I’ve been to the Galapagos and back.

Hello dear bloggy friends,

It’s been a while. All is well, I assure you, despite the four months of blog silence here. I am still here! I hope you are as well. Here’s what’s been happening:

• I went on a trip to the Galapagos Islands! My mom and I had always wanted to visit and this was the year we decided to make it happen. It was absolutely amazing, and seeing so much wildlife in such a pristine landscape was a life-altering experience. Highlights included snorkeling with hammerhead sharks, sea turtles, penguins, sea lions and rays; seeing giant tortoises grazing in the wild; stumbling over land and marine iguanas, and witnessing the mating rituals of all manner of birds. I’ve included a few photos here.

• I’ve been learning Spanish. Or trying to, anyway — I’ve been doing language programs in the car and teaching myself with a textbook. It’s become kind of a hobby, and now it feels strange to drive around town and listen to music when I could be learning Spanish instead. As you may know, I studied both French and Japanese in my high school and college years, but those have become less and less useful. I never anticipated living in California, where I could easily go a whole day speaking Spanish.

• I’ve been reading all kinds of great books this year, both fiction and nonfiction. More on that in another post.

• I’ve started running again, and I’m thinking about signing up for some kind of race. I’m hoping to harness the discipline required by working toward a running/fitness goal and apply it to writing. Also, running clears my head and inspires my writing.

• A story of mine was shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize, judged by David Mitchell, a month or so ago. Not a win, but I was still flattered to get that far. Onward.

I’m attempting to return to regular blogging…but bear with me as I get the kinks out of my schedule!

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Fresh new Fog City Writer!

Fog City Writer has undergone a makeover! It was time for a change and some updates (not to mention some posts!) so, voila! A fresh design and updates to my bio and timeline. I’ve also done a little housekeeping on my blogroll, which was overdue to say the least. Let me know if you think I’m missing a link to your blog. New posts coming soon!

a Friday hodgepodge

Oh hello. I haven’t been avoiding you…it’s just that I’ve been neglecting my blog in favor of – gasp!— writing. I’m fairly bursting with short stories these days, and I find myself churning out drafts very quickly. I’m excited about these drafts. They are, of course, exactly that, unfinished drafts, but they exist all the same. Someday, a day hopefully not two years in the future as has been my recent M.O., they will become complete, finished stories. I’m proud of them in some strange way, and I can’t wait to reach that point.

The other day I managed to write ten pages of a story and half of a quite lengthy blog post (I adore days like that!) when my writing luck ran out and my computer ate my blog post. Sigh. I was too demoralized (and too out of time) to rewrite. So here we are. A brief hodgepodge of things I’ve been wanting to post about:

• I’ve had the good fortune of reading two books in a row that I want to read again. I just feel like there’s so much I missed the first time around. The first was Ron Carlson Writes a Story, which I posted about here recently. The second is Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood. It’s been a long time – far too long, actually – since I’ve read any of Dillard’s work and, wow. I’ve forgotten how wonderful her writing is. It’s the kind of writing that you learn from, that you read and think, how did she do that? Not to mention that nearly every passage seems flawless and beautiful. Gush, gush. I will probably devote an entire post to the book at some point, but a couple of quick bits: One of the things I admire about this memoir is the way that she conveys how various people impacted her life without saying, “I learned from my mother that…” or “My father taught me…” It’s implied, and it doesn’t have to be spelled out, such is Dillard’s ability to tell a story. It’s “show don’t tell” at its finest. Another thing I admire about this memoir is that it is not filled with the kind of tragedy or death or poverty or mental illness or alcoholism (and so on) that weigh down so many American memoirs. I’m not opposed to reading about those topics, nor do I think they don’t have a place in literature (nor am I afraid of double negatives!), but it’s refreshing to read about a childhood in which the wonder of being a child/growing up is central to the story, not the child’s alcoholic/abusive/crazy parents. I heard a lot of fiction writers in my grad program say, “Oh, I can’t write about myself, my childhood was too happy/normal/boring,” which I always thought was a bunch of hoo-ha and to which I will now say, read Annie Dillard’s memoir, and you’ll see it can be done, and done well.

• I received a rejection yesterday, my first real, form-letter rejection since I began sending out my work again. I’ve also received a nice email rejection, which didn’t feel like a rejection at all, since the editor of the mag wrote to tell me my story had been on their short list for the issue.  I don’t have to point out, I don’t think, that the latter is preferable to the former. Still, I prefer the resolution to the waiting, and so the form letter was not unwelcome. It just was.

• On a related note, I submitted the same story to a magazine that promised a response by a particular date. The date came and went, and so I visited their web site and discovered that they are suddenly and unexpectedly closed to new submissions, and had to cancel their spring fiction contest (and are returning entrants’ fees). Also on their web site: a “job” listing for fiction and nonfiction editors (I use quotes because the positions are volunteer – no pay). I had sent my story as a general submission, not for the contest, and so my assumption is that now the story is in indefinite limbo while the magazine finds new editors and solves whatever problems led to the departure of the previous editors. Has anyone encountered this kind of situation before? It reminds me of another strange lit mag interaction I had a while ago, when I received a letter from the (fairly prominent) magazine saying that one of their readers had run off with a batch of submissions and mine was among them. I used to get really demoralized by such things, but now I just feel like shrugging and submitting elsewhere.

• I read Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “I.D.” (full text online) in a recent issue of the New Yorker, and it was not an enjoyable experience. I’m not saying the story was bad — on the contrary. But it was not enjoyable. Oates’ ability to inhabit the minds of teen girls in wretched situations blows my mind. But the resulting stories are always so, so unsettling. As in, not recommended before bedtime.

• I have two writing-related educational experiences coming up that I am very much looking forward to. I will say more about them when they happen. For now, I’ll just say that I feel very lucky to have an encouraging spouse who is willing to take on some extra hours (or days, as the case may be) with our son so that I can better my writing and be inspired by other writers.

Have a lovely weekend.

How to turn mired into reinspired

An old post of mine, Hello, Book?, recently brought a question from Richard, over at Narrative. At the time I wrote that post, I was mired in my MFA thesis, a full-length travel memoir about a year I spent in South Korea. When I say mired, I mean, I was absolutely overwhelmed. Hindsight has brought a little more clarity on the situation I was in: I’d reached the point in the book where I had accomplished quite a lot, but all I could see what was needed to be done still. After all, the book was by no means finished, there was a lot of material left to add in, some restructuring needed to accommodate said material, and revision, revision, revision. I was so overwhelmed by the project that I couldn’t seem to work on it anymore. Richard asked: “What got you going again, if anything?”

Good question.

I had never written a book, and I did not know what I was doing. I think I’ve learned since then that it doesn’t matter whether you’ve written a book before or not — every book is different, and every story presents its own set of challenges. Because of that, every book you write becomes the first book you ever wrote. Which is to say, I think it’s normal to lose confidence mid-way through a big project like that, to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, and to wonder if it will ever be finished. And that kind of thinking, combined with the tediousness of working on the same piece of writing for a very long time, can bring on a kind of writers’ block. In my case, it wasn’t that I couldn’t write at all, but when I tried to work on my book, I felt lost, confused, overwhelmed and, yes, I’ll admit it — bored. I don’t mean that I thought my book was boring. I mean, that I had been writing the same thing for two years, and I longed for a change.

So, what to do? You’ve got a book you want to finish — after all, you’ve put in so much time and effort, it would be a shame to stop now — but you can’t seem to jumpstart that part of you that was so enthusiastic at the beginning. I’m no expert, but here are some things that have worked for me when this happens:

Give yourself permission to take a break. Stop for a month. Make sure you define how long the break will be: you don’t want a brief pause to become a permanent one. Also, make sure you’re taking a break from your project, not a break from writing altogether.

Write something else. I found that giving myself complete freedom to write something I wouldn’t normally write did a lot for my confidence and creativity. If you’re working on a memoir, write some fiction. If you’re working on fiction, write a personal essay or a poem. Loosen yourself up. When I was working on that Korea memoir, I stopped and wrote the beginning of a crazy short story involving quirky characters, talking animals and lots of footnotes. In other words, everything that wasn’t going on in my memoir. It was fun. I didn’t push myself to finish the story, or to obsess over the writing or the content. I just let myself type and shake things up a bit. I still read over that half a story when I’m feeling uninspired, and it tends to perk me up.

• Read something that inspires you. I recommend NOT reading the genre you are writing in. Doing so can lead to inevitable comparisons and unintended blows to your self-confidence regarding your own project. My MFA professor suggested having “models” for the kind of book you want to write — that is, other books whose content, structure, and writing style are similar to what you’re writing. I had a couple of those for my travel memoir, and I referred to them a lot while I was working on the book. Those books were inspiring, in a way, but they were also like co-workers — they were involved with my project. It was when I stepped away from my book and those model books and read a well-written novel — something different — that I was inspired and remembered why I wanted to write my book in the first place.

• Get some feedback from some supportive, inspiring people. My MFA classmates read a number of chapters from my book and that was really helpful to a point. But no one had read the book as a whole. When I had a few people do that, I got the encouragement and perspective I needed to see me through some tough spots, structural problems, and a lot of self-doubt. Even spending time with people you find inspiring or creative but who have not read your work can also help jumpstart your creativity again.

• Don’t discount the possibilities. Your project may be better and farther along than you think it is. It’s easier to say that than to think it about your own work, I know. But sometimes when you can’t seem to work on a piece of writing any more, your brain might be telling you that you are finished. Perspective is so important. I’m a perfectionist about my writing, and I tend to overdo and overthink. It never fails to surprise me how discussing a piece of writing with a friend, or taking a break from it, will make me realize that I just need a few tweaks, not the big, stressful changes I was thinking I might need. I’m often surprised when I return to a piece of writing after a break to find that it’s in better shape than I thought.

• Small steps. One reason I was having trouble when I wrote that blog post was that I didn’t know where to begin to get back into my book. I could see the big picture, but I hadn’t broken that down into smaller, more manageable steps. I found that making lists helped a lot. Make them specific, as in, “add a paragraph explaining X on page 14 of Chapter 1,” or “rewrite ending to Chapter 6 to bring character Y more into the action.” Once I wrote some lists for what had to be done in each chapter, I could sit down at my laptop, look at my list for the chapter I was working on that day and go. No hours wasted considering all of the things still to be done, just an assignment for what had to be done that day.

Part II of Turn Mired into Reinspired

A Sunday hodgepodge

1. I’m sitting in a café, waiting for my writing partner to show. It’s Sunday morning, a time which normally finds this café quiet, but it’s crowded and noisy. I’m trying not to pay attention to the two women next to me, who appear to be studying for a nursing exam. They’re loud. One woman keeps saying “shut your mouth!” in the way that people do when they mean “I don’t believe it!” There’s a group of older women kvetching about their husbands, and a couple of guys with cell phones talking about how much they liked Avatar, and how much it’s worth seeing again. Which I find interesting because absolutely no one I know who’s seen Avatar has said that they liked anything much beyond the special effects. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment.*

2. My thirteen-month-old son has learned to say “no.” This morning all of my conversations with him went like this:

Me: Do you want some breakfast?
Aaron: No.

Me: Do you want to take off your jacket?
Aaron: No.

Me: Do you want some milk?
Aaron: No.

Me: Hi!
Aaron: No.

And so on.

3. Last night I met a friend at a Czech restaurant and afterward I got a ride home from a very friendly Eritrean cab driver. He told me that he’d never seen snow until he came to the United States six years ago. He visited Lake Tahoe, and sent his family pictures of himself in the snow there. His family said “please, get out of that place” because they had never seen snow either, and they thought he would die in all that white. My cab driver also told me that he liked the Bay Area because it’s a place “where you can get anything that you desire,” which I suppose is true. If you have the money. He said this just after telling me that he hadn’t been back to Eritrea since he left six years ago, because he couldn’t afford buy the plane ticket. His family asks when he will come visit, and he says “maybe next year.”

4. Apropos of absolutely nothing… (that basically sums up this whole post, I think) I recently re-read a short story I wrote a few years ago. It’s a wacky piece; there’s a loud Danish guy, giggling Japanese teen girls, a supermarket checker in the rural Midwest, and monkeys. Yep, monkeys. It’s not a characteristic piece of writing for me, but I’m thinking of finishing/rewriting it nonetheless. One thing that will have to go: the footnotes. I think I was reading a lot of David Foster Wallace essays when I wrote the story. I’d like to say I’m not a footnoter, but look! there’s one right here in this blog post. I’d also like to say that monkeys and other such creatures don’t usually appear in my writing. But there was the time I did NaNoWriMo and a cat started talking about a third of the way into my novel…

5. Apparently my last post, G is for Geology, was my 500th post! Wow. I would have never guessed that when I started my pathetic little blog back in 2003 that I would write 500 posts. And that people would actually read them. So, if you’re reading this (hello?), thank you.

6. Also related to G for Geology….We had quite a few earthquakes in Northern California this week. I mean, apparently we did. I didn’t feel any of them.

__

*This brings up two pieces of potentially shocking information. One, I saw only two movies last year in actual movie theaters. It’s quite possible that I didn’t see more than about six movies all year long. I watched a couple on my iPhone on flights, and maybe got one or two DVDs from Netflix. I would like to say that not being able go to the movies/watch movies is one of the perils of having children, but alas, I suspect my pathetic movie track record in 2009 is part of a larger pattern of movie-related lethargy. Which brings us to number two: As revealed to my friend last night, I am probably one of very few people on earth who has never seen James Cameron’s movies. Terminator, Aliens, Titanic… I seemed to have missed those. Given my 2009 movie-attendance record, it’s likely that I’ll miss Avatar as well.

new starts

Recently I went back through all of my old blog posts and recategorized them. You might wonder, “Geez, what the heck did you do that for?” for which I do not blame you one bit. I wondered that myself over the week or so it took me to recategorize 470 posts. It was quite tedious, not to mention carpal tunnel inducing.

Recategorize is, in fact, the wrong word. At some point after I killed my poor blog off over a year ago, I decided (probably in a pregnancy hormone-addled state) to delete all of the categories from Fog City Writer. It was not long after I decided to kill off FCW. (Which, by the way, I blame on the aforementioned pregnancy hormones.) Neither of these moves were good decisions. I liked my blog, however off track it seemed to be going at the time, and I liked blogging. As for the categories, they could have been organized better, but they weren’t that important, really.

The point is, I made the decision to stop blogging. And then I missed blogging. But due to the aforementioned pregnancy and various related conditions I will not bore you with here, and due to the subsequent result of said pregnancy, i.e. a cute little baby boy, I didn’t quite get around to bringing FCW back from the dead.

I’m trying to now.

And so, you may have noticed (are you still there, readerly people?) I’ve recently redesigned the blog. And, though you may not care, I recategorized all the old posts. (In fact it was a good exercise, going through all the old posts and revisiting the past, despite the tedium and the carpal tunnel flare-ups.) And then I added author tags, just because…well, perhaps a trait of mine that could gently be described as “detail oriented” got the better of me.

And here we are. Or here I am, anyway. I’m stumbling a bit as I try to re-establish a writing routine, post-baby.* I could go on and on about that, but it’s less than interesting. The point is, I’m trying to get FCW up and running again. I want to post regularly. Things get in the way quite a bit. Time management skills have fallen by the wayside. (No one informed me that having a baby causes a loss of time management skills. Everyone said the opposite: that a baby makes you more efficient and better able to juggle. Perhaps this is true and I am just juggling more things? Perhaps it’s only my perception of my time management skills that’s off. Right. Perhaps that is the subject of another post that I will not write due to its less-than-interesting-ness.) I begin posts and then am unable to find the time to finish them until a month has passed. Sometimes I begin posts and then forget about them, only to discover them and finish them after a month (or more) has passed.

I am desperately trying not to dwell on these missteps. I’m trying to begin again.

*Hello, giant, enormous understatement.

Welcome.

As you can see, I’ve moved my blog to a free WordPress blog. It was time for a change, and now I’ve got a new blog name and everything.

8 things about me.

The fine folks over at red Ravine have tagged me to reveal eight random things about myself. I think I have revealed more than eight here, but whatever.

1) I have lived in five states (Maryland, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts and California) and three countries (U.S., Japan and South Korea). Between ages 18 and 30, I had 14 different mailing addresses encompassing all of the above locations, except Massachusetts.

2) I have worked:

-as a florist’s assistant

-as a barn hand (feeding, grooming and cleaning up after horses)

-in a drycleaner

-in a bookstore

-as a babysitter

-at two different coffee shops

-tutoring Japanese speakers in English

-tutoring English speakers in English

-tutoring English speakers in Japanese

-as an assistant to a Naval Academy French professor

-as a prep cook in a Greek vegetarian restaurant in Annapolis, MD

-as a prep cook in two touristy seafood restaurants on the Maine coast

-as an office assistant in a title company

-as a temp

-as an intern in a Japanese ad agency

-answering phones in a housing office at a university

-as a secretary to a director of international programs in a university

-as an adviser/counselor to foreign students at two different universities

-as a counselor of American university students trying to study abroad

-as a program coordinator responsible for a group of Burmese refugees

-as a teacher of English as a second language

-as a newswire editor

-as a dot-com …. I don’t know what, exactly. It involved a lot of cutting and pasting and the Internet.

-as a researcher at a newspaper

-in various editor positions a newspaper

-as an intern at a literary agency

-as an editorial assistant at a literary magazine

-as a reporter at a newspaper

3) I have traveled through 58 different airports worldwide since 1990. For some reason, I like to keep track of this….I keep a list of all the airports I have been through, and their three-letter codes.

4) I collect postcards and, less actively, stamps. In both cases, I’m partial to those from countries other than my own. I have postcards sent to me from about 35 countries and 22 states and stamps from 136 countries or former countries/colonies.

Many, many of the stamps I inherited from my grandfather, who inherited some from his father, so I can’t take credit for very much of that.

5) I dislike snakes, and that noise made when two pieces of Styrofoam are rubbed together. Also, I’m not that great with heights. Or speed. I hate roller coasters.

6) My best subjects in high school were French and history; my worst subjects were chemistry and trig. My best subject in college was Japanese; my worst was freshman geology.

Weirdly, after not doing well in geology 101, I took two more geology courses and did well in them. I even thought about becoming a geology minor, until I learned that to do that, you had to take chemistry. See also, worst high school subjects.

7) I cannot play any musical instruments, and me singing is a painful, painful experience for everyone involved. Karaoke is a nightmare that I try to avoid at all costs.

8) I’m particular about breakfast. I have to have cinnamon raisin bagels and cream cheese and coffee and half-and-half on hand in my kitchen at all times. I rarely deviate from that, when it comes to breakfast, and I can get cranky if one of the above is not available … particularly if that one thing is either coffee or half and half. There’s no point in having coffee if there’s no cream, and no point in having cream if there’s no coffee. As for the bagels, I’ll eat just about any other flavor, but cinnamon raisin are my favorites. I’ll also eat bagels with butter and honey instead of cream cheese, or peanut butter instead of cream cheese, but it’s not the same. I’m pretty much unable to function without breakfast, and even more so without coffee.

Apparently, I’m supposed to tag eight other people with this … So if you’re a) reading this, b) have a blog, c) have not already done this…. consider yourself tagged. As in: You’re It.

we are not alone

It’s nice to be reminded every so often that we are not alone as writers, that others are going through what we’re going through. I suppose that’s true with everything, really, but often we are loathe to admit it in certain aspects of our lives.

I had lunch with Jade Park yesterday, and was reminded of these things. I am not in the habit of meeting people I know from the Internet. I know a lot of people who’ve met husbands and girlfriends  and other friends this way but I have never gotten to know someone online and then met them in person, until now. In any case, Jade put me at ease. And I was reminded that I have been living — aside from this blog — a pretty isolated life, writing-wise. I had almost forgotten what it was like to sit and talk with someone else who’d been in MFA workshops, and who has had similar experiences with literary events and publishing. We are in similar stages of our writing lives, as well as in the rest of our lives. It was great to talk about these topics again, with someone who could relate.

Also, she insisted that we share the chicken bun at the Vietnamese restaurant where we met, and I have no regrets about that at all. In fact, I might have to go out of my way on my lunch hour to have one of those chicken buns again, very soon. Yum.

The return of Friday night

As in, the end of the work week.

It’s Friday night after my first week of work. I’m tired, but in good spirits. Billy is out, and I’m in, with the dog. Our life has been one big whirlwind of activity since we returned from Europe, and I feel as though this is the first time I’ve had to myself in forever. Of course, when you’re used to having most of every day to yourself, working in an office is a bit of an adjustment. Suddenly my time is no longer (as much) my own. And I’m a constant craver of personal time.

In any case, I’ve parked myself on the couch. The dog has parked himself on the other couch, and has fallen asleep looking out the window for signs of Billy. Me, I’m catching up on blogs. I’m polishing off some chocolate I brought back from Germany. I’m eying the New Yorker fiction issue that just showed up in my mailbox. It’s been much-hyped, and I’m looking forward to reading some exquisite stories.

Speaking of which, I’ve been taking my time with Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists 2, and it is worth it. (Although I don’t really like the cover much.) I read a few of the stories on my flight home from Germany. A couple were so good I had to put the book away for a while to let them sink in, and to recover from their impact. Notably: Anthony Doerr’s “Procreate, Generate” and Kevin Brockmeier’s “Parakeets.” I am skipping around, and, like I said, going through these slowly. There are certain to be others that are as good.

I got a rejection in the mail today, from a magazine I had forgotten I had even submitted to. It wasn’t even that long ago. Ah, well. There was a hand-written note on the form letter, which is always a nice thing, when it comes to rejections. The rejection reminds me that I am due to send out more submissions. It’s been over a month, once again.

What else? Yesterday I read this post on Alexander Chee’s blog that got me thinking (again) about the whole writing vs. blogging thing.

… if someone had said, you’re going to write something as long as Anna Karenina, but it’ll be online, in a
fragmented narrative with constant references to current events, I would have said, What?

It is hard to justify blogging when time is short for writing. And yet. I can’t help it.