Saturday, December 31, 2011

I Wrote A Novel

At the beginning of this year, I wrote on this very blog that I planned to write a novel this year.  I started one and abandoned it, not quite ready for that story, or maybe the story was not ready for me.

I turned to a new story and went with it.  I feel like I finished this novel at least six times this year because it had so many drafts.  I've announced 'the end' far too many times.

But today was the most real of all the ends because, like I said, I wrote on this blog that I planned to write a novel this year.  I am very stubborn.  And it is the end of the year.

So I wrote it.  I'm grateful to those of you who have read it.  And I look forward to seeing what will happen to it, if anything at all.

And I hope to write another one next year.

Here are some words of it, so you believe me.

Happy New Year, my friends.

Adelaine sunk to the curb, let her hair tumble to her feet, let her chin fall into her knees.  She pictured Reagan caught in the long strands of grass poking up from the edge of beach.  Adelaine had never been afraid of the ocean, would go to it even in the pink of morning when the air was cold.  She would let the shells nibble at her feet until she felt the smooth sand beneath her, until the ground disappeared all together and she was floating, arms out, the sun at the fall of the earth, toes gripping the cool water. 
But Reagan always stayed behind, weaving the thick blades together until she had a crown of brown and gold.  Adelaine would leave the ocean, stand over her, dripping, and wonder out loud why she would not go with her, not even let the water to her knees.  “I can teach you, ya know,”  Adelaine told her.
            And Reagan wrapped the braid of grass around her wrist.  A bracelet that, when she let go, unraveled to the sand. “It just seems like it would be so easy to get swept away.”

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Getting There

It's the end of another year and I feel obligated to reflect.  To stop and do something I rarely do, look over my shoulder and see what I left behind.  But that's difficult to measure.  That's difficult for me to know.  Because, on the surface, very little happened.  From this day last year to this day, today, I live where I lived.  I work where I worked.  I love who I loved.  I suppose there is comfort in that.  Worlds can easily be thrown into upheaval.  I feel fortunate mine has not.

All this quiet, this stillness, however, has afforded a major shift in perspective.  I've been stirring inside.  I've been scheming, as always, in the dark.  And it would be hard for me to say that nothing has changed.  

I might say 2011 was about laying foundation.  I'm ready to say that 2012 will be about building. 

Last night, I had one of those endless, frustrating dreams. I was trying to hail a yellow taxi in New York City.  Not for me.  For a friend.  I stood on the corner, my arm out high, and I watched the cabs pass us by, one after the other.  No one stopped.

I remember the dream-me thinking that I had too great a responsibility to this friend.  Because the subway was not running.  I did not have a car.  The bus was headed downtown only.  The taxi was, obviously, a hopeless case.  The dream-me said, We're not getting anywhere.

But the real-me knows better than that.      

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Memory of Sintra

I woke up this morning and, for some reason, my head was here.  In Portugal at the Palácio da Pena in Sintra.  We walked the wet paths, clutching our umbrellas, through fairytale mist.  The lush woodlands carved out this picture of slippery yellow and grey, dripping to just a blur.

We took the train back to Lisbon and, the next day, my friend Lynn and I met up with Graça, a stranger to me and, up until then, just a woman who penned work e-mails to Lynn.  She was barely five feet tall, in a black suit one size too small, cheeks red and chubby.

Graça had a lot to say.  About everything.  Barely let us sneak in a word.  She led us through the streets, always marching many steps ahead, forced baked goods into our hands, analyzed event spaces (Lynn was there on business.  I was, as usual, observing...tagging along.) Her judgements were much bigger than her height.  She was unimpressed with almost all that she saw.

You went to Sintra yesterday? Her eyes huge with disapproval.  What a silly thing to do.  To see one of the most beautiful places in the world, in the pouring rain.

I don't know why I think of Graça and Sintra today.  But, for me, Sintra will always belong to the rain.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Multiple Conversations

I've been told I am a good listener.  I've also been told I am a terrible listener.  I guess I listen to what I choose to listen to and ignore all the rest.  Which is how I approach many things.  Throw myself into what I love, sigh loudly at all the rest.

Part of the 'Melissa is a terrible listener' judgement is that Tyler believes I do not listen to him because I am able to have a conversation with him and, at the very same time, listen to an entire conversation that is happening elsewhere...between two strangers on the sidewalk, in a restaurant, or in a subway car.  

This became apparent to him when I sat next to actress Michelle Williams at a restaurant in Brooklyn. When we left I was able to relay huge portions of her conversation to him.  But Tyler had not seen me distracted throughout the meal.

Tyler doesn't think it's possible to be a part of both conversations and believed I must be fake listening to him.  But it's just not true.  It is possible!

I've started to think this is a skill that women have.  To be able to 'engage' in multiple conversations, file them away and pull them out when necessary.  But I also think it's a skill that writers have.  Being present in our own lives while sneaking into a stranger's life for a time.

Are you a good listener?   A selective listener like me?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Letting Go

I'll head off to Long Island tomorrow to spend Christmas Eve with my parents, then fly to Jacksonville early Christmas morning to spend a few days with Tyler's family.

I had set today as a deadline for myself, to finish a writing project, to complete my novel, drop the old clothes off at Salvation Army, donate the mountain of books that had created a fort around my writing desk, clean the apartment, and many more items on a To-Do list that seemed to grow longer and longer.

I did most of those things.

I even managed to take a walk to eat the most amazing donuts I've ever eaten and walk the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights to get a glimpse of my city's skyline (it never fails to amaze me, even after all these years.)

Then I sat down, just moments ago, to unanswered e-mails, to a google reader with 400 items unread.  It may sound silly to some of you but it bothers me to have too many e-mails ignored, to have a list of articles and blog posts yet to read.

But I looked at the screen and I did something nearly unprecedented.  I just clicked 'Mark All As Read'.  Even if the google reader had not been read.  I filed the e-mails away to have a clear inbox.  I apologized to the novel, told it that I needed more time, uninterrupted time, not this stop and start pattern I've been running in circles around.

It made me feel better.  To mark the google reader, file the emails, be at peace with leaving the novel unfinished.  I will not let it hang over me.

Lately, I think I've been holding on too tightly, clinging to something I can not define.  I am ready to let go of my grasp.  To live this Christmas, breathe in this winter, see another year through.  There is no better time, I think, to close my eyes and let go.

Happy Holidays to all of you.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dream Builders

Lately, I feel as if all kinds of serendipitous things are happening to me.  To be honest, they happen to me a lot.  Fates aligning in a strange way.  Connections being made at just the right time.  And it is always why I write fiction based in reality and watch documentary films because magical things exist in real life, no fantastical world necessary.

When I opened my email inbox just moments ago, I found that my dear friend Lynn had sent me this photo because, she wrote, it sums up what you have been expressing lately.

And it also meant much, much more to me than she knew (to which I responded you are not going to believe this...)  But, then again, the best of friends always know.  And they always believe.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Buying: A Shift In Perspective

Shopping, for me, is a torturous experience.  This is true at all times of year.  But it is particularly true this time of year.  My vision of New York City warps itself into nothing but endless bodies parading the sidewalks, like sausages oozing out of the casing on every subway platform and store.  I push through, sigh loudly in long lines, rub shoulders unwillingly.

At a dinner party the other night, I met some people who had made peanutbutter for all their friends and family for the holidays and I thought, Yes! Peanutbutter.  Next year, everyone will get peanutbutter.

These days, my local independent book store is the only place I can navigate with any sanity.  But I find myself frustrated even there. 

Several times in the past few weeks, I have stood with sturdy hardcovers and debated.  I have wondered, is this book worth it?  I wanted, desperately, to buy Tyler's mother The Bhudda In The Attic by Julia Otsuka.  Do you know how much that 144 page book is?  Do you?   

I did not purchase it.  I walked away.

Lately, I have wanted books I can not find.  Some written years ago, others, perhaps, just a little obscure.  I walked to the register, asked if I could order them, and was told I was better off looking elsewhere because it would take a long time to order them or they weren't available at all.

I stood with Murakami's 1Q84.  I stood with Joan Didion's Blue Nights.  I stood with Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.  I stood with Harbach's The Art of Fielding.  All of them, in their hardcover forms, with prices that seemed just a little too high.

Do you know how much I love books?  (you must, of course must)  Do you know how desperately I want to read all of these books?  

In the end, I walked out empty-handed.  I went to Barnes and Noble and bought only the Murakami book because I am desperate to read it and I knew I could get it at 40% off there.  

I also knew, in my heart, that I could purchase every single book I wanted on Amazon.  Every.  Single.  One.  You realize that they have them all.  

I know I am but one person.  A person who does not have an e-reader and therefore can only read library books or purchase physical copies.  A person who spends an obscene amount of money on books as it is. 

There are a lot of statements being made and debates being had about the way books are bought and sold today.  But I don't think it's about (even if it is about) evil empires versus Mom and Pop.  I don't believe it's about (even if it is about) what books are worth or paperback versus hardcover versus e-book versus used book.

I think it's deeper than that.  I think it's about being in an independent book store, going to an online retailer, walking to the nearest chain.  It's about standing with a hardcover, looking over at a paperback, being able to buy a book you loved once rather than a book you might love.  I think all of these things are working together to create a major shift in perspective.

It's about peanut butter.  It's about standing with a book and walking away. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Into Winter

I had been holding out.  Not wanting to move from the purple wool coat to the puffy down.  There's no where to go from the puffy down coat.  It's the warmest coat I have.

I walked through the farmer's market, the greens covered in icy frost, reached for parsnips and carrots, my fingers pale and numb.

We won't be back 'til spring, said the woman collecting cash.  Tyler and I are at that particular stall every Sunday and even in October she is bundled in a hat, mittens, and her own marshmallow puff coat, mummy wrapped in multiple scarves.  We always tease that she must be from a warm climate.  It's a wonder she's lasted this long.  

Here's a gift for you.  And just like that, I was shepherded into winter with sweet potatoes in my hand.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What I Know

Today I've been thinking something small about writing, though it is actually quite big.

It seems I can know in my heart something about a character or a story and fail to transfer it to the page.

When it comes to revising, I'm always worried that I won't know how to fix what is wrong. Sometimes or most of the time (just not all the time), I find that the key to a locked door is to bring to the surface what I've always known to be true about a person, place, or thing.

It's funny to me that I forget to share what I know best. That I am blinded by what I've always seen.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Such Stupid Things

The other night I attended a party where I didn't know very many people. I'm not good at mingling. The idea of wandering around a room, never able to truly settle into one conversation, makes me crazy. I'm not sure how to engage in a real discussion when everyone is there and then off again, to say hi to so-and-so, get another glass of wine, grab some kind of puffed pastry.

So I become an investigative reporter. I ask hundreds of questions until people are sick of me and desperate to move on. It's the only way I know how to get through.

One of my grueling interviews involved a series of questioning about what it is like to have a child attend college. My 'interviewee' was worried about his son running off to do something incredibly stupid and I asked if that was because he, himself, had done stupid things in college. He hadn't. But he wished he did.

I thought back to my own days at Cornell, 'on the hill', as they say. Thought back to a few of the stupid things I did in a state of wild abandon. I swam in a lake during a severe thunderstorm. (And it was no accident, I intentionally went out during a thunderstorm to swim and later discovered that a woman drowned in that very lake the same day.) I walked down a crumbling path into a 200 ft gorge at midnight to swim under the haze of alcohol, barely 100 pounds and having had far too many drinks to do something so dangerous.

But when I think of those times, I do not fear what could have happened to me, though I realize both experiences could have had a tragic end.

I only fear what would have happened to me had I not done them.

Because I knew once what it felt like to swim between the rush of a waterfall and the rain pelting down, not knowing or caring which washed over my shoulders and soaked my hair. To descend into a gorge and jump, fully clothed, from slippery rocks into water, under moon and endless sky, and not know its bottom. Not know its end.

How Important is a Good Story?

Last week, I was privileged to sit in on the final presentations of the toy design students from a nearby college. All of the students were brilliant and imaginative, even while designing for a very particular need, under a variety of limitations.

The students presented their toy designs along with samples, videos, powerpoints, and cardboard cutouts. Some spoke so softly we strained to hear. Others charmed us with wide-eyed enthusiasm and humor.

However, what I have learned working in the toy industry is that it is not enough to put a design in front of someone and quietly say, 'Hey, check it out. I made this.' It is also not enough to bedazzle with glitter and sparkle or even toys that fly, levitate, know your name, or recognize your voice. You have to tell a story.

I'm not going to say that you should have a terrible product with no substance and sell it with a story (but you guys know that happens, right?) I do want to say that what works, time and time again, when we stand in front of management with sweaty palms during our own presentations, trying to sell something we've been working on for months is to say: We started here. We took this road. Then that one. We ended with this. Let me tell you how it works. (Cue the: wooow. Er. Sometimes...)

So as I sat through each presentation and gave feedback, all of my criticisms rarely had to do with the toy itself (a testament to how inventive their designs were). It always came down to the manner in which it was presented, the way thoughts were organized or facts laid out. Every toy, every project, has a life, a story, a character. Especially when you're explaining how a design actually works. Some students dismissed that entirely. Others knew the power of a simple beginning, middle, and end.

After each presentation I would stand ready to chime in and address the presentations that didn't, always about to say, "Try to start here and end up there." And most of the time, someone jumped in ahead of me. Engineers, designers, marketers. They would say: "It doesn't make sense. Try explaining it this way instead."

It struck me during these presentations because I've always believed story is key. But then again, I write content for a living. Forgive me for how elitist and arrogant this sounds but, in recent months, I've been put in one situation after another in my professional life where I have seriously questioned whether a good story means anything to anyone else (maybe you've been there too?) These presentations helped me realize that it does.

Turns out people crave a good story in many different industries beyond publishing, film, or television. In fact, they demand it.

Monday, December 12, 2011


I love to explore my city. I love to walk the sidewalks, no matter how cold it gets, and see what there is to see.

There is always so much to see.

I have zero photography skills. My camera (or should I say Tyler's camera because he likes to say that I stole it, but what's yours is mine, I reply) is nothing special. But I like to take pictures. It's lucky that I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Thought I'd share some of the interesting things I've seen lately. Just because.

Pumpkin heads on their stakes (Cobble Hill, Brooklyn)

A rare sight: Plenty of places to sit (The Highline, Manhattan)

A sharp shooting, yo-yo-ing, unicyclist (Columbia Waterfront District, Brooklyn)

And our very own golden prairie right here in the concrete jungle (The Highline, Manhattan)

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Dream, A Love, A Need

In order for music to live it must be sung. - Irving Berlin

I came across this quote from my favorite songwriter and it stopped me, as so many of Berlin's words do. He spoke them after composing Alexander's Ragtime Band which became a sensation for the most uncomplicated reason I can think of: people liked to sing it. So they did. The lyrics very deliberately and skillfully invited it. And that level of participation gave enourmous life to a song.

I've been struggling a bit lately, wondering about this intense desire to be published. It's a dream I've had since I was a child and I cling to it and pursue it because I trust the vision of that little girl more than I believe in the wishes of the person I've become.

I take a lot of joy in writing. I remember having an honest discussion with my tennis coach in high school. I really enjoyed playing tennis. But she asked me if I loved it and I could not commit to that. Only because nothing, absolutely nothing, in my mind and heart could live up to my love of writing. I have measured many things in my life against that intensity of feeling. And besides my friends and family, besides Tyler, there is truly, for honest-to-goodness real, nothing I love more.

So I've wondered, lately, why that isn't enough for me. Why the need for such validation? An agent, a book deal, a publishing credit in a magazine, a journal, a newspaper page. Should I not be content to sit at a desk and do what I love best?

I have very seriously considered writing only for myself. Not because of fear, not to protect myself from rejection but because I question the need for that validation. What is the opinion of an editor, an industry, a public? I should not need their acceptance or attention.

All this to say that I seriously question what is at the heart of wanting to be published, at the heart, even, of clicking 'Publish Post' when I finish writing these words. I wonder about a childhood dream. A true love. A silly, but real, need.

I also wonder about Berlin's words. About that participation. Because it is so very simple and true. A song is nothing if no one sings it. A story has no life if it isn't read.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: One Shoe

So, I saw this. A mural in a schoolyard in Chelsea. I liked his look. How he towered. The strange sadness of a shoe.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"You're Afraid of Me"

I rode my bicycle home from work yesterday, waited at a stoplight on 22nd and 5th Avenue. I waited in the street, my foot on the curb, ready to spring forward as soon as the light changed.

A pedestrian, an older man, stopped in the crosswalk, asked me if I was a 'racer'.

I shook my head, "No."

"Well you have a really nice bike. I like it," he said, still standing in the middle of the street.

I thanked him.

Then he patted me repeatedly on the shoulder, the way you would an obedient dog.

"So, you're not racing? You just ride around. From work or something?"

I looked to the stoplight, eager for it to change. "I just commute this way," I told him.

"That's a good thing." Then he pat my shoulder. Again.

He must have seen my hesitation because he followed with, "People are not nice to one another anymore. So this must be shocking to you. You're afraid of me. That's fine."

"I'm not afraid of y--" I tried. Because I wasn't. But he had already walked off.

I thought about this conversation as I pedalled home. I don't like to leave a conversation feeling as if I have been scolded, feeling as if I am an example of what 'people' have become. I wondered what level of engagement I owed this stranger, if I owed him anything at all.

But I also wondered, is it true? Are we no longer accustomed to 'nice'?

(It still does not change the fact that I do not like to be pet by anyone.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Characters That Stay

Yesterday, a funny thing happened. Stuck wondering what to do with my novel, I thought back to another character I had abandoned years ago. She existed in another story with another set of lives.

But there are some characters that stay with you, that make you fall in love.

So I found a place for her, a small place, because she has always existed in small moments. And I was happy to have her because, my goodness, I needed her. It felt right that she changed everything, that she mended a little of what was broken.

Any abandoned characters you'd like to honor in the comments? Feel free. :)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The 'I Made This' Room

Last night I had such a wonderful dream. There was a house I didn't know. An older couple I didn't recognize. Tyler spread out on the couch with pen and paper in his hands, writing. (Was I writing a press release? Tyler asked when I told him about the dream.)

The couple asked him if he needed inspiration, if he needed to go to a special place so the words would flow easier. And so they took him to what they called the 'I Made This' room. We made everything in here, they said. From the furniture, to the mosaic tiled floors, to the paintings on the walls. Nothing from a store. Nothing allowed in the room unless they, or someone they knew, made it.

Make something here, they told him.

When I woke up, I was so happy. I knew how special those people were even if I didn't know them. I thought how funny it was that Tyler was the one writing and I was no where to be found.

And I thought, someday I must, MUST have an 'I Made This' room. When I get one, you're all invited to make things there.

But I better work on my non-existent carpentry skills. Or you'll have no place to sit.