Saturday, November 15, 2014

100,000 Words in 31 Days

I’m not really sure how one writes about writing, but it’s a lot of what I’ve been doing lately – at least it’s probably the only thing worth writing about that I’ve been doing.

My days here in Derry have slipped into a bit of a haze. This will probably be the time I look back upon when I have an infant or two at home, day dreaming about the excesses of sleep and laziness I was able to achieve for two months in Northern Ireland. The hostel is slow this time of the year and with three-six of us volunteers, even a few beds, vacuuming the whole place, a good clean in the kitchen and dusting in the common room just doesn’t take so long.

I wake up, drink my coffee while I read, clean for about an hour (if that), eat lunch, practice some Italian (why not use so much free time to try another language, right?) then I head out to the library, spread my maps, calendars from 1972, notes and reference books around me upon a table and dive back in. I usually am able to work for about 3-4 hours (a number that has been steadily rising) before I’m exhausted and need to step away, back to an evening of yoga, daydreaming about other trips I’ll go on one day, beer drinking and TV watching with my fellow volunteers. Sometimes we go out to the pubs. Usually, no.

I walk home from the llibraryeach day the long way, unless the rain is really coming down hard. Through the Bogside, looking down from the City Walls to the murals depicting the battles, rallies and IRA fighters. I take the steep hill past the street I have decided the Crilly Family – my narrators – live on, past orange, white and green lamp posts, signs reading “BRITS NOT WELCOME – IRA” and graffiti. I walk the streets, which are so incredibly different – the whole area has in fact been rebuilt – since 1972 when the book takes place, smiling and greeting the people who nod at me when they walk by.

I am writing right now with a determination and clarity I have not felt since the summer I turned fifteen, when I stayed up until 3am nightly, before the eerie glow of the family computer furiously creating the world of my fantasy novel. I know where I am going, what’s going to happen to my characters. There is an event’s list, and I highlight and mark off major events as they happen. For many, many years this book has been one scene pieced together without a clear path or ending. It feels so good to have purpose and clarity, I cannot even tell you how relieved I am to be in this place.

I even have a title, everyone. Well, I see something outlined, just out of my grasp that could be a title. I haven’t been able to jump up and get a steady hold on it just yet. But it's there.

I’m over 100,000 words into the book and almost every single one of them is new - only about 5,000 were salvageable from the wreckage of all those early drafts. Here are some things I have learned/remembered about writing in the last month:

1)      You need structure and routine to make a large-scale project like this happen. Sure, there are moments of inspiration, lightning bolts that hit you, keep you up late and can propel your creativity through a few days, weeks maybe. But after that, just like the romanticism at the beginning of a new love affair, the jolt, the clarity, the buzz tends to fade. And you’re left with a lot of work. I don’t think I’ve ever meet a writer who doesn’t feel like writing every day isn’t work. Beautiful, fulfilling, exciting work. But work. And I have to get myself off my comfortable ass and go do it. Some days I hate it. But if I miss an afternoon, especially a few days, it is so hard for me to get back into the swing of things. My creative brain responds well to consistency. I show up every day and even if the first half hour is shit, I keep saying, just a little longer, just a little longer, and eventually my fingers start moving with rhythm: the words start coming. It’s in there and I need to give myself the structure to give it space to come on out.
2)      I can’t think about being published yet. That is a recipe for becoming totally and utterly overwhelmed, for seizing up with all the doubts, uncertainties, questions of “is this readable? Is this relatable? Is this worth my time, even? Was the whole trip worth doing?!” will make creativity stop short. Plus, if I’m writing at this moment for what I believe an audience wants, I am certain that what I come up with will be utter shit. 
3)      It’s OK that I’m writing this book. For a long time I was embarrassed to tell people about this book, especially people on the road, especially people in Northern Ireland. I wondered just who the hell I thought I was, trying to tell a story I in no way lived, full of horror and details I cannot even imagine. This probably comes from my social justice background and I still admit to struggling with it from the standpoint as a person of privilege. But reactions to this project have not at all been negative, and I’m not the only author to attempt to wade into a world in which I was not born. Granted, this doesn’t automatically make it OK, but I do believe I have given the subject matter as much research, deliberate investigation and scrutiny as I could in order to honor my characters and the interesting, yet difficult situation I got sucked into exploring.

4)      I’m allowed to call myself an artist. For a long time now, I’ve cautiously skirted around the topic of being an artist. I’ve been embarrassed about the connotations, about the fact that I had not been able to devote myself to my writing in a way that felt like an “artist” should for many years now. Throughout the trip I’ve been trying out the phrase, “I’m an artist, working on my first novel” and watching people’s reactions. Mostly it’s good. In fact, I can’t say I’ve met any truly negative reactions. And it continually reassures me, makes me feel more and more like I am, in fact, an artist.

So, all in all, 31 days into the complete overhaul and rewrite of The Still Unnamed Novel, things are going amazingly. I was terrified of this time before I left home, in the weeks leading up to arriving and even now if I overthink just what it is I’m doing here. All my friends are at home, getting engaged, having their first babies and buying their first homes. And what am I doing with my life? Just living abroad, writing my first novel, traveling and exploring. 

I suppose that I can, in fact,  live with that.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

I Don’t Deserve This

Sometime between Pécs, Hungary and Sofia, Bulgaria, I was reading the book The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. (Not my favorite book of the trip, in case you were wondering, but that’s not exactly important.) Offhandedly, the biblical verse from the Book of Luke came up: “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.”

Being at one time, at least, a good Catholic girl, I’ve been exposed to my fair share of the Bible. So sure; I’ve heard this one before. But at that moment, sitting on a train somewhere in the countryside of Serbia, I was struck with how much these words suddenly meant to me; how true this idea has turned out to be.

In moments of reflection, I have realized that I tend to see my life as checkmarks upon an endless list: how many cities, how many countries, how many national parks can I mark off? I think in some ways I’m getting too good at leaving. I have stirred and shaken out my life, left something beautiful and fulfilling again and again, sometimes because I had to – graduating from the Perpich Center for Arts Education, finishing a year-long contract at Friends In Deed – and sometimes because there was something somewhere in my gut saying it was time.

Honestly, I have left so many communities and friends and routines behind that if I think too hard about it all, I could fall to my knees and cry out for the horror of what I’ve missed.

What keeps me standing and always moving is knowing how much I have gained.

A day trip in Donegal
By giving up everything in my life, by walking away from friends and family and routine and comfort, I have found a new sense of myself again and again. I have found confidence, self-reliance, joy and adventure. Not that every day – especially of this trip – has been easy. Not that every day has been fun or even exciting (I do get bored on the road). But by expanding my sense of the world, exposing myself to newness and letting go, I have pushed the edges of my personality, frayed some of my world views and opened up new channels of thinking and living.

I am happy. I am so very happy. Happiness is, in my humble opinion hard to define. It is not exactly joy, not exuberance. It is not a time without sadness, fear or anxiety. But I am fulfilled. I am excited to be living right now and every day into the future, in every sense that these words can be true.

Don’t get me wrong: I was happy, very very happy before I left California in June. I had friends, stability, adventure, love. I had family not too far, I had work that challenged me. I knew at the time that I was in the middle of one of the times in my life that I will also look back on and say “wow, what an incredible life I lead.” But I left. I’ve mused over why I left, what I was called to explore and experience. I don’t have an answer, but I can say that today I feel a new kind of happiness than I’ve ever been blessed with before.

And I think that’s how life goes: happiness comes. Joy sweeps our lives as do anger and despair. It comes to everyone, uninhibited, unexpected. Undeserved, really. No one deserves the sadness and hurt they receive, and no one is deserving of the happiness they receive either. These gifts just show up, and our job is to accept them, experience them and allow them to move on when their time comes.

I've been writing about happiness. Let me explain what I think I mean here because everyone says they want it and the thing I'm calling "happiness" isn't the same thing.

Happiness is something you can’t grab hold of. If you try to claim it, to give it a name or a permanence, it will dissipate between your greedy fingers. I have learned that true happiness (for me at least) needs more than a pinch of novelty to stay alive. We will always grow tired of a certain kind of happiness, a certain way of experiencing our passion or challenge or scenery. If we are brave enough to throw out all that we think – or even know – makes us happy and safe, we are rewarded.

Everyone is looking for happiness, myself included. Some people complain and ask for joy as if they deserve it. I don’t believe anyone is owed delight or contentment. The world is not typically a joyful place to be in, and consistent delight is not what brings us long-term happiness, or a sense of identity. We need to be pushing against the edges of our personalities, taking on risks and experiencing pain and hurt in order to fully grasp who we are and what we believe.

And this brings me back to that moment on the train, reading a book and thinking about gaining life (happiness, fulfillment, grace, whatever you want to call it) by allowing yourself to lose everything you have. When you truly let go of your life in some way or another, you will always gain something greater.

People always ask me how I do what I do: how I move across the country, how I travel the world. How I have confidence. How I write 70,000 words of a book in less than a month. I just do it. I just put one foot before the other, say where I’m going, save the money and go there. I just go to the coffee shop every day and force myself to write, even if I’m not inspired, even if what comes out is total shit. Maybe I’ll have to throw it away later. It’s showing up, opening your hands up and saying “what do you have for me today, world?” that’s the important thing. I love not just the stories I gain from loosing everything, I love who I become through these acts of abandon and risk.

I am lucky, yes, but I worked for this. I am blessed, yes, but I gave up everything to gain this blessing.

I am happy, yes. I am so deeply, elegantly happy. I let go of everything, had to allow the edges of myself to disappear, and it gave me grace, depth and courage. It won’t last, not in this particular way at least. This time and place and particular form of fulfillment and joy is a gift unto itself. It’s always good to be able to look at what you have and say to yourself “wow, I will always look at this time in my life as one of the most incredible!” 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The City of Bones

I had no idea before I arrived in Ireland that the origins of Halloween are Celtic, nor did I know that Derry hosts the biggest Halloween party in Europe, with three full days of parties, arts, parades, fireworks and a carnival. It was a pleasant surprise.

Before Christianity arrived in the British Isles, the Druids celebrated the Samhain Festival each year at the end of the harvests in late October. It was a kind of New Year’s Eve for these cultures, a time when the bonfires of last year were ceremonially extinguished and relit to symbolize ending and beginnings. All the crops had been harvested – if you left apples on the trees, fairies would spit on them and you could no longer eat them – and all the animals were brought in for the winter months.

Along with the fiery endings and beginnings, this day was a time when the wall between the world of the dead and our living world fell down. Ancestors would be wandering, looking to come back home and people would leave food out in their homes for ancestors who would be back to visit. Of course, along with the spirits of ancestors, malevolent spits – like fairies, banshees or ghosts – were also wandering among the living, and these evil spirits wanted to find living bodies they could inhabit in order to stay in our world. One way to be certain that an evil spirit would not inhabit your body was to dress up as something else and confuse anything lurking around while the veil between the living and the dead was briefly lifted. You could also carve a menacing face into a turnip which you would place outside your home to frighten away evil. If you were very concerned, a candle inside would enhance the effects of the protective lantern.
Of course Christianity and all of the centuries since the Druids lived in Ireland have transformed Halloween, but today it is well known that Derry is the place to celebrate the holiday. Annually 40,000 people storm the city, everyone wearing costumes (and drinking, of course). In the nights leading up to Halloween, the old city walls were covered in a live performance with fire, dancers, fire dancers and acrobats. It was a full carnival for three nights straight. They called this the "Waking of the Walls." 

The Waking of the Walls on the 30th of October
Halloween brought out a parade, fireworks,  lots of pub parties and day-long festival events for people of all ages. The parade at moments felt like the Duluth Christmas City of the North Parade with little ones dancing and bands playing, then suddenly like the May Day Parade in Minneapolis with huge papermache puppets dancing down the street. I can't really speak to trick or treating - I'm not sure I saw any, but I wasn't looking either. 

Halloween Parade

Our group before we headed out to the events all night