Thursday, December 30, 2010

new year, new you! (or not)

The end of the year always sneaks up on you doesn’t it? It seems to me that New Years  is rather horribly placed, being as it is right as we head into the dead of winter (in this hemisphere at least). Any get up and go that you might feel at the prospect of a shiny new calendar year is sure to be driven out of you by the dark days and bad weather come February 1st. I think it would be better to have it fall somewhere around March or April when the days start getting longer and the sight of nature renewing itself serves as an inspiration. But alas, no one has yet put me in charge of these things so we’ll have to make do with the present timing.
Now I love any excuse to drink champagne (birthdays, holidays, Tuesdays...) but I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. The idea seems especially moot for me this year, seeing as I already have this list that I’m working on (of thirty things don’t you know). While I think it’s possible to get a boost of energy from the beginning of a new year just as you can from a Monday morning simply because it is a chance to start fresh, it’s still a bit of a false motivation.  Every time I’ve made a resolution that I’ve stuck to, its inception has been organic. The recipe seems to be some combination of fear and hope that mixes with opportunity to create a genuine chance to change and move forward—not simply a day on a calendar.
Years ago I was working very sporadically on my first novel (the first one I tried to get published anyway), and I was having trouble making headway. Then in the spring of 2008, I had the good fortune of meeting and befriending an older Irish writer of some renown and we had a conversation one day over coffee that changed my life.  She enumerated for me with stunning incisiveness the reasons I was having so much trouble finishing my book: namely that I had a day job in publishing (which messes with your head), that I was terrified of trying to get published and that I had a hectic life with no time to write. The job I needed and the fear, she said, would always be with me (true so far!). The third one of these things was the only one I could control and so I damn well better do it. ‘Go to bed an hour earlier and get up in the morning to write before you go to work. Do this,’ she said, ‘or you will be sitting here ten years from now wondering why you never finished your novel.’
Guess who was out of bed at 6am the next morning? Four months later, I’d finished the book.
My father (champion advice giver always) told me that you have to watch for signposts in life and when you see one, have the courage to follow it. This swift kick in the ass from a writer I so respected was a big one and it was a moment in my life when I managed to harness my deep fear of failing in a productive way. So perhaps this year instead of resolving to lose ten pounds or start eating more kale or read Proust, resolve to be open to these moments when they come at you and to follow your instincts even when it scares you.
How do you feel about resolutions?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I've been Kindled

No post yesterday because I was called away to help K with some wedding business that involved a very boozy lunch. We tried to go shopping after that (always  a good idea) but we quickly got  overwhelmed by the inexplicable hilarity of walking around amongst all the boxy cardigans at J. Crew and had to hide out in the foyer until we could compose ourselves  a bit. My old company was always closed the week between Christmas and New Years so it feels really wrong to do anything productive this week.
With the weather as bad as it is and my big trip coming up, I mostly just want to sit at home and read on the new Kindle that I got as a Christmas gift. I should say that for a long time I was against the idea of an e-reader. As a lifelong lover of books, the problem for me has always been that I just don’t think that the experience needs to be improved upon. A book is small and portable to begin with and the whole point of reading a book is that it doesn’t need bells and whistles; you’re quietly alone with the story and the words. But faced with the prospect of lugging a month’s worth of reading to Argentina with me, I asked for a Kindle for Christmas this year.
And  Reader, I’m a little in love.
If you have yet to experience the Kindle, perhaps  the best thing about reading on one is the fact that you forget you’re reading on one; it does not (contrary to my fears) feel like reading on a screen. It’s also incredibly light so you can hold it in one hand with a glass of wine in the other—which as far as I’m concerned is a major attribute. It has a note- taking feature (which my editor pal loves) and a little cursor that you can put over any word to produce a bubble with the definition (handy for reading authors like Jennifer Egan who throw out words like lepidopterist and expect you to follow along). And for people with as little patience as I have, you simply cannot beat the instant gratification of finding and downloading a book you want to read in less time than it takes to update your Facebook.
And yet.
I feel like I’m cheating on books. I can’t quite get past the feeling that I’m not quite reading the book the way I would if I had it in my hands; it’s a little like I’ve watched the movie instead. And sleek as the Kindle is, I really miss having the cover art to look at.  It just doesn’t look the same on the nightstand; the screen pulls up literary-themed illustrations as screen savers which are nice but have nothing to do with the actual books you have loaded (this feature erroneously led me to believe that a former boyfriend of mine was reading Dickens). And perhaps it’s just that the whole idea of reading on a device leaves me a little cold. I love to see people reading in public—to crane my neck to see what it is they’re so absorbed in. Every reader has had the experience of seeing a stranger out and about reading a book they love and feeling an immediate kinship with that person without ever even speaking to them. You couldn’t have this with a Kindle; somehow a person with an e-reader seems engaged in something more private than a person with a book does.  
In the spirit of not letting the dialog die out, I’ve resolved to ask the next person I see with a Kindle what they are reading on there and how they are enjoying the device. And if this person happens to be attractive? All in the name of research.
How do you feel about e-books?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

tidings of...

I couldn’t help but think as I sat peeling and prepping my famous brussel sprouts on Saturday afternoon: wasn’t I JUST doing this? I don’t just mean the sprouts but the whole thing, the entire falderal of shopping, cooking and guaranteed angst that Christmas entails. I had that (increasingly frequent) feeling that time is folding in on itself; wasn’t last Christmas just yesterday? Of course no, it wasn’t just yesterday, it was a year ago. I know this because of my beautiful almost-one-year old nephew crawling around in the tissue paper and the absence of my grandfather who passed away right after his 90th birthday last year. It wasn’t a day but a year’s worth of relentless change, joy, tears, romantic misadventures and countless hours of writing that have gone by since the last time we sat down to Christmas pudding. However much you try to resist feeling maudlin, it’s difficult to look around your Christmas dinner table without taking stock of your life as it is, was and will be in the year to come. It’s there plain as anything this time of year: the speed at which things change, the futility of trying to stop these changes or even slow them enough to catch your breath.

I spent most of Sunday in a post-holiday stupor, trying to restrain myself from eating the entirety of the leftovers and reading Look at Me by Jennifer Egan on my new toy. I did check email once, just in time to read a letter from an agent telling me that she didn’t think we would be a good fit based on the five pages that I sent her. Yes that’s right, five pages of a 375 page manuscript is what she asked me for. Now I know that agents all have their methods and I don’t begrudge them these but it did feel rather like going to meet someone for a blind date and having them take one look at you through the window of the restaurant and decide it could never work. I was reminded afresh how like dating trying to sell a book is when a friend recently remarked that looking for love entails doing the exact reverse of your instincts. ‘Usually,’ he said, ‘you only have to stick your finger in the light socket once before you know not to do it again; dating is the opposite of that, you get hurt but you just keep doing it until you get it right.’ This time last year I was promising myself that I’d be here again, a new novel in hand ready to get back in the game. Thank God that memory is such a masochist.

I’ll be here all week sharing some New Year’s angst, ill-fated resolutions and wild speculation about the future. Won’t you join me?     

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

my father the hero

                                                         (actual father not pictured)

Way back two weeks ago when I started this blog (we were so innocent then!) I had the idea that I wasn’t really going to get too personal, but today is an exception. Now don’t get too excited, I’m not going to start listing names and neuroses of ex-boyfriends or anything but since it’s the holidays and since today is his birthday, I want to talk about my dad.

If you are one of my readers who know me IRL then you already know that my parents are awesome, if you don’t know me (my stats page tells me I got a page view in Singapore once. Hi Singapore!) I could go on and on about it but I know you probably all want to get back to hitting the ‘nog so I’ll keep it short and sweet and give you five reasons in no particular order why my dad is the dad your dad could smell like.

1. He’s British. This brought a special magic to my childhood. The existence of Christmas pudding, all kinds of fantastic terminology like ‘posh frocks’ (fancy dresses), ‘oiks and yabbos’ (misbehaving boys) and ditties like ‘we’re all going on a summer holiday’ (which my dad sings every time we go on vacation) and ‘it’s a long way to Tipperary’ (the song my dad sang all the way home the first time he got drunk—age 15, cherry brandy). I kind of thought growing up that these were all things that my dad had invented. I later realized this wasn’t true but I still laughed myself out of my chair when they reappeared later in my life in a Pringles and a car commercial respectively; they will always feel like our inside joke.   

2. He’s an optimist. One of my dad’s most infamous catch phrases is ‘it’s getting brighter’ which he usually says in reference to the actual weather (so, almost never true here in Seattle) but it has become a running joke in our family because it so accurately illustrates his outlook on life. He’s no Pollyanna but he always sees the best in people and always sees the ways in which he can bounce back stronger from any disappointment. We all roll our eyes when he says things like ‘if we had to move into a one bedroom apartment, it would be okay; we would bounce back’ but in reality his attitude is downright inspiring.  

3. He’s a word nerd. Despite being chiefly involved in fields like aerospace and technology that aren’t especially wordsmith-y my dad has a vast vocabulary. I don’t know what you got called when you were being a brat as a kid but I got called things like petulant and truculent, which will send your ten year old behind to the dictionary quick.     My dad is also a champion arbiter of quotes – he allegedly first got my mom’s attention by quoting The Merchant of Venice and whenever my sister and I had boy troubles growing up, he would pull out some Sir Walter Raleigh ‘Feign would I climb…’

4. He loves women. I have a theory that there are basically three kinds of men when it comes to women. Men who for whatever reason don’t like women (toxic), men who love women the way they’d love a Maserati (ick) and men who truly love and respect women as real live human beings and equals. If your dad like my dad is the third variety you were ahead of the game from the get go. My parents have been happily married for over thirty years and I’ve never heard my dad make a bad joke or a disrespectful comment about her or any other woman. When you have a dad like mine, it makes it easy to call BS on people who say things like ‘all men cheat’ or ‘all men or pigs’.

5. He’s all about chasing the dream.  My dad has an unconventional background when it comes to his education to say the least. In an era when no one seems to think you can say boo in business without an MBA, he’s built a successful business from scratch without so much as a Bachelor’s degree and I’ve never seen anyone more consistently excited about their work. He’s never let anyone else dictate what he would do with his life and no amount of resistance has kept him from pursuing his vision. I grew up knowing how important it is to follow your passion and my dad has always supported my efforts as a writer.

In honor of my dad I’m gonna end with one of his favorite poems. Tell me in the comments about someone you love.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

on the shoulders of giants

renowned author with early masterpiece

Since Christmas is a few days away and I asked for most of the newer books I want as gifts (as well as a Kindle but I will save that existential crisis for another post); when I needed something new to read last week, I turned to the books already on my shelf where I keep a stash of backlist titles by some of my favorite authors.

Is anything more pleasurable than discovering an author you love so much that you feel compelled to read everything they’ve ever written? This is especially wonderful when it is a) someone prolific and b) someone living who will probably write yet more books. It can be oddly melancholy to read the backlist of a writer who is dead. I first discovered Truman Capote via the short story collection that included Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I have since read everything he’s ever written—with the exception of the masterpiece for which he is perhaps best known, In Cold Blood. It still sits on my shelf untouched in part because I know that once I do read it that will be it; I will have read all the Capote there is to read. I’ve even read Summer Crossing, a novel which was reportedly found in the trash behind his apartment building after his death and is thought to be an earlier work but wasn’t published until 2006.

I’m happy to report that this is not the case with the writer with whom I am currently on a backlist adventure, Margaret Atwood. She is not only still living and writing but (as you know if you’ve read her most recent work) at the top of her game. I started with The Year of the Flood when it came out and have since read a half dozen more of her books. Currently I’m reading Life Before Man which besides being a great read is making me feel really good about being an unmarried.
There is something satisfying about having read an author’s entire canon but I also think it can be reassuring to look back on the earlier work of someone whose current work sees so perfect as to be untouchable. I discovered Ian McEwan when I read Atonement which is—according to many—his reigning masterpiece and certainly his most well-known novel. I fell so in love that I went back and read everything all the way back to First Love, Last Rites. It’s fascinating to see the progression of an author’s work over several decades. It’s also encouraging to know, in this era when an author’s debut work can seem so make-or-break, that McEwan didn’t start off writing Atonement. His early work is brilliant in its way but you can feel the effort a little more; the seams are a bit more visible. (A side note on the early work of Ian McEwan: do not read before bed. Trust.)   

I saw Ian McEwan in the hallway of Random House once. I froze and almost dropped the stack of pages I was carrying and then hurried off in the other direction before I could embarrass myself. My heart was pounding. I was like a fourteen year-old who’d just discovered Justin Bieber standing next to her locker.   

Do the masters inspire you, intimidate you or both?   

Monday, December 20, 2010

dear diary

There was a fascinating segment on 60 minutes last night about people who remember everything, literally every day of their lives. It’s called superior autobiographical memory and it’s completely shaking up what science believes about memory and the human brain.

The five people featured seemed happy enough, but this remarkable ability strikes me as more of a curse than a blessing. After all, one of the only ways to move on from the heartbreaks and disappointments of life is to wait it out until the pain of that memory fades. One of the women described the sensation of being right back in the moment when she remembered any given day of her life past the age of eleven. Just imagine that for a moment: every breakup, every bad day, every time you’d been told devastating news, all right there like it happened yesterday.

Humans with regular standard issue memories need some prompting to remember the days of their lives in detail: letters, photo albums, journals. The one time in my life I was a champion journal keeper was junior high. I recorded the ups and downs of my adolescence in intense, excruciating detail. One night this past summer my friend K and I drank an exceptionally large bottle of wine and dug out my junior high school diary. She did a dramatic reading of the melodrama there within while I listened riveted to the musings of my teenaged self with equal parts sympathy and horror. There were deep thoughts, predictions of future glory on the tennis court and incredibly detailed accounts of each and every look, comment and interaction with the rotating cast of boys I alternately loved and hated in the way that only a mercurial teenager heart can.

Those journals were an account of a time I’d largely rather forget ever happened but on the flip side of this—there are other times I wish I had taken the time to keep a journal and didn’t. A while back I found some old love letters that I’d saved from ages ago. In one of them, the beau of the moment alluded to a day we’d spent rowing out on a lake and then drinking wine under a willow tree. This sounds like a wonderful day but hard as I tried, I couldn’t remember it happening. I can’t help but wonder what other good things I might have lost along the way.

I’ve always marveled at people who write memoirs, particularly ones about difficult subject matters like addiction or their painful childhood. It takes a long time to write any book-length work and in that time you are completely absorbed in the world of the book; spending that time with your worst memories? I can’t even imagine.

Do you find writing about your own life cathartic or terrifying?  

Friday, December 17, 2010

from the bookshelf to the big screen

Yesterday we talked about films that are so bad they’re good. You guys added some good ones in the comments: Muriel’s Wedding is Toni Collette’s finest hour if you ask me and even though it’s not strictly a dance movie, Bring it On definitely deserves an honorary mention in this genre. As far as expectations go, these films are pretty low stakes. You want to be entertained, to have fun, to laugh and get Abba songs stuck in your head. The opposite of this experience has to be when you see a film based on one of your favorite books.
I caught the trailer for Water for Elephants online yesterday. I only recently read the book and I enjoyed it, so I like the idea of getting to continue my time is Sara Gruen’s excellently crafted Depression-era circus world via the film. For me this is the perfect book to film experience because while I liked the book, I didn’t love the book so much that I will feel in some way betrayed if the movie doesn’t live up. I’m sure there are many people who will have extremely passionate opinions on everything from the casting to the score to the inevitable changes that will have to be made to bring this very widely loved book to film, and you can count of hearing about them come April.
I have been meaning to see the film version of my very favorite novel Never Let Me Go since it came out but I find myself with trepidations; despite the fact that Ishiguro consulted on the film and I totally dig the choice of Carrie Mulligan for Kathy. If you’ve read it, you know that it’s both beautiful and terrifying and maybe I just don’t trust anyone but the man himself to take me into such a place. Or maybe as much as I love the book, I just don’t want to go through the heartbreak of that story again. I will probably see it eventually, as I did Atonement and The House of Sand Fog: similarly life-changing reads for me and very well done, excellently cast films.
One of the great things that happens when a book becomes a movie is that a whole bunch of people go out and buy that book. A couple of years ago when the film version of Love in the Time of Cholera came out, seeing the posters everywhere in New York reminded me that I’d never gotten around to reading any Marquez (of whom I am now a huge fan). The mere existence of the movie turned me on to him despite the fact that I never did see the thing (I heard it was terrible). Movies give books a life they would have trouble achieving on their own being just books. So while I have ambivalence about Hollywood’s handling of any great novel, I am always pleased that it will surely bring the book new readers.
How do you feel when a book you love hits the big screen?  

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I could have danced all night

My friend K and I went to see Burlesque last night. Despite the fact the Christina Aguilera is about as believable as the fresh-faced, naïve ingénue from Iowa as Cher herself would be, it was spectacular. Now, you don’t go to a movie like this expecting a plot without holes or Oscar-worthy method acting a la Natalie Portman. You go because you want to see gratuitously flashy dance sequences and contrived plots about girls with dead mothers (always with the dead mothers in these movies!) chasing their big campy dreams and ending up with guys who look like this. You go because you already know from the Devil Wears Prada exactly how much fun gay Stanley Tucci is. You go because Cher.
These movies are good in the bad way, bad in the good way and I LOVE them all. Center Stage, Save the Last Dance, Step Up (1,2 and 3) and my perennial favorite Dirty Dancing, which takes the form to its highest art.  These films know their audience and they play to it. We want a relatable heroine and an improbably hot male lead with a sensitive side, preferably who rides a motorcycle. We want any conflicts resolved with a dance-off and maybe some oh-snap one-liners and some hair-pulling.
Partly I just love these films because like all of those orphaned girls from the wrong side of the tracks who have suspiciously shiny hair for being so impoverished, secretly I just want to dance.
I never took dance lessons a kid, I was too busy with tennis when I was a teenager and since I was the kind of little girl who refused to wear dresses and had scabbed knees most of the time, I wasn’t exactly a natural fit for something like ballet class. But I do have several dance related items on my list (#7—learn tango, #9—compete a dance competition, #26—take a belly-dancing class) because in my adult life I’ve come to love dance: it’s been  my go-to in hard times and in new towns.
When I first moved to New York I didn’t know anyone who lived there, not one person. I was as lonely and miserable as I could imagine being for the first six months. Things finally turned around for me when I was temping as a receptionist in a financial office and met a lovely girl named Gina who, when she wasn’t working in the office, ran a salsa studio. I started taking classes almost daily and at last I had something to do, somewhere to meet people. And it was just. So. Much. Fun. When I moved back to Seattle late last year, the first thing I did was find out where and when the good salsa nights went on.
There’s something amazing about knowing a dance and meeting other strangers who know it too; it creates an instant feeling of community and belonging. One of the things I love about the salsa scene is the sheer diversity of the people who do it; on any given night there are people of every race, every age and every socio-economic background imaginable on the floor. You learn quickly not to judge on looks—that sleek looking hottie might be a total beginner who will wrench your arm on turns and that 68 year old bus driver from Ecuador who is 5’3 might be the best dance you have all night. Dance can be a great equalizer that way; when you’re out there on the floor, it really is all about your moves.  Just like in the movies.
Are you a wallflower or the last one to leave when the band packs up?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

now we're talking

Anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed with NPR because I’m always starting sentences with ‘I heard the funniest thing on NPR’. We have a fabulous local station here in Seattle, KUOW, and the midday program ‘The Conversation’ is one of my daily routines. They cover everything from the neuroscience of sexuality to proposed parking taxes to the spawning habits of Sockeye salmon. I love it. I tune in not thinking I’d ever be interested in listening to the obligatory crazy lady from Freemont talk about how the new backyard chicken ordinance is going to affect her and before I know it I’m riveted.

Anyway, yesterday they were discussing a topic that I always know will interest me: the study of foreign languages. (You can listen here if you’re interested). They were talking about learning practical second languages like Chinese and less practical more lifestyle-oriented languages like Italian (but who learns Italian for the hell of it? Oh right). And this all got me thinking about why I put #6 on the list: learn Spanish.

I do know a tiny bit of Spanish that I learned at college but I’ve always wanted to learn more, mostly because it’s beautiful and actually far more practical than the only other language I speak (French) but also because so many of the countries I’ve visited that I really love and want to visit in the future speak it.

As I’ve mentioned before I spent a semester in France as a student. It was just enough time to really get a hold on the language. I remember vividly how it felt when I first began to really understand and speak French, when I began to think in the language instead of translating word-for-word in my head; it was like the whole place suddenly came into focus. And without my normal vocabulary to rely on, I found I interacted differently with people; I wasn’t always rushing to get out my next thought—it forced me to be a little more thoughtful and probably a little more attentive as a listener.

You can understand a culture much better once you begin to notice the nuances of their language. For instance in French the expression je t’aime can mean both ‘I like you’ and ‘I love you’. Now, in the U.S. the first time a person says ‘I love you’ in a romantic relationship is a seminal moment. Can you even imagine us not distinguishing between the two emotions of ‘like’ and ‘love’? This tells you something about the difference between the way Americans and French people view love and romance.   

You understand the world differently when you hear it in another language, especially when you can talk back.

What language would you like to learn?   

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

you can stand under my umbrella

Did you know that it rains a lot in Seattle? It’s true. Whenever I tell people I’m from here they like to let me know this. ‘Seattle?’ they say, ‘it rains a lot there.’ And normally I feel some perverse need to defend the honor of my hometown by saying things about how beautiful it is even with all the rain and that it gets sunny for a reliable week and a half in August.

In general I don’t mind the rain; in fact sometimes I love it. I first realized how much I associated the rain with home when I was studying abroad in France; I remember vividly standing in the rain waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk and something about the rain coming through the blur of the cars’ headlights made me suddenly homesick.  That said, it has been absolutely pouring for four days straight and it’s making me a little crazy. The lake has risen so high that it’s covering all of the docks; you can see their ghostly outlines under the water like shipwrecks.

I’ve heard people say that Seattle is full of readers because the weather is so nasty all the time. This could be partly true but it wouldn’t explain all of REI fanatics who want to be outdoors all the damn time—talk to the single ladies around here sometime if you don’t believe me, it’s near impossible to find a man who will not try to make you go camping, ice climbing or whatever by date three. But I do think that the rain gives Seattle a certain thoughtful moodiness that suits yours truly these days better than New York’s edgy energy and it’s certainly better for my writing. The combination of the tiny apartments and the relentless feeling that if you stay in for a night you are going to miss something amazing can make New York City a difficult place to be a writer.  

I’ve been back in Seattle for almost a year now; I grew up here and my family is here but I haven’t lived here for ten years. I’ve discovered that I love this city and I know that it took the time away to make me realize that. It’s like realizing that the first boy you ever kissed was the one for you all along.

What makes you feel at home?

Monday, December 13, 2010

when I grow up

This weekend I sent myself out for some mandatory fun. Mandatory because between the bad weather and the week I’d just had, I was in danger of becoming Our Lady of the Infinite Sweatpants; she who refuses to leave the house and sits alone drinking red wine and watching angsty independent films. Saturday night I went out to a hole-in-the-wall country bar with a few of my closest friends. It’s my dear friend K who always suggests this place because it reminds her of the dives back in her home town of Clovis, CA. They have live music and cheap beer and some lively senior citizens with rather remarkable dance moves who’ve probably been practicing their two-step since before we were all born.

But before going out to find our inner cowgirls, my friend S and I attended the matinee performance of the youth company of a circus arts school (of which I happen to know the very charming director)—an institution that, from what I can tell, is exactly as awesome as it sounds.

The kids were crazy talented. Do you remember knowing kids like that when you were young? In the context of school they seemed ordinary but then somehow or other you found out they had this amazing talent—they jumped horses or did ballet—and you realized they had this secret life and suddenly they seemed lit from within, headed towards some extraordinary future. Now surely amongst this particular group of kids there are plenty who will grow up to be accountants or lawyers but I like to think at least one or two have already made up their minds that juggling or tightrope or aerial is it for them, that this is what they want to do not just as a hobby but as a vocation. And I hope that they naysayers and rent payments that will come later on won’t dissuade them.

The older I get the more I realize that most people go through a lot of trial and error before finding their real passion, if they ever find it at all. It wasn’t like that for me. I entertained the idea of doing something in addition to writing novels (professional tennis player, UN interpreter, magazine editor—natch) but never instead of. I just never did grow out of my fondness for make believe I suppose; it was always that other world beyond the visible that called my name.

What did you want to be when you were a kid? Did you go for it?

Friday, December 10, 2010

brevity is the soul of__________

Wit. And also lingerie. But this is not that kind of blog Ms. Parker so we’re only going to discuss the former. Also, it’s laundry day so we REALLY don’t want to discuss the later. You know who has a hard time with brevity? Novelists. If brevity were our strong suit we’d be done sooner than page 300+. This is why I can’t write short stories. I’ve tried but they always turn into the beginnings of long stories much like the anecdotes I tell at cocktail parties. I admire the form and have read my copy of THE ASSIGNATION about a billion times but I don’t expect I’ll master it any sooner than I will stop going on tangents at cocktail parties. Don’t even get me started on my helplessness with Twitter.

People are fond of telling writers of any stripe that they should start a blog. About as many people have said this to me as have told me that they would write a novel themselves ‘if they only had more time’. But of course blogging and novel writing are very different. I am used to writing long things and having many months to pour over them and revise, revise, revise before ever letting them see the light of day. But with a daily deadline there’s only time to write it, read it, make sure it’s coherent / not libelous and send it out into the world. Naturally as I look back at week one of my foray into blogging, my posts all look a little…long.

Do you always say too much or never enough?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

on getting back in the saddle

I got thrown off of a horse once. When I was in Uruguay my wonderful host family took me out to an estancia for some real old-fashioned gaucho style horseback riding. My grandmother raised Arabians when I was a kid so I’m plenty comfortable around horses but I had never been on a horse like the first one they gave me to ride. So much did this horse not pay attention to my direction that I was tempted to ask the lady who owned the ranch if the commands were different in the southern hemisphere. I managed to get the horse just down the long drive and past the gate when it decided that this ride was over and turned tail and GALLOPED back towards the ranch. I managed to slow him down only long enough for him to buck me off and toss me into a huge pile of prickly weeds. The horse looked down at me with, I swear to God, a smug expression. I was shaken and as I climbed out of the weeds the ranch owner and her son came up the drive in her truck to see if I was okay.

“I’m okay,” I said, “but this horse is crazy!”

“Oh yes,” she said, smiling and revealing a mouth with more gaps than teeth, “he won’t let anyone ride him.”

The important thing about this story is not that the ranch owner decided to punk my unwitting American behind (who thought I knew so much about horses), but that I did get back on and ride the rest of the day. Not on the psycho horse obviously—that would’ve been a death wish—but on two other horses, one old slow one and one that was a perfect fit. I had an amazing day riding alone on the wide open dirt roads in the Uruguayan countryside, an experience I will always remember and wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t gotten back in the saddle. There’s a reason the hackneyed phrase ‘get back on the horse’ became hackneyed in the first place: because it’s so apt. Those moments after I got thrown were crucial, I got either continue riding or let the now very justified fear of getting thrown hold me back. When you give a fear like that power it can very quickly become bigger than the thing itself.

This is equally true with writing. The only way I got over the disappointment of not selling my first novel and started feeling like myself again was to start writing the next one in earnest. I only wish I had gotten back to it sooner instead of wallowing for the better part of the year before going back to face the demons of the blank page and blinking cursor. During my wallow, my mentor told me something that I now have tacked to my bulletin board like a quote from a famous person (and considering how I feel about her, it might as well be); ‘never ever let the business of writing infect the art of creating’. She said start a new novel now, fall in love with something else as quickly as possible. It was harder to get back in and start writing again when I knew in such a visceral way what it would feel like to get to the end of the many, many hours that it takes to write a novel and have it not work out. I had lost my writerly innocence. But the fear loomed largest when I wasn’t writing, once I remember that there was satisfaction and even the occasional moment of joy to be found in writing, the fear felt surmountable.

In attempts to prove to myself that I’ve actually learned my lessons from the last go round I am not going to wallow for a year before starting my new novel, I am not even going to wait until I have something to wallow about. I am going to start today! Well, okay tomorrow because today I wrote this post which must count for something with the writing gods, right?

What are you afraid of?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

#3: spend a month in a foreign country

You know what was awesome about college? Lots of things: having a meal plan, my only responsibilities being school and tennis team, my ‘job’ covering the men’s soccer team for the school paper (I won an award for it—seriously). But if there’s one thing that’s great about college that’s even harder to find out in the real world than a job that involves watching hot men play a sport you only marginally understand, it’s the study abroad program. You get to not only travel to but live in a foreign country and someone makes all the arrangements for you: what you’ll be doing, where you’ll be staying, your visa—all taken care of. I’m sure that some people have horrors stories about studying abroad but I did it twice—once for a month in Uruguay and once for a semester in France—and both times it was life-changing in the best way.  

I do love to travel but I find it often leaves me with an unmistakable longing for more. An extended stay in a country where you learn to communicate in the language and actually make real friendships is simply in a whole different league than spending a day or two seeing the sights. It’s like the difference between a one night stand and a real relationship; both can be great but if you’re wanting the later, the former simply won’t do.

So before I turn thirty, I wanted to have this experience one more time. I’ve toyed with the notion of doing it for a whole year; getting certified to teach English and moving to somewhere like Paris or Berlin but I know from friends who have lived abroad as real live post college, non-packing grown-ups that relocating to a foreign country is no joke. I have two friends who spent a year together in Australia, one of whom moved to Hong Kong where she is living still and I have watched them struggle with the Herculean efforts of securing housing, jobs and visas in foreign lands and dealing with the accompanying bureaucracy (I even got to write a letter to the Chinese government on behalf of my HK friend enumerating that ways in which she is an amazing human being). Basically, moving abroad is a major pain and takes a huge commitment both financial and otherwise that I’m just not sure I want to take on going completely ex-pat; and much like having children or buying expensive electronics in hot pink moving to a foreign country is one of those things you’d better be damn sure about before you do it.  

Besides all this, I just moved to a new city a year ago. Even though I grew up in the Northwest, I hadn’t lived here for a decade when I moved back and the first year in a new place is always tough so I’m not exactly in the mood to completely relocate anywhere. What I really need is an adventure, something between a vacation and a full on move.
Since I don’t have my next freelance gig coming up until next year, I decided January was prime time for this little sabbatical. Since it’s cold in Europe now and they’re busy striking over thing like having to work until age 62, I decided that the southern hemisphere would be better: specifically Argentina.

I believe that just as when you meet certain people and know right away that you will be friends, certain places can be your kindred spirits. For me Buenos Aires is one of those cities. I mean: wine, tango, art, music, great shopping, ridiculously attractive people, and a literary tradition that includes Jorge Luis Borges, what more could you want? And it just has that ineffable ‘I could live here’ quality that gives you the deep desire to make a place part of your personal. I spent a few days in BA a number of years ago when some friends and I took a short trip there form New York. One of my favorite Thanksgivings ever was the one that I spent there; it was 80 degrees and we had a big traditional Thanksgiving in a friend’s penthouse with his family from Southern Virginia and a couple of American ex pats who were living there. Towards the end of the night our host told me—upon hearing my interest in tango—that I should come back some day for an extended stay to learn it. Guess the idea stuck.
So naturally right when I began this list—before I could talk myself out of it—I booked a mileage ticket for one month in Buenos Aires and got myself set up with some Spanish and Tango classes (conveniently checking off numbers six and seven, learn Spanish / Tango).
This list item also covers something that I think every woman should do once in her life: travel alone. I think we’ve all had the experience of wanting to go some place—and maybe even having the time and money to do so—but having no one idea who we might go with. I’ve done a little bit of travel by myself here and there but this is by far the most ambitious trip I’ve taken. A dear friend and former NYC roommate of mine did a trip around Europe by herself a couple of summers ago. She called me one time from the side of the road in southern Spain where she was taking a solo bike trip (mind you she neither speaks Spanish nor is what one would call ‘outdoorsy’) and she sounded so happy, like she’d suddenly found a whole new side of herself. For writers especially but for everyone I think, learning to be alone and to enjoy being alone is a vital skill and what better way to embrace it than to take yourself completely out of your comfort zone?
Any good, bad or ugly stories about living abroad?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

No rejection before breakfast

Of the literary variety I mean. Although while I’m at it, I sincerely hope I never have the misfortune of dating someone who would dump a gal before she’d had her coffee and eggs. Anyone who knows me even a little knows how seriously I take breakfast. Breakfast first, questions later. This is why I have to restrain myself from running over and firing up my laptop the moment I wake up in the morning; anxious as I am, I know it’s not wise to court big news on an empty stomach.

Number one on my list of things to do before I’m thirty (and in life really) is get a book deal. A week ago I started sending out queries for an agent for the novel I just finished. I had an agent for the last one but she’s left the business so I’ve got to find someone new to help try to usher my work out into the world. Now, because I’ve been through this all before I’ve been talking a really good game about how it’s all going to be different this time. I am not going to turn into a crazy person who picks totally irrational fights on dates and disgraces herself while dressed as Wonder Woman (true story). As a dear writer friend told me about ‘handling’ the submission process (the prettier, more evil sister of the query process), ‘honey, if you’re not on the bathroom floor with a bottle of vodka you’re doing fine’ which is a good dose of perspective, though I think it might have been better if I HAD locked myself in the bathroom some of those nights, especially the ones where there was any vodka around.

But not this time! This time I had resolved to be mature about it. And you know it has felt different. For one thing I happen to like this book more than the last one. Not that I didn’t like the last one and not that I didn’t work very hard on it but I remember feeling some deep ambivalence about it too. I dreamt from time to time while I was doing revisions of burning it page by page with a lighter in the kitchen sink or sitting on the edge of the dock at my parents’ place and releasing each manuscript page into the wind one by one until the entire book was floating on the water. No one could tell me, by the way, whether or not feeling this way about one’s own work was normal. And this was before all of the rejection started. After the rejections letters—first from some agents and then from rather a great number of publishers—after the close call that broke my heart, after the dream slipped away, then I really didn’t want to think about that book. It was like an ex boyfriend who I would always in some way love but didn’t really want to talk about let alone hear from again.

But this one is different. I’ve never dreamed of burning it for one thing. My dear former agent did me a solid and sent me a handful of great referrals as did a close friend of mine who is an assistant editor and what do you know, a bunch of them asked to see the book in the first couple of days! And you know, I was feeling pretty great about things. I had conquered a demon just by finishing the book. I had gone back to the blank page after the biggest disappointment of my life and I had triumphed over it. And aren’t I lucky that I have a passion that I care about? Aren’t I lucky that I don’t live in a war-torn country or have to raise three children on my own; that I have the kind of life where I can even aspire to be a novelist in the first place? I reasoned that the pursuit of publication is like the pursuit of love: the first time you get your heart broken, you are SHOCKED by how much it hurts; you think I will never get over this but then lo, you do get over it. One day you wake up and you start feeling better and then you meet someone else and the pain becomes a memory faster than you ever thought it could. After that first time, it still hurts when a relationship ends but it’s never that bad again because you know that you will someday get over it; after all, you’ve been there. So I reasoned it could never quite hurt like the first time. I felt I had the situation in hand. I was saying things like ‘que sera sera’ and ‘if it doesn’t work out, I will just write another one’ and believing these things. Secretly I wondered how long this feeling of Zen could possibly last. Answer: until this morning.

I woke up this morning with an all too familiar feeling in my stomach. You know how you totally forget how really truly awful a stomach virus is until you get one again? It was like that. You see, this is the point at which my email in-box becomes angel and executioner, and there’s no knowing which until I open it on any given day. Mondays are the worst because there is always the possibility that one of those agents decided it was too cold to go outside and curled up with my manuscript to get a jump on the week. By the time I open my email in the morning its midday in New York (where books are born and agents get their wings); plenty of time for an agent to have had her coffee and get down to the business of making dreams come true (or you know, not). My Zen mind says not to fret over this because, again much like dating, ultimately you want to be with someone who wants to be with you and if they’re not the one, better they just let you know so you can move on and keep looking for true love. Because after this comes submission (aptly named that) and that is its own fresh hell; if anything, it’s worse than querying because there are not one tenth as many good publishers to try for as there are good agents. I know this; this is not my first rodeo. A writer needs someone who really believes in her; someone who will join her in the folie a deux in which both agent and writer believe that—though the odds are so supremely against it—she will be the one who makes it. I’m trying to maintain perspective but all the perspective in the world doesn’t keep those letters from hurting when they come. And there will be rejections, just as sure as there will be tears and anxiety and moments of unbridled hope. And vodka. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Because # 5 on the list is start a blog about the list

I have a list.

A couple of months ago I was fresh out of a relationship, coming to the end of a long term freelance gig and finishing up a novel which I’d been working on for a long time. After moving back to Seattle from New York City about a year ago, I’d been living in my parents’ beach house so I didn’t even have so much as a lease to my name. I felt like I could either freak out because my life was once again in a state of flux or embrace a moment that might never come again.  

So I made a list: thirty things I want to do before I’m thirty. Why thirty? Mostly because it’s my next milestone birthday (in a little under a year and a half for those keeping track) and as a writer I love nothing more than a self-imposed deadline, it’s a way of making things happen just as the act of list-making is. You put a thing in writing, you give yourself a deadline and magically things happen. This strategy works well for writers and other diligent masochists because in order to be effective, you must fear yourself and your own capacity for self-flagellation. Do they teach self-flagellation in MFA programs? They should.  

Let’s get one other thing out of the way, I don’t think thirty is old or in any way some magical number. I do not think I will awake in the morning of April 5th, 2012 and arise a fully formed adult person who has Everything Figured Out. There’s something wonderful about being in one’s late twenties, you at last don’t feel like a complete novice—in work, in life, in love—but you also don’t feel too far along in everything to turn back, you can still start all over. For me and for a lot of my friends who are around the same age it’s a time when a lot of Big Questions begin to come to the forefront. Is this really the career I want to be in? Is this the city I want to put down roots in? Is this the person I want to marry? These issues have a sudden sense of urgency they never had before when we were in our early twenties and still in the very experimental stages of adulthood. With thirty in your sights there is the sense that now is the time to change what needs to be changed; it’s not going to get any easier to relocate/change careers/break up.

We all have moments when we are struck with the deep sense that time is precious; whether from something as pleasant as a vacation that comes too quickly to an end or from something as painful as the diagnosis of an illness, every once in a while we really feel the days going by us. For me this is one of those moments and so I choose to embrace it, to make it an adventure. Because the truth is, time is in some sense always running out; it’s not limitless, not for any of us. So what do you want to do before you’re 30? Before you’re 40, 50 or 60? Before you’re married? Before you’re dead and gone? Before it’s too late? Because someday it will be too late. Ask yourself—really ask yourself—if not now, when?