Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Full Circle

I started journaling during the 1980 Winter Olympics.  I’d received a small diary for Christmas, the kind with a lock and key, where I began every entry with “Dear Diary” and kept a running tally of the Americans’ gold medals.  I was almost ten years old.  I know that because I remember writing, “I am almost ten years old.”

By high school, I’d graduated to spiral bound notebooks and the words “Dear Journal.”  I recorded my thoughts about the popular girls, too judgmental to share anywhere but in a  journal that no one would ever read.  I wrote about heartache I endured when the boy of my dreams rejected me time and time again, too embarrassed to tell even my best friend but not afraid to press my pen deep into the pages and write I LOVE THIS BOY a hundred times in a row, that is, when I wasn’t writing I HATE MY MOM.

I didn’t keep a diary during college.  Probably, I was too drunk or too hungover or too busy living in the moment.  But after I graduated and secured corporate employment, I went back to my journaling ways.  I wrote with metallic pens in leather bound books and began each entry with the date.  I carried my journals in a briefcase as I traveled the USA, and I documented the sights and sounds and tastes of cities I feared I might not visit again.  This was a luxurious exercise and proof of my existence when I was otherwise alone.

I stopped keeping a journal when I was twenty-six, a few months before I married my first husband.  I found myself writing that something was wrong, that I was still in love with someone else, that I was trapped in the forward motion of a wedding.  I looked back at my words on the page, horrified.  Then I gathered all the journals I had kept during the years and tore them up, page by page, into tiny little pieces that no one could ever find and stitch back together.  Yes, it took several days to accomplish this task, but I did it nonetheless.  I felt no remorse or regret afterwards, just a freedom to move forward, without the fear that I might someday be trapped by my own words, embarrassing and overly expositional.

This fear carried over into my fiction, which I continued to write even after journalling had failed me.  More than half the work involved in my writing was the covering up of anything that resembled me.  I almost always wrote from a male perspective, invented characters whose lives were nothing like mine, crafted interesting and poignant plots about other people’s problems, deleted any accidental references to my own emotions or desires or terrors.  I believed the job of a fiction writer was to create a story from scratch, that those with true talent didn’t have to steal from their own experiences in order to invent something clever.  I got quite good at this, actually.

I wasn’t entirely ignorant.  I knew I needed time - a repository of characters and settings.  Life gives us these.  Write what you know.  I did that, of course.  But I didn’t write what I felt.

A year ago, I sat at my computer in a small ski village in upstate New York and made resolutions.  I would write more in 2015.  And I would learn more about writing.  I would submit my words to literary journals.  I would document the experience in a blog.  I accomplished those things, although, there were times I almost didn’t.

In the meantime, a strange thing happened.  I experimented with exposing more of myself through my words.  I’m a fiction writer, it’s what I do best.  I continued to write fiction.  But with each new story, or during each edit of a previously rejected story, I included more of my own emotions.  I pushed myself to identify my fears, my embarrassing moments, my private desires, and include them in my fiction.  Masked, of course.  I had developed good masking skills over the years, something that finally found a proper place in my fiction.

In October, I traveled to Germany with my husband.  He had a work thing, and I sat in a hotel room somewhere in the Black Forest, where I organized 75% of the short stories I wrote in 2015 into a chapbook of sorts, nothing I was looking to publish, just making sense of it all.  I realized, as I cut and pasted paragraphs, that the stories I wrote in 2015 all took place in Roxborough.  Some, I knew happened in Roxborough, I set them there.  Others happened in Boston or Paris or California, but when I lined them up next to each other, I saw the patterns, the environment.  I heard the Northwestern Philly accents.  It’s where I grew up.

I had spent the year subconsciously journaling.

On Christmas Eve, I received a letter of acceptance to a legitimate literary magazine.  My first acceptance letter.  A year in the making.  My short story, “Five Men and My Tits” will be published in February.  The title alone gives me away.  Do I want people to read it?  Hell, yeah.  Just, not people I know.  You know?

In 2015, I read a half dozen books on the subject of writing.  I wrote more, and I wrote better, and I became unafraid.  On the eve of 2016, I’m once again sitting at my computer in a small ski village, this time in Chamonix, France.  My resolutions remain the same.  Except the part about receiving my first acceptance letter.  Because that happened.

Supplementary Material:

I met Sarah in the Fall of 2014.  She was passing through Paris while finishing up a piece for Harpers Magazine.  We shared weird facts about ourselves on a short Metro ride between Bastille and Clichy, then exchanged email addresses, and by the time she moved back to Brooklyn, we’d formed an unlikely friendship over too many glasses of wine.  That happens in Paris.

One of those times, while we were wasting the afternoon at an outdoor café on the Place Victor Hugo, I told Sarah that I was finally ready to move to the next level as a writer.  I needed to purge my fears about writing, to learn to write from a place of panic and embarrassment, to expose myself.  She said, “That happens in Paris.”

Sarah is back in Paris for six weeks, working on another story.  We shared a carafe of vin rouge on the Rue des Martyrs the night after she arrived from New York.  We had an entire year to catch up about, to reflect upon.  She had this story published, and received this recognition, and finished a year of writing these essays.  I hadn’t published anything, but she treated me like her equal, kept our conversations on a non-dumbed-down level, which is probably (one of) the reason(s) I enjoy her company so much.

She asked how my writing was going, and I talked about opening up, and she remembered what I had said about that a year earlier.  When I verbalized it, I realized how far I’d come.

Bonus Supplementary Material:

Another of my writer friends in Paris just published a short story, as well.  Read this.

To 2016.  Santé!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What I Learned By Not Winning NaNoWriMo

In my mid-twenties, I worked as a meeting planner.  Thanks to that job, I traveled the entire USA in about five years.  I rode horses in the Arizona desert, watched surfers from the cliffs of La Jolla, and collected sea shells on Sanibel Island.  I caught a 120 pound nurse shark off the Miami coast, and an 80 pound halibut in the famously harsh waters near Kodiak Island, Alaska.  Will Smith chatted me up in Phoenix; Ed McMahon shared a breakfast table with me in Palm Springs; and Mick Jagger invited me into his limousine in Dearborn, Michigan.  Also, in Dearborn, I saw the red velvet chair in which President Lincoln sat when he was shot and killed, but that was a different trip to Dearborn, because everyone should see Dearborn more than once.  I learned to love grunge in Seattle, and I learned to golf in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  Coworkers dragged my ass to the Indy 500, and different coworkers convinced me to order my first whole lobster in Boston.

Recently, I was running in the Bois de Boulogne with a friend of mine, and she was telling me about her once-upon-a-time career in Nashville, when she was similarly aged in her mid-20s, and I listened to her stories, and even she was fascinated by them.  “That seems like a different life all together,” she said, “like it wasn’t really me.”  Yes, I thought, like a lifetime of dreams stitched together to create a person you know, but it’s not actually you, because you are 44 and you live in Paris.

I didn’t win NaNoWriMo.  So what.  Also since November, Slush Pile Magazine rejected “She’s the Perfect Babe” and The Black Warrior Review rejected “The Confession, Typed and Saved on my Hard Drive.”

But I’m writing.  Every single day, I’m writing.  Sometimes, I’m lucky to churn out 700 words.  Other times, I delete and dip into the negative.  My outline is evolving, and my story is expanding.  There are times I think I might complete this novel, dammit, and won’t that be something!

In the mean time, I saw Madonna in concert last week.

But enough about me.  Let’s discuss The Bestie.  She experienced angst last week when a poorly planned line for funnel cake held up a holiday light extravaganza.  She schooled me on the Affordable Care Act, and she supported me when I told her I was cutting my hair off.  She responsibly dealt with cyber bullying, and she didn’t judge me when I groped Les Pompiers in my apartment.  She helped her sister and brother-in-law move from the house in which they raised their children, and she hosted one hell of a Thanksgiving dinner.  Also, she had a birthday, which makes her the same age as me for the next six months.

My friends here in Paris tell me they can’t share their experiences with friends in the USA, because no one understands, which is absolutely true.  How do you tell someone the fourth floor is actually the fifth, or that your toilet paper can be purple or orange, or that Cou Cou means Haaaay Giirrrrrrrll, not Um You’re Crazy?  How do you explain that dogs are allowed in restaurants and wine tasting is a chore without getting de-friended?

Anyway, it doesn’t matter.  The Bestie is the girl who wasted months of her life roller skating with me in the corner parking lot and riding bikes with me along Ridge Avenue because that was how we got from here to there.  We built Barbie mansions out of couch pillows and wooden pallets, balanced our butts on a tall stone wall hoping we wouldn’t fall, and talked about boys for hours hoping we would fall.  We took long drives to the Jersey shore, to the Pocono mountains, to nowhere in particular.  Those parts of my life seem real, somehow, not scenes from the never-ending dream.  Maybe because it’s a shared experience.  And after all these years, nothing has changed.  I mean, for the most part, anyway.

I can tell The Bestie that recently in Paris, I saw a movie with a French lady, and I saw a movie alone.  (P.S. Vue Sur Mer?  For the love of God, skip it).  A German girl taught me how to bake an apple strudel.  I finished a handful of books, including two on the subject of writing, and I’m reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, because The Bestie told me to read it.  I forced myself to jog an average of twice per week, with a chick who is a far better runner than I am, and probably a better writer too.  For reasons I can’t explain, I walk to the 8:30 AM Mass a few weekday mornings every month and clam up when it’s time for the sign of peace.  I’m waiting impatiently for my older son and my stepchildren to arrive for the holidays, drinking too much vin chaud at holiday parties and Christmas markets all over town, and indulging in hot chocolate at places like George V, which I seriously can’t afford right now, considering the ski trip we’re planning in Chamonix.  I can also tell The Bestie, if I wanted to, that recently in my novel, my protagonist stole a stash of electronics from the mob, outgrew his dress shoes, and escorted a rich girl to a dance.  But I don’t necessarily have to tell her that, because she doesn’t ask but she will read it someday, and that’s awesome.

So what did I learn during NaNoWriMo?  I learned to outline but write freely.  I learned to write the things I’m afraid to write, but not to take it seriously.  I learned I don’t have to meet my word count goals, but writing every day is monumentally important.  I remembered that I love it when my characters do things that surprise me, and they can only surprise me if I’m writing.  I reached 12,300 words, and that’s nothing compared to the 50,000 words my online buddies churned out.  But for me, it’s a fucking miracle.

Yanno the most important thing I learned since NaNoWriMo?  I don’t know the girl who traveled throughout the USA in her mid-twenties or who independently raised two boys in her mid-thirties, but I do know how to stitch together moments.  Writing is stitching together moments.

2015 is almost over, people.  Did you have good moments?