I had to take my car into the shop the other morning and ended up riding the No. 1 bus downtown to work, instead of my usual, numbing underground train route. The crowded bus ride ( for without fail, the No. 1 bus is always crowded) over Nob Hill and through Chinatown brought me back to when I first moved to San Francisco 11 years ago. I used to live on the dodgy downward slope of Nob Hill, and I often rode that bus to work. Some days — sunny days — I walked, because I could not believe I lived in such a place. The Edwardian architecture, the glimpses of sparkling blue between the blocks, the squeals of the cable car and the calls of merchants in Chinatown selling their wares — my living here felt impossible and dreamlike.
The other day, when I pushed my way into the packed aisle I remembered the smell of that bus, and I suppose it was the olfactory memory that made me pensive. It took me a few moments to identify the sharp tang of ginseng. When the smell became recognizable, I longed to write the sentence: The bus smelled of ginseng. And then I had an epiphany of sorts: I should be writing about San Francisco. Why am I not writing about San Francisco?
The novel/stories I have been writing for the past year take place in the Maryland/Washington DC area. They take place in two different time periods, neither of which is the present. Why am I making things so hard on myself? is what I thought as I clutched the handstrap and the bus lurched over Nob Hill to the financial district. We passed Grace Cathedral and its maze for walking meditation. We passed the dinginess of the Stockton Tunnel, and the fruit markets along the sidewalk on the edge of Chinatown, with their makeshift cardboard signs all in Chinese. I wanted to get out and look, and to write. (Alas, I had to get to work.)
Now of all times, I thought, when I am juggling work and being a parent and on any given day who knows what other obligations, I should be writing about this place, about the present, or at least a not-so-distant past that I have lived through and remember. I should not be writing about a place that’s a 6-hour plane ride away, that I don’t get to visit freely for research because whenever I am there I am also tending to a 2-year-old who does not have any interest in long car rides and visits to libraries. I should not be writing about a time period that requires a lot of research, research that my local public library cannot help me with, because its historical collection is focused on the West Coast, not the East. I should not be writing about a place that is so small and obscure that detailed research requires buying books that are out of print or are $45 and only come in hardback.
It’s almost as if I set out to make writing a book as hard as I possibly could.
It’s almost as if I’ve set myself up to fail, on purpose.
Why am I trying to prevent myself from writing a novel? is what I thought as I watched an elderly Chinese man struggle to the door of the bus with his cane, a ball of plastic bags in his free hand that would later be filled with fresh produce and perhaps steam buns or ginseng root. Next to him sat a well-dressed blonde, texting someone named Fletcher on her iPhone, and while thoughts about writing and self-defeatist behavior rushed about in my head I was conscious of an affection for these people on the bus, for these characters I know.
A few posts back, I mentioned an article in which an LA Times TV critic offers her 10-step guide to being a working mother and writing a novel. No. 10 on her list? Realistic expectations.
10. Realistic expectations. I suppose there is someone out there who could write the Great American Novel while working full time and raising three kids, but I’m not her. My two books are Hollywood mysteries, which I didn’t have to research because I have written about the industry for years. I think they are very good books, well-written and fun to read, but they aren’t going to win a Pulitzer. That will have to wait until the kids head to college.
That is perhaps the scariest of McNamara’s suggestions. If you are a perfectionist, as many writers consider themselves to be, this is some hard advice to swallow. But there’s something to be said for being realistic, for making things easier on yourself. After all, writing a book is hard enough without putting unnecessary obstacles in your path.