National Nobodies Writing What?

snoopywriting

It’s National Novel Writing Month

This is an annual event in which people are encouraged to write 50,000 words in a month. It is tremendous fun and the community that has built up around it is amazing. Millions participate. The discussion forums are filled with writers at all hours of the day and night discussing everything from the intricacies of characterization and plotting, to tips and tricks for motivating the muse.

Did I mention that it’s a community? Did I mention that it’s fun?

I try to participate every year. The most I’ve ever managed to write is 28,000 words. Last year I wrote 1,167 words on the first day and never wrote again after that. Life got in the way, like it always does.

Sometime this summer, when I started getting NaNoWriMo emails again, I debated even thinking about participating. There are pros and cons to participating. It is, after all, in November. The Worst Possible Month Ever. There many naysayers, among the people I know, and among actual writers.

Some people I know say I’m too busy, or I have kids, or papers to grade, or scholarship to publish, or whatever. I get made fun of for various reasons. “Well, if you have time to write a novel…”

“Real writers” don’t like NaNoWriMo at all. They don’t like the idea of the rabble getting their grimy hands all over Art and Literature.

The Naysayers say that the poor literary agents and junior editors are inundated with crap on December 1st because the participants are apparently too stupid to either revise their novels or submit them properly. However I’ve discussed with this agents and editors I follow on Twitter and they say they don’t get more submissions than usual after NaNoWriMo.

The Naysayers say that real novels are longer than 50,000 words. While it’s true true that most novels average 60,000-120,000 words in length, most people I know who write a novel during NaNoWriMo either write more than 50,000 words the first time around, or they revise their first draft and add much more after NaNoWriMo.

But just for the sake of argument, here are some novels that are 50,000 words or less:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (46,333 words)
  • The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks (52,000 words)
  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (50,776 words)
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (50,061 words)
  • Lost Horizon by James Hilton
  • Shattered by Dean Koontz
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (56,695 words)

Finally, the Naysayers say that NaNoWriMo produces bad writers. Really? Really? Since when does writing make you a bad writer? One of the things that I struggle with as a writer and writing teacher is convincing people that the only way to get better at writing is to write, and to write a Shit Ton.

I read one snarky blog recently in which the writer said, “How would you feel if it were National Symphony Writing Month? Write a symphony in a month! Well, it can’t be done, and I hate the fact that people think anyone can write a novel.”

OK, let me rain on the parade of the Delicate Genius. Sorry, but anyone can write a novel. And also? Anyone can write a symphony. Sure, it takes skill. Tremendous skill. And it take practice. But musicians don’t sit around writing symphonies. They do scales. They practice pieces. For hours and hours and hours and days and months and years. Good writers do the same thing.

People worry that writing 50,000 words in a month produces bad writing. I actually used to think this was the case myself, and I think it’s something that has held me back from finishing. However, once I actually started writing I came to realize that my real problem has been writing too slow, not writing too fast.

I tend to need a warm-up period, in which my writing comes out creaky and slow and pretty bad. This can go on for as much as 1,000-2,000 words. So if I’m only writing 500-1000 words each day, my usual pace, I never break past that point, and I’m chronically dissatisfied with my writing.

This time around I began writing furiously fast right from the beginning, my word count climbing at an alarmingly fast rate. I noticed something happens around 1,500-2,000 words. My writing gets better. Sometimes it even gets pretty good. I’ve written a few startling paragraphs that have blown me away. I believe I’ve taken my writing to a new level.

Another thing is that I’ve never written every day, for so many consecutive days in a row. I’m hoping to carry this habit into December and beyond. In fact, I’ve created a writing chain, and I don’t plan on breaking it.

I take comfort from knowing that Water for Elephants and The Night Circus are two examples critically acclaimed, best-selling novels written during NaNoWriMo. They also happen to be two of my favorite novels.

For people who think I should be using my time more productively, I would tell you two things. The first is that this is not time I would normally be using to do real work, or socializing with neglected friends and family members, or being a better mother. This is time that would normally be spent surfing the internet or watching television.

The other thing is that I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I could remember. I clearly remember being seven and wanting to be a writer. Writing is fully and completely part of who I am. Everyone who knows me well knows this about me. It’s a dream. A dream. If you don’t think I should be grabbing at it with every fiber of my being, I’m not sure I want to know you.

Finally, the real reason I started writing with a vengeance this time around is that my characters, the ones who have been living inside my head for a long time, showed up at my door one night carrying pitchforks and demanding to be set free.

So I write. And write. And write. I’m at 19,055/50,000 words. I’m supposed to have around 11,000 as of today. So you can see that it’s going quite well. So far. Knock on 1,000 planks of wood. I actually anticipate my novel coming in at around 70,000-90,000 words for the first draft.

I will no longer be posting word count updates to Twitter and Facebook, but I will put a word count widget here in the sidebar of my blog, and I will also post updates here from time to time letting you know how it’s going.

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Ten Foods I Won’t Eat

In honor of the all of the posts I’m seeing around Facebook about foods that the “experts” won’t eat, I’ve decided to make my own post.

donutsandbacon

 

1. Bacon

Just kidding. I love bacon.

2. Pepsi

Who drinks this? Coke is it! OK, I’ll drink it if you offer me one or if I’m at a restaurant that only serves Pepsi. I’m not going without soda!

3. Any food that expires the day I’m eating it.

That would be wrong.

4. Leftovers that “look funny.”

Especially when my other option is ordering a pizza.

5. Cold french fries.

Luckily they usually don’t last long enough to get cold.

6. Those weird orange and black candies you get at Halloween.

Because they were last manufactured in 1957.

7. Mayonnaise on hamburgers.

I like mayo on most things, but on hamburgers? That’s disgusting.

8. Canned peas.

However, I love canned corn, canned tomatoes, and canned Spaghetti-Os.

9. Soggy bread.

Ewwwww.

10. Iceberg Lettuce

Unless it has ranch dressing on it. Or if it’s on a hamburger. Or a taco.

Why I Write

I am writing. I have written. I will write. I will have written.

I write because it is, for me, the clearest distillation of the human experience. I write to tell the truth.

For me, writing is unlike anything else I do. When I move through the world I am a bit lost, a bit discombobulated, a bit out of my element. I am as parched and oxygen-starved as a fish far from the sea. I bungle, I bump, I crowd, I dodge, I cringe.

When I sit down to write, a space opens up. I slip into it. I glide. I breathe, expand, remember, and love.

Words are not chosen with care (that happens during the revision process), rules are not remembered, and the Editor is silent. Time and everything else falls away…

what to do what to eat what to say what to exercise what to clean what to dress what to change what to cook what to buy what to believe

Everything. Every thing. Falls. Away.

The experts call this “flow.” It’s what elite athletes and musicians achieve. It’s what leaves us breathless and spellbound. I don’t call this flow. I call this life.

I write to create artifacts. Each word, each sentence, each idea and phrase is an artifact. They are my sculptures. When you enter my writing you enter the museum of my mind.

When I was a child I stood looking at the mummified form of a kitten that an ancient Egyptian had taken with him to the grave. There was an x-ray of it next to the display. It was delicate, shadowy, beautiful. It took my breath away. I thought to myself, “Finally, this is something I understand.”

That is why I write.

The Worth of Words

I’ve always lived in the borderlands. No place to call home. I am not a mother. I am not an academic. I am not a woman. I am not rich or poor. I am not a teacher. I am not a writer. I am…me. How does that find expression? Who are my soul mates? Others like me, certainly. There are many. They identify themselves to me at school, at family gatherings. Pulling me aside, quietly, secretly: “I just wanted you to know that I really like what you wrote about blah blah blah…”

It’s like water in the desert.

That’s what pulls me back to this blog. That’s what compels me to to put my pen to paper. It’s why I write and why I read. Just this morning I read a line in a book that startled me with its truth. It’s very important to remind people that there are threads connecting some of us at the deepest levels. We may not be the best teachers, students, parents, daughters, or friends; but we are the best for each other. We are there for each other beyond time and space.

A writer’s words carve their way into my soul like nothing else.

I am cleaning vomit off of my son at 3:00 A.M.. I am nursing my daughter back to sleep at dawn. I am standing at the kitchen counter wiping up crumbs, the words I long to write spilling out of my fingers and eyes and ears, lost forever to the wind because I don’t have the time or energy to create books, or stories, or articles. But they are there with me, these other women. Across time and space. Anne Lindbergh, Anne Lamott, Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, Barbara Kingsolver, Sylvia Plath, Anne Tyler, Sharon Olds, Faulkner Fox, etc. They whisper in my ear, “I know, I know.”

This is what I can give. I can tell other mothers, other writers, other women, that the journey is hard. It’s hard. But if I can give you words that you can weave into a blanket, or a life raft, or a balloon, than I have given you everything I can give.

 

 

 

 

Head Over Heels

Happy Birthday to my little footling breech baby.

Four years ago, on the morning of Friday the 13th, the doctor hoisted her knee onto the edge of my hospital bed for leverage. She placed her slim, warm hands on either side of my belly and said, “That’s his head, and that’s his butt. I’m going to turn him now. You’d better relax, because this is going to hurt.”

Twelve hours later she sliced open my belly, pulled you out by your feet, and lifted you up in the air. Your father, holding my hand, said, “It’s a boy.”

Giving birth to you was nothing like I expected. Raising you has been nothing like I expected and I’ve learned the most important lesson of all, which is that we cannot have expectations for our life or for our children. We can only hold hands as the roller coaster careens around each corner. We can look at each other, look around, push the hair out of our eyes, scream, cry, laugh, and love.

Thank you Oscar, for filling my cup overflowing. Thank you for moving and dancing through my world. Thank you for everything you have taught me in your four years on this earth. I hope you have 100 more.

I used to think I would teach you everything I know and lead you into this world. Now I know that my job is to listen to your stories, hold your hand, and follow you where ever you want to go.

I love you more every day. More than I thought it was possible to love another human being.

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The Life of a Writer

Fifty years ago today Sylvia Plath took her own life. I’ve been fascinated with Sylvia Plath since I was twenty years old and came across a copy of  The Bell Jar. Twenty is a really good age to read this book; at the time her voice spoke to me in a way that nobody else could.

I went on, over the next two decades, to read everything by and about Sylvia Plath. I read her poems in grad school, I studied her short stories and her novel when I was learning to write fiction, and I devoured her diaries, letters, and biographies at each stage of my life that mirrored hers: writing, going away to college, finding love, teaching, becoming a mother, and grappling with trying to create a life that is both fulfilling and artistic.

I am not interested in how Sylvia Plath died. I try not to think about it because it only depresses me. I don’t care about her death; I care about her life. She was a fully formed, fascinating woman who worked tirelessly every day to balance her life as a mother and a writer. She craved domesticity, baking and sewing and relishing motherhood at the same time she wrote some of her darkest and most brilliant poetry.

When she was a single mother caring for two children under the age of three she woke between 4:00 and 5:00 every morning to get some writing done. In one month she put together an entire manuscript of poetry, Ariel, the book that would be published to great acclaim after she died. In the middle of this productive month, she wrote to her mother, “I am a writer…I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”

One of the things I love about Sylvia Plath is that she considered motherhood to be just as important a vocation as writing, but she refused to give up either one. She wouldn’t give up motherhood to be a better writer and she wouldn’t give up writing to be a better mother. She felt that motherhood, despite its difficulties, made her a better writer. She also knew that without writing, she wouldn’t survive.

And despite her death, she did survive. She was alive on this earth for over thirty years, she was a mother, and she wrote books which are still in print. She loved cooking and eating and she loved the ocean and drawing pictures and painting and sewing dresses for her daughter. She took ten-mile hikes and long baths. She learned to ride a horse on her 30th birthday.  She became a bee-keeper and played the piano for her daughter.

There are a lot of misconceptions about mental illness and creativity, and about the death of Sylvia Plath. She was not a genius of a writer because she was mentally ill, she was a writer and a mother in spite of  her struggles with depression. She did not commit suicide because she was a writer, or because she was a mother, or because her husband left her. She took her life in the throes of a clinically diagnosed depressive episode, one in which she had experienced before several times in her life. In fact, her previous suicide attempts, and her hospitalization in a mental institute, occurred before she had children and before she met her husband.

I do not admire her writing and read about her life because I am morbid, or depressed, or suicidal. I read her words because they are some of the truest words I have ever read about life, parenting, and being an artist. Her words speak to the universal truth about what it means to live at the edge of art and life, what it means to be pulled in many directions, and what it means to turn all of it, the love and pain and laughter and sleep deprivation and hunger and fear and wisdom and the experience of the senses, into words. On the one hand, her words are like a stone statue or monument: timeless, beautiful, and a lasting legacy. On the other hand they are alive, breathing, and ephemeral, like the moments spent with a young child.

In one of my favorite poems, “Morning Song,” she writes:

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and shallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Oscar & Aria

Poor Aria! For the first few years of Oscar’s life I wrote him a letter almost every month. I read the infant development book with rapt intensity, curious about every developmental milestone. I carefully prepared organic fruits and vegetables for his first foods. I talked to him and sang to him and documented his early life with thousands of photographs.

Having two kids has wiped me out and blown my mind with how hard it is. Yes, I know people have raised more than two kids for millennia, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s kicking my ass.

Aria still wakes between 3-5 times each night, and no, I have no plans to wean her, stop co-sleeping, move her to her own room, or let her cry it out. I will just suck it up and you (and the people I live with) will listen to me complain about it forever and ever, amen. Anywho, there is no extra room for her to sleep in, I’m not moving, and if she cries it out she will wake her brother. Plus, she has the cutest little, heart-wrenching, gut twisting cry. You try ignoring her.

Oscar slept through the night at 15 months, so hopefully she will too. Until then, I reserve the right to fall behind on my novel, my contracted academic tome, the laundry, and personal hygiene. Luckily, Aria is beautiful and sweet. I give her credit for that.

Oscar is so smart and funny, and I love him more deeply and intensely than ever before. Sometimes I watch his little body running around the house, playing with toys, doing whatever, and I am seized with such love and affection it breaks my heart.

He’s also a pain in the ass.

I feel like I was lied to and tricked. I always thought that parenting would be all downhill after the terrible twos. Oh, I know having teenagers is its own special hell, I’m referring more to the constantly on your feet chasing kids around and taking care of their every need. Downhill after two, right? The terrible twos?

Oh, what I would give to be back in the blissful, wonderful twos. I had no idea how good I had it.

Not only is Oscar not more dependent (I mean, he can’t do the dishes or the grocery shopping yet), he’s more high maintenance than ever. Everything has to be a particular way and it has to be that way NOW. When he decides he wants lunch he will pester me relentlessly until he gets it. I say to him, kindly and rationally, “Sweetie, you will have to wait until I’m done with such and such (i.e. surfing the internet or reading a People Magazine article) and then I will fix your lunch.” He then proceeds to hover nearby and say, “Are you almost done with your work?” Or if he asks for a snack, I tell him he can have one when I’m done eating my breakfast, lunch, etc. He then watches every bite go to my mouth, carefully analyzing my plate for tell-tale emptiness. “Are you done now, Mama?”

But he is just so stinking cute, so I can’t get rid of him. Every morning when he wakes up he says, “Where’s Aria?” Aria, of course, worships him in every way. As soon as he walks in the room her arms and legs start flailing wildly and she shouts with glee. Anytime he is nearby she cannot take her eyes off of him and will crane her neck to try to watch him even while she’s nursing, being changed, etc.

Oscar says to me, “Mama, you are best friend.” Last night, he kicked off his covers and asked me to cover him up again. I asked him why he did that and he said, “I like it when you make me nice and cozy.” When he can tell I’m getting frustrated by his nonstop prattle, he will say, “It’s okay, Mama, I’m done talking now.”

His favorite game to play is, “Accidents Happen!” in which various trains and cars find themselves in dire straights. All manner of accidents befall his toys, such as train derailments, landslides, floods, helicopter crashes, plane crashes, car crashes, hot-air balloon crashes, and various other apocalyptic events. All the while, he’s screaming, “Accidents happen! Accidents happen! Aaaaaaaaacidents haaaaaaaaaaaapen!”

Aria has absolutely no interest in baby toys but will go after her brother’s toys with an intense zeal. She’s also interested in power cords and choking hazards. From early on she hated and refused baby food purees but will happily dig into anything we’re eating. I’ve stopped worrying about stages and allergies and organic purity and just let her have everything. When she’s happy she does what I call “baby zombie breathing.” I can’t really describe it. Have you seen The Walking Dead? Yeah, it’s like that.

As I type this, Oscar is sitting on the bed playing with Aria’s baby toys (she has no interest in them but he loves them). He says, “Mama, I want a hammer and a drink!”

Aria is at my feet. She has such an impish grin I have to stop now and pick her up.

I can’t sit down for more than two minutes at a time.

I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.