Monday, July 27, 2009

Plot Twist

As those of you following along know, I began writing a novel a couple of months ago. It’s my first attempt at fiction. The process started off with a gleeful bang (see A Puzzled Thanks), a phenomenon all the more personally delightful because of the fact that I was suffering through what seemed to be the death of hopes to publish a book of narrative non-fiction ever in this lifetime.

So I threw myself wholeheartedly into fiction; forgot all about essay, for the time being anyway. And what should happen? I came across a publisher who is interested in publishing a book of my essays.

I know! Can you believe it?

Two major thoughts about this fascinating turn of events, from a meta perspective. First, the universe has a funny way of handing over the goods as soon as the protagonist finally begins to work on letting go of her need to acquire them.

And secondly, words of wisdom from so many mentors over the years are absolutely true: keep writing. No matter if you can see where you are going, no matter if it looks as if you won’t ever get there, keep writing. Because: when ten years into your writing career you quite out of the blue happen across a publisher, and he just happens to ask you a question you thought you’d never hear, maybe something like “do you have a book-length collection of essays?”, you want to be darn skippy sure you can answer, “Heck yes I do.”

No guarantees on this one, I should note. I have a lot of work to do and it must please. But I am very hopeful. And no matter what, I will remember this moment as a big fat reminder that dreams should be stuck to, but never clung to. No matter which way the winds blow, you will be fine; but never stop working for the thing that will make you leap around in your very own kitchen.

I am quite certain I will complete that novel, by the way. The whole thing is there in my head just waiting to come out. But I shall be a bit distracted for a bit working on that which I’ve always loved: writing essays.

Monday, July 20, 2009

It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To

Last night I said, “If anyone spills their milk, I am going to cry.”

I was absolutely serious. Only moments before, in the frenzied aftermath of unloading two children, two bikes, two backpacks, a pink reusable grocery sack full of fresh-from-the-Earth produce, my purse, my work notebook and a handful of smashed crackers from the car, and during the frenzied push to put all of this away plus create some healthy and sustaining meal for the chickens and possibly even myself in the space of ten minutes, I set a full, open beer down on top of a clothing hanger on the counter.

It upturned, dumping beer on the farm share produce, the work papers, Chicken Little, her tricycle and the floor.

(What’s that you ask? Oh, yes, hangers and other miscellany on the kitchen counter are not unusual. Yeah, Chicken Little rides her tricycle in the kitchen quite often. And, actually, I do think drinking beer while multitasking at a high level is a wise choice. Without beer, I’d finally succumb to that nervous breakdown I’ve been threatening for so long.)

So. I wetted a few towels, wiped down the small wailing person now smelling like college bar, mopped at my notebook, threw the drippy farm produce in the sink, grated cheese, made quesadillas, rinsed snap peas, poured two small cups of milk, plunked it all on the table, and declared it dinner.

I sat. Then I said, “If anyone spills their milk, I am going to cry.”

But when not two minutes later, Chicken Little did indeed spill her milk, I did not cry. I did not make a single noise. I rose, dampened more towels, blotted at the now-stripped-naked-as-a-coed wailing small person and the table and the floor, removing all evidence of the unfortunate incident.

(What’s that? Yeah, I guess I should have known Chicken Little would spill her milk. She may be blowing the two-year-old set out of the water with her 14-word sentences and bicycle-riding skills, but she is still two.)

I sat. Two minutes later, the phone rang. I said, “If that’s Daddy, I am going to scream.”

Because Captain Daddy has this funny way of calling right during the thick of high-speed parenting hour. And then saying ever-so-helpful things like, “It just seems like things are so chaotic with you and the girls when I am at work.”

But when it was indeed Captain Daddy on the phone, I did not scream. I informed him in my calm-competent-girl voice that we were quite busy eating a balanced and wholesome dinner, and that we loved him very very much, and how was his day going, and no, everything was going swimmingly here, just fantastic, really, a nonstop party, in fact, and I’d call him—darling, my love, my rock and guiding light—later.

And I threw the dishes in the sink next to the farm share and tossed everyone in the bath and read books and retrieved baba-sippys and Richard Parkers and closed bedroom doors and opened a fresh new beer and sank onto the floor and gave myself a big fat pat on the back for not crying or screaming.

(What’s that you say? Crying and screaming can actually be cathartic and restorative? Hmm, good to know. Sounds fun. I’ll try that next time).

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Most Fascinating Research Trip Yet

...and a little hint about my book-in-progress. :)
who can name the event?

(and for you entrepreneurial sorts, check out that last photo. She's holding a typewriter, and it's labeled "poem store". That's what I call extreme freelancing.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

How's Your Self Control?

An experiment conducted in the 1960s by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel tested children’s ability to delay gratification. A child was left alone in a room with a plate of marshmallows, cookies and pretzels. She was told that she could either eat one treat right away or wait until after the adult left the room for a few minutes. When he returned, she could eat two.

Most kids snagged one the minute he was out of sight.

The interesting part of the study is that Mischel followed the kids after the initial experiment and found that those who had been able to delay gratification became the more successful adults. The “high delayers” were willing and able to invest the time and patience it takes to, say, get a PhD. (See The New Yorker article Don’t! by Jonah Lehrer)

I am infamous for my ability to delay gratification. If anyone would let me, I’d open my birthday presents the day after my birthday. I presume I was a high delaying child (mom?). I graduated sixth in my high school class, magna cum laude from college.

But at a certain point, I started to question what I was delaying for. Sure, I had the fortitude to get through law school, but did I want to be a lawyer? (An emphatic no). What had good-girl weekends in college to become magna cum laude earned me? When I hit the job-hunting streets after graduation, I found that the answer was the opportunity to rock the world with an $8.75/hour job working the night shift in a home for troubled girls (along with the four million other psychology grads, not a one of us whom was asked our class standing).

That’s the problem. Two marshmallows are only a great reward if you love marshmallows (I think they are yucky).

Instead of the starter job or grad school, I started waitressing. Waitressing is all about instant gratification. Work five hours and receive a fistful of cold hard cash and a free beer. It’s even fun. Imagine that.

But eventually my natural inclination kicked back in. Powerfully. Is there any career more dependent on delayed gratification that writing? After ten years in this business, I say no. You spend months or years writing, wait a possible eternity for someone to publish you, don’t get paid until they do. One recently published essay of mine took eight years to get published (Fame vs. Fortune). And we aren’t going to talk about my book right now, ok: we just aren’t (Book Burning Take Two).

Is it true, then, that the treat of publishing (maybe it’s the pretzel) is still worth it for me?

I can see my name on a book jacket and it looks far more fabulous than a law degree or 1000 marshmallows. But I am also increasingly aware that there is much more to living than succeeding.

And thank goodness for that.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A (Puzzled) Thanks

I fear speaking too soon.

And yet I’d like to report on my novel-writing project.

Four weeks. 13,500 words. 35 pages. Five chapters. And my dominant emotion? Bafflement. At how easy it feels.

I know enough by now to realize that initial creation is always the fun and easy part of writing. And I know that I am just beginning even that. Finishing will be work. Editing will no doubt suck, as editing always does. And selling it (should I get that far) will be Sisyphean.

But, nevertheless, I feel as if I am watching myself from a distance, thinking: wow, who knew she could do that?

Perhaps the root of my bafflement is that during the six years I spent writing my memoir it never occurred to me —never ever never once—that writing fiction might be easier than writing narrative non-fiction about my dead baby.

(Ahem, a friend responded. Yes, I would think it would be quite a bit easier.)

Who knows how this will all fall out in the end, but right now this is exactly the balm I needed to move forward as a human being and as a writer. And even if this is all it ever is, I’d like to offer up the teeniest and most sincere thank you to the heavens for that.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Hurts So Good

My writing group friends agree: there is such a thing as a “good” rejection letter.

As I have reported in the past (Boomerang), an unfortunately much-too-common rejection letter in the publishing industry is no rejection letter—no response at all, which has the result of making one feel like pond scum, or worse, invisible pond scum.

Far too much of the time when I send one of my essay-babies off to publishing-land, it vanishes with barely a whisper of the mouse button never to be heard from again. After a several weeks, I assume it dead, or at least terminally neglected.

Which brings us to a good rejection letter. The qualities of said precious item convey that one’s slaved-over words were a) actually read by a fellow human being b) admired in some stated way and c) deemed worthy of a few sentences of semi-thoughtful reply.

Here’s a lovely rejection I received the other day.

Dear Kim,
Thank you for sending “The Why Season.” I’m sorry to take so long to reply.
I enjoyed reading your essay and found it both funny and touching. However, I must report that we’ve decided to give it a pass, as we recently published an essay on a similar topic and don't yet feel ready to revisit the subject. I wish you the best of luck placing this piece elsewhere.

Gee, isn’t that nice? Of course we should not overlook the fact that it’s a big fat no. But why dwell on that when we can bask in the weak filtered light of its approval? Sigh. I feel so warm and fuzzy inside.