My Own Personal Gandalf

IMG_3458One of the ripple effects of not being protected as a kid is a lingering skepticism and distrust of adults and authority figures. Looking back, I don’t think it’s surprising I found my most rewarding jobs caring for the elderly in nursing homes and psychiatric settings. I found the fragility of their bones and minds and spirits incredibly motivating, knowing that they needed me to eat, drink, wash, dress, not be alone in the unsettled landscape of their minds.

Old people. Children. Animals.

I’m less sure what to do with the self-possessed, the put-together, the women with blowouts and enviable work/life balance. If you’re still doing a lot of healing work, there can be something pretty shaming about people who have it together. And, admittedly, sometimes people who have it together could stand to work on their presentation skills (you’ve seen the “hot Facebook mom” post and backlash, right?).

So yeah. I’ve spent a lot of my life gravitating toward the less threatening types. Peers, people I can help.

There are benefits to this (like it’s awesome and low stress), but as I’ve gotten older I’ve also started to feel the down sides. The beautiful thing about two year olds is that they want to do everything for themselves. And truly: it’s a great way to learn. I am all about puzzles, for example, and I fully support letting kids dig through anything in the house that isn’t dangerous or fragile+sentimental. But there are other times—like getting out the door by 8:45—where it would be really awesome if your toddler would take your word for it when you explain how a shoe works.

I need some mentors in my life too.

Some wise women. Some grown ups. Some people who can tell me when I’m making amateur mistakes and how to save my energy for the real work of life.

The most obvious obstacle (ok, besides hating the phone and having no time for lunch) is that the world seems to be short on flinty-eyed, ambitious hacks who were also once stay-at-home moms with toddlers and a domestic streak. I would LOVE to find the complete package, but even small pieces would be awesome.

Basically Gandalf with a typewriter.

I feel like there has to be such a wealth of experience and insight and support out there. I’m just not sure how to find it. I’ve tried joining writers’ groups and participating in writerly things, but serious writers are hard to find. One surmises they are probably at home. Actually writing.

I’m keeping my eyes peeled, but in the spirit of Oprah, I am also putting my intention out there into the universe.

2014 would be a magnificent year for mentors.

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The Slow Churn

The builder renovating our basement is the father of two sisters who have been my best friends since I was a kid. Like I don’t remember a time we weren’t up in each other’s kool aid, and we are two for two weddings as bridesmaids (but no pressure, Melanie. I kind of see you eloping in Turkmenistan on a whim anyway).

This morning, cajoling Iris out of her cocoa-stained pjs around nine-thirty and bouncing Oliver to sleep to the intermittent drilling of drywall, it occurred to me that even with her thirty years familiarity with me and hours upon hours of personality analysis over coffee and wine (but not at the same time because: gross)—even with living a mile away and getting together every week or two for Kardashian binges, Jennifer doesn’t really know the pacing of my days—or the construction quality of my home’s bones—in the same way her dad or any other type of in-home professional could just by doing the job at hand.

Different ways of knowing, different ways of viewing a life.

Of course, in the real world people are too busy living their own lives to pay much attention to other people. But because I’m writing a murder mystery, my brain is not exactly in the world of rational behavior.

Possibility is what interests me.

And I find it sort of fascinating to think about how two different people could have very different pictures of the same person—a sort of factual dailiness vs. analysis over coffee—and I wonder which would be more accurate in a crime scenario? More able to predict behavior? More insightful?

Not much, you know, but maybe the germ of something…

Numbers

 

Well, I’ve done it again. I’ve gotten sucked into the pointless numerical games that seem to go with creative writing in general. I started writing seriously again on my redraft about three weeks ago and was for the most part just trying to take advantage of the opportunities I had and not worry too much about word count or deadlines…

Which worked so well that I was nearly at the 50-page mark yesterday and suddenly all of the calculating, shifty gears in my brain are turning, and I’m pulling up the computer’s calculator function so I can see how many words I would need to write every month in order to have the draft done by September; how many words every week; how many words every day.

800. The magic number is 800. If I wrote 800 words, 5 days a week, I would have a complete novel draft by September.

For about an hour, this was the best news I’d had all week. I hadn’t really thought it was possible to get a draft done before the baby came. I was just trying to see how far I’d get. Anyway, this ceased being great news when Iris went down for her nap at a weird time, so I only got 500 words written during her nap, and then she went manic at bedtime and wouldn’t sleep until 45 minutes past her usual time, so my time and energy were both a bit lacking and anyway I only logged about 700 words total that day.

Fine. 700 isn’t that bad.

Until TODAY, when I sat down to write during her nap and realized that I’d written a character out of a chapter where I needed him, and the dinner conversation in chapter two isn’t detailed enough to carry the weight I need it to for later development. Fine. Those aren’t complicated fixes, but it takes some rereading and a little finessing and suddenly my two hours are up and, while both problems are nicely resolved, I’m only 200 words in the black.

Also, and possibly more alarming, I’m not really 100% what happens in the next chapter because one of its major objectives, as my notes inform me, is to “develop characters X and Y,” and that’s not exactly a roadmap for success.

This is why numbers suck.

Instead of feeling great about having 50 pages roughed in, now I’m dealing with all this anxiety about whether or not I’ll stay on schedule (I won’t) so I can have a completed draft by September (yeah, I won’t). I read about lots of authors who use word counts and page numbers to stay accountable in the writing process. Victor Hugo is said to have written 5,000 words every working day. Stephen King says he aims for 2,000. And, Graham Greene allegedly wrote exactly 500, stopping mid-sentence if necessary. I mean, I am all about that process—it’s tidy, and you always know where you stand—but that is so not happening for me. And it never has. I’ve written 4 novels at this point (it’s ok, I’m so not bragging. None of them were sellable), and I’ve never stuck with a writing schedule for more than a few weeks.

So right now I’m taking a few deep breaths and trying to go back to the mantra that does work for me: take advantage of the opportunities you have.

Trying to take advantage of opportunities I don’t have is kind of insane, and yet I literally have to remind myself not to do it. Like, for example, while standing next to Iris’s crib for 20 minutes because she’s having an insecure night and can’t fall asleep without me standing there with a hand on her belly. Thinking about my word count makes me crazy at times like that. Being able to say yeah, this isn’t really a good writing opportunity makes it a lot easier to let go.

In my housecleaning rotation list, I have a note that says: everything is opportunity. It’s one of those optimistic zen things (I’m pretty sure that’s an oxymoron, but whatever) you see on calendars and crap that means absolutely nothing until it suddenly means something to you. I’m not saying I’m good at this (hence: a written note to self), but it’s something that I find hugely helpful when I have the patience to remember it at all. Everything is opportunity; the trick is to identify what kind of opportunity it might be.

I’m in a really busy, 2-year marathon of baby days right now. I don’t have a lot of writing opportunities, but I do have some. And I have a MILLION great baby-time/bonding/learning/character-growing/contemplating life opportunities, but that’s a whole different post. Sometimes I feel a little badly that so much of my mental strategy as an adult seems to be about learning to manage and manipulate my thinking in order to keep from triggering anxiety or negativity and stay happy and productive. Then again, maybe it’s just being a grown up. Hard to say.

Either way, that’s where I’ve been lately: writing.

My Cute Little Hobby

Nothing like starting the day off with a bang. Ok, for you Eliot fans, it did actually start with a 5:45am whimper, but that wasn’t why I was working up a good rant well before breakfast.

It started with the text ding on Carl’s phone.

I routinely ask Carl about his text and phone conversations because I’m an addict, and I need to know everything that everyone thinks about everything (and everyone). Carl humors me because he’s cool like that. Also because privacy is a total waste of time in our home. We are both astoundingly uncreative when it comes to passwords and use a predictable set of variations on the same ones we’ve used since high school. Carl can sign into any of my accounts. Probably the majority of my family could too.

Anyway.

Turns out it was a coworker who’s apparently thinking about having a baby and was curious about maternity leave policies and thought that, since we’d just had a baby, maybe we’d know something she didn’t. Carl had to use sick days for paternity leave (which ended up also being medical leave, but whatever). I guess they don’t offer maternity leave, he said, reading another text.

That’s illegal, I said promptly.

And then it occurred to me that I didn’t really know exactly what was or wasn’t legal, and since I was nursing anyway and my iPod was handy, I decided I had nothing better to do than start reading about maternity laws.

Just rockin’ the cradle while rockin’ the world

That’s when I got irritated. Turns out that I was right, it is illegal to refuse a woman’s request for maternity leave (certain restrictions apply). But nobody said anything about paid maternity leave. That’s totally optional.

A woman has the right to keep her job while pregnant, and a woman has the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. (Some restrictions apply).

How very far we’ve come.

You have the right to not be fired.

According to Fit Pregnancy, “Out of 173 countries worldwide, the United States is one of only five that doesn’t guarantee paid leave to give birth and care for a newborn.” That’s right. We come in neck-and-neck with Papua New Guinea on this one.

Under no circumstances would this be ok, but it’s also fails the basic logic test. Take our situation. Carl was able to work enough from home to stay on salary, but he could have taken advantage of the short term disability offered by his place of employment if he’d needed it. They offer short term disability, but they don’t “have any policy” about maternity leave?

I understand we’re a country enamored of Atlas Shruggery, and I can hear all the usual soundbites about free rides and honest days’ work, but let’s do the math, shall we?

  1. Women represent less than half of the workforce
  2. The average American woman has 2-3 children
  3. The average American worker works a total of 5-15 different jobs

They spend more on birthday parties than they would ever spend on maternity leaves, I ranted as we pulled into the parking lot. Carl agreed. He said he already told his coworker that she could sign him up for any protest she cared to organize. I said I’d make picket signs and carry Iris around in the Baby Bjorn for extra oomph.

I think I discovered your next blog post, Carl said.

In my feminist utopian novel, I said, this would NEVER happen.

I am always threatening to write a feminist utopian novel, which I am, sadly, never actually writing. Although I do spend a fair amount of time mulling over the social structure necessary to make things run smoothly, and one of the primary rules of its social organization is this:

The bearing, rearing, and educating of children is one of the basic tasks any society must manage in order to survive.

Or, as I increasingly want to snap at the geniuses who run (or just wish they ran) our country:

Having babies is not actually a cute little hobby of mine.

That’s pretty much how our the majority of people seem to treat the issue. A hobby or personal enrichment course. That’s how people can pretend there’s a difference between short term disabilities and childbirth. Well, she chose to have children so she needs to be responsible for them. Basically, it ranks on the legitimacy scale somewhere between breaking your leg and liking to scrapbook.

For sure: having babies is a uniquely rewarding and totally natural part of a woman’s life cycle. Also for sure: those cute little babies will provide the labor (and tax revenue) that will sustain this country for the next 40 years.

Apologies in advance, but the more sentimental people wax about children and mothering instincts the more skeptical I get. Yes, I played with dolls when I was little, and, yes, I love being a mom, but there are plenty of boys who threw balls around when they were little who probably just LOVE being football players with multimillion dollar contracts now.

(I feel a poem coming on. I call it “The Angel in the Big House”).

“I make food!” “I make houses!” “I make taxpayers!”

Last time I checked “loving your work” meant you’d found the right career, not “you do not deserve to be paid.” So for all the natural crap you want to talk about my brain’s “wiring,” I’m going to have to go all Thomas Mann on this one.

Everything is political.

Unfortunately, I’m not particularly interested in politics, but IN MY FEMINIST UTOPIA, people with stressful and socially significant jobs will be trained appropriately for them and then compensated for doing them well. Women who love children, give birth to them, educate and raise them to adulthood will be financially compensated, not as welfare but because they earned it. I’m thinking a stipend per child (with a cap, obviously), something that works out to an average American income for a mom of three or four. If you’re concerned about all the money this would cost, don’t be. In my utopia all they’ve done is cut out the middlemen (or middle women, as the case may be). Instead of paying someone else to watch your kid in daycare and then paying a bunch of other people to educate her YOU will be equipped to care for and educate your own child. What a novel thought.

And for those who want to have children without investing quite that much into the project, I have another novel thought: shack up with someone who does.

The truth, of course, is that as long as we’re a wealthy society we will always pay more for entertainment than we will for things we make a point of taking for granted. (Surprise!) But if cutting out primary education and large chunks of secondary doesn’t free up enough cash (at a yearly budget of around 600 billion), what about tapping into the phenomenal and embarrassing amount of money that goes into our entertainment industry (an additional 700 billion)? If wealth redistribution is a problem for you, then we may have hit a sticky point because unfortunately that’s how government works. They take a portion of your money and give it to other people whose services they deem worthy. You can be mad about the amount they take or who they give it to, but wealth redistribution is just one of those civilization 101 things.

(But best of luck with your moon colony).

Clearly, this feminist utopia is right on track to exist nowhere except in my own mind, but I like to think it’s one of the rare social systems that would actually allow for gender equality.

Maybe someday when I’m not working 120 hour weeks for the sheer love of my work, I’ll even write a book about it.

The Plot Thickens

Yeah, these are still waiting to be pulled

I am, by nature, a writer remarkably short on literary corn starch. I like characters, settings, and emotional development which often results in problems and conflicts, yes, but how to get those problems and conflicts to build into tidy, well-crafted crises is a whole different thing.

Part of the problem is that I have never written much about villains. It’s not that I don’t understand the supreme usefulness of them, I just find them sort of boring. When I was little and used to watch my brothers playing hours and hours of video games, I used to think about the endless stream of henchmen pouring out of elevators and halls in the villain’s elaborate secret hideout. What did they do in there all day? I imagined them playing cards and eating pizza, hopping nimbly through the complicated set of conveyer belts Jon or Michael had just spent two minutes navigating just to get to work in the morning. Did they bring their lunches with them? Did they go on team building retreats?

Generally at this point I would just start laughing.

Mostly my villains are not villains so much as characters who, by their selfishness or insecurity, create problems. Mostly it sucks to be them even more than it sucks to deal with them. That’s how life seems to me, anyway, so that’s how I write about it.

But when you don’t have clearly defined villains who are focused with razor vision on ruining your main character’s life, it becomes difficult to build a satisfying plot. I mean, you can go all literary, but I’m not an All Literary person. (It’s ok; I’ve made my peace with that).

I enjoy realism like I enjoy oatmeal: in cookies.

So when I started thinking about my old friend Lydia last week, I had lots of ideas about characters and the personal conflicts that might develop between them, but nothing really big. Nothing satisfying. Nothing I could summarize in a sentence and plunk down into a cover letter.

So I had to start looking. I knew I wanted the majority of the story to revolve around her interactions with a family of distinctly French background, and I thought that might yield a fair amount of conflict. Being French and being Catholic in 1850s England would have to hugely color a person’s social life and outlook on the world. I don’t know much about either, to be honest, so I decided to start looking around and see if I found anything promising.

I started with an historical timeline.

Did you know that in 1848 Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew to the more famous Bonaparte) was elected to a four-year term as president and that four years later—hello, exact date of my story—he declared himself emperor? Declaring yourself emperor in a nation famous for that one revolution where they guillotined aristocrats is definitely one way to create major conflict.

Now, clearly I don’t know enough about French history or politics to write a convincing novel about power grabs and revolutions, nor can I imagine a good reason my provincial English girl would get involved in French political intrigue (a problem not shared by romance or mystery authors around the world). But I can imagine my French family having strong views on the subject, and I can imagine them knowing people more involved.

It isn’t the plot, but it’s a chunk of granite that the plot can be cut from.

In celebration of the mini-breakthrough I went to library earlier this week and got a stack of books about French history and Paris and people rhapsodizing about all things French. It’s been a fun week of reading.

And I’m getting closer.

Writing in Spring

While rambling in West Yorkshire, 2005

Every year when the weather turns springy, when the shrubs start to green and the air smells like mown grass, I want to write about England. Well, not the real England, let’s be fair. My own imaginary corner of it, which is fairly idealized and perpetually Victorian and entirely populated with Trollopian and Gaskellian characters.

Little Wescott, Somerset.

I’m not sure why this happens in the spring. Maybe because it’s the only time of year that I’ve actually been to the UK, so all my memories and fantasies have snagged on it. I don’t know. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit three times, and all of them were in that narrow window of early fullness: weeks of May and June.

Three of my four novels have been set in England; one of them inexpressibly bad, one of them underdeveloped, and one of them nearly publishable (if only it was more romantic according to one agent; if only it were set in America according to another). The almost-publishable one is my favorite, though the plot is less clever and the premise less marketable.

I don’t really care.

I like Little Wescott. I like the people who live there. They’ve been with me for years, and I still like to think about them in odd moments, puzzle out their motivations and wonder about their relationships. They are dolls for grown ups. Or action figures or LEGOs or whatever you used to stand in for stories when you were small. I know all of their quirks and preferences. I know who marries whom. I know who dies young. I know the name of the local pub owner and where the principle roads lie. It’s my Mitford, my March family, my Avonlea.

It all began innocently enough. As a game, actually, a very Victorian sort of dungeons and dragons I developed with two of my sisters-in-law that year Grace lived in my parents’ basement and Carlie was just three miles away.

What a fun summer—piling into the van to go to the beach, talking the whole way about how Alexander’s character fit and what the Moore family was like. We started with a set of three sisters, but of course then we had to paint in the whole village, sketch out maps, arrange personality conflicts. Back when “hanging out” was as likely to end in collaborative writing as movie watching.

I guess it’s still true. We just don’t see each other as much. And then we all had kids.

But I haven’t lost track of the Wescotians. I kept playing with them in my spare time, and then I wrote a book about them, and then I extensively rewrote it three times… and dang it if I don’t still like them.

I like them so much that every year when the weather gets nice enough for me to go rambling around outside I start thinking about their problems and ambitions all over again, and I think that after all there were three sisters and I only wrote one book.

Maybe it’s time Lydia and Ellen got their own books.

A long road, yes, but such a nice one. We’ll see.

Words Again

I’ve been thinking a lot about what writing project I’d like to start next–knowing, of course that there won’t be any deadlines involved. Or much in the way of ambition.

(Neither of these are true, by the way. Just me, trying to ambush the inevitable disappointment when all of life does not conspire to be easy and triumphant.)

I have two plots knocking around in my brain: one a contemporary, more lit-fic-ish piece that perhaps resembles my own life too closely (hence the ambivalence to put finger to type pad); the other a companion book to one of
my previous, unsold novels, because I love my cast of characters and spending time with them is an alluring possibility. The only problem is that I can’t seem to come up with a conflict for them that is both dramatic and remotely believable.

I blame too much nonfiction in my diet.

It’s hard to really think clearly about fiction writing when all your recent reading has been essays and biographies and books on childcare. Suddenly all the usual feints and reveals of fiction seem a bit expected. Unreal. Tinselly.

Suddenly I’m bored.

Or, well, unsure. Stoppered. Doubtful. Lacking in creative genius or even (and far more detrimental) the belief in my own creative genius.

All I know is it has to be fun or I won’t do it. I don’t have time for it, and if you’re stealing time you’d better at least make it count. None of this marketability crap for me anymore.

But it won’t be fun if I can’t find the balance between the believable musingness of nonfiction that I love and the simple adventure of fiction that I need.

Until then I keep rolling the ideas around in my mind. Which is, quite possibly, all I have time for anyway. At least until I can–coax or teach, I’m not sure which–this tiny woman to nap in her crib and not, always and without fail, snuggled in my arms.

We’ll see about that.