Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living
So You Want to Get An MFA?
My regular class at UC Extension, Writing Short Fiction From Life Experience
, has been a little underenrolled as of late, and so they've decided to "shake things up" a little bit. I've been asked to teach a class called "So You Want To Get an MFA
." (I feel like I should be up there in the front of the class with my hands on my hips, saying, "Prove it!") Apparently this class has been quite popular in the past.
According to the class description, this course is designed to help applicants choose schools, write their personal essays, make decisions about recommendation letters, choose and polish the creative work they’ll be including, and build a spotless application. In four meetings over eight weeks, you’ll have plenty of time to go over the specifics of your background in round-table discussions.
I feel a little dubious that people will want to take a class to figure out how to get into graduate school, but if they feel it will be helpful, I want to help them. I will try to make it interesting and fun and useful. I'll have a panel of current MFA students, teachers, post-grads and people who have been involved in low-residency MFA programs.
Personally, I am very happy that I got my MFA. It was a very busy time (I had a 3 year old and was pregnant the 2nd year) but it was also a total gift. I had been a science/health professional major as an undergraduate and was never asked to read a piece of literature. (criminal, in my mind) I struggled academically. I was an absolute dunce, really, and it wreaked havoc on my self esteem.
So when I was in my literature courses and my writing workshops in graduate school, I felt as if I'd died and gone to heaven. I felt like I was getting a true second chance. I was finally immersing myself in the world that I'd longed to be in forever: the world of words.
I met three of my closest friends in the world while I was in my MFA program. We formed a writing group that met for over a decade, and we are bonded in a way that is truly unique. We know each other from the inside out.
My decision making process in choosing an MFA program was a simple one: it was based largely on geography. It wasn't the world's most prestigious or well known program, but it worked for me. I wonder about these prospective students who have infinite freedom in choosing their programs. Will some of them end up across the country, or in other parts of the world? I'm curious about these writers, who they will be, and where they will end up.
The Novelist's Notebook
The other day, I had a great consultation with K, one of my writer friends. She has managed to write and publish six books in the time that I have struggled to complete just one, and I thought it would be good to get some tips as I embark on a New Project. I remember once she came to be a guest speaker at my now-defunct mother-daughter book group. She brought along all kinds of show and tell stuff, but the most fascinating object was a ratty looking spiral notebook, the kind you get for 99 cents at Back-to-School Sales. This notebook was totally filled with all kinds of scribbling and arrows and exclamation points. She said everything for her novels went into these books, one notebook per novel.I remembered this notebook recently when the idea for my new book was feeling very embryonic (it still is). I felt like I could not properly begin this project unless I studied these writing notebooks. I drove to K's house and said, "Show me your notebooks!" She very obligingly took them down and let me pore through them. I was fascinated. I was thrilled. There, on the first page of this notebook, "Notes for _______." (something that didn't, or rarely turned out to be the published title of the eventual novel) And then her ideas. "This book is about character X, who is in this situation, and then this happens, and then this." A very rough outline, not by chapters, but by Beginning, Middle and End. All on one page, and scribbled very fast. The next page, a tentative list of characters. Who lives in the book? Who will get airtime? And then some notes on backstory. Some addition and subtraction, figuring out who is what age during what point in history. A drawing of the house where the character lives, the key locations, a garden, a wall, a tree that looks like this with a hole in the middle. WOW. I was just completely captivated by this notebook.I asked her, "What is the relationship between this notebook, and the typed manuscript pages?" She was just taking a chocolate cake out of the oven, and she laughed. "This is so much fun! Nobody ever asks me these questions. Nobody ever cares." Oh boy, do I care. Not like I'm following a recipe or a prescription or anything, but this time I had this feeling that something that I had been doing was missing, and I needed to know about this part of the process.It is very left brain-right brainy. The notebook is the intuitive side, the curious and playful side, that asks all the questions, and plays around and tries things out. The narrative, the typed sentences, is the side that tries to produce what the notebook is asking for. For all this time, for a LONG time, I have been trying (and failing) to do only the manuscript part, while keeping all the rest of it in my head: the outlines, the characters, the way things are supposed to work, what the house looks like, the map, etc. It is like trying to cook completely from scratch and completely without any sense of recipe, just hoping it will turn out right.How did this happen? I used to write in a journal religiously, like breathing. I needed it, in order to live, and to understand how I was living. But then when I began writing "seriously" (hah! hah!) my journal writing dwindled down to almost nothing. I think a terrible self-consciousness took over. I wanted everything to be profound and beautifully written and meaningful and, well, literary. Ugh. So yesterday I pulled a medium-sized blank notebook out of one of my drawers and wrote at the top of the first page, "Notes for that book about Silences." (that's all I will say for now) And I just started describing it. This book is about X (no name yet), who is ___ years old and who lives with _____ in the city of _____. Then I started describing the people she lives with and what they are like. And I started getting excited. Questions popped up off the page, and then I either answered myself, "I don't KNOW!!" or, some idea, and a bunch of ????s around it. Then I wrote a bunch of the backstory, surprising mysel[...]
Thanks to Harlow's Monkey
for letting me steal her quick-blogging format. For when there just isn't time for a real blog. This one is for the past TWO weeks.
Getting A Life, short stories by Helen Simpson
andWhy Do I Love These People?
by Po Bronson
Too many blogs
(great)My Life Without Me
(also great)The Secret Lives of Dentists
(surprisingly good, based on Jane Smiley's novella The Age of Grief)
from Ruth Reichl's Garlic & Sapphires
a bunch of dim sum from Oakland Chinatown
two birthday dinners: one out at Sushi Zone (also in Oakland Chinatown!) and homemade one - crab cakes, salad, cupcakes
Cooked:Chicken parmesan wreath
for first day of school dinner
Grilled chicken teriyaki rice bowls
I can't remember what else, but SOMEthing appeared on the table virtually every night
Turned 47 (gulp)
Had a collage party
with a bunch o' my girlfriends
Picked up younger daughter from circus camp
Hosted a dinner reception for 40+ people at our house
Started older daughter off at junior year of high school
Had intensive session with writing mentor friend and began outlining new novel
Picked up 17 yr old Japanese exchange student
Back to school shopping x 2
I Want to Play, Too
I know I am a hundred years behind with my blogging, and it's because I've been reading wayyyy too many blogs lately. Mostly adoption themed blogs: Twice the Rice
, Harlow's Monkey
, A Birth Project
and more. There's been some very articulate and provocative stuff out there, but today it was all play, thanks to the Advertising Generator
. I couldn't help tossing mine in there as well and here is what it came up with:
You'll Never Put A Better Bit Of Susanito On Your Knife.
Beanz Meanz Susanito.
Moms Like You Choose Susanito. (ha ha, inside joke)
It Needn't Be Hell With Susanito.
They're Waffly Susanito.
Big Chocolate Susanito.
Happiness is Susanito-Shaped.
Susanito is so Bracing.
The Loudest Noise Comes From The Electric Susanito.
When I was growing up, my grandmother traveled everywhere with us. Then, when I went to college and beyond, she continued hanging out with my parents. They went to Florida a dozen times, and also took shorter trips, to my dad's investor club meetings in the Poconos, and once to Hawaii, and of course out to California to visit me. At least once or twice a week, the three of them went out to dinner together. I never thought what a funny threesome they were - but they always sent me photos (good Japanese tourists, they always carried their cameras around their necks) of the three of them in various configurations.Well, what goes around, comes around or whatever. Or is it: history repeats itself. Because now it's my husband and me, + my mother. This week, both of our girls were Elsewhere, and he had the week off from work, and we didn't really feel we could leave her alone here. So the three of us trundled off to Sausalito, and stayed in a little hotel for two nights, and did the kind of things she likes. She doesn't like "hanging out" like we do (more on that later). She was up at 7:00am, dressed and ready to go. "What's on the agenda?" she asked. So even though we'd told her to "bring books" we knew this was not going to be any kind of our regular reading + napping kind of vacation. We decided to take the ferry boat from Sausalito to the San Francisco Ferry Building, where we browsed the Book Passage bookstore (integral part of any vacation: bookstores), ogled the lovely produce and had a great lunch out on the back patio, with the Bay Bridge stretching out overhead. It was a great little expedition. The ferry ride was really fun, and beautiful, and something we really only do every few years. We came back and played tourist, walking around the shops, and then came back to the hotel so Mom and husband could watch their nightly baseball game. It feels like a nice groove, and weirdly enough, after decades of resisting her company, I like having my mom around. I love it that she and my husband are incredibly close buddies. It's all very surprising and strange and nice.Then we came home and I worked for half a day, and then just he and I took off for one more night in Inverness, to the cutest little cottage hanging over the water of Tomales Bay. There, we got to do our standard vacation of reading, sleeping, cuddling, hanging out in front of the fire and just being quiet. Left to our own devices, this is our perfect vacation. We don't like doing a lot of touristy stuff, and we don't like doing much of anything that takes a lot of effort. We just like doing what we rarely get to do at home: hanging out quietly with a good book and each other. We're both reading books we're liking a lot, which is good luck. I'm reading Dave King's The Ha-Ha, which was enthusiastically recommended over at Readerville. It's a startling, fascinating and very moving book. He's reading The Good Family by Terry Gamble. Which is something I really love about him. This is a book that I would normally just keep on my side of the bed, because it's written by a woman, and it's about Family, one would consider it "women's literature," but he managed to find it and pack it in HIS suitcase, and he's really liking it a lot. Postscript on Sausalito: When I first moved to the Bay Area, one of my new friends insisted I ought to move to Sausalito so everyone could call me "Susanito from Sausalito." I still think that's not a bad idea.[...]
I was really into unicorns when I was little, and I think it wasn't just because a lot of little girls are into unicorns. It was because I felt like I was the only one of my kind: mixed-race, adopted, only child.
One of the most powerful aspects of Pact Camp
this past week, was that a lot of people, including myself, got to feel like we were just a little less unicornish. I spent the week in a cabin with other adult adoptees of color, which was incredibly moving, powerful, hilarious and beautiful. Little kids got to see lots of other kids, and counselors, who looked like them. Parents got to hang with other parents who had adopted kids of color. That was one of the best things about this past week: a lot of people getting to have the feeling that they're not the Only Ones. One five year old girl said she wanted to live at camp "forever" and that she'd already forgotten what her house looked like, because camp was her real home.
One couple spoke at the end of camp and said that two years ago, they lived in a small, all-white community in New England. (their daughter is African American) Coming to camp was a huge revelation for them, when they saw how huge it was for her daughter to be with similar peers. They took a huge leap and a huge financial risk and moved to the Bay Area, to a much more diverse community. This year, they said, camp was great, but the remarkable thing was that it was no longer so different from their everyday lives.
I think about what it would have been like for me to come to a camp of adopted people when I was younger. I think it would have been enormous. I only knew one other adopted person when I was going through school, and we never really spoke about it. But my mother would point him out and tell me that he came from the same agency as I did. It made me feel like we had a little invisible bond, if maybe we "remembered" each other from that mysterious Agency place. One of my closest friends was a girl whose father had left the family when she was an infant, and I think I felt bonded to her because we both had something missing, something invisible in our families, in our histories. I think coming to adoption camp would have been huge for me. Which is why I'm doing this job now. It's STILL huge.
An Gentle Re-Entry
In the past, re-entries have been really difficult for me. But the past 24 hours, coming home after coordinating a week of adoption camp, has felt lovely. It's not hard to figure out why. Normally, I am re-entering home after being pampered, well taken care of and given lots and lots of quiet.
I come home and everything feels like overstimulation; almost like an assault. It takes me a long while to re-adjust to being with my family. They feel like a huge, noisy crowd.
But this time, I was coming home after taking care of over 140 people
, of sleeping in a bunk bed in a rustic cabin, and of generally running around like a maniac for a week, and preparing 24/7 for a month before that. This time, when I came home, my family felt very small and quiet. When I first arrived, it was only my mom and the dogs (J was in the shower). Then I got a nice welcoming hug from him, and a chance to de-brief about my week. Younger daughter was at a friend's house, and older daughter is in Hawaii. After I showered and took a much! needed nap, I drove our new car! (J's cousin just sold us their 2001 Prius) over to retrieve her.
Everything happened in stages. I put my pajamas on early, we had a really easy meal of burgers, and we watched Fellowship of the Ring
, which is one of my daughter's and my all time favorite movies. (after being at transracial adoption camp, though, I did really wish that the Fellowship wasn't all white, and the evil Orcs don't all look black and dreadlocked) I did once write an essay about how, in a very convoluted way, Lord of the Rings
reminds me a lot of my own adoption story) - maybe I'll post it here sometime.
Anyway, it was a really soft and gentle way to re-enter back into family. And it doesn't hurt to know that the next few months will be a lot more low-key in terms of work. Maybe I will get some writing done. Maybe I will have some time to start the collage art I've been itching to try. I feel like a season has just ended and I am ready for the next one.
More about camp later....
I Love Fog
Jon Carroll took the words right out of my mouth.
I will never say a bad word about the fog again. I will never again whine about the summer afternoon cookouts with gray skies and a stiff wind off the ocean. I will never mourn the lack of crickets on a summer evening or suggest that the longer days of July do not matter much when the light is always the color of dark pewter. I love the fog. I embrace the fog. When I woke up this morning and looked out the window and saw the flat grayness of the sky, I dropped to my knees and thanked the deity of my choice. The heat wave seemed endless....
Rites of Passage
I took my daughter down to Telegraph Avenue to get her nose pierced yesterday. All week I was having nightmares that she was going to end up looking like this
, but she looks more like this.
It's actually quite cute, and she's very happy. And they even gave me a free bumper sticker. This afternoon, we go to the DMV so she can take the test for her driving permit. Time is flying.
Addendum: She passed the test and now has her provisional permit! She's thrilled and a little scared too, which I think is appropriate.
I am buried in work this week, preparing for camp
which is next week. I don't think I will be able to blog, or breathe, or go to the bathroom, or much of anything else, until August 5th. Wish me luck. I really think it's going to be fabulous, it's going to be wonderful and special, but there are ten million tiny little disasters waiting to happen, and a few already happened this morning. It will all work out, it will all work out, it will all work out....
It's too hot. I hate hot weather. I hate, hate, hate, hate it, unless there is readily accessible air conditioning. I grew up in hot, humid New Jersey summers, but we had central air conditioning which I think literally saved my life. We have no air conditioning here because this is the Bay Area and we have, allegedly, "natural air conditioning," but not often enough now, thanks to global warming or climate changes or whatever. I can't bear it.
I am now on the third lowest, and coolest floor of my house and it is still unbearably hot. (of course, I do have a very warm laptop on my lap) I am considering sleeping in the floorless "dirt room" under the house; my daughter just said it felt cool in there. It's either that or in the car with the AC running all night.
An hour ago, I was emerging from the oasis of the air-conditioned movie theater (Devil Wears Prada
; I enjoyed it) and was going to head toward the bliss of an air-conditioned hotel. I could not take the idea of coming back here but they assured me it was "not so bad." I watched in dread as the temperature gauge on my car kept climbing up and up as I got closer to home. If it's 84 degrees outside at nearly 11pm in my neighborhood, it means it's closer to 90 inside the house. Like I said, I can't take it. A friend of mine says "heat is my Kryptonite" and I feel the same way. I'm melllllllting. I'm dyyyying. I cannot bear the feel of sweat on my skin unless I have deliberately put it there by working out and working out HARD. Nothing makes me angrier and more desperate feeling than sweating by just, um, sitting around and breathing. I don't know if it's perimenopause or I'm just a heat wimp, but I. Cannot. Stand. It.
I might just have to go back into the car and sleep there all night. If I sleep in the driveway with the motor running, I can't get carbon monoxide poisoning, can I? No, I'll probably just run out of gas.
Capote and Me
This week we finally rented and viewed Capote
, since both girls were out of the house and we didn't think it was something they would particularly enjoy. We've been on a real movie-watching binge around here. The night before we watched Transamerica
, which I thought was fantastic. And the girls rented Aquamarine
, which I thought was going to be totally stupid and I didn't want to watch, but they talked me into it anyway, and I laughed my head off. It was cute.
Anyway, back to Capote. I was completely and totally engrossed, as I usually am when I'm watching movies about writers. I hadn't ever read In Cold Blood
, and didn't really know much about him at all, although I love To Kill A Mockingbird
and I was intrigued and impressed by the Harper Lee character.
The Capote figure was both endearing and repulsive, which I guess is supposed to be the point. I stared at the screen while he was typing away, and I thought, I really need to get a typewriter, or at least a computer that does not have Internet access. Would he really have been able to write that book on a Powerbook with links to New York gossip and restaurant reviews and discussion boards and blogs and god knows what else pulls me away from Microsoft Word every five seconds? It takes a strong person. But I was seduced by the image of him and that manual typewriter and the two piles of typing paper; the overturned finished pages, and the clean, blank ones that he slid into the roller. It all looked so neat, and so straightforward: writing
One of the final shots, with the epigraph from his last, unpublished and unfinished book, brought tears to my eyes.
More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers.
And after the movie scrolled into darkness, J turned to me and said, "I saw a lot of you in him." I hated to admit that I felt a lot of him in me, too, and I've been trying to sort that out all week. Am I really that neurotic? Vulnerable? Messed up? Are all writers? I don't know. I just feel like I've been walking around with the shadow of Truman Capote trailing me all week.
I've Been Tagged
tagged me to do this "Actor's Studio Meme." I have no idea what Actor's Studio is, but I found this meme challenging. Anyway, here goes.
Actor's Studio Question Meme
What is your favorite word? (I am picking randomly)
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
Examples of people being honest, generous and brave.
What turns you off?
Racism, and ungenerous people.
What is your favorite curse word?
What sound or noise do you love?
A crackling fire.
What sound or noise do you hate?
The sound of teeth being flossed.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
What profession would you not like to do?
If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
Your birthfather is here, and I'm going to introduce you right now.
Three New Stories
I feel like a proud mama. The first three stories
that I had a hand in selecting were just published on Literary Mama.
They look so wonderful! I remember them when they were just little emails in my Inbox. And now they're published, polished, beautiful stories for all the world to see.
," by the wonderful Dr. Sue (a writer and therapist who responds with great wisdom and sensitivity to writers' angsty questions every Friday on MJ Rose's blog, Buzz, Balls & Hype) is a fantastic, summery baseball story.
Annie Kassof's "Plumbing Problems: A Love Story
" is wry, poignant, and bittersweet, about a mom who's wrestling with two kinds of pain - her own body's discomfort as well as that of her teenaged son.
When I read Tatiana Strelkoff's story, "Pointed Lessons
," I almost turned blue from holding my breath. It's a real heartstopper, and also a fantastic portrayal of those nosy people who can't keep out of parents' business.
I hope you'll all visit Literary Mama and read these great pieces, and that you mother-writers out there might think of sending us something. Suzanne Kamata
, my co-editor and I, are always looking for great new short fiction,
written by mothers, with the theme of parenting (almost always from the parent's POV).
This fiction editing job has made me remember how much I like being an editor. It's so exciting to find these great pieces of writing, and then to be able to share them with the world. I love
sending out those acceptance letters. Sending the rejections, of course, is a lot less fun. I try to be as kind as possible, but I know it still stings. But get this: there have been two writers whose initial stories we didn't take - even though well written, they just weren't right for certain reasons, like maybe they were from a child's POV rather than a parent's (we really do focus on the experience of parenting). We encouraged them to send us something else, and they did, and lo and behold, those second stories turned out to be a great
fit for Literary Mama, and they're going to be published. So take heart out there, and don't give up if it doesn't work out at first.
The Photo Project
So yesterday I started the photo-interview project with my mom. I took out this one, that says "Mas and Kiku, Central Park, 1946?" on the back. She immediately said, "My favorite jacket!" and then she pounded the table. "It got ruined by acid."
She said it had been her favorite red jacket, with white piping down it, and it had gotten ruined when she accidentally leaned on a table during a chemistry lab. "Oh, so this was high school?"
She looked at me as if I was crazy. "No, it was night school! College!"
I blinked. "You went to NYU??"
The things you learn. I had no idea my mother ever went to college. I know she didn't graduate from college, but didn't know she ever took classes.
"Those classes were a pain," she went on. "They let out at 11:30 at night, and I'd be on the subway, only two or three people in a car, and people looking at me funny. I'd run down the platform and look to see where the conductor was, and make sure I got on the same car. Then when I got out at my stop, way up at 165th St., I'd have to walk really fast and make sure nobody was following me. There was a garage, where Uncle Ki (her older brother) parked his car, and I knew the fellas that worked there, so if I got nervous, I could always stop off there and maybe one of them would walk me home. It was a safe place I could stop."
Wow. This was a lot to absorb. My mother, taking chemistry at NYU, at night, and then commuting from lower to upper Manhattan by herself on the train.
"And what was this about the jacket and the ... acid?"
Large harrumph. "Yah, we were doing some experiment with sulfuric acid, and I was leaning on the desk to see what was going on, and when I stood up there was a big hole in the arm of my jacket. There had been a puddle on the table, and it just ate right threw. (sound of disgust) That was my favorite jacket. I had to throw it in the garbage."
A picture tells a thousand words. Was that a thousand?
Maybe It's Not the Right Time
I've been a bit paralyzed in my writing life recently (like, for the past ten years). Trying to write this memoir/novel monstrosity in a million little fits and starts. Sometimes I get what feels like... this close, and then it evaporates again. I can be thrown off by the smallest things.
I am reading Francine Du Plessix Gray's "memoir of parents," titled Them
. It's gorgeous, beautiful writing, mostly centering on her glamorous, narcissistic mother and equally intense stepfather. But something in her Introduction stopped me short, and has been revolving around in my little pea-brain for a week now:
To write truthfully about anyone who is still alive is a Utopian task, suspect at best. So I bided my time, looking on a projected family memoir as one of several distant ventures. And not until a year after my cherished stepfather's own passing, did I reach a stage in the process of mourning that allowed me to write this book.
What will ever allow me to write my book? Do I need to, as she says, bide my time as well? I am writing a memoir of four parents: one dead now, one living under the same roof as me, one distant and yet with an inordinate amount of influence, who would severely disapprove of my writing such a book, and one whose living status and whereabouts (and identity) are completely unknown.
This weekend I decided to bide my time and put it to good use. I unearthed a pile of ancient photos and took them to the photocopy store: my grandfather's Manhattan restaurant from the 1930's and 40's, actually quite glamorous looking, photos of relatives in Japan, stern and kimono'd, a tiny photo of my mother on her first day of kindergarten in Brooklyn. Maybe these next years are not meant for writing at all, but for gathering, for memory-taking, while the memory is still good. I want stories about that restaurant. I want to know what it was like for her to go to kindergarten. Did she walk to school, at five? Did she take a lunch? I want to know it all.
I also received an email from the Other parent, my birthmother, and it succeeded in enraging and seducing and paralyzing and aweing me all at once. It's difficult to describe what an effect this person has on me. At seventy-plus she is still co-leading trips around the world with her artist husband: India, Ireland, Peru. Since I had not heard from her in several months, part of me was in the process of disengaging, for the hundredth time, of insisting that she did not, does not, matter, not so much. And then a screenful of words on my computer, and I collapse again.
I'm biding my time. Waiting for what, I don't know.
Simple Things Meme
I've been tagged by Christine!
to do the Simple Things Meme. Hmmm...
"Instructions: Name 10 of life's simple pleasures that you like the most, then pick 10 people to do the same. Try to be original and creative and not to use things that someone else has already used."
1. Writing in a big fat Michael Rogers spiral notebook
, paired with a microfine pen.
2. The silence at Santa Sabina.
3. My husband reading to me in bed. (from The New Yorker
, or Gilead
, or Rilke or Neruda)
4. Feeling very homesick for our traveling daughter and then hearing her happy, excited voice on the phone.
5. Watching our adorable, hyper dog leap around in circles until she is totally exhau(image)
6. Afternoon naps.
7. Receiving a real letter, in handwriting, in an envelope in the mailbox.
8. Hearing our younger daughter say "Good night mommy good night daddy" right before she goes to sleep. For a moment she sounds like she's about four, even though she's twelve. It's a very sweet thing to hear.
9. Walking in the woods with my iPod, and having about two dozen intense memory flashbacks, depending on what songs shuffle into my head.
10. Just having finished a really hard workout.
I'm tagging: anyone out there who reads this and has a blog!
NOT GONE: Or, This is What Friends Are For
So, I spent the weekend crying over the little green house. Gone, gone, gone. But first I emailed my best high school friend, and asked her to check it out, to make sure it was really gone. I went for a little overnight getaway - wonderful - to the Mountain Home Inn on Mount Tamalpais. On the way up, my husband's iPod played the Jackson Browne song that always makes me cry.
Well I looked into a house I once lived in
Around the time I first went on my own
When the roads were as many as the places I had dreamed of
And my friends and I were one
Now the distance is done and the search has begun
I've come to see where my beginnings have gone
Oh the walls and the windows were still standing
And the music could be heard at the door
Where the people who kindly endured my odd questions
Asked if I came very far
And when my silence replied they took me inside
Where their children sat playing on the floor
Well we spoke of the changes that would find us farther on
And it left me so warm and so high
But as I stepped back outside to the grey morning sun
I heard that highway whisper and sigh
Are you ready to fly?
And I looked into the faces all passing by
It's an ocean that will never be filled
And the house that grows older and finally crumbles
That even love cannot rebuild...
---Looking Into You, Jackson Browne
I thought I was going to just shatter into a million tears. We got into our cozy little room and I just cried and cried. My house! Gone! I immediately started planning a massive writing project, in which I would meticulously record every memory of every square inch of that property, from the circular driveway to the mulch pile in the back yard, to the enclosed porch and the laundry room.
When we got home, an email from my friend Cathy. With a photo, taken from her car. "Relax," she wrote. "It's still there -- no worries."
I wanted to break out a bottle of champagne. I danced around the kitchen and hugged my husbsand. "If we can save a bunch of money," I said to him, "I'm going to buy it back." He gave me a sideways, alarmed, are-you-nuts look. "And do what with it?"
I thought about that. Restore it. Preserve it. Rent it out to sweet little families with little kids. Turn it into a little writing retreat. Go there with my friends. I don't know. Anything but let it crumble.
And: Thanks, Cath. I don't know what I would do without you.
I was fooling around on Zillow.com
today - it's a strange, surreal site where you type in an address and you can see the current market value of any property, including satellite photos that are eerily close up. After checking out our present house and feeling relieved that its value hasn't totally tanked since we bought it, I decided to type in the address of the house I grew up in in New Jersey, the sale of which nearly shattered me two years ago. I longed to see it again, even a fuzzy birds-eye satellite shot.
Zillow responded: There is no house at this address.
I blinked, thinking, there must be some mistake. I typed in the address of our old across-the-street neighbors, just one digit away from our address. It showed up right away. I zoomed in on their house. Their driveway was directly across from ours. I zoomed in and zoomed in. I saw trees with skinny, bare branches. I saw the house that used to be next to ours. I spotted all the neighbors' houses: the Kiesselbach's, the Wubbes', the Schleichers'. But it was true. Where my house used to stand was an empty lot. It was a gray-green scrabble of nothingness.
My house is gone. I'm typing through tears.
I mourn the loss of that house almost as deeply as I mourn the loss of my father, who died six years ago. Both of them meant home to me, in the most elemental way.
I can't think about it right now. I can't think about telling my mother. We'll both have nightmares for months. Years.
Who Knew That "Arm" Was Such a Popular Word?
I was reading John Crowley's blog (author of Little, Big, one of my favorite books of all time) and he brought my attention to a new feature on Amazon.com, called "Concordance." I had never really payed attention to this thing before, and I have no idea what its purpose could be, but it goes through an entire book and pulls out the hundred most popular words. I saw that one of Little, Big's most popular words was "arm."Then, out of curiosity, I "concordanced" (is that a verb? I doubt it) my own book, and found that one of MY hundred words is "arms." One of the other top one hundred words in my book is "Jill." That came as a surprise. I think there must be multiple stories with Jill characters. My one hundred most used words are:again always another anything arms asked away baby bed better boy call came child children come day door down even eyes face family father feel felt find first get girl give go going good got hair hand head home house jill knew know last left let life little long look looked love man maybe might months mother mrs myself name new next night now old once own parents people place put really right room say see something still take talk tell things think though thought time told took turned two voice want wanted week went white woman words work years Hmm! Strange to think that in an anthology about adoption, the words "adopt," "adoption" and "adopted" are not on that list. But "Jill?"I checked my friend Masha's novel, The Distance Between Us, and one of HER popular words is also "arm." Who knew! Is "arm" some kind of weird default word? Or do people use the word "arm" a lot more than I'd realized? I was suddenly on a mission to find a novel that did NOT include that word in its top one hundred. Bingo. Gilead! Predictably, it includes many mentions of "god" and "believe."In general, I think it is much, much better to support one's own local bookstore than to use Amazon.com, but they do have some interesting and intriguing new features. Amazon Shorts are short-stories available for forty-nine cents, a total deal, in my opinion. I just bought Caroline Leavitt's poignant and beautiful story, "Family Lonely," and it was quite a steal. I think I might submit a few things to Amazon Shorts and see what happens.I was going to sit in my office and pay bills today, but I found a much more high-tech way to distract myself. Ahh, the 21st century.[...]
Burning Up the Distractions
When we were at our writing retreat at Santa Sabina
a few weeks ago, one of the things we did was to write down All the Things That Keep Us From Writing. We scribbled it all down on origami paper, and then folded them into paper cranes. Then we made a very impressive bonfire and tossed in the birds, which crumpled, turned colors, stood stoically without moving, jumped around and curled up before melting into little embers. All very dramatic.
But I've been thinking of it ever since. I am involved with so many things these days, all of them Good Things, but all of them things that I do Instead of Write. (this is why Novaren at Distraction #99
is my new soul sister!)
organize and host a regular author-reading series out of my home
read other writers' manuscripts
write this blog!
coordinate a family camp for adoptive families with children of color
run a household with two kids, two dogs, a spouse and an 84 year old mother
edit fiction at Literary Mama
Sigh. I am loathe to give any of these things up. Which puts me in the conundrum of having worked on two book length manuscripts in twelve years, and completed neither.
When I was in my twenties and first moved to the Bay Area, my best friend printed up a set of 500 business cards and gave them to me. Each one featured a beautiful little frame of curling vines, and in the center, one simple word: No.
The point of the cards was to hand them to Unsuitable Suitors, of whom I seemed to attract a lot at the time.
I could really use those cards now. But would I really use them? Do I want to? I thought of actually getting a teeny tiny tattoo, in the likeness of those cards, with that small but insistent word. Maybe on my wrist, or in the crook of my elbow. Somewhere tender, to remind me, and somewhere visible.
It's only one syllable, really, but it's the hardest one for me to utter.
In the meantime, I've decided to try my utmost to really only say yes to things that matter a LOT to me, and to really start using the N word on nonsense that I will only end up regretting. I've done a bit of that lately, regretting things, and wanting to tear my hair out over them, and I am going to try and really at least PAUSE-- at least to a count of ten-- before I say yes again.
So last night at the Shepherd Canyon Salon featuring Elizabeth McKenzie
and Pamela Holm
, I was having a great conversation with the wonderful writer Sophia Raday,
and talk turned to adoption (she is awaiting adoption of an adorable daughter from Guatemala - I saw the teeny little photocopied picture she keeps in her wallet!) and she said, "I saw your quote in that cute little adoption book!" and she made her hands into a tiny square shape. Um, what
cute little adoption book?!? "The one with all the quotes!"
Long, awful silence. I wrack my brain to think of any such book and realize I have never heard of this, and that once again, my words have been stolen. Did I mention what happened a year or so ago, when my daughter's friend's big brother told her that one of my stories was part of the SAT Reading Comprehension exam!? Another thing they hadn't bothered to tell me, or ask me.
So today she emailed me with all the details, and yes indeedy, it is a cute little adoption book
by one Nancy McGuire Roche. I'd never seen it or heard of it until last night. And yes indeed, it contains a quote by yours truly.
I just wrote a scathing little comment on her Amazon page. Next I need to find a copyright lawyer with a truckful of Dobermans. I hate this stuff. I mean I guess I'm flattered, and that is very nice that she wanted to use my words and all, but it would be even nicer if I could have been contacted beforehand, and compensated.
Say It Isn't So, Alice
I gasped out loud when I read this morning that Alice Munro may be giving up the writing life
. Apparently she has cited her "advancing age" and is quitting in the "interest of a manageable life." This shocked me. Alice Munro is one of the writers I love and admire most, whose work I study, to try and absorb just a fraction of what she is able to do.
I guess I had assumed that writers just ... wrote until they died. And maybe some of their last works would eventually be published, and others wouldn't. I didn't imagine making this decision to just... stop. And what it this about a manageable life? Writers aren't supposed
to have manageable lives, are they? But I suppose (sigh) at seventy-five, this is her due.
Her final story collection will be released in the fall. I intend to read it very, very slowly, and then go back to the beginning and start all over again. The wonderful thing about her work is that you can read a story twenty times and each time it will reveal something new and surprising. I'm just mourning the fact that it is all coming to a definitive end.
Virtual Garage Sale
Book Group Expo turned out to be a lot of fun, except for an unfortunate snafu regarding my book, which collided with some self-esteem issues and turned into a great big pile of humiliation.So, the organizers told me to bring my book and that the book vendors – Keplers, Cody’s and Books Inc. would be “happy” to sell it on consignment. I explained that (sniff) my book is out of print, and that all I have left is half a garage full of returns. For those of you not familiar with the term, "Returns” are books that were purchased but then unsold by bookstores, and then returned to the publisher. They all have little gluey rectangles or ovals on them, which used to be where they slapped on the price tags or bookstore stickers. Many of them have ugly black lines along the sides of them, which = Utter Rejection. When the book went out of print, the publisher offered me to buy back the returns, or to allow them to be (gulp! choke!) shredded. I opted to buy them.So anyway I rushed out of the house like a madwoman on Saturday, and forgot to bring a carton of my sad little books. When I arrived, the conference organizer said, “Where is your book?” and I said, well, they’re not in great shape, thinking of those horrible black marks and glue-gunk. But they insisted that I must have my book, and that possibly I could prevail upon a Famous Writer, who lives not too far from me, to bring the books with her when she came to the Expo.So I called my wonderful Spouse and asked him if he, after his long hard day of working like a Dog, would be willing and able to transport a bagful of my books to the Famous Writer’s house. Bless his heart, he said yes. The FW said yes. They had a rendezvous and he handed over the books.But this was the part I had not fully thought out. My panel, after which time the booksellers sell the books from a Special Table to the audience members streaming out of the panel room, was Sunday morning at 10am. The FW’s panel was not until 4pm. So when my panel was over, there were no books. The books arrived, in a grocery bag, looking sad and marked-up, in the Green Room around 3pm. I took my bedraggled little bag of books around to the book vendors, and none of them seemed particularly pleased or willing to deal with selling Returns (the scourge of bookstores). And since my panel was long over, the people who had been most likely to buy them, were long gone.I came home with my bagful of books. I felt terrible. I felt ravenously envious of all the authors who have gorgeous, newly-minted, hardcover books that the conference goers were snatching off the tables and buying with their credit cards. I felt so sad for my poor book which we had such grand dreams for.My co-editor and I were terribly inexperienced and quite naïve, as Carly Simon once sang. We had no big marketing plan other than sending postcards to a few thousand adoption agencies. We had no marketing or publicity budget, and a modest little website that was cobbled together by a friend’s 12-year old (I am not exaggerating). If we were to do it now, we would do things very differently. We had done our research before publishing the book, and we determined that 5 million people in the US had been personally “touched” by adoption (had adopted, been adopted, married someone adopted, given someone up for adoption or was a sibling of an adoption person). We figured, if just [...]