This year I signed up for NaNoWriMo: that's National Novel Writing Month. It's taken place each November for the past 14 years. The challenge: to write 50,000 words (about 175 pages) towards a new novel in 30 days time.
I don't generally need incentives to write novels. I've published three, have four more in my files, and am currently in the middle of writing my eighth.* My problem is that I compose new fiction very slowly.
I've written about this before. I am much happier revising than creating from scratch. That's shaping what's already on the page, work that I enjoy.
Getting ideas in my head onto paper is hard. Until I've written it down, an idea is an unformed possibility. It's a series of images that I see taking shape. The act of writing fixes the image in time and space, like a written snapshot. My job is to not only describe each snapshot of my story, but make the story flow from one to the next in a way that makes sense. I can easily spend half an hour thinking of different ways a story might flow, to get from one snapshot to the next, and not have written a single word.
So, this latest novel I've been working on is about half-written. Maybe more, maybe less. I probably have another 50,000 words or so to go. I figure that if I am forced to get 50,000 words down in 30 days towards this novel, I have a good shot at finishing a rough draft before the year's end.
But, it turns out, that finishing a half-written novel doesn't comply with NaNoWriMo's rules. They state pretty clearly: "Start from scratch. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft."
Fortunately, the good folks at NaNoWriMo have given me a way out. Even if I've already written half my novel, I can still join. I'm just a rebel, in their parlance, and I'm welcome aboard. They even have a section in their Forum just for folks like me.
I'll keep you posted on my progress.
*Little known fact: most writers have written more than they shall ever publish.
"Not to be confused with The Bogeyman, either. He's just a terrible golfer."
From Dante Shepherd's wonderful webcomic Surviving the World.
At the end of one of my first conversations, a man told me no one had ever bothered to ask him what he thought about same-sex marriage. “I’ll need to have a long talk with my wife at the kitchen table tonight.” He thanked me as we said goodbye.
That conversation kept me going as the week wore on. How many more voters needed to really think about the Minnesota constitutional amendment before they voted?
I'm the first to admit that a lot of calls really never went anywhere. Like the one with the drunk man, who probably won't remember any of what we talked about. Or the one with the farm woman who, when I asked to speak to her husband told me cheerfully: “He’s out there. Somewhere.”
But so many Minnesotans were supportive.
There was the woman whose sister-in-law had convinced her that voting no on banning same-sex marriage was the right thing to do. Though she had gay friends, she did not want them to get married in her church, since it was against its doctrine. “But if their church wants to marry them, what business is it of mine? Shouldn’t they be allowed to be happy?”
There was the man who didn’t approve of gay marriage but was angry that folks were trying to legislate through the constitution. When I asked him if knew anyone who was gay, he told me, "I have sons who hang around a crowd with a lot of gay kids. Nice kids.” We talked for a little longer, and as we wound down to say goodbye, he said, “I don’t know what would happen if my sons were gay. But you know, you do want to love who your kids love.”
There were hateful calls too. The ones where I was told that sinful people won’t go to heaven; that marriage is about procreation, and what I was talking about was unnatural; the ones with palpable dislike and fear of homosexuality.
And then there was the retired pastor.
“I believe in marriage for healthy relationships,” he said.
I paused, unsure about where the conversation was going.
He went on to explain. “The bible tells us that God made man, and that God made woman to keep him company. It doesn’t say anything about getting married. Where does it say that two people who love each other shouldn’t?”
We talked for quite a while. He told me that there are so many falsehoods being spread around.
“People act out of fear," he said. "But you can’t decide things as important as this that way.”
“I wish that there were more people who think like you in this world,” I said.
“Oh, I can’t believe we are so few.”
He had replied with such warmth and such conviction, I was reassured. We are many, too.
Why, you may ask, would someone from Connecticut, someone from a state where gay marriage is legal, fly halfway around the country to volunteer? After all, how does it affect me?
The simplest answer is that I come from a large extended family. We have settled everywhere in the U.S., from the Northeast, to the South, the Midwest, the Rockies, the Southwest, the West Coast, and everywhere in between.
And yes, I have family in Minnesota, too. And one of my children studies here.
If she loves a woman, then I will embrace her partner--I will love whom she loves. That's how families are built.
And if she decides to marry a woman, I'd love to have her come home and get married in Connecticut. But she shouldn't have to. She should be able, like every married person in our large family, to chose a wonderful spot that has meaning to her and her spouse to be. And once she is married, regardless of whom she marries, the marriage should be recognized, everywhere.
This last week I heard a heart-wrenching story. A man told me how he had been with his partner for over 30 years. They had signed one contract and legal document after another to make sure that in case of illness or death, they could each take care of each other as they would have wished. Despite that, despite every care and foresight, when his partner died, he wasn't permitted to move his partner's body: they had to get his partner's elderly mother to give approval. This is recently. In Minnesota.
No one should have to face that. No one in my family should have to face that. None of the children in my family should have to even think about that.
Wherever you may live, think about how banning gay marriage hurts people. Real people.
I am here because I will love whomever my children love. And I want them to be able to do so freely.
You can hear her entire 30-second introduction by playing the beginning of the interview found on this page.
I will never think of graphic novels in quite the same way again.
It's hot. It's nice out. I'm not on the computer.
It's all good though. I'm working and reading. But it'll be quiet here for awhile longer.
Catch up with you later, around mid-August.
Hope you are all having a good summer.
He was an old man, then, ailing. Although we did not know it at the time, this would be his last visit to the lake. Professionally, it had been a trying, depressing time for me. I had been submitting manuscripts to editors for years, and other than one short story for Ladybug Magazine, no one seemed interested in what I was writing. But on that sunny afternoon, we were happy, quiet company, glad to sit and breathe and spend time with each other.
“Alice,” he said, “did I ever tell you what it was like when I first started working in Montreal?”
Papa was poor: he had arrived as an immigrant with almost nothing. There were days when he survived on a single meal. He took up a job selling tools to hardware stores. He was given samples by the company, and he went around Montreal, from store to store, hoping to make a sale. Every day he’d make sure to visit as many stores as he could fit in, show his wares, and move on the next one.
“I didn’t sell anything. But as long as I was going from store to store, I was doing my job.”
One day, he arrived at a store he had visited a few times before, and spoke to the owner.
“You know,” the owner said, “I won’t buy what you’re selling. I get my tools from another manufacturer, and I like what they make. But you’re a nice man. So let me tell you about the store a few blocks that way. They’ll be interested in what you have to show.”
My father thanked him and went to the store the owner had told him about. He made his first sale that day.
“After that, I didn’t make lots of sales right away. But I made more. And I stuck with it because that was my job. I think I did okay in the end.”
We each have our heroes. Papa was one of mine.
Muniu managed to avoid the transport. I don’t know how. But his escape from the Germans only landed him in the Soviet army. He was press-ganged, along with any hale young Pole the Russians could capture, and put into service driving a truck.
I was a kid when Muniu died, but I still can recall the description of the hardships. At one point, stationed at a siege, all they had to eat was shoe leather—that, and snow.
Years later my aunt told me a story. Apparently, while in the Soviet army, Muniu got a raging toothache. In agony, he stole a pair of plyers, took a swig of alcohol, and yanked his own tooth out.
When the officer in charge found out, he threatened to court-martial him. “This is treason! First, you engaged in a medical procedure without getting the permission of the Committee. And second, worse, you hid from the Committee the fact that you have medical training!” Of course, Muniu had never had any medical training.
Rather than punish him, the commander handed him a pair of plyers and a bottle of vodka, and assigned him to the position of troop dentist. Muniu spent the remainder of the war pulling Soviet soldiers’ teeth, when not manning the truck.
Fast forward to the 1950s in Montreal, Quebec. My aunt, a girl, had a toothache. It was Sunday and everything in Montreal had shut down, as it always did. But Muniu took my aunt in his car and went in search of a dentist. As he drove around and around on this thankless errand, my aunt, in pain, heard him mutter, “All I need is a pair of plyers.”
A couple of years ago, I told these two related stories to a dear friend. Katherine's family hails from Russia, and she is fluent in Russian. As any storyteller would, I took what I knew of Muniu, and what I had heard in childhood and from my aunt, and embellished. I placed his toothache at the time of the siege—Leningrad, I said, although I acknowledged it could have been Stalingrad. The rest I kept more or less as I remembered.
Katherine's eyes danced. “It should be the Leningrad siege,” she told me. “Because that was St. Petersburg, named after Peter the Great. And you know that Peter the Great was an amateur dentist, and a patron of dentistry for the Russian army." Where else should my uncle have been assigned the job?
Tickled, in my next letter to my aunt I relayed what Katherine had told me. My aunt was thoroughly amused, not only by Katherine’s take on it, but in how the story had mutated in my telling.
You see, she did not recollect any siege: she thought the episode had been “in the middle of the vast Russian nowhere.” And Muniu didn’t have a bottle of vodka, since none was to be had at the time—he had numbed his mouth with snow. The officer gave him his own pair of plyers and told him to take care of the soldiers’ teeth. “You can use as much snow as you like!”
The storyteller in me is thrilled. The punch line is much better with snow than with vodka. The Leningrad/Peter the Great connection, however, has to stay at least in some way---it's too wonderful to ignore.
I think my uncle Muniu would approve.
Reading is my number one occupation in waiting rooms. Something riveting and escapist is best. If not, research for something I’m working on is also good.
Rule #2: Always bring a pen and notebook.
Because I’ll need to take notes on that research. Or, if not doing research, maybe I’ll have the presence of mind to work on my most recent project, or a blog piece.
Rule #3: Sleeping is an option.
No one cares if you fall asleep in a waiting room. Most people wish they could do the same. Snoring, however, is bad form.
Rule #4: Don’t hog.
If the waiting room is busy, use one chair.
Rule #5: The receptionist will let you use a bathroom, if you ask.
This comes in handy, especially if the wait is long.
Rule #6: You don’t have to carry a conversation.
People in waiting rooms tend not to be happy people. No one expects you to be conversational. Don’t be rude, of course, but if you’d rather not talk, an acknowledgment, small smile and return to your reading of choice usually is signal enough that you’d rather not talk.
Corollary: If you want to talk, you might not find welcome listeners.
Rule #7: Eat your lunch elsewhere.
Seriously. That’s why hospitals have cafeterias. Bad enough you have to wait. Worse is smelling someone’s meal while you're hungry. Worst is being sick and having to smell food that increases your nausea.
Rule #8: If you like to people watch, be discreet.
This is where listening is better than looking. But really. Is it any of your business?
Rule #9: It’ll smell funny.
There’s nothing you can do about it.
Rule #10: The wait will come to an end.
I find this especially useful to remember if I didn’t follow rules 1 and 2, and can’t sleep. There are just so many times I’ll want to read the posted notices. Magazines get boring. And I really, really, REALLY dislike the noise from TVs. But sitting back and working out a problem about a novel, daydreaming about what else I could be doing, or just relaxing is infinitely better than obsessively checking my watch and wondering, how much longer do I have to wait?