Archive for March, 2012

People ask how I do it—children, freelance work, dance, volunteering, home and meals, writing, but the fact of the matter is, the secret is, very often I just don’t. And when I don’t, it’s the writing that is the first to go. (Well, except for when Next Doors is providing the meal, in which case I can happily let go of the cooking knowing a fantastic dinner is on its way.) Anyone in my situation—and I know that means a lot of people– will understand this. I know I am not alone, and usually I manage to cope, but there are times when I start to despair that I’ll ever get two sentences down for my next book. Because the problem that I have now recognized is that I can never manage to enter and then inhabit the world of my book, across the world and nearly two centuries ago, long enough to get the muse going. How do other writers in this predicament do it, I wonder? And why have I set myself up to place my next story in a setting that requires me to transport myself into another world? (Well, that’s a whole other story, one that David Rocklin touches on in this post on Beyond the Margins.)

Take the other day, for example. It was not even a particularly, remarkably complicated day. Just an average one. But even with one child attending school and one with a sitter for a the morning, I was not able to extract myself from the household scene until 9:30 am, almost three full hours after getting up. There were lunches to make and pack, a full breakfast to cook so we could have a solid meal and some family time to get the day going, negotiations about attire appropriate for the weather and school activities, the spare crib to set up for the Next Doors child who spends Wednesdays with the sitter as well, dinner logistics to arrange, and so on.

When I finally managed to retreat upstairs with my twice reheated tea, leaving two babbling toddlers with the sitter, I found a slew of emails pertaining to my dance group’s performance, including logistics relative to costumes, the cues for the lighting and sound techs, the order of the dance items and more. I skimmed them, responded to as many as possible, and turned off my email program so as not to be distracted by the notifications of new mail. I averted my eyes from the pile of envelopes and papers in my inbox marked “To Deal With Now” which was leaning precariously because of something lumpy buried somewhere underneath, the identity of which I have not tried to elucidate for fear of causing an avalanche of papers that might reveal long overdue bills.

I put my teacup down and wondered if I should, instead of drinking it, go upstairs to practice my dance piece, then decided not to because a serious practice would then entail a shower, and the whole process would seriously cut down on my already dwindling and precious work time. Instead I turned on the music to the piece and went through it a few times in my head. Better than nothing, I told myself, although I still felt guilty. Guilt is a large part of trying to do so many things: one is never fully satisfied with the level at which one is managing to do any given one of them.

Finally, after running the gauntlet of aforementioned toddlers in my living room, I escaped to a coffee shop, settled in, was distracted for a while by the conversation at the adjacent table which I started mining for ideas for another story. By the time I opened the book I’d been toting around for days, a book that looked like it would yield some good research, it was 11 am.

I was right—the book I launched into, singer Sheila Dhar’s Here is Somebody I’d Like You to Meet, was, despite its unwieldy title and dreary cover, engaging, funny, smartly written and full of colorful anecdotes which drew me into the world of Indian classical musicians in the early to mid 1900s, their eccentricities, their art. (See her obituary here. I wish I could have met her in person.) I felt myself slip into that world, and ideas for my own characters started forming. I jotted down some notes, noticed that I was doing so, smiled to myself, then glanced at my watch. And the whole mood was instantly lost. I realized I had only one hour until school pick-up, and that before then I needed to check into my work email for edits to a cover letter for an overdue federal grant proposal. Ugh. I started despairing as to when I’d have another chance to enter that world and recapture the source of story and character ideas. (It’s now over a week later, and that chance has not yet come.)

This is the true challenge of the writer: to be able to create (or re-create) and inhabit a whole different world, to have lengthy and complex experiences in it, to see it in all its detail, and to fit all this into just an hour or two of actual existence. That space is like a dream, one that one can conjure up at will, in which a whole day’s events are compressed into a few minutes of sleep time, or like the cloud at the top of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree which holds within it an entire universe in which Fanny, Jo and Bessie can have fantastic adventures with Moon Face and Saucepan Man, but be home in time for supper.

I want one of those clouds, one of those dreams. I want a place I can jump into for an hour, and experience ten hours of ideas and adventures. Someone mentioned to me recently that I should apply for a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and so I looked it up, and watched this video, and realized this is it. What a magical-sounding place, where for two weeks (more would be impossible considering children and such) I could be given a studio in the woods, quiet time, lunch delivered in a picnic basket by a kind soul on a bicycle, and the evening company of dozens of other artists with whom conversation would spark ideas and creativity and energy. I could get a year of work done in fourteen days. Of course, there’s the minor issue of being selected from amongst the thousands of applicants each year. But I think I’ll try. If not that one, which is so highly selective, than others, as long as they are open to all sorts of artists, not just writers. In a year or so, when a draft is hopefully well underway and Little One is bigger, I think I’ll try to enter that cloud for just a wee bit of time, and see what happens.

And now Little One is about to wake from her nap, Big One has been chatting at me for a while, and it’s my turn to make dinner. At least the grant proposal is in.

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Exhibit A:

Looks deceptively tranquil, no? Let me disillusion you:

It is February school vacation week. We are staying at a house on this very beach. Little S is napping happily indoors (after spiking a fever during our much-delayed and logistically infernal voyage and throwing up in the rental car at 10 pm after we have driven unwittingly through Carnaval traffic on what turns out to have been Mardi Gras) while her father unhappily does some work, and Big K is sitting with me moping on his paradise-like beach, complaining that there is too much sea-grass in the freakishly warm and dazzlingly clear water in which swim beautiful tropical fish that she’ll never see because she refuses to put her head under water despite the semi-professional mask and snorkel we bought her at her insistence that she just couldn’t wait to go snorkeling. (Sometimes a run-on sentence is a necessity to capture the mood.) I would like nothing better than to spend the next hour strolling along the beach by myself, splashing my toes at the water’s edge and letting my mind wander. I’d like to think about the characters of my next book, about the dance pieces I’m preparing for an upcoming show, about the book I’m reading (Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones). Or maybe – gasp – about nothing at all. But I have this 7 year old child with me, and apparently this is entirely my doing. So I try to engage her.

–       Hey, I have an idea. Let’s go for a stroll down the beach and see what we discover!

–       Oh, yeah, great idea! [She jumps up.] Oh, wait. I don’t want to carry this camera. Let’s go upstairs to drop it off.

–       Nah, I don’t want to risk waking S. Why don’t you just put it in your pocket. It’s small enough.

–       Nooo! It will fall out.

–       No it won’t, it’s really small.

–       But Mooommy!

–       You can handle it.

–       Fine then. [Shoves the absurdly small digital camera she was given by an overly generous uncle into her back pocket, where it fits perfectly. We walk five steps.]

–       Mommy, I think I need to go pee first.

–       What do you mean, you think you need to? Do you need to or not?

–       I need to go to the bathroom.

–       [Sigh.] Ok, go ahead, I’ll wait here.

–       No, come with me, please. I need my sunglasses and I don’t know where they are.

–       K, keeping track of your belongings is your responsibility.

–       But Mooommy! The sun hurts my eyes.

–       Good grief. Ok, let’s go. [We go upstairs. Find sunglasses. K uses the bathroom. The wind causes the door to slam and I cringe, expecting S to wake up. Thankfully she doesn’t. J still at his work computer. K emerges.]

–       Mommy, I’m hungry, can I have a snack first?

–       No.

–       Please?

–       No. You will not starve on our walk.

–       But Mooommeee!

–       Gah! Ok, choose something quickly and bring it with you.

–       [K chooses one of those chocolatey, sweetened cereal boxes from the multipack that we get her as a treat on vacations. Looks like chocolate rice crispies. She crinkles the bag excessively, right outside the door to the bedroom in which S sleeps, to open it.]

–       Here, give me that. I’ll open it downstairs. [We head back down, through the breezy outdoor lobby with its comfy couches on which I could be curled up with a book, down the jungly walkway back out to the beach.] Which way do you want to go?

–       That way. [We walk five steps.] The sand is hot and pokey.

–       Pokey?

–       Yes! It’s poking my feet.

–       Why don’t you walk in the water with me?

–       [She scrunches her nose disdainfully at the rim of seaweed that lines the water’s edge.] Nooo. [We walk five more steps.] Actually, let’s go the other way.

–       Huh? Ok, fine. [We switch directions. We’ve now walked back and forth the same 25 foot length three times.]

–       Even though I have my sunglasses, they’re still letting the sun bother my eyes. [Note the way she blames the sunglasses for actively allowing this egregious affront to her eyes. I ignore her. She snacks loudly on her cereal packet. Suddenly, she is hopping around madly.] Ow! Ow! Oweeee!

–       What now?

–       [She holds her toe dramatically but is nonetheless careful not to drop her snack.] Oweee! I hurt my toe on something sharp!

–       Something sharp, or something pokey?

–       Mooommeeee! Stop! It’s not funny!

–       Hey, look at that pelican! It just dove down from up high to catch a fish!

–       Oh, where? [She puts the massively injured foot back down in the hot, pokey sand. We walk ten feet. She loses interest in the pelican and feigns a limp. I point out a fish jumping out of the water, which she fails to see. We discuss the use of hammocks as sleeping furniture. We talk about what constitutes a bay versus a gulf. There is discussion of the Caribbean Sea versus the Gulf of Mexico versus the Atlantic Ocean. She forgets to limp. I start thinking this might work out after all.] Ok, let’s turn back.

–       Oy! Already? What do you mean, turn back? That was nothing!

–       Yes it was. That was a walk. [She points to the house fifty feet away.] Look how far we went. Let’s go back and you can play Boggle with me.

–       Why don’t we sit here first for a while. Here, you can finish your snack. [I pat the sand next to me.]

–       [She looks down dubiously.] But my camera is in my pocket. I can’t sit.

–       [I bite my tongue, force a pleasant voice.] Give me the camera, please, and sit down.

–       [She complies. Munch munch.] Thanks. Hey, this is nice! [Munch munch.] Ok, now can we go play Boggle?

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