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Category Archives: Writing

Sick days, Blue days and Birthdays

I really want to write something right now but I think I may be getting sick. My throat is scratchy and I’m feeling so tired. No matter that I got up at 5:45am because the cat was crying loudly again at the foot of my bed.

She’s old, pushing 18, and it’s like every morning she’s announcing, “I’m still here!” I’d like to toss her across the room and throw her the hell over there, but instead I get up with a heavy sigh and pad downstairs alongside her. We are both a little slower and more creaky than we were just a few years ago.

I give her fresh food as she twists through my legs. This used to be no big deal, but now half the time I almost trip on her. My cat’s cat reflexes have also gone to the dogs and she is no longer adept at darting out of my way.  We are two clumsy old broads.

My throat really is sore and I grab a piece of cantaloupe from the fridge, hoping the juiciness will soothe it. It does for an eighth of a second and then I’m back where I started, but now I’m thinking I need some Advil. I know it’s bad to take on an empty stomach but it’s barely 6am and I can’t think of putting anything in there except my coffee, irritating or fruit, acidic.

I take another piece of cantaloupe, sip my coffee and consider it all while I rest my head on my desk instead of typing brilliant, entertaining prose like I’m supposed to be.

When I pick my head up it is 7am and my middle son is looming over me. He wants a morning hug, pancakes and to know whether he needs to wear his blue or white shirt for his baseball game later.

I check the calendar and confirm that it is in fact a blue day and then realize the date. July 10th.  And now I feel a little sicker. It is my grandmother’s birthday. She died two and a half years ago and would have been 93.

I know she’s hovering around, watching me, tsking when she sees my boys running outside without shoes, invisibly rubbing my hand in that circular comforting way that she had when I’m on the phone with my father, wishing she could send over some lobster Cantonese, fried rice and an egg roll because right now I know she wants to fatten me up.

She took such joy in life and in the challenge of life. She was a lawyer without a license, a psychologist without a degree. A lover of babies, a card shark, a chicken soup maker, a shoe thrower, a piece of work, a force to reckon with, a giver of jewels, words of wisdom and tough love; a matriarch, a mother, a grandmother and a great grandmother.

From her first “Helloooeee” to her last “I love you more” and every affectionate “You rotten bitch” in between she captivated you with her commanding tone and raspy voice.

I wish I could do her justice but no one could.

I still hear her and think of her and wish she was here with me to enjoy my boys and tell me in person everything I’m doing wrong and how exactly I should be doing it. We would laugh over a bagel and lox, a good cup of coffee and lick our lips before we dove into our bowls of chocolate ice cream. We would talk for hours, but mostly I would listen, because she was a fascinating woman who led a fascinating life.

It’s July 10th and it’s a blue day. My throat hurts and now so does my heart.

Damn I miss this woman

Damn I miss this woman

Last pitch (promise) – It’s the windup

Yesterday…

The smell of urine overpowered my bathroom, courtesy of a cat litter box in need of changing. The laundry basket sat empty because apparently the new laundry basket was the house. There were a few licks of milk left but no juice, and I had just used the last two eggs to scramble a hasty breakfast for my son who I begged every morning to eat eggs but always chose Honey Nut Cheerios; yet on this morning with the cereal already mid pour into the bowl and 19 minutes to catch a train, he decided maybe he would like some eggs. And toast. Cut diagonally with butter, no crusts.

I don’t even bother with a deep calming breath, who had time for that nonsense? I quickly got to work preparing a nice warm start of the day so that he’d remember his mother kindly after she bolted for the door.

My own snacks had already been neatly packed in my keeping it classy H&M shopping bag alongside a slim folder holding copies of my pitch, backup pitch and sample chapters of my novel. I had been out of bed since 5am, ready for my fourth and final day at the New York Pitch conference.

The conference wasn’t at all what I had expected that first day as I sat in my seat sweating; my laptop at the ready. For some reason I thought we would be writing more, but quickly learned that this wasn’t your typical writing workshop. In fact, it wasn’t a writing workshop at all.

We were there solely to hone and sell our pitch; three paragraphs that encapsulated all the plot and intrigue, the conflict and characters, the style and setting, and also left them panting for more. Just whittle those 100,000 words down to 200. Go.

I had been extremely lucky that right from the beginning my pitch was good, so I didn’t have the extra stress of revising like many others. I gave them so much credit. Editing under deadline is when the pressure gets real, man. But where else would we get the opportunity to meet editors, hear their insights and possibly sell our stories? That was the pitch of the conference and clearly we all bought it.

My group bonded easily, milling about the hallway, compulsively checking the list of names posted outside the door for our five minute turns with an editor; some of us nervous, some shoulder-shrugging calm – a bra-tender and a preacher’s wife, a whirling dervish, a soft-spoken Indian woman and an ingénue. There were the moms and the survivors; such an interesting and eclectic bunch, which I guess could be said for most random people thrown together united by passion and panic.

As different as we all were, these were my people and I was honored to be among them. No matter how stressful, it felt good not to be alone in the struggle.

Today…

My house is almost back to order. The litter scooped, the washing machine churning, the fridge filled. I am rallying my three boys for their first day of baseball camp; back to life as I know it, racing around doing everything for everyone.

But as I hastily apply sunblock to each sweet, scowling face, pull water bottles from the fridge and double check their packs before ushering them to the car, my heart twists wistfully for those past four days when I put everyone else’s needs aside and was racing out of the house for me, chasing my own dream.

 

nypitchpix

 

More From The Pitch

Day two at the New York Pitch conference.

Her name was Jackie and she was an Executive Editor at the Berkley Publishing Group. One by one in alphabetical order, we pitched our stories to her in front of our group.  While I didn’t throw up during the practice round the day before, I had another chance to do it right here in front of a real live editor. Although with my racing heart, I was hoping that I’d pass out instead. If I was going to make a dramatic impression, I’d prefer the cleaner option.

Our chairs were arranged in a semi-circle stemming from the hot seat area, and I counted each person off as they went…The inspiring woman with the spinal cord and brain injury turned whirling dervish, the preacher’s wife who pulsed with personality and light, the girl who looked like sunshine and whose characters were named Orion and Graffen, the mother writing about mothering a bi-polar child, the bra-tender, the unassuming woman from Singapore with the beautiful prose…

They all took their turns along with many fascinating others, and I while I was slowly learning some names, I began to associate them through their stories.

Jackie listened attentively to every one of them. She took her time, re-reading the pitch page put before her, considering her words and advice carefully. She was kind; suggesting cuts here or there, asking clarifying questions, offering gentle critique.

“I am completely unintimidating,” she said, and as proof showed us her glasses which had been scotch taped together.  I did breathe easier in her open, unassuming way, until I considered that she was one of the four people we would see in this conference who held our dreams in her hand.

I was number 10 and when my turn came, I walked to the seat next to her and smiled. I forgot all about the 17 other people watching me as I introduced myself and my novel. I dove into my pitch, channeling the practiced voice I reserved for elementary class readings and my old advertising copywriter days.

When I finished, I gave a brief account of any relevant writing experience, flashed a broad, hopeful smile and then sat back relieved it was over and knowing I had done as well as I could.

She said nothing and I watched nervously as she re-read the presented copy of my pitch and bio. It was one of those extra-long movie minutes where you’re holding your breath, gritting your teeth and waiting on edge for the climax.

Finally she looked up at the class, turned my paper around towards them and said, “This, people, is a perfect pitch.”

Cue internal fireworks and champagne bottles popping. I beamed, giddy with pride and happiness. I wanted to take the moment and frame it. I could go home now. There was no topping this. I was done. Thank you very much.

“This is really great.” She said, leaning back in her chair. “I have nothing to ask you.”

Kvell. Blush. Glow.

“Well you can ask to see my manuscript,” I joked.

And she did.

 

 

Homerun

Home run

 

Here’s the pitch…

I was going to throw up.

I was surprised it hadn’t happened already. For over a month I had been working up to it; filled with a mild anxiety that I shoved to the back of my brain, but this morning there was no pushing it down as it churned my stomach and rose to my throat. I was going to vomit on the first day of my Pitch the Novel writing conference. All I could do was bring gum and hope it didn’t hit my shoes or anyone else.

I don’t know what I was thinking signing up for a conference where the sole purpose was to put yourself center stage and sell your novel. My heart flutters just waiting to introduce myself in a group. Yet, in a moment of poor impulse control coupled with new midlife bravado, I hastily pushed send on my application and doomed myself to a month of indigestion and second guessing.

And now, it was here.

My husband had taken the next few days off so that I could attend, and he and the boys were dropping me at the train; the one he usually took to the office. “We’re a family of pitchers,” he said, ever the coach, “Now go get em.” I smiled but still waved goodbye like I was heading off to war.

Walking on shaky, stilted legs to the platform, I felt so out of practice for being a real adult. Yet I fooled everyone by sitting down and staring at my cell phone mindlessly. Monkey see, monkey do.  What can I say? Eee Eee Eeee.

Forty-two minutes later, I stepped out of Penn Station and looked around excitedly at the blur of the faceless and the colorful, the purposeful and purposeless. It may only be a short train ride, but I was a long way from the person who used to walk these streets. I muscled up some lost swagger, straightened my sunglasses and only tripped once as I strode to the conference building where around 50 or so others loitered. Taking a deep breath that may as well have been filled with helium, I waited.

After introductions, we were split into three groups and I filed into a room with 16 others.  It was central casting for farm girls off the bus in the big city.  Still, though our wide-eyed expressions were the same, we were quite the hodgepodge; our ages ranging from 20’s-60’s, our races and backgrounds as diverse as the stories we were telling. We were the women’s fiction/memoir group. Many in the room had traveled a long distance to attend this conference. I felt a little lucky and guilty that I had easily hopped the 8:08 for our 9am start.

Our group leader, author Susan Breen, a kind woman and former success story of the conference, explained that we would each pitch our novel for feedback and critique from the group, then she asked us to turn the chairs in a circle. Ugh. Why did people like that?  But of course, I turned my chair and we all faced each other expectantly.

While this was our practice day before meeting with the real editors, putting myself center stage and pitching wasn’t practice for me, it was go time. I sweat in my chair just watching the first person take the hot seat. I guess she did okay. It was hard to concentrate with the light pounding in my head and heart palpitations.

I was up next.

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!

I was going to throw up.

algonkian

 

 

Dear Writers,

I’m in deep.

Can’t sleep, can’t eat… as much, can’t focus on anything else. I’m going to bed well after midnight and waking up by 4:30am raring to go, excited to get back to my hard uncomfortable computer seat and write and edit, hone and cut and fix.

My butt is numb half the time but I barely notice. I’m writing and I’m in love… with my characters, with the process, with creating something outside of myself.

I’m so tired, but like my character who has started a passionate affair that is as good for her as it is bad, neither of us can stop. We are addicted.

It has always been this way for me; whether writing bad teenage poetry, heartfelt essays, journals on my children’s journey to life or longer works of fiction, when I’m in, I’m in. I love that moment when you realize something great is happening, your story is evolving and you’re into the action. You may be writing it, but you can’t wait to find out what happens next.

It’s a genuine gift to enjoy the process of writing; the agony, the thrill, the total obsessive consumption that has you by the balls and keeps squeezing no matter how many gives you say.

Yet it’s totally reclusive and really the height of narcissism. Apparently, I prefer to just hang out with the thoughts in my head, the stories and people of my own creation than do anything else. What is more alienating and totally self-absorbed than that?

But there’s always a rub. You’d like to hope that if you spend so much time writing, you would actually do it well. But there’s no guarantee of that at all. To enjoy the process is gift enough but to actually expect to be talented? To have enough writing chops to rise above? Well, that’s just arrogance, stupidity, and a necessary aspiration.

Because tangled in all the insecurity and dedication, the loving and the hating is the hope that one day you just might hit on something good enough to rate. Something that will give others a moment of enjoyment or a secret thrill; will keep them on their toes, at the edge of their seats, reaching for tissues or whatever emotion you’re trying to convey.

Because a writer wants readers, needs them, and we also want our work to be recognized. You can’t sit for that many hours, days, weeks, months by yourself and then not crave worldwide domination, I mean some peer recognition. Not just your mother or your friends nodding and clapping – although where would we be without those claps and nods? – but the writing community; which if you’re relatively unpublished translates to an editor or an agent, and of course worldwide domination.

But no matter about that. It’s the carrot on the stick before us, a hope, a pipe dream, but onward we charge because we need to write. There is no other choice.

We are in deep.

book

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing from memory when your memory sucks

I may have discovered a stumbling block to my writing endeavors. It’s my memory, which kind of sucks. I swear, I can’t tell you all the things I’ve forgotten.

Seriously, I can’t.

Recently I was getting excited about an idea I had to write a book of essays on my father, organized semi chronologically through afflictions. Chapter one: Alcoholism or My father is a floor mat. Chapter 2: C is for Cancer. Chapter 3: Drugs are fun! Hey, let’s do them all! Chapter 4: Back operations and body casts. Chapter 5: Paranoia, anxiety, depression, oh my. Chapter 6: Holy shit, what happened to your colon? Chapter 7: I’ve fallen and I somehow manage to get up to do it again and again and again…Chapter 8: Is that a pain pump, or are you just happy to see me?

Now I know you’re just dying to read what will clearly turn out to be the feel good book of the summer, but the problem is that when I go over it all in my mind, it just lumps together into a pile of suffering; a giant of tumor of addictions and ailments. Which came first the back operation or the depression, the drugs or the pain? I can’t remember specifics. Was the heart attack 1996 or 1997?

So how can I write about it honestly when I can’t even really remember it? Can that be considered creative non-fiction – me flubbing the details but nailing the emotion?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.

That’s why I used to only write fiction. Fiction is fabulous. You don’t know something, you make it up! Well, maybe not if you write historical fiction or technical stuff, but generally, in fiction your imagination is your memory.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could do that in real life? Damn, I can’t find the keys… why they’re right there on the table, silly. Nervous about a job interview, well don’t be, you’re going to nail it. Not in the mood to make dinner, you’re so lucky, your spontaneous, amazing husband is about to walk in early with take-out from your favorite restaurant.

Having the power to create a story is such a gift, but somewhere during the creation you have to give up some of that power as well. You go in thinking your character is going to rob a bank or betray a friend, but then the characters take on a life of their own and all of sudden, you’re not making all the decisions, they are. There’s no relying on memory; you just need to choose from as many paths as your creativity and your characters allow. If it’s true for the storyline, it’s true.

So given my limitations, I’m not really sure how to proceed on the project regarding my father, or whether I should proceed at all. Of course even with non-memory challenged people, there’s still selective memory and varied perspectives to contend with. We really do create a lot of our past according to our emotional recollection and not necessarily what actually happened or when, so maybe there is a case for my version of truth.

I should probably just go back and edit my most recent manuscript of sex and betrayal in the suburbs. It’s a whole lot lighter and sometimes reality is really not as good as the reality you create in fiction.

Now, if I can just remember where I put those pages…

 

Yup, last place I'd expect them.

Yup, exactly where you’d expect a manuscript to be – on the floor in the corner, of course.

 

Good Enough! vs Good Enough?

When I’m in one of my gym classes, I can’t help but assess the assets in front of me. I size them up. Not to judge them in any way. It’s not about them at all. It’s about me. It’s about how I stack up.

Almost always I’m on the losing end of my self-assessment. No matter if I’m at my heaviest or at my most fit, I’m never good enough.

I’ve done this for as long I can remember. As a teen, I remember myself as the cute girl’s side kick; my best friend was really the one to want. I was always smart but never remarkably so, if you ask me.

20 years later and I haven’t changed. When I make cupcakes for my kids, I’ll always nod semi-approvingly and say, “They may not be so pretty, but they work.” When I put on a pair of favorite jeans, the best I can manage is, “They don’t look terrible.” When I size up those behinds in front me, I’m always shaking my head and accepting that while I could look worse, I don’t look all that good either.

Even with my latest manuscript, I have a very difficult time just admitting I think it’s good. If you ask me about it, I’ll first need to go through a bunch of hedging… “It’s not the same kind of writing as my essays… It’s just an easy beach read… It’s not going to win any awards or anything…”

Why do I undersell myself every chance I get? How can I expect anyone to take me seriously when I can’t even take myself seriously?

I’m always in awe of the people around me who possess the confidence to sell themselves. I remember at work watching guys march in and strut their stuff. Generally I never thought their ideas were any better than mine – often I didn’t think much of them at all; but they walked the walk, while I slouched and stumbled.  They believed in themselves, while I always felt a bit like a fake.

Yet, day in and day out, I sit here and type away my thoughts, my stories, my life. And almost every day, I’m at that gym working my tail off, although mostly it stays on. I must think it’s worth something; I must think I’m worth something to keep at it.

And I guess I do. I mean, I do.

But admitting that puts all sorts of expectations out there. If I told people my book was great would they agree or be disappointed? I couldn’t stand the disappointment.

I read posts on Facebook by bloggers who confidently say things like, “I’ve written this really important piece that we need to be talking about.” And I’m fascinated. How do they say that about their own work? How do they put themselves on such a high level? Not only is their work ‘important’, but we, as a general population, should be discussing it?

Sometimes it makes me roll my eyes, embarrassed by their self-serving assertions, and other times I’m beyond impressed. Go them, I think. Kind of like when I first watched Lena doing her naked all over TV thing.

Like my grandmother would say, “No one’s gonna toot your horn but you.”

I think I need to start trusting myself and my talents. I need to start thinking that I am really good and worthy and deserve success. I mean, I’m smart, I’m funny and gosh darn it, people like me.

It’s true.

Now I’ve just got to believe it.

toot toot

Toot