Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Digging up history for a historical novel

April 21, 2022

How far in the past does a novel need to take place for it to be considered “historical fiction?” That question came up recently in an online writing discussion group that I follow, and the answers were both varied and revealing.

Varied: Some people suggested a fixed amount of time, such as fifty years in the past. Others suggested it simply needs to be distant enough that many readers didn’t experience the era. Still others offered specific criteria: Before cellphones, or before computers, or before the most recent war….

And revealing: For some of us, it was boggling to think that parts of our own lives—the 1960s, the ’70s, maybe even 9/11 ?—might now be shelved with historical fiction. 

Historical fiction… isn’t that Ken Follett writing about medieval cathedrals? Not me shopping for bell bottom jeans as a teenager in Greenwich Village! Am I now as antique as a Gothic cathedral?

Nothing says “historical fiction” like an 1,104-page novel about a cathedral

With the new novel I’m starting, though, there’s no question that it’s historical. It’s set in the 1600s in the Jewish communities of Europe.

And that’s requiring a level of research beyond anything I’ve done before.

My non-fiction book on U.S. girls’ schools certainly required historical research—lots of time in school archives—but nothing from before the early 1800s. All the sources were in English, and the stories took place in a world that was different from mine yet recognizable.

My forthcoming fantasy novel has characters from the deep past, such as pre-colonial Africa and the edges of the Roman Empire, but those are all secondary figures. The main character is from 21st century San Francisco: I’ve walked the streets she walks and eaten the burritos she eats. Though I had to research those other characters, I only needed enough for brief walk-ons—not enough to carry an entire book.

With this new project, I need to know 16th century life in the lands we now call Germany and Italy and Turkey. I need to know how Jews and others dressed, what their homes looked like, what they ate. I need to know how their streets smelled and sounded. I need to know how they got from one place to another.

How a Jewish woman in Istanbul might have dressed in 1574, from “Jewish Costumes in the Ottoman Empire” (published by Golem Santa Galerisi)

That last question has preoccupied me for several weeks. My character travels from Hamburg to Istanbul. But how? Does she go by land, sea, or some combination? What is her exact route? Would she have ridden in a coach or a wagon, and, if so, what did vehicles from that era look like? What did ships from that era look like? How many passengers on a merchant ship and where did they sleep? How many miles per day would her coach or ship have travelled? How did Jewish voyagers interact with Christians during their travels? And so on. 

Images of ships from a 17th century Haggadah

Yes, it’s fiction. Which means I can make everything up: There is no single right answer. But some answers are more plausible than others. I need to learn enough about travel logistics of that era to make her journey believable and historically accurate.

I don’t want to be like some 25th century writer recreating the year 2022 and saying that the heroine flew from California to Paris in an hour and a half!

The 1600s are what historians consider the “early modern era” of Europe. Because of developments like the printing press, there are more written documents available from this period than from prior centuries. But photography hadn’t yet been invented. Unlike cathedrals and palaces, few “typical” Jewish homes still exist with their 17th century form and furnishings. And while I’ve found some artistic depictions of 17th century ports and cities, they are far less numerous than, say, in the 19th century when every young painter aspired to do a Grand Tour of Europe.

So this is challenging. But it’s also a great treasure hunt. The subterranean stacks of U.C. Berkeley’s main library are one of my favorite places. I’m finding treasures such as Alfred Rubens’s oversized A History of Jewish Costume. (It weighs almost four pounds.) Or a history of coaches and carriages first published in 1877. Or a recent book by a Brown University professor on “the great Jewish refugee crisis of the 17th century.” 

A History of Jewish Costume

I slogged up the stairs from the stacks this week lugging about 15 pounds of books. (Rubens’s tome wasn’t even in that batch!) It felt like physically unearthing past centuries and raising them into the afternoon Bay Area light.

It’s strange to be writing a novel where I will spend a year or more at work before typing a single sentence of story—before I even know my character’s name—but I need to understand the backdrop in order to figure out what happens to her.

Very occasionally I wonder, What did I get myself into? But mostly I’m having a lot of fun.

Book contract!

February 1, 2022

Did you hear the shouts reverberating through your modem?

I have a publisher!

I’ve signed a contract with Hypatia Press to publish my two-book fantasy series, Shaken Loose.  

No, this is not a specifically Jewish book. But it did indirectly grow out of some of the issues we’ve explored together in this blog—such as the contradiction between a supposedly just God and a universe so full of injustice. 

This moment has been a long time coming. I started writing Shaken Loose in 2014, at which point I envisioned a single book. I began querying agents in 2017 with no luck, did several rewrites, realized it needed a sequel, queried more agents with no luck, hired a developmental editor and did more rewrites, gave up on agents, and finally moved on to small presses that allow you to submit without an agent.

Now here we are at the start of 2022, and these books finally have a home. Hypatia Press is a newish small press dedicated to “quality irreligious publishing,” which is a perfect description of Shaken Loose

This is Connecticut. Not my book. Photo: Ilana DeBare

It’s set in a dystopic afterlife—a Hell that includes both truly evil people and anyone from throughout history who was not a baptized Christian. Yep, that would include me. And billions of other folks. Maybe you? It’s more fascinating than grim as the modern, secular Bay Area protagonist encounters 4th century Hun tribesmen and Chinese revolutionaries and Jim Crow-era segregationists and, of course, Satan. 

And viewed today—as opposed to when I started writing back in 2014—it’s a relaxing, almost benign kind of dystopia! There is absolutely nothing in there about Covid or Trump or climate change. 

Maybe this is the start of a new genre: “Escapist dystopia.”  :-) 

The tentative publication date is summer 2023. Now I start a new stage of this process—marketing. I need to create an author web page, solicit promotional blurbs from other writers, develop a social media strategy, maybe start an additional blog that is more focused on fiction than this one. Not as much fun as writing the actual books, but at least I have a long lead time to work on it.

I’ll keep you posted! And at some point, probably early next year, I’d love your help in spreading the word.

Writering

October 26, 2021

The other day I invented a new word for what I was doing­—writering.

Of course it wasn’t really new. With the web, you can almost always find someone else who has already done something similar to whatever you’re doing.

But it was new to me. Coming up with it made me happy. So there! 

Writering refers to all the ancillary work that writers have to do that is NOT writing. That could include book research, updating one’s web site, querying agents or publishers, printing business cards, commenting on a friend’s work-in-progress, or even taking all those scrunched-up photocopy receipts out of one’s wallet and putting them in an “expenses” folder.

I just wrapped up a six-month stint back on the staff of Golden Gate Audubon, doing communications there again. (Which partly accounts for the lack of recent blog posts here.) During those six months, my novel was on hold, which was in fact a welcome and restorative break. I’d been querying literary agents without success—often getting form-letter rejections or no response whatsoever—for a book that has been under construction since mid-2014. Seven years! So it felt wonderful to be working with people who appreciated me, and equally wonderful to have finite projects like newsletters that could be started and finished in a single day.

But now it’s wonderful to get back to the book!

I’m doing some limited re-writing, but even more writering. I’m reviewing my spreadsheets of agents and small presses to figure out whom to query next. I’m researching those agents and presses, to make sure I understand what they’re looking for. I’m educating myself about alternatives such as hybrid publishing and self-publishing. I’m starting historical research for my next novel, which remains an alluring but skeletal concept.

“Did you have a good writing day?” Sam asked the other evening.

“I had a good writering day,” I said.

I like the word writering because it sounds like motoring, with its connotation of forward motion. Revving engines! Speed! Distance! Progress!  (Remember that Mini-Cooper ad campaign from a few years ago with the tag line, “Let’s motor?”)

In the driver’s seat

It’s easy to feel unproductive when I’m not actually adding new pages to a manuscript. There are few things as fulfilling as looking back at the end of a day and seeing that I’ve created two, five, or maybe even ten pages of story out of nothing. It didn’t exist, and now it exists! It’s even better when I re-read those pages and like them. I feel like I’ve earned my evening glass of wine….

A day of mucking around in spreadsheets and query letters doesn’t give that same sense of accomplishment. But hey… it’s not “mucking around,” it’s writering.

As the Mini-Cooper folks would say: Let’s writer!

Revision superpowers

February 20, 2019

When I was a kid, I read a lot of DC superhero comics – Superman leaping tall buildings with a single bound, Batman with his masked identity, The Flash with his superhuman speed, Wonder Woman with her Amazon strength and magical accessories.

I’m currently revising a set of two novels. Revision is the least fun part of writing for me. Basically, I hate it. So sometimes I wish I had a set of Revision Superpowers:

X-ray vision

Even when we know something is a rough draft, the words assume a stubborn permanence once they’re on paper. How do we view our manuscripts with the critical insight of an outside observer? How do we get beyond what is, to what could be? X-ray vision would let us see through the black ink on the page to the better novel hidden within – to find fresher and more precise language, tighter plot lines, and undeveloped themes.

Superman-Look_Up_in_the_Sky

By Alex Ross/ DC Comics

Flight

Flying would let us hover at 10,000 feet and see our manuscript as a whole – its structure, flow, and themes. The cliché is that we get stuck “in the weeds,” but it’s less like being in ankle-high weeds than being in a 10-foot-high cornfield. You spend days tinkering with a handful of words on a single page when you should be reshaping the work as a whole. It’s hard to hold 300 to 400 pages in your field of vision from ground level. Up, up, and away!

Laser beams

I don’t care if they shoot out of my fingertips or if I have to pull a weapon out of my utility belt. But I’d like a super-sharp beam to slice away clichés and unnecessary, qualifying language. Burn away all those instances of “suddenly” and “somewhat” and “seemed to.”

Super hearing

Does the dialogue work? Does the writing flow smoothly? Reading passages out loud can help assess that, and you don’t need super hearing to do it.

Flash

Speed

When I recently needed to rename a character, I realized we have one kind of super-speed already: It’s called Search and Replace. But in a larger sense, I wish we could tear through the overall revision process like The Flash, making it a matter of weeks rather than months or years. We can’t. It sucks. Live with it.

Sidekicks

Robin saved the day when Batman was trapped. His butler Alfred made sure he had a hot meal after a bout of crimefighting. Turn to beta readers for help when you need a new perspective on your manuscript. And have an Alfred or two in your life who can nourish you and cheer you on.

ww1

Magic bracelets

Superheroes don’t hide in bunkers. You’ve got to be open to criticism of your work, even if it feels like incoming missiles. But self-doubt and self-loathing aren’t helpful. Wonder Woman used her magic bracelets to deflect gunfire; we need them to deflect those internal bullets that scream,“You’re a miserable failure, you’ll never be any good at this, go back to writing Facebook posts about your cat.”

Secret identity

Mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent didn’t have the strength to lift mountains. But in his Superman alter ego, he did it all the time. Much of the work of revision seems impossible – eliminating big chunks of plot, replacing characters, even reconsidering the basic premise of your story. When you feel daunted and powerless against the heavy lifting of revision, it’s time to assume the secret identity that allows you to Do Anything. Put on the lycra tights and flowing cape – cue the trumpets or drums – it’s Super Revision Writer!


What else? Are there other Revision Superpowers you wish you had? Or that you already possess and are putting to good use? Tell us about the secret gadgets and vehicles in your Revision Batcave.

 

Justice_League

Protecting your manuscript from the forces of evil

 

Trust yourself as an artist

February 27, 2018

I’ve returned to the writing life!

After six years working for Golden Gate Audubon Society, I returned to full-time work on a novel on January 1st. After a three-week family trip in January and early February, I truly settled down to full-time writing about two weeks ago.

Now – without bird-related blog posts, newsletters, and social media to write for Audubon – I have the time and drive to resume my own blog posts. My apologies for the long absence, and I hope you are still with me!

Let’s start with a few thoughts on trusting oneself as an artist.

This is a more complex novel than I’ve tried before – speculative fiction set in a world that I am creating, inhabited by characters from varied regions and time periods on Earth. I already have a draft of one volume that needs some significant revisions, and am working on a second volume that will follow up some of the loose ends from volume one.

One challenge is that, sitting down to work, I feel pulled in multiple directions:

  • Go back to revise volume 1, or lay new track in volume 2?
  • Finish mapping out the “grand scheme” of the plot and the cosmology of this imagined universe, or take it chapter by chapter?
  • Flesh out my secondary characters or focus on my main character?
  • If I work on the secondary characters, should I start with the 1920s Chinese communist, the 11th century Damascus merchant, the 4th century Hun, or the 21st century Brooklyn grandmother?
  • Or should I work on sections about my fun, non-human “magical creatures?”
  • Research? Or write?

I need to do all these things eventually; the question is where to begin and what to do on any given day.

My first reaction to the incredible privilege of writing full-time was – of course – despair. “This is overwhelming.” “I can’t do this.” “I don’t have the skills or knowledge or abilities.” And so on.

I dealt with that by shifting into familiar, comfortable research mode. Off to the wonderful underground stacks of the Doe Library at U.C. Berkeley, one of my “happy places.” I love the sleek spaciousness of this newish facility, and how the bookshelves move frictionlessly, magically, on tracks when you turn a giant handle. I love how as a UCB alumna I can check out up to 20 books at a time from one of the best research libraries in the world.

Gardner stacks

Rotunda in the underground Gardner stacks at Doe Library

But most of all I love how visiting the library transforms the quest for information from an intellectual journey into a physical journey.

Rather than a serious of Google clicks, I descend staircases and wander through aisles of bookshelves. It’s like a treasure hunt. I start with my list of target books. When I reach the book I’m seeking, there are often related books adjacent to it that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I reemerge into the sunlit outdoor world with arms full of books – more than I can comfortably carry – and feel triumph at my “haul.”

It’s so much more tangible than online research! And it provides the fulfilling sense of having accomplished something.

Even if that accomplishment is illusory – often the books don’t provide the information I need – it’s still a good way to generate momentum and confidence.

So I started with research. I now know a lot more about communists in 1920s Shanghai than I did two weeks ago. (For whatever that’s worth.) Then it was on to 11th century Damascus. Read books, take notes, think about my characters.

This morning I felt like it was time to write. Something had quietly shifted inside me – from “I don’t know enough about this character to write him,” to “I want to start writing him.” It wasn’t a deliberative decision, just a shift in what felt possible or even necessary.

So that’s where the trust comes in. I opted to follow that feeling and start writing one of the characters, even though I’m still waiting to get another book or two about his era. And in order to write him, I decided to start a chapter or two before he comes on stage. That meant focusing on a different character who is there when he arrives.

It wasn’t a rational process. But it felt right, and I got about 1,000 words down. It was a starting point, past the “I can’t do this” hurdle, and now I can just keep going.

So: Listen to that quiet inner voice that tells you, as a creator, what you need to do next!

Even if it is a little bit out of order and not part of a rational “battle plan.”

The end is near (of the novel, not the world)

June 30, 2015

I’ve been working on the first draft of a new novel for slightly more than a year. Progress has been in small steps punctuated by constant breaks: My halftime job at Golden Gate Audubon gives me the rest of the week to write, but the paying work often creeps over into the unpaid work and then there are all the other interruptions of family, holidays, life.

This week, though, I’ve reached the last chapter.

Audubon work was relatively contained in June so I got on a roll. I saw the end of the book ahead of me, a long straightaway after winding through mountains. I was writing a lot! I became unusually spacey, caught up in imagined conversations between my characters while driving or taking my spin class or buying groceries. I was so distracted that I locked my keys in the car at the gym last week.

locked-out

Evil zombie woman looks at her inaccessible car keys

Then Sam went backpacking for the past five days, so I had my own private writers’ retreat here at home – nothing to do but write, go to the gym, and heat up canned soup.

Yesterday I was exhilarated to reach this point. To get the whole darn thing down! To have a narrative that goes from point A to point B! To write  down on paper all the ending episodes that I’d had in my brain for months!

I had to restrain myself from posting jubilant cheers on Facebook. Huzzah huzzah huzzah! Champagne for everyone! Wait, I told myself, until you are actually done.

Today I got even closer. I started what will be the last chapter.

And now I don’t feel exhilarated at all. Quite the opposite.

I’m sad because something very sad is happening to my main characters. I’m anxious because once the first draft is done, I need to put on my critical hat and look at all the things that suck with the manuscript and make it better. I’m worried because I’m not going to have a chance to finish the draft until this weekend, when Sam will be out of town again and the post-draft letdown will really hit and I will be by myself and I will feel REALLY AWFUL.

For me, one of the necessary tasks in writing a first draft is to suspend all critical voices. Like many writers, and I suspect particularly women writers, I have a very persistent internal critic that is happy to point out every way in which my work is hackneyed, melodramatic, overwritten, predictable, boring, cliched, shallow etc. Over the years, I have gotten very good at shutting the valve on my critic while I plow through a first draft.

But then the first draft is done, and it’s time to edit and revise. I need to be critical. But there’s no halfway setting for my critic valve.

Once released, the critic blasts out with the power of a New York City fire hydrant on a hot summer day, and I’m flooded with self-loathing:

NYC hydrant, 1969

NYC hydrant, 1969

This book sucks! I can’t write decent dialogue! I’m no Virginia Woolf! I’m no Tom Wolfe! I’m not even Wolf Blitzer! This book should be flushed down the toilet before anyone can laugh at its incompetence, which is only exceeded by its hubris!

I’m worried that’s what happens next. With Sam out of town. So…

To-do list for the weekend:

Trip to Ace Hardware. Look for a Critic Wrench that can open the valve part way. A little bit at a time. Drip by drip, revision by revision.

But first, finish the book.

And second, open that champagne. Even if I’ve forgotten that I earned it.

Ilana’s Little List of Superfluous Words

November 11, 2013

Hallelujah! I’m almost at the end of my latest round of novel revisions.

And once I’m done with the substantive revisions, I’m going to try something new — a Microsoft Word “search” for superfluous words.

Noodling  around in the manuscript, I’ve noticed that there are certain words that add little or no value. Sometimes they are “hedge” words that undercut what I’m saying. Other times they state the obvious. Or they are just a flabby cliche.

cliche-t

I don’t notice these words when I’m writing a first draft; they roll easily off my pen. They seem so natural that I don’t notice them on reading the completed manuscript, either. Thus the computer search.

Prime example: suddenly. 

I use a lot of suddenlys!  My characters look up suddenly. They put down their forks suddenly. They hurl chairs suddenly.

(Have you ever seen a chair hurled in a non-sudden manner? Now that would be an adverb worth using: “He hurled the chair gradually.”)

So I’m starting a list of superfluous words that should be weeded out. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • suddenly
  • somewhat, some
  • sort of, kind of
  • little
  • simply
  • just

Here are a few examples from different sections of my manuscript:

“What does Marta have to do with this?” her mother asked with some bewilderment.

There were more stars in just one small corner of the sky than you could see over all of Manhattan.

I felt suddenly uneasy. 

I jerked my head around, suddenly paranoid, and shoved the boa back inside the bag.  (Well, maybe I should keep that one. I’ll think about it.)

Talking with my lawyer friend Beth yesterday, she described routinely excising certain words when editing her colleagues’ briefs. In her case, they are legal jargon like heretofore.

I suspect every genre of writing – every profession – needs its own unique blacklist of superfluous words. Every writer should probably have her or his personal list too: The flabby words that slip into my draft may be different from the ones that slip into yours.

How about you? Any words that routinely roll off your pen that should be rolled off to the landfill?

Kotel in the kitchen: a happy Internet story

February 24, 2013

Amidst all the spam, porn, stupid cat videos, and Facebook Scrabble addictions, every so often there is a happy Internet story. This is one of them.

When I was in Israel in late 2011 working on a book about the Technion, I took some tourist snapshots of close-ups of the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I liked the different textures of the stone, the irregularities amidst the rectangular blocks. I liked the visual parallels between the stones of the Kotel and the stone houses of Palestinian East Jerusalem. You might vaguely remember: I posted one of my Kotel snapshots here.

Then, about six months ago, I got a message out of the blue from some Israeli designer or design student who said he liked the photo, and could he use it?

Of course. I was delighted that someone had noticed my photo, and gratified that he had the courtesy to ask permission. I sent him my highest-res version, asked him to credit me in whatever project came out of this, and promptly forgot about it. I pictured some kind of  abstract collage or installation. Actually, I didn’t picture much of anything.

Then yesterday Sam told me there was a package on the porch. I opened it up and was amazed to see:

kotel board

It’s my Kotel photo, turned into a magnetic metal note board! The kind of thing you’d hang in the kitchen and post notes like “buy milk.”

It’s ingenious and gorgeous. To my surprise, my snapshot blew up with good clarity. I also thought of a use going beyond household notes — a kind of personal prayer board. Like the real Kotel, you could post notes on it of your greatest yearnings. “Help me find a way to resolve this plot problem in my novel.” “Help Aunt Edith fight off her cancer.” “Give me the courage to change jobs.”

I don’t believe in a God who reads notes on a magnetic bulletin board any more than I do in a God who reads notes stuck in an ancient wall, but I do think it is a ritual that can focus the mind and bring peace, determination or clarity. Seriously. I am thinking of hanging it in my study as a tool to help myself solve fiction writing problems.

In any case, the designer, Shaul Mualem, has a Jerusalem studio called Yahli Design that specializes in products that “blend traditional Jewish elements with modern ones.” You can find his online store on Etsy, including the Kotel note board for $26.50.

I know some people might say, “Hey, he’s making money off of your photo! Why didn’t you ask for payment?” but I couldn’t care less about payment. I hope he sells a gazillion note boards. I’m just delighted with the whole episode: A photo I took for fun is discovered by someone on the other side of the world. He makes an ingenious and useful product out of it. Unlike the vast majority of Internet surfers, he even asks permission to use it and credits me for the photo! And then follows up with a thank-you gift that might help my own creative process.

Cool, eh?

And then there’s what Sam said when he saw the note board, referring to the continuing arrests of women who try to pray at the actual Kotel in Jerusalem:

At least they can’t stop you from praying at this one. 

How much bigger is an empty nest?

July 21, 2012

All year I’ve been moaning in this blog about Daughter’s impending departure for college. Loss, separation, passage of time, reminder of mortality, and so on. But in fact, I also spend a fair amount of time thinking about all the things I’m going to do once she’s gone.

Measuring a bird’s nest in the tundra / Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

I’m going to cook kid-unfriendly vegetables like kale and cauliflower and cabbage. I’m going to sign up for a boot-camp program at my gym from 6 to 7:15 on weekday mornings. I’ll go to movies. To synagogue. To First Friday art walks in Oakland. Sam and I will bike from winery to winery in Sonoma. I’ll go on countless Audubon field trips….

Above all, I’ll return to revising my novel. I’ll work like a maniac, like life is one non-stop writers’ colony, and resolve all the plot and character problems, and bang that sucker out. I thought about it a lot this spring when I found myself the underachiever of my writing group, feeling guilty for not producing new drafts or rewrites: Just wait until September, then I will be amazingly productive….

It occurred to me the other day that September — the empty nest — has become an Emerald City. It’s shimmering in the distance at the end of the road. Magical things will happen. The Scarecrow will get his brains, the Tin Man his heart, the Lion his courage. Ilana will get the time and focus to finish her novel.

So then I started to wonder, Just how much more time will I actually have? 

It’s not like Daughter is still four years old and needs me to play with her and bathe her and read stories at bedtime. In fact, most of the time  she’s out with friends or in her room with the door closed. She makes her own lunches and does her own laundry. I don’t even need to drive her around anymore, since she got her license last month. Some days we hardly say twenty sentences to each other.

How exactly is she keeping me from working on my novel?

The critic in me says that she isn’t keeping me from the novel; I’m keeping myself. Revising is hard, I feel stuck on certain things, and she’s simply providing a good excuse not to deal with those challenges. I already have a relatively ideal situation for writing — a half-time job, and a beach house “retreat” that we share with friends and thus have access to every third week. Why aren’t I writing my little fingers off right now?

But in fact, I do believe that having a child at home tends to consume one’s attention, even if that child is an independent teenager.

Having a child — particularly for women, I think, but maybe for some men too — colonizes part of your brain like some alien Star Trek spore. A whole section of your brain is roped off with “seat taken” signs. When your child is nearby — even shut in her room texting friends — millions of your neurons are firing away non-stop on autopilot, vigilant for sounds of distress, sounds of happiness, sounds of misbehavior. When all this is going on, it is hard to summon up the level of concentration needed to work on a novel.

What will change when Daughter is gone:

  • I’ll feel free to spend four-day weekends at the beach house. With Daughter here, I don’t like to be away overnight. But once she’s gone, I can join Sam there on weekends and then remain there writing by myself on Mondays and Tuesdays.
  • I’ll have uninterrupted early mornings. I can wake up at 6 a.m. and get right to work.  No half-listening for sounds of showering, dressing etc. No need to remind anyone that they need to be out the door in ten minutes. No driving anyone to BART. By 9 a.m., I can have three hours of work under my belt.
  • I can work evenings without a chunk of my brain hovering down the hall to see if homework is really being done, chores have been completed etc. (This is after Sam and I eat our kale-cabbage casserole,  of course.)

So yes, I think I will have more time for writing when she is gone. Or at least more focused time for writing.

But still, I wonder if I am heaping too many expectations onto September. If I’m slipping into a bit of magical thinking. The Emerald City shimmered from a distance but the Wizard turned out to be an ordinary man with no special powers.

How many ambitions can one empty nest hold?

Stinson alone

March 25, 2012

I drove out to Stinson Beach on Saturday afternoon by myself to spend a couple of days writing. I haven’t touched my novel since the fall. Now I finally had a little window of time. This was what I imagined when we bought the Stinson house with our co-owners two years ago. It was on my mind when I took the half-time job at Golden Gate Audubon. Having Mondays and Tuesdays free gives me a solid block of time to have my own mini “writer’s retreat” every few weeks, especially once Daughter is in college next fall.

But it was hard coming here yesterday. I always feel torn leaving Sam and Daughter, homesick, even when they are busy with their own activities. It was pouring rain. I arrived and it was almost dark, the house was cold, and I forgot a bag of groceries I’d meant to bring. The only heat is a wood stove, so the first thing I had to do on arrival was make a fire, which is an area of chronic anxiety for me. I am a bit of a pyrophobe and feel like there is some magical art to starting fires that I will never master. We all have our “oh, I can’t xxxx” activities, and this is one of mine.

But….

Photo by Ilana DeBare

The house gradually warmed up. And this morning we had a break in the rain. The clouds were high and blue sky started to emerge. I took a long walk to the end of the beach. On the way there, I wore my iPod and practiced the Torah portion I’ll be chanting at my nephew’s bar mitzvah service in May. On the way back, I thought about the structure of my novel. By the time I was back at the house, I had taken off two of the three layers I’d started out in, and I’d visited the little Stinson market to replace the missing groceries.

Stinson hills / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Stinson Beach between storms / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Now it’s enough procrastinating and time to work!