It’s Always Once Upon a Time in New York City

2017-10-27 19.41.54The Engineer surprised me back in May with tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway for our anniversary this October.  (If I hadn’t already known, this would clinch it – he’s a keeper!)  So last weekend we flew up to New York for an anniversary weekend trip.

For me, New York as always been something of a mythical place.  It’s the setting of so many stories, from Disney’s Oliver and Company (where astute readers will note I got the lyric to title this post) to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and it’s a place where so many stories get their start, with all the publishing companies and magazines headquartered there.  I’ve read about it and seen it pictured so many times it felt almost unreal.  But as I was absorbing all those different versions of New York City, I failed to realize just how much actually visiting it would mean to me.

It hit me when the Engineer leaned over my shoulder and pointed out the lone statue I had somehow missed as we flew in.  “There’s the Statue of Liberty!”  And then I saw that iconic skyline, and I felt a swell of emotion I haven’t felt since seeing the Tower of London for the first time in person.  Without my noticing, New York had become something of a dream destination – and now we were here!

2017-10-27 11.56.40Like the Tower, which was so steeped in history I could feel the air thicken, New York seemed filled with palpable stories.  Actual stories of buildings gave a visual representation of the tales upon tales that have piled up here as people live their lives and visit and go away and set their novels and memoirs and children’s books in this city.  I wanted to roll down the window of the cab and hold my hand out the window.  I was sure if I did I would feel the texture of all the narratives floating around us.

Immediately, I felt at home.  I felt I could slip into the same stream and feed off the same energy as all these people surrounding us.  Part of this is my weird ability to navigate cities; I hate driving, and I can barely remember certain routes through my own hometown, but if I’m walking around a city or figuring out a train map?  Easy.  I led the long-suffering Engineer (he hates cities) on walks through Bryant Park where they were setting up the Holiday Village (complete with ice rink!) to the stone lions at the New York Public Library, then down 6th Avenue to find the Macy’s where they hold the Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Some iconic places we just stumbled upon, like the Chrysler Building on our way to dinner before the show, and Tiffany’s with its own diamond necklace draping its facade.  We sought out the Empire State Building and the Plaza Hotel (though I didn’t go in to see where Eloise lived).  I took a picture with the statue of Balto, and when I read the plaque below it a little girl’s voice surfaced in my memory from the introduction to the animated movie.

Everywhere I looked in the city, I noticed a fragment of a story slipping by.  If it wasn’t a lyric from “N.Y.C.” in Annie, it was a line from From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  And when I wasn’t thinking of my favorite fictional characters, I could so easily imagine the narratives taking place in the little diner where we went for breakfast, or among the people meeting their friends on a street corner.  Sometimes I didn’t have to imagine – the Engineer actually saw a couple get engaged next to the boathouse and overheard the whole story!

The Engineer liked wandering through Central Park, even going so far as to rent a boat so we could row about on the lake.  “We’re in people’s Instagram photos!” he joked as we glided past the Bethesda Terrace.  Sure enough, many of the tourists at the water’s edge were holding up their phones to capture the ridiculously picturesque day.  The leaves on the banks around us were in varying stages of turning color, lending some wonder to the buildings rising above them at the park’s horizon.  There was just enough sun to tempt some turtles to clamber onto the rocks near the lake’s edge – we spotted six in one cove, lined up by size like Dr. Seuss characters.  The air was crisp, a perfect temperature for Pacific Northwest natives like us.  Fall in New York City – in fact, New York City itself – was everything I had ever imagined it to be.

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The Looming Negative Streak

I currently have a 141-day streak on DuoLingo.  The more days in a row I practice Spanish with that little green owl, the prouder I feel – and the more determined I am to keep my streak going.  Losing those 141 golden calendar days and having to start over at 1??  It’s unthinkable.

Clearly, the concept of being On A Streak is motivating to me.

But The Streak has an evil twin.  This is the string of accumulated days in which I have not done something, not started that habit I kept meaning to do, not read that book or taken that walk or called that friend.  Similar to cold being the absence of heat, this isn’t really a streak in itself, but the absence of one.  It’s a buildup of squandered potential.  It is The Negative Streak.

The Negative Streak doesn’t cheer me on the way being On A Streak does.  Instead, it hovers.  It looms.  All those blank calendar days, all the unchecked boxes, peer over my shoulder and *tsk* at me.  And whenever I tell myself that any day is a good day to start something, The Negative Streak taps me on the shoulder.

“Remember all the days you’ve already failed?” it asks sweetly, frowning in false concern.  “You’ve already procrastinated so much.  Be honest with yourself.  Today won’t be any different.”

Suddenly, instead of facing forward, looking at all the time I have in front of me, I’ve turned around to view an insurmountable wall of wasted days.  It’s dispiriting, to say the least.

They say that perfectionists procrastinate to preclude failure, and I think The Negative Streak is born of that same mindset.  “Look at how easy it was for you to fail on such a small scale,” it says, “and think how much worse it will be when you (inevitably, given your track record) fail at the big stuff!  Much safer not to fight the inertia and just keep not doing things.”

The main place I’ve seen this lately is in my writing.  All the days of not managing to post on this blog or to even open the document of my manuscript have snowballed into an overwhelmingly enormous idea of this big, blobby project labeled just “WRITE MORE” which is hardly actionable or realistic because it has nowhere to start.  I am a person who needs lists, steps, concrete actions to take.

So I did two things.

One was that I actually kept a habit journal.  For the month of June, I tracked the habits I would ideally like to make a daily occurrence in my life.  I didn’t write once in that time, but I did get a better picture of where my priorities are, and seeing the places in my life where I am On A Streak (reading for fun, getting outside, exercising) was helpful.

The second was reading a blog post by a dear writing friend where she talked about why she has decided to start a secondary project just for the fun of it.  She explains that her Real Work in Progress is daunting, scary, and difficult, and she needed something to remind her why writing is fun.  And I realized I also needed something to remind myself why writing is fun, without any attached expectations.  So I dug out an old idea for a story and started writing.  There’s no cohesive narrative, no specific plans for story – I’m just having fun developing that world.  (There are dragons!)

So for July, maybe I’ll get to fill in the little color-coded square for “wrote today” more often, even if it’s just a paragraph about the etiquette of talking about hoards in draconian culture.  I’m hoping to put some distance between me and The Negative Streak.

Review: Finishing School

I’ll admit it.  I haven’t touched my manuscript in months.  All my New Year’s resolutions quickly fell by the wayside as I kept telling myself that I would start working on it again when I got back to school.  Then when I got better after being sick.  Then when I was finally in one place again for a while.

All of these were lies.  And the longer I went without even opening the document on my laptop or putting pen to paper, the worse I felt about the project – and the more I wanted to avoid it.

This is why, on my trip to Boulder, I picked up Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.  A joint effort by Cary Tennis, creator of the Finishing School method, and Danelle Morton, one of his students, this book first tackles what Cary and Danelle call the Six Emotional Pitfalls.  (Spoiler: I was stuck in the shame pitfall.)  Then it describes Tennis’s method: basically, instead of reading each other’s writing and giving feedback, Finishing School focuses solely on the performance of work, any work, that moves the writer forward.  The group meets and discusses that week’s successes and failures, but the members are simply sharing whether or not they adhered to their (realistic, planned) schedule.

Tennis and Morton delve deeper into why Finishing School works, detailing the emotional responses people tend to have when they shift their focus from some huge project to the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach.  As someone who tends to get caught up in the planning phases, I appreciate that Finishing School does emphasize the act of Doing the Work.  You’re allowed to come up with a schedule, you can even color code it if you want, but then you must Do the Work when the appointed time comes.  (There’s even a chapter dedicated to “My Fake Schedule,” a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with.)

This is one of those writing guides that may not fit everyone, depending on where they’re at in the writing process, but for me, it was exactly what I needed at this point.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

Review: People of the Book

This is a book-lover’s book.

The Commodore gave me this book for my birthday/Christmas (the pain of not seeing each other for months now that she lives in another state slightly assuaged by meeting up for a day of gift exchanging and talking and coffee) because she read it and thought I’d like it.  It’s a biography of a book, an illuminated haggadah found in Sarajevo, that the (initial) narrator, Hanna, is hired to examine and preserve.  The tiny clues she finds in the book’s binding and on its pages, like a wine stain (that also turns out to hold some blood) and a cat hair, send the reader into flashbacks showing the book’s history.

Anyone who enjoys that old book smell will love living vicariously through Hanna’s examination of the book, and anyone who enjoys picking up used books with mysterious inscriptions in the flyleaf and marginal notes from previous readers will certainly get a sense of delicious satisfaction from knowing the full story behind the haggadah.  Honestly, the worst part of the story was knowing that Hanna didn’t learn everything the reader did.  Knowing where the blood came from, where the silver clasps had disappeared to, I felt bad for Hanna’s frustration.

With the haggadah as the sort-of protagonist, the surrounding characters need only be developed enough to explain what they do or don’t do to the haggadah.  This meant it was easier to connect with some characters than others, and while sometimes I wondered why particular events were necessary to include, for the most part I enjoyed each piece of the haggadah’s history.

Overall, a well-written, enjoyable read.

4/5 stars on Goodreads.


What book do you wish had a biography? 

Review: Grimm’s Last Fairytale

I’ve always liked the darker versions of beloved fairytales.  There’s something fun about knowing the grisly details behind the glitter and glamour, perhaps because it makes sense to me that the malevolent beings in these stories should be harder to silence, harder to kill.

When I picked up Grimm’s Last Fairytale, I thought it was biographical, something about the Brothers Grimm and their fantastical collection of dark tales.  But when it turned out to be a historical novel, I was pleasantly surprised.  Middleton takes three storylines and braids them together like Rapunzel’s hair: the present, where Auguste accompanies her aging uncle Jacob Grimm around the German countryside of his youth, hoping to discuss family history he will not share; the past, where Jacob and Willi grow up together from happy boys to the family’s sole breadwinners to political activists; and some other realm, where a boy is sent by his mother to find a princess in the Rose King’s abandoned court.

Grimm himself is the common denominator throughout the book, slipping in and out of dreams that just might be the boy’s journey to the briar-bordered, sleeping palace – just might be, mind you, because here, reality is uncertain.  But the relationships between the major characters prevent the book from being too abstract.  Auguste’s hero-worship of her enigmatic uncle, the mutual devotion of the Grimm brothers, the boy’s unwavering loyalty to his mother, and even the manservant Kummel’s struggle to remain indifferent to his eccentric employers deepen the reader’s interest in the already engrossing plot.

There’s a lot of meat to this story: a man growing old, a lifetime of responsibilities piled up behind him; a woman whose life is on pause until she gathers the courage to ask the question burning a hole in her mind; the backstory of a well-known childhood tale.  And that’s not even counting the historical context that pokes through in parts of Grimm’s life, particularly as his deeply held belief in the unification of Germany’s many little kingdoms conflicts with the world events around him.  Then there’s Middleton’s gorgeous, expressive writing to carry it all.

While this type of dark, multiple-storyline book isn’t for everyone, I found it highly enjoyable and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.


What’s your favorite fairytale?  Would you want to know the dark version behind it?

Words That Haunt Me

I have a little notebook with a cover like the Penguin Books version of Orwell’s 1984, two orange stripes framing the title spelled out in the center and the classic penguin eyeing me from between the words “complete” and “unabridged.”  I regularly lose and rediscover this notebook over the course of the year.  When I know where it is, I use it to record my favorite quotes, snippets of poetry, or bits of dialogue from various sources.  Whenever I lose it and find it again, I reread the whole thing, reminding myself of what was important to me when I wrote down that batch of quotes, that particular conversation from the TV show Bones, this epigraph from a novel I’ve otherwise forgotten.

A little while ago, I read this wonderful post from Cats and Chocolate, and it made me reach for the little Penguin notebook because I, too, wanted to share the words that haunt me.

So here they are:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow sharp as swords.

In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of the traveller who would report them.

And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gate should be shut and the keys be lost.

-JRR Tolkien

prayer-of-the-woodsFor the longest way round is the shortest way home. ~Mere Christianity, CS Lewis

Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence. ~Tennessee Williams

The words we take into ourselves help to shape us…They build and stretch and build again the chambers of our imagination. ~The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford

Give away love like you’re made of the stuff; we’re rehearsing to spend eternity together. ~Bob Groff
Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine. ~The Imitation Game

Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small. ~Virginia Woolf

 

Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith.  And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone.  I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander.  And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.

~Still, Lauren Winner

 

ancestors
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
~”The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” Wallace Stevens
People need stories more than bread itself.  They tell us how to live and why.
~The Storyteller, Arabian Nights

NaNoWriMo Declaration

Today is the first day of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

For the past few years, I have promised myself I will “win” NaNoWriMo by meeting the goal of finishing a 50,000+ word manuscript.  The idea is not to edit, not to get a book published, but simply to write down the whole damn thing and get that first draft to exist at all.  The new year is the time for revising and querying.  November is for writing furiously, frantically, every single day, in an effort to get that draft done.

But I haven’t won.  I’ve abandoned all my past stories after a few days.  This year, though, relatively soon after NerdCon: Stories and with my PNWA and feminism publishing connections behind me, not to mention a bunch of free time on my hands, I’m swearing to at least write something every day this November.  I might not finish my manuscript.  It would be nice if I could.  But I will put words on the page once a day for this whole month.

Or at least I’ll try!

NerdCon Stories Part 3: Saturday

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I figured if there was anywhere to wear my Augustus Waters t-shirt, this was it.

Saturday morning began bright and early with a John Green Yoga Adventure hosted by YogaQuest MN.  This was basically like MadLibs with yoga poses: one of the instructors read a narrative in which the protagonists of Green’s novels found themselves outside their stories and tried to find where they belonged, while the other instructor led us through poses associated with each character name, certain nouns, and some verbs.  Whenever Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars was mentioned, for instance, we did Warrior II, because she is a strong female lead.

After yoga I ran back to the hotel for breakfast in the Executive Lounge (leftover perks from having to stay on the pullout couch in the Executive Suite!) before heading off to “Centering Women in Fiction: Removing Your Unconscious Bias.”  A panel of amazing women creators talked about internalized and learned biases that even we women have against ourselves, and how we can combat those by supporting (and even demanding) those stories when they do appear.  The girl power in the room was fantastic.  I also ran into Shayna from the feminist publishing panel the day before, so we sat together and chatted a bit.

When that panel let out, I went back to the expo hall because I wanted to try out the Depict-O-Mat.  Essentially, it’s some people in a box who interview you for a few minutes and then produce an impromptu puppet show starring you.  In mine, I was Queen of the Dragons.  Plus I got to keep the puppet!

After some lunch, it was time for our kaffeeklatsch with Saladin Ahmed.  Twelve attendees got to sit down with a featured guest at kaffeeklatsches (so called because there were coffee and tea available) for an hour and chat about creativity, process, and whatever else we wanted.  Though I didn’t actually talk, it was just nice to hang out and hear others’ thoughts on representation, writing, publishing, and reading recommendations.

From there, I dashed straight to the auditorium to get a good seat for the afternoon variety show.  This is also where I found Shayna again and she joked that I must be stalking her.

2016-10-15-16-55-45The variety show included a Q&A lightning round with a squid, a conversation between Nalo Hopkinson and Daniel Jose Older, a lip sync battle, and a talk by John Green.  All I’ll say about that talk is that 1. he made me cry again and 2. you should go read it.

After the variety show I went down to something called Story Circle, where we all literally sat in a circle and talked about nerdom.  I got to say some things about Arabian Nights and how cool it was to be at NerdCon: Stories in the first place, so that was definitely fun.

My last panel at NerdCon was “Breaking into Publishing,” which is pretty self explanatory.  I got some good notes, some good quotes (my favorite was “How did I break into publishing?  With a black ski mask at night.”), and some good motivation to actually finish my manuscript so I can start querying! (I also saw Shayna.  Again.  Really can’t blame her for thinking I was stalking her.)

And thus, knowing I had a shuttle coming at 5 am the next day, my NerdCon: Stories experience was over.

NerdCon Stories Part 2: Friday

After hanging up with Dad, I walked a few blocks to the light rail and rode it back to the airport to pick up my phone.  Fortunately I had a few hours before the first panel I really wanted to attend, so I wasn’t missing any of the convention as a result of my predicament.

Riding the light rail without my phone was surprisingly serene.  Public transportation in new cities always reminds me of taking the T on my visits to Boston and riding the Tube around London, and without any games to play or people to text, I was left to look out the window at the city around me.

Of course, once I got my phone back, I immediately began documenting the experience via Snapchat, Twitter, and texting.

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The wall of a parking lot right outside my hotel.  I wonder what melody it is.

Back at the hotel, I took one of Minneapolis’s many downtown skyways to the convention center, a convenience that made running back to my hotel room between panels much easier.  Unfortunately, I was too late to attend the Mental Health in YA Literature panel, but I was overjoyed to see that it was filled to capacity because so many people wanted to discuss that topic!  After checking in and getting my preordered t-shirt, I wandered around the expo hall a little and bought some typical convention center fare for lunch.  The tables were huge, so huge that you were almost forced to sit with strangers because it was too ridiculous to have a table for 10 all to yourself.  Thanks to this, I soon discovered one of the perks of NerdCon – social interactions aren’t as awkward because everyone is around the same level of nerdiness.  For instance, a random guy asked to sit at my table, struck up a conversation, and ended up showing me his short story.

2016-10-14-11-18-24After lunch I wound up in a panel on self-promotion, which was entertaining if not particularly enlightening.  All of the panelists claimed not to be good at self-promotion, which seemed like poor planning, but since I wasn’t terribly invested in the topic I just enjoyed the banter between the featured guests.

Then came A Brief Exploration of Feminist Publishing, in which I met several wonderful ladies who are also striving to both find women in writing and create their own content.  We talked about the point at which we first realized the divide between male and female authors, who our favorite women writers are, and the history of feminist publishing.  I loved my little group and our whole discussion was fantastic.

The Writers Panel with Ben Blacker was up next.  I made more new friends as we filled up a ballroom and waited for the interview to begin.  The interviewee?  John Green.2016-10-14-16-24-04

I will admit to quietly flailing in my seat and taking far too many pictures as John came out and introduced himself.  But as their conversation began, I found myself simply needing to listen.  I was so grateful that John was so generous in sharing his writing experiences of the past and present, and that he was willing to delve into mental health and personal balance as well.  One part in particular hit me in a visceral way, because he used a similar word choice to what I tell myself when I talk about my depression.  The interview closed with questions from the audience, which John answered thoughtfully.  (I will update this post with a link to the podcast when it is released.)

My first day at NerdCon: Stories closed with an invitation to dinner with one of my favorite bloggers from SnarkSquad!  Mari and I had connected over Twitter when I realized we would both be at the convention, and she was nice enough to include me in a dinner with a few other internet friends.  After dinner, I went back to my room, watched the end of the second Harry Potter movie on TV, and went to bed (a real bed, having switched rooms earlier in the day!).


Read about my travels to NerdCon: Stories here!  And read about my adventures on the second day of the convention here!