Winning

Back in 2002, my buddy Ian sent me an email at work asking me to check out this crazy thing these guys were doing. The email contained a link to the clunky, hilarious site for National Novel Writing Month –  Nanowrimo. Before I replied to my friend’s “whoa aren’t these guys crazy” email, I signed up.

That’s 2002. The year that my grandmother died (11/1), I drove to Phoenix to attend the funeral (11/9), and I got laid off (11/14). I was so hyper about NaNoWriMo that I actually started early, just to make sure I would finish on time. I started about 10/24, and by Halloween, I had nearly 10,000 words already. And on day 1, I chucked them all out and started all over again on an entirely new story. I finished the month with just over 83,000 words, “winning” handily.

In 2003, I started with a decent plot, but I made a horrible mess of it and never re-visited it, even though I got to about 75,000 words on it. I don’t even remember what I wrote the next year, but I won. And the next year, and the next year. By 2009, I had pared my actual writing time down to about 10 days. Nowadays, my ability to write quickly is only limited by my typing speed, so I can get nearly 2,000 words an hour, which means that I’ve had several 10,000-word days. For several years, I was the ML for my area, flogging my Wrimos into action.

This year, I’ve just come through a brutal grad school quarter. I’m taking one of those stories I wrote way back in 2002 and expanding it into a novel. My mentor is a hell of a taskmaster, calling me on my shit every step of the way. I was also doing a paper on a subject I was only marginally invested in, and doing a translation seminar that I hated. I always knew I had no aptitude for languages, but now I know that I have no aptitude for translation, and doing with a bunch of other (more enthusiastic) people makes me want to stab myself in the throat with a highlighter.

I’m the editor in chief of the MFA program’s literary magazine, a job that involves reading, editing, approving, emailing, soothing, scolding, and otherwise managing every single thing that goes on for the magazine. I know that the editors feel put-upon at times because they’ve got a lot going on, but this has been close to a full-time job for me. I have to keep reminding myself that the last guy who did this had already graduated.

All this is to say that I never got past 18,000 words on this year’s novel.

I thought that failing for the first time in a decade would crush me. I thought that I would look at my life and my inability to complete a task I have, in the past, breezed through and feel that I was a horrible failure of a human being. I thought I would at the very least feel some kind of a twinge of guilt.

I didn’t.

At first I kept telling myself “it’ll only take you a few days, don’t freak out, you can do it later.” Then I realized that I would never have anything that was a lower priority than writing a brand-new novel. I’m not working on brand-new right now. I’m working on perfecting stuff that already exists. I’m working on getting other people’s works into (electronic) print. I’m working on my invention that’s within spitting distance of making a Tunguska blast in the way people think about books.

I realized that every single thing I was doing – helping my kid prepare for two concerts within three weeks of each other, getting my magazine Lunch Ticket out the door, being spectacularly ill for a day and a half – every single bit of it was more important than creating a new novel that I wasn’t invested in yet.

Don’t get me wrong. I have three or four new novels I would love to be writing. But I’ve made a decision. I’m going through the exercise of grad school to figure out some stuff about writing not just literature that’s commercially salable, but about writing literature that’s good, and one of the first things I realized was that you can’t just write first draft after first draft, give them a cursory polish and then if an agent doesn’t like them, blame the industry and self-publish. Well, you can, but I won’t. I’ve decided that I am going to make this thing I’m working on into the most exquisite jewel in the world. A Fabergé egg made out of diamonds and crushed pearls and unicorn tears and sunsets over fairy castles and moonscapes with magic dragons flying over them.

And if I’ve chosen that over creating something new and (inevitably, for me) crappy, I think I’ve won.

My Watch Is Messed Up

The future is now

The present is past

My watch is messed up…

Veggie Tales

A problem I’ve encountered when editing other writers is a sense of time. Long stretches of time pass without weekends, holidays or changes in the weather to mark them. I don’t realize how much I depend on those markers until they’re gone and I’m wondering “Why is this man wearing a scarf in this scene, and shorts in the next?”

But it’s not just a problem in fiction. I have a kid who has regular appointments on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and every single time, I end up thinking to myself “Oh, crap! It’s Tuesday/Thursday/Friday!” and I have to drop whatever I’m deep in the middle of and rush out the door at full speed. I used to put one of those cloth covers on my car, but I had to stop because the percentage of time I am late for something and don’t have the five minutes to waste pulling off the cover.

How do we anchor ourselves in time? I habitually wear a watch, end up sleeping with it on most nights, which helps me tell one hour from the next, but it can only work if I’m looking right at it. I wonder if I don’t need to set some kind of alarm for every single event in my life – eating meals, bathing, going to bed at night. What do I become if I’m always so heads-down in my own work that I can’t remember simple things like that?

I’ve been inundated lately with evidence that most good writers are, not to put too fine a point on it, bugshit crazy. While I don’t know that I would put myself on the same level as, say, William S. Burroughs, but even the author of Naked Lunch had it together enough to remember what time was lunchtime.

Monkey on a Boat: Day 1

I’m a nervous traveler. You don’t really need to know that, except that it will explain why, when I went to bed at 10pm the night before we left, I didn’t fall asleep for nearly an hour, and why I woke up every 15 minutes to make sure I didn’t miss my 2: 45am alarm. I was just thinking of every single thing I had to do when I got up, and of every single thing I should have done but didn’t before I left. And about all those things that might happen, but probably won’t, of things that won’t happen but probably should, of things that should happen but probably not when they need to…I know you’ve been there.

We left at 3am to make the ~6-hour drive from our house to Los Angeles where we could board the ship any time between 11am and 4pm. That’s right. I built in an extra seven hours, during which I would have nothing else to do but imagine what could go wrong later on the trip.

I worried that it might be hard to find the boat, to find parking, to find breakfast close to the dock. It wasn’t. There was really only one boat, and it had Mickey Mouse on the funnel, and you could see it from the freeway. Right in front of that one boat was one giant parking lot with one driveway leading to it. A block away was The Grinder – a sort of Denny’s knockoff with easily the worst food I have ever had ever in my entire life. None of my imagined problems materialized.

Disney Waiting Room #3,124

She's still cheerful because we've only been sitting here for five minutes

Boarding was exactly like getting on any Disney ride. Any time you get onto a Disney ride, the queue is shuttled from one room to another so that you’re always moving, you never see the tail end of the line, and the number of people in any one place never seems to change. And just like at Disney theme parks, every single person: the guy who took our luggage, the guy who directed us through security, the woman who took our picture, the woman who directed us into a giant waiting area, and every one of the eight thousand adrenaline-addicted, polo-shirted employees who roamed the rooms looking for unoccupied children to harrass – every one of them evinced a level of cheer that required shouting.

Please welcome - THE GAZPACHO FAMILY!!!!!!

This is the room you enter when you get on the boat

When we got on the boat, we had to stand in a sort of line because as each family walked through the doors, a man in white livery boomed cheerful things like “Let’s hear you make some noise for THE GAZPACHO FAMILY!!!!!!” or “Welcome back THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY!!!!!!!!!!!!” (and he enunciated each of the exclamation points, I swear). Then a phalanx of other white-liveried individuals applauded with ecstatic grins on their faces. But there are four people in our family, and we don’t have a common last name. Disney really doesn’t have a paradigm for that, and they wouldn’t announce us individually. Instead, they mispronounced both my last name and the Pirate’s last name, and then the manic applause began. This is how I can tell that I’m not cut out to be a celebrity. When faced with the applause of a crowd of people, I have no idea what to do apart from looking around uncomfortably and muttering under my breath.

Our luggage wasn’t in our room yet (I think it’s delivered by the same house elves that Hogwarts uses), so we went up to the top deck with the really, really loud swimming pools and cafes. Within minutes of boarding, I had a poolside table, a gin and tonic and an order for champagne to be delivered to the room. Thank you, Pirate!

I had booked a mani/pedi for 1pm, so I showed up to the spa. I was the first person to visit the spa, so once again I was assailed with friendly, cheerful greetings to which I had no appropirate response. The mani/pedi was as wonderful as those particular procedures always are, and Cameel, the lovely Jamaican woman who provided the service, and I talked and sang and bonded while she was sloughing off my calluses. When I left, she wanted a hug and told me I was the most fun customer she’d ever had. As did the woman in the gift shop from whom we bought a watch, and Yusef and Lavendra, the two men who have been assigned to wait on us at dinner for the entirety of our stay. What this tells me is that one of the keys to getting a job with Disney is the ability to fake sincere friendship. That’s really the key to getting a job pretty much anyplace, but they’re really, really good at it here. I know it’s an act, but I’m a sucker for it all the same.

Dinner was in the animation-themed restaurant “Animators Palate.” The walls are covered with black and white drawings from various Disney movies, and there are giant paintbrush-shaped columns scattered around the room. The bristles of the brushes are glowing LED things that light up various colors. The paintbrushes hold up what look like giant artist palettes with blotches of paint on them. The paint also lights up in different colors. The friendly waitstaff wore black-and-white vests with drawings of Mickey in various styles. At the end of the meal, the main screens showed an INCREDIBLY LOUD film about how wonderful and magical and fabulous Disney is, and then Mickey Mouse came out, did a hyper little dance, and then the waiters, now all dressed in rainbow-colored vests, danced around as well. Good golly.

By this time, I was barely hanging on. I was dizzy and having a hard time getting excited about any of the upcoming events, mostly because all I could think about was being able to sleep – two and a half hours just isn’t quite enough. The girls, who had both had good nights’ sleep, took off to the various kid activities, and the Pirate and I passed out at about 8:00. So much for kicking off the cruise. We found out later that both girls had been in and out several times while the Pirate and I slept, and we never heard them.

A Post That Has Nothing to Do With Writing

My recent schedule (Nanowrimo, followed closely by my grad school residency) means that Christmas has completely snuck up on me. The Pirate and I went crazy sending out our Christmas cards right before I left for LA, we collaborated on Christmas shopping via email (this is made possible by the fact that I’m the sort of person who is perpetually buying cool stuff and putting it up in the closet “for a future gift-giving occasion”) and now we’re completing the last of our Christmas traditions: eating yummy food while watching noir movies.

It started before I even met the Pirate, and every year I would spend an entire day in the kitchen baking for the holidays. I would make eleventeen dozen batches of cookies, pies, breads – all while watching my favorite old movies. I could watch The Big Sleep or Sunset Boulevard or The Maltese Falcon over and over and over (and I have). Those two activities – food and noir movies – both became linked in my mind to Christmas, always culminating with my absolute favorite, Double Indemnity. To a kid who grew up thinking of Fred MacMurray as the benign, pipe-smoking dad on “My Three Sons,” seeing him as the sexy (at least, he seemed to think he was sexy), wisecracking, matchstick popping insurance salesman Walter Neff opened my eyes to a lot of things. It’s like watching a home movie of your parents on a date. And then killing someone. Or something. Not that I’ve ever done that.

There was a great xkcd cartoon about the most-played Christmas songs that says that what Americans try to do at Christmas is to re-create the Christmases of the baby boomers. I think that here at the Co-Prosperity Sphere, we’ve done a good job of establishing our own traditions that look nothing like what either of us did as kids. Tonight, we went out for Christmas Eve at the Pirate’s parents’ house, and now we’re back home where we’re going to snuggle up with some Indian food, some baked treats, and some amazing black and white movies.

I hope that the twelve of you who are going to read this have some things that you do every year because they’re things that consistently make you happy, whether they involve giving or receiving gifts, lighting something on fire, decorating some stuff, watching a favorite movie and/or listening to or making music. Whatever holiday you’re celebrating, I hope that it brings joy to your heart, and it makes you feel closer to not just your family, but everyone else in the world. In the Buddhist tradition of lovingkindness, let those things that gladden you make you think charitably about your loved ones, those near you, and even those people whom you may not understand or like.

I’ll be thinking nice things about you.

 

 

That Holiday Spirit

This Thanksgiving, the Pirate and I loaded the girls and my mother up into a borrowed VW microbus and made the drive from our house to Phoenix. We left after school on Tuesday, and drove for 13+ hours. With the time change, it was early morning when we arrived, and we were exhausted, but there were all the pre-Thanksgiving things (shopping, cooking) that needed doing.

We ended up going to bed at the normal time, despite having missed an entire night’s sleep, and then getting up early the next day in order to start the cooking (we did all the driving, but Mom did all the cooking). The girls stayed at my dad’s house, along with a whole bunch of other folks, having a fabulous time. So fabulous, in fact, that they didn’t want to come back to my mother’s house. They were too busy hanging out with other kids, chasing the dogs, doing all that other silly stuff. We drove home Saturday, another marathon trip delayed by horrible holiday traffic, and fell into bed at midnight on Saturday night.

Sunday, we got up to deal with the dishes we had left in the sink before we went on our trip. The cat gak where our cat haaked up a hairball all over the leather couch (pretty sure that’s a good reason for putting an animal down), the huge tumbleweeds of cat hair blowing around the floor, the laundry…I told the kid that she had to practice her viola and clean her room, and the kid yelled at me “I THOUGHT THE FIRST DAY BACK FROM VACATION WAS SUPPOSED TO BE RELAXING!”

Obviously, I have been falling down on my motherly duties. She has so much to learn. The holidays are not at all about relaxing. They’re about putting in face time with relatives you never see so that you can make awkward conversations and remind them of past embarrassing incidents. It’s about establishing the family pecking order as evidenced by who travels where (it’s a complicated algorithm involving whose kids are doing how well in school, who has how much time off from a job that earns them how much, who didn’t think they’d be able to make it but made it anyway, who actually cooked versus who stopped by the Safeway…) and why.

I’m halfway to solving this problem, though. The Pirate and I just bought a place in the city, and my mother will be moving in. EVERYONE will be coming out to see Grandma for the holidays, which means that I’ll never have to travel again.

WIN!