Monthly Archives: September 2010

Hazy Shade of Memory

Time, time, time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around
For my possibilities
I was so hard to please

I often feel like I live in two different worlds. When I am at work, in a suit, talking LIBOR rates and workouts and foreclosures, I am one of them. When I am here, at Starbucks on my days off, in my yoga pants, I am one of us, a mother and a writer.

One day I was sitting in my yoga pants, typing away and I was sitting by another lone guy, computer set up, papers spread out. We caught each other’s eye and smiled, two creative types struggling through. On the other side of me sat down three men in suits. They were loud and trying to out-impress the other, shouting about interest rates and hedging and real estate.  The lone guy looked at me and rolled his eyes in a “aren’t they obnoxious and aren’t we glad we aren’t them” way. The thing is, somedays, I am them. I don’t talk loud or try to impress, because I really don’t care, but I have been in a Starbucks in a suit, meeting with clients and discussing such things. We often make judgments about people based on simple things. What they are wearing. Where they are at 10 am on a weekday. I float between both.

Sometimes I feel like my life is like Sliding Doors, that Gwyneth Paltrow movie where in one existence she made the train and her life went in one direction, and in the other she didn’t and her life went another. Except in mine, I flash back and forth between the two. And I don’t have that fabulous pixie haircut.

A few weeks ago, the husband and I took O back to California for the first time. The husband is from California, and I lived there for 10 years so it’s “home” to both of us in different ways. We stepped off the plane and walked out into the California sunshine. (Well, we disembarked, waited for our luggage, waited for our rental car, watched O marvel at the massive John Wayne statue in the lobby of the airport, waited some more and THEN walked outside into the California sunshine).

The sliding doors swished open and instantly I felt like I was “home”. There is a certain indefinable smell and feel to the air in California- dry, cool, smelling of gasoline and a hint of ocean, a smell of infinite possibility.  Instantly, I was 18 years old again, walking around the open-air mall in Century City with my parents.  California seemed so wide-open, not in space but in possibility, in living, in experience.  Meandering around an open-air mall in late-afternoon sunshine seemed impossibly glamorous and somehow right for California. My dad bought me this luscious cigar-colored leather backpack, a grown-up backpack, a sophisticated backpack for my college days.  I felt very cool, and very very far away from Texas. I felt like I belonged there, I easily slipped into being a Californian. I kept that backpack all through my college days, and I still have it, somewhere. It is soft with use now, has a big navy blue inkspot on it, and looks very used. Yet I can’t bear to throw it away.

I had forgotten about this backpack, but stepping out into the sunshine it came rushing back at me. Except, instead of feeling like a memory, I felt exactly like that 18 year old girl. Time slipped away, and I was her. I am her. I felt a yearning for something, so deep that it brought tears to my eyes. It was a yearning for home, for California, for who I used to be and who I still am.

In many many ways, we are different, she and I. She was brash, fearless, a bit bossy. She was scared of nothing and believed that she could do anything. She was also immature, unaware of consequences, self-centered and impulsive. She made a LOT of bad decisions. She wasted opportunities, stole boyfriends, took things for granted. She never would have chosen this life, never would have moved away and become a lawyer, married the right guy. She was also so full of life, always up for an adventure, always saying yes to impossible things. She was stubborn and hard to please. She was exactly what an 18 year old girl should be.

I am not fearless anymore and I am very aware of the consequences of decisions. I am also a lot nicer and calmer, a better friend, a better listener. I am more at peace in my skin, in my life, more able to live in the moment and appreciate the now, because I know how fast it moves. I marvel everyday that I have become a person who chose the absolute best guy to marry, that I grew up enough to be smart enough to marry someone kind and wise and thoughtful, someone who makes me laugh and who always always has my back, someone who I never for one moment doubt. I am proud of my grown up self, because knowing her, I wasn’t sure we would ever get here.

I was born and raised in Texas. There is much about me that is pure Texan. Texas is not a place that you can drift through without it leaving its mark. Its too big, too brash, too charming. But I grew up in California. From 18 to 28, the formative years of one’s grown up existence, I lived and absorbed California. There is much about me that is California.

My grandmother’s family is from California and my grandmother grew up in Fullerton, when it was still all orange groves and farmland. Her mother was the first woman superintendent in California and her father was a beekeeper.  My grandparents met at Stanford, before the war and other things drew them out of California and they ended up in Texas. When I decided to go to school in California, my grandmother nodded knowingly and told my mom that I had California in my blood.

Now, in my thirties, I live in Texas, but not in a city that is familiar or home to me. And I struggle with what “home” means, not only to me, but what it will mean to O. I am not sure that I want this to be home for him.

On our visit, O saw the ocean for the first time and met my best friends for the first time. My best friends that live out there are so close we are like family. When we see each other again, we don’t skip a beat and it’s like I never left. It’s so normal and so easy. I feel at home with them in a way that I never feel in my new hometown.

Home: Place where one lives.

At home: In harmony with the surroundings.

So I wonder, what is home? Is it place? Is it where your family and loved ones are? Is it where you feel the most harmonious with the surroundings, the terrain and the weather and the people and the customs? For me, the easy answer is home is where my husband and son are. But where I am at home is still up in the air. And that’s okay.

For now, I live in between two worlds. Texas has my head- it is where my family is, it is where my husband and I work, it is where we live in a beautiful house in an amazing neighborhood, amongst neighbors that we actually know. Taxes are reasonable, schools are good. It’s a great place for O to grow up. It’s real summer and cicadas and good Tex-Mex and BBQ, it’s long drives under a limitless sky, football mania and easy access to Target. It’s safe and predictable and full of the best people I know, people with open arms and open hearts, people that know how to tell good stories, people that know what is important in life.

But California still has my heart. It is where I became who I am, it is where my other family, my best friends are. It is where the ocean is, and the sunshine all year long, and where possibility lives. I want O to grow up surfing and live among beauty, between the ocean and mountains.

I wish I could find the words to describe the simultaneous yearning and disillusionment I feel for California. But it’s still too close for me to view objectively. The artist Liz Kubal summed up California perfectly:

And you’d think that, after all this, you’d become disillusioned and go back home, and some do, of course, but many more of us stay and instead of growing bitter, we hang on to a world that, to us, is even more fantastic than the one we thought we’d find, because it’s real in its absurdity and because we have stories to tell.”

Link to her photographs: http://www.20×

Soundtrack to this post:

Hazy Shade of Winter– Simon and Garfunkel

Goin to California– Led Zeppelin

California Dreamin’– Mamas & Papas

California Love– Dr Dre featuring Tupac

What I Got– Sublime

Estimated Prophet– Grateful Dead


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Write Believe Release

*Note: This was written a few weeks ago. I hadn’t posted it because I decided it didn’t really say anything. Then I had lunch with Iz, who is a kindred reader and writer. Our talk reinvigorated these thoughts I had. So this post is for you, Iz. Hope it inspires you!

A few things in the zeitgeist have been blowing around my mind, but they haven’t quite congealed themselves into anything yet. First, there is the Franzen frenzy and this article that was posted on the Huffington Post. I’ve been mulling over my thoughts and realized that I have no fight in this game. I loved The Corrections. I love Jodi Picoult. I don’t begrudge Franzen his good reviews and I don’t begrudge Picoult her right to say what she feels. I would gladly take either of their careers. What struck me more was the hostile reaction to Picoult and Weiner’s comments on the matter. The comments to the article on Huffington Post and the comments in reaction to this article , in which a female writer sniffs that Picoult and Weiner are just jealous because Franzen is a good writer and they are not. I don’t know where the hostility is coming from- is it because they are women, or because they are successful women or because they write what is considered “women’s fiction”? I have no idea. But as a aspiring writer, the hostile dismissal of both Picoult and Weiner’s work stopped me in my typing. If they are considered hacks, then what hope do I have?

As I have been mulling over this controversy, another juggernaut in the zeitgeist crashed into my Friday afternoon and momentarily chased away these thoughts. I went and saw “Eat Pray Love“.

I have not read the book. Well, in full disclosure, I tried to read the book. I couldn’t get past the first chapter. I like to think I’m open-minded enough that the massive popularity didn’t color my opinions. I have been known to not like something just because everyone else does, and I have been known to dig in my heels until I have to wave the white flag and admit, yes I did like The Life of Pi. I’m not sure the reason, but I couldn’t get through Ms. Gilbert’s breakdown on her bathroom floor. It wasn’t her honest questioning of her life and marriage, that I understand. I don’t mind dark. I think it was more her writing style. She just came across as so whiny and self-indulgent. Instead of sympathising with her during her darkest moments, I just wanted to slap her. Or tell her to get over herself. I think this is something to do with the writing. Whenever I mention this to people that love the book, I think they assume that as a happily married woman living in a big white house, that I am offended or threatened by a woman who admits that not only are these things not enough, but that they can be their own kind of prison. They defend her by telling me how courageous and life-affirming her decisions was. I agree. I just don’t think she did her job as a writer. If my (and admittedly many others besides me) reaction is to be taken out of the moment, to not hurt with her, to think about her writing and her motivations, then as a writer at least, she failed.

I had to work in the morning last Friday and was feeling filled up with stress and grumpiness and just the busyness of life. I hadn’t had my morning writing session and I was feeling uninspired. I haven’t been to a movie since Christmas and I love movies. I decided to take the rest of the afternoon and go to a movie. I picked Eat Pray Love because I was hoping to be inspired.

And I was. Julia Roberts was a good choice because she made an unlikable woman likable, which means the audience can stop focusing on whether or not they like the character and instead enjoy the story. And what a story it is. I do find it a little unbelievable how everything happened to her right when she needed it to, but other than that, it was a beautiful story. There were many moments that stood out to me, that made me wish I had a pen and paper handy, to write down my thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about what I could possibly say about Eat Pray Love that hasn’t been said before. I decided there wasn’t anything, so just chalked it up to a great movie experience.

Today though, I was bored at work and started surfing the internet. I decided to google Liz Gilbert because I was curious about her other writing work. And on her website was this absolute gem, that brought it all together for me. The fears of whether or not I will ever be good enough, both at the actual task of writing and for the writing community, as not one of their own. The worry about whether or not I have it in me to even finish a novel, and then to even sell it, and THEN to worry about whether or not it will be too popular or not literary enough or not thoughtful enough. And so on. So this is a lovely reminder, to just write. Believe in yourself. And then release it. Our only allegiance is to the words. What happens after that is out of our hands. So stop worrying and start writing. Enjoy!

Liz Gilbert on writing:

Sometimes people ask me for help or suggestions about how to write, or how to get published. Keeping in mind that this is all very ephemeral and personal, I will try to explain here everything that I believe about writing. I hope it is useful. It’s all I know.

I believe that – if you are serious about a life of writing, or indeed about any creative form of expression – that you should take on this work like a holy calling. I became a writer the way other people become monks or nuns. I made a vow to writing, very young. I became Bride-of-Writing. I was writing’s most devotional handmaiden. I built my entire life around writing. I didn’t know how else to do this. I didn’t know anyone who had ever become a writer. I had no, as they say, connections. I had no clues. I just began.

I took a few writing classes when I was at NYU, but, aside from an excellent workshop taught by Helen Schulman, I found that I didn’t really want to be practicing this work in a classroom. I wasn’t convinced that a workshop full of 13 other young writers trying to find their voices was the best place for me to find my voice. So I wrote on my own, as well. I showed my work to friends and family whose opinions I trusted. I was always writing, always showing. After I graduated from NYU, I decided not to pursue an MFA in creative writing. Instead, I created my own post-graduate writing program, which entailed several years spent traveling around the country and world, taking jobs at bars and restaurants and ranches, listening to how people spoke, collecting experiences and writing constantly. My life probably looked disordered to observers (not that anyone was observing it that closely) but my travels were a very deliberate effort to learn as much as I could about life, expressly so that I could write about it.

Back around the age of 19, I had started sending my short stories out for publication. My goal was to publish something (anything, anywhere) before I died. I collected only massive piles of rejection notes for years. I cannot explain exactly why I had the confidence to be sending off my short stories at the age of 19 to, say, The New Yorker, or why it did not destroy me when I was inevitably rejected. I sort of figured I’d be rejected. But I also thought: “Hey – somebody has to write all those stories: why not me?” I didn’t love being rejected, but my expectations were low and my patience was high. (Again – the goal was to get published before death. And I was young and healthy.) It has never been easy for me to understand why people work so hard to create something beautiful, but then refuse to share it with anyone, for fear of criticism. Wasn’t that the point of the creation – to communicate something to the world? So PUT IT OUT THERE. Send your work off to editors and agents as much as possible, show it to your neighbors, plaster it on the walls of the bus stops – just don’t sit on your work and suffocate it. At least try. And when the powers-that-be send you back your manuscript (and they will), take a deep breath and try again. I often hear people say, “I’m not good enough yet to be published.” That’s quite possible. Probable, even. All I’m saying is: Let someone else decide that. Magazines, editors, agents – they all employ young people making $22,000 a year whose job it is to read through piles of manuscripts and send you back letters telling you that you aren’t good enough yet: LET THEM DO IT. Don’t pre-reject yourself. That’s their job, not yours. Your job is only to write your heart out, and let destiny take care of the rest.

As for discipline – it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness (which comes from a place of kind and encouraging and motherly love). The other thing to realize is that all writers think they suck. When I was writing “Eat, Pray, Love”, I had just as a strong a mantra of THIS SUCKS ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything. But I had a clarion moment of truth during the process of that book. One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.” The point I realized was this – I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it, as per my vows.

I have a friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensibility. After years of struggling to get his films made, he sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog. My friend complained about how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste…etc, etc. Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.” I repeat those words back to myself whenever I start to feel resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated with regard to my writing: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.”  Always, at the end of the day, the important thing is only and always that: Get back to work. This is a path for the courageous and the faithful. You must find another reason to work, other than the desire for success or recognition. It must come from another place.

Here’s another thing to consider. If you always wanted to write, and now you are A Certain Age, and you never got around to it, and you think it’s too late…do please think again. I watched Julia Glass win the National Book Award for her first novel, “The Three Junes”, which she began writing in her late 30’s. I listened to her give her moving acceptance speech, in which she told how she used to lie awake at night, tormented as she worked on her book, asking herself, “Who do you think you are, trying to write a first novel at your age?” But she wrote it. And as she held up her National Book Award, she said, “This is for all the late-bloomers in the world.” Writing is not like dancing or modeling; it’s not something where – if you missed it by age 19 – you’re finished. It’s never too late. Your writing will only get better as you get older and wiser. If you write something beautiful and important, and the right person somehow discovers it, they will clear room for you on the bookshelves of the world – at any age. At least try.

There are heaps of books out there on How To Get Published. Often people find the information in these books contradictory. My feeling is — of COURSE the information is contradictory. Because, frankly, nobody knows anything. Nobody can tell you how to succeed at writing (even if they write a book called “How To Succeed At Writing”) because there is no WAY; there are, instead, many ways. Everyone I know who managed to become a writer did it differently – sometimes radically differently. Try all the ways, I guess. Becoming a published writer is sort of like trying to find a cheap apartment in New York City: it’s impossible. And yet…every single day, somebody manages to find a cheap apartment in New York City. I can’t tell you how to do it. I’m still not even entirely sure how I did it. I can only tell you – through my own example – that it can be done. I once found a cheap apartment in Manhattan. And I also became a writer.

In the end, I love this work. I have always loved this work. My suggestion is that you start with the love and then work very hard and try to let go of the results. Cast out your will, and then cut the line. Please try, also, not to go totally freaking insane in the process. Insanity is a very tempting path for artists, but we don’t need any more of that in the world at the moment, so please resist your call to insanity. We need more creation, not more destruction. We need our artists more than ever, and we need them to be stable, steadfast, honorable and brave – they are our soldiers, our hope. If you decide to write, then you must do it, as Balzac said, “like a miner buried under a fallen roof.” Become a knight, a force of diligence and faith. I don’t know how else to do it except that way. As the great poet Jack Gilbert said once to young writer, when she asked him for advice about her own poems: “Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say YES.”

Good luck.

Thank you, Liz Gilbert!

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Long Story Short

So my plan to post on Mondays and Fridays has been blown a little off course, by a trip back to California and a crazy work schedule. So basically, just by normal life. Until I have time to post, here is a great article on Huffington Post on short story writers, and their thoughts on the short story versus the novel.


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