Thursday, March 31, 2011

One More Note

I joined the A to Z April Challenge. Every day during April (except Sundays, leaving 26 days), participants write a blog post related to that day's letter. For example, tomorrow will be "A," Saturday, "B," etc. I like the idea of having some boundaries as far as a topic go, and of having motivation to write something every day.

By the way, up to 19,139 words. Better get crackin'.

Good Fortune

19,000 words and counting! My goal, 20,000 words by the end of March. So I have until around 6:30 today to crank out another 1,000 words before driving down to Cincinnati to have dinner with my old roommate and her husband. (There's a cheerleader's voice in my head shouting, You can do it! You can do it! She's annoying but helpful.)

I feel incredibly fortunate to be doing what I am. This time--whole days when I don't "work"--has been a gift to me. That full-time library job I mentioned a couple weeks ago isn't going to open up. No new hires until the state budget is finalized. I'm sort of glad for that decision to be out of my hands. I didn't want to choose to give up my time.

Speaking of fortunate, my dad is back in Kenya and couldn't be happier. He writes about visiting schools that his foundation supports, noting the enthusiasm of the teachers and students. But what made me laugh this morning is his description of his journey back from one of the schools:

Well, Mwololo and I walked down the hill (mountain) from the school to the main road, about a 30 minute walk. At the main road we waited for a matatu, the mode of transport in Kenya. Basically a rusty van that is falling apart that drivers jam full with as many people in as possible. The saying goes “There is no such thing as a full matatu.” We waited and waited, finally a van comes and stops but it has red ribbons hanging from the side mirrors. This usually indicates it is part of a funeral procession but some matatu drivers put the red ribbons on to fool the many police roadblocks who rarely stop them. So the van stops, we ask about the ribbons and the guy points to the dead body propped up in the front seat! They were taking this dead man to the mortuary but still wanted to make extra money by making stops for more passengers! They wouldn’t even lay the man down because that would take three seats (three fares!) We passed on that matatu and waited for the next.

Another time, he had to hold a live chicken for an entire ride! By the way, today is opening day - I hope I can find somewhere online to watch the Reds game as I slowly march toward 20,000 :)

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Miss You, Blog

I promise to visit again really soon. Write a nifty post about Libya, my family, my writing process. Wax poetic about something or other.

By the way, it's winter again in Cincinnati. We had spring for about a week--daffodils appeared, I wore open-toed shoes--but then the cold made a comeback. There was snow on the ground yesterday. Snow!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Stories We Tell

Last night was the first meeting of our new 8-week writing term. I shared an excerpt from my novel (which stands at 18,536 words!) with the large group. We don't applaud after sharing -- a bell is rung and we move on to the next woman -- so the words just kind of sit there. Which is kind of scary.

And while fiction can be liberating because I use made up names and situations, it's more of a challenge for me to share it with a larger group. I'm asking the group to enter a made-up world for just a few minutes. I'm asking them to listen to and understand the different voices and characters. (And one of those characters was slightly intoxicated -- I wonder how that came across!)

I've always felt more at ease sharing personal anecdotes and stories of anxiety (and of grandmothers) in the large group than fiction, because I know those are more accessible. Then again, I've never shared anything so deeply personal that I couldn't put it here on the blog; I might be comparing apples and oranges.

Monday, March 21, 2011

But I'm a Cheerleader!

Near the eight-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion, President Obama enters our country into another war of choice. I finally saw some cable news yesterday and CNN's giant "LIBYA WAR" graphic. There are elements of this that make me (and others across the political spectrum, I'm sure) a little sick. What happens after Qaddafi is killed? Or not killed? Loses power? Or doesn't lose power? What is our responsibility? Our military is stretched so thin; the domestic recovery is slow. How do we have money for this but not for education or universal health care?

And why not Bahrain? Why not Yemen? Why not Sudan?

I hope this turns out well, of course. I hope the Americans come off as supporting the aspirations of people long oppressed by a crazy dictator, and not as invading another oil-rich nation to expand their empire. And I know President Obama would be criticized heavily no matter what he did, intervene or don't intervene. But this cheerleader still feels a little queasy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

My Precious

(I say that in the Gollum voice from "Lord of the Rings")

One of the reasons I love working at the library is the variety of tasks I get to perform. Out front, in public, I'm helping people check out, renew, and order books or movies. I also help people find their items. Maybe it's a book their friend recommended, maybe it's a movie that our catalog showed that we had, or maybe it's books about a certain subject they need for a report.
  • The other day I helped a mom find books for her son, a third-grader, who she characterized as a "slow reader." He needed books that were at least 90 pages but wouldn't frustrate him too much. I led her directly to books by David Adler, author of the Cam Jansen series. I also pulled a couple books by Matt Christopher, Beverly Clearly, and Louis Sachar. They chose a couple of the books but wrote down all of the authors I suggested.
  • Yesterday, a graduate student in speech therapy came in looking for a book to use in a thirty-minute session that talked about the tortoise and the hare. I pulled books by three or four different authors so she could pick which would be most appropriate for the student she worked with.
Behind the scenes I'm equally busy processing new books/movies, receiving items from other libraries that customers have ordered, and discharging materials that have been put in our bookdrop. I also write, occasionally, for the library's book blog, Turning the Page. I enjoy writing for that different audience. Also, because I can write for it on work time, doesn't that mean I'm getting paid to write? Kind of? In my latest entry, I look at the apparent rise of short fiction: "We Don't Tell Novels at the Kitchen Table, We Tell Stories."

I've worked at my current branch for over two years now. I am part time. Until last July, I also taught literature and composition. My long-time readers know that I stopped teaching in order to focus on writing, to see if, given the extra time, I would be able to produce anything worth while. If this was a test, I passed! Since July, I've written a lot. And it's not horrible. Of course I could have written more; I could have been more disciplined. But I'm not disappointed -- I'm proud of what I've done.

And therein lies my dilemma. A full-time position may become available at my branch, the one I love so much. Not only would I double my take-home pay (going from 20 to 40hrs/wk), I would also receive health care benefits (currently I spend over $100/mo purchasing my own). If I apply, there's no guarantee that I would get the job, but I don't want to apply unless I'm prepared to accept it.

In other words, now that I've finally found a steady rhythm for my writing, do I want to give up so much of my precious time? Help!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The View from My Balcony

I sit here, glass of wine in hand (Apothic Red is the brand; Kroger sells it for $22, but we bought it for $12 at a local wine shop) enjoying a beautiful late-winter evening. In the distance, notice the parked train. About six times a day (though I've never counted), a train goes by. It doesn't matter what room you're in; you hear it.

The sound pleases me. It reminds me of childhood, listening as a train approaches, or sitting in a car, stopped at a track, waiting for the train to pass.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Slow Writing

I'm on record as being a slow writer. On a good, productive day, I write six-hundred words of fiction. I feel tense as I commit words to a sentence and then build sentences into a paragraph, but when I finally have that paragraph, I exhale. Then I start again.

Edited to add: Today was VERY productive - wrote 1,000+ words - up to 16,000!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Well-Placed Semi-colon

I'm embarrassed to say that I'm just now, age thirty, reading Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre." I know the plot well enough, having seen at least one movie adaptation of it, but I'd never so much as read an excerpt. Interestingly, a teen-aged character in one of my college stories read "Jane Eyre":
When Sylvia arrived in her homeroom, she took her seat in the last row and slouched back with her copy of Jane Eyre. By the time the room had filled with students and attendance had been taken, Sylvia was in the middle of the second chapter. As punishment for fighting with her cousins, Jane has been put in the room where her uncle died. The walls are blood red.

I'd relied on online summaries. But, of course, we all know the real thing is better. A New York Times article about the most recent movie adaptation of "Jane Eyre" quoted its director: "Jane Austen is like 'Gossip Girl,' and Charlotte and Emily Brontë were like Goth twins." "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" are dark, moody, and even spooky. We enter Jane's inner-most thoughts:

What a consternation of soul was mine that dreary afternoon! How all my brain was in tumult, and all my heart in insurrection! Yet in what darkness, what dense ignorance, was the mental battle fought! I could not answer the ceaseless inward question--why I thus suffered; now, at the distance of - I will not say how many years, I see it clearly.

I was a discord in Gateshead Hall; I was like nobody there; I had nothing in harmony with Mrs Reed or her children, or her chosen vassalage. If they did not love me, in fact, as little did I love them. They were not bound to regard with affection a thing that could not sympathize with one amongst them; a heterogeneous thing, opposed too them in temperament, in capacity, in propensities; a useless thing, incapable of serving their interest, or adding to their pleasure; a noxious thing, cherishing the germs of indignation at their treatment, of contempt of their judgment. (p. 21-2)

Anyway, I'm about two-hundred pages in. Because I already know the basic structure of the plot, I can relish in the descriptions and characterizations. I can exam how Brontë develops her story. And I can appreciate the well-placed semi-colons.

In other news, my dad leaves for Kenya a week from today. Sometimes I try to reconcile my wants and needs here and the needs of the people he helps there. How picky I can be about food, about people. How wasteful I can be. Spending money on a new phone because my old one wasn't "fast" enough. Actually, I can't reconcile it; I can only make excuses. The injustices in the world are too big for me to wrap my head around. I'm just glad my father's able to make a positive difference.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Now Playing...

I've been listening to a lot of indie rock/alternative bands lately: The National, Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, and The Decemberists to name a few. Great melodies, interesting lyrics, usually peppy enough not to put me to sleep. But British singer Adele is a one-woman powerhouse. Her new album "21" (named for her age when she wrote the songs; her first album was "19") shows off her tremendous vocals and songwriting talent. While the song that's getting radio play, "Rolling in the Deep," is catchy and interesting, my favorite from the album is "Someone Like You."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Write Pressure

13,964 words and counting. If I stopped right now, I'd have a fifty-page short story with no ending. My goal is to reach 20,000 by the end of the month. In Stephen King's "On Writing," he suggests to write a first draft with the door closed, and revise with the door open. In other words, finish a first draft alone, without feedback or criticism (both positive and negative). Only once that draft is finished should it be read by anyone else. He makes a good argument for this: as a writer, you don't want to get hung up on the small things along the way. Keep going, keep plowing through without worrying about that one word in a paragraph toward the beginning.

But prior to this recent venture into fiction, my writing experience was in college--when I got weekly feedback and criticism--and these last three or four years blogging--where I get nourishment from reader comments or simply page views. So for me to take on this big project--a novel--I need similar nourishment, whether it's constructive criticism from my writing group, praise from my mother (who is so unbiased;), or a daily question from my wonderfully supportive boyfriend, "So how much did you write?"

I spent about three hours in a Bruegger's Bagels relishing the pressure not to connect to their free wi-fi. I got a lot finished, freeing me to write this entry. Winning!

By the way: King also suggests writing 2000 words a day. They don't have to be good words, but you should get that much down. I like that in theory. But in practice, it doesn't work for me; I tend to edit as I go. It slows me down, I guess, but hopefully it means I'll spend less time revising.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Nana Story #4: 1944

There's a little before, and a little after...

Barbara first encountered segregation when she was training in Texas. There were separate water fountains for “whites” and “coloreds,” and the backs of buses were reserved for “coloreds.” This struck her as odd, more than anything, since she had grown up around Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, and Mexican. If there was discrimination against different races and cultures, Barbara didn’t notice it in San Francisco. But once she was in Cheyenne, she witnessed racism more directly.

Fort Warren was organized so that white soldiers and African-American soldiers rarely came into close contact with each other. One side of the base contained the WAC detachment, Officers Row, and the barracks for all the white soldiers. On the other side of the base, separated by a creek, were the black troops—about 10,000, according to Barbara. The black troops regularly faced discrimination. Sammy Davis, Jr. had been drafted into the army at age 18 in 1944, and by the time Barbara was serving as a WAC, he was attached to the headquarters company in Special Services. The people in the Special Services were responsible for entertaining the troops: football, boxing, dances, vaudeville shows, etc. The other men in the group treated Davis very shabbily. Because they were all white, and he was a novelty—because men are cruel—they thought of ways to hurt him. Not physical so much as mental torture. Humiliation. In his autobiography, “Yes I Can,” Davis describes being painted white by his seven bunkmates at Fort Warren, beaten, and forced to dance until his feet couldn’t come off the ground.

Barbara knew of Sammy, but hadn’t met him yet. One day, a WAC asked her to teach her how to tap dance, and they agreed to meet later in the day room. But unbeknownst to Barbara, the WAC had asked Sammy Davis, Jr., to help as well. When he came in, Barbara tried to bow out: “You’re so much better than I am – a real professional!” He asked her to please stay, but she was too embarrassed. “I’m just an amateur,” she said. Every time she was in his company, he treated her very nicely: “A true gentleman.” She also said that he handled all the ribbing they handed out just beautifully.

Around that time, Barbara was asked to represent the WACs for Cheyenne Days, the biggest rodeo celebration in the country. She rode on top of a military vehicle, waving to the crowds as the parade went down Capitol Avenue. When the parade was over, a young man helped her down. He asked if she wanted to get a drink.

“I don’t know, maybe,” she replied, tentatively to this man she’d seen around base. He played baseball and basketball and even helped the amateur Fort Warren football team beat the professionals from Brooklyn. They ended up spending the day together.

Barbara and Ed were married by a Catholic priest on base at the Champaign Chapel, after a year-long courtship. All the members of Barbara’s detachment came with their boyfriends, and the church was packed. Between Barbara’s family in California and Ed’s in Ohio, only Barbara’s sister came. It was a nice wedding.

After Japan was defeated at the end of 1945, Barbara got her separation orders. She and her new husband traveled by train from San Francisco, where he met her family, to Cincinnati. When they came over the bridge into Northside, the neighborhood where Ed’s family lived, Barbara thought about how dingy it looked. She stayed with his parents, sisters, and brother while Ed returned to Wyoming to complete his service. When Ed came back to Cincinnati, four months later, they continued to stay with his parents. He had signed with the Triple-A baseball team in Montreal at age twenty-one before being drafted; after getting out of the army, he wanted to give professional baseball another try. He signed with the Reds. But not wanting to stay with his family by herself, Barbara told him that if he left for spring training, she was going back to San Francisco. Faced with that choice, he quit baseball. When they decided to get an apartment, Barbara told her mother-in-law, “Thanks for letting me stay these four months.” Ed’s mother replied, coldly, “I would have done that for a dog.”

Thursday, March 3, 2011

My Imaginary Daughter

Sunday I attended an Oscar-viewing party with my boyfriend. I entered the pool ($5 entry), knowing full well that I'd be leaving the party before the Oscars were over. We carefully picked who we thought would win Best Actor, Best Director, etc. My boyfriend asked me if it was ok that we were leaving early: could we still win? I said yes. It was fine. I didn't bother checking with the organizer, because I didn't want to intrude.

I found out the next day that the winning ballot got 10 of 16 right. I looked at the duplicate copy of my own ballot -- 12 of 16 right. Hmm, I thought. I guess we had to stay. And then I went on with my life.

A couple days later, my boyfriend asked me how many categories the winner got right.

"Ten," I said.

"What?!" He got mad. "I thought you said it was ok if we left!"

I said that I just assumed. He said he wished I were more assertive.

Yeah, me too I suppose. But my reticence is such a part of me. I'm accustomed to coping with it myself, figuring out other ways to express myself and get my needs met. It's just interesting looking at it through someone else's eyes.

I imagine having a daughter. Age two. Age five. Age fifteen. How do I teach her to be confident? How do I teach her not to be afraid of others or of food? How do I make her feel important, always? How do I instill that which I lack?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Time for a Coffee Break

I'm sailing toward 12,000 words. That's maybe a fifth or sixth of the total, depending on how long it ends up. I get annoyed when reading books that describe in detail how people look and what they're wearing; only tell me if it contributes to their character or the plot. I feel like those descriptions are shortcuts for characterization. Don't tell me what they look like, show me what they do--this reveals more. My own tendency is to leave things out, to describe only what I believe is important.

But I also realize this is a personal bias. Some details are necessary, I think. And if I want a reader to be able to imagine a scene, I need to provide more clues. When I'm finished (in this calendar year, I hope!) I think I'll be better equipped to go back to the beginning and fill in those details as needed.

I have a little bit more to write today before I reach my word count goal (12,000 by 6:30). And because there's something in me that won't actually allow me to surpass that goal, I'm taking a coffee break. I got my first taste of coffee when I was seven or eight. My mom would leave her almost-empty mugs around the house (that last bit of room-temperature coffee that's a yummy mixture of cream and sugar), and I would finish them up. When I went to France at age fifteen for a two-week trip, my host family served me gigantic mugs of coffee. Actually, they were more like bowls. I eagerly drank it up, as I was too picky to drink anything else. By the time I got to their school an hour later, I was shaking from all the caffeine.

By the time I got to college, I was a cup-a-day drinker, and by the time I graduated, I was a many-cups-a-day drinker. Today, I've cut down on my Starbucks and started using a French Press. All the caffeine for a third of the price.