’s a very full life—often, overwhelming. But, then, there are little gems like this, my little boy making up a planet at Ingles, him riding the back of the cart which I hate for him to do because I’m scared to death he’ll fall. I let him do it anyway since my thoughts at the supermarket go: okay, lettuce, where’s Aiden, turkey breast, where’s Aiden, peanut butter, spaghettios, hurry, almost time to pick Abby up from choir, coffee, eggs, milk, what time is it, green beans, tomato sauce… And, there, in the middle of all that, a planet named Tom.

In his book From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler says something I really love about art and the intuitive process: “Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.”

So, the planet-thing was nothing grand, really. Just a flight of fancy. A blip among a zillion thoughts, impressions, and fantasies that stream through my funny little boy’s mind constantly. And yet, to Aiden, to children, it’s the instinct that’s right. The imagining. That stretch.

We grown-ups, I think—we serious writers, ahem—are too often timid or inhibited or literal-minded to take that imaginative stretch. We dismiss the looming planet gathering at the hazy perimeter at our imaginations before it even fully materializes. I think we would do well to let such oddities, such embarrassing ruminations, capture our focus—even our adoration, our passion, our obsession—from time to time.

So, try this: dream fully, deeply, wildly. Build your imagination as you would a muscle. Work it, stretch it, see just how limber you can get.

Aiden’s planet-fancy, however, isn’t the white-hot center of him: he’s four—I’m not sure he possesses such a thing. He’s all impressions and fantasy and very little experience. He doesn’t possess the intuition one finds with experience, and he doesn’t know how to keep his gaze steady on an imagined thing or a musing or a possibility or a leap of his subconscious long enough to coax it into being. Into something more than a thing to say to one’s harried mother in a supermarket. Likely a ploy to distract her while he loads the cart up with Pop Tarts.

So, then, we have to be both young and old. Given to fantasy and rumination. To wild, ever-impossible imaginings as well to patience and wisdom. Young-hearted faith and old-souled discernment. It takes everything, doesn't it? This writing thing? It takes everything we used to be, every place, every season we can imagine, dream or dread encountering. Young, old. Naivete and experience. Every. Thing.