Tuesday, May 25, 2010


When I have a good writing day, I’m left completely drained. It’s like running a marathon, which I’ve done. (Okay, it was actually a 5K, but quite draining for someone as sedentary as myself.) There are some physical aches, like the tension in my neck and wrists, but mainly I’m just mentally drained. After a day of writing, I can barely read a sentence, even a very good sentence in a very good book, like The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle. Forget completing the capitals of the world quiz on Sporcle. Instead, I’m down for the count.

I’ve been trying to balance out these hours of mental strain with some good physical labor. It’s either that or a four-hour nap, which is my sort of marathon.

Hence, my unusual spurt of home renovation.

In the last few weeks, while I’m winding down the final thirty, twenty, ten pages of my novel, I’ve spread four yards of humus in the back yard, painted in the kitchen, made new curtains, reupholstered the dining room chairs, and freecycled eight bags of clothes, shoes and purses. Today I painted the French doors leading onto our patio – something I’ve been meaning to do since the day we moved in, more than seven years ago. It was blissfully cathartic – a cool-down from the intensity of tying together all the loose ends of my book. Baxter was whining through the fence at dog next door and someone in the neighborhood was playing a saxophone, quite well.

All in all, it was a great day – one of those rare times where mind and body came together in perfect balance.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Occupational Hazards

1) I now need to wear glasses at the computer.

This may be more or less related to my job as an online essay rater for ETS, in which I assign scores to around 140 essays in a typical eight-hour workday. And then, in my off-duty hours, I have a hard time focusing on the cursor in my Word document.

“You have 20/20 vision,” says my eye doctor. “There’s really no need to prescribe you anything.”

I protest: But the screen! The glare!

“Hmm.” He considers this for a long moment, his thumbs and index fingers carefully pressed together. “Have you tried looking away from the screen for a while?”

2) Somehow sitting at my computer is connected in my mind with snacking – raising small handfuls of food to my mouth, chewing, chewing, and reaching for another helping. This is because writing makes me nervous. Thus, the expanded waistline, the widening hips. I find myself eating things I don’t even particularly like – chips, crackers, pieces of melty chocolate intended for pastries.

“Try snacking on sunflower seeds,” my trainer says, tsk-tsking.

And so I do – one tiny crunch at a time.

3) After a steady routine of writing followed by yard work, my fingernails are shot – cuticles chewed to ragged pieces, dirt deep in the nail beds. A manicure is clearly in order. I relax and put myself in the hands of a professional – a tiny Vietnamese woman who alternates between comments in English to me and rapid-fire Vietnamese to her co-workers. It takes me a few seconds to realize when her words are directed at me. She douses my skin with oil and begins a massage, my hands huge and ungainly in her petite grasp.

“Relax,” she orders. “You’re holding too much tension in your hands.” Or maybe that’s not what she says at all, but somehow that’s what I hear.

“Well, that makes sense,” I explain. “I’m a writer.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

Horse Before the Cart

So, a few weeks ago, I reached the point where my thesis was basically done – which means that I’ve met the page requirement for prose. My mentor suggested a few small tweaks, and that was it.

At the exact moment I hit “send,” I felt my lungs filling with air like they hadn’t in months. I’m not being metaphorical – I really hadn’t been able to take a deep breath.

Now I can focus on a few other things, like a dress for graduation, heels that will look just right walking across the stage, the guest list for my graduation party. Maybe the house could be spruced up just a bit – we had talked about a flagstone barbeque area in the backyard, and I’ve never been a fan of my lime green-and-red kitchen tile. You know – the important stuff.

Of course, there’s still the wee matter of finishing the book.


Monday, April 26, 2010

10,001 Names for Baby

I’m really bad at titles.

Last week, I lamented to my mentor that although my novel is really coming along, I still didn’t have a title in mind. It was starting to feel like a character flaw.

One title had been rattling around in my mind for a while: The Face of the Earth. It spoke to the central mystery of the story – the missing girl – and also the narrator’s longing for the physical landscape of her childhood. Or maybe it just plain sucked. It was hard to tell.

I queried some friends and the response was lukewarm at best. “Ehh,” Will said, his face twisted in an unpleasant grimace. It wasn’t the most positive sign.

I sat down with an open Word document and typed out thirty different titles, all variations on the original. After an hour I was coming up with such gems as Place Title Here! and Don’t Look at My Title.

Choosing a title for a book is probably as difficult as choosing a name for a child, something I also know nothing about. (Baxter’s name came to me organically. It was somewhat close to Bailey, the beagle of my childhood, and also the last name of a student I had at the time. It fit his squirmy puppiness perfectly. But I digress…) Some of my pregnant friends have announced the baby’s name months in advance of the actual birth. Last year I attended a pre-baby shower and was a little surprised to hear everyone calling the baby-to-be by name already, even delivering monogrammed gifts. What if the name didn’t fit her? What if the ultrasound had missed a certain tiny something, tucked between his legs? My sister and brother-in-law, parents to the lovely Sabine, resisted telling anyone the name they’d picked out. “I didn’t want anyone to talk us out of it,” my sister explained. Wise – something I should have learned from.

Recently I tuned in late to a discussion on NPR about band names – the basic thrust of which is that pretty much everything that could be a band name is already taken. A few bizarre names were suggested as proof that not everything was already used, to which the subject of the interview replied, “They’ll be taken by tomorrow.” He was half joking, half bitter. I remember often thinking the same thing of movie titles – the good ones are already gone.

I talked to my mentor again, lost in my greedy-neediness. Maybe The Face of the Earth is the one, I mused. But it feels too wordy. Too many single syllables. Maybe I needed something like Facing the Earth. No. Face in the Earth. Or maybe what I needed was my head, buried in the sand.

In the meantime, the ever-astute Paige observed, “It doesn’t really matter what you call it now. That’s something the publisher will decide.”

Okay. True. But there’s still the matter of the thesis binding, the title page, the signature page that has to be mailed by… tomorrow.

My mentor wrote back. What about Face of the Earth?

I held the words in my mouth, chewed on them, expelled them to the admiring silence of the room. Face of the Earth. I liked it. How was it possible that one single syllable could make such a difference? And that in my tortured hours of brainstorming I hadn’t come up with this myself?

So. Face of the Earth it is.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Almost, Not Yet

I hate libraries. I'm guessing my dislike stems from all of the late fees I had to pay in my youth. On Saturday my dad gave me my allowance and on Tuesday I passed it off to the white haired woman behind the circulation desk at the library. I'm not sure of the total amount I paid over time. But my mother jokes I single handedly funded the Elkins Park Free Library renovation of 1982.

For as much as I detest libraries, the awkward silence and musty smell, I adore bookstores. When I'm traveling, I love to wander around local shops. Tall wooden shelves display pressed spines. The shopkeeper readily offers intelligent suggestions. His excitement makes my mouth water, as if I'm watching a movie preview. From Mitchell's in Nantucket to Foyles in London, independent bookstores always make it onto my to-do list.

Here in Philadelphia, I couldn't even name one local bookshop. This leaves me no choice to visit Barnes & Noble and Borders. And truth be told, I like these places too. Meandering through the aisles, an iced skim latte in one hand an my wallet in the other, I pluck interesting books from the shelves, I skim the first page to see if it grabs me.

Many people are claiming the debut of the iPad, following the relative success of other e-readers like the Kindle, will save the publishing industry. From chatter on Morning Joe to articles in Wired and The New Yorker, people question if the introduction of e-readers just might be the boost books have long needed.

I've pondered buying a Kindle. Or at the very least, I strongly hinted to my previous beau, a man who owned not one but two Kindles, that it would be a divine gift for yours truly. Seeing he forgot my last birthday, it's fair to assume he won't be getting me one. Which has led me to strongly consider buying one for myself.

You know what holds me back? Not the cost. The Kindle seems to be priced quite nicely considering it saves me from lugging ten books on my random adventures. Not the lack of paper. And I'm fine reading online. After testing out a friend's Kindle, I'm more than comfortable with the layout and lighting. But if I buy books online, what will happen to bookstores? Right. That's when I close the Amazon website and put it off for another day.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Who Do You Write For?

When my college alumni magazine arrives, I flip quickly through the articles about new construction and advancing technology on campus and head straight for the alumni notes. You know, the good stuff – who’s married who and who’s had kids and who has what degree. I’ve never contributed anyway myself – mainly since I don’t have much to report, and those things I do share go in my snarky status updates on Facebook.

But after three emails and two postcards entreating me to update my information for a new alumni publication, I finally caved and called the 800 number to reach the private company handling the printing.

The woman who answered had a slight Southern drawl and somehow managed to sound homey and robotic at once. “Spell your name for me, honey?”

I complied.

“Can you confirm this is your address?”

I confirmed.

“And what is your occupation?”

I hesitated. I could picture her on the other end of the phone, a headset growing out of one ear, her fingers poised above the keyboard. (But what to say? I’m a former teacher… I substitute teach when there are bills to pay… right now I’m rating written exams for California State University… this summer I’m doing my last [I hope] stint as a summer school teacher… No. I am none of those things.)

I took a deep breath. “I’m a writer.”

“You’re a writer?”

“Yes. I’m a writer.”

I was expecting a follow-up question, something along the lines of what do you write? Fiction? Memoir? Poetry? Textbooks? News articles? Film scripts? Ad copy? Little notes to yourself in the margin? Postcards to your grandparents?

Instead she asked, “Who do you write for?”

“Um, what? I don’t really…” Well. Now this was an interesting question. Who do I write for – other than myself and the handful of family members who more or less have to read my musings? Who exactly is my reading public? Who is my target audience? I would love to say “Everyone!” but of course that isn’t true. Not everyone reads. Some people read only biographies, others only vampire romances. My students, I often suspected, only read the books being shoved down their throats.

This is not, of course, what the woman on the other end of the phone meant. She was asking, do you write for a company? Do you have an employer? Do you get paid? Do you want your fellow alumni to think you have achieved any sort of legitimacy? I tried again. “I’m a fiction writer, actually. Short stories, novels.” (I was crossing my fingers behind my back on this one – being ¾ of the way through one novel certainly does not mean I’ve written novels.)

“Okay,” the woman said, with a forced cheerfulness. This is probably when she realized I wouldn’t be forking over $110 for the alumni publication. “Should I say novelist, then? For your occupation?”

No. Not yet. One day.

“No, I think just writer,” I said. After all, I could always call back with another update.

Friday, April 16, 2010


A few weeks ago, after roasting fourteen pounds of potatoes, I sat down to a Passover seder. In usual tradition, we went around the table reading from the haggadah. The leader explained the meaning of the items on the seder plate. The youngest, an eighteen year old, sang the four questions. People of all ages munched on olives and celery sticks, carrots and pickles, as we waded through the holiday rituals.

Somewhere along the way I stopped paying attention to Moses and Pharoh. You see, I was too busy line editing the haggadah. The story of the four sons? Yeah, this could be tightened and shortened. A little less forced drama might also help pull the reader in when discussing the plagues. Show, don’t tell. I knew I was in a bad place when I felt the urge to reach for a pen and jot notes in the margins.

“Paige, how about your recite the motzi?” the leader asked.

“Oh, sure,” I answered as I glanced at my neighbor’s book to confirm the page number, ten higher than where I was editing.

When I was in law school, my newfound knowledge of torts and evidence completely ruined my enjoyment of shows like The Practice and Law and Order. Oh please, no judge would ever permit that kind of rambling rant while interrogating a witness. And that attorney’s whore length skirt? Yeah, nice try counselor. Well, it seems pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing has momentarily ruined the joy of reading. Or at least reading subpar writing.

This might not sound like much of an issue. I mean, who wants to read subpar writing anyway? Except when my brain hurts from working on my thesis, struggling to properly develop a character or generate a worthwhile plot, the last thing I want to read is Faulkner or The New Yorker. What I really need is something mindless.

“Read Twilight,” a friend suggested.

“I really liked The Girl with the Tattoo Dragon,” another noted.

The other night, unwilling to accept my current state, I went to Barnes & Noble and roamed the aisles. I plucked books off the shelves, leaned against the wall as I scanned the first few paragraphs. Some choices were definitely better than others. But in the end I walked out empty handed, feeling the same sense of disappointment as when I eat an apple instead of diving into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

When I got home, I poured a glass of wine and settled in on my sofa. There were plenty of magazines piled up in my basket, a collection of unread books stacked on my shelves. Instead, I reached for my latest knitting project. And when I tired of the yarn and needles, I worked on that day’s New York Times Crossword. Just before crawling into bed, I considered breaking back the spine on White Tiger, I wondered if now might be the time to start Divisadero. Instead, I turned off the light, pulled up the covers, and drifted off to sleep.