Thursday, June 21, 2012

Clearing my mind

The old Einstein quote about cluttered desks seems to be a popular one for people like me.  After all, like many writers, I'm a pack rat and you can tell the moment you look inside my office door.  That cartoon that is a great piece of inspiration, and a few magazine articles in that stack over there are about how to get through writer's block, don't forget the box of holiday decorations (wait a minute, why are they in my office and not the basement?), little bits and pieces of memories that are on paper, stuffed, in frames, on cork boards and cover every surface... you name it and it's probably in my office.  Like the warehouse in the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," you never know what you might find in my office there.

I avoid shows like "Hoarders" afraid I'll see myself in those life-threatening teetering piles of stuff.  Yet, when I dig through the articles many of them are "How to de-clutter your space..." or "Organization for the pack rat..." and other such handy bits on how to get yourself decluttered, organized and otherwise cleaning up your space and, by extension, your act.  After a while, even I can take a hint and dive in to purge 30 years of stuff.  For the past few weeks, I have worked feverishly at removing the extraneous pieces of life in bags separated for trash and recycling.  Many things have been filed while others still sit in the few remaining "to be sorted through - for real this time and I MEAN IT MISSY" piles.

There are things I realized as I look my office, which is now 80% cleaned and organized:

- I can think right now.  That may sound odd and my son pointed out that I could think before, but I realized more and more recently that I think in short bursts and can't focus.  Today, I feel like I'm thinking in pages, not paragraphs.

- It's not perfect.  Even if everything were 100% organized and clear, it still wouldn't be perfect.  I'm good with that, this isn't a Zen garden that I've meditated upon and seen clearly.  It's a comfortable working space.  I could use a return over here or a shelf there and wouldn't it be awesome to paint the walls in white board and chalk board paint and make another wall a bulletin board, the printer still takes up too much space (and ink) and why can't the cat sleep in a cat bed instead of taking up a valuable piece of real estate on one of the bookshelves....  but this is good enough and sometimes "good enough" is as good as it gets.  I will splurge in a can of white board paint and paint the ends of the bookcases.  It's not the whole wall, but it's a start and it's good enough.

- The furniture all matches.  Seriously, how did that happen?  Oh wait, IKEA happened. Amazing what a couple of hundred dollars and an allen wrench can do to make your world feel more uniform.

The biggest surprise: a pile of poetry I wrote in high school.  My son asked, "Is it any good?"  I looked and said, "Let me repeat myself: I found a pile of poetry I wrote in high school."

He thought for a moment and said, "Well, maybe some of it's OK."

He was being kind.  It's now filed with the old journals from high school.  I can't bear to part with them but I will leave instructions to burn them without reading upon my death.  Like those odd, interesting dreams, high school journals are something that should never inflicted upon other people.

I will say this about my space, suddenly writing a piece of psychological criticism for one class and an essay on Shlaes "The Forgotten Man" for another don't seem to be scary, daunting tasks any more.  But the next question to ask myself: why did I let this happen?  Why was I so scared to let go?

Who knows, maybe I'll even be able to brave an episode or two of Hoarders... just not anytime soon.  My wounds are healing but still a bit too fresh.  My desk and office are no longer cluttered, but they are cleared and that makes all the difference in being able to write.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


It's summer vacation time.  Yesterday was my last day and I tearfully said goodbye to my 5th graders as they go off to middle school, finished listening to my 3rd graders mysteries we wrote over the past two weeks and looked forward to really digging back into my steampunk Cinderella variant that I wrote during NaNoWriMo a couple of years back.

To celebrate my son, Pi, and I went in search of the two food trucks in town as part of the Great Food Truck Race somewhere near Copley Square.  It was there that I had a bit of an epiphany, but first a quick trip back in time.

When my oldest was in 5th grade, we had this conversation with his teacher asked him the following at a parent/student/teacher conference:

Teacher: "I know you're young, but any ideas of what you might want to do when you grow up?"
Chesley: "Be a writer."
Teacher: (smiling) "Like your mother?"
Chelsey: "No, I'd like to be published."
Me: "Hey!  There's a word for that - unemployed."
Teacher: (rolling eyes) "Now I know where he gets it."

I am pleased to say that he is now a college graduate and, like his mother, he is a writer.  He is also unemployed. <insert evil laughter here>

Back to the present and waiting an hour in line for the most amazing burger I have ever had at Seoul Sausage's food truck with Pi.  (Yes I would stand in line for an hour again and I would totally buy more than one for me this time.  People in LA, I am jealous of you being able to have this tasty treat when you want.)

Pi's pop punk band, Vegan Arcade (which is funny since none of them are Vegans), is looking for a drummer after the last guy didn't work out for them.  As we sat on the curb enjoying our burgers, he noticed a guy enjoying his food next to us.  The guy had a bunch of drumsticks in the pocket of his backpack and Pi initiated a conversation:

Pi: "Hey, are you a drummer?"
Guy with sticks: "Nope."  (laughter) "Yeah, I am."
Pi: "My band's looking for a drummer.  Are you available?"
Guy: "What happened to your drummer?"
Pi: "We lost him somewhere around Boise, ID.  We didn't even notice until we got to Poughkeepsie."
Guy: (saucer eyed in surprise) "Dude, you ditched your drummer?"  (realizes it was a joke and starts laughing)

I have maintained for years that the sense of humor exhibited in our family is genetic.  Perhaps it is, perhaps it's just that somewhere along the way some ancestor realized you have to look at life through a slightly distorted lens and just laugh.  I say some ancestor because I have distant cousins from Germany, the midwest and other parts of the world that I have run into as an adult doing family tree research that share the same sense of humor.  I don't see my parents as particularly sarcastic people (although my father was always one for a good twist that turned into a memorable laugh) but still these sharp observational comments punctuate our lives.

Perhaps that is why the characters I hear in my head have that twist in their voice?  They are like my children who demonstrate the apple doesn't roll far from the tree.  I then wonder, is that why detectives tend to be snarky?  Is it why we all want to see vapid cheerleaders?  Perhaps that's why we have these stereotypes in stories and in our heads - they are programmed there from early on.

It's a new challenge for me now, to really take a deeper look at my characters to see if perhaps I can understand them just a little better.  While Cyn is sarcastic, her circumstances have really set her up to view life that way, but what about the others?  Is her sister really that vapid mean girl or is she fighting for something deeper?  Is it that the prince is handsome, he's a prince or he just wants to be himself?  It's a good way to really rethink these guys a bit and hope it makes the story even stronger.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Where do stories come from?

Any writer will probably tell you that one question people ask is, "Where do you get your ideas?"  That along with, "How long did it take for you to write that?" are some of the ones that should be on every writer's FAQ list.

Where do my stories come from?  Sometimes it's a phrase I hear or event I observe.  Did that child informing his mother that she now needed to watch the baby because he was going to play with his friends say that because he has become the primary care giver or is it because he does he have an overdeveloped sense of "I'm the big brother and need to take care of him?"  I can write a story from several perspectives in that moment: from the mother who finds it annoying and/or adorable he takes his duties as an older brother so seriously.  I can write from the young boy's
perspective who doesn't understand why this is now his job.  I can even tell the story from the baby's perspective the way Kurisawa did in Rashomon.  The whole idea of personal recollection from the angle of perspective would work well in that situation, whether or not that's the story of that particular family.

Then there are the odd observations that trigger the imagination.  Riding my bike home through an area of the neighborhood I normally don't travel through, something caught my eye at the base of a tree.  There was a little door, complete with a fan-like window at the top of it that seemed to fit perfectly.   I needed to take a closer look and noticed there was a little creature at the open panel at the bottom and a couple of frogs in a tub just beyond the door, on top of the roots.  Were the frogs stranded there after a flood?  Was this a friend they came to visit?  Perhaps they were evil frogs that were finally confined by the tub.  I don't know.

At least not yet.

But what a unique and unusual find in a neighborhood full of manicured lawns (and landscaping services to maintain them).

So to answer: where do stories come from?  Here, there and everywhere.

To answer: how long does it take to write a story?  As long as it takes (unless I'm under deadline, then whatever the deadline may be).

I have a feeling I'm going back to visit the tree to ask the characters there about their story this summer.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Saturday Office Organization

Ah yes, my office.  For 5 years I've been promising myself that I would get it cleaned out and organized.  All the writing and work stuff, school stuff, sewing stuff, art stuff, etc.; a place for everything and everything in its place!  Every year I draw maps of the room, make plans, draw up lists and attempt to tackle a monumental project only to find the fatal flaw shortly after I get started.

Last summer I got the furthest into my plan when it hit me: my desk was way too big for the space and it was throwing everything off.  Another map was made and I made my way to IKEA where I figured out what I needed to do, how much it was going to cost and how many pieces I would have to sell in order to pay for the renovation.  The amount was small enough (c'mon we're talking IKEA, not hand carved heirloom quality from rosewood or mahogany here) and decided I would save up for it.  My February break would be purchasing, assembling and redoing my space.  Then fate threw me a curve with a black Friday weekend sale where I could pick up a version of the bookcases I was eyeing for 1/2 price.

Damn you fickle finger of fate!!!

A little measuring and thought had me realize that my son no longer used his desk that would fit perfectly where I needed it and it matched the rest of the set.  Between repurposing his old desk and the sale, my costs dropped to under $100, the same amount for the tax receipt for donating my old desk to the office of a local church.

Soon phase 1 was done, the work area but then things stalled with classes, work and life.

Enter kitties.  Two new kitties means looking at your house in a new way.  In this case, a giant hide and seek playground for cats.

For Data (aka Schtinky Cat) this means my office.  First he decided the shelf where the spare net book normally lived was his.  He knocked off the various cords stored there while the netbook was in use elsewhere and staked his claim.  Then he noticed that 1/3 of the office that I have been too ... scared? lethargic? disinterested? all?  none of the above? ... to attempt to get done.

Do you know what it's like to have to pull out several banker's boxes of "stuff I need to go through..." in order to find a cat?

But what Schtinky did was force my hand.  The banker's boxes are now sorted, filed, recycled or put away.  This was my second wind.  This morning a number of other "I'll deal with it laters" from the end of last semester are now filed, recycled, trashed or put away and plans for the next trip to IKEA to pick up a bookcase, desktop and media tower.

Who says cats don't know what it is you need?

This morning the room feels reenergized and that treasure map I drew up at the beginning of the year is just had a new landmark added to it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A poem from a kitty

A pair of cats moved in with us the other day.  Their owner is traveling too much to really give them the attention they need, so she's been searching for just the right fit for them for a while.  Happily, it's us and Odin and Data moved in on Monday.

While I will, at some point, talk about Odin, today it's all about Data.  Data has not only taken up residence in my office on the shelf just below my reference shelf but has also learned, when my computer is open, how to turn iTunes on and off and adjust the brightness on my computer screen when he chooses to take up residence behind my computer.

Yesterday he spent about an hour in my lap, listening to music and getting his ears scratched.  Then he looked at me and I heard his poem.

I Knew I Would Love You

I knew I would love you
When you sat quietly
     watching me
     watching you.

I knew I would love you
When you smiled softly
     and held out your hand
     and then waited for me to take it.

I knew I would love you
When you laughed at me
     and that joyful noise
     made me smile through my fear.

I knew I would love you
When you recognized my sadness
and told me you understood
you were sad too, but together we'd be OK

I knew I would love you
When you sat patiently
offering me food
even though eating was the last thing I wanted.

I knew I would love you
When you didn't scold me
for messing with your music
or your computer.

I knew I loved you
For all those reasons and more.
     So I sat in your lap and purred 
and let you scratch my ears
and rub my soft belly 
to tell you I was now yours.

For all those reasons,
You may now say I'm your cat.