The Manuscript(s) in my Drawer

For kicks and giggles, I pulled together all my finished and unfinished (but promising) short stories into a manuscript back in 2011. (I included everything that wasn’t a fairy tale that I had written). I wanted to find out my total word count and whether I had enough for a book. This story collection currently clocks in at 50,000 words, which is a bit short, but not terrible.

After I found out I had a viable amount of material that needed a gentle spit shine and once over, what did I do?

Nothing.

Getting my writing act together has always been tantalizingly possible. But my inertia rules the day. Admittedly, I had solid excuses. I was working full time, in graduate school and completing an internship all last year. I worked 6 days a week.  But I have not touched these stories since November 2011. Months have swooshed by and I have done nothing.

(In fact, I have three short manuscripts that need revisiting. My other two are my fairy tale collection and my memoir project.)

It is July 30, 2013. I’m taking the Heinlein and Hemingway admonition that writers finish their work seriously. Dear internet, it’s time for a solemn vow. I’m going to polish/edit/finish at least one story in my manuscript each week. I have 13 more stories to go. If this works out, come mid-October, I should have one competed manuscript. Then starts the hard part, I will look for an agent. No more swooshing time. No more doing nothing. I have a simple plan to execute. (Execute sounds lethal alright.)

The Possibility of Change

Sometimes I worry that it’s very easy to become cynical, especially since I care about “trying to do some good.” As I become a social worker, I don’t want to take myself seriously, but I do want to be sincerely hopeful–to believe that things can and do change at the personal, community, and society levels if enough strategic energy is applied.

Before my internship with Durbar/Usha, I liked this hopeful attitude, and I wanted to embrace it whole-heartedly, but I was also hungry for inspiring stories. I wanted to know change was possible. I wanted some case studies for hope.

My six weeks in Kolkata working with and meeting with the women of Durbar and Usha have been nothing short of inspiring. I have witnessed a community system that works for the greater benefit of its members, transforming women’s sense of agency, solidarity, how they manage their health choices, and creating financial empowerment, and helping them plan for their families’ future. Each piece in the puzzle–collective, clinics, bank, children’s school–strengthens the others. It was amazing to listen to and see a community use its wisdom and power to take care of itself in such effective ways. In about twenty years, what began as a health initiative has become a powerful social and professional institution with impressive political, medical and financial impacts. One of the aspects I admire most about Durbar is its interest in the welfare of other marginalized communities, like domestic workers. It’s an amazing organization.

My hope system has been immunized. This can only help me be a better collaborator with friends, clients and communities.  My role going forward is to continuously remember what I witnessed to know what is possible for each of us and for our communities.

Usha

Research Team with Usha’s Secretary.

In Motion

I couldn’t write for  a while because everything I was concocting had to remain quiet until I informed my employers. Also, I’m not very good at being indirect or coy, so I felt a bit muffled. Then, once I was free to write, I felt like a giant container of mixed and turbulent feelings. The bosses have been informed. Two weeks before leaving my job, I’ve turned a corner. The feelings are starting to stack instead of rumbling. Hello blog. How I have missed thee. So here’s the plan, which is no longer a plan, but the shape of my new life for the next 12 months. I have set my future in motion.

In about two weeks, I leave for a Kolkata, India, where I will take a six-week class followed by one week of touring (will I finally get to see the Taj Mahal? Stay posted.). Expect lots of ruminations on life as a foreigner.

Once I come home, there will be a mad scramble for summer employment, and another summer class, and some internship projects.

Sometime in August, my three-day-a-week new internship starts, with all the corresponding excitement. (I’m really happy to be taking some time to focus on my development as a clinician, to finally be able to fully embrace my learning without juggling the demands of a full-time office job. There is the corresponding anxiety about whether or not I will find ways to make money while meeting these new obligations.)

I’ve decided I’m only allowed to fret over one thing at a time. So I’m now fretting over my seven-week trip to India. I have never been on a seven-week trip (besides my childhood summer commuting between France and the U.S. for family visits.) Now that my spring classes are finished, I can spend my leisure time trying to read up and prepare myself for this adventure. Here’s my conclusion: I cannot prepare myself. There’s no way.

Indiabrick

I can do some online research. I can look at pictures. I can open up the encyclopedic brick that is my guidebook. I can read other student blogs. I can pile up the supplies and necessities for my trip around the apartment. But I cannot prepare in the sense that I cannot become ready. I can only go.

And that’s my feeling about this entire coming year. I will do my due diligence, but I will not be ready. I can only move forward: Go with my full heart and mind, and hope for the best.

Humbled by my Humanity

Now that my time is parsed, sectioned, subdivided, and carefully annotated to account for every one of my multiple (and seemingly endless) obligations–I have to confront the obvious, which I love to pretend doesn’t apply to me: I’m human.

If I can reconcile myself with what might seem like an obvious proposition, then, what does being human require of me? What are my human obligations, rights and responsibilities?

And importantly, why do I shy away from being human?

Also, if I think I’m not human. What Do I think I am?

1) Requirements (inherited in silence, sometimes found in science or faith): Humor, Love, Passion, a dose of patience, a notion of hope, a heaping ladle of curiosity, a kind center, a practical turn, a Glass (neither full nor empty- realism tempered with thoughtful optimism).

2) Rights/Responsibilities: ecstatic moments; a longing for intimacy-sometimes beautifully fulfilled by forest, friends or lovers; the quiet solitude of pain; the quiet peace of reflection; knowing moments of perfect sun or rain. Long dimness in fogs-bodily, intellectual, heart generated, or atmospheric.

3) The shying away–I shy away because the weight and wonder are troubling to encompass.

4) What do I think I am? I do not know, but I enjoy it.

Human–a term I sometimes equate with great failure, and yet a term that trembles with generous potential.

I don’t feel sufficient for my humanity.

And yet.

As another human helped me see: So it goes.

Final question: is this a poem?

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Lightness

Someone once said to me that it takes about 10 years of therapy to realize what a total stranger can figure out about you in about three minutes (which sometimes makes me want to go bounding about asking strangers what they see.)

I take myself too seriously. I love to laugh, but I think my fundamental state is a bit wistful, maybe yearning. My grandmother tells me I was a melancholy child–she liked that about me. Tonight, a friend told me in all seriousness that I need to get more playful about my various obligations. I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching others to embrace fun, but it never occurred to me that I should be giving myself that exact speech. Typical.

Oh the awesome shortsightedness of being.

I used to think a lot about Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

Using his metaphor–I wanted to be a light person, but I knew that I was heavy. I can sometimes make people think I’m a light–but it’s a trick–that’s not me.

So how do I become more light in my ponderous being?

In not-so-light fashion I have added “FUN” at the top of my to-do list. (no comments needed.)

Fear and Pressure

It’s nearly time to write again. By Thursday this week, I will run out of my officially sanctioned excuse, “I don’t have time to write because I’m too busy with my grad coursework.”  The big question is what happens when I get two months of free evenings.

Whenever I stop writing for a period of time, a mysterious pressure chamber appears within me. The pressure keeps building in my “you should be writing” space, until I feel a nearly explosive tension in my ribs. I’m a talented procrastinator, so I am able to ignore a great deal of internal pressure and pretend everything is all right. But when I have the leisure to stop and think about it, I am afraid.

Here I am, on the cusp of free time. It’s a huge opportunity and of course opportunity is a burden of sorts. I desperately want to write, but I don’t know that I will. I’m feeling un-practiced and anxious and I have a zillion fragments of ideas, but no big concepts I want to pursue. Of course, there’s always the option to edit and polish existing pieces. Editing is important, but I would like to write something new. There’s also submitting, and I’ve realized that submitting is hugely important, and I enjoy the process and the volumes of rejection and the occasional sliver of encouragement. I could turn my attention in that direction. However, the insecure part of me wants to know that I can still create from nothing–that I can make a fragment of a new world in my head.

My idealized version of myself would set aside time every day to write or revise. My actual self is an anxious little pony. The page is blank. The page is waiting. The threat of the blank page trumps any passing feeling of accomplishment about wrapping up my first year in my grad program. (Why are feelings of accomplishment always so fleeting? I guess the answer is fear and pressure. They have their uses. They either immobilize me or they push me forward.) Onward with the battle!

How to Get Published

After years of hemming and hawing, of feeling inadequate, ambivalent, worried, anxious and excited about the notion of being published, I finally this year, in my 40s, have gotten my act together enough to submit some of my long-lingering work for publication. Since the beginning of the year, I have submitted three stories, and I have gotten two stories accepted for publication. This makes me feel quite optimistic.

Here are some (fairly obvious) “secrets”:

1. Guaranteed: You will Never get published if you don’t send your material out into the world. (My first 30 some years of writing related behavior prove this.)

2. Good Likelihood: The more venues to which you submit your stories, the more likely your stories will eventually be accepted for publication. This doesn’t mean be indiscriminate, but as I’ve learned from Writer’s Relief, you should send every story out to at least 25 appropriate publications.

3. Inevitably: The editorial review and response process takes time–I’m just hearing in June about stories I submitted in January. For the first time in my life, I had one story accepted in two different publications, a slightly painful but exciting turn of events.

4. Definitely. If an editor sends you encouraging feedback, follow up! Try to build dialogue, invite additional feedback, figure out if something else in your portfolio might be more suitable. That’s how I got Rosamonde Wakes published.

In short, send out your stories! The pieces that make you shake with excitement will provide enjoyment to others as well. Do your best at writing, then take a deep breath and submit!

The Terrible Thirst Produced by Just a Taste

My lack of time generally, and my surging ambition specifically, make me feel like I’m in a kiln, being slowly baked by my desire for further publications. The terrible truth–now that I have an inkling that I might occasionally produce publishable work, is that I’m desperate to hit that quality level more consistently: I want to work harder and get further with my writing, and I resent anything that takes away from that project (like being a student). Furthermore, I want new publishing credits and I want them right now. My impatience is rearing its head. I’m angry for having waited so long in my life to get to this point.

The remains of my rational self hold to the proposition that I should be able to celebrate the small measure of progress I’ve made. But my tiny taste of success gnaws at me, a reminder that I could do and be more as a working artist. I guess the good news, despite my ego problems, is that I think I’m slowly getting a touch better at my craft. This week, I picked up two old unfinished pieces that dragged about like spinster aunts sharing an efficiency studio (the cramped cement backyard of my writing archives), and I finally have a wealth of ideas as to how to “marry them off” to publishers.

The Appeal of Pessimism

I was sitting in a lecture last Thursday with the Dean of Penn’s School of Public Policy and Practice, and he was telling us about the US’s dismal record when it comes to child mortality due to abuse. The number of children dying from neglect and abuse has remained constant since the 1970s, despite the application of money, care, time, policy and staff.

These are the sorts of encouraging statistics and lectures one frequently encounters in social work school. The first year has been one of exceeding pessimism. Teachers and Deans are at great pains to describe the exact scope and hopelessness of the situation(s) and ask what exactly you think you can do as a lone practitioner in this big ugly world with its big ugly systems that replicate problems, stigma and power structures, or create new ones, while trying to alleviate suffering.

The Dean went on to explain in Kafkaesque detail, how bureaucracies, like all other malignant life forms, exist only to thrive and grow [not to solve problems efficiently].

{I’ll mention right now that he did wrap up the downbeat lecture on a note of possibility–that it takes coalitions and the right timing to instigate change, that the right policy at the right time can have a significant, positive effect, and he mentioned Social Security as changing the status of the elderly and dragging them out of poverty, and the GI Bill for creating the middle class in the 1950 and 1960s.}

But the reason I’m writing this post is to reflect on the lure, the allure, the temptation to listen to the litany of oft-repeated mistakes (the deadly mix of good intentions, poor policy design, restrictive benefit measures, and assorted gate-keeping and citizen shaming) and think of social ills as totally intractable. To think that having a miserable set of underclasses is part of the natural order, that no matter what we do, x% is going to be addicted, homeless, mentally ill, beaten and abused, illiterate etc.

It’s very tempting, after a couple centuries of good intentions and poor results, to think that nothing can be done. You have to be realistic.

well…

When I get in one of those dark corners of the mind, I give myself a stern talking to. I go back to home base. I question any offering of “norms”. This is the way it is and will remain is not a good enough answer. There wouldn’t be different national rates of, say, child mortality at birth, if there weren’t more or less effective approaches to dealing with pregnancy and child delivery. These national approaches to health, welfare and problem solving are societally and sociologically driven. There are structural forces at work. They have to be evaluated, confronted, mitigated, and ultimately dismantled.

I’m not calling for a revolution, I’m calling for an evidence based approach–nothing new my dear, luckily I’ve become a social worker in the age of empiricism and sound qualitative research methodologies–intelligent incrementalism, and the marriage of bottom up community work and top down policy work. There’s a lot of work to be done, but at least we have a pretty good idea of what has and has not worked to build upon.

The Rebalancing Act

I’m here to tell you how much I love working on my memoir manuscript. It engages a whole other part of my mind in a truly delightful, relaxing way. Okay, I may be lying about the relaxing part. Editing my memoir fills me with teeth grinding fear and hopeful gases. Yes, editing has physiological effects.

At any rate, I reread, in a state of pleasant surprise, my latest iteration of Bed Stories, which goes through various romantic and family anecdotes that are linked to the presence of beds. It’s always been my sweet, slightly broken darling, but I think it may have finally found its rhythm. Because writing is about finding, varying, and sustaining rhythm. (Did you know the word Rhythm had so many Hs? I did not.) But yes, this story is cooked. It is done. It smells like, well it smells like the vapors of Michter’s bourbon in my empty glass, which is a slightly smokey, slightly sweet, very boozy aroma.

This evening of delighted discovery of finished products in the rubble of my ever unfinished memoir is brought to you by the letter S. S for Surrender and Serendipity. Surrender because it seems that, like me, the students in my classes have basically given up on the readings. I have come to terms with drastic skimming. Serendipity because tonight I figured out that the deadlines for my next research papers weren’t quite as dire as I expected. So I came home and, instead of plunging into research, I got to plunge into my very own personal writing project. My personal writing project makes me feel at home in the way the best vacation I have ever had made me feel at home in a strange place. There’s sun, there’s discovery, and there’s a sweet satisfaction experienced between swims and naps. I don’t get to nap when I edit, but I do get to swim in my mind’s flow.

I’ve vowed to myself that I will rebalance my time> more time writing, less time reading homework/researching. I want to do it all, but doing it all must include my writing. There. I said it.

Between Done and 25 pages of comments

I was reading the done manifesto, which encourages you (me) to wrap things up and move on, in acceptance that everything is a draft, and mistakes will naturally creep into the process if you’re highly productive (paraphrasing). I like the idea of getting things done, of course, and maybe I should embrace the 20 minute productivity burst ethos that led to the creation of the manifesto to begin with.

I am however in possession of four thoughtful people’s comments on my memoir draft, which adds up to 25 pages of feedback. That’s 25 pages of editing suggestions to synthesize. I’m excited and pleased and slightly dismayed because I agree with most of the comments and they represent a huge amount of potential work. If I try really hard, I might just get to squeeze in 20 minutes a day of manuscript editing.

That’s like being told to build a highrise during your regular job smoke breaks.

I guess my new approach is to aim to get one story edited a week, and in half a year or so, I’ll have my next memoir draft. I better start carrying the weekly story to edit with me at all times. Commitment requires sacrifice, overcommitment requires sacrifice And sustained strategies.

This week, my sustained strategy was to declare an all out war on stress. I had several tactics: get homework that was making me feel bad done, throw some acupuncture at my back to keep it from seizing up from all the sitting, get a massage to remind myself what feeling good feels like, get a haircut because honestly I’m getting quite scraggly, and have a support session with a new school friend so we can compare coping techniques in the flood of new responsibilities. But what really needs to get done: learning to let go, and learning to be where I am, without the racing monkey mind of guilt and confusion.

I want to get things done, but to do it with grace, and in a happy way. That’s the trick.

One Hour of Reading Explains Two Years of Writing

Tonight, I’ve been reading about (big words coming, so don’t freak out and abandon me here) Applied Symbolic Interactionism. It’s a social work theory formulated from 1890 to 1910 (stay with me…) and it freaking answers every question that drove the writing of my memoir. Okay, I’m exaggerating. It only answers or speaks to half the chapters. The chapter where I write in the second person, and my story about Frenchness and Identity–this theory can handle these questions. This theoretical framework specifically deals with multiple identities–internal and external, past and future, and across multiple clubs (e.g., France/America). Holy shit. That’s what my memoir is about: The imaginary, and the differences between the labels you inherit or are given and those you select for yourself. It’s deeply weird to have my narrative, story-based pieces explained in a structured theoretical framework. In one hour of reading what took me two years to write was explained. Can you guess how weird I feel right now?

Maybe I should be relieved that practitioners have been refining the theory for 120+ years. Does the existence of an explanatory theory nuke the need for a storytelling work? I don’t think so. But it’s a little bit like living in colonial Philadelphia with some back pain and being handed an x-ray of my spine. Several social work theorists can explain in elegant symbolic grammar what my brain has been toying with. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

It does confirm my decision to undertake these studies–I’m studying the right field which asks exactly the kinds of questions my brain likes to toy with. That’s a terrifyingly sexy turn of events. I have been enjoying the intellectual, moral and emotional stimulation of my schooling. But tonight I feel a little bit like Moses reading up on Exodus in the King James Bible.

I’m not sure what to with all this, or how it will impact my revision process, but I’m pretty freaking psyched and amazed, and with that, I’ll go read some more.

One page a day/the language of writing

Carol Shields, who is one of my favorite authors, wrote her first book by writing one page a day for a year. It sounds so easy. It’s so hard to do.
I’m finding myself consumed by the need to get homework done, and so I probably need to find a new strategy to get creative writing done. Some sort of hard uncompromising commitment–a pact with myself. I’m pretty sure blogging doesn’t count though I find it incredibly gratifying, like doing language homework and learning new vocabulary and finally being able to say something provocative in Italian (which I can’t do). Saying provocative things is great, but it would be even greater if I were mastering the whole language of writing. I guess that’s the operating metaphor. I need to get serious again about practicing the whole language of writing, which of course includes writing. (Not online, but offline, faced with the blank page and no quick exits to browse my site stats.) I have this idea that I’m going to put together a week’s calendar and figure out what i’m doing with each hour. I could do the exercise, but it would be tragic because i would make a mockery of my suggested time map. Oy.

Hello world!

I have no idea what I’m doing (owning a site, and being responsible for technical things), but here I go doing it. You’ll have to tolerate my learning curve.

I’ve decided to start a new blog on writing. The process of writing my memoir was documented here.

Why write about writing?

I know. You haven’t seen people swim about swimming. Or maybe you have.

I’ll think of this space as a record of my development as an author. I’ll try to keep it entertaining and inspirational as I go. Quotes from favorite authors, links to things that inspire me. You get the idea, just your standard hello world blog.

I know I like blogging. So here goes.