Toothbrush Inspiration

The other day, I woke to my alarm for the first time in months.  By some miracle, it was 5:30 a.m., but Baba was still asleep in her crib, contently dreaming about whatever it is that babies dream about.  I stumbled to the bathroom to start my morning rituals with the sweet luxury of not having to rush.

Then, about the time that my toothbrush swirled around my bottom left molars, I realized that my mind was in medieval Iceland, with the characters of my first novel.  It was as dark there as it was outside my window, but the scene was more desperate.  It was one of the pivotal nights of my protagonist’s life and I could feel, from my toothbrush down to my elbow, the angry energy in her arm.

Aha!  I thought.  Now I can go on with that.

Perhaps it is just my curse that I always want to work on the project that I’m not currently working on.  Writing is a practice; the more that I do it, the more my creative ideas flow. Working on any project inevitably spurs ideas for the projects I have on the backburner, which makes focus difficult.  Inspiration hits wherever and whenever it will.  Holding onto the ideas that it generates until you have time to actually do something about it is the harder part.

I am traditionally a seat-of-pantser, but that hasn’t worked out well for me on novel-length works, because I tend to write myself into  corners that don’t resolve neatly (or, in the case of this novel, at all).  I paused in the writing of my Iceland novel, nearly two years ago, to go off and study more formally, in the hopes that I could come back to it with the skills I needed to let me take the project where I want it to go.  Now that I’ve added another degree to my file cabinet, I want to put those new lessons into practice.

So for now, I am working out more details the plot, and enjoying visiting with the characters that have lived in my brain for such a long time. My main focus is still on revision and submission of my short fiction portfolio, which is teaching me about the literary journal and web magazine market.  (My favorite discovery so far: publications that want you to give away your work and tip the editors for the privilege of reading — and likely rejecting — your stories.  I apparently do not want to be published that badly.)  I had a goal of submitting two different stories to five different publications by the end of August, which I am right on track for meeting.  And yet, my fingers itch to go back to Iceland and continue seat-of-pantsing.  There will be a full drafted outline before I let myself go there again, because the  last thing I want to do is write another 150,000 words of character development.

And yet, it couldn’t hurt to write just one scene, could it?  Just one?

Human Moments, No. 3

The Japanese sumac in the yard of the house by the train station is tossing violently, as gusts of rain hit it with the force of a god’s eternal frustration. Across the tracks stands a plastic enclave that provides an illusion of shelter, its yellowed plastic walls holding back the force of the storm, while puddles in the parking lot turn into small, racing rivers.

A trio of women arrives, emerging from their umbrellas and dark rain coats. They circle together and chat about the normal topics: length of storm, effect on hair, efficacy of their clothing choices. The blonde, her hair carefully curled, her voice shrill, laughs nervously after every comment she makes.

We press closer and closer to the walls to avoid each other as more people arrive. At last the train comes, honking in an angry whine, hurling itself into the station like the force of the wind. Carefully we board, pulling down our umbrellas and hoods and making new stories with our damp bodies.

This is My Substitute for Pistol and Ball

Sully Pilot Whale
Sully Pilot Whale

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I’ve had the passage above stuck in my head for most of the day.  It has been a challenging week at work, which, combined with the discomfort of late summer, its constant social obligations, and a baby that stopped sleeping through the night, has put me into an asocial mood.

Last night, our neighborhood church threw a fabulous foam and water balloon party for charity.  As our windows continued to rattle from the DJ’s bass through our dinner, dessert and bedtime, I turned to my Beloved and asked him when we became the kind of people that hated a party.

“Since we had a baby,” he said sensibly.

“I wouldn’t mind*,” I whined, “but on a Wednesday? Who hires a DJ for a Wednesday?”

* this is a lie

When I woke this morning, after two overnight interruptions, I found that I walked with Ishmael. When one of my neighbors gestured angrily at me to back up my car so that he could pull a completely illegal u-turn in front of me, I considered pulling forward.  When the train was crowded, I considered leaving my bags on the seat to discourage a neighbor.  When I needed to buy some breakfast — having rushed out the door this morning without any — I considered skipping it because the idea of a polite interaction with a cashier seemed far too difficult to manage.

Just call me Ishmael.

I think Melville could have rewritten the opening of Moby Dick for writers; Ishamel writes about going to sea to solve his funk, but I turn to writing.  I suspect Melville did too.  When I find myself exasperated by the crowds of people that I wade through each day and fantasizing about moving to an isolated mountain top — possibly without my family — I know that it has been too long since I’ve done something that’s creatively satisfying.

And it’s true.  I haven’t written any new fiction since May, and I can feel the tension of my ideas building up in my neck and stuffing themselves down into my trapezius muscles.   I haven’t neglected my writing, but my efforts have been focused here on the blog and in revising my portfolio of short fiction.  The drafts that I wrote over two years of graduate work have been read and revised and revised and read again until I can barely stand to see the same paragraphs even once more.  At the same time, I feel the pounding in the back of my brain of the story that I want to write for Baba, the pressure of the novel that’s screaming for an ending.  I am bursting with creative energy, but trying to be responsible and finish what I’ve already begun before giving in to the urge to burn everything to the ground and start again.

I stretch my neck to try and relieve the tension that grows there every day, but there’s really nothing to be done for it other than to finish revision, send out my portfolio and go back to inventing the ornate lies that soothe my soul and make me a reasonable person again.

Balance is hard.  Throw in my job and the responsibilities of motherhood that limit my writing and I feel like I am going to burst out of my skin.  Add in all the other people and mundane  errands that are demanding my time and attention and I can well understand why Ishmael wants to knock off people’s hats.  This is my substitute for pistol and ball, he says.

I know exactly what he means.

Human Moments, No. 2

There is a line around the corner for the world’s smallest Dunkin Donuts. The people in it are 9-5ers quietly engaged in their own world of iPhones and Kindles while they wait their turn for lattes and muffins.

Across a narrow side walk, a man with long gray dreadlocks sits on a piece of cardboard, resting his head against the faded blue fire hydrant.  A tall, thick man, dressed in khakis and a butt on down shirt for his day in the office, speaks to him, as an iced coffee sweats in his hand.

“Man,” he says with a deep laugh.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve been as drunk as you are right now.”

The man on the ground smiles and claps his hands in joy.

A Very Merry Unbirthday to You, My Dear

Cora-6-MoImpossibly, our daughter is six months old today.  This means a few things.

1. It was exactly six months ago that I was in labor for TWENTY-FOUR hours.  This is a fact that I intend to bring up to the BaBa often, for the rest of our natural lives. Perhaps longer.  If I was going to haunt anyone, it would probably be her.

2. It is now time to try on my pre-pregnancy clothes, in the fervid hope that some of them might actually fit.  I am trying to not build this up to a bigger event than it actually is.

3. BaBa needs to start eating some regular baby food, which I’ve been dreading for months, despite my growing obsession with making the stuff.  It will change her poop from sweet-smelling newborn poop to, well, human poop.  Poop.

4. This is probably the last time we’ll even notice her half birthday.

I read somewhere that parenting is a continual process of mourning — that every day is both a celebration of the child you’re raising and a sorrow for the child she no longer is.  In six months, I’ve watched BaBa change from an inert newborn (she was never tiny) to an opinionated and joyful little person that watches the world with wide eyes and an open mouth, as though she wants to taste every bit of it.  When she’s in her carrier on my chest, her head constantly swivels from left to right so that she can see everything going on around her.  She hates to sleep, even when her body is screaming for it, because she knows the world — which needs exploring — is continuing on without her.

I miss the sleepy three week old that was content to nap on my chest for hours — I still stare at BaBa when she does actually sleep, trying to memorize every line before the topography of her face changes again.  She fell asleep on me last night and I sat with her for fifteen minutes longer than I had to, just to try and catch these moments that I know that I won’t remember. There are days that she comes home from day care having learned a new skill and it’s like we picked up a different baby. Each time this happens, I have to get to know her all over again.

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Some Things I’ve Learned from Baba

1. Nature is cruel.  Babies are born with an immature digestive system, which gives them a stomach ache for at least the first three months of life.

2. When BaBa’s not happy, nobody is happy.

3. Poop up to your nipples is only a problem if you make it one.

4.  A bath can absolutely be the highlight of your day.

5.  I’m unbelievably lucky to share my life with such a child.

Happy Saturday, all.  If you hear screaming, it’s probably because I just tried on my old pants.

Human Moments, No. 1

The waiting room at the   train station is colored somewhere between off-white and taupe, with a east facing window that is letting in weakened sunbeams that streak against the dirty tile floor.  In winter, it is crammed with black-clad commuters that are barely visible under their winter coats, scarves, riding boots and gloves.  Today, the mild summer morning has it is empty, except for a man sitting on one of the wall-side partitioned benches.

I choose my favorite seat, the one in the corner, farthest from the door, because it is a respectable distance from this stranger.  The train is due in another seven minutes, which gives me four minutes to rest here and enjoy the cool air before I need to make my way to the far end of the platform.  I dig through my big leather bag, past my various technologies and wires and pull out my headphones and plug in.

When the analog clock on the wall moves to 7:30, I pack up my things and rise.  The man, who I’ve barely noticed, follows my lead, so when I  open the door on to the tracks, I wait for him so that I can hand him the door.  He takes longer than I expect, so I turn and look back into the room.  For the first time, I see that he has beautiful blue eyes and a fine head of silky white hair brushed back from a pleasantly pink face.  He smiles, his eyes lighting up.

“Thank you!”  He says as he holds his hand out to catch the door.

“My pleasure,” I say.  And mean it.

Bon Courage

For the last two years, I’ve made a practice of keeping a Bullet Journal.  At the beginning of every month,  I update it with a list of the things that I plan on doing by the month’s end.   These goals have in the past been something that I easily lose sight of by the second week.   By the third,  I sometimes have forgotten that they exist entirely,  other than the dull feeling at the back of my head that there’s something I was supposed to be doing.

This month, I decided to do things a little differently.  I thought about the goals and only wrote down the ones that I had serious intention of meeting.  I dropped the rest.  This is supposed to be the point of the Bullet Journal, rather than blindly copying forward all of the unfinished things.  It forces you to identify what’s still important every thirty days or so and realign your goals over time.

This is my second year keeping one, because it worked out really well for work the first year.  This year I’m trying to incorporate in more of my writing life and personal life into it.  This is to say that I am setting some tough deadlines on myself.  The first July goal was to blog regularly, to make myself write faster for an audience.  I begin blog posts all the time, but I take a very long time to edit things, because I have a hesitancy to put anything in print forever.  The Internet isn’t quite that, but it’s close, and I get overwhelmed by making my words meaningful enough that other people should care about them.  It’s not an easy objective in a world with an increasingly short attention span.

So, after I wrote down that I would actually hit publish here more frequently, I set myself the goal of sending some of my short fiction out into the world.  This is a step that I have procrastinated for years, not out of a fear of rejection, but out of a fear of success.  From my unpublished vantage point, it feels that once your fiction is out in the world that it is out there forever.  Then, there are so many outlets for publication, which are fighting for smaller audiences than ever.  Who am I to try to contribute to that, to fill up space that is being fought over by writers far more talented than I am?  What if I look back at the work I’m doing now with mortification in a few years, as I continue to grow as a writer?

On the other hand, I have this portfolio of work that I’ve really polished over the last two years of graduate school and I know that my next step for growth as a writer is to share it publicly.  My writing has always been well received in a classroom setting.  I’ve won school writing contests and even earned a few shillings.  But those were all relatively private venues, with a small audience that has certainly forgotten me already.  The risks are smaller.

Change is a frightening thing.  All the same, I was serious when I wrote my intentions at the beginning of the month.  I’ve narrowed down my target publications and picked my stories.  I haven’t spent the time this month that I wanted to in doing my final edits — there’s still a really problematic paragraph that I’ve been grappling with for over a week that needs to be solved — but I have made some serious forward movement.

This is where, in Bullet Journal land, you draw an arrow through your goal for July, then write it down again in your goal list for August.  It is a goal that you still find worthy, a goal that is still worth meeting — a goal that’s going to get the attention that it deserves in the coming month.

I’d say wish me luck, but I’d rather you wish me bon courage.

Tales of an Ordinary Bird

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