On Having a Two-Year-Old Manuscript

Here’s a list of things I’ve done for more than two years for free on my own volition that require nothing from any other person other than myself (marriage and motherhood don’t count because those vaunted roles requires a spouse and children, respectively):

Exercise

Brush my teeth

WORK ON A NOVEL

2-year-Anniversary

Last week was my manuscript’s second birthday, and so I’m pausing to reflect on what exactly it means that I’ve stuck with this story that hitherto existed only in my head.  Writing and revising a manuscript is not like exercise or brushing my teeth: for one thing, it doesn’t make my ass look more toned, nor does it freshen my breath.  The value of working on a manuscript is intrinsic– I feel amazing when I open the current file and compare it to that wobbly first draft, that wasn’t so much a novel as a string of expository ramblings designed to help me work through a number of resentments (law firm life, law school culture, the glass ceiling, mental health care).

I’m not sure exactly how to characterize the draft I have today, but it’s at least not that.  Or it’s not just that.  There’s other stuff that’s supposed to be there.

Since April 9, 2012, I’ve actually read books on how to write a novel.  I went to the Yale Writers Conference to meet other writers, both aspiring and established.  I’ve showed up for writing group every single month, then, in a fit of insanity, I joined a second writing group so for the past six months I’ve submitted my work to peer review twice a month.  I still can’t believe I’ve done that.

And ohmylord I’m so grateful for the women in my writing groups.  They’ve performed CPR on my manuscript, rescuing it from languishing in that deeply flawed second draft.  They’ve challenged me (“This would never happen”), offered invaluable suggestions (“Tell us what happens as soon as she finds out”), and they’ve pissed me off (“You know, it takes seven drafts to get to publication”).  Oh how they’ve pissed me off as they’ve found every fissure and cracked it open with their iron fists.  They were the messengers I wanted to shoot for highlighting weaknesses I knew were there, but hoped were invisible to readers.  And without them, there’d be no third draft, no beating desire to reach the summit of publication.  Hell, without them, there might not even be story arc, for Plato’s sake.

Today, I’m almost done with my third draft.  Sometimes I open the document to a random page and read a few paragraphs that I haven’t worked on in some time.  More than once, I’ve found myself shaking my head in disbelief: Did I really write that? That’s funny. Or That’s not half bad.  And sometimes, dear readers, I think to myself: Damn, that’s good. 

Sure, there are plenty of passages I read that disappoint me because they don’t shimmer on the page like they do in my head.  I burn with frustration when I can’t bend, arrange, or control the words to make the story do what I want it to.  Sometimes I pick up a new book and find the prose and story so gorgeous that it seems like a criminal act to continue to plod along on my pedestrian path. (Ahem, Ms. Tartt, I’m looking at you and your Pulitzer Prize.)

But I continue plodding along because I can’t stop.  I haven’t found a more suitable passion or a more satisfying way to spend my spare time.  And now she’s two.  Terrible twos.  So begins the era when she’s going to start wanting to do everything on her own– there will be tantrums, flailing arms, screaming fits in public places.  She’s going to start to separate from me and assert her autonomy, in that long individuation process that will ultimately result her going out into the world uncleaved from me, her creator.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m going to do what’s been working since the beginning: When the kids go to bed, I’m going to sit down and keep writing.

 

 

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Who’s Got Time For Stitches?

OnionKnife

 

The onion was slippery and the knife was dull.

You know how it went from there.  Crimson-splotched wads of tissue paper littered my counter while I paced the kitchen with my finger raised high over my head.  A perverted victory march.

Because all of my medical knowledge comes from Gilligan’s Island, I reflexively searched for a coconut to apply pressure and The Professor to give me advice.  My kids were worried enough to stop fucking bickering for four hot seconds and Jeff was pulling out ointments and tapes.  I was in good hands.

The problem was that it was already 5:40 PM, and I wanted to get my vegetable-filled dinner in the pot, the kids in the bath, and go on a run before the sun went down.  Oh and Simon needed to eat something STAT so he could take his medicine so he could get well.  The next day his classroom was having a Seder.  I wanted to be there.  It would be awkward if I showed up without him.

Jeff wrapped fancy medical tape around my finger and promised that I’d be fine to run in ten minutes.  But two minutes later, wooziness clouded my eyes and the floor pitched.

No run for me.

My surrender was a slump in the chair.  Damn. I can’t get the timing of anything right.  I heard the faint tinkling of pity chimes.  If only I’d decided we had plenty of vegetables and didn’t need the onion.  Pea pods would have been just fine.  If only I knew how to sharpen a knife, then my heart would be pumping from soul-stirring cardio–  (I’d just downloaded two Beyonce songs; I meant business)– and not from the pain of having sliced the Christmas out of my middle finger.  I once heard on NPR that dull knives are ten times more dangerous than sharp ones.  Mental note: donate money to public radio.

The bleeding stopped long enough for me to take a walk before dinner.  I put on a black glove and walked the whole way with my hurt finger on my shoulder, thinking surely it’s true that I should keep my injury above my heart.  The Professor must have been right about that much.

Maybe rushing around doesn’t work, Jeff said once the lights were out.  Grateful to be soft enough to hear that as an observation and not a criticism, I agreed.  My finger was throbbing because I stacked too many planes on my tarmac– cramming must-do’s into the 5-7PM slot is lunacy.  Asking for trouble.  Inviting in heartache.  And apparently physical pain.

I haven’t looked under the bandage.  It’s been almost twelve hours.  I’m afraid I should have gotten stitches, but who has that kind of time?

 

 

Core Discovery: Sorrow’s Underneath All That Rage

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Witty.  Sharp-tongued.  Snarky.

Later the B-word.  Somtimes the C-word.  Each label a partner to dance with– we do-si-doed, took turns leading– then we went our own ways to find other partners. 

I’m always in search of words that fit me better, tighter, like cashmere, only not as hot.

I’ve always imagined that I am comprised of layers that sit uneasily atop one another like those diagrams of the Earth’s layers in my sixth grade physical science textbook .  I never once doubted that like the Earth, my core was pure magma– raging, roiling and molten.  A rage that could clear hundreds of acres of forest and a dozen subdivisions in a single rush.  How else do you get to be as “snarky” as I am if you aren’t angry as hell way deep down where no one can see?

I’ve hung my hat, staked my claim, and bet all my chips on my anger.  Because it’s powerful– it’s a heart throbbing.  A protective shield that makes me feel alive, each mitochondria bursting with kinetic energy.  Kill or be killed.  I’m tightly coiled around a maypole of boiling rage.

That’s me. That’s who I am.

I thought it was immutable. 

Then one day, a sharp word pierced me like a spear.  I sat, cheeks burning and pulse revving like a Mustang.  Here we go.  Except I didn’t.  I sat waiting for my core self to expel the lava like an active volcano.   The deep breaths I took plunged me deeper into myself.  Something beyond that vast expanse of anger.  I didn’t put up a fight.  I let the wound throb and ooze.  I went deeper still.

Turns out there’s something beyond all that anger.  There’s a deep, quiet space below that.  It’s solid sorrow.  On its banks, I felt the rage swirling above my head aching to spring out and defend, fight, condemn, justify.  I let it roil and sat down.

It’s quiet in sadness.  There’s no frenetic energy longing to spout.  There is sorrow and ungrieved losses and goodbyes.  Warm tears dripped on my hands folded in my lap.  The innermost core of sadness is a place of no words.  I don’t feel sexy or inviolable or strong.  I feel soft and little and vulnerable.

I miss my barrage of words and hissing anger.  The power of anger feels farther away than the Middle Ages.  Like a balloon that lost all its air, I’m no longer swollen with rage.  I steeping in grief and stepping closer to you.

What’s the word for this?

Two Kids. Two Different Spring Breaks.

The best part of spring break so far: This.  Fucking this.

The best part of spring break so far: This. Fucking this. And for the record, this is not Switzerland or Park City.  It’s the park by my house in Chicago.  It was our spring break destination.

 

Let’s play a game.

Okay.  Sit up.  Put on your thinking cap, your listening ears and your big girl pants.  Think long and hard before you answer this question because valuable prizes await you.  Deep breaths.  Do a few push ups to really get your blood flowing.  Beat your chest.  Brush your hair.  Toss back a breath mint.

Ready?

Okay.

Question: What is the best part of having two kids with two different spring breaks?

If you guessed abso-fucking-lutely nothing, then you win.  Pat yourself on the back and tune in to QVC right now– whatever they are selling, buy it.  You deserve it.  Give them my credit card number.  My password is FckSprgBrk

Because spring break, can so suck it.  And I’m not even mad at the weather, though I have every stinking right to be.

Here’s how spring break is going down in my house.  Sadie went first.  Of course her spring break was really a winter break since it snowed every other day, but I digress.  (What the world needs now is a few more bloggers complaining about the weather.  Amiright?)  Anyway, each morning I had to drag her out of bed and explain that no, she wasn’t going to school, but Simon was and she had to get in the car with us.  Then, both of them would burst into spasms of devastation: Sadie because she wasn’t going to school; Simon because he was.

It made our normal, both-kids-going-school routine seem like a morning at my favorite spa, the one where Enya plays nonstop and some hot Cuban guy hands me fresh strawberries and cucumber water.

Oh the keening of my children for the other’s experience.

To survive the break, I planned wonderful activities for me and Sadie to do while Simon was in school.  As I explained those to Sadie, Simon choked on his own grief.

It was terrible.  All of it.

The good news is that we can relieve all of those special moments in two weeks when Simon’s spring break starts.  Extra bonus for all: Simon’s spring break lasts for two weeks.  Whatkindofschoolbreaksfortwoweeks?  When I think of ten more days of the uninterrupted strife I will endure as I try to parent two people who seem more like soap opera stars than little children, my mind goes blank.  Like that blue screen that shows up when your computer is trying to tell you to go fuck yourself  in its mute, computer-y way.

There must be a way to do this better.  But I can’t think of it.  All I can do is see that blank screen in my mind and feel my body shaking with dread so strong I think I might give myself shingles.

Someone please help me.

 

Signs Your Downton Abbey Binge Is Unhealthy

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“Jeff, if I die, please don’t have an affair with Jose.”

That  is not a sentence I ever would have said (out loud) if it wasn’t for Downton Abbey, which, is quite possibly ruining my life.  We’d just watched the episode where Tom the chauffeur, still grieving Lady Sibyl, slept with one of the house maids.  Jose is the man who cleans our house, hence the warning for Jeff not to sleep with him if I die of eclampsia in childbirth.

Jeff and I have watched all four seasons in the past few weeks right before bed.  You know what that means, right? It means that I pick up the plot points during my dreams and wake up speaking with an English accent.

Sometimes I wake up a ladies’ maid like Anna, and I spend the morning calling Jeff “Mr. Bates,” periodically asking him where his cane is.  Other days, I wake up asking for my valet to come and help me put on my sports bra and skinny jeans.  On the best days, I wake up as Lady Mary Crawley and spend the morning scowling, talking shit about my sister Edith, and shooing away suitors with luxurious heads of hair.  Those days my actual family members run away when they see me coming.

The other day I wanted a cup of tea (of course)  and rooted around the drapes for that bell you can pull to make a footman appear with your cuppa Earl Gray.  I didn’t find anything there except a petrified piece of string cheese and a dried out marker.

Life has become a constant set of disappointments now that I believe that I am either a Countess or a high-ranking servant to landed gentry.  I looked on Craig’s List for a blonde Labrador retriever that I planned to name Isis.  That was alarming because I fucking hate dogs.  Then I thought about getting a fish to name Mr. Pamuk, since I work his name into a conversation Every.  Single.  Day.  (“Jeff, can you pick up some bananas at Costco, and OMGdoesn’tthatguylooklikeMr.Pamuk?”)

As of this week, this little “problem” has bled into my work life.  Imagine how annoyed my co-workers are that I constantly tell them what Downton character they remind me of?  Yesterday I told our deputy that she was being a Miss Patmore for refusing to embrace a new courtroom technology.  Having never seen the show, she was amused until someone told her that Miss Patmore is the “short, fat, irascible house cook with bad red hair” on a PBS period drama.  Now, she’s not speaking me.

I imagine it could be worse.  Come to think of it, this doesn’t bode well for the next binge we have scheduled.  Breaking Bad.  Does this mean I will wake up craving heroin and acting like a bad ass?

Cravings: Before and After Pregnancy

 

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The moment I heard I was pregnant, I zeroed in on the Do’s and Don’t’s list provided by my doctor’s office. I memorized all the foods I wasn’t supposed to eat and bid farewell to sushi, lunchmeat, fancy cheeses and caffeine. Oh and that giant slab of swordfish I typically ate on Tuesdays for lunch. Buh-bye.   I also studied the list of activities that I was supposed to curtail for the following nine months—the rigorous exercise, super-hot showers, heavy lifting. I was ready and willing to do absolutely anything to ensure a healthy environment for my baby.

I’m a good mama!

The first two trimesters were easy. While I missed long runs and hard spinning classes, I had my eyes on the prize who was going to be sleeping in that new bedroom we had just decorated. The food part wasn’t that hard either—my cravings for mac and cheese and Twix bars kept me too busy to miss nigiri and sliced turkey. I also had a near-spiritual experience with a jumbo-sized bag of Frito’s, so I wasn’t complaining.

One week into that third trimester, though, it hit me. A craving for raw fish and an overwhelming desire to stand for hours in the hottest shower possible.  I wanted it like Gwyneth P. wants free-range brussel sprouts cooked on 1,000-count Egyptian sheets.  As the weeks peeled by at a pace slower than the service at a Cheesecake Factory on a Friday night, I could almost taste the salmon roe I’d begged my husband to bring me in the hospital. At 39 weeks, I finalized his marching orders: as soon as we have an Apgar score, fetch me sushi from our favorite place, frozen yogurt from Costco, and a giant bottle of Gatorade 2 (grape).

But the birth was about a zillion times more intense than I’d planned. There was the last-minute C-section and the challenges of breast-feeding that I never expected. While I was overjoyed to have my baby in my arms, the only other thing I was craving was privacy so I could cry alone. A big, fat, ugly cry.

I’ll be a great mama soon as I can get this cry out.

I was too scared to ask for it. What kind of a new mother just wants to be alone to cry?

I could hardly remember that woman who thought her biggest obstacle in the hospital would be having to say no if someone asked for a bite of her yogurt or a piece of her sushi. That woman was gone and in her place was a terrified woman who was so afraid of her incision and her baby’s poor latch to even care what her next meal was.

When, by chance, I finally found myself alone in my hospital room, I started to release the tears like hostages from a hijacked airplane. Then a nurse walked in and told me that she saw “the cry thing” all the time with older mothers.  “You’re so used to being in control– running companies or lawsuits or non-profit corporations that you don’t know what to do when your baby won’t wake up to nurse.”

Wow.  Maybe I am an okay mother.  (Did she just call me old?)

After the wise old (if she can say it, I can too) nurse gave me my meds, I cried some more.  It felt better than gorging myself on dragon rolls during a spin class. I needed to cry for the joy and fear I felt too tired to process, and for the changes to my life that seemed to be suddenly etched on my abdomen. I didn’t need sushi or sweet treats; Gatorade 2 couldn’t begin to scratch the itch deep within me. I’d changed so much that I didn’t know what I needed or craved or desperately wanted, but the cry was a very good start.

 

What To Watch While Treadmilling

Thank God there are TVs attached to treadmills. Because this winter, I watched a lot of TV.  Hours.

What separates animals from humans? Humans put TVs on their treadmills.

What separates animals from humans? Humans put TVs on their treadmills.

Now I’m an expert on what you should and should not watch when treadmilling.

 Me? I’m a fan of public television. There’s virtually no downside to clicking over to PBS because you can care for your body and your mind. That’s how I learned about Margaret Garner, the enslaved African-American woman who killed her daughter to keep her from enduring a life of slavery. (She served as Toni Morrison’s inspiration for her Nobel Prize winning novel Beloved.) I ran an extra mile that day because I was so riveted by Henry Louis Gates’ narration of the series African American Lives. Learning and running—how can you turn your back on that? Are you a monster? 

I’ll admit the subject matter was a little heavy and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Fair enough. That doesn’t mean PBS won’t work for you. My fastest run of the entire winter was the morning I watched Rick Bayless’ Mexico– One Plate at A Time. I don’t know what got into me: was it the garlic he dry roasted in a pan? Was it his ropy arms and that boyish enthusiasm for mole? I don’t know, but I was blazing that day and learned how to make guajillo chile sauce to boot.

 Still, not everyone wants to better her mind or lust after a Top Chef Master with zero body fat. That’s okay. I did some vetting for you too. I got some good mileage out of Say Yes To The Dress, though I prefer the New York version to the Atlanta one. In Atlanta, I found the southernness of it all a little oppressive—it was too polite and too eye-rolly. Too many cheerleading squads. Give me a little sassy borough thing any day.  Speaking of reality shows, I loved the one about Britney Spears getting ready for the opening of her show in Vegas. I did a good four-miler when I watched Little People- Big World and saw when Jen Arnold and her husband adopted their daughter from India, but never watched it again when I heard she had cancer. I don’t want to get attached. I’m fragile.

 

In all those weeks, I’ve never once flipped through without finding Shahs of Sunset or some version of the Real Housewives, so if you’re into that, you’re lucky. Someday someone will have to explain the allure of that to me.

 

Reruns are plentiful as well. I logged a few miles to old Friends episodes, which stand the test of time for me (though the test is open book and graded on a curve), but Seinfeld isn’t holding up for me. It’s too quirky, precious and Jerry’s hair is so fucking distracting I almost fell on the machine. Not. Good.

 

I watched a few Sex and The City episodes, which alternatively bored me and grossed me out. How many times per episode did Samantha have to remind the girls that she really, really loved sex? Tiresome.

 

On Saturday afternoons I stumbled across an old movie that kept my attention. Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and Working Girl both made me forget about my shin splints. One particularly hard-to-motivate day, I found Juno and watched the last hour. That final scene with Paulie holding Juno in the hospital? Me = bawling and running.   So healing.

 

Remember four paragraphs above where I was professing my love for PBS and the documentary series there? Confession: During the pledge drive they kept showing some doctor hawking his 10–day detox. It was so boring I turned it to the static station and watch salt and pepper dance on my screen. Also? I watched a lot, I mean a whole lot, of TMZ. Don’t judge—it’s on when I run after picking up the kids. Um, so is Extra, that show where Joan Rivers makes fun of people, and The Talk.

Just keeping it real.

 

The only thing (besides Detox Diet Doctor) that I had trouble running to were the news channels. The talking heads and the crawl and the beating me over the with the breaking “news” was too much for me.  One entire run I watched the Governor Christie bridge situation unfold, but there was nothing new to say in 60 minutes.  They say news is now entertainment; I beg to differ.

 

So what do you recommend for treadmill entertainment? What should I avoid?