Lobbying for the 28 Hour Day

Just four more hours. Imagine how much we could get done! But here’s the thing… I have a bad feeling that even if I had four more hours, I’d probably spend it doing laundry, yelling at my children, cleaning my kitchen or driving the kids to some other kid activity… Probably not writing.

That said, some stuff has gotten done lately. I finished the anthology, tentatively titled “Through a Dusty Window: New York City Stories 1910-2001”. I even had a cover created by the multi-talented Mia Darien, author of the Adelheid Series (and a multitude of other good things…) I’m not quite ready to share yet… but I’m taking the book to the upcoming Maryland Writers Association Conference. I’ve got an appointment with an agent there, though I’m not too nervous or hopeful, mostly because short stories aren’t really the bread and butter of the publishing industry. I also don’t feel that the first story in the anthology is the strongest, and the agent only wants the first five pages. What to do? So far…think a lot about it and do absolutely nothing.

In the meantime, I’ve been wrestling with ideas for the other novels that have been developing in the back of my brain. I do realize that working on nothing results in nothing, so to avoid being mired in indecision about what to do, I’ve forced myself to march ahead. I’ve been reading Wired for Story, a really fascinating and helpful book by Lisa Cron (who teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program among other things). That book, combined with my efforts at actually outlining and plotting in great detail before writing, have helped get things moving. The novel I’m building, currently titled (but definitely not going to remain titled) “Blood Feud” might end up slightly better than my first effort thanks to all the guidance. But what seems so simple when reading about it becomes much more difficult when trying to apply it. So there’s that.

There’s also the small issue that my children seem to be able to smell something in the air when I’m trying to write. If I get up at five, the minute I sit in front of my keyboard, I hear their door open and tiny feet appear on the stairs. If I stay up late, they mysteriously cannot sleep. If I try to steal a few minutes in the morning before the bus comes or after school, they choose those few minutes to have a knock-down drag-out screaming match, often in my office. I think I wrote before about choosing to make the time, but I’m seeing that sometimes it is just impossible. And I tell myself that the kids won’t be this young and incredibly demanding forever, that there will be years to write… But I don’t want to put my dreams on hold. Is that selfish?

Anyway, I know I haven’t been much of a correspondent here… and it’s a symptom of the disease outlined in the paragraph above. Strategies? (If only it weren’t for this pesky job of mine, then I’d have uninterrupted hours of quiet… of course we wouldn’t be able to afford electricity… )

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I Wasn’t There

There’s no way to overstate what a difficult and important day 9/11 has become in the consciousness of our country. Both of my young sons — ages 2 and 5 — can describe to people the day when bad men took three planes full of innocent people and crashed them into buildings full of more innocent people. They can tell you that they, as Americans, will never let it happen again. They talk about being proud, about being strong. They know about this because it’s something I talk about.

9/11 is a day that weighs heavily on me — for all of the reasons I share with other Americans, but also for personal reasons; not because I lost someone personally, but because I lost a bit of myself.

New York City was my home on 9/11/2001. I’d lived there for four years and had never felt more at home with myself or in a physical place. Growing up in California, I’d never really fit in. On a family vacation at 14, I stood beneath one of the towers of the World Trade Center next to my brother and looked up at my mom, the steely grey of the tower rising behind her. I told her, “I’m going to live here someday.” That was pre-Guiliani, and my declaration terrified my parents.

When I threw everything I owned into my car at age 24 and drove across the country, they warned me that I might be making a terrible mistake. They saw me, at 14, standing amid the grafitti scrawl and gang violence that had characterized that city in the 80s, and they were scared. But I was exhilarated. For four years, I let the city seep into my pores, let my soul be scoured and reshaped by the energy that found me there.

I worked at a technology start-up in 2001. Our offices were on Maiden Lane, and we spent lunch hours roaming the mall beneath the World Trade Center, dropping through Ben and Jerry’s on the way out and Century 21 across the street before heading back to work. The company was struggling, and I was laid off in August. I decided to travel back to California to visit my family. My boyfriend would fly to LA to meet me on September 12th, and we were planning a vacation together.

Our plans changed.

I woke up the morning of 9/11 to my friend, Amy, coming back in her front door just moments after she’d left for work. Someone had stopped her in her parking garage to tell her that she probably wouldn’t be working today and to go turn on the TV. The Today Show’s Matt and Katie looked strange to me, but it was early and I had been sound asleep. The events that elicited their deer-in-headlights look took on a dreamlike quality in the cloudiness of my waking mind. We watched the second plane plow into the tower and disappear, and I asked Amy, “Is this a movie?”

In the wake of those events, Amy went back to work and I found myself stranded in Los Angeles. I wandered up and down Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, trying to understand how I felt, what had happened, and what had changed. I felt seething anger when I passed sidewalk tables with diners chatting happily and laughing just days after the events. Huge naval ships were visible only as outlines looming out on the horizon of the Pacific.

When I finally got back to New York, I felt as if I was outside a bubble looking in. I felt like I’d missed a crucial moment in the life of the city that defined my own. I felt the way I imagined I might if I’d missed my child’s most important game or recital. I felt like I’d let my city down. Of course, NYC didn’t notice my absence, but that void will always live within me.

My boyfriend told me that I was more upset than people who’d been there when it happened. As we leaned against the railing on his rooftop and watched the constant plume of smoke billowing up into the sky a month later, he said that he didn’t understand why I couldn’t move on.

But he’d already said it. I wasn’t even there.

A Little Bit at a Time

It’s been a struggle of late, getting words on paper. Part of me is still panting and heaving, celebrating in disbelief that I actually finished a novel. Of course that was months ago now, and the novel is mostly terrible. I’ve put it away, and think of it at times. I wasn’t passionate about the story it became, and I think that’s pretty evident in the writing. But it was a valuable exercise. I did it. I edited it. I queried, I submitted. I received rejections. The circle is complete (or is that supposed to end with publication?) In this case, I don’t feel too sad about that… I don’t think it’s the story I was meant to tell.

Which has led me to dabble in lots of other things, jot down lots of other ideas, trying to figure out what to do next. I’m 80% done with the anthology I’ve been building. I’m not sure what to do with that when it’s done, so I’m not in much of a hurry. I have decided that submitting a few of the stories I like best for publication in journals wouldn’t be a bad thing. A “real” publisher might not want to publish an anthology that includes previously published work, but since I will most likely self-publish it, I think that might add a bit of credibility since otherwise I’m a fairly green author.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking lots about what I might be “meant” to write. There are two stories that I land on every time I ponder in this direction. One is a book I’ve been building mentally for years. Like five years or more. The other is based on my own family and is a much younger idea. I think I’ll eventually write them both, but for now I’ve really begun to focus on the former. I’ve written parts of it before over the years, but this time I’ve actually outlined it. Developed character arcs, thought about the structure and technique I want to employ. I’m going to try to do it right this time. And I got up early this morning to draft the first scene.

I’m now 816 words in. Wish me luck.