…Just FYI, I’m home with a nasty cold and will not likely post for a few days. Yuck. 🙁
…I am way too young for this, and yet, here it is: my eldest, who fled the nest last August for her own cottage in the hills and a new life attending college, has returned. This is my eldest girl, the product of my wicked youth, the one about whom people always say, “You’re too young to have an 18-year-old.” Well, yes, but nevertheless, I do. I always laughed about the empty-nesters whose adult children had returned, but I never thought it would happen to me.
A few days before Christmas, she was in a car accident, from which she escaped virtually unscathed. This was every parent’s nightmare, and it still makes me ill to remember it. She was driving to work early one morning down a wet, curving country lane, when she began to fishtail. She lost control of the car as the steering went out and the car went off the road, toward a telephone pole. The witnesses, a kindly man and his young son, told me later that the car flipped over the height of the rural mailboxes, then went into a ditch and rolled over twice. It came to a rest on its roof, and he told me he expected to pull a dead body out. Instead, my very shaken daughter crawled out of the passenger window (in an obscenely short skirt and gigantic chunky shoes) and started crying. The car, on its crushed roof, lay there until the tow truck flipped it and hauled it away. I got there just before it left and, after seeing the car, can’t believe that instead of Christmas we didn’t have a funeral. My daughter, who had but a tiny scratch on her elbow and knee despite the outfit, and not even a mild case of whiplash, was scared but otherwise intact.
What a Christmas gift that was, and let’s not forget to thank our guardian angels, either. A few days later, still in the throes of deepest gratitude, I asked her if she would like to move back in and live at home again. Without hesitation, she said yes.
The next thing I know, I don’t have a sewing room anymore. Man, I really wanted that sewing room, too. My youngest two, who have spent years waiting for Eldest to leave so they could have their own bedrooms, were not willing to consider going back to the old arrangement. In this house, the one I moved to in November to be closer to my aging parents and my college girl, there are three bedrooms and a small entryway that is just wide enough to work as an office or hobby room — my sewing room. I haven’t been here long enough to set it up, but never mind that; now it’s occupied by a double bed and so much girlie stuff that I no longer even venture in. Same as it ever was.
But she’s an adult now. So she comes and goes at any hour, she sleeps in late while we hasten out the door to work and school, and she does her own thing. I’m so glad to have her back; I love her to bits. I was happy to have my own bathroom in this house, but now I’m sharing it with a variety of curling irons and cosmetics — my bathroom! I came home from work the other night and not only was my parking space taken by her friends, but the other extra space, and I had to park out on the street! In the rain! As the entryway/sewing room space has no storage, she has moved clothes into my closet, and her brand-new towels and sheets are crowding in with my linens, also in my closet. Her vast horde of snack foods is overflowing in my kitchen. My laundry baskets runneth over.
With her newfound college sophistication, she says, “Oh, hella, dude,” for “yes,” and “For %^*$’s sake,” apropos of nothing. She brought her cat back with her, the kitten who was once such a terror, and has the temerity to tell him (the cat!) to call me grandma. OK, I can deal with the strangely foul language and the curling iron collection and even the smart answers I get for every single exchange, but I will tell you something right now, missy. I am not the cat’s grandma.
As the weeks pass, we are settling in and getting used to one another again. I’ve even come home once or twice to find all the dishes done or laundry folded. I like it! We’re back to having our late-night chats, till 1 a.m. sometimes, which pains me in the morning. (Not her; she gets to sleep in.) It’s more like having a roommate than a daughter these days; most of the time it’s pretty good.
Despite those few minor details like having to buy her another car and deal with the insurance and squeezing four of us into a too-small house and her nonstop barrage of smackable one-liners, having her here — alive, thank God — is fine. As long as the cat doesn’t call me Grandma.
…is never done. Want to be a writer? First, find something to write about. Then write it. Get published. Get famous. Voila! Oops. I forgot the part about getting rich.
I recently went to see a financial consultant, a local guy who was pleasant to chat with and very easy on the eyes. It was kind of funny because I am the word gal, or word nerd, as I sometimes call it, and he was the numbers guy. And I could not get the numbers straight, no matter what. The idea is that I get some money (I’m selling my old house — yeah, to live off the proceeds) and Smart Guy helps me decide what to do with it. I kept making mathematical errors, like when he said I could save $25 a month in a retirement fund, and I enthusiastically agreed, saying, “Yeah, and after a year I’d have $500.” He chuckled and said, “Well, actually you’d have $300.” And so on. I even wrote the wrong date on the forms.
But the funny part was when he asked me about retirement. “When do you think you’ll retire?” he says. “What do you mean by retire?” I say. “Stop working and live off your savings,” he says. “Well, I’m a writer. I’ll always write, as long as I can hold a pencil,” I say. “And as for living off my savings, well, I’m doing that now!” He looks completely aghast. “Hey,” I say. “I must be retired!”
Needless to say, he was only slightly amused.
So here’s the thing. About money, I mean. I am the editor of a weekly newspaper, circulation 19,600 per week (www.alamedasun.com). I am also the author of a novel, published by a very small press, same company as the paper (check out the novel at www.amazon.com). I have also published myriad other freelance feature stories, short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, newsletters, PR, advertorial, menus, not to mention academic work. My work has been reviewed in the press and online and I have been featured as a writer in several articles. I have read my academic work at a university conference on literature in England, read my poetry in a pub in Glasgow, done a small book tour, taught writing classes for adults, taught poetry to children from kindergarten through high school, and am getting ready to start a literary zine.
Is this the writer’s life or what? And there is so much more to come. I am more excited about it every day. Would you, O Fledgling Writer, consider that a writing success? But the grisly fact is that little to none of this has garnered me the filthy lucre that I need to survive.
Poetry: my life earnings on this, from free verse to haiku to anthologies, is about $10, plus a stack of contributor’s copies.
Academic work: zero, but I did get to travel, and part of that was picked up by Cal State Hayward. Can’t complain there.
Freelance: Never got a lot for this. Usually in the range of $25 to $75 for stories. As a stay-at-home mom this made for some great Christmas money or mad money, and it even made enough to take that trip to Scotland. But enough to live on? Nope. At the top of my freelancing (albeit with three kids at home) I was making about $6,000 per year.
Reviews/Essays: Ah-ha. This is where the big bux is. Reviews start in the $100 range and go up (or down, depending on the publication). And essays can make the really big dough: $500 per at some sites. But writing essays is not like writing a grocery list. A well-written essay can take some time to do, and if at the end you’ve made even $100 an hour, you still can’t just crank them out. They cost the soul something, too. One needs time to recuperate, I think, after gut-spilling in an essay. Still, the money is out there.
The novel? Well, I did not get an advance, and so far have earned about $200 in royalties over six months. I have also made about that much in out-of-my-trunk book sales. On the other hand, several places where I placed the book on consignment actually lost me money (I got the books at a 45% discount and only earned 30% back, so it cost me a buck or two per book sold — nice, huh?). Then there is the cost of printing the publicity postcards, buying the mailing labels and materials for press kits (I am my own publicist), postage (ouch), and travel expenses for publicity. Those expenses have run into the $2,500 range so far. So you can see how far ahead financially becoming an author has taken me.
Editor of the newspaper? Hey, this year we earned an average of $1,000 per month, an improvement over the $8K I earned at it last year. So for the plush job of Editrix, I have just broken $20K over two years. How’s that for dream job? How did I afford it? Part-time jobs, including teaching at the adult school at night, freelancing a newsletter, becoming a human guinea pig for a research project at a local hospital, cashing in life insurance policies, a retirement account, some stock that I’d bought a while back, and child support. The teaching and workshops earned me maybe another thousand over the past year. The research project wasn’t bad — that was a good $1,800 to have needles stuck into me, having to sleep overnight while being monitored and videotaped, and taking nasty horse pills for three months. I recently passed on the same option again because I couldn’t bear it. No more needles, please.
So in other words, it doesn’t exactly pay to be a writer.
But give up all this for some slag job in some mindless corporation? Been there, done that, and sorry, but the endless meetings run by illiterate morons and the lackeys, flunkies and monkeys who ran the rest of the show were just not enough to tempt me — not even for health benefits and a 401k plan.
Note to Aspiring Writers: Are you sure this is what you want to do?
Why, O, why do I…is it…why the hell…argh. It’s getting late, it’s raining, I am having one of those moments (hours) where I am questioning everything and not quite hating everyone but building up a head of steam to get there. I’ll get there, too.
Life has a way of kicking one’s ass when one is feeling smug or trying to sit in one’s space of gratitude, and I’m suddenly feeling kicked. But I’ll get over it. How? Write it out, of course. Poet Adrienne Rich said, “Press what hurts,” and it’s a mantra I intend to follow when I get to work on the memoir. But I digress (a familiar affliction).
Ass-kicking? Nah, more like ass-taps. But let’s tap into those, shall we, and see where they lead. It’s raining and I don’t have the best of posture (isn’t slouching sexy?) and when I get stressed/busy I don’t think about things like sitting up straight and spinal health and all that, so I start getting the carpal tunnel thing again. Only it’s not carpal tunnel, but bad posture, knots in my shoulders pressing on nerves down my shoulder, arm, wrist, and it makes my fingers tingle and my wrists hurt. Cure? Rest, ice, massage, chiropractic, self-pity, whining, See’s bridge mix and ice-cold Pepsi. Mostly whining, though. And better posture, and a few weeks of possible wrist-brace wearing (such a fashion statement! These elastic and Velcro numbers are soooo stylin’ and see how well they match my bifocals and orthopedic shoes? Wait till I put my neck brace on and y’all can call Vogue). Not all that tragic in the grander scheme of the world, is it?
But what it feels like to me is a rising sense of panic: I am losing the feeling in my fingertips. I have pain in my wrists. It hurts when I hold the steering wheel or a pen or try to carry a grocery sack, and I have to ask for paper, not plastic, because I can’t pick up the bag by its handles, and maybe the nice grocery boy will carry the bags for me and here’s a nickel, sonny. Like this is how it feels to become disabled a bit at a time, or all of a sudden. It feels like I am grown stiff with age; I have been cheating my age all along with my youthful appearance and my Oil of Olay, my teenager’s borrowed clothing and my hip turn of phrase. Age is catching up with me with its sticky net and its needle-like claws. A tight squeeze on the shoulder from behind, and it’s got me, it’s got me, I can’t feel my fingers anymore and I am afraid, petrified, I have seen the Gorgon head and know it — I will lose my ability to write. Because writing isn’t just about the words in my brain and the empty paper I’ve just poured my passion on. It’s the process — the long, slow simmer and then the actual writing. I’ve tried the cassette recorder, and I’ve tried the voice-activated software, and A) I sound moronic and I’m sorry to all of you who have to hear my voice on a daily basis, and B) the voice activated software does not satisfy; I can’t write like that. Do you think I sit here and say this stuff? No, it comes out of my fingers. Like maybe my brain is in my fingertips — a tactile, kinesthetic experience from brain through flesh to paper. The hands must be involved somehow. And if the hands don’t work, not enough to grip a pen or type a few (thousand) words a day, then what? Dictation? Or — god — just don’t write at all?
It feels like I am losing my grip. I am. Or am I?
There’s other stuff swirling out there. My fear of driving in the rain. The scary sight of bills in the mailbox when the paychecks aren’t enough, and the child support check is a tantalizing prize that may or may not come, and there just isn’t time or juice left in me to take on a second job after the commute. The things the kids need and the things the kids want. The things I think we should have (like food — like the $3 whole wheat bread instead of the 99-cent loaf that is made of sugar and air, like organic veggies instead of dented cans of peas and corn, like the stupid gummy sharks that my daughter asks for and I have to say no, how about raisins or some nice carrot sticks? And the look on her face, and the guilt like a frying pan to the back of the head on just about every living detail of the day: Catholic, mother, daughter, member of the human race, eating and polluting and overpopulating and driving and choosing paper instead of plastic, or plastic instead of paper, and printing a newspaper every week, nay, 20,000 of them that murders trees and pollutes and rots and wastes.
You see how it descends. Right down into the Black Pit of Despair. My former friends, of my dearly departed writers’ group, called it “pit sitting.” It’s lovely down here, friends. Come on in, there’s plenty of room.
The funny thing (not funny ha-ha, but peculiar) is that when you’re in the BPOD, the only place to go is up, and often, when I take a look up instead of down, I see blue sky. In today’s e-mail I heard from a long-missed friend from Scotland, and from a high-school friend who just discovered that she’s pregnant. She’s ecstatic. And in the mailbox, that giver of good news and bad, my welcome packet from the Petaluma Women’s Club and a list of all their events for the year. Welcome, Julia! Welcome to the club!
It’s hard to pit-sit in the face of that kind of cheer. New babies in the world. Old friends. What can I do but crawl out and let the rain wash off the muck, do a bit of yoga, get over my bad self and move on. It’s deadline day tomorrow. How bad can it be?
Just back from a very productive lunch with a new friend and former student who writes for me (actually, for the newspaper) pretty regularly. We talked about her writing projects and mine.
Advice for aspiring writers: hang out with other writers. Exchange ideas. Network. Inspire each other. Trade stories, read each other’s work, learn from one another. This is a Good Thing.
Case in point: She asked me about her idea for a book and picked my brain on various points, like what are the benefits of seeking a publisher versus self-publishing; what are the angles for marketing; what kind of format should she consider for each section; how does one put together a book proposal, etc. I found myself telling her about the stresses and anxieties of working at the newspaper, and that despite the fulfillment of creating a valuable community asset like the Alameda Sun, I was still frustrated at not being able to do much creative writing — my “real” writing.
I sometimes go back and re-read my journals from years ago, and without variation they all say, “I wish I was writing, I need more time to write, I must write or die.” Etc. Same song, different year. And now that I have this fulltime dream job of starting a newspaper, creating the direction of its editorial content, making 95 percent of the decisions about what goes into it, voila! The perfect writer’s job, right? But the amount of energy that goes into such a venture comes right from my creative writing bank, or tank, as it were, and thus I find myself, at the end of a long day of editing and interviewing and writing and managing other people’s writing, plus the joy of a 50-mile commute each way and single parenting to boot, there just isn’t a lot of juice left to sit down and start my next novel.
Whining? Not intentionally. Just venting a bit about certain things that need attention. Like the dust bunnies under the bed and the weeds in the garden. Except that I don’t really care about the dust bunnies and I do really care about the writing.
So my writing friend says to me, after hearing this out, that I should make an appointment with myself to write every week, and keep it, and don’t let other things get in the way. In other words, just make my writing a priority and give myself the time I need to do it. I know she’s right. Don’t we all know that? Sometimes we just need to hear it. And since then the ideas have been just flying into my head. I could hardly see straight on the drive home with ideas flowing, popping, jamming, could hardly wait to get home and start putting it onto paper. Or cyberspace.
Want to see the list? Hmm, it goes something like this: “Wow, I really have to get going on the book publicity again. Gotta call all the bookstores that carry the book and see about repeat appearances, see how many books they sold, collect my commissions. And these other bookstores that I didn’t get to yet — gotta call them, too. I should contact (name) at (place) and see about reading again, and what about that radio show? I should see about getting on that show. And writing — I need to rewrite “Sugar Pine” a bit, and do that September 11 piece I keep thinking about, and then see where to send it. Yeah, like The Sun (magazine). I have got to check out that issue of The Sun and see what they’re calling for. I need markets for my work. And I have to send that copy of “Opium” to (name) as I said I would. And my blog — what about using the blog to write out portions of my memoir? And my novel. And my short story collection. And my column. Or should I have separate, interweaving blogs? Or just blog away? Why, blogging itself is a valuable exercise, is it not? Yes, it is.”
You see how it goes; the conversation with self disintegrates into a strange, pseudo-Victorian, semi-manic gush-fest. Note to self: stop that. No, don’t.
And when I got home, there in my country mailbox with the little red flag was a stack of bills and the latest copy of Poets & Writers — is that some sort of karmic message or what? Gotta pay the bills, gotta feed the creative writer within. Duality. It’s another Good Thing. So, high on the joy of writing, I find myself at it again. Peace and love and all is right with the world. Amen, amen.