Friday, September 27, 2013

Writing a Memoir. Getting an Agent. Getting Published. And Telling Your Mom.

Prom, bitches. Check out that 80s hair.
I've been working on my first book for about a year now. I hired a writing coach and she has helped me to keep on a writing schedule and to structure my memoir so it moves along at the pace of a novel. I want to keep the reader interested and I don't want it to suck. Yes "suck" is a literary term. You learn that in graduate school.

Also, I had the ambitious idea to write the memoir as a series of stand-alone essays. Each and every chapter has to have a neat beginning, middle and end. It has to have its own conflict. It has to resolve that conflict in some kind of satisfying way. And it has to have its own point or meaning because otherwise, why bother?

Doing this has been no small task but I am pleased with the results thus far. My favorite writers, people like David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Michael Chabon and Jo Ann Beard have all done this with their nonfiction so I figured, why not me? Plus it seemed like an easier way to transition from a lifetime of writing short stories, essays and blog posts into writing a longer work. Cause that shit's daunting, yo.

The book is a memoir of my childhood. It covers the time period from one of my earliest memories ... maybe around three years old ... to 19 years old. I'm knee-deep in the high school period right now and things have gotten considerably more exciting, as adolescence is wont to be.

I had a literary agent contact me a couple of months ago, interested in the manuscript. This is why blogging is no joke, people. Everything you write on the internet is a potential to attract attention, both good and bad. In this instance, it was good. This is a fancy literary agent at a fancy New York agency. Whenever I write "New York Agency" in my head, I hear the crowd yell, "NEW YORK CITY?" like they do in those Pace picante salsa ads. Yes I know "picante salsa" is not a word, but I think it makes me sound even more Midwestern for humorous effect.

I sent the agent the first 50 pages and haven't heard back yet. My coach encourages me to believe that this is a good thing, because it means I haven't been rejected yet.

This is why I pay her. Because otherwise I would be taking a lot of Xanax right now.

Knowing that first 50 pages is out there has encouraged me to want to finish this thing. I've tried to pick up the pace of late, to try to get it done. I wish I had more time to do it. The full-time job and the graduate class are infringing on that a bit, but I think I can still manage. I pretty much either work on the book or do homework from 9pm to midnight each night. I heard that Hemingway wrote only for four hours a day, from 8 in the morning until noon. That is basically my bar. It has been set. My life's goal is to be able to write from 8 to noon one day. Or even 9 to 1. That, to me, would be success. But right now, I'm living the nocturnal version of the Hemingway dream, which is okay too.

Anyway, I think I had a point with this post but now I've forgotten it. Perhaps it was merely to catch you up on the status of my first book, to tell you a little more about it, and to encourage myself to keep on writing it.

Now that I'm on the adolescence part, it gets harder in some ways and easier in others. It's easier because it's all about me. I don't have to worry about hurting my parents' feelings because the older you get, the more you are responsible for your own life and actions. When you're a little kid your parents have much more power, clearly.

I've talked to my mom about the memoir, because you can't really write about being the child of an alcoholic without telling the recovering alcoholic that you're doing so. I mean, at least if you still want to have a relationship with your parent, that is. She is incredibly awesome about it. She says, "Your story is your story, and no one else's."

That's pretty incredible, isn't it? It's a gift. Possibly one of the greatest gifts she has ever given me. You know, aside from that whole giving birth to me thing.

I'll have to remember it in case either one of my kids becomes a writer. Lord knows I've given them plenty of material.

Now I have to get back to my memoir. The current chapter is about how I simultaneously developed both a crush on a boy and an eating disorder. Some of it's funny I swear! Okay, some of it's sad. It's kind of how the whole book is looking at this point. Inappropriate humor, dark humor and a lot of brutal honesty.

Now, where did I put that Xanax?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Freedom of Body. Freedom of Mind.

My husband says that every married person is free. Free to do what they want and who they want. These are choices that they have, just like single people. They also have the choice to stay in their marriage and stay faithful to their spouses. However, he feels that spouses have a responsibility as fellow human beings to let their partners know if they have decided to step outside the marriage. Everyone has a right to know what kind of relationship they're in, he says. And everyone has a right to be in the kind of relationship they want.

"I don't own you," he says.

Having been cheated on in a relationship, this attitude is eye opening for me. When I first got out of that relationship I was filled with rage and a sense of injustice. I wanted everyone to know what a bad man he was. I wanted everyone to know that I was good and he was evil. I raged and hated him for years. I could not believe that he had done this to me and with such impunity too. When I chose to leave our relationship, he was confounded. He couldn't believe I was leaving him without proof of his affairs. But I knew. I had enough proof for me. I was enraged that he hadn't allowed me the right to know what kind of relationship I was in. I felt like that was the worst betrayal of all.

But the fact of the matter is, he was indeed free to do all of that. I did not own him. I only wish he had let me know and let me exit the relationship more gracefully. All of this seems so reasonable in hindsight, of course. We all know I would have burned his house down.

My point is, everyone is free to live the life they want to live. I believe that and I am married to someone who believes that. My husband and I choose to be married to one another and we choose to be faithful. We choose this life. In that way, we are free. No one wants to feel trapped and we certainly don't.

I feel the same way about employment. Everyone is free to choose their employment. I know we always hear about how an employer is free to fire you at any time with or without cause. The funny thing is, I think that we forget that as employees, we are free to leave at any time we want. Sure, two weeks' notice is considered the polite thing to do. But our employer doesn't have to give us two weeks' notice. I've never understood why that isn't considered impolite or unprofessional?

Everyone is also free to say what they want. You can say hurtful things, racist things, rude things and profane things. And everyone else is also free to tell you that you're a jerk for saying it. But it doesn't mean you have to stop. Well, I guess you can't scream "Fire" in a movie theater because you could injure people, but you know what I mean. You are free to say what you want and other people are free to criticize you for it.

As a writer, I struggle with wanting more freedom. So often I don't feel free to say what I want. For instance, the other day I mentioned that I didn't find working in advertising intrinsically rewarding. That I don't feel like I'm helping anyone or making the world a better place. I really debated posting that. I mean, I could lose my job because of that, right? I could totally get Dooced over it.

But I'm still free to write it. So I am, in fact, free. I may wind up unemployed, but I feel like I'll be less imprisoned by opening up and writing about what I feel on this blog. I want to say what I mean and what I think. I've felt so repressed and limited for years. It's why I don't post much or why so many of my posts go unpublished. I mean, what's the point if I can't be myself?

I also struggle with the freedom to write my book the way I want. I want it to be totally honest and real. I want it to feel as though you are sitting down at a table with me and I am telling you my deepest, darkest secrets. I want to be ribald and over-the-top. I want to be sincere and impassioned. I want to be everything on the page that I am in my closest friendships and in my marriage. I want you to know the real me, not some phony version of me. And I want you to know that if you've ever had any of these thoughts or done any of these things, that you are not alone.

But I struggle with a fear of what will people think? Not everyone wants to be my friend. Not everyone will relate to me. Lord knows, I'm bound to offend some people. I debate toning myself down in order to make myself for palatable to the general public. Maybe I shouldn't swear so much? Maybe I shouldn't write what horrible things I thought or did as a teenager? Or if I write about sex as openly and honestly as I write about heartbreak ... will that make my book suddenly prurient and base?

Can you be literary and also sexual? Can you be serious and ridiculous? Can you say the things that you think in the deepest and darkest parts of your mind and heart ... and still be a respectable person? Do you really care?

I struggle with that.

I want to be free. I want to be myself and damn the consequences. I find it pretty depressing to try to tow the line, to be honest.

Because the truth is, I am free. Free to write what I want. Free to go where I want. Free to do what I want. This life is a choice. You can accept the consequences for your actions but never forget that you do indeed have a choice. You are free, dammit!

I feel like William Wallace right now.

I have to remind myself over and over again that I am free to write my book the way I want. In a way, I find the book is paving a path to freedom. I'm trying not to worry too much about what might come next. Some people may not like me. Some people might not like my book. I'll probably get slammed for the sexual content. And maybe I'll admit some unpleasant things about myself that you're not supposed to admit.

But that's who I am.

It's all a part of my life.

And I will write about it as freely as I want.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Dammit. I Like Graduate School, God Help Me.

You know how I was whining about graduate school a couple of posts ago? About the 50-page syllabus and the incomprehensible assignments? At that point I hadn't even encountered the 50-100 pages of printed materials that would come shooting out of the printer each week only to weigh down my Shakespeare's Globe Theater book bag. Let alone the two text books and the rough draft that's due Monday. You know, that class? The class I was simply going to "tolerate" and "get through" so I could "just get the damn degree?"

Well dammit all, I love it.

I forgot how much I love this stuff. I love talking about how to get kids to enjoy reading. I love learning new ways to get teenagers hooked on a book. I'm fascinated by the whole process of teaching someone to read. I'm excited about learning new ways to connect with students in the classroom.

Did you read that?

I'm actually excited about something I could do for a living.

I've forgotten what that feels like.

I haven't loved what I do for a living since I left teaching a decade ago. I fantasize about having my own class again. I think about ways to engage students. I'm excited to hear what they think about new books, new writers and current events. God help me, I love teenagers. There, I said it.

Everybody's got their niche. That one thing they're really good at. I think I'm really good at just loving those pesky teenagers to death. People always look at me like I'm nuts when I say I prefer teenagers to little kids. But it's true. Of course now that I have my own kids they don't scare me so much. I could actually see myself teaching in the elementary grades now that I've had that parenting experience.

But oh, my heart. It lies with teenagers. There's something about that time in your life when you're encountering everything for the first time. First heartbreak. First desire. First outrage. First awareness of the world outside your home, your school, your parents and your friends. The rawness of adolescence just captures my sympathy like no other time of life.

Maybe I wasn't the greatest English teacher that ever lived. Maybe someone else was better at teaching grammar. Or maybe some other teacher was more clever with their analysis. Maybe they were faster graders or assigned more papers. Maybe they focused more and stayed on topic. I know I was one to be drawn in and seduced by my students' attempts to distract me. They'd have me laughing about something ridiculous and unrelated more times than they probably should have. The scamps! But oh my heart. They had it. And I can't help but think that maybe a little bit of the love I had for them and for the literature might have helped ease the sting of high school just a little bit. In some small way.

Maybe in that way, I made a difference with my life. I did something that mattered. Maybe I actually helped someone?

I ache for that. I do. I feel so empty writing advertising headlines built to sell you something you may or may not even need. It's just not doing it for me.

But the brutality of adolescence? The passion of literature? Oh let me dive back in. I know I'm a foul-mouthed writer with a penchant for dirty jokes. But I swear, tax-paying parents of America, I will love the crap out of your kids.

Ha ha.

No one is ever going to hire me.

Oh well. Let's hope the book I'm writing is a bestseller.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Little Advice On Writing and One Night Stands.

I, like most writers, have certain tricks I use to get myself started on the writing process.

One book and one writer's voice has stayed with me for almost twenty years. I often hear Anne Lamott's words from her book, Bird by Bird, when I'm struggling to write. I first read it in an undergraduate creative writing class in the 1990s. I went on to use this book when I taught my own creative writing class. No matter how many other books on writing I read, no other has stayed with me on such a daily and personal basis.

For my day job I write advertising copy. And when I'm writing at work, I often use Lamott's advice about permitting myself to write a "Shitty First Draft." I find that no matter what I've set out to write, whether it be something personal, something professional, something academic or something creative ... I have to deal with confronting the blank page and the feelings that are associated with it. Feelings such as:










Obsessive compulsiveness towards laundry.

More despair.

And then finally, sometimes, a sentence. One horrifically awful, no-good, very bad sentence.

That one measly, completely embarrassing sentence that I managed to eek out after completing every other task in my domestile, is thanks to Anne Lamott. In her book, she says:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.

Aside from fear of death, fear of NOT BEING PERFECT will keep you from putting anything on that beautiful blank page. My god, if you're going to muss it up, it had better be good, you might think.

Get that horse hockey out of your head. Just give in to the suckitude, dude. Resolve to write the most embarrassingly cliched, rushed, puked, pulled and cajoled sentence that ever hurled itself onto a page. And then resolve to write another. And another. Keep going until you have strings of perfectly vomitus prose splattered all over your pages like a two-day bender after a breakup with some major asshole who cheated on you that ended with you waking up with some improbably young person who appears to quite possibly still be in college.

Whatever you do, don't judge! Don't stop. Keep writing through the horrible mess of your no good very bad divorce. I mean draft. Yes, that's what we were talking about, right?

I kid. I joke. I make a little metaphor about writing and irresponsible sex with young strangers.

Like you haven't been there.


You haven't?

Well this is awkward.

*Looks away*

Anyway, I digress. My point is, no one has to know about that misguided one night stand with the 20-something-year-old who perhaps proceeded to call you seven times a day for the next two weeks before everyone had Caller ID and so they had no idea that you knew they were calling seven times a day for two weeks. I mean, damn, friend, you must be gooooood.

*High fives*

My point is, no one has to know about the perfectly terrible writing you're doing on your laptop at midnight on a Monday. No one is going to see it. You're just breaking the ice. You're taking a big ugly pick axe to it because you can't swim unless you get wet. Or you can't get over someone unless you strip off your clothes and dive in bed with your first stranger.

Wait. What?

Exactly. Consider this blog my shitty first draft. I'm just throwing it all out there and I'll save it as a "Draft" and it will never see the light of day in its present condition. Maybe. Unless it's funny. Then the kid stays in the picture.

Once I've given myself permission to write a completely shitty first draft, I then make the task before me as small as possible. If I'm at work, maybe I just tell myself I'll write down five headlines. Or I'll write one paragraph and no more. If I'm at home working on my book, maybe I'll just write the opening scene. Or write one conversation between two characters. Just some small task to accomplish in the midst of a much larger, and much more daunting, task-at-large.

Anne Lamott calls this technique the One-Inch Picture Frame:

I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.

This tiny frame is actually quite huge. Breaking down your writing assignment into something small and doable is a great way to break through the resistance. Your brain will balk at the insurmountable task of not only filling up one blank page but all the other blank pages that follow. But if you coax it with a teeny tiny wee little task that even a baby writer could accomplish ... then maybe your brain won't be so scared.

Maybe your fingers will tentatively tap out a small scene. Maybe the sun will rise on your character's front lawn. Maybe one character will finally tell another one to fuck off. Or maybe you'll write one tagline about cat food.

It's just a one-inch picture frame. Full of shitty first words. No one else has to see it. No one has to know you ever wrote such tripe. Or banged a stranger in a polyester suit whose young, hopeful eyes gleamed just a bit brighter one Saturday night under a disco ball and hell, maybe you just felt like dancing.

No one needs to know.

We've all had a shitty first draft and a one night stand. But we couldn't move forward without getting that messy business out of the way.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Before and After: Blonde to Brunette.

I've been some shade of blond my entire life. Tow-headed two-year-old. Beachy blond waves. Dishwater. Dirty. Golden and Ashy. After flirting with low lights and dark streaks of color throughout the years, I was determined to experience life as a brunette at least once in my life. Who knows. Maybe it's a mid-life crisis? It's cheaper than a convertible, that's for sure.

What I've noticed in the process is that that all of my hairdressers over the years have tended to push me lighter and lighter. Every time I request low lights, they want to add a few highlights to "brighten" me up a bit. Therefore it's been a back and forth battle between light and dark with the person holding the bowl of dye winning each and every time.

A blond friend has termed to tendency for hairdressers to push blonds lighter and lighter until we're all the same shade of platinum, "Blonderexia."

Anyway, I realized it would take a great force of will to turn this head from light to dark. I've been to almost half a dozen hairdressers in the past year while on this quest, without success. A few weeks ago I tried to forcefully request the change to brunette and what I got was darker roots and a toner washed through my blond hair. I walked out of the salon ... a blond yet again.


Finally I asked a friend who had made the dramatic shift from blond to dark brunette for the name of her hairdresser. And I'll be damned if I didn't get the best cut, color and blowout of my life this past weekend.

So here you go, kids. Here's the new me! I'm ready to take a walk on the dark side as a mysterious raven-haired ingenue. I'll be curious to see if I notice any difference in how I'm treated or if I get any less attention at the gas station. I definitely feel more bad ass with the dark hair. More dangerous. Kind of like a secret agent. I just have to resist the urge to shoot a pretend handgun at my co-workers.

brunette bangs mandy fish
Une femme dangereuse.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

This Syllabus Has 17 Pages.

I've experienced some challenges on my road to pursuing my Master's degree. I started it 10 years ago and then my life got messy and graduate school got left by the wayside. I didn't really feel all that bad about it at the time, because it wasn't the precise degree I wanted and the school was my back-up, back-up, I'm-only-going-there-if-nothing-else-pans-out school.

However, trying to pick it back up all these years later has been more difficult than I thought it would be. Let this be a lesson to you. If you start a grad program, don't quit, people. Just don't do it. Get loans. Take a bad grade here and there. Suck it up and finish, goddammit. Because that whole story about "When one door closes and another one opens" is complete horse hockey. Sometimes doors slam shut.

Not to sound bitter or anything.

*Shakes cane*

Anyway, my life had finally settled down a bit, so I thought it was time to finish the unfinished. Turns out I couldn't just re-enter my old program at my old grad school. Nope. You can't just flounce back in and flit your wrists and do a little twirl and say, "Remember meeeeeee!?!" like old best friends and get back in. No. They wanted me to take the GRE for the third time. I'm sorry. I just can't. I can't take a four-hour SAT for grown-ups for the third time. It's some kind of torture, that test. And each time I take it I do worse. I peeked in the 90th percentile range back in 1993 and it's been downhill ever since. I think I would now score similarly to the rabbits that live under the bushes in my front yard.

The school also wanted me to get new recommendation letters from professors I haven't had in 10 to 20 years. And 2 out of 3 of the professors who wrote my recommendation letters the last time around are dead. So, there you go. I'm not going to be resurrecting the bodies of two beloved literature professors just so I can get back into a noncompetitive English program.

Getting a Master's degree in Education was sort of the path of least resistance. No GRE required. I could get recommendation letters from people I've worked with rather than professors I haven't had in decades. And I only had to write one short essay. Easy peasey lemon squeezey, as my son would say.

Except it's been one foible after another. I won't go into it all here, but I was supposed to start taking classes last May and there has been one snafu and red-tape situation after another. I finally get everything in order about a week before Fall class begin and the lo and behold, all the classes I A) need or B) fit in with my work schedule are already filled.


More juggling, hand-wringing and emailing back and forth with my advisor (who must hate me by now) and I'm registered for a class. An online class. Should be good, right? I mean, I won't even have to hurry to get to campus after work. Except no. The professor wants to do the Live Chats during my work hours.


I can work around that even. I email the professor (who must hate me by now) and I'm going to figure out a way to do the work after hours. Okay, fine. But that doesn't address the fact that the syllabus for this class is 17 mother-freaking pages long.

You read that right.

A 17-page syllabus.

And it is incomprehensible. It is written in some jargon-laden, teacher-speak that sounds like Swahili to me. I have read it over and over again, I've highlighted it and taken notes in the margins and it's still only becoming vaguely coherent.

This is the School of Education, people. It's just like I remembered it. Leave it to the Education professionals to write the most complicated, muddy, baffling and intimidating syllabuses ever recorded in the annals of higher education.

Something tells me I'm not going to make Honors this time around.

I don't care. Come hell or high water, I'm going to get that damn degree if it kills me and alienates every last staff member at the University of Bumble-Stumble.

As God as my witness, I will wear fancy robes at the end of this.

*Stands on mountain top. Waves staff. Hair blows in wind.*

Graduation Day, Motherfuckers.