Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Mind Like A Fallow Field

The past week was one of wind and fire. A stray bullet fired in the wild scorched the earth and draped billowing black clouds over the Salt Lake valley. Everything seems barren; sterile; unyielding. I spend the week preparing for my son's 6th birthday party, which --fittingly--is pirate themed. I hang a banner of skulls and crossbones across my kitchen and rummage through storage for the orange Tupperware container holding our Halloween decorations, retrieving a life-sized cardboard skeleton and tacking it to the wall. Its paper bones rattle in the wind of the incessant, useless ceiling fan.

I am longing for bone-white paper and black ink that runs like marrow, yet I have not written a word in days.

The week is punctuated by the passing of my paternal grandfather. Days before his death, my family gathers in his bedroom at the care center. The walls of the room are adorned with sepia photos of my grandpa as a young man, vibrant color photos of him and his wife, his children --yet he is shrouded in a white blanket on his bed, still except for the breath rattling in his lungs. I press my dry lips to his wrinkled forehead, and bid him goodbye.

The landscape of my mind is barren. I cannot write a word.

On the radio, I listen to an interview with Glen Hansard. He says that it is not necessary to work, work, work all the time. That, sometimes, it is useful to have a fallow period. A time to rest. Reflect. Revive.

This week, despite the sweltering heat, there are signs of life. My children and I inspect a captured spider under a magnifying glass, marveling at its delicacy. We watch the honeybees in the garden collect nectar from the flowers. We check daily on the four hatched triops, a gift from my sister, swimming in a Mason jar filled with water on my son's bookshelf. When it is time for swim lessons, I sit on the bleachers of an indoor pool and, the muggy, chlorine-soaked air notwithstanding, watch in delight as my children become weightless in water.

I am hopeful that this season of heat will not render the field of my mind scorched, but incubated.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The book that (nearly) made me stop writing

Have you ever read a book that was so beautifully written it took your breath away? Well, I have. In fact, after I read this book, I actually could not write for a few days, because my writing efforts seemed so pitiful in comparison. And that book was (drum roll please)...

Have any of you read this yet? If not, I would highly recommend it. Salvage the Bones is the story of an impoverished family from a coastal Mississippi town preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. What made this story so powerful to me was that, initially, the characters were completely foreign to me - Southern, black, poor - and by the end of the book I saw myself in them.

What books have you read lately that knocked your socks off?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Some Fatherly Advice

The man in the booth at McDonald's is looking at me. He is seventy-something, gray-haired, and crumpling the wrapper of his breakfast sandwich compulsively in his hand. We are facing each other in adjacent booths; he alone, me with my two rambunctious children. My kids and I are sharing a Big Breakfast with Hotcakes. I divy up the goods onto the extra Styrofoam plates I requested, and ignore my son when he asks me if the soda pop he is guzzling is good for him.

"Looks like you've got your hands full," the man says.

I look at the assorted corn-based products in front of me and shrug.

"Cute kids," he says.


He looks out the window and I return to the task of prodding my children to eat. We are on our way up to Grandma's to spend the day with cousins  from Iowa. I check my watch and then insist that my daughter have another bite of her pancake. I pretend not to notice that the elderly man is looking at me again. I don't really have time for small talk.

"You have about ten thousand more of these trips to McDonald's before your kids are grown."

I smile politely. At the moment, the thought of ten thousand more of these outings is not particularly pleasant.

"I have one son," the man says. "He's nearly fifty now, if you can believe it. Lives in Murray, near St. Mark's hospital."

I smile, this time not so politely, and look pointedly at my watch.

"I remember the day he started grade school. We walked down the street to the school together. He held onto my hand the whole way. I remember it just like it was yesterday." He looks out the window again, and I follow the direction of his gaze, half-expecting to see the memory he's just shared replayed before us, on grainy black and white film. "Just like yesterday, if you can believe it. The time just goes so fast."

"Sometimes," I say, "a day spent with little kids feels eternal."

"Enjoy it while it lasts," he says. "You only have ten thousand more of these trips to McDonald's, and then..."

My children beam at me, their faces shiny with sticky syrup, and I suppress the urge to cry. Without consulting my watch, I smile a genuine smile at the man across from me and say, "Tell me more about your son."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Writing as Ritual

A few years ago (five, to be exact), I discovered the joy of writing (not to be confused with the joy of cooking. Or sex.) I guess I really should say I rediscovered the joy of writing. I wrote as a child, earnestly - poems, plays, short stories. I loved the sheer possibility of pen and paper. I wanted to grow up to be a writer. But then, as I entered adulthood, I stopped writing creatively. I guess I let myself believe it was something I couldn't do. A pursuit reserved for children and the gifted and talented.

But then I moved away from home and started a blog to keep in touch with my family. For the first time since I was a little girl, I was writing again. For fun. And pretty soon, I became addicted to the process. I started filtering through the detritus of my daily routine for those precious gems of something interesting. And then I started writing more than blog posts. I started writing stories. I finished one story. Then another. And then, the inevitable happened. I began to be tormented. I became plagued with the strange schizophrenia that afflicts writers -- where you simultaneously believe what you have written is complete garbage and the most wonderful thing in the world.  

I'm working on a revision of my third attempt at a novel. I have decided that, once it is polished, I will start the query process. It is difficult to do something that will almost certainly end in failure. It is difficult to balance optimism with realism. It is difficult to allow yourself to be judged - knowing full well that that judgment may entail a crushing blow to your ego.

I am currently reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. There is a passage in the book that particularly resonated with me:

"I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do -- the actual act of writing-- turns out to be the best part. It's like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward."

I know, I know. We've all heard the platitude about valuing the journey over the destination dozens of times. But when it comes to writing, I think it's true. I think about the way that writing has sustained me over the past few years. About the way it's allowed me to wake up with a sense of purpose. About the way it's allowed me to escape the routine of daily living. About the way it's allowed me to examine the world with new eyes. The past few years, writing has become one of the rituals that defines me. 

I'm not going to lie to you -- I would be over the moon if I ever become a published author. But, slowly but surely, I'm starting to agree with Ms. Lamott. The reward of writing really just might be enough.

***By the way, today the lovely ladies at Falling For Fiction are critiquing my query letter.(I know, I know, I'm not done with my revisions and I'm already thinking about the query.)  Hop on over and leave me your feedback, too.***