Category Archives: Creativity

A Lot of Good Punk Rock to Come

The day after the election, a co-worker said, “Well at least there’ll be a lot of good punk rock to come out of this.”

SuicidalTendenciesAlbum

Without Reaganomics, the world would have never had this classic. So maybe everything really does happen for a reason.

It’s true that many artists are inspired by political strife, civic discord, sexism, racism, hatred of the sitting president (one of the first punk songs I heard was “I Shot Reagan” by Suicidal Tendencies circa 1983). At this very moment, certainly there are thousands of musicians, painters, dancers, sculptors, and writers expressing their concerns for the country (and the world) through their art, and I suspect that we will see and hear the fruits of these efforts for a long time to come.

Since the election, it seems like everyone has become a blogger. The Internet is brimming over with people detailing their opinions on…well, everything. My once cute-animal-abundant Facebook feed is overrun with lengthy posts about the president colluding with Russia, pre-existing conditions, the imminent dismantling of the E.P.A., immigrant bans and The Wall, and the attorney general’s call for mandatory maximum sentences, sprinkled in among reposts of articles on these same topics from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, Politico, and so many more.

It seems like everyone has something to say. Except me.

I haven’t written anything – fiction or non – for months. I haven’t been able to find my words. I can’t seem to form a coherent sentence even in my own mind. I simply do not know what to think or how to feel other than terrified. And when I try to sort through my emotions, the thunderstorm of anxiety in my stomach starts up again, and I know there will be no sleep tonight.

So I’ve been spending time with the words of others. I’ve been reading Ann Patchett novels and listening to murder and true crime podcasts. I mowed through Sherlock, Happy Valley, Lava Fields, and Jessica Jones. I finally started watching Mad Men.

I spent ten days in Iceland.

Next week, I am bringing home a twelve-week-old puppy.

I am distracting myself, trying to restrict my intake of daily news to small, digestible bites. Yet I feel sick much of the time.

Of course, writing could be my perfect escape. What better time than now to throw myself into a new project, to create a whole world over which I have total and complete control? But you can’t force these things.

So for now, I’ll take baby steps. Like this one.

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Send in the Trolls

One of the first rules of the Internet is Never Read the Comments, especially when it comes to something you have written. As most of us have witnessed first hand, there’s something about the relative anonymity of the comments section that transforms people into hate-spewing cretins. People routinely misinterpret – often willfully it seems – each others’ words and then clamber up onto their virtual soapboxes to preach their version of the gospel. Or call you a goddamn stupid motherf*cking a$$hole licker. Or, you know, whatever.

But sometimes it’s impossible to resist reading the comments.

trolls

Pretty sure they’re telling me to kiss their respective asses.

A few months ago, I wrote a story for xojane.com* about the time I spotted an old flame making balloon animals at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. This guy had 1) broken my delicate eighteen-year-old heart, and 2) once been a moody and pretentious aspiring filmmaker, so there was some satisfaction in seeing him surrounded by sugar high children. My story received hundreds of comments, ranging from amusement to solidarity to irritation. Some accused me of pettiness and insensitivity. One commenter was outraged that I was picking on balloon artists.

Over the last two years, I have written and recorded a number of short pieces for the Perspectives segment of my local public radio station. This experience has taught me that even public radio listeners can be over-reactive, albeit while using more polite language. My tribute to my former-hunter-now-elderly cat inspired a heated exchange between an angry bird lover and a defensive cat supporter. When KQED aired my analogy on the nature of prejudice and race relations, let’s just say I was grateful not to get any death threats. Two weeks ago, I was at the station to record my latest piece about staving off a panic attack at 13,000 ft, and the segment editor joked, “I’m sure the commenters will come up with something. Perhaps self-indulgent?” We laughed and I prepared myself for whatever would come.

In this day and age when it seems that everyone has a righteous opinion on just about everything, what does it say that my piece did not receive a single comment, good or bad? To most creative types, the worst reaction to our work is indifference. While I have received positive feedback from friends and acquaintances, I admit that I am somewhat distressed that my writing failed to inspire even one listener to indignation.

I really ought to stop checking the comments section. Seeing that “0 Comments” is breaking my heart.


*For the record, the bordering-on-cheesy heading and subhead were not mine.

 

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We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful

2014Morrissey_0306192014While Morrissey’s lyrics have never been what I would consider cheerful or optimistic, his songs about heartache and longing still resonate with the lost teenager inside of me. Judging by his song title “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, it appears that his more than 30-year career and loyal fan base has inspired resentment and jealousy among his fellows.* Yet I wonder how anyone could possibly begrudge a friend’s success, that is if he or she really cares about that friend.

Which begs the question: Are these people really your friends?

A very dear friend of mine—someone I have known since way back when I was still a lost teenager listening to Smiths cassette tapes on my Walkman—just published her third book, a graphic memoir about trying to connect with the Japanese half of her family. Last week, I attended her standing-room-only reading at a popular Haight Street bookstore before she headed out for her multi-city book tour.

I have never been published. I do not have an agent. I have spent the last three years writing a novel that may never make it into print. So, am I envious of my friend’s success?

Yes and no.

Sure, I would love to have my book published. I would love to have a second and third book published. I would be both thrilled and terrified to read from my work in front of an eager audience.

the-more-i-ignore-him

Couldn’t resist this one.

But I do not feel even a drop of resentment toward my friend for achieving these things. I witnessed first hand the many years that my friend has practiced her craft: her drawing, her writing, and her storytelling. I have watched her quick pencil sketches and stripped down text transform into this beautiful book that I can now pull off of the shelf and hold in my hands. I saw how hard she worked to get her first book deal, and know well that she worked just at hard to get her second and third.

In short, I have seen my friend work her ass off to achieve her success.

As I watched her read from her new book in front of the packed room, I felt a swell of pride and privilege to know such an amazing person. Congratulations on all of your success, Mari!


*Or perhaps he just got rich and bitchy.

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“Inspired By A True Event!”

There’s a saying that goes something like this: “Memoir is 90% fiction and fiction is 90% memoir.”*

While I’ve never plugged a real life experience “as is” into a work of fiction, my experiences absolutely inform my characters and story lines. For instance, I recently dug into my own life for inspiration, and struck gold with a shower scene that received rave reviews from my writers’ group.

Let me explain.

Do you see the faces? Two dogs, and duck for good measure.

Do you see the faces? Two dogs, and duck for good measure.

I’ve been struggling to establish attraction and intimacy between two of the characters in my novel-in-progress. The consistent feedback from my beta readers is: “I’m not totally sure what they see in each other”. The triumphant shower scene was inspired by the time my boyfriend and I spent ten minutes in the shower spotting dog faces in the granite pattern. I’d done this in private for years, and was oddly exhilarated to share it with him. It was a small moment, but it brought us a little closer.

Most writers reflect on their own experiences for inspiration, but what about when we are inspired smack dab in the middle of said experience?

Just this past weekend, my boyfriend and I were dancing (badly) to bossa nova music – in my living room and in our underwear. We giggled as we stepped on each others bare feet, fully aware of how ridiculous we must look. And as I snuggled into him, I thought, “You know, this could be a good scene to show more intimacy between Alice and Patrick.” But then it hit me: I wasn’t in the middle of a “scene”. I was in the middle of real life. And I was missing it, buried in my thoughts about my novel.

So I snapped myself back into the present, and tucked away that nugget of inspiration for later. Stay tuned on that account.

And in the meantime, I will leave you with that short but sweet shower scene “Inspired by a True Event!”

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I’d always found showering with someone else a little awkward, taking turns washing shampoo out of your hair, standing there naked in the bright bathroom light. The first time I’d showered with Patrick, I stood with my arms across my chest, shivering, until he pulled me under the water, pressed his wet skin against mine.

“Do you see the faces?” he asked, pointing to the granite walls. “In the pattern of the stone. See, two eyes, a nose and a mouth,” he said, tracing the shapes with his finger. And right before my eyes, the indistinct forms came together into a woman’s face, complete with long wavy hair. “And here’s a dog’s face,” Patrick said, pointing to the left of the woman. “And a cat over here.”

I’d showered every day in that bathroom for two years and had never once noticed the faces looking back at me. But now they were everywhere.

“This one looks like a horse,” I said, my eyes searching over the granite. I’d completely forgotten to feel awkward. “And this one looks like a walrus, if you tilt your head a little. And here’s a bear!”

It was such a dumb thing to get excited about, but I couldn’t help myself.

We spotted faces in the granite until the hot water ran out. And from then on, every morning when I showered, I looked for new faces so that I could point them out to Patrick the next time he was over.

If we were going to break up, I was going to have to move. How could I ever shower in my bathroom again?


* Percentages are approximate

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Under the Influence

This past weekend, I spent three ridiculously enjoyable hours holed up in a private karaoke room in Japantown with my pal Bill. The room was small and poorly ventilated, but a steal at $30 an hour, and the establishment’s unofficial BYOB policy saved us even more money on overpriced drinks. It was a win-win.

As a general rule, I do not sing in front of people. I am all too aware of my inability to carry — let alone hit — a note. But the combination of a private* room, the company of a trusted friend, and a couple of adult beverages helped me to overcome my hesitation. By the time we were belting out TLC’s Waterfalls, I’d almost forgotten to be horrified by the sound of my own voice.

There does appear to be some correlation between intake of alcohol and improved performance**. Over the years, I’ve noticed my pool game, dart-throwing abilities, pinball wizardry, and even my writing improve significantly after just one drink. When I was in college, I had to write a paper on a dreadfully mind-numbing topic (Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists. Discuss.) for my Political Science class. I struggled through the first half of the paper, took a break for dinner and a glass of wine with my housemates, and then returned to my room to complete the assignment. The following week, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a B+ for my efforts, and highly amused with my teacher’s comment that the second half of my paper was superior in both content and style than the first. In short, the buzzed half was better than the sober one.

As I discovered, a nice glass of wine or pint of beer can loosen me up, help me relax into the game, let the words flow uninhibited from my fingers. But while one drink improves my performance, each subsequent drink plunges my abilities further into a void from which there is no return. At least until the next day.

So how the hell did our beloved literary alcoholics pull it off? A quick Google search for “authors with drinking problems” yields a multitude of examples: Faulkner, Poe, Dorothy Parker, Capote, Hunter S. Thompson (among other addictions), James Joyce, Bukowski, and of course, the Godfather of Alcoholic Authors, Hemingway. These folks created some of the best literature of all time, yet I have a tough time getting my fingers to hit the correct keys after a few drinks. It seems unfair somehow that alcohol can heighten the senses of some while dulling the minds of others.

But in addition to being remarkable storytellers, most of the the above-mentioned writers struggled with depression and many died from alcohol-related complications. And despite the lingering noir glamour of the genius alcoholic writer, I’d still much rather write mostly sober than live mostly drunk.

 

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*Private in that no one can see into the room. However, a trip down the long hallway to the bathroom revealed that the rooms are far from soundproof.

**Although one could make the case that when it comes to karaoke, perhaps it’s not that the drinks improve my singing so much as they temporarily damage my give-a-shit-ometer.

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Little Victories

A few weeks back, I set off on a week-long creative retreat in the Sierra Foothills with four friends and four dogs. No phone, no Internet, no cable = no distractions, right? I dusted off the mostly complete draft of a young adult novel I wrote in thirty short days four long years ago, excited to take a break from my novel-in-progress and revisit what I remembered as a rough but fairly clever storyline and interesting, layered characters.

After the packing and the driving and the first night of food and drink and socializing, I got down to business. For about half an hour, anyway. Barely one chapter in, I was bored by my own story. In my defense, I was lounging on the deck with my feet up, surrounded by sunshine and dense woods, dogs and friends – of course, I was distracted! And anyway, it was just the first chapter.

How was I supposed focus on my laptop screen with this view?

Tucked away in the trees. How was I supposed to concentrate while surrounded by this view?

But as the days went on, I spent more time dozing on the deck or trying to rally my friends to go wine tasting than reviewing/editing my novel. Was it the quiet natural setting? The fact that I was overdue for a vacation? Or perhaps my novel and its characters simply weren’t interesting enough to keep even my own attention.

It was a rather depressing thought.

But then halfway through the novel and mere minutes away from setting aside the “creative” part of this retreat, I read the following chapter and felt—if not fully redeemed—at least encouraged that my novel wasn’t a total snoozefest. I’ll take the little victories where I can get them.

The setting: College dorm party the last night before everyone goes home for the Thanksgiving weekend. Sooni is our heroine, along with friends Anne and Gretchen, and boyfriend William. Gretchen is planning to visit her boyfriend Marc, who is studying in London, over the Christmas holidays.


Sooni Greene (Working Title)

Everyone was in good spirits, except perhaps for Anne, who wasn’t as excited as the others to be going home for the long weekend. Although her mother and younger sister had invited her to join them, Anne had declined in favor of a pre-cooked meal and football with her father.

“The last thing I need is to have the two of them stare at me all day,” she said.

Gretchen, on the other hand, was too busy counting off the days before she left for London to notice Anne’s mood. “I can’t believe it’s less than a month now,” she said, beaming.

Sooni thought she saw the expression on Anne’s face turn sour as she finished her third beer and went in for another. Shortly after that, Anne left the room without a word.

Gretchen and William were chatting animatedly about 1960s menswear, a topic that Sooni had nothing to contribute to. William was detailing for Gretchen the exact cuts and fabrics of the wardrobe he had inherited from his grandfather, who apparently was quite the dresser in his time. Sooni did not participate in this conversation, but was pleased that her boyfriend and her friend were getting along so well. She sat back in her chair and looked around the room. She recognized several of the attendees as Gretchen’s neighbors, but did not know most of them by name.   A short girl with what seemed to Sooni like a larger than normal chest caught her eye, and then meandered over to where Sooni was sitting.

“Hey Sooni, how’s it going?” she asked with a beer-soaked smile. “Are you going home for the weekend?”

Sooni nodded, sipping from her beer to try to buy herself time to remember the girl’s name. It was something like Katie or Cathy or- Katrina. It was Katrina and she was in her U.S. History class.

“I’m going home tomorrow,” Sooni said. “What about you?”

Katrina grabbed a nearby chair and sat down next to her. She talked happily about her family’s plans for the weekend, which seemed to involve a great deal of both pie and football.

“Because my brother’s at Berkeley, you know. On the football team,” she said. “By the way, do you know where Anne went?”

Sooni was a little thrown. She didn’t know that Katrina and Anne knew one another, had never seen them exchange a word. She glanced around the room for Anne, but couldn’t locate her among the crowd.

“I don’t know,” she said. “She was here just a little while ago.”

“Oh, okay,” Katrina said, half rising from her chair. “I’ll see if I can find her.”

That was odd, Sooni thought, watching her go. Sooni turned back to Gretchen and William, who were now talking about their favorite old time movie stars.

“Hey Gretchen,” Sooni interrupted. “Is Anne friends with that girl Katrina?”

Gretchen grinned slyly. “I wouldn’t call them friends, exactly,” she said. “Katrina has been following Anne around like a lovesick puppy ever since they hooked up after that art show a few weeks back.”

Sooni furrowed her brows, confused and also a little hurt. Why was this the first she had heard about it? Anne usually had no problem sharing the most intimate details of her sexual encounters, but she had said nothing.

Gretchen seemed to pick up on her thoughts, because she quickly added, “It was the night that you guys went to the planetarium, remember? Anne dragged me to this terrible art show because she didn’t want to go alone, and then ended up drinking a bunch of the free wine and making out with Katrina. To tell you the truth, it was sort of a nightmare.”

William, who had been quietly gazing out into the crowd, spoke up.

“Anne is quite the handful sometimes, isn’t she?” he said. Gretchen’s face fell slightly. “I mean, she’s witty and interesting and all,” he went on. “But she’s also a bit of wild card, no?”

Sooni knew that this was true. She’d had similar thoughts. But Anne was her friend, and she wasn’t going to trash talk her.

“Anne’s all right,” she said, a little louder than she had intended. She cleared her throat. “She has a big personality and all, but she’s…well, she’s an artist.”

William burst into laughter.

“I swear, Sooni,” he said, “you should major in International Relations.”

Gretchen laughed at this, and then Sooni couldn’t resist joining in with a smile of her own.

When Gretchen left to go to the bathroom, Sooni and William scootched closer to one another, holding hands and watching the party. They often did this, whether at the DC or on the lawn by the student union; they could sit in silence for twenty minutes at a time, watching people go by.

When Gretchen returned, she looked tense. When Sooni asked her what was wrong, she shrugged her shoulders.

“Anne,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s drunk. And not in a good way.”

Sooni was about to ask what had happened, but then Anne appeared in the doorway and sauntered into the room. Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes were hard. She focused right in on Gretchen.

“Didn’t mean to run you off,” she said. Her voice was quite slurred now, and Sooni wondered how much she’d had to drink. Or if she’d had something else, in addition to the beer.

Gretchen did not respond, or even look at Anne. She kept her eyes resolutely focused on the two girls across the room that were trying on each other’s shoes.

“Oh, are we pretending that I’m not standing right in front of you?” Anne said, her smile spreading but her eyes growing colder.

“What the-“ Sooni started, but Anne talked over her.

“It must be hard for you,” she said, in a mock concerned voice. “I’m sure you get lonely with your loyal boyfriend thousands of miles away, but no one’s stopping you from having fun in the meantime. And I don’t hold people up to the same high standards as you do.”

Gretchen narrowed her eyes but still said nothing.

Sooni watched this interaction, completely perplexed. She couldn’t imagine why Anne was goading Gretchen on this way.

“Anne,” Sooni said sharply. “What kind of thing is that to say to someone?”

She felt William stir beside her, but did not look over at him. She fixed her stare on Anne, but Anne waved her away with one flailing hand.

“You’re not part of this, Sooni,” she said.

Before Sooni had a chance to react, Gretchen was up on her feet.

“I’m going to bed,” she said, looking only at Sooni and William. “I hope you both have nice Thanksgivings.”

And then she turned and walked out the door, completely ignoring Anne, who watched her leave.

Then Anne screwed up her face and clutched at her stomach, like she was in terrible pain. Sooni and William were on their feet in seconds, their arms around Anne, leading her out of the room.

“I think I’m gonna-“ she said, but she was too busy throwing up on the linoleum in the corridor to finish her sentence.

“Looks like she had the pasta for dinner,” William said as he and Sooni attempted to hoist Anne back up into a sitting position. Sooni ignored this comment and concentrated on getting Anne’s hair out of the line of fire.

Anne threw up twice more, and then looked up at the audience that had gathered.

“Oh fuck me,” she said, attempting to stand up on her own. She looked at Sooni with heavy eyes. “Get me out of here. Please,” she pleaded quietly.

“We will,” Sooni said, “but we’ve gotta clean up this-“

“I’ll do it,” William said. “You get her back to her room before the RA sees her and kicks her out of the dorms. I’ll clean this up.”

Sooni stared at him, feeling both gratitude and a little shock. “Are you serious?” she asked.

“Go on,” he said. “I’ll come by later.”

Sooni wrapped her arm around Anne’s waist and helped her onto her feet. It was sort of like being in a three-legged race with a one-legged partner, and it took Sooni several tries to get Anne to walk in sync with her. Finally, they made it down the elevator, out of the building, and into their own. Maria had already left for the long weekend, so Sooni dug the keys out of Anne’s pocket, used her shoulder to push the door open, and then dragged Anne to her bed.

Once she had Anne situated and placed a trashcan next to her head in case of further vomiting, Sooni closed the door and collapsed onto Maria’s bed.

“Why do you do these things, Anne?” she asked, exasperated. “I mean, why the hell were you trying to pick a fight with Gretchen? It’s just plain bitchy.”

Anne looked at her through half-closed eyes. “Yelling at me isn’t going to make me feel any better,” she said in an uncharacteristically small voice.

“Well, I’m sorry but your feelings are not exactly on the top of my list of concerns right now,” Sooni exclaimed. “Do you even appreciate the fact that William is back in Stanton Hall right now, cleaning your puke off of the floor? Just because he’s a nice guy?”

It was the first time Sooni had ever raised her voice in anger around Anne, and even in her inebriated state, Anne seemed to pick up on the significance.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I just…I just…”

And then she did something so unexpected, so completely out of character that Sooni’s annoyance instantly dissipated. Anne started to cry.

Sooni sat next to her on the bed, and put her hand on her shoulder. “Why are you crying?” she asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Anne asked through her sobs, covering her eyes with her hands.

Sooni thought for a moment. She knew Anne was less than thrilled about the holidays coming up and all the particular familial tension that came with them. But something else must have triggered this meltdown. Anne’s mood seemed to darken when Gretchen was talking about Christmas and going to London. And now that Sooni thought about it, she could remember other times when Anne had reacted similarly, getting bent out of shape whenever Gretchen talked about Marc. The look on Anne’s face would go from annoyance to resentment to- jealousy?

“Holy shit,” Sooni breathed. “How long have you been in love with Gretchen?”

Anne did not respond but crumpled into renewed sobs. But suddenly everything was making sense to Sooni: why Anne hadn’t wanted to be roommates with Gretchen, why she roundly abused the notion of long distance relationships, or relationships in general. Was this why she so often got drunk and picked up on random girls when they went out, to try to make Gretchen jealous? Or was it to distract herself from the fact that she was in love with a straight girl whom she could never have?

“Wow,” Sooni said aloud. “Does she know?”

“God, I hope not,” Anne said into her pillow, her voice muffled and slurred. Then she suddenly sat upright, and Sooni had to draw back not to get hit in the face by the side of her head. “And that asshole Marc,” Anne said, tears still streaming from her swollen, mascara-ringed eyes. “She talks about him like he’s a fucking saint and a poet, but he doesn’t love her. He treats her exactly as what she is to him, a cute girl to fuck when he comes home from college for a visit. Whenever she’s not around, he sticks his dick into anything that stands still long enough, and Gretchen has no fucking clue.”

“Are you sure? How do you know this?” Sooni asked, shocked.

“Because he tried to fuck me,” Anne replied. “And at least three other girls I know of. He is a complete and utter scumbag.”

“When did this happen? And why didn’t you tell her?”

Anne shook her head. “Don’t be naïve,” she said, although not unkindly. “No one wants to hear that shit. And I’m sure as hell not going to be the messenger.”

“Poor Gretchen,” Sooni sighed. “And she’s so excited to see him.”

At this statement, Anne lunged toward the trashcan and proceeded to throw up again. Sooni quickly reached over to pull her hair out of the way. After a moment, Anne rolled onto her back and looked up at Sooni imploringly. Her face was streaked with tears and eye makeup.

“I feel like shit,” she said. “Do me a favor and kill me now.”

Sooni had to stifle a laugh. The situation, although far from funny, struck her as so bizarre, she almost didn’t know what else to do.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Sooni said, stroking Anne’s hair gently, her fingers lingering over the purple streaks that never seemed to fade. “But I am going to get you some ibuprofen and a glass of water.”

After she had rinsed out the trashcan and watched as Anne dutifully swallowed the ibuprofen, Sooni took off Anne’s shoes and jacket, and pulled the covers over her.

“You know, I wasn’t so sure about you at first,” Anne mumbled. “When Gretchen brought you around. But you’re a good friend, Sooni.”

And with that, she passed out.

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Automatic Out-of-Internet Reply

Hello and thank you for visiting my blog. I will be out of the office, my home, and Internet range for a whole week.

During this time, I will have only a few fleeting moments of access to the Internet. This means I will not scroll through endless reply all work email threads, fall into the YouTube rabbit hole (just one more sloth video!), or take Facebook quizzes to determine my political “coordinates”, which country I should live in, or which Kardashian I am. I will not Instagram pictures of my dinner or tweet funny quotes said by someone else. I will not read Huffington Post or Salon articles, or the oft rude and occasionally delusional comments that accompany them.

In short: With the exception of the occasional jaunt on Google maps, I will not be on the Internet.

Enjoy the SilenceWhat I will do is relax in a little house in the woods with four friends and four dogs. I will drink wine and eat cheese and go to the lake, where I will float in silence and listen to everything and nothing. I will look at Big Trees. I will play with dogs and talk with friends. I will walk the mile into town to buy more wine and cheese. I will write. And then I will write some more.

Sometimes, I will do nothing at all.

And when I return – refreshed and inspired – I will write some more.

If you should have an urgent need in my absence, I am confident that there are many other writing blogs out there to tide you over.

Thank you again for your interest. I will get back to you just as soon as I return to the Internet. Or at least once I’ve caught up on my email.

Cheers,

Lisa

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The Golden Goose

Once upon a time, I called up a friend who worked at a big New York publishing house to ask for some professional advice. I was nearing completion of the third draft of a novel and had yet to dip a single toe into the murky waters of agents and editors and publishing deals (oh my!)*. My friend inquired as to my novel’s subject matter, length, and genre. When I told her I thought it fell under the category of Literary Fiction, she audibly sighed.

“Literary fiction is a hard sell,” she said. “Genre fiction is much more marketable. And if you really want to get published, Chick Lit is HUGE these days.”

I just about choked on my tongue. I knew my friend meant well, but I would have rather abandoned writing all together than pen some vapid romance novel disguised as female empowerment, one where the core conflict centers around who the spunky young heroine should date: the sweet but shy guy at work, or the hot asshole at the bar.

Fifteen years later, my feelings have not changed. For the last two and a half of those years, I have toiled away at yet another literary fiction novel; this is not out of some sort of pride or obstinacy, but because I cannot write a story that I do not love. But of course, there are many shades of love.

Next month, some friends and I are going on a week-long creative retreat to an Internet- and television-free cabin just outside of Yosemite. I am excited to spend time with dear friends (and our dogs), to meander through the wilderness and lounge by the lake, but I’m extra jazzed because I’ve decided to use this getaway as an opportunity to take a break from my current novel-in-progress and work on another project for a little while. The only trouble is that I’m having a hard time deciding which of two projects to dust off for the occasion.

Project No. 1: The mostly complete second draft of the accidental** young adult novel (working title Sooni Greene) I wrote four years ago. It has some good things going for it – interesting characters, important social themes, and conflict well beyond dating matters – and I have always planned to revisit it at some point.

Project No. 2: A quick and dirty first draft of a ‘tween book (working title The Burnt House) that I wrote about a year and half ago. Missing persons, neighbors burning down their houses, and tears in the space-time continuum…what more could you ask for in a mystery/coming of age story?

Golden-GooseAs I pondered my options, my publishing friend’s words echoed somewhere in the back of my mind: “Genre fiction is much more marketable.” At present, I have two genre novels to chose from: Tween or Young Adult***. Instead of instinctively selecting the storyline that feels the most compelling to me right now, I caught myself contemplating which of the two would be more likely to get published.

So does this mean that I am finally on the trail of the Golden Goose, that elusive “marketable” novel that I can both love and publish?

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*Sadly my knowledge in this realm has improved only marginally since then.

**Accidental in that I did not set out to write a young adult novel. But it’s interesting what you discover when you vomit out 70,000 or 80,000 words in a short period of time.

***And wouldn’t it be ironic if my first published book was for the under-eighteen set?

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A Visit to Bluebird Park

I admit it: I quite enjoy writing in the voice of a pissed off teenage boy. My character, Nate Chapman, is more real to me than a lot of people I interact with on a daily basis. Nate and I share many youthful experiences and emotions, which makes perfect sense because I made him up. He is part of me, just as I am part of him. Deep, eh?

I am more than halfway through the third draft of my novel-in-progress and well into the book’s third section, which is told from the viewpoint of my teenage friend. I gotta say, I’m going to miss this kid when it comes time to revise the fourth and final section. Until then, I’ll treasure my time with him, and hope that you will like him too. Happy reading!


Small Legends Part Three: Nate, Chapter 12

Me and Kevin didn’t hang around as much by our senior year of high school. He got this girlfriend named Summer and that was sort of it for him. She was okay, I guess. At least she wasn’t annoying like a lot of girls in our year, girls who got drunk at parties and ended up locking themselves in the bathroom, crying about how some guy – usually some guy right in the next room – had used them for sex or weed. Summer didn’t get drunk but she did have this sorta power over Kevin. Power of the Pussy, we’d say. What she said was how it was, and Kevin would’ve sworn that the sky was fucking green if she’d told him to. That’s how it was.

But sometimes when Summer went to visit her sister off at college somewhere, or if she was out with her friends, Kevin’d turn up at the park or at my front door, asking what I was up to, and if I wanted to go down to Telegraph Ave and look for used CDs. And if I wasn’t doing anything, I’d say sure. And we’d go.

Over spring break, Summer went to Palm Springs with her family and suddenly Kevin was like a barnacle on me. I couldn’t shake him if I’d tried. Not that it was so bad, just that there was a girl on my mind, the girl who’d been on my mind ever since that first time in Bluebird Park. Cassandra had already graduated but she still hung around in the park sometimes, and I was on a mission to at least get a hook up in before I left for college. But it was really hard to get in with her while Kevin was hanging around. So instead, we spent a lot of time smoking weed at the park with a couple of guys from school, Tim Wheaton and Dave Carter.IMG_3462

I’d known Wheaton and Carter since junior high but we didn’t really hang out, mostly because trouble seemed to follow those two wherever they went and it was best to stay out of the line of fire. They’d both done some time in juvy for possession and public intox, and word was that Wheaton once forced some girl at a party to suck him off. Also, they were assholes. But they usually had good weed, so I could put up with them for a little while if it was worth it.

That night at the park, Cassandra was hanging around with this fucktard junior kid who kept putting his hands on her knee, and then on her thigh and then up near her cooch, like he was playing chicken or something. She didn’t seem too bothered but it drove me fucking nuts.

Wheaton and Carter were scoping out some freshman girls. They were newbies to the park for sure, their squeaky voices and endless giggling giving them away to the predators hiding in the weeds. I’d just pinched out a joint when Wheaton turned to me, stroking the pathetic scruff of hair on his chin and sweeping back his long white-boy dreads, which stood in sharp contrast to Carter’s dark skin and shaved head. For some reason, Wheaton always smelled like Vaseline.

“Hey Chap Man, I saw your sister coming out of the 7-11 the other day,” he said, throwing a grin in Carter’s direction. Carter grinned back, wisps of smoke escaping from his crooked mouth. “How old is she now? Fourteen? Fifteen?”

Teen-potI glared at him, certain this was going nowhere good.

“Thirteen,” I said, “and if you so much as look at her, I’ll rip your eyeballs out through your asshole.”

Wheaton leapt back in mock fright, throwing his hands up in the air in surrender.

“Relax, Chap Man. All I’m saying is that she’s growing up real nice, turning into a pretty girl,” he said. “Too bad she got all the looks in the family.”

My fists were clenched and I was about a second away from clocking the guy when I felt Kevin’s hand on my arm. He wasn’t trying to restrain me, just trying to calm me down.

“Dude,” Kevin said to Wheaton, “uncool.”

But Wheaton had found a sore spot, and like assholes all across the universe, he couldn’t help but keep poking his dirty hippy fingers into it.

“Relax,” he said. “She doesn’t even have tits yet. But maybe, in a couple of years…”

I looked over at Cassandra, who was still over by the swings with that horny fucktard. All I’d wanted to do that night was come to the park and see if I could get her to make out with me. And now I was going to have to hit Tim Wheaton and hope that Kevin would come to my aid when Carter jumped into the mix. Wheaton was pretty scrawny and I was sure I could take him, but Carter was built like a linebacker and easily had 30 lbs on me. And I’d seen him take down guys much bigger.

“I mean, she might not even be your sister,” Wheaton went on, his voice getting louder and making the giggling freshman girls tturn around and look. “I mean, you two don’t look anything alike. Maybe when she’s got her tits in, you can– “

image-3-for-paper-pics-22-02-2011-gallery-25587119Outside of a couple months of karate classes in the fifth grade, I’d never actually taken a hit at anything other than a punching bag, so I was completely unprepared for how bad it fucking hurts to grind your knuckles into someone’s face. Wheaton, who by all accounts had been hit in the face on numerous occasions, seemed more surprised than pained as he staggered back a few steps, nearly falling into the sand moat.

“What the fuck, Man?” he spat out, along with a mouthful of blood.

Kevin gripped his hands firmly onto my shoulders and tried to steer me in the opposite direction.

“Let’s go,” he said.

I knew I should listen to him and split before everyone clued in to what was going on, before Carter knocked out my teeth with one hit. But I was pissed off, and feeling reckless. So I pulled out of Kevin’s grasp and went back in for another on Wheaton, who barely dodged my second punch. This time it was Carter who grabbed me by the arms, and try as I might, I couldn’t wriggle out of his grip, so I planted my feet as best I could and tried to brace myself for the beating I was about to take.

When a few moments passed and none came, I looked up at Carter. So did Kevin, and even Wheaton. We were all watching him now, waiting to see what he was going to do. But he just shrugged and let me go.

“You get one,” he said, “but that’s it.”

He looked over at Wheaton, whose jaw had dropped open like a cartoon cat.

“You talked shit about his sister,” Carter explained indifferently. “You know that ain’t cool.”

71916198Wheaton was too dazed to respond. By then, several curious onlookers had gathered around, obviously hoping for a fight.

When Kevin leaned in and said, “Let’s go,” I didn’t protest.

We were almost to the gate when Cassandra caught up to us.

“Hey, are you okay?” she asked, her voice a little breathy.

“He’s good,” Kevin responded, not stopping.

“Those guys are assholes,” Cassandra said, gesturing back towards Wheaton and Carter. “Tim tried to rip me off on some ecstasy last year. Fucker.” When neither Kevin nor I responded, she went on. “Hey, so Nate…are you staying around over the summer and everything?”

This made me stop. Four years I’d been coming to the park and I still wasn’t sure if Cassandra knew my name. I felt an involuntary twinge of pleasure located somewhere below my belt.

“I’m moving down to L.A.,” I said. “In July. Probably won’t come back for a long time.”

Cassandra reached out and touched my arm. Her warm little hand on my skin was enough to bring on a very unwelcome boner, and I thanked fucking God it was dark out and that my jeans were on the loose side.

“We’ll have to hang out then,” Cassandra said, “before you go.”

She was at least half a foot shorter than me and I could see down her tank top. She wasn’t wearing a bra.

“Yeah, that’d be cool.”

Kevin was shifting around uncomfortably nearby, like he wasn’t sure if he should wait it out or just walk away now.

“Well, see ya,” Cassandra said, taking her hand back.

I wanted to reach for it, reach for her. Maybe put my hands on her bare legs like that fucktard back at the park. But I was too late and she was already walking back to the park.15rfd-image-custom3

“See ya,” I called back.

“Holy shit, Dude,” Kevin said as soon as we were out of earshot. “I guess the nature shows are right.”

“What do you mean?”

“The females are always hot for the alpha males.”

“I don’t know if hitting Tim Wheaton makes me an alpha male. Maybe just stupid.”

“Being alpha is all a state of mind anyway,” Kevin explained. “Half the time when animals fight, they’re just putting on a big show to impress everyone. Besides, it’s not like you could let him say shit about Alice and get away with it. I mean, if some guy looked sidewise at my sister, I’d have to kick his ass just on principle. It is weird, though. I guess I never thought about it before but you and Alice don’t really look alike, do you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I look more like my dad. And Alice looks like…“

I was about to say she looked like our mom, but that wasn’t right. They had the same eyes, sure, but that was about it. Alice was already as tall as our mother, and she was the only one in the family with blond hair, except Aunt Margaret but I don’t think that was her real color. Alice’s nose was different from our mother’s, than any of the rest of the family. But then again, she was still practically a kid. Who knew what she would look like when she was older.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess she’s still growing and everything.”

Kevin shrugged. “Yeah. Probably. Hey, so do you think you’re going to nail Cassandra before you leave?”

I glanced back over my shoulder to make sure no one was around. It was barely 9 o’clock but already the neighborhood was quiet, the houses dark except for blue flickering TV light. A light breeze shook the trees, their newly leafed branches creaking slightly.

“I’m sure as hell gonna try,” I said.

Kevin grinned.

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The Blank Page

Nearly all of my anxiety dreams take place in high school*. I am unprepared for the final exam. I can’t find my class. I’m not wearing pants. This is pretty standard anxiety fodder.

I recently had the classic neurotic writer version of this dream after spending an evening struggling to revise a challenging scene in my novel-in-progress. In my dream, I was relaxing in a cushy chair on a wood slatted deck, basking in the glow of a late afternoon sun, when I was hit with the realization that I had a story deadline in the morning. I don’t recall if the deadline was for school or work or something else entirely, but I knew that there would be serious repercussions were I to miss it.

The parameters of the piece were almost non-existent; I could focus on any topic I wished, as long as I made a certain word count. The creative world was my oyster, but for the life of me, I couldn’t think of a damn thing to write about.

Creative Process

Time was ticking ticking and every time I looked at the clock, another hour had passed and still I hadn’t come up with a topic. As my stress levels skyrocketed, all rational thought was forced out of my brain, along with any thread of creativity.

I could write about whatever I liked, yet the anxiety of having to choose a topic prevented me from writing anything at all.

I woke up feeling edgy and unrested. This was due in part to the dream, but also to the troubling reminder of how much time I spend avoiding writing even when I’m not sleeping.**

Sometimes, I can barely wait to get home to my laptop. Other times, I start by taking a hard line with myself (I will write for a minimum of two hours tonight) and then negotiate down my own terms (well, after I eat dinner…and take a shower…oh look Project Runway is on…).

Why do I avoid doing something that I love?

Because I also hate it. There, I said it.

Sometimes I hate writing. It’s frustrating, ego crushing, and lonely. I can spend an hour effing around with one or two paragraphs, only to delete them and slouch away in defeat, feeling much worse about myself than if I’d spent the evening with a House Hunters marathon and a box of Samoas.

We’ve all heard the old adage “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”, which can be applied to just about anything. But if we only write when we are inspired, that means we only write 1% of the time. Settle in, because it’s going to take about 50 years to pen the first draft of that novel. Hope it’s a good one.

So 99% of the time, writing is just damn hard work. This is due not only to the significant challenges of the craft itself; writing also demands that I repeatedly risk my sense of self-worth. And the longer I put it off, the harder it gets. Like going to the gym or filing insurance paperwork.

Doing nothing is easy, but doing too much nothing makes me feel hollow and uneasy. I suppose I could watch three hours of television each evening and save myself the emotional roller coaster that comes with any creative pursuit. But I am confident that I will never experience that glorious, all-over mind and body tingle that comes in the 1% moment of true inspiration while watching Millionaire Matchmaker. I may be able to avoid the low lows, but at the cost of the high highs.

And really, what would life be like without some extremes to help keep the in-between in perspective?

 

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*Anyone who attended high school will not question my subconscious’ reasoning for this.

**Case in Point: I put off writing this here blog post until the night before I was due to publish it. Okay, so it was Valentine’s Day weekend and I was, um, busy with other things. But I’d known what I was going to write about for over a week. I suppose this is why deadlines were invented; without even self-imposed ones, we’d never get anything done.

 

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