Thursday, May 28, 2009

Big Plans For Nothing

Nothing like vacation to remind what matters, give perspective, recharge batteries just enough to make you think you should start getting up at 3 a.m. to a) write a book b) play the guitar c) meditate.

Not really. I’ve always been a firm believer that 3 a.m. is for sleeping. Chicken Little woke up at 4:45 this morning and that’s plenty early for me, thank you very much.

But I would like to do all of those things this summer, and each would have to be crammed in during some 3 a.m. equivalent: stolen from some other thing I am already doing—if not sleep, then work, kids, house, marriage, yoga.

But I don’t really want to cram in more. More is not the answer (see Judith Warner’s brilliant recent column). Especially not during the summer, the one time of the year when the single activity that should not be neglected is lying under a tree in a sleepy heap.

What I would like to do is fewer of the things that don’t serve me and more of the things that do. The problem is that when it comes down to my fleeting free moments, my mind decides that I should be doing something more productive than meditating or playing the guitar.

I need to remember that those activities make me happy, calm, whole and ready to do all of the other, more “productive” things. And are therefore worthwhile.

So that’s my summer goal--more of whatever the hell I want, less of that other stuff that manages to make itself so important when it really isn't. Anyone else want to play along?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Long Weekend Deep Thoughts

One of the nicest thing about having kids in your life is that, as a grownup, there just aren't that many people who say to you, "Oooo, I like your panties."

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the May 11 New Yorker is titled “How David Beats Goliath.” The topic is how underdogs win by breaking the rules and supplanting ability with effort.

“We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity,” he writes. “It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than ability.”

This is what one hears at writer’s conferences all of the time. Don’t give up. Keep writing, keep submitting.

A good friend (one with an agent and a book coming out, incidentally) told me the other day that she thinks I got bad advice from my marketing consult (see Book Burning Take 2). If I truly believe in my project, she said, I should keep submitting. She sent out her stories 200 times before she got a book deal.

Actually, her exact words were: “Tell everyone who doesn’t believe in your book to suck it.”

What will happen next? Stay tuned for the next installment of “As the Memoir Turns.”

Monday, May 18, 2009

Staying On The Train

I noticed the other day that the job that I quit nine years ago in order to start freelancing is available. I was hit with this unexpected twinge. Would they hire me back, if I applied?

That I would even consider this is directly related to my current state of disillusionment with freelancing. This particular ennui is nothing new—it comes around regularly. I tire of constantly trolling for work, writing on speculation, submitting, inching along from project to publication, wondering where all of this is going, putting myself out there constantly, in hopes of approval.

(A friend pointed out that I shouldn't add “begging people to love me” to this list, as I did to her; that I should believe in my inherent lovability and put myself out there as a gift to others. She may be right, but when the demon strikes he takes my favorite wrapping paper).

But, no, I don't want my old job back. Asking for that is attempting to rewrite history—like wishing to be pregnant again, which I do occasionally in moments of temporary insanity. This time, I dream, I wouldn't vomit my guts out for six straight months. This time, I wouldn't be a terrified, angry pain in the ass.

But I would. The same way I'd hate my old job back. This is the road I have taken. I am a freelance writer. All fantasies of some other less crazy-making, more stable job with an easily definable future—like nursing, or accounting—aside, this is what I chose, and this is what I am.
What it all comes down to (naturally) is fear; in this case, of failure. “OMG, I can’t see the train tracks! I’ve got to jump off of the train!”
But I’d just have to get on some other train, right? The trick is clinging confidently to the one you are on.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How Many Words in Your Pocket?

Today at Blooming Eventually our subject is Ray Bradbury’s Writing Theory. Write three million words, he proclaims, and you automatically achieve mastery of the craft.

What does that look like? Let’s see if we can take a stab at how many words I have written.

Where to begin: Does school writing count? Let’s say that it doesn’t. We’ll start with writing I did just for me. So…a few essays in college at 1500 words each, many more in the decade after college; that brings us to maybe 50,000.

Next: the nine years I’ve written professionally, during which there have been another many essays for myself and for publication as well as a several hundred magazine and newspaper articles. We’ll say another 50,000 for essays and 400,000 for articles.

Do you think e-mail counts? Probably not: Even for freaks like me who are compelled to edit even the most innocuous email before sending. All of those angsty teenaged diaries? Who knows. Blogging? Probably counts, but I am fairly new at it: we’ll give me 15,000 words. Newsletters, annual reports, brochures, exhibit copy, web copy, ugh, blah, blah: 50,000.

Then there is that book I wrote. And rewrote. And rewrote. We’ll give it a probably-underestimated 100,000.

That’s it? My grand total life words tally comes to 665,000 words. Wow. Maybe I should have counted the diaries.

But that kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? I’ve been writing professionally for nine years and still am not even close to three million.

I’ll admit I could have employed more focus than I have. Distractions have included beach vacations, small screaming humans, The New Yorker and cream cheese yearning to be scraped out of the DVD player.

(As I write this: “Mom! Boo Boo peed in her pajamas! Mom! A spider! Mom! The head broke off my princess!).

Will I get there? Sure. Eventually. But for now, gotta go...(Mom! My goldfish got out!)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Welcome Home, Chester

For me, one of the most personally significant impacts of the current economic situation is the return of Chester.

Chester was a happy caribou living in the northern reaches of Alaska until the mighty hunter Captain Daddy shot him dead seven years ago. Now he is merely a shadow of his former self—or, more specifically, a head and shoulders of his former self.

For the past three years, Chester hung proudly (if rather morbidly) at Joe’s Sporting Goods, where interior design was more appropriate and resident population more amenable to his presence than my home.

But Joe’s, alas, is bankrupt. Last week, Chester came home to roost. Literally.

Unfortunately, our 1970s-era home does not boast the lodge-like ceilings necessary to display such a magnificent specimen of dead mounted beast. Chester now hangs rather unceremoniously in a narrow stairwell, where the full range of his impact is to make us look like meat-eating white trash and occasionally scare the bejesus out of the chickens. Or maybe just me.

In any case, as loving daughters and wife to Captain Daddy, we will do our best to welcome Chester as one of our family forever, or at least until we find another willing sporting goods dealer to take him in. Actually, anyone will do. Takers?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Too Old For The Party?

“No one is going to publish a first novel by a 45-year-old.”

This little curse was spoken recently by one of the members of my writing group. Today it reverberates around my skull. So many of my cohorts seem to lately feel our age like an ankle shackle, while still recognizing that in the grand scheme of things these are the glory days we will lament in another twenty years.

Writing group ranges in age from 35-41; none of us (obviously) has been on Oprah and each of us wonder if we ever will. Two of us don’t seem to care. The other two pretend not to care but really do. One of the first category uttered the curse, perhaps as a way of shrugging off his own fear, perhaps as a way of taking the reins of his own destiny (announce that failure is already yours and you are probably right).

Another member said, yes, her agent asked her age when he took her on. “It matters,” he reportedly said. “Publishers want to know how long their investment might pay off.”

Is this true? I have been to a lot of writing conferences at which I’ve learned a litany of limiting factors that affect the publishing business, but never has anyone said, “Old people don’t get book contracts.”

And yet, we are nothing if not an ageist society. The biological clock ticks for much more than the ability to child bear. We love the young genius. We worship the freshness and vitality of youth; we desperately fear its fading.

So thank goodness (again) for Malcolm Gladwell’s “Late Bloomers” (see Late Bloomers), for pointing out the mature geniuses in cultural history. To believe him, success is still possible for us decidedly past the summer of our youth (Of course he's sitting comfy in the young genius group).

At the end of the day—call me a foolish optimist—I still believe that good writing matters more than the age of the person producing it. And I think it’s really dumb to quit at 38, so I won’t be, just in case you were wondering.

I’ll need a bigger advance, though, to pay for the airbrushing on my book jacket photo.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Where oh where has my Sedaris gone?

Three weeks ago, the local library suffered a bomb scare. When I tried to return my item on-time like the good girl I’ve always been, the whole place was cordoned off with yellow tape.

The next morning, after noting in the newspaper that the library had not been destroyed in an epic explosion, I tried again. The chickens and I swung by on our way out of town. It was 9:59 a.m.; parking was nil, eager library fans clustered. I parked the car around the block slightly illegally, locked the chickens in, and sprinted to the return drop, shoving David Sedaris’ “When You Are Engulfed In Flames,” cd version, in the slot before boogying back to the car. We hit the road.

Three days later, my email inbox presented a scolding message: “This item is overdue. Please return as soon as possible to avoid fines.”

I called immediately, declaring my innocence. In a neutral tone, the librarian said she’d do a shelf check. A week later, another reproachful email, another call, another shelf check.

I was more upset about this than might have been reasonable. I hate it when anyone is mad at me. And I really hate it when the library is mad at me. I love the library. I need the library.

Finally, 16 days after I returned Sedaris, this call: “Your item was returned and checked in today. Thank you.”

Thank who?

My faulty memory recalls no one in particular near enough the return drop to snake a hand in after my hasty retreat, but there could have been any number of someones: the sidewalk was crowded that morning.

This much is sure: Sedaris was somewhere. Someone had him. He was in the hands of a considerate thief, a stranger who took leisure with my overdue item and eventually returned it, possibly convincing himself in the process that he was more good Samaritan than criminal.

Whoever you are, thanks—I guess. Are you a Sedaris fanatic? Or simply an opportunist? Only the cds know for sure.

I doubt the library will be doing any fingerprinting. Why would they—they think I had it.