Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The surprises of adulthood

When you're growing up, you have certain expectations about what life (and you) will be like in adulthood.

And then reality happens.

Things that have surprised me about being an adult:

--You still have homework. It just comes in the form of bills, tax forms, insurance forms, etc.

--You reach the age of daily medication and pill-sorting containers sooner than you think you will.

--You really do say those same phrases your parents said. You know, the ones you swore you would never say yourself?

--A lot of adult privileges lose their luster once you actually reach them, so I thought all of them would. But it still is great to have a piece of candy when you want and not answer to anyone about it. (Or as Jerry Seinfeld once said, "If I want a cookie, I have a cookie.")

--It's also great not to be in school anymore, and to be able to go to the rest room any time you need to, rather than waiting for a bell to ring.

--At a certain age, your kids have a more active social life than you do. Your weekends are ruled not by your own plans, but by whether they have a soccer game / birthday party / standardized test.

--Emotions play a much bigger role, and facts play a much smaller role, in how the world works than you would've expected.

--When people from your generation start to hold many of the positions of political and corporate power, it's kind of scary, because those are your peers!

--It's best to start saving for retirement as soon as you start working.

--Ages that you once thought of as "old" don't feel that old when you get to them.

--You still think, "Someday I will catch up on things."

--You change your mind about some of the things on your bucket list. You realize you'll never do those things not because there isn't time, but because you don't really want to do them.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The water we need

Yesterday I took advantage of the sunny weather to enjoy a walk along the Schuylkill River, where cherry and redbud and magnolia trees were blooming. I stopped by the Fairmount Water Works to watch the cormorants fish in the water. Seagulls and Canada geese were also in evidence.

My special interest was in an exhibit currently at the Water Works: "One Man's Trash," a display of all the trash collected by one person in a year's worth of weekly walks through the Wissahickon Park. As you can probably imagine, in this effort Bradley Maule found hundreds of plastic bottles (about half of them water bottles), hundreds of metal cans (most of them for beer), plastic cups, all sorts of food bags and wrappers, dog waste (bagged and unbagged)*, gloves, shirts, and plenty of other junk. Including pregnancy tests, at least one cell phone, and several photos of a goat. By far the area with the most trash was Devil's Pool, a beautiful little spot (despite its name) where I've taken many people on hikes. There's a deep pool there where people swim and jump into the water, despite warnings not to.** If you want to see this pool for yourself, check out Sarah Kaufman's photos of Devil's Pool, some of which were also displayed at the Water Works.

After visiting the exhibit, I walked through the Water Works, which I've visited before, but I enjoy the old brick construction, the arches and channels and tunnels. There are other displays about Philadelphia's history and all sorts of facts about water--where it comes from, where it goes. In the Northeast, where we seldom experience drought, we tend to take water for granted. The Water Works is a nice reminder of how much we depend on water, how we are absolutely interconnected with our environment. (And for more on that subject, you might want to check out Flow, by Beth Kephart.)

The Water Works is FREE to visit. "One Man's Trash" will be on display there until June 26. If you can't visit Philadelphia in person but want to learn more about what it's like to pick up trash for a year and what you find when you do, go here.

*Not displayed, fortunately.
**In fact, this spot was one of several that formed the composite inspiration for the waterfall in Try Not to Breathe.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A story's time

Lately I've been reading memoirs in which women recount their days of being young and single and playing the field. These books brought back to me the emotional storms of those years: the infatuations, the giddy waiting for a call. Planning what to wear, looking forward all week to a date, analyzing words and conversations for clues about where the relationship is going. The women in these books kiss a lot of frogs, figuratively speaking, looking for their princes; they make a lot of the same mistakes I made. They make me realize I'm glad to be past those years myself. That was a time of excitement and promise, but also plenty of pain and disappointment and uncertainty.

It got me thinking about perspective, and how the stories we tell change over the years. The meaning, or at least our interpretation, of the stories changes as we grow older, and as we grow. We stop trying to fit in, stop seeking the approval of people who don't matter. We get tired of trying to change the bad boy into a good guy, or of trying to force the chemistry with the wrong (albeit perfectly nice) guy. There comes a time when putting on ankle-breaking heels to stand in a loud smoky room late at night no longer seems like fun.

Sometimes we realize that certain things were never fun; we were faking it all along, fooling ourselves. Other times really were fun then, but wouldn't be if we tried to repeat them today.

The stories I wrote about my life then are different from the way I would describe the same scenes now. I find that some stories seem to have a "right time" to be written; that may be during the events they're based on, or shortly after, or decades later. Sometimes I try for years to write a story. For some stories, I still may not have reached their best time yet.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

One of the best reads I've had in recent weeks was Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

This memoir is told in graphic form (that is, heavily illustrated). It's a true story about parents and adult children (or in this case, one adult child), about aging and the end of life, about caregiving and obligations. It's about family: the ways in which our relatives amuse and exasperate us, the ways in which we care for one another. This book is hard hitting. While there's some humor here, the ending is inevitable and Chast doesn't flinch from it (at least, not on the page, whatever emotions she had to cope with in real life at the time). We know exactly where this story is going. There are readers who will find this book to be too close to home, those who find the reality of their own caregiving obligations or mortality to be quite enough already; this book isn't for them. There are readers who will prefer to "talk about something more pleasant," and who can blame them? But there will also be readers who need this book for its bracing realism, for the relief that raw honesty often brings. I'm in the latter category. A week after finishing this book and going on to read others, I'm still thinking about this memoir.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Open Book

Today I had the pleasure of visiting a new local independent bookstore, Open Book in Elkins Park, PA. Open Book is a cozy nook, sharing space with a frame store. It's across the street from the Creekside Co-op Market, and just steps from the Elkins Park train station.

As with many indie stores, the books are carefully selected, and the owners are familiar with everything on the shelves. Therefore, they're happy to make recommendations, discuss the stories, and match books with customers. But of course, if the book you want isn't on the shelves, they'll happily order it. The most popular genres in the neighborhood are literary fiction, young adult, memoir, cookbooks, and poetry. In fact, due to popular demand, they're planning to increase their poetry section. There's also a low-shelved, cheerful space for children's books. The store also sponsors literary events, such as "Dinner with a book" and a writers' retreat.

I was glad to welcome them to the area, because IMHO, every neighborhood needs a bookstore. Do you have a favorite bookstore near you?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Loner in the Garret

I've linked to this and made a reference or two, but it's time I formally introduced you to my latest book:

Loner in the Garret: A Writer's Companion, is my first nonfiction book. I started it as a break between novels, and I kept on with it because it expressed so much of what I've been saying and thinking about writing over the past few years. Most of the writers I know, especially those who are navigating the publishing world, find this journey to be a rather wild ride. Sometimes it's the best job ever, and sometimes we wonder what was wrong with us when we came up with the idea to start a book/story/poem/song/screenplay.

The official description is, "Inspiration and encouragement for writers. Covering topics as varied as procrastination, the inner critic, fear, distractions, envy, rejection, joy, and playfulness, it charts the ups and downs of the writing life with honesty, gentle suggestions, and a dash of humor."

It's obviously inspired by the blogging I do here, and the tone and philosophy will be familiar to my readers, but it is not a set of repackaged blog posts. Loner is new writing; it stands on its own.

If you'd care to check it out, the buy links are here:
Barnes & Noble

I want to give a shout out to Littera Designs, who came up with that beautiful cover. And most of all I want to give a shout out to you, the readers of this blog, who have been letting me ramble on about various aspects of the writing life for more than seven years now. Your thoughtful comments and your own blog posts have helped keep me going!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Work in progress

As I've written before, the writer's toolbox contains a variety of tools for different jobs.

At the moment, the one I need is a sort of confident focus. Listening to this story, trusting that it knows what it needs to be.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

"'The time has come,' the walrus said, 'to talk of many things ...'"

I've been visiting--visiting other people's blogs, that is.

When Kurtis Scaletta announced his intention to run a series of blog posts on the topic of failure, I volunteered because it's a subject I've spent a fair amount of time pondering. (To find out more about why he chose that topic, and to see the call for guest bloggers, follow that link.) Here's a sample from my own guest post: "... we love the narrative of failure as a precursor to success; we love an earned happy ending. We love when the earlier pain proves to have purpose and meaning. But we don’t think of success as temporary. Once we’ve arrived, we don’t expect to get kicked out of the party. ..."

I also stopped by Jon Gibbs's blog to discuss my new book, Loner in the Garret: A Writer's Companion. (Which discusses failure, and success, and every other topic I could think of that relates to the crazy business of writing.)

Incidentally, if you don't already know Jon's blog, it's a good one to check out. He puts together a weekly roundup of posts about writing and publishing, and he's the force behind the New Jersey Authors Network and Find a Writing Group, in addition to being an author of middle-grade novels.

Happy reading!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Home base

My favorite writing form, for a long time, was the short story. I wrote them for years before attempting a novel. I also wrote poetry, but not as much.

I've been working more on book-length manuscripts in the past ten years or so, but I still write short stories from time to time. Especially when I have just finished a novel that has taken a lot out of me, or when a book hasn't turned out the way I'd hoped, or when I don't know what to write next. In a way, short stories are a sort of home base for me. I keep returning to them.

What is your writing "home base?"

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Early drafts

I'm in a listening phase, a reading phase, a figuring-things-out phase. Trying to figure out what's beneath the surface. Trying to discern a story in the scenes that are suggesting themselves. Trying to hear a character's voice.

In hindsight, the story that emerges looks inevitable. But on the front end, it's a mysterious dark forest, and all I have is a penlight.