Category Archives: Travel

Extreme novelist: Living the dream!

The eight-week class called Extreme Novelist has ended! Before I can say anything about it, I need to share with you a little bit about the journey before that.

I wanted to write books since I first started reading books by Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, etc. in the early eighties. Another favorite book back then was called Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days! by Stephen Manes. Spoiler alert. After the initial scenes where the main character does a bunch of funny things in pursuit of perfection, the instruction for the third and final day is this: do nothing. Because if you do nothing, you don’t risk getting it wrong. This sums up how I dealt with my dream of writing for 30 years.

 

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In graduate school—late nineties—I started to buy books about creative writing. I kept them hidden at the bottom of a drawer in my apartment, where I lived alone. Ten more years went by and nothing. Okay, not nothing. I did write several academic papers and one doctoral dissertation. Once that was done, I still wanted more. Stephen King, in his book called On Writing, says this, “to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I certainly was doing a lot of both, only it was all academic stuff. My heart and soul weren’t fully in it, and I was so burned out that I couldn’t see beyond it.

Aside from academic fatigue, if I even thought of saying that I wanted to write fiction, I felt that I might as well be saying, “I want to be a Hollywood movie star.” I had the paralyzing fear that others would think: delusions of grandeur. Honestly? I myself thought I had to be some kind of superior being to feel worthy of saying it, let alone pursuing it.

I had been married over four years before I told my husband, the person I share my bed with, that I wanted to write fiction. It was summer of 2009 when I “came out.” Finally! I’d also had an idea for a book that very summer, after a trip to the Tenement Museum and the Merchant’s House Museum, both in New York City.

urbanspiritual.org page by Terence Stone

Emboldened by the fact that I had shared my dream with my husband and my mother, and neither had laughed or balked, I signed up for a creative writing class that summer. And another sickening fear I’d held about “writing types” seemed to come true. I got the impression that the folks were spending an absurd amount of time and energy engaging in a deep-high-brow-interestingness competition. Nooooo! Ugh. I never even finished the class. It was so disheartening. Plus, by then I had learned I was pregnant. Soon
after, I resumed my teaching job and was thoroughly absorbed by the work of my day job and planning for baby.

 

Funny how things work out. Because it was motherhood that had the effect
nothing else had. Simply going back to my old self was no longer an option to feel fully like me. And in order to encourage my son to always be himself and follow his bliss, I  knew I had to teach him by example. That’s when I knew I had no choice but to face my dream head on. This was it, man. And the assault of fear, doubt, and embarrassment made its appearance, right on cue. The difference now was, I didn’t have a choice. What I had was an urgency to get over myself and just do it.

I began the research for my book and started to write. Trips to New York followed. I met the fabulous Merchant’s House Museum historian, Mary
Knapp, whose book on the history of the home has been an invaluable resource.

Slowly, soooo slowly, I began to tell people, “I’m writing a book.” It’s one of the most vulnerable things I have ever, ever declared in my life. It makes me feel naked. I am not a very naked person. In fact, I sometimes still follow
up the statement with body language that conveys a timid dismissiveness, “I’m
writing a book but it will probably suck anyway and please, please don’t think I am an arrogant a-hole!”

Week 8 milestone: 70,000 words

I also signed up for the eight-week class this fall, taught by the novelist Kathryn Johnson. It involved a commitment to write 90 minutes a day, six days a week. Amid the countless gifts I’ve received since I began this journey in earnest, forming a rigorous writing habit is a huge one. I no longer get hung up on perfecting (please … trying to perfect) a scene, the language, the structure, or waiting to be enraptured by an otherworldly fit of inspiration. I make the time, sit my butt down wherever I can, and I work, work, work. By the end of week 8, I had written 70,000 words. The finish line for the first draft of my first novel is within sight. And the dream to have it finished by my 40th birthday looks well within reach! Very importantly, I have also maintained a steadfast writing schedule, even writing every day of our family trip for Thanksgiving. Now, I don’t mean to speak in clichés, but maybe I’m about to. Wanting to do this has been like a like allowing a major part of me to breathe. Either I stayed in the safety of my comfort zone, or I finally let that part of me breathe. Freeing myself of my comfort zone, I discovered one of the weirdest and truest clichés: That regardless of the outcome, the process is in itself its own reward. Just another one of the countless gifts … living the life I always dreamed, and breathing easier!

My husband took this photo and captioned it “Extreme attitude.” This is me: 1) Wearing the t-shirt my writing teacher made for her super-popular class, 2) Feeling a little naked (in the figurative sense) but with some sass to show that I’m proud of it, 3) Doing an awesome duck face
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Why New York?

Because it is where most of the story I am currently working on takes place. And
where I had the idea for the story in the first place, in 2009. And where I
definitively began to cure my postpartum depression, in 2010. And where for the first time since
becoming a mother, I gave myself permission to feel like my old independent self again, in 2012.

I can explain.

In late June of 2009, on a solo trip to Manhattan, I
visited a place on East 4th Street called the Merchant’s House
Museum. On this trip, at age 33, I had an idea for a book, which I thought
was the thing that at long last gave me the motivation, and the
permission, to write like I had always dreamed.  A couple of
weeks later, surprise! I found out I was pregnant. A couple of months after that, by the time I had
recovered from the shock of the news, I’d also become extremely busy with my teaching job, planning for baby, sorting out my maternity leave, etc.

I had never really envisioned what
kind of mother I would be; this wasn’t something to which I had
given much thought, until motherhood was upon me. I decided, a few months before my baby was born, that I
did not want to return to work. I loved my teaching job. But I also knew that I
wanted to be home with my baby. Before I knew it, I was the stay-at-home mother
of a wonderfully healthy and happy baby boy. And I was in the
throes postpartum depression. My book project was completely forgotten. I
decided I must have been wrong when I thought the timing had been right for me
to write like I’d always wanted. My who-do-you-think-you-are syndrome was in full
force, and it felt as though it had been decided for me that my one and only
identity was to be mother.

When my 35th birthday rolled
around that year, I told David–my husband–and my mother, both of whom knew I was struggling, the one thing I wanted as a birthday gift:
a weekend trip to New York. So David and I packed up our car and our six-month-old shortly after my birthday, and
took a roadtrip to New York City. What happened, no joke, was life-changing. I realized that the world I had left behind when the cloud of
postpartum hormones had descended and whacked me off
kilter months earlier was still there. All of it. The fast pace, the craziness, the possibility
and promise, it was all still there. And it was mine for the taking if I still
wanted it. It took being there, with my family, as a wife and mother, for this
to feel real to me again. The cloud began to lift, and after we were home, I was able
to enjoy my child with a simpler ease, and to truly cherish the incredible opportunity I’ve
been given to be more fully present during these indescribable early years.

A year later, I’d gone back to teaching
part time and found myself in a funk. I do love teaching; loved it then, love it
still. But going back to my old work, in this moment, simply wasn’t enough. I
had thought that having a paycheck to my name doing what I had done before was
enough to feel like “my old self” again. Nope. Because I wasn’t my old self
anymore. Never would be.

Teaching is something I can
happily return to one day. What I needed now was to write. And
bless my husband a thousand and one times: He agreed. So he and I
planned a trip to New York, this time just me, so that I could begin research
for my book project for real this time. This was in February 2012, one month
before our boy’s second birthday. It would be my first time away from home by myself
since becoming a mother. Two nights. I booked everything, all nonrefundable.

There was a woman I spoke with
two days before my trip, someone with grown children of her own, whose opinion I respected and valued greatly
… and … she meant well … This woman told me she thought it wasn’t time for me
to go, that my son wasn’t ready for me to leave him after I had been a
stay-at-home mother this whole time, that the damage could be terrible and irreparable. I see
this better now, in hindsight. It was nearly two years ago. When it happened? It
threw me into a tailspin of guilt and self-doubt. And anger. On the one hand, how dare she? On the other, what if she’s right? I got cold feet, didn’t want to go. Then my husband stepped in. “Go!” He said. “Our boy will be fine. We will be fine. You need to do this! Go. To. New York.” Getting choked up this minute recalling that moment.

So I went. Sure, I had a stomachache the first night and couldn’t finish my dinner. Sure I missed my boy terribly and wondered whether my “selfishness” would leave him scarred for life. And then something else happened. It was on this trip that I established for myself something no one and nothing could do until I was good and ready. I found the line that separates, for me, my profound love of stay-at-home motherhood, and clinging to motherhood because I need it as my only channel for significance and worth in the world. I’ve seen these types of moms. Being an at-home mom doesn’t have to equal this. Going back to my old paying job wasn’t necessarily the cure for it, either. I found this balance for myself when I got on that bus in February of 2012 and finally started this journey for myself. And it’s all because my husband made me do it!

Our boy was napping when I got home two days later. When it was finally time to wake him up, I ran up to his bedroom, aching to squeeze him and part of me still dreading how he would react. He opened his eyes, blinked up at me a few times, and asked, “Es hora de Plaza Sésamo? = Is it time for Sesame Street?” So far as I know, he continues to be a happy and well-adjusted kid, who knows himself to be very well loved, and who now also knows that his Mama goes to New York and writes books.

One final note about the woman who meant well and nearly kept me from getting on that bus. It was on the day of that conversation, in the midst of miserable turmoil and doubt, that I put down in a Word document the first words of my novel set in New York City. It only took three years after my original idea. Sometimes turmoil can be a good thing. I do owe her that.

“She decided…” photo quote courtesy of Nancy Levin. “Sometimes…” photo quote courtesy of Sacred Dreams on Facebook.
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Eat Drink Google

I would like to talk about some of the practices, including the varying results of some of the things I eat/drink and some web searches, that I have engaged in while writing since beginning my structured schedule as I make progress toward the completion of my first novel.

I have heard countless times that the most productive times for writing creatively are in the very early hours of the morning. Something about still having one metaphorical foot in your subconscious world because you’ve just rolled out of bed. I have actually not found this to be my most productive time. In fact, on days when I have done any writing in the six o’clock hour, I frequently end up with the shortest word count for the day’s work. Or I end up having Googling mishaps like the one I had last week.

Google. Most of the time, I turn off the Internet, and especially–believe it or not–Facebook while I am within my ninety minutes per day schedule. But I do make an exception for Google.  Like when I can’t remember an Italian word. An important portion of the story I am telling in my book features an Italian immigrant family on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s. I took some Italian several years ago, and I’ve visited Italy a few times. I also happen to be a native speaker of Spanish, which has a lot of words in common with Italian. But at low-productivity early morning hours, I forget most of the Italian words I know. I would hereby like to strongly advise against entering the words Italian and ass in the same search. <Shudder> Still wish I could un-see those results. And yes, I know that it’s the same word in Italian as it is in Spanish, too. In my defense, I was on little sleep and I’d had no caffeine or nourishment when this happened.

Then there are times when I don’t have one of my New York City maps with me, even though I keep one upstairs and one downstairs for quick access because it is a constant reference. These are also times when I resort to my good, if dangerous, friend Google. The main downfall there is that I end up seeing names of restaurants in close proximity to some of the locations I’m researching, and before I know it, I am reading Yelp reviews for restaurants, and mapping out where to eat on my next escape research trip to the City.

Food and drink. Some writing friends I have spoken with recently are very keen on having a glass of wine while writing. This tends to be an utter impossibility for me, given that I do most of my writing either in the very early morning, or mid morning while my little boy is in preschool. I do, however, find that I absolutely need to drink something, and that needs to be a hot drink. Otherwise–true story–I end up sitting in the library or Whole Foods wearing four layers of sweaters, a fifth sweater wrapped around my legs, a scarf, a hat, and fingerless gloves. I like to think that this completes my look as a starving–albeit full-figured–artist. Now all I need is a garret on the Seine.

Last Saturday, my husband and I were on our first overnight getaway together (senza bambino) since becoming parents. After dinner at a rather pretentious restaurant where, to be fair, the deliciousness of the food made up for its overpriced small portions, he and I headed for–wait for it!–the hotel bar. If you knew us, you would know that this in an uncharacteristic thing for us to do. In fact as we sat there ordering a drink, we determined that neither of us could remember when we had last had a drink at a bar together. I still had writing to do that night, so I decided to test the theory of writing while sipping something alcoholic, and see how the creative juices flowed. I ordered a liqueur that we were introduced to years ago by my husband’s beloved aunt, called Drambuie. I will say, it was as delightfully warm and sweet as I’d remembered. But I did not find that it did much for my writing per se. I did, however, taste wasabi peas for the first time at that bar. Yum! I think crunching on the peas did more to fuel my story-telling while the Drambuie did more to make me sleepy.

I wish I could say that my Googling “accident” happened on the one occasion when I engaged in drinking while writing, but I think I still have a good excuse. This final picture is of part of the overpriced dinner we had Saturday night. Just because. I mean, a fourteen dollar scallop is just worth sharing, I think. And because it really was very good. And the scallop came with a celery root puree (another first for me that night) which I also found wonderful. Celery root and wasabi peas, two thumbs up!

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One French Mother’s Day

In early June of 2009, my husband David and I traveled to France, and rented a self-driven house boat on the River Lot for one week. We thought it would be fun and romantic. Even relaxing!

The boat’s exterior was extremely charming. Strangers in other boats would smile and run for their cameras when they saw it. It was also large and sluggish, and difficult to maneuver, compared to some of the faster, slick little boats we saw on the river … usually passing us. Inside the boat, the sleeping areas were cramped and moldy, and the kitchen/living area reeked of years’ worth of accumulated BO. The first night, we killed the boat’s battery after having too many lights on at a time.

The owner had to come rescue us the following morning. He scolded us for having too many lights on at a time. “Oui, oui, we get it.” Subsequent nights were spent in darkness, one dim bulb in use at a time. A few days in, we lost hot water just as I was going to take a shower. Some minutes after that, we realized we actually had no water. Thus we learned about refilling our boat’s water tank, and began to make a note of which mooring stations provided these facilities.

The River Lot also held a delightful surprise that we had not prepared for properly, and that was the locks. Operating each lock was extremely physically demanding, and “parking” the boat in order for one of us to get out and operate it was terrifying. The river’s current was strongest in these locations, and there were many instances when I was certain we were going to hit rocks and/or go over the weir.

So our boat trip was basically the opposite of relaxing. And though there were moments of fun and breathtaking scenery, it did not feel romantic.

One significant stressor that we had also neglected to anticipate when planning our little misadventure was that we happened to have a difficult time finding food. Turns out there were very few grocery stores in the small villages that we had access to on the river. Also, there were not a lot of restaurants, and some weren’t yet open for the official summer season. And the few stores and restaurants that were in operation actually closed for several afternoon hours a day, every day. That was when I learned that the siesta tradition is not exclusive to Spain.

We were hungry. And being hungry in a foreign country, under stressful circumstances, creates a unique feeling of vulnerability.  On the rare occasions when village business hours and our eating and boating hours aligned and we managed to eat at a restaurant, we resorted to always taking the bread, shoving it in our bag when no one was looking. A hot meal was a rare luxury. Bread, cheese, and chocolate became our staple foods, with wine at the end of the day.

So it was that one evening we came to a small, family-run restaurant in a secluded camping area, which happened to be open for dinner. A warm and friendly woman seated us. The tables and chairs were (cheap) plastic patio furniture. The woman told us, apologetically, that they were not completely set up for summer yet. But we were so relieved to find this place, and so comforted by her kind welcome, that we didn’t mind. We proceeded to inhale a basket of bread the moment it was placed in front of us, and promptly ordered two glasses of champagne to toast the occasion. We also ordered a bottle of water, and finally allowed ourselves to relax a little while browsing the menu.

By the time the friendly woman came back with our drinks, we were straight-up giddy about all the food we were about to eat. Before she could take our order, however, our new friend wanted to make sure we understood that it was cash only. The restaurant typically accepted payment by credit card, but because they were not yet set up for summer, they didn’t have the ability to do so that particular week. One week later, no problem. Just not that day.

David and I quickly realized that with the roughly 30 Euros we had in cash, we’d only be able to order one entrée for the two of us. We looked at each other, took one quick glance back at the menu, and settled on a plate of sausage and fries. It was all we could afford. The woman saw what was happening, and offered to split the entrée into two plates, so we each could feel like we were getting our own dinner.

When the two plates of food came out, each one had a whole sausage, and was piled high and heavy with fries. Our friend had a big smile on her face. The photo below shows David’s plate thoroughly cleaned, and mine well on its way, plus two empty bread baskets on the table; the second helping of bread we received—free of charge—had probably already made its way into one of our bags. On top of the other empty basket sits a red rose.

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When we first arrived at the restaurant, our friendly waitress had offered me a flower in honor of Mother’s Day (that day happened to be Mother’s Day in France). This was before we had our son. So I thought it was very nice of her, but I tried to tell her, “Thank you, but I’m not a mother.” It didn’t feel right to accept the flower. But she insisted, simply saying that she really wanted me to have it.

A few days later, we’d had enough of boating in France. We were sporting bruises and blisters. I’d wake up in a panic at night, with visuals of either the inferi from Harry Potter, or of our boat coming unmoored and drifting toward the nearest rock, which was sure to break us in half … right before the inferi came out for us. We’d been smart to plan our Paris stay—our real vacation—for after the boat instead of before. I contacted our hotel in Paris to ask if we’d be able to check in a day early; they said yes! So we cut our first and last boating vacation short, and gleefully boarded a train back to Paris, where we had a wonderfully romantic and relaxing few days. Nine months after that, I became a mom.

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