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A Sun-Times writer suggested that instead of making resolutions, why not choose a word to live by? I made resolutions (ones I really would enjoy keeping, like finishing the novel I'm working on), but I liked her idea, too. Being a Gemini, though, I picked two words: positive and gratitude. I want to try to think of the positive side of situations, and to not forget to thank God for what is good. It's a never-ending struggle, of course, as I tend to look back in time and think what-if instead of seeing positives in my life and being grateful.
Yesterday more snow fell in one day than ever before in recorded Chicago history. What if we could look back in time to before weather was recorded? What if we could journey back to before Columbus, when Native Americans ruled this land? Did more snow ever fall then? How did they deal with it, without the technology we have now to heat homes and make super-warm clothing? Did kids throw snowballs or do their version of snow angels, or was snowfall pure disaster, deadly? Before they settled this continent, before people lived here, what animals roamed the land in snow?
When I was in high school, Pearl Buck's "My Several Worlds" was one of my favorite books. It described how she grew up in China, a white child, and later went to college in the U.S.; she felt pulled between cultures, actually relating more to Chinese culture. I related, because although I was white, my closest friends were Asian, and I didn't seem to fit into stereotypical white culture. I think my Asian friends liked me because I was such a nerd, always studying, and in their cultures, being learned was a value. Not so with the cool white kids.
I start listening to a webinar about Strunk and White's "Elements of Style," but then realize the webinar isn't for me, much as I like the book. The moderators start preaching about the necessity of always choosing your design first, then writing. Of course a structure is necessary, but I usually discover it after I start writing--that's what revision is for, right? Any kind of rigidity threatens to take the fun out of writing for me. Luckily I have shelves full of writing books quoting authors with vastly different strategies, some who espouse always outlining and others who say never!
From kindergarten through sixth grade, I attended Catholic school--that, in our Irish American family, was just what you did; at birthday parties, when I met cousins of cousins, they all when to schools whose names began with "St." or "Our Lady of." It wasn't that expensive then--I think my mom paid ten dollars a month. Then, in seventh grade, I transferred to public school--and for the first time had rigorous science classes. At Our Lady of L's, the nuns ignored science and just gave everybody C's, and at St. A's I learned about atoms. Science still feels foreign to me.
Someone tapped R on the elbow.
The sixth grader was short and petite with almond eyes. R remembered her from basketball games with the cousins and thought her name was E.
E's eyes were bright. "Want to be a team? You draw, I write? I can't draw, you say you can't write."
"C'mon, let's sit here," E pointed to two desks shoved together. "I'll write about your picture, you can tell me if you like it. We could be a team for other stuff--basketball games, student of the month, teacher of the month--" E's words tumbled out happily.
"I'm E. R. and I'm going to be a novelist. Or else a journalist with a syndicated column. I read and write all the time. Maybe that's why I can write? Maybe if I drew all the time I could draw, too?"
"Maybe," R said, feeling as though she had to rush to keep up with E's quick-thinking words. "Like--I do draw all the time. I read, too."
"See, that's what I mean. My parents don't want me to be a writer, they're doctors, but I don't like blood, you know? Ink is better."
R grinned. "Much better than blood."
"Course, writers don't make money. Oh well."
E squinted at R's drawing and then pulled out her notebook and scribbled furiously.
R pulled out her sketchbook and drawing pencil. What to draw that related to St. F? They'd mentioned games; she began to draw D, shooting a basket into the air.
"Here. Here's something."
R looked in the notebook held in front of her:
"On Sept. 11, our country was attacked for the first time since Pearl Harbor. More than 2000 people died in New York. How do you feel? Do you want to fight, or are you praying for peace?"
I am a shy, socially awkward extrovert. I love being around people but am terrified of approaching anybody, fear of rejection or saying, doing the wrong thing. An almost physical paralysis overcomes me! At NW, I'd go to parties, dreaming of finding my college student Prince Charming but end up swaying achingly to music--what? Beach Boys?--in a corner, only rarely chatting with a fellow female wallflower. I haven't changed. I go to gatherings of writers and find myself walking back and forth, back and forth, never sure how to interject myself into any of the groups that have spontaneously formed.
This is my week of feeling misunderstood. A critique group member makes suggestions that show she didn't read my story closely. When I comment in an online book discussion group about the realism of a scene (the bus experience seemed too rosy), another member suggests I'm saying that too much diversity is unrealistic, hinting that I'm probably a white suburbanite. Who mentioned diversity? I was talking about the bus experience! I don't drive and takes lots of buses! Most bus drivers don't recognize you and greet you with a smile. Most buses don't have someone playing a guitar, entertaining passengers.
Different strategies work for different writers. Some suggest stopping when you know what will happen next--that way you'll know exactly where to start the next day. That doesn't work for me; when I start again, I won't remember the details that exactly, and I'll have lost some "zest"! I like stopping when I have no idea what will happen next! That gives my subconscious time to figure out the next plot point, so when I do sit down, I'm raring to go! I also don't believe in shortchanging sleep to get extra writing time--I don't write well when I'm sleepy!
When you're having your work critiqued, you are the judge and jury. Sure, you want to listen to the expert witnesses (your critique partners) and seriously consider all they have to say. But YOU decide the fate of your work, what you will change, what you will cut. It is YOUR decision; no matter how critical or adamant your critiquers, the story is YOURS, to change or leave as is. That stubbornness, that feeling of power, is necessary to face critiques so that the negative comments don't overwhelm you, and so you are open, too, to wonderful "ah ha!" suggestions.
March 7. My grandmother died and went to the home she'd dreamed of for years, during an unhappy life of early widowhood, poverty, scrubbing floors, and painful mental illness.
On March 7, my high school friend left for Japan and marriage--I wonder, now, did she really want to leave? A high school acquaintance, after we hooked up on Facebook, said she hadn't; her mother sighs and says my friend has had a hard life.
Both named Mary, both part of my young life. Few people in my life now knew me before I was eighteen. I miss both of them.
Valentine's Day. Bah humbug. Sometime tonight I'll order out, pampering myself since I don't have a sweetheart to do it for me! Yup, a great day for self-pity, and I'm sure I have lots of company out there! Wish I had a circle of female friends with whom I could celebrate "Galentine's Day" (a la Parks and Rec), but my friends are mostly widespread and not mutual. But as I mope, my cat D jumps on the nearby chair and keeps me company, and my son says we'll have fun tomorrow on National Candy Day (chocolates will be half-price, smile).
I have complicated feelings about being Irish. My grandmother was born in County D., Ireland, with the last name of G., on St. Patrick's Day, no less, and I was happy to be part of a big "bunch" with aunts, uncles, and 18 cousins. But I became estranged from the "bunch" when I went off to college and realized just how dysfunctional my childhood was, that the happy laughing "bunch" hadn't really cared about me; my mother had been seriously mentally ill, and they wanted as big a distance as possible from her, and if that meant me too, fine.
I hate when critique group members use the word "poverty." Of course, L and her family are poor; of course, R and her dad are poor--although, to be honest, compared to L and her family, R and her dad are rich, and L and her family have it way better than people who are starving. It's relative, and the word "poverty" seems to judge, to put people in a sterile statistical category--and most people don't use the word "poverty" when talking about themselves. You say you're broke, or going through hard times--always implying it's temporary and you'll get by.
Wish I had better self-esteem and didn't take offense so easily! At the writing presentation, when I ask about audience and reading level, a couple of writers jump in with cliched advice about not underestimating readers. I hate "duh" writing advice, hate feeling as though I project something that makes people think I need Writing 101. I want to shout out, "I've been published, too! I won a contest! I write for a living!" As I type these words, I'm embarrassed by my thoughts; it would be better if I were humble enough to take all suggestions as kindly meant.
How can I feel better about myself and my writing--to embrace that I'm a writer trying to write children's books, who has potential but needs to work hard--without succumbing to jealousy, frustration, and impatience? To hold my head up high as an equal to more-published writers, confident yet open to learning? Why not focus on my love for writing, for polishing work to make it better and better? Getting published is wonderful but is dessert, not the main meal. Sort of like that book, "Men Are Just Dessert" that encouraged women to not make finding romance their reason to exist!
I find it hard to write in the library--too quiet, the fluorescent lights hum, and no coffee to drink. I like the
of writing at the library--other book-loving people around me, not-rich folks who borrow rather than buy. Still, my love affair with books did not begin in a library, but with books bought at second-hand stores, and I first wrote little books at the kitchen table. It's almost too learned here--I prefer the more casual sounds of Dunkin' Donut life. Still, I wanted to try--and I'm happy to know there's a new coffee shop down the block!
T talks about admiring people who have special gifts, who can do what no one else can do--stars like LaBron James or Louis C. K.--and how he doesn't mind that they earn more money, that it's cool to see someone with such amazing talent. He says that without the slightest selfish thought of wanting to be that special person, or discontent about being more ordinary. When I think of someone who is outstanding, I feel jealous, and I start beating myself up mentally: "See, if you wrote more or better or if you'd made this choice instead of that--"
"You probably drink tea because you grew up with Grandma. Probably why you even think of choosing tea as a beverage," my cousin said.
I shook my head vigorously. "No, I started liking tea when I went to college. My roommate drank Constant Comment. That's what I like. Flavored tea."
I remember V offering me tea, prepared on her hotplate, the night my aunts refused to help with my mom, who was threatening suicide because I'd gone off to college.
Now I drink strong Irish tea because my half brother, unknown to me in childhood days, introduced me to Barry's.
I'm in the glumps. OK, I know that word doesn't exist--but isn't it perfect to describe those times when you feel gloomy and down in the dumps? My reasons for being glumpy today are silly--it started at the writing event when I commented about an issue I'm struggling with in my writing, and other writers who've never read my writing immediately assaulted me with advice as though I were a newbie. I'd hoped to commiserate or talk peer-to-peer. That started my descent into what my son would call the cyclone of sad--feeling old, not-published-enough, a failure, envying those who shine.
I usually avoid mentioning that my ex-husband was blind. I rarely think about my marriage anyway--it ended over twenty years ago. I don't brood over or bitterly regret this life choice, as I'm very grateful for my son's existence! And my ex's blindness didn't negatively impact the marriage; the marriage ended for the usual reasons. Like a certain former president, my ex had had his Monicas; being blind didn't hamper his ability to run around. Nope. It wasn't a healthy marriage--he wanted to control me, never respected my writing, found ways to sabotage it. His lack of 20-20 vision? Irrelevant.
St. Patrick's Day is next week, but I feel awkward about embracing my Irishness. I get a daily Irish newsletter, and a recent one recounts how folks at the New York St. Patrick's Day parade booed DeBlasio. I wince, feeling sympathy for DeBlasio. A lot of the anger is probably because of his support of African Americans, because he didn't instead blindly support cops. DeBlasio has a kid who is biracial--he has no choice but to loudly join in the refrain, "Black Lives Matter." His very flesh and blood is in danger from our cultural fear of young Black men.
How did my ex's blindness affect the marriage? My favorite memory is coming home late from work and my husband cooking spaghetti in the kitchen, the apartment smelling of fresh-cut vegetables and pasta sauce on the stove--and the house completely pitch-black. I was taken aback--cooking, in the dark? But then I laughed--why would he need lights on? He was blind!
Sometimes I did have to help him with stuff, but don't spouses help each other anyway? The problem--which had nothing to do with blindness--was that he'd ask for unnecessary help in order to manipulate me, to sabotage my writing dreams.
One of my critique group members submits a story where the grandfather is taken down to the police station, and the officers are very respectful, probably out of consideration for him being a senior citizen and maybe because they know him. Nice. Still, I can't help but think of how the story would be different if the grandfather was African American. African Americans, including senior citizens, have been arrested for just being seen in their own homes--wasn't that eminent professor roughed up? As the mom of a son who's half African American, I notice injustices my fellow writers probably don't.
I love "Ordinary People"; the only issue I have is the title. The characters aren't "ordinary"! They're rich white suburbanites with elite jobs who circulate in an insulated bubble of a social world. But the family struggles they endure are universal--the mother's favorite son dying; the less-favored one trying suicide, feeling guilty and unloved; the father, stuck in the center loving everybody. I guess each of us has a world we consider "ordinary." I remember coworker L who started at Harvard but transferred to NW, where she felt more at home; I left NW and felt at home at C.
I'm not sure why all of a sudden I remember--but I never recorded my brother D's death in the family bible my dad gave me years ago. Of course, D never considered me his sister--he never even considered me his half sister. He mentioned me, at our dad's funeral, as his "step sister." Whenever he called, and Dad was here, he as asked to talk to "his" father. Sigh. I wonder, if there's a Heaven, if he looks down and shakes his head. But smiles, knowing forgiveness is a fact in any real afterlife and not something needing any asking.
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