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!

In which I detail all of the mayhem.

Last I checked, it was April. And then, suddenly, look! It’s almost July. Here’s what happened:

-I started working again as an editor at the newspaper where I’ve been employed off and on for about a decade. I’m filling in for a friend who’s on maternity leave for about six months. I’m being reminded of deadlines and line edits and InDesign, and madly trying to juggle all the different parts of my life.

-We had good friends and family visiting for three straight weeks in April.

-In the month of May I managed to visit Hawaii, Colorado, Maryland, and Massachusetts (with stops at home in California in between, you know, to do laundry. And work. And sleep.). I love to travel and don’t do it as much as I would like so though it was hectic and sometimes exhausting (more than 20 hours of flying with a 2.5-year-old!) I loved it anyway. Along the way: I snorkeled with an 8-foot-long eel, went to an old-fashioned Memorial Day parade in my hometown, and saw my son become obsessed with playing baseball and running through sprinklers.

-In Colorado, I met my good friend and we (along with 70,000 other people) saw U2 at Invesco Field in Denver, and hiked in the Flatirons above Boulder. A fantastic weekend.

-I managed, finally, to read the entirety of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. That giant tome of a book has been sitting on my nightstand since before Christmas and I’ve started it at least three times previously. I am not one of those who likes to criticize Jonathan Franzen for existing and writing successful novels — no matter what controversy he stirs up, or others stir up about him, I still have tremendous respect for him as a writer. But I digress.

– Other good books I’ve read in the past few weeks: The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano, and Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. I seem to be on a novels-in-translation streak.

-Our house is being worked on.  For a while our bathtub was sitting outside on our deck. This is not really important except that the contractors and the disarray (and our dog barking at the contractors) has contributed to the general sense of mayhem pervading my life the past few weeks.

– There is of course all of the mom-related/family stuff. My son is about to start pre-school, so there have been doctors’ visits and school visits and teacher meetings. We took him to a county fair last weekend, where we got to pet a wallaby, and a deer, and watch pigs race to win an Oreo cookie. Really.

-What else? Well, as you might guess, the one thing that hasn’t been happening is writing. I think I have worked on my short-story-in-progress exactly one morning since the end of April. This is about to change.

Hello again.

How I spent my winter vacation: A post-AWP* post

I went to Washington, and it was good. It was overwhelming, too, despite the fact that I’d been warned that the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference can feel that way, and that I thought I’d prepared for dealing with it. Still, so many writers, so many sessions, so many booths at the bookfair, so many hobnobbers glancing this way and that in the lobby of the hotel, looking for anyone who might be someone, while they clutched their glasses of scotch.

I went to what seemed like a bizillion panels at AWP, and that was even after I made a list of all of the sessions I wanted to make it to, and then crossed out about half of them. I ate a lot of burritos at the Chipotle outlet conveniently located just outside the Marriott that hosted the conference. I heard Jhumpa Lahiri read a lovely personal essay that described how she became a writer.  I listened to Joyce Carol Oates read from her new memoir about her husband’s untimely death and, despite the subject matter, manage to tell funny stories about her cat. I giggled uncomfortably when Junot Diaz told us how white we were (“there’s Boston white, and then there’s AWP white”) and I laughed at his profanity-laden responses to audience questions, was impressed by the completeness of what he described as work in progress. Was just impressed, really.

I ate poorly and erratically (did I mention the late-night burritos?), drank beers, and slept not nearly enough. The school from which I earned my MFA hosted a reception one night, and I was surprised to see my thesis advisor there, along with another professor whose memoir workshop I enjoyed. It was great to talk with them again – it has been, amazingly, five years. I talked with a few classmates who are having some success with their writing, and met a few writers whose work I’ll be keeping an eye out for. I heard advice from panelists whose books I’ve added to my to-read list. It was all very motivating and yes, I think I’ll say it again, overwhelming.

Perhaps the best thing about attending the conference was not the conference itself, but rather the uninterrupted time away from home and family to think about writing. Specifically, my writing. The cross-country flights alone were amazingly productive without a two-year-old in tow (surprise, surprise).  On the way home from D.C., I spent about three hours plotting out what I now see is more of a novel, not linked stories**  — and then promptly banged out half of a completely unrelated short story which has been lurking in the back of my mind for years.

And so, what’s changed since I went to AWP? Not much, probably, but I have a sense of purpose and motivation that I had been out of touch with before the trip. I have a pile of lit mags on my nightstand that I picked up at the bookfair. I don’t want to see a burrito for a while. I have a few new friends on Twitter and a reading list a mile long. Time to get back to it.

____

*I’ve noticed an increase of “post- ” phrases of late. Is it just me? It seems that anything can be era-defining these days. There’s post-James Frey, of course, and I read the phrase “post-Eat, Pray, Love” in a panel description at AWP. Hell, I’m going to go ahead and jump on the post-post bandwagon.
**More on this later. I attended a fabulous session on linked stories that helped me see things more clearly. The subject of my next post.

January writing links, pre-AWP blizzard edition

I’m getting ready for my trip to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday; I’ll be attending the AWP annual conference for the first time. I spent the weekend pouring over the amazing list of conference sessions and events and after picking out my must-attends, I thought, OK, I’m ready. And then I looked at a weather map.

Let’s be frank. I live in California. There’s not much cause to study the weather here. It’s been sunny and 60 degrees or so for most of the past month. And so it should be noted that when I booked my flight to DC for the conference, I didn’t consider the implications, of, for example, “February” and “Chicago.” And I happily booked myself a flight via the Windy City to get to DC.

Last night I checked my flights and thought maybe, possibly, I should look at a weather report for both Chicago and D.C. And it just so happens that there’s a giant, blustery blizzard of apparently historical proportions scheduled to batter Chicago on Tuesday night and Wednesday. Two feet of snow, tornadoes, you name it.

But enough about that. I have gotten myself rebooked on another flight via Denver. The airline won’t give me a seat, so who knows what that means, or whether I will, in fact, actually make it to D.C. as planned. But you did not stop by to read about the winter weather. I’m getting back to my routine of posting my favorite writing links for the month. Enjoy, and if you’re traveling to AWP, good luck and be safe!

Author Michelle Richmond on accidentally finding her way through a novel (Glimmer Train)

Writing advice from Rick Bass: Don’t compare bodies to car parts. (Huffington Post)

Should grammar be taught in the creative writing workshop? (via The Missouri Review blog)

An old interview with Colm Toibin in The Guardian: “Let’s have no more backstory!” I found Toibin’s approach to teaching American writing students very interesting.

Ploughshares magazine is launching an Emerging Fiction Writer’s Contest.  Deadline is March 15.

Let’s get persnickety! Why you should never, ever put two spaces after a period. (Slate)

Beyond the Margins offers 13 ways of beginning a novel, along with the pros and cons of each. Clever.

And, finally, some tips on surviving AWP. (The Missouri Review)

the other side of vacation

I recently wrapped up two weeks of travel on the East Coast. It was a busy two weeks, full of visits with family and friends, two states and the District of Columbia, beachgoing, old-fashioned fun on the boardwalk, good food, and a toddler who seemed to grow a couple of inches and begin speaking in sentences just in the time we were gone. Of course, there were also several flight delays (good times, with the aforementioned toddler in tow), traffic delays (a 2.5 hour trip to the beach that took, ahem, FIVE HOURS. Did I mention the toddler?), a day of torrential rain, and summer bug bites. In short, it was a vacation, with good and bad — but mostly good — adventures intertwined.

And now I’m back. Well, not just now. In fact I returned to San Francisco five days ago. The jet lag is gone, and I’ve caught up on laundry, phone calls, email, etc., etc., etc. Everything should be back to normal. Except that it’s not. I haven’t written a thing, despite having the time over the past two days to get back into it. This happens every time I take a trip or have a guest visiting me here. I don’t have the personal time to write while I’m traveling anymore (see above, re: toddler) and so when I’m away, I’m away from my writing. With all of the activity of visiting and traveling, I don’t even really think about my writing much. When relatives visit us here in SF, the same thing happens. They want to spend time with us, and we’re busy, and the writing schedule goes out the window.

And then I’m faced with an empty, where was I? feeling. And a blank, blank page. You would think that a vacation would leave me refreshed and full of ideas. It does, in a way. But I’ve come to dread this weird post-vacation interlude, the days in which I want to write, but can’t seem to turn my brain back to it. My stories, when I open the documents, feel foreign, and I can’t remember where I was going with them. I know that I have to trust that my brain will bring me back to wherever I was in my writing. I know that eventually, it always does. But in the intervening days (weeks? I hope not.) I find myself sitting down to write, and then getting back up again. I tell myself to “stay in the room” but in the next minute I’m downstairs making coffee, or on Facebook reading about friends’ activities.

I’m wondering if there are ways around this post-vacation dead time I seem to experience. I’m wondering what other people do to stay in the room, even when they can’t be in the room. What do you do? How do you keep up momentum when life gets in the way?

off to camp*

I have arrived at the location of my writing workshop/conference. I’m nervous, excited, looking forward to it, and feeling guilty about leaving my family for selfish pursuits — a mixed bag of emotions that have me a little on edge. I’m always nervous about meeting new people, and there’s going to be workshop with said new people, plus famous authors and the like. In a way it’s a vacation for me, away from parenting, family, a busy schedule, and the foggy cold weather that is summer in San Francisco. But going to this workshop is also not a vacation for me — it’s some extended time I will have to myself for the first time in the nearly two years  since my son was born. I feel, because it is time that I’m taking away from my family, that I have to make the most of it, reading and writing and thinking about writing in an uninterrupted way that I cannot do at home. I worried over what to bring. How many books is too many for a five day trip? I have no concept of how much time I will have to read and write, I’ve packed one book to read and two to reread that I think will be good models for what I’m working on now. I have never felt more confident about my writing and, at the same time, less confident about leaving home.

This post is a bit all over the place, which I suppose is reflective of how I’m feeling about attending the workshop/being away from my son. The combination of being a parent and trying to be a writer is one I never expected to be so…complicated, so fraught with emotion. For every success I have as a writer, I feel I am giving up something else.

But that is all just worry, nothing that a few days in warm weather and with writing-minded people cannot help me escape. I’m looking forward to this; I’m ready to be inspired; I keep telling myself that I deserve this.

____

*My mom referred to my attending a writing workshop as “heading off to writing camp,” which I suppose is pretty much what it is, with more wine and no smores.

snow in June, stories in July

You* may, possibly, wonder what I’ve been up to here. It sure hasn’t been blogging! Well, I’ve been writing and traveling, among the other usual domestic things, like doing ridiculous amounts of laundry, and listening to/singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” for the 4 millionth, trillionth time.**

And so.

The writing:

In June I finished (finished!) the second of two short stories I had been working on for two-plus years. And I’ve been sending it out to a few places. It feels amazing to finally be finished with that one — and I’m fairly satisfied with the result. Shocking. (The first of the two 2-year-old stories is slated to be published this fall, in Clare.)

I also wrapped up a draft of a story in June to submit to the writing workshop I’ll be attending later this month. I just barely got it in shape by the deadline, and still feel like there’s a lot of major work to be done, but hey, that’s what workshops are helpful for — motivation and direction. At least that’s how I’m trying to look at it.

For July I’ve decided to complete a short story I began earlier this spring. I wasn’t sure where I was going with the pages I had back in April, and so I’ve been letting it gather dust on my hard drive ever since. The other day I opened it for some reason and a)felt more excited about it than I remembered being when I originally began it, and b) knew what was coming next. It’s quite a long story, which is making me a little uneasy — I’m not sure I want it to turn into something even longer, like a novel.***

The traveling:

In the last month I’ve made two quick trips to the middle of the country— to Chicago and to the Denver area. Chicago to visit family, and Denver, to meet a good friend of mine for the weekend. She and I were supposed to do some hiking and see U2 perform, but Bono got injured and canceled the concert/U.S. tour, and it poured all weekend. Actually, “poured” doesn’t really begin to describe it. The Denver area saw thunder, lightning, heavy rains, flash floods, a tornado, nickel-to-golf-ball-sized hail, hail fog, and cold temps, all in the one weekend I happened to visit. Really. Meanwhile the Coloradans we encountered exclaimed that they couldn’t believe the wet weather and offered up a mantra of sorts — that Denver has 300 sunny days a year. (A dubious claim.) We made the best of it. Beers were consumed. Soccer was watched. Altitude was gained. I saw snow fall in June.

It was actually the second weekend my friend and I have spent together that’s been cataclysmically rainy. My friend flies from the East and I fly from the West and we try to meet somewhere in the middle and attend some kind of musical event. Last fall we met in Texas and went to the Austin City Limits Music Fest. The festival was great, the weather, not so much. Torrential downpours and six inches of mud. Apparently Austin is also known for being sunny, so I’m beginning to suspect I have some kind of weather curse. Last summer my husband and I went on vacation to Vancouver, and the city was hit by a record heat wave. It was in the 90s all week, even up in the mountains at Whistler — for only the third time in a century.

I have two more trips ahead of me this summer. I’m keeping an eye on the Weather Channel.

____________
*Hello? Readers?
** No, really, I love that song. Especially when Dora the Explorer sings it.
***The idea of getting serious about writing a novel scares the heck out of me.

H is for Hokkaido

I lived on the island of Hokkaido for six months. “It’s the northernmost island in Japan,” I used to tell people who looked blank when I told them where I was going. For some people, my explanation did not explain anything. They asked why I’d want to go there. They told me, as if I’d asked, or cared, that they’d never buy a Japanese car.

When I arrived in Sapporo, in March, bulldozers were pushing mountains of snow into the river because there was no where else to put it all.

On Hokkaido, I rode to the top of an Olympic ski jump. I climbed volcanoes, and smelled sulfur that came from deep within the earth. I traveled to the farthest point north on the island, and also to the most southern. I thought I could see Russia.

On Hokkaido, I traveled alone for the first time; I was nineteen. I took a train that snaked along impossible cliffs between the mountains and the sea, and spent nights in cheap inns with bathrooms down the halls. The other guests stared at my white skin.

On Hokkaido, I felt my first earthquake.

On Hokkaido, I got the worst sunburn I’ve ever had — my shins reddened and blistered and later, my blood pooled in a puffy layer around my ankles. On Hokkaido I ate raw scallops the size of half-dollars, right from their shells. I ate raw oysters and raw shrimp and raw clams and raw eggs. I ate crab meat from impossibly hairy, giant crab legs. I gained 20 pounds.

While on Hokkaido I studied and spoke Japanese so constantly that I began to dream in Japanese. I forgot English. In phone calls home, my speech was peppered with Japanese words that seemed to convey more meaning than their English counterparts. I learned ikebana, and tea ceremony, and calligraphy. An old woman played the koto for me. I gave speeches. I danced in a parade.

On Hokkaido, I lost sight of who I was and where I came from. I got drunk four nights a week. I dreamed of going home; I dreaded leaving.

On Hokkaido one evening I soaked in an outdoor hot spring on the shores of an alpine lake. Snow fell into the black of the water and disappeared.

___

Joining Charlotte’s Web, Jade Park and The Contact Zone in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Previous posts:

A is for Aaron

B is for Biddeford Pool

C is for crème brûlée

D is for dog bite

E is for everything, everything, everything

F is for Fort Wayne

G is for geology

F is for Fort Wayne

When I was 18, I returned to college in Indiana with my good friend Pete after the winter holidays. We followed an itinerary that neither began where we started nor ended where we were going.

I’d booked us tickets on an Amtrak train that departed from Union Station in Washington, D.C., and my mom grumbled about driving us there, as there were several stations much closer to our house in suburban Maryland. I don’t remember what my motivations were for wanting to board the train in the city rather than from the more convenient park-n-ride stations outside the beltway. Perhaps it seemed more adventurous. I was new to travel, but I liked to think I was not: I dreamed in journeys, devoured travel books, and planned out routes across continents I had never visited. I studied languages, because I assumed they were the tickets I needed to get where I was going.

We boarded the train late in the afternoon on a cold New Year’s Day. The sky was an unrelenting steel gray. The air smelled of snow. Late nights out drinking with friends caught up with me just after the train slid out of Washington, and I came down with a cold. My head filled up, and I was sneezing, wheezing and sniffling before we even crossed into West Virginia. We soon grew hungry for dinner, but I don’t remember visiting the dining car, only that we had little money and ate the Christmas cookies my mom had sent along with us. We joked about being stranded on a train to nowhere with only cookies to sustain us. I sneezed a lot. Pete was an exuberant travel companion, and we wandered through the train’s cars as if we might be able to get somewhere else. As darkness fell the train grew chilly; I shivered in my wool sweater, and later, in my coat. I suspected a fever.

I remember climbing the steps to the domed view car, and sitting mesmerized as the train’s light revealed a slim, moving snowscape that blackened at the edges. The view of the mountains of West Virginia was like an old film. Trunks of trees flickered past in black and white. At some point in the night we tried to sleep in our seats. Between my stuffy head and inability to get warm, I remained awake for much of the trip. Pete dozed off for a while, and I remember feeling lonely when he did. I rummaged in my bag for more cookies (we were down to the last few) and tried to read a book I’d gotten for Christmas.

In the morning, the early morning, the part of the morning that still feels like night, we reached our stop: Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was eager to get off the train, get warm, eat a hot meal, take some cold medicine, and climb into the familiar cot in my dorm room. The train squealed to a stop and we waited with our bags behind some other passengers at the door, feeling the cold night air seeping in. When the doors opened, we stepped out into nothingness. My memory places us in a vast field of broken cornstalks plowed under for winter, an enormous Midwestern sky full of stars above. But surely that’s not where Amtrak passengers disembark at five in the morning. What I know is that it was cold; the kind of cold that penetrates even the warmest coats and makes your breath catch and freeze. What I know is that an Amtrak employee directed us to a shuttle bus waiting on a nearby road. We scrambled for the bus, our breath made visible in the winter darkness, and shivered into our seats. The bus driver told us we were headed for the Amtrak station, in downtown Fort Wayne. I pictured the vast train stations of Europe with all of their conveniences. We let ourselves imagine McDonalds, and our stomachs growled.

The “station” was in a strip mall. No McDonalds — nothing, really. Just Amtrak representatives, closed storefronts, and chairs for waiting. I don’t know what I had expected to happen when we arrived in Fort Wayne. The city was nearly three hours north of our little college. Did I think we would simply change trains? Were we planning to take a bus? Did I realize Fort Wayne was so far from our destination?
I think I did not.

And so when we asked about getting to the school, we were told to go to the Greyhound bus station a few blocks away. It did not open for a couple of hours. We waited. We ate the last of the cookies. Pete smoked the last of his cigarettes. When the bus station was open we lugged our bags through the frigid dawn, where we learned that a bus to our college town had to go through Indianapolis and thus would take more than five hours instead of two and a half and cost $75 each, money that neither of us had. Seventy-five dollars was nearly half of my spending money for the next 10 weeks. I remember huddling together, counting out our cash and coming up short.

We trudged back to the train station, defeated and hungry. We freaked out. Pete tried to call his mom from a payphone. We considered begging for money. We considered hitching. Pete began asking if anyone in the Amtrak waiting area was headed to the college or the town. He got a lot of shaking heads and a lot of looks.

And then, a few hours later: “Are you guys trying to get to E___?” It was another student from our school, a senior who recognized Pete. He had driven to Fort Wayne to pick up friends arriving from Philadelphia, and he could give us a ride, he said. My relief buoyed me throughout the uncomfortably jammed car ride to school: Five students, their bags, and a guitar squeezed into a tiny Toyota.

Record rains had fallen in Indiana that winter. The fields we passed on the way back to campus from Fort Wayne resembled frozen lakes; the landscape was devoid of color. I felt that the excitement of my first term at college might not sustain me through the winter months. We stopped at a McDonalds and though the three of us pressed together in the backseat with the guitar and a huge duffle bag on our laps couldn’t move to reach our wallets or get out of the car, the student who’d rescued us from Fort Wayne bought us breakfast. He wouldn’t let us pay him back when we got to school.

planes, trains and automobiles

2290020978_149b925946.jpgWell, hello.

I’m just back from a trip to the East Coast, during which I managed to travel through four states and the District of Columbia in eight days. I also managed to take advantage of as many modes of transportation as possible: planes, trains, buses, cars, Metro. It was kind of like going to Europe, minus the Europe part and the bad exchange rate.

While gallivanting around the mid-Atlantic states: I attended a wedding in Philadelphia, met up with college friends in Baltimore, saw a high school friend in Annapolis, visited my parents and more. It was a full trip. My mom cooked a ham.* I went antiquing in Ellicott City. I saw quite a few art exhibits in Washington DC, including this Rauschenberg show and this take 2290020582_7c26bcc7de_m.jpgon Yosemite, which were the two I enjoyed the most. I saw a lovely and winter-counteracting exhibit of orchids at the National Botanical Garden. I saw three films: “Gone with the Wind” (I’d never seen it, and found it longer and darker than expected), “Persepolis” (based on the popular graphic memoir and animated in the same endearing black and white style) and “Once.” What a sweet little movie! I promptly downloaded the soundtrack when I arrived home and have been listening to just about constantly since.**philly

During my 8 days back east I encountered sun, snow, rain and sleet, which seems to go along with my many modes of transport, somehow. I flew home to a Pacific storm with gusts, our pilot said, of 30-40 mph. We had to prepare for landing an hour early, so the flight attendants didn’t have to be up in such turbulence. As you might imagine, it was a bumpy landing. Billy picked me up from the airport though, and in the car the dog couldn’t stop licking my face.

*It should be noted that I love ham and I ate heaps of it. Sorry, vegetarians. As a peace offering, I will point out that I don’t eat lamb. Or deer. Or rabbit. Or, er, squirrel.

**Coincidentally, if you watched the Oscars, you’d know that a tune from “Once” won best original song last night. (It’s the song from this scene.) I knew the movie was low budget, but I didn’t know how low, until Glen Hansard gave his acceptance speech and said the film was done with $100,000 and two “handy-cams.” I like when underdogs win.