The Sticking Place

Preschool“We’re lost.”

Bridget looks at me, her big eyes filling with tears.

She’s right.  I look up towards the crest of the canyon and the fence we hopped a half an hour ago.

Then, I realize: I don’t care.  Because I am four-years-old.  And I have just staged a prison break from my preschool.

I was never a rebellious child.  Okay, I did start that petition in the fourth grade denouncing mandatory recess activities.  So, political?  Maybe.  But, rebellious?  Never.

This preschool prison break was special, a moment of divine timing.  Sitting on my stiff scratchy school cot the day before, prepping for naptime, I noticed that the teachers did not check to see that all of us kids had made it in from the playground.

My mind began to race, the escape plan formulating quickly.

The next day, I approached the playground with a very specific agenda.  Phase #1: Act natural.  Phase #2: Take cover.  Phase #3:  Wait.  And that was as far as the plan went.

I played tag that day like my life depended on it, so as to not arouse any suspicion.  I carefully watched the teachers out of the corners of my eyes, tracking their positions.

After what seemed like an eternity, like, ten minutes, the bell rang.

It was naptime.  Phase #2 was a go.

I sought cover.  My fellow munchkins were now picking up sweaters, juice boxes and big red bouncy balls.  I waded through them upstream as they filtered back into the classroom.  I knelt behind a rock.

Time for Phase #3.  I pretended to tie my shoe.  A good cover story.  All I had to do now was wait.  The playground was emptying.  Almost there…

“Come on.”

Bridget’s voice startled me.  She wore a pink sundress and stared down at me from behind dark, mousey hair.

“You’re gonna miss naptime.”

“I’m coming,” I said, hoping she would take the bait and run along ahead of me.  She didn’t.  She waited.  Staring.  My time was running out.

I hadn’t planned on taking hostages, I mean, on having an accomplice.  I considered her.

“What’s your name?”

“Bridget,” she said.

Hmm.  I glanced at the classroom door where a teacher was ushering the last of the preschoolers inside.

Bridget would have to play ball.  Right now.

I grabbed her hand and pulled her into hiding.

“It will be fun,” I told her, because that is how you convince anyone to do anything when you are four-years-old

Bridget looked at me dubiously, but did not protest.  Minutes later, the rest of our classmates disappeared and the teacher shut the door, without a second glance outside.

And in that moment, we were free.

It was a feeling of freedom I would later come to recognize as the first-day-of-summer-vacation free.  Or the I’m-in-love-with-someone-who-actually-loves-me-back free.  Or the yay-I-have-health-insurance-again free.  And on that day, in that moment, with my accomplice Bridget, on the precipice of an adventure, it … was … glorious.

And then it was…confusing.  Now what do we do?

“Let’s hop the fence!” I suggested.

The preschool was perched on the edge of a canyon, a cavernous wasteland, full of strange adventure, portals through time and space, dinosaurs and aliens.

I yanked on Bridget’s arm and we darted across the empty playground.  She hesitated.

“What about the crows?” she whispered.

The teachers would sometimes take us on short walks through these badlands and if there was one thing we all knew for certain, it was that the canyon crows would eat you alive.

“I think they made that up,” I told her.  “So we wouldn’t run away.”

A few rusty metal scratches later, we were on the precipice of a new world.

The thought that we might get lost hadn’t occurred to me.  However, I wasn’t concerned.  At four, I would often ask department store clerks to announce my name over the loudspeaker because I had spent too long hiding inside a circular rack of dresses, pretending it was a fairy woodland, and I’d lost my mother.  I knew how to handle myself when things got dicey.

But, Bridget was about to lose it.  Thankfully, that’s when we stumbled upon a canyon oasis: a creek!…which was actually storm drain run off, but to us, an exotic swimming hole.  When you are four, your undergarments can always double as a bathing suit.  We immediately stripped to our skivvies and dove in.

And we swam.  We swam and dove and jumped and frolicked…right up until the point when the cops showed up.

My mother had come to pick me up from preschool, and for the first time the teachers realized that Bridget and I were nowhere to be found.

I tried to make conversation with the burly policeman who wrapped me in his big puffy jacket and carried me back up the hill.

“Hi, how are you? What’s your name?”

He didn’t answer me.  For the very first time that day, I wondered if I had done something wrong.

I look back on this now and my first thought is always the same.  Who WAS that four-year-old in that canyon?  And, more importantly, when can I get her back?  Because if there is any of her courage and confidence left inside of me somewhere, I’d really like to harness it and channel it into dating and job interviews, and I don’t know, taking over the world?

But that’s what’s great about childhood.  That’s what’s great about four-years-old.  When you run across these moments of truth, you do nothing but listen and believe.  The world has not told you any differently yet.  It will, eventually.  Eventually it will teach you about self-doubt and insecurity and the limits of your own safety.  But maybe not yet.  Maybe not at four.

April VAMPMaybe at four, you still believe.

This piece was written for So Say We All‘s April VAMP
“It Was Just a Phase,” performed on April 25, 2013
at the Whistle Stop in San Diego, CA.

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The Dawn of the Non-Apocalypse: Do the Thing

galactic-centerYay!  We’re still here!

Okay, so no one thought that the world was really going to end.  However, many believe that this is the dawn of a new shift in energy – when the extraneous elements of life will be abandoned for the truly meaningful ones, and we will begin to find balance.

As I sit here about to launch into full blown holiday mode, having just finished three weeks of production on a film for San Diego’s One Billion Rising Campaign, juggling three writing jobs and attempting to make plans for the future, balance seems farther away than the point where the sun’s elliptical apparently crossed the equator of the Milky Way this morning.

However, leading up this End of Days, I have admittedly noticed a shift in my own life and the lives of those around me.  Light bulbs seem to be popping up over everyone’s heads.  I can’t tell you how many times I have had conversations with friends about their choices to do Plan B instead of Plan A, for no other reason than it felt more authentic to who they are.  These new plans don’t make them more money, don’t grant them a path to fame or fortune or success, and often don’t even seem logical in the typical “way of doing things.”  And yet, there my friends are: moving from New York City to Portland, Maine for a better quality of life, quitting jobs that don’t serve them, taking off for teaching assignments in foreign countries, going back to school for degrees that would just be enjoyable to earn rather than a guarantee of a career path.  Seemingly crazy decisions – or are they?

When I started writing seriously this year, I experienced a balance I had never felt before.  Thus far, my life had consisted of working really hard at school and jobs and feeling that if I didn’t have my hand in 50 activities simultaneously, that I wasn’t really living.  How is it, then, that when I sit down to write a blog post to all of you lovely readers out there, I feel more balanced and energized and fulfilled than when I’ve done anything else?

A paradigm shift began to occur.

What if I did things that made me feel balanced…all the time?  Or, at least…more often?  What if I actually redirected my life to include more time for…this?

Of course, it’s one thing to recognize what makes my spirit sing, but it’s another thing to actually carve out the time to do it, and do it well.  Thus began the Angst-Ridden Dilemma Decisions of 2012:  Do I accept this part in this play, or do I make time for writing?  Do I stay in this job that isn’t entirely serving me, or do I make time for writing?  Do I  allow myself to get distracted by errands and invites and day trips and doing for others, or do I make time for writing?

I soon began to realize that my levels of commitment to anything OTHER than writing were an addictive tendency I clung to in order to mask the one thing that was truly driving me:  my fear of what would happen if I just did the thing I need/want/love/have to do.

And when I say “addictive,” I mean seriously addictive.  Like, time for intervention and rehab kind of addiction.

Who could have thought that involvement in “stuff” and “things” could be as toxic as guzzling booze?  But, there you have it.  When I have thirty things on my to-do list, my mind is occupied, numbed in its busy-ness.  It doesn’t have to go to the places of quiet solitude, where I am faced with a reflection of who I really am.  I can avoid that NeverEnding Story Magic Mirror Gate moment because, after all, who knows what I will find there?  The girl who is not doing enough to honor her authentic self?  Or worse: the potential for greatness.

Doing stuff is so much easier!

The funny thing about the universe is that when you take one small step in the right direction, you get all sorts of kudos.  Strike that.  When you even turn your head in the right direction, the universe is like “You rock!” and you get all this fun stuff. Whether this means choosing a new thought, or saying no to a play, or doing whatever the “good for you” thing is that seems hard in the moment, it is when you take a leap of faith and honor your authentic self that the net appears.  Truly.  I knew what I had to do.

My first “no” happened in late September, shortly after I wrote my “Dark Spots” piece.  I was offered a part in a play.  I agonized for a week about accepting the part, which typically would have been a no-brainer.  I upset myself to the point of nausea.  The thought of saying “no” seemed nuts to me.  Why would I do that?  Why would I deny myself this artistic opportunity?  Was I totally crazy?  But deep down, I knew I couldn’t do both.  I couldn’t prioritize writing and work on this show simultaneously.  I looked ahead to the fall and winter months and began to hyperventilate.

But…to create blank space in my days with which to fill with writing seemed…completely frightening.  I began to experience what would be my own personal brand of withdrawal pain: Oh, God.  What would I do with hours free to sit in front of my computer?  What if I wrote crap?  What if I lost my way?  What if I wrote and wrote and wrote and nothing came of it – ever?  How would I ever find the tenacity and persistence to see it through in the first place, whatever that meant?  What if I spent hours alone in my room or in some cozy coffee shop away from the world and people…forgot about me?  Panic ensued.  I needed hot chocolate, stat.

The thing about writing is that it takes time.  For me, at least, it takes time.  Thoughts and ideas have levels.  The more time I spend with them, the deeper they go.  Unless I granted myself that time, they would not manifest.  (David Lynch wrote a nice piece about this for GOOD.)

And so, I made the call.  I said “no.”  And an amazing thing happened.  No one hated me.  No one ostracized me.  No one condemned me for taking the time to shut my door and get to work.  And so, I did it again.  I said “no” to a job that I needed to let go of, the alarm bells of civilized society going off in my head the whole time.  And yet, strangely, because of various freelance opportunities that immediately came my way, I found myself more financially stable than I had been in a long time.  And also: I had time.  All of a sudden, I had time.

Of course, honoring this new paradigm takes time as well – nobody’s perfect.  As I said, I just finished producing a film, so yeah…not a lot of writing happened this month.  However, here I am today, putting words to virtual paper, contemplating the apocalypse, and finally feeling more like myself again.  I guess every day that the world doesn’t end is a new opportunity to figure out why it’s worth being here in the first place.

Do the thing.

Engywook: Next is the Magic Mirror Gate. Atreyu has to face his true self.
Falkor: So what? That won’t be too hard for him.
Engywook: Oh, that’s what everyone thinks! But kind people find that they are cruel. Brave men discover that they are really cowards! Confronted with their true selves, most men run away screaming!

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Write Out the Dark Spots

Cue scary self-imposed writing assignment.

When I started this blog, I thought it would be a great place to catalog my creative musings, my challenges, my inspirations, and my understanding of the writing process as I experience it.

(Insert eye roll…here.)

While these things have made for some interesting, if not relatively entertaining, writing, and I have received some amazingly supportive feedback for which I am extremely appreciative, I have recently realized that these goals that I had in mind are really all just pretense.  There is, in fact, only one reason why I’ve started this blog, and it’s taken me 26 entries to figure it out.  Basically, it is this:

I am a writer who is not writing.

I want to know why.

These past 26 posts have therefore been a surreptitious journey of self-discovery, or as I now like to call it:  throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.  My secret hope, I think, was that if I could publicly display my inner sanctum of creative wrestlings, then maybe, just maybe, I could hold myself accountable long enough to actually finish writing…something.  So, out on the wall has gone my list of three, my heroes, my mentors, my places of inspiration, my strategies – each a perfectly valid ingredient of my creative process.

But nothing has stuck.

Except for the idea that I am sort of fooling myself.

Because every post is really just dancing around the issue.  The main issue.  The one issue.  The only issue.

As a writer, I am struggling with more than just time crunches and inspiration wells.  There are more barriers to my creative output than just figuring out when I can actually sit down and write or what to write about.  My struggle, as I’ve mentioned, is actually how to keep going.

But, more truthfully (insert deep breath here), my real struggle is why I should keep going.

Yes, I mean why on a rather large, rather dark, sort of scale.

1.
Death.
We seem to understand each other better these days. 
Maybe it’s because I’m stalking him.  I don’t know. 
I don’t have malicious intentions.  I just want to know him better.   
I ask him, “Hey, Death.  What’s up?”
Sometimes, we sit next to each other at Starbucks. 
We don’t say much, just sip our coffee and share space. 
Sometimes Death asks me, “Why do you want to know me so badly?”
Sometimes I answer, “I just want to try you on sometimes.”
“How do I fit?” he asks.
“Too easily,” I say.
“Well, that won’t do,” says Death.  “After all, you like things extra complicated.”
It’s true.  Death knows me well.
Finally, I say to Death, “Let’s go home.”

Someone said to me recently that it is necessary go into the dark places so your light can shine brighter.  While this may sound cliché (and a little bit like science!), it has lately become an insistent and overwhelming theme in my own morning pages:  “Write them out!  Write out the dark spots!” my pink handwriting scolds me over coffee and strains of Josh Groban.

My first reaction:  “What dark spots?  I don’t have any dark spots.  I’m sunshine and blonde and smiles.  There are no dark spots here.  Why are you looking at me like that?”  Then, I think of Susan Aston, my first year acting professor, who quietly regarded me after one of my monologues before simply stating, “You have rage.”

Gulp.

So, okay, maybe there are some shadowy places, but even so, no one wants to hear about that.  Not my parents, not my friends, not Smile Scavenger, not the anonymous readers out there in the blogo-dark.  This blog is supposed to be at least 10% inspiring.  How inspiring could discussing that possibly be?

Pretense.

If I really want to get to the bottom of why I’m not writing, I have to address this.  As scary as it may be to say aloud, the truth of my unwritten-ness lies in these dark spots, the ones we don’t talk about at parties, as Col. Jessup says.

But more so, the truth of my actual writing is that it is always about this darkness, whether I like it or not.  Because in not acknowledging it, everything I produce is merely an avoidance of it.  This avoidance, even unconsciously, colors every word I write, makes me less truthful on the page, and severely limits any skill I may possess.  Sooner or later, if I am going to continue on this particular path, I have to face these demons.  And, unfortunately, I can’t fake them out with fairy dust and glitter bombs.  Or year-round Christmas music, for that matter.

2.
I find Death in the bedroom where he is hanging curtains.
“Death,” I ask.  “What do you think of Christmas music?”
Death doesn’t stop what he is doing, but he looks over his shoulder and watches me, my head bowed in concentration, spinning through my iPod playlists.
“I like Christmas,” Death says.  He goes back to hanging the curtains.
“But what about the music?” I persist, looking up at him.
Death stops hanging the curtains.  He turns around.
“Why are you asking me about Christmas?”  He is stern.
“I just want to know,” I reply.
“Do
you like Christmas music?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“Then why am
I here?” Death asks.
I stare at Death for a moment and then I leave the room quickly, cheeks burning. 
Shut up, Death, I think.  What do you know?

So, what are those demons, exactly?  It’s a valid question.  I don’t have an answer.

All I know is that they come, fast and furious, swooping into my mind and body like shadows of freezing rain.  I stop writing.  I stop smiling.  I wake up in the morning surprised I am still here.

Those who know me may be a little surprised at this point that any dark thoughts at all go through my head ever.  Those who know me really well are aware of my struggles with questions like “What is the point of all of this?” – struggles that have often left me crying in random places like workplace bathrooms and libraries.

As a person, in life, I generally present as happy and life-loving and that is not a lie.  But, just like artists who don’t paint and singers who don’t sing and – insert any creative type who doesn’t fulfill her inner calling here – , writers who don’t write are not complete people.  And when I’m faced with a blank page, the darkness creeps in so easily.  I wonder, if I’m not going to fulfill my potential today, then what am I doing here in the first place?  And the more my thoughts spin on these meditations, the more painful it can be just being in my own body.  And that’s when the darkness can become…well, really dark.

This is hard to write about.  From an outside perspective, I understand these feelings as selfish, whiny, and, of course, ones that should not be indulged.  More so, this sort of darkest dark has gotten the better of at least one person close to me in my life.  I know it as a very scary, very helpless place to be.

Nevertheless, there it is.  Ever-looming, ever-present, ever-daring me to run past it if I can and actually create something amazeballs.  And honestly, sometimes I just don’t have enough energy for the Red Rover.

3.
My mother wants to stop in and see my grandmother at her retirement home. 
I ask if Death can come. 
She looks at me, smiles awkwardly, and gets into the car. 
I look at Death and shrug. 
“That’s okay,” says Death.  “You know how I hate that place. 
Everyone is always staring at me like I’m out to get them or something.”
“Some people are just bigots, Death,” I tell him.  “You can’t take it personally.”
Death nods.  He goes into the house. 
After a moment, I hear the sound of the television.

It was on one of these days of feeling too tired to fight that I started writing “Creepy Little Death Poems.”

I have no idea why exactly, but that day, while I was crying in a library, I decided that instead of trying to write in spite of the darkness, I would instead write about it.  “Tiffany, just do your work,” was also something that Susan Aston used to say and, in that moment, that was the only work I could do.  I’ve never been sure of anything in my life except that I’m a writer.  So, I wrote.  Now, it seems like a no-brainer.  Then, it was a quiet revelation.

Charged with addressing what was in front of me, I began to personify my darkness – the looming, ominous, oppressiveness that holds me prisoner from my own creativity.  Eventually, I gave my darkness a name.  I called it Death.  (Not very creative, I know.  Thinking back on it, I probably should have called it Carl, or Albert, or Francois.)  Unshockingly, as I started to describe Death, I couldn’t help but picture The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come from A Muppet Christmas Carol.

Maybe Christmas will help me out of this after all

Once I had my darkness described, I could start talking with it.  My conversations became little poems.  And the little poems actually made me laugh.  And because I started laughing and stopped snotting on library books, my darkness called Death in that moment didn’t seem so vast and incomprehensible and oppressive.  He became sort of a pal.  Admittedly, not a very, you know, comforting pal.  But a pal, none the less.

In this forum, I felt courageous enough to address my feelings and ideas about the darkness that I would not be comfortable talking about with actual people.  Because,  you know, Death wouldn’t judge me for having dark places.  He’s Death.  He totally doesn’t care.

The more I began to write about my own dark places, the less I became afraid of them, or ashamed of them, or more depressed because they existed in the first place.  Instead of passively experiencing them, I could, instead, actively explore them.  Within the bubble of my creative work that day, I felt powerful instead of powerless.

For the first time ever, I experienced my own writing as transformative.

Plus, it cracked me up to think of this large, lurking figure just kicking it with me over mochacinos.

4.
“Where’s Death?” my mother asks.
I look around.  I spot him out back.
“He’s out by the pool,” I say.
“Well, see if he wants a sandwich.”
I wander through the sliding glass door.
Death sits with his feet dangling in the pool.  He is lost in thought, watching the sunlight dance on the clear, chlorinated water.  He looks up at me as I approach.
“Mom wants to know if you want a sandwich,” I say.
“No,” he says quietly.  “I’m good.”
There is an awkward pause.  Then, I sit down on the hot cement next to him and stick my feet into the cool water.  We sit in our familiar shared silence for a moment.  Death keeps staring at the deep shimmering water.  I watch Death stare at the water.
After a moment, I ask.  “Do you ever think about…”
“Sometimes,” says Death.
“But you wouldn’t ever…”
 “Probably not,” says Death, quickly. He looks at me.  “It’s a little redundant.”
I look down at my feet through the water and swirl them around. 
I knew he was going to say that.

I’m not going to lie.  It’s extremely uncomfortable to be writing about – let’s call it what it is – depression – in a public forum.  I certainly am not presenting any sort of quick fix and even this strategy does not work for me all of the time.  But “writing out the dark spots” turned out to be a literal task, and a good one, sort of like cleaning out the corners of a room I was so used to seeing filled with dust that I never realized they didn’t have to be like that.  And frankly, it is a relief to admit the stark reality of my own creative blocks, instead of just opening a giant can of whitewash.

Sometimes we have to write about things in order to understand them at all.  Joan Didion taught me that.

Let’s be clear:  I do not think that my death stories will be my literary legacy.  But, the writing feels – maybe for the first time? – truthful.  So, maybe if I “write out the dark spots” for a little while longer, I will understand more fully what it is to write truthfully.  Then, maybe, I won’t have to write about the darkness anymore.

A long time ago, I said to a friend of mine that I thought my writing would one day save my life.  When I said that, I was thinking that it might bring me fame and fortune, or at least a sustainable income.  I didn’t think it would bring me “Creepy Little Death Poems.”

But, nevertheless, I was right.

 

creepy little death poems picFebruary 2, 2014: Tiffany Tang has since published a volume of ‘creepy little death poems’ due to the overwhelming response to this post.

The book is available here.

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In Search of an Outlet…

Plugging in against all odds…

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking, “Tiffany is about to write a post about how to release creative expression and find a space to explore artistic inclinations in a hustle and bustle world.”

Sorry to disappoint.

While it is poignantly true that we do all need that kind of an outlet, the point of this post is that I needed a literal outlet.  Like, an electrical one.

It was the summer of 2012.  The days were hot and the nights were…uh, dark (new moon, and all).  I found myself entertaining an invitation to spend some quality time with my immediate family over the Fourth of July holiday in a remote mountain retreat in Northern California.  The idea was rather enticing: days full of blackberry-picking and lollygagging beside the great North Fork of the Yuba River (yes, I said “lollygagging”), interrupted only by fiercely competitive games of dominoes (the ends have to add up to multiples of five in order to earn any points – we are hardcore) and bouts of rainbow trout fishing, not to mention a patriotic parade or two hosted by the local town folk.  Inside, my creative heart leapt at the thought of dusting off The Artist’s Way, journaling under dappled sunshine on the front porch, and trying my hand at acrylic painting – a slightly scary prospect, as those of you familiar with my (lack of) artistic talents would know.

There was only one teensy tiny little hitch.

I had an online class to teach.

Typically, vacationing and online teaching are highly compatible.  Yes, it means I have to spend a few hours each day in front of a laptop instead of lollygagging somewhere else having fun (yes! lollygagging!), but the flexibility of this day job is totally worth it.  Except, of course, that it requires wifi.  And, an electrical outlet.  Actually, both.  Simultaneous-like.

Thus, having yet to discover the magic of a mobile hotspot, I embarked on the mountain adventure that I like to call, “I Swear I Actually Have a Legitimate Reason to Seek Internet Connection, So Stop Looking at Me Like I’m ‘That Girl’ Who Goes to the Mountains and Can’t Live One Day Without Checking Her Facebook.”   Yeah.  I had to muster up a pretty good “don’t judge me – I don’t even really WANT to be online” face.  It wasn’t terribly convincing.

First stop:  The cabin.  Ruled out immediately.

Our mountain retreat

Located in Goodyear’s Bar, which is a town of – oh, I don’t know, I would give it a top estimate of about…23? – the closest thing to high tech I would find there is the guy down the road who outfitted his roof with three giant satellite dishes in order to access HBO.  As for our place?  Great family pride was traditionally taken in the fact that nary a DVD would played during our stay there, much less would there be cell phone service or wifi access available.  Likewise, the apparatus to support such endeavors were nonexistent.

Second stop: Google maps.  Frightening revelations.

Coffee shops had always served me well.  Certainly, I wasn’t the only writer within a 100 mile radius of our mountain retreat to seek out a caffeine/wifi combo.  Where did the mountain pens go to recreate my Living Room lifestyle?  A google search for nearby cafes with potential wifi access revealed this:

Green Arrow:  our cabin
Red Dots:  nearest coffee shops

Okay, so that didn’t seem like a viable option.  (Why am I hyperventilating?)

Third stop: Downieville.  A town with potential.

Thankfully, there was a town four miles up the hill from Goodyear’s Bar.  (Wait, does a population of 325 count as a town or, like, a village?  What’s a homestead?  Settlement?)  Upon first exploration, Downieville seemed promising.  The local grocer was semi-friendly, the pizza parlor was recently remodeled, and preparations were underway for the annual Fourth of July parade and festivities that would be taking place later that week.  Hoards of mountain bikers and rafters regularly met up in Downieville to stock up on nature trail sustenance or to throw their flotation devices in the rushing river to begin miles and miles of descent through mountain gloriousness.  I stared longingly at those with athletic agendas, tucked my weighty laptop under my arm, and began scoping the main streets, er, street, of Downieville in search of a viable wifi option.

Yes, that says, “Fireman’s Dance.”
Yes, I considered staying a few extra days to attend.

The town pizza parlor doubled as a brunch spot on the weekends, and I was drawn to its clean, sturdy, square tables and views of the river.  The manager happily unplugged a neon beer sign to accommodate my computer’s embarrassing lack of battery life.  I set myself up with a cup of coffee and graded two papers offline while the parlor transformed around me for the lunch crew.  It was nice of them not to kick me out and I enjoyed the quiet solace of my own little corner. However, the wifi options were a tease, and after 20 minutes of trying to connect while perusing The Mountain Messenger (“One wallet was reported missing in Downieville.  Another was turned in.  The incidents were not related.”), I finally packed it in.

The next stop was the ice cream parlor.  The scoops and cones barista, who was 15, gave me the rundown on the town gossip, most of which consisted of the fact that guys from out of town regularly think she is 25, which apparently leads to awkward moments over mint chocolate chip.  I managed to connect, just barely, but the decor of the place – which included old timey feathered boas and dingy lighting – sort of creeped me out in a Miss Havisham kind of way.  I left.

But, on my way out, awkwardly mature ice cream parlor girl mentioned the town wifi.  Um.  Were we keeping this a secret to mess with the city folk?  But sure enough, sponsored by the Sierra County Arts Council, a wifi hotspot at the Yuba Theatre, right in the middle of town.  And pretty much plain as day.

Thanks, Sierra County Arts Council!  I settled cross-legged on one of the cozy little benches outside of the theatre with my laptop on my, uh, lap, and began tapping away in internet connection bliss.  As I was now located out in the open on Main Street – well, the street – passersby would nod hello or greet me with a smile.  Yay!  No one thought I was loony bins for attaching myself to a computer instead of an inflatable river raft!

A local named Charlie even sat down next to me and struck up a conversation.  Apparently, he assumed I was some city bigwig who was checking her stock portfolio.  Oh, Charlie.  If only you knew.  I quickly corrected him before he could ask me for market tips and then found myself explaining the ins and outs of online teaching.  But that’s boring, so we quickly moved on to the unemployment rate in the mountain towns, which was…depressing.  Desperate for a subject change, I asked him for details on the upcoming Downieville Fourth of July Parade.  He happily obliged with a preview into the annual foot races, the tug of war, and the lemonade stand.  I laughed.  But, he wasn’t joking.  These were actual things that would be happening.  I made a mental note to finish grading papers before the Fourth.  Lemonade is my second favorite beverage, after all.

Fourth of July lemonade

Twenty minutes after settling in front of the Yuba Theatre, as expected, my laptop battery began to die.  I quickly looked around me for an outlet, which seemed to be…missing.  I looked at Charlie, who shrugged unhelpfully.  Ack!  Code Red!  Defcon One on the streets – damn, I keep doing that – street of Downieville!

I glanced around at the neighboring structures situated within the Sierra County Arts Council wifi range for the promise of a plug…not too hopeful:  a grocery store, a shop selling river rock, a parking lot, a church, and…oh no.  Seriously??

St. Charles Place.  The bar on the corner.

I hadn’t done anything academic in a bar since I studied abroad in Canterbury, England.

Picture if you will:  Me in a cute sundress, laptop in tow, walking into semi-shady mountain bar midday, the fragrant strains of last night’s beer drifting up from the bar floor to meet my sunglass-perched nostrils, the local ruffians turning on their barstools to locate the source of the daylight that has pierced their dark sanctuary of hops and yeast.   And then, me:  “Um, can I get a Hefeweizen and some electricity, please?”

Well, it wasn’t really that dramatic.  But I think I will always like to remember it that way.

Internet and electricity secured, simultaneous-like, St. Charles became my online home during my stay.  I am absolutely positive that the pints which accompanied each grading session had nothing to do with the remarkable curve established for that week’s assignments.  And once the papers were done…it was time to enjoy the festivities!

The Fourth of July Parade in Downieville goes down Main Street…then turns around in the pizza parlor parking lot and comes back again. 🙂

Annual Tug of War – Interestingly, most of these participants were recruited at the last minute from their barstools at St. Charles Place.

Annual Fourth of July Foot Races.

I painted a thing!
Excellent tutelage provided by Dad.

Happy Fourth of July!

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Just When I’m Feeling Uninspired…

 

…I stumble across a giant statue of Orpheus, god of music and poetry. Okay, I get it, I get it!

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Mini me and giant Orpheus

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The Awesomeness of Elizabeth Gilbert

Inspiration for a Thursday…

One of my all time favorite authors is Elizabeth Gilbert.  (In fact, I plan to launch an “I want to lunch with Elizabeth Gilbert” twitter campaign, but more on that later.)  The point is that it is important to find authors who speak to us, who write to our hearts, whom we would like to emulate as we navigate through the discovery of our own writing styles.  Whenever I get a serious case of the “mean reds” around my writing, I take a deep breath and listen to Liz.  Enjoy.

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I Promise I Will Write the Novel Tomorrow…

…I’ve been a little distracted this week.

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First Friday Five – Dominic Carrillo

On this Friday, an addendum to the First Friday interview from last week.  Enjoy…

Gentle Reader – I have always been fascinated by the specifics of a creative’s life.  As one who seems to handle no less than four or five employment or volunteer opportunities simultaneously, I have found that the nuts and bolts of accomplishing my personal creative work sometimes seem elusive.  In short, I dread making routine out of what I feel should be reserved for the realms of inspiration.  Cut to my unfinished novel.  It is therefore my intention to grill First Friday writers mercilessly on their particular writing habits in hopes that, one day, my muses and I may agree on a somewhat habitual appointment schedule for our meetings.  – TT

Five Questions for Dominic Carrillo

1.  Novel writing takes tenacity.  What keeps you/kept you coming back to the page?

What helped at first was the illusion that it wouldn’t take very long to finish a novel.  I imagined a few weeks of getting it all on the page, and then maybe a few months of revising.  I was also forming To Be Frank Diego by piecing together some stuff I had already written, so I thought I had done maybe half the work and the rest would be easy.  So, I was delusional, really.  I naively believed it would be a much easier and shorter process.  Once reality kicked in though, I still believed I could and would finish the novel—and thought I had finished it on at least three different occasions.

Once I started really “seeing” the story, it did become easier to write and want to finish it.  What I mean by “seeing” is that as I kept writing and revising, visual images of the scenes in each chapter became more and more vivid, which made the writing more enjoyable too.  I saw the story unfold in a certain way—kind of like a movie–to the point where it felt as if I were simply retelling a story that actually happened.  Towards the end, about a year and a half into it, my motivation was mainly in finishing it and making it better. The homestretch wasn’t fun and it wasn’t pretty, so I had to set deadlines for myself and seek professional editing help.  I’m by no means dependent on the encouragement of others, but I’d be lying if I said that didn’t help too.

2.  Is your writing style different now from when you began writing the novel?

My writing style is different now than it was two years ago, yes. I find myself self-editing more as I write because I know my tendencies and bad habits a little bit better.  For example, I know I can be redundant.  I’m also more aware that I sometimes overwrite, or make sentences more complicated than they need to be.   And the list goes on.  But the point is that now I edit as I go in an effort to make my voice clear, simple, and occasionally funny.  I think when I wrote my first draft, I used a lot more grad school type words (ubiquitous and repudiate and such) in an effort to prove my literary chops, or intellect, or whatever you want to call it.  After re-reading it I thought, “Not only do I not talk that way, but I don’t really like it when people talk to me that way either.”  So the tone of my writing has come down to earth a bit more. It’s less academic.  I’m no longer trying to impress anyone with my word choices.  Now I’m simply trying to tell a story that flows, feels authentic, connects to people, and has some sense of humor.

3.  What is your typical writing schedule?  (time of day/duration/location/music?)

 I don’t know if I have a writing schedule.  When I begin a big writing project—and this is a grand total of three times in my life so far—I isolate myself for at least a week.  I get obsessed with an idea that’s been marinating in my head, and dive into writing about it with little regard to the time of day, my food intake, other humans, etc.  Once I emerge from my cave, I let the story sit for a week or so, and then return to it for a few hours each day.  I’m not a morning person, so I like writing in the afternoon or at night, either in silence or with instrumental music on in the background.  And I need to be alone at the beginning of the process.  For re-writing or revision, I like to go to a coffee shop like the one I’m sitting at right now.

4.  Did you have a vision of what this project would be before you started?  Did the book fulfill that vision or depart from it? 

I wanted to write a novel for maybe seven years, but I had no strong vision of what it would be.  About four years ago, the idea of Frank Diego’s story began to develop.  At first I visualized only a few scenes, then (about two years ago) the story concept came together and I wrote 80 pages in two weeks.  Since then the story and its characters have evolved quite a bit.  Many chapters have been added and cut.  But I knew from the time I wrote those first 80 pages that it would become a novel– mostly because I knew of the online self-publishing industry, and I knew anyone could “publish” a novel these days.  Now that it’s in printed book form, it’s just a question of: Is it decent and interesting enough to be purchased and read by a large audience?  That still remains to be seen.  So, the initial vision of To Be Frank Diego has been fulfilled and has evolved far beyond my first concept of the story.  But the project itself will not be finished—or fulfilled– until I’ve promoted it far beyond my friends and Facebook contacts and had some anonymous critical feedback.

5.  Who was your most influential teacher? Author?

I have flashes of many good teachers who’ve influenced me.  First, there was Dr. Bennett, who somehow made me feel like I was smart back in the eighth grade when I felt pretty dumb.  He was encouraging and inspirational.  I also remember my first writing teacher my freshman year in college.  When we met and discussed my creative writing assignment, he sounded very sympathetic and told me he was sorry about my traumatic childhood experience I’d written about.  He explained that he could tell it really happened to me.  When I told him it was pure fiction, he was a bit embarrassed, but it gave me an indication that I might be a decent writer.

Jervey Tervalon was my creative writing teacher at UCLA.  He was the first published author I’d met, so when he encouraged me to write more, it meant a lot.  He also advised me to write what I know about most, based on personal experience, and that’s stuck with me.  But the most influential teachers over the last ten years have been, hands down, my own students.

Dominic Carrillo will be signing books at the Art Bar in New York City on Thursday, July 19th, 6-8 pm.  You can read more about him and To Be Frank Diego here.

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A Friendly Reminder

On the phone this morning:

Maynard: How’s the novel coming?

Me: Um. I just wrote a wicked blog post.

Maynard:

Me: I made a Pinterest board with character inspirations.

Maynard:

Me: Okay, fine, I did that six months ago.

Maynard:

Me: You’re right. Everything else is a distraction. Even eating.

Maynard:

Me: You’re a hard ass.

Maynard: Get to it.

 

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