Nostalgia Stories

Nostalgia can be good. But it can also be bad. Like cheap hot cocoa mix with the tiny dehydrated marshmallows: I want it for the nostalgia, but invariably the marshmallows either have the crunch of chalk or dissolve into air like the illusions they are.

My husband and I had this conversation tonight and it made him briefly wish for the marshmallow gun he gave my dad for Christmas the first year we were dating. At least, that wish had better be brief because I was Dad’s favorite target. I don’t remember anymore what happened to that gun, but I think one of my now-adult nieces or nephew claimed it.

That was a memorable Christmas. Mostly because Dad had an unfortunate-for-the-rest-of-us predilection for trick wrapping. He designed these things as absurd, inane tests. Mostly because Dad just liked to be a jackass.

That Christmas, Dad set a test for my then-boyfriend/now-husband. He took a box and wrapped it with an almost OCD precision, tape encasing every millimeter of seam.

Dad at least made it look nice. (Spoiler: it wasn’t nice.)

But within that box were other boxes wrapped in layers of duct tape over newspaper over packing tape and more duct tape and newspaper. Sometimes a box would reveal multiple boxes, each requiring a surgeon or super thief to break open, never knowing which would be the decoy. Sometimes he screwed blocks of wood together just to make you question your life choices. And you had to search through every scrap and flap with a fine toothed comb or else risk listening to his boasting forevermore.

Dad’s favorite gift to wrap this way? Gift cards. He never let my grandmother forget the time he taped a card to the underside of a flap on a box. The first box she opened in his labyrinthine wrapping. She, of course, didn’t see it and proceeded to work her way through each and every layer, cursing him soundly while he giggled like a kid.

So I warned my husband. We all knew his test was coming; Dad had pulled it on two other boyfriends. When Dad found out I’d warned him, he was pissed. So to retaliate, he pulled out all the stops. He outdid himself so thoroughly on this particular gifting torture that all future iterations were halfhearted attempts, at best.

Dad’s pièce de résistance was the heart of the gift: two blocks of wood, hiding a gift card. Screwed together with Robertson screws. Which aren’t much used here in the US.

But Dad underestimated a theatre tech going to university in Canada. Where Robertson screws aren’t so rare. My then-boyfriend/now-husband had the whole thing open in under ten minutes (or was it five? And yes, Dad had a literal stopwatch running) without borrowing a single tool.

If we’d announced then and there that we were getting married–after a single semester of long distance dating–I think Dad would have given his blessing. Dad never stopped bragging about it.

Weirdly, this all relates to an epiphany I had with my writing today. Not so much the test part or even illusory marshmallows, but the nostalgia trip.

I’ve been stalled on my current novel project and it’s taken me months to figure out why: I need to go back to drafting longhand. I stopped after my daughter was born because I just couldn’t concentrate or maintain the more sustained sort of focus I need to write longhand. Typing worked better with the way my mind jumped from one thing to another.

Back in December, I lost my connection to the story. Now I can see that typing outstripped my speed of composing–pulling the story together and shaping it in a coherent, functional way. Which is why I settled on drafting longhand in the first place, years ago.

So sometimes it’s good to revisit things from the past and reintroduce them to the present. Though if anyone wants to give me a present and mimic Dad’s puzzle wrapping torture, be prepared for a whole lot of laughter, tools, and waxing nostalgic on Dad-stories. Fair warning.

In the meantime, I have a novel to work on.

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Happy New Year’s Resolutions!

‘Tis the season…for making resolutions and setting goals!

Once upon a time, I made new resolutions every new year and each one went the standard way of New Year’s resolutions: they quickly faded from memory. But over the last several years, I’ve become much better. Most of my tracking and public accountability is over at Anxiety Ink, but I’m dedicating more of my focus here this year.

Taking a moment to brag, I’m pretty damn good at setting and keeping my goals these days. The secret? Setting reasonable, incremental, definite goalposts that focus solely on the elements I control. This means that I don’t set a goal for the number of shows I act in; instead, I set a goal for the number of auditions I attend.

One New Year’s resolution, for example, is to buy fewer books and spend more time at the library, so my goal is twelve library visits for the year. Averaging one visit a month isn’t much of a stretch but it’s more than I’ve done since my Seattle days.

Ever notice how not making a goal–even one you know is a pie-in-the-sky stretch–can discourage you? Yeah, me too.

New Year’s resolution: get this writing career rolling on the path towards some kind of income. The goalposts to get there: polish my query letter and synopsis, solicit critique/feedback on the query letter and synopsis from beta readers, query at least three agents; investigate short story markets, revise and polish likely short stories, and complete at least three short story submissions.

Three may not seem like much, but I have serious issues when it comes to getting my work out there (though probably not for the reason you think, which is a whole other post).

Other goals include offering writing workshops, finishing the rough draft of at least one novel, starting a YouTube channel; home improvement projects, crafts and baking and playdates with my daughter, and sewing lessons with my grandmother. But perhaps the most important resolution I’m making this year is simply to create. Every day.

I’m calling this the #make365 project because I am a millennial and a product of my generation. Also, public accountability works.

Creating is already more than a habit for me; it’s a way of life. But it’s ridiculously easy to devalue your own accomplishments. Art–creative work–in general is pretty devalued in this society, in case you haven’t noticed, and it can be hard to escape that mindset. I also have a bad habit of only counting story writing and finished projects when I thinks of my creative accomplishments. So this project is more about recognizing and celebrating creativity, however that manifests each day.

Writing a single word (not counting things like texts or emails unless they’re explicitly writing-/creative-related? Coloring a single cell in a coloring book? Making cookies or trying a new recipe for dinner? All count.

This is about being kind to myself and making more art.

#badgingerbread

Making Christmas cookies with my daughter was on my bucket list for the year. I haven’t quite figured how to let her “help” in the kitchen because I don’t have a safe way to put her at counter height (she won’t tolerate high chair confinement long and doesn’t have enough coordination to trust the step stool), so I had to settle for making them for her instead.

Then enter the wonderful and amazing Carrie Jones who tweeted about a gingerbread house contest and such things not being a great strength. And you know how there can be such freedom in giving yourself permission to do something badly?

And the condemned gingerbread house competition was born!

Running for the rest of December (so take advantage of post-Christmas sales on kits!), make a terrible gingerbread house and tag it #badgingerbread on your favorite social media. The only prize is the hilarity of it all.

So me, being the overachiever that I am–and someone for whom making food fulfills a creative need–I decided to make my own gingerbread for the first time. The cookies themselves came out great! The little one doesn’t have much interest in sugar if it’s not in the form of fruit but she has only stopped eating them because they’re all gone now.

The house? Well, the house was another matter entirely.

Pro tip #1: figure out the shapes you need in advance if you’re making your own. Just cutting random rectangles, triangles, and trapezoids is not, shall we say, architecturally sound.

I eventually resorted to tin foil to keep the structure standing and still had to give up on the idea of the traditional sort of roof.

Pro tip #2: tentacles are relatively easy to mold out of gingerbread dough and can give the worst design flaws the illusion of planning.

The whole process was fun and silly (and tasty!) and I highly recommend making a gingerbread house terrible on purpose. Or mostly on purpose, anyway. (Confession: I was totally expecting to have something a lot more…houselike.)

So, six more days in December (this post initially started a week ago when it seemed like much more time). Will you accept the #badgingerbread challenge?

As Long As I’m Living, My Baby You’ll Be

My baby daughter is a toddler. Yes, I still call her my baby and she still is a baby in many ways, but she’s also a toddler. Each day, she looks more and more like the older child she’s growing into.

(Note: I initially wrote this on the eve of her first birthday as a musing ramble in my notebook. Though it’s late, the sentiment still holds true and I wanted to share it.)

Like all parents before me, this came way too fast for my peace of mind. I feel like I can’t keep up, and if I think about it too long I feel like I’m not doing enough–that for her, the time is interminable so I need to fill it with more and maybe then make my experience of time more synchronous with hers…

Except I know that approach is self-defeating. It would only make her even more aware of the time stretching between things, while I’d be so caught up in the things and making them happen that I’d only be less present with her.

Time is relative, and being present is the only way I’ve found to slow it. And maybe that’s the real secret to it all. Children, by the sheer fact that so much is new and different and never before experienced, are more present to their worlds and their times than adults. It’s something we lose by necessity, but in our ever-busier, ever-filling lives, we need the ability to slow down, to find that mindfulness. It’s all too easy to forget how to slow. Some people find their calling–and their living–by re-teaching that childlike state.

If I weren’t a writer, would I have ever noticed or just joined the chorus of voices bitching about the acceleration of time? Or should I thank that constantly scared little girl? The one who always felt the world might fall apart and come unraveled if she did or said the wrong thing, or if she stopped looking, or if she dared to forget the smallest detail.

Can you tell I was the shy quiet type?

Today, my husband took our daughter in the morning to let me wake up at my own pace. I laid in bed longer than I needed, listening to the thump thump thump of her racing around with the usual morning zeal. I smiled to listen to her busy-ness as she danced and sang, as she tap-thwacked toys against each other and the chairs, as she slapped the cupboards and tested them against the child-proof locks that she’ll figure out long before her next birthday.

Even with all the luck in the world, I have precious little time to hear such blissfully happy sounds. I want to listen to them–her–forever. These sounds keep the ugliness of the world at bay with its hate and rape apologists and other unnatural catastrophes. These sounds brighten my world and give me hope.

So may we make this world brighter and safer and more equitable and just than it ever was for us. (But still teach her what to say and where to aim if anyone dares to call her a ‘brood mare.’)

Happy birthday, my love

Alliteration is Overrated

Who had the bright idea to make November National Novel Writing Month? I mean, four months out of the year have 30 days. So. Why November?

No, this post will not explore the origins of NaNo. I just need to gripe.

And, you know, reassure you that I’m still here. (Still figuring out how all this works with a highly mobile, busy-busy baby.)

But seriously! A month typified (in the US) by significant travel and family obligations and theatre. At least around here, everyone seems to think November is a great show month, and ours is a theatre family and theatre home.

The idea of writing while traveling is great…unless you’re the one who always drives. I passengered a grand total of once this month–despite many hours on the road–and discovered that yes, writing in the car makes me (mildly) motion sick. Literally my only baby breaks have been the occasional shower and when she sleeps, which is a thing she seemingly needs less and less these days.

And I could bitch about the time and brain space that logistics and planning and Thanksgiving meal prep all consume, but I knew all that going into NaNo.

See, I never truly expected to hit the 50,000 word count goal. I knew better.

November last year, I just wanted to see how much I could write and simply how to write while tackling life with a newborn. Last year, I counted every word I wrote: not just story, but emails, social media and blog posts, even IM chats went in.

So I wrote 20,000 words last year in November.

This year, I’ve only counted story words, the baby spends less time asleep and all her waking time in motion (and requiring my attention and interaction), and I’ve been busier out-and-about than I cared to try with a newborn. Yet I will still be within 3,000 words of last year’s count.

Sometime during the course of writing this post, I’ve realized I have kicked some serious ass this November. Frustrations aside, what I’ve managed to accomplish is pretty damn impressive. Pardon me while this smugness carries me through the end of NaNo and the crushing disappointment of having written only a quarter of this novel instead of the half I daydreamed about.

Part of my frustration lies in imagining how much more I might have accomplished in a different month. Problematic, but that’s how I’m wired. Part comes from watching other’s word counts soar and envying their freedom to devote an unbroken hour or three to writing most every day. The rest comes from setting a goal I knew was unlikely (half a novel) with no concrete measure for my fundamental goal (relearning my process and limits with a toddler).

So my point still stands: November is a terrible month to attempt something like NaNo. (But I think I can keep this pace going and have a finished draft sometime in January!)

Here ends the gripe. Now back to writing.

I never really wanted to be invisible

You can learn some interesting things about a person from their ideal superpower. People who want to be invisible, for example, generally prefer not to be in the limelight. Maybe they’d rather highlight other people, or maybe they have social anxiety (or maybe it’s something else altogether).

I was painfully shy as a kid. I was scared to have an opinion because of how that opinion might make others think or feel. My third grade teacher gave me the role of the White Rabbit for our in-class production of Alice in Wonderland because he had the most lines and I was the best in the class at reading aloud. But in our first practice, I couldn’t hop across the room and say my lines. I froze. My face got hot and I felt buzzy-prickly-sick. In the end, Mrs. Richards let me walk instead of hop. I whispered my lines then fled to my desk and tried not to cry. After that, another kid played the White Rabbit and I pulled double duty as Narrator and Cheshire Cat. No hopping required.

Not the most auspicious start to my acting career, though it’s almost funny that I still struggle with physicality.

But when it came to choosing my preferred superpower, invisibility always lost out to flying. I craved the untethered freedom and possibilities. Without a destination in mind, the point was the journey. Getting away.

Now? These days, teleportation tops my list. Not because the journey is any less important or fascinating to me, but because time feels so much more finite now than when I was younger and I have friends scattered around the globe.

Some friends I haven’t seen in years. They live in Seattle and LA, Ecuador and Japan. I recently hosted a friend from St. Louis for two weeks and as nice as it is to have my space back, the time is never enough. Another friend just had her birthday on the west coast. I haven’t seen her in six years, and for all I know it might be another six – or even ten or twenty – years before I see her again.

And the journey is often the most expensive part of getting anywhere significantly distant. Have you noticed that?

Teleportation would be my practical superpower. Bring my far-flung chosen family closer together and feed the wanderlust without going broke or wasting hours and days of my life in all-too-familiar airports and planes.

Except for Dulles. I love the architecture of Dulles and it always puts me in mind of a certain story that needs to get on the page. I love Dulles . . . as long as I don’t need to catch a connecting flight.

Being the Example I Wish I Had

A week ago, I came home from ReaderCon – something I felt sure was entirely off the table this year. But I went. With the baby. And what’s more, I participated in a tiny bit of programming: a live recording of The Word Count Podcast. Despite not having submitted anything in a long, long time. For the live recording, I had over a month to write the damn thing, and I still could have used more time. Forget trying to record it with the baby around. Listen to the podcast. You’ll hear her.

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Photo of the panel reading from R. B. Wood. Left to right: baby, me (reading my story), Kathleen Kayembe, Walt Williams, Richard Wood.

The next day, I reposted this photo on Instagram. Someone commented, calling me her hero for doing this with a baby. (Honestly, it was the only real option to be had. It would have been nice to have her elsewhere for a bit so I could be wholly present.) Good things – like bad – come in threes, so that day I also had someone come up to me and compliment my story from the reading, and the editor of an anthology I submitted to a couple years ago told me that my submission had made her top five. So yay!

But this post is about examples. And being one.

The other day, I was nursing in public. As you do when babies need to constantly eat, but you also have things to do and places to go. And a woman came up to me with her four-month-old to thank me because seeing other women breastfeeding helped her make the decision to do that with her baby.

My expectations of motherhood always involved nursing (which led to several unnecessary and emotionally painful moments in the first few months when we were sure that would work out, but that’s maybe for another post), so it had never quite clicked until then that some people might need that example.

But for that woman, the examples made a difference.

In the years of wanting and trying to get pregnant, throughout my pregnancy, and even now, I’ve been searching for examples of artist parents still doing their creative thing with babies and young children. Celebrities who can hire nannies and mother’s helpers don’t count. I mean, I left work largely because childcare is too expensive. Thank you, US and your lack of support for children once they’re born.

So that’s why this blog has shifted focus to this tightrope walking challenge of being a writer/creative/artist while parenting. I know I’m not alone, but the examples that prove it can be done (though perhaps not gracefully) are distinctly lacking. And even though I’m here writing about it and hoping these words help someone else – or at least entertain – I still need others’ examples at times.

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Baby, crawling during a panel discussion. I sat with her to keep her from exploring under the seats to other rows, but what you don’t see is the notebook on the chair beside me where I attempted to scribble notes when things jumped out at me. Con with a baby is a very different experience.