Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ack! My chicken almost drowned

So I had a much more involved and reflective post planned for this evening - but it's already 10 and tomorrow's gonna be a long day.* Not to mention, I have some pretty specific art in mind for the post, which I have to shoot during my next afternoon walk -- which is what the post was gonna be about . 

So now that I've teased to a post I'm obviously excited about, but haven't even written yet** I should probably get to the point of the post I'm actually going to write (this one of course), which is about this guy:

Hi. I'm USB Chicken.
I just got a new computer and have been in the process of transferring files from my old computer on to my new one and then erasing them from my old one. USB Chicken has the very specific task of holding the files for my novel and another project I'm working on.***

And tonight he almost took a swim in the pets' water bowl (which is directly under this bulletin board).

The near drowning of USB Chicken and the potential loss of all that work almost gave me a heart attack.

USB Chicken has been moved to a more secure, less aqueous portion of the bulletin board. I just realized his head is on backward. He's like an exorcist chicken, too. He has all sorts of problems, not the least of which is carting around all of my high hopes in his whimsical little belly.

*Brad's going to be sucked into high school football coverage and then Penn State coverage the next couple days so I'm taking a roadtrip with the girls down to Virginia to visit Laura and their cousins. Lily is super-excited about seeing her her cousin-friend Emmet. They're pretty cute: 

Lily and Emmet.

**Writing about something I haven't written yet seems to be a major theme of this blog. Does that amuse anybody else? 

***I'll now tease to another future post. In addition to my novel, I've taken on another writing project with my friend and ex-landlord Kristi (she owns a beautiful, super-fun farm - and does field trips, weddings, birthday parties and more if you're looking for a unique place in Central Pa. to hold an event). We're still trying to figure out what the project is (short story, novel, screenplay, something else entirely?), suffice to say I feel like she's given me an incredible gift in asking me to help her with it. And that's all I'll say about that for the time being.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

You gotta fight for your right to be happy

So early blog readers (hi family!) have wondered how I find the time to blog on top of raising two small humans, freelancing, cooking and cleaning. 

The answer, of course, is that I crate the girls for an hour or so a day to make sure I can get some quality mommy time -- so far other then needing to lint roller the dog hair off of the kids, the arrangement has worked out. Snacks the dog is a great babysitter and I don't need to worry about the girls running around (or in Jovie's case, rolling around) and getting in to trouble.

OK. OK. Don't call CPS. In the whole four days that I've been blogging, I've just stayed up a little later and watched fewer episodes of "Million Dollar Listing."

The thing is, I needed something to call my own that was outside of wiping up seemingly endless amounts of spit-up, asking Lily for the 1,000th time not to chase the dog with her stroller and writing about the wonders of proper gutter protection. That's not to say that being a stay-at-home mom isn't gratifying -- being able to witness the girl's childhood is a joy and I feel so blessed to be able to be with them -- but lately I've been having a bit of an identity crisis. 

Poor algae-covered ducklings. Photo courtesy of zappowbang on Flickr
Stay-at-Home Motherhood can be kind of like an algae bloom -- it can take over your entire existence and stifle the growth of all the other organisms needed for a health ecosystem (person-system?) So my days had become solely about survival -- make sure the kids are cared for, fed and entertained. Make sure I get enough work done to supplement. Wash dishes. Vacuum. Pick up toys. Bemoan the fact that the kitchen floor needs to be scrubbed again but there's just not enough time in a day. Flop into bed exhausted. Repeat. 

When I worked at the newspaper, there was more immediate gratification, re-enforcement that I was doing a good job and s a definitive end to my workday. But here, gratification isn't always as obvious, the girls will be a life's work, and with Jovie still waking up a couple times a night, the workday is never-ending.

While I'm grateful to have work I can do from home, it's not always the most ... shall we say ... stimulating. 

Writing the occasional Smart column has helped fill a creative void, but it's become clear that   I need a more regular outlet for something that's just for me.

What about that novel you say? Right. Well - here's the deal - the novel is super intimidating. Enough of life right now is intimidating (see making dinner), that I just need something to be more ... bite-sized. 

So here we are. Blogging is like my little plecostomus.

Anyway, I had this revelation today. Happiness isn't always handed to you. Sure, there are moments in the day of joy -- Jovie's bright-eyed smile, Lily showing me how she hops -- but happiness (and by extension sanity) is something you have to work at -- and might require some sacrifice. 

And I admire people who pursue happiness.

One of my best friends recently made the decision to leave her very secure job as a 7th-grade teacher because dreaded the prospect of another school year. She's now trying to figure out her next move -- terrified that she made the wrong choice -- but relieved that she won't be stuck doing something she hates forever. She second guesses herself every day, and assumes the rest of the world thinks she's crazy for giving up her job, but I'm so proud of her. I think it takes courage to face your unhappiness and decide to make a change -- to venture out into the unknown with the hopes that the next step will bring you satisfaction. 

Incidentally, I've suggested that she make these guys and sell them on Etsy

Cellulite in plush.

Come on, pretty funny, right? I'd buy that. (Steph - I'd also buy plush vericose veins ... hint. hint).

Postcard from Spain.
I'm not jealous at all.
Our other friend took a month off from her job right after buying a house in Northern Virginia on her own to dig up skeletons in Spain. Why is this impressive? Have you seen real estate prices in Northern Virginia? They're redonks. She knows that it her budget might be tight for a while, but it was worth it to her to spend the month as an archeologist, doing what she loves and absorbing another culture. Finding a new skin for herself.

My dad set a good example for me in this vein. He worked long hours designing satellites (which, I feel, should be pretty damn gratifying on it's own), and would come home at night and on the weekends and head to the garage-turned-woodshop to build furniture. He also spent a fair amount of time gardening. Despite working a white-collar job, his hands have always been calloused and scratched. Happy hands (not to be confused with the Happy Hands Club.) 

Self-preservation isn't always easy, but it's necessary. Life's too short (I know, I said I was going to avoid cliches -- this is one that is pertinent though). 

Writing makes me happy. So I'm willing to give up sleep in order to do it. And despite being overtired, I think I'll be a better mom for it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

One more I forgot

When rattling off those successful under-30 artists that I admire/not-so-secretly envy, I forgot Karen Russell author of "Swamplandia!" which was one of three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. 

Pulitzer Prize final-ism aside, Russell crafted an original and otherworldly story about a family running a failing amusement park deep in the Florida Everglades. While I don't personally identify with alligator wrestling, love affairs with ghosts or life in a swamp (everything I read that involves Florida and its inhabitants is so strange -- coincidence? I think not), I do relate to the themes of loss and a family in crisis. 

And I so identified with lonely 13-year-old Ava, who desperately wants her family to be OK and will do whatever she can to try to mend the fissures that have separated her father, brother and sister in the wake of her mother's death. 

I don't know how Russell came up with the Bird Man and his oily feathered coat or the World of Darkness (a hell-themed amusement park) -- but she knows how to create unsettling settings and characters. I still get goosebumps when I think about the tale of the Dredgemen's Revelation and that flock of vultures, and I read the book months ago.

Anyway, Russell was named one of five under 35 by the National Book Foundation. I guess there's still time to make that list -- although with potty training on the horizon, it's not looking likely.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Who wants to hear from a middle-aged housewife anyway?

Typically, I laugh at people who at 20 or 25 or 30 say they feel old. First, I feel like it's an insult to legitimately old people (I think given that the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.2, that you're not legitimately old until you're in your 70s -- the rest is all state of mind. Also, another side note - did you know the life expectancy in Monaco is 89?!). 

Secondly, I think saying you feel old at 25 is somehow implying some sort of world weariness that most 20- and early-30-somethings I know haven't earned.

I know. It's a blanket statement.

At the same time, now that I'm 30, I feel like I'm hyper-aware of people who are younger than me who have managed to channel what world weariness they did have into artistic success.

And by that I mean, they've been able to create work that people at various stages in life can relate to, despite their youth. 
Amazing artist and she has the bangs I've always wanted.

Case in point, my current obsession Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine. At 25, she has two albums and has received multiple Grammy nominations. She has an epic voice and sings verses that have fantastic imagery and speak to my emotional/spiritual right brain.

No matter how many times I listen to "Shake it Out" I get goosebumps. 

"And it's hard to dance with a devil on your back / So shake him off"

How is that not the perfect illustration of living with regret and shame?

And I love these lines from "I'm Not Calling You a Liar" which (by my interpretation) seem to tell the story of letting your emotions overrule your reason:
"There's a ghost in my lungs, And it sighs in my sleep, Wraps itself around my tongue, As it softly speaks. And it walks, and it walks, with my legs, To fall, to fall, to fall at your feet."
Even she's only co-writing her music, her delivery takes the lyrics to another stratosphere. 

Pop music aside, there are also plenty of writers that I read about in the pages of Entertainment Weekly (Great book reviews!) who are younger than 30. 

I just finished reading "Seating Arrangements" by Maggie Shipstead, which, despite all the diaper changing, cooking, cleaning, blogging, etc., took me less than a week. This not only speaks to Shipstead's funny, engrossing story; lovely writing; and smart observations about people and society -- but also young Jovie's extra clinginess the past two weeks necessitating much rocking and therefore allowing for much reading. 

But I digress, Shipstead's story about three days leading up to a family wedding could've easily been relegated to paperback beach read territory (which it's good for, too) but her writing places it on a level above. 

Oh yeah, and she's only 28 or so. 

I don't like to get sucked into youth obsession. While I sometimes miss the freedom of my 20s, I don't miss the uncertainty and the emotional highs and lows. At the same time, I worry that if I one day do finish my novel, nobody will consider reading it for publication because it wasn't written by a "fresh, young voice." 

Of course, I guess I can always just look to Harry Potter for reassurance. 

How do you make sure not to outgrow your characters?

The secret to my success: Me circa second grade and fitness guru Tony Horton.
So, secretly (well now, not so secretly) I worry that by the time I finish writing that novel I'll have outgrown it. And also that maybe I'll be too old (more on that eventually).

I'll explain.

At her birth I was in my mid-20s and so I imagined Eleanor to be in her mid-20s. And while she's not some thinly veiled version of me, our places in life were going to be parallel. We were both in that period of settling into adulthood. 

Terrified and exhilarated by our independence.
Nostalgic for childhood.
Searching for love.
Searching for fulfillment.
Learning self acceptance.

But I've undergone some considerable life change -- marriage and children. My new life carries a whole new set of characteristics and routines that seem so foreign from how things were just a few years ago. What if I'm forgetting my mid-20s mindset and am unable to make Eleanor believable?

See, this is the problem with being a journalist/wannabe novelist. When I consider writing the book (and that's about all I do now with it -- consider it) I am concerned that I won't be able to make it feel genuine if it's not based on experiences that are clear and understandable to me. I'm walking this bridge between nonfiction and fiction, when instead I need to just dive into fiction and just trust that the nonfiction of my subconscious will seep in as necessary.

Is that what actual novelists do?

Perhaps the real problem is that I need to do some fiction-writing training to help me be more confident and less inhibited. Someone should make a version of P90X for wannabe novelists. A more literary Tony Horton could implement a 90-day cerebral exercise routine where doubtful, lazy, procrastinating and excuse-laden writers would do some imagination strength training and pound out the damn book already. (That actually might already exist in the form of National Novel Writing Month, which I participated in in 2011 to the tune of 18,000 words -- far short of the 50,000 needed to "win").

Also, if I could have a beach body at the end of three months, that would be OK, too.

When I was in elementary school I loved writing and illustrating stories. I was thrilled when the teacher handed out newsprint that was half lined and half blank -- so you'd write out your story on the bottom half and draw pictures on the top. Why was it so easy then to invite worlds and people to inhabit them?

So here's what needs to happen: I need to awaken my inner Susie (that's what people called me back then) -- but hopefully I'll ditch the ugly sweaters and bad hair -- while simultaneously developing some sort of inner-Tony Horton/Editor hybrid to force me to get the cursor to stop blinking on a blank page.

Friday, August 24, 2012

'You will feel humanoid again'

My sister Laura is very wise. I often turn to her when I'm feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with life's  circumstances.

Last week I was lamenting Lily's mercurial moods and wondering if I'd ever get to a point when I'd be able to do more than parent, work, cook and clean (read: work on that novel or paint or even just put on mascara).

She texted me this gem:
"I can promise you that this stage doesn't last forever. That you will, one day, sit down and read through your e-mails AND respond without interruption. You will go to the store alone (or be begging someone to go with you.) You will cook dinner in record time and have all your blogsignments done ahead of time. You will be juggling sports practices, four schedules, PTO, and a part-time job and still have a clean house. You will be rested and will feel humanoid again. I promise, not plomise*. In the meantime, just make sure you look at their faces."
I tell my friends that everyone needs a Laura in their life. She is forever putting life in perspective for me and demonstrating how to be a better person and a better mother (she would forever deny her abilities to make others be a better person because she often thinks she's a horrible person, but that's a load of crap IMHO). Mothers and fathers all need to be reminded them that nothing in life is permanent, especially when it comes to children (she has six, so she knows what she's talking about).

And I do have such beautiful faces to gaze at:

So maybe my expectations for writing my novel by 30 is unrealistic given what's on my plate right now (OK, it's definitely unrealistic because I'm already 30). But - to carry on the plate metaphor (especially because I do like to eat) - eventually my plate will be less smorgasbord and more sensible salad. Or something.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I dislike this cliche. I mean really, people choose to have a literal full plate, right? You only have yourself to blame for taking that second helping of macaroni and cheese or loading up on the mashed potatoes. It's not a really sympathetic situation to be in. Of course, I guess I chose to have children. Still -- and I don't think I'm whining by saying this -- having a toddler and an infant is a little bit more work then polishing off that extra dinner roll.

Note to self: Avoid cliches.

*Plomise is used as a substitute for promise when you don't intend to follow through on an action. IE: In a conversation with her teenager, Laura might say, "I never promised I'd drive you to the mall - I made a plomise. Not the same thing." It's kind of a parental loophole. When we were little she also promised to give me 10 doll-hairs to do something or other for her. As you can see, she's obnoxious and clever.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

From the beginning (and the persistence of writing)

The leaves I picture the dead guy in my novel lying on.
Yes, these are the things I think about while going about my day.

A few years back when I was working as the assistant features editor at my local newspaper heard a call on the police scanner that someone had found a body in the woods near their house.

 The man who found the body took a reporter and photographer to the spot where he'd found the body and a story ran in the paper the next day.

That's really all I remember about the spark for this novel I might never finish. I thought about the person who found the body - How did he come across it? How had it changed his day? How might it have affected him long term?

I thought it would be interesting to try to answer these questions. Could you imagine going about your daily routine - taking the same walk you do every day, seeing the same things you see every day, feeling comforted and safe by the sameness and then one day you trip over a dead guy?

I think I've always wanted to take a stab at writing fiction -- other then some short stories I wrote in a creative writing class in college I hadn't really tried writing stories of my own invention since I was a kid. I was intimidated about having to invent characters and a universe for them to live in, not to mention interesting scenarios for them to be involved in (AKA plot).

But then this dead guy dropped in my lap. And I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd been handed my story, I just needed someone to guide me through it. And then it dawned on me - as it must all fiction writers - that there was no need to invent anyone out of whole cloth when I already knew so many interesting characters ("no shit" utters every fiction writer in the history of storytelling.)

So my brain introduced to Eleanor - an amalgamation of friends and acquaintances who seemed to offer the most interesting perspective on dead body discovery. After I dreamed her up I was excited at the prospect of building a story around her. And I had all sorts of ideas about who Eleanor was and what her life was like that I talked about with other writers (or at least thought about anytime I thought about writing). I might have even written some of these ideas down. 

Of course at various junctures (well, most junctures) I've decided that writing a novel is out of my league and ability (I've not always been the best about finishing long-term projects), but Eleanor, the dead guy in the woods and several others have taken up residence in my brain and are refusing to leave. 

Over the years I've stopped in to check on them from time to time. My first deadline for completion was before my daughter Lily was born September 2010. My second deadline for completion was before my second daughter Jovie was born in April 2012. My new deadline is before I die. I've never been great with setting deadlines.

I've written about 25,000 words, so there's really no turning back now, right?