Category Archives: Writing

My weekend in New York

What an awesome weekend. I have written before about my ongoing love affair with New York City (see here, and here). Friends and family ask me all the time what I do on these trips. It’s a very valid question. Here I finally answer them in some detail. But first, a summary of some logistical faux pas; still scratching my head over these …
Snow and ice outside the train window; sweltering heat and sun on board the train. And a heart that swelled with gratitude!
On this trip to NYC, my first one since becoming the proud owner of an iPhone, I was especially psyched to use the compass app that comes with it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve exited the NYC Subway and wanted to cry out, “Won’t someone just tell me which way is East, please?!” (Hey, it’s not that easy!) This time that wouldn’t happen. As I emerged excited–exuberant, even–from Penn Station and onto the snowy streets of Manhattan, I whipped out my awesome phone … and went the wrong freaking way. Ugh! The walk to my hotel took easily twice as long as it should have, and included an extra long, puddle-filled stretch of city block behind Madison Square Garden, pulling my little suitcase behind me with one hand, holding my umbrella in the other; no hand left for my phone. Not that it was of any use, and I am still not sure how the awesome compass app led me astray.
The coaster at one of the restaurants. I can always count on Mr. Louis Armstrong: now I will think of this quote every time someone asks me, “What is it with you and New York?”

There was also the issue of my umbrella, which kept trying to flap itself inside out in the wind. Slapstick was so the opposite of the cool, seasoned NYC-visitor look I was going for. By the time I was leaving my hotel after checking in and dropping off luggage, I was not above asking the receptionist, “This way is North, right?” I knew it was, just wanted the confirmation. Her response, a little indignant: “I don’t know which way is North! All I know is this way’s Uptown, that way’s Downtown.” Ah, another inadvertent faux pas. What was I thinking!

 

An alternate title for this blog post was Expanding my collection of selfies.
There is some variety in where I stay (wherever I find the cheapest hotel around Midtown Manhattan), and based on that, the places where I choose to eat. Otherwise, though, the truth is I tend to do a lot of the same things. I visit the three focal points of the research for my book. They are places that have captivated me so profoundly, and sent my imagination soaring so high, that I have ultimately felt compelled to create a story around them.
And so, my first stop on Saturday was the Merchant’s House Museum, on East Fourth Street. As their website indicates, it is “New York City’s only family home preserved intact — inside and out — from the 19th century.” The family that occupied this home for 100 years also had an intriguing history. The final survivor was an unmarried daughter, who spent many years alone in the house until her death–alone, in the house–in the 1930s. She was regarded by some as an eccentric, but little is known about that. The house is also, by the way, thought to be haunted.

My second favorite place to visit is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. It offers tours of the neighborhood and of the recreated apartments of different families–Irish, Italian, Jewish–in a historic 19th century tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. No one famous ever lived at 97 Orchard Street; George Washington did not sleep here. The Tenement Museum is important–invaluable–because it tells the stories of thousands of immigrants who lived hard, worked hard, sacrificed much, and ultimately forged a new American identity in a part of the city that was, at the turn of the 20th century, the world’s most densely and diversely populated neighborhood. Think about that. The highest concentration of people, from the largest variety of countries of origin, in the entire world, coexisted on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Orchard Street in 1898. (Museum of the City of New York)

These places have become such a part of me, that I know it is borderline obsessive. Just call me the Merchant’s House and Tenement Museum stalker, that’s okay. Each time I visit either one, I am routinely asked by a museum employee, “You’ve been here before, haven’t you?” Plus, I’ve read so much about them, that during tours, I have a hard time resisting my Hermione Granger urge to raise my hand and chime in.

97 Orchard Street then and now. (Lower East Side Tenement Museum Photo Collection)
This was my first time in the city after having completed roughly 95% percent of my novel. I kept walking through the rooms, pacing back and forth, seeing the action of my story in a new way. Wow! Currently the story only exists on my laptop–thank goodness it’s no longer just inside my head–but it came to life before me this weekend. That, my friends, was pretty damn cool.
NYU’s historic Brown Building (Greene Street and Washington Place) off Washington Square Park

The third routine stop on my tour of Manhattan is NYU’s Brown Building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. This 10-story building once housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the largest and busiest one of its kind at the time. Triangle occupied the top three floors of the building. On a mild Saturday afternoon in March of 1911, 146 factory workers, most of them women under age 40, perished in a fire that started on the 8th floor and traveled–exploded–upwards within minutes, likely caused by a cigarette butt tossed in a scrap bin. It was a senseless loss of life, the tragic convergence of unsafe working conditions, panic fueled by ignorance fueled by more panic, unfair employers, and the same sort of hubris that caused many to declare the Titanic unsinkable just one year later. The story left me breathless from the first time I heard it.

There is a coffee shop in the NYU building across the street from the Brown Building. Eye witnesses from 1911 recall being, basically, at these very windows when they saw the bodies of fire victims fall to the street. Reading Leon Stein’s book* while sitting here was so powerful, it was hard to hold back the tears. It was also an incredible gift. How had I not known to come and sit here before? *Leon Stein was a journalist whose research on the fire provided the most detailed, in-depth account of it that exists today.

Every time I stand on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, I want to stop passersby, point out the site of the tragedy to them, ask them to take a moment. I have shed tears standing by myself on that corner. Don’t think I don’t know how this adds to the strangeness of my behavior around these locales. What can I say? It’s a passion, passion about the places, passion about the stories they tell. And a passion that finally led me to ask, what if these stories converged in a novel … ?

What if a young immigrant woman living in the Lower East Side and working at Triangle forms an unlikely friendship with the eccentric elderly spinster living alone in the fancy old house that sits on East Fourth Street, directly en route between her neighborhood and her factory job … ? And what if a Hispanic woman in the 21st century is haunted by something she sees on a trip to New York, and eventually uncovers her own family’s mysterious connection to these women and to a century-old tragedy … ? To be released in 2015 🙂

This, folks, is what I do on my trips to New York. Also? I take advantage of the chance to travel solo, pursuing a deep personal passion, very grateful for the opportunity. When one’s day job is wife and mother, no matter how loved and cherished that job is, such opportunities are imperative, and priceless.

Finally, when in New York, I eat, a lot. Ohhhhh yes. Until next time, I leave you with a few highlights of the food. What a gift this trip was!

Lunch at Taqueria Lower East Side. It is superb and outstanding and comforting and abundant–and cheap!–Mexican food. Please note the very reasonable total for the amount of food and drink. The margarita was also delicious but a little too strong if I wanted to remain conscious and act relatively normal during my Tenement Museum tour.

Dinner at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro. Beet, goat cheese, and endive salad with arugula and walnuts, French fries, Comté and Machego cheeses. A truly special meal. The culinary equivalent of an hour at a spa, and I did take a good hour to eat it all. Holy sheep’s milk; and cow’s and goat’s. I covered them all, and I was in heaven!

 

 

Share this:
facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

My love letter to an iconic all-American female

Today I want to share with you the poem The New Colossus, written in 1883 in New York City by Emma Lazarus. Why?

Inauguration celebrations, October 1886.

Because it is a beautiful poem. I invariably get a tear—or two—when I read it, hear it, or recite it. I even memorized it, in 2012, before my family went on a Disney Cruise out of New York City. I had just heard the story of the woman who wrote it, and I wanted to recite it right as the cruise ship passed the Statue of Liberty. This was an ironic joke on me, because the two times we went by it, I was own in my cabin! But I am glad to have learned it; now it will be with me always.

Travelers aboard a steamship can see the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

Because every time this beacon came into view when steamships full of new immigrants entered New York Harbor, the steamships would literally tilt dangerously to one side: Everyone was standing on the same side of the boat to see her. The legend that many of these people wept upon seeing her is a true one. Even in a scene from the best sitcom ever, The Golden Girls, Sophia  Petrillo recalls this moment. “But beyond her was the Statue of Liberty. I remember the first words I shouted out, ‘there she is, Lady Liberty.’ I also remember the second words I shouted out, ‘slow down, you yutz, you’re going past her!'”

Emma Lazarus 1849-1887 (notablebiographies.com)

Because I am so deeply moved by the story of the poet, Emma
Lazarus, who never saw the completed Statue herself, that I am compelled to share it. She wrote and donated the poem to help raise money when there was not enough to finance construction of the pedestal. The only part of the Statue that the public had seen was the arm and torch. In 1887, on her return to New York after a two-year trip to Europe, construction on the towering Statue had been completed. It could easily have been seen from her steamship. But she was too ill with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma to venture out on deck. Emma Lazarus passed the colossal “Mother of Exiles” in all her finished glory, and never saw her. She died two months later, at 38 years old. I will never see the Statue of Liberty in the same way after hearing this story. I hereby honor Emma Lazarus by sharing her words. I love their assertive feminism blended so seamlessly with soft femininity.

The arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty, on display in Madison Square Park from 1876 to 1882 as part of the fundraising efforts for construction of the pedestal.

Because I had eagerly explored ways to incorporate the poem in my novel, set in 1911 New York City. After trying several angles, I’d given up on it. And that was okay, because it made no sense to force it. Earlier this week, I found a way (it’s so obvious to me now!) for the poem to fit into the story.

The (“Old”) Colossus of Rhodes. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it also sat in the harbor of a prominent world city. It symbolized superior military prowess.

Because the role of immigrants is still an intensely relevant topic in America. And the words in this poem continue to speak to the plight of immigrants with incomparable poignancy more than 100 years later.

Because I think that not enough people know this poem, even though most are at least familiar with the ubiquitous two or three lines toward the end. My proof? I told my brilliant husband, who knows a lot about history and also knows better than anyone of my fixation with this story, that I was preparing a blog post about The New Colossus, and he said, “Oh, great! … What’s that?”

Because I love New York, love the story of this poem, love the poem itself. Enjoy.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Share this:
facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

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.

 

Wordoverpixels.com

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
Share this:
facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

Things I would say if I didn’t have a filter, Part 1

To the library staff during these freezing library days.
I know you mean well, I do. And I think you all do a terrific job. But look at me for a minute. I am wearing two shirts, two sweaters, a hat, a hood, my coat, fingerless gloves, and a third sweater around my legs. I am also drinking hot tea. Here, feel my nose. Is it still there? ‘Cause I can’t feel it anymore. Every person sitting in this section is wearing their coat. That poor woman over there hasn’t taken her hands out from inside her coat sleeves in at least ten minutes. How about you taste my water? Tastes like it’s been sitting in the fridge, doesn’t it? It’s just been here on my table for two hours. It takes me longer than this to get a bottle of wine chilled in my refrigerator at home.

To the woman who comforted my son on that particular day when he was inconsolable and I felt alone, and the one who told me he looked like a very well-fed baby when I most needed to hear that, and to my Whole Foods parking lot angel when I broke my pinky toe.
I don’t really know you, but I think I love you.

To the mother who has a conversation with me about how her child eats everything (but never candy), watches no TV, is always in bed and asleep before 8PM, was one hundred percent potty-trained by age two and half, adjusted seamlessly to preschool, has outgrown at least half of their toys, and how she, the mom, never loses her cool.
Unless I can have a conversation with you where I call your bullsh!t or your delusion, I’m not sure I see a lot of conversations in our future.
(The same general principle applies to women who talk about how they can basically binge-eat everything and anything, do nothing physical in the interest of their fitness/health, and look like a stick. I know about two people who could say this in earnest; they’re the ones who don’t need to talk about it. The rest? No tengo tiempo.)

To the two women who were having dinner together at a nearby table at a restaurant recently.
Could I be your friend, too? You two seem so cool. The parts of your conversation that I overheard–it was more than I care to admit–made you sound like terrific ladies. I am a good baker, I’m reasonably smart, loyal, and a good listener. Plus my husband also tells me I’m funny. I swear I’d make a great girlfriend!

A time in recent memory when it felt awesome to not have a filter.
Saying a loud “Thank you!” that’s dripping with sarcasm when someone just went through a door and didn’t hold the door for me, especially when I’ve been pushing a stroller.

Times when my non-filter makes me go woops.
About once or twice a week, with my husband. When something comes out of my mouth and then I say, “Wait. Did I really just say that out loud?”

The day when having a filter was the right thing to do.
I was going for a walk in my neighborhood and I saw a young woman sitting on the hood of her car, crying. I went to say, “Are you okay?” Then I thought quickly. No. That’s trite, and obviously she’s not okay. But I couldn’t not say anything. Because she was distraught and I was the only other person around, and I happen to believe that this stranger and I are members of the same human family. I had just a few seconds before I was directly in front of her! When I was finally there, what came out was, “I’m sorry you’re upset.” We then proceeded to have a meaningful conversation–that didn’t involve oversharing or violate any boundaries among strangers–about what was upsetting her. I like to think it helped her.

The day when not having a filter really paid off.
At teaching job years ago, I’d had a paper accepted at a conference in Mexico. My passport was going to expire before the trip, and I’d have to request an expedited passport renewal. But I knew I didn’t have any of the reasons that would qualify me for one. Which was precisely what the man at the passport office told me. Angrily. Next thing I knew, I said,
“Couldn’t you at least smile a little?”
“Excuse me?”
“Smile, you know, smile! Couldn’t you at least do that? Or are you having a bad day? I know I let my passport expire and now I have this trip to Mexico. I get that. But as far as I know I haven’t done anything to you personally. So why be so mad? Maybe smile a little instead?”
“Tell you what.” He said, smiling. “Because you made me take a moment to smile, and no one’s ever done that before, how about you come back after 2PM today to pick up your new passport?”
Cross my heart, true story!

Additional photos from Someecards.com, and (I think) Laurie Alex on Flickr.com.

 

Share this:
facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

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.
Share this:
facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

I [Heart] the DC Public Library

“When all else fails, give up and go to the library.” Stephen King, 11/22/63

When you are among the first early morning visitors at the public library in Washington DC, right as they open their doors, you are usually one of the following: 1) A mother or nanny attending Story Time with a young child, 2) A male looking to use one of the library computers for Internet, 3) Sandra Falcón with her pink backpack and Mickey Mouse sticker on her laptop. That’s it. I’ve even noticed that, at least regarding 2 and 3, this applies on weekends the same as weekdays, and regardless of what branch of the library I am visiting. It’s the men, sometimes the toddlers, and me.

In recent years and months, I have come to develop a profound love for the public library. I was very familiar with spending long hours at libraries as a graduate student; however, public libraries are an entirely different experience. Whereas the library at Georgetown University conjured exclusivity everywhere I looked or sat, the public libraries are places of equal opportunity and access to information for everyone. I marvel at the number of library books that have nurtured and enriched the story in my current novel, and at the hours of enjoyment we have had browsing children’s books with our little boy. And when the DC library system extended its hours earlier this fall, I photographed the sign and rushed to share it with people I know, this is how happy I was.

One element unique to public libraries is the colorful characters and interesting–sometimes jarring–experiences one encounters with them. Like the time a few months ago, when a gentleman locked himself in the men’s room. Not inside a stall, no. The man threw the deadbolt on the door separating the library and the entire men’s room. After enough time had passed, and the cleaning woman became exasperated after asking him several times to come out, things began to escalate. Then came a librarian, who threatened to call the police. “Sir, you need to come out now! We are going to call the police!” The poor man’s response, which I am sure made sense to him somehow, could be heard loud and clear a good twenty feet away, “I don’t have a coat hanger!” I have never once forgotten my earphones after that day.

On another occasion, as I was getting up to leave, the contents of my open backpack spilled out onto the floor. A man wearing an Inspector Clouseau trench coat, sitting at a library computer a few tables away, got up, turned around, and yelled: “What do you think you’re doing?!” I looked around, my body language no doubt saying, Who, me? Indeed, he was talking to me.  “Just what do you think you are doing?!!” Once again I looked around. Then I packed my backpack faster than you can say coat hanger, and left. I still see him on a regular basis. And I give his table a wide breadth as I come and go.

It’s fair to say, I did not see a lot of this at Georgetown.

Saturday mornings are especially interesting, because there are no toddlers with their nannies or mamas. So aside from library employees, it’s basically me and the menfolk for a good thirty minutes after the library has opened. Yesterday, when I was finally joined by other females, my attention was drawn to a (roughly) sixty-year-old Latina woman. She sat at one of the computers, and began watching Youtube videos. First was Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Relax (Don’t Do It), total awesomeness. She was tapping her feet and bobbing her head up and down, pony tail flapping. A kindred spirit!

Soon followed Billy Joel (Uptown Girl, We Didn’t Start the Fire), and the awesomeness factor was rising fast. After Billy Joel came Prince (early eighties), Michael Jackson, and Janet Jackson–Rhythm Nation. I love that video! By this point I had forgotten my book, and was bobbing my head along with her. Then things took an interesting turn when she abandoned the eighties altogether, and began to watch some Britney Spears. Hmm. Britney was followed by Chris Brown–uh oh. By the time she was watching a Jean Claude Van Damme movie, I knew our relationship had run its course. I really need to remember to sit with my back to the library computers.

Still, I love all of it. Thank you, public libraries!

Share this:
facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

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!

Share this:
facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

Report: Week One of Writing “Boot Camp”

 

So.
Yes.
My new novel-writing schedule of ninety minutes a day, six
days a week has been kicking my Puerto Rican behind. There are many, many
logistical issues, which are not to be underestimated.
But one concept that has really been at the forefront for me
this week has been what I am going to refer to as tolerance of ambiguity. I first became formally familiar with this
concept in my first year of graduate school. I was in a class about teaching
Spanish as a second/foreign language, and tolerance of ambiguity was discussed
as a powerful indicator of a successful foreign language learner. Though I
wasn’t consciously aware of it in my first experience as this type of learner, I
know I must have used tolerance of ambiguity very successfully in some form or
another when I learned English as a young child when Spanish was my first
language. Basically, you know you are occupying one room at a time in a large building
full of many other rooms, most of which remain dark and closed off to you. But
you push through, putting in the time and
plenty of elbow grease, until eventually all the rooms have been opened and lit up brilliantly for you, and you have been
granted the power to move in and out of them with complete freedom. As a
bilingual who also happens to speak a few other languages with varying degrees
of ability, I can tell you, there is a very real sense of transcendence when this
happens.
Since learning to apply the concept of tolerance of
ambiguity to language learning, I have also applied it in many other areas of my
life. You accept the unknown, bide your time, and continue to work through it.
I often deployed it when I was dating. And I still do anytime I read a novel, a
suspenseful story where every chapter is a cliffhanger. Or when I meet
a new person that I can’t read and what I would really like is to be able to
“figure them out.” Going on a trip to a brand new place. Starting anything new. Parenthood! Parenthood and
accepting the unknown: Subject for another time.
Writing my first novel is challenging my tolerance of
ambiguity in many new fun—and annoying—ways. And it’s different from
cliffhanger chapters in a book I am reading. Because that is a finished product
where the resolution to the ambiguity has been built in already. By someone
else, thank you. My only investment is in turning the pages. And it’s an easy
one ultimately, because in those cases, generally speaking, I know the unknowns have been resolved,
the loose ends nicely woven together.
But now that it is my
work to do the weaving? My mystery “building”
where most rooms are still closed off and in the dark? These are just some of
the questions/issues I have confronted this week:
Where will one particular story line go?
How, exactly, do the different story lines come together
toward the end? Right now they are like hoses that are flailing around waiting
for me to tame them, to tie them together, perhaps not in one perfectly
straight line, but in something that at least resembles a cohesive whole.
Am I going to end up getting rid of this entire scene anyway?
So why am I focusing on it this long?
When should this or that issue be introduced? How much does this character know/see?
For the characters that need to die, how, exactly, will they
die? (I’m like Emma Thompson in the movie Stranger
Than Fiction
, only she is a chain-smoking Brit and I am a nonsmoking Puerto
Rican. Yes, because that’s the only difference.)
How much am I willing to piss off my would-be readers by
hinting at things that don’t get spelled out for several chapters? Do I even
have it in me to build this kind of tension like this?
Will this ever be a finished product that I will hold in my
hands? Will anyone else, besides my husband, my parents, and my siblings, ever hold
it in their hands?
One day I wrote 1800 words. One day I wrote just over 900.
Some days I stare at the computer with the beginnings of a stomachache because nothing! is coming to me. Other times my
fingers on the keyboard can’t keep up with what I am thinking, and I start getting antsy and making
notes in different places and wondering when I am going to have time to get
back to these notes, how I am going to find them all, and maybe if I spent more
time WRITING and less time thinking and making notes I wouldn’t have to wonder
this in the first place.
Again, these are just some of the questions. But I accept
them because I have seen the payoff, time and again, of embracing the unknown
and tolerating moments—or years—of ambiguity. And the truth is I feel so alive
as I do this that that is enough. This
is its own payoff in this moment of uncertainty. Not simply because it has to
be, but because, actually, it is!

Photo quote from http://www.stephenking.com/community/showthread.php/21675-Best-Stephen-King-Quotes/page5

Share this:
facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest