Tuesday, November 22, 2011


November is many things, chief among them grey, desolate and often the calm before the chaotic holiday festivities. It is also known to others as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. A few years ago my sister-in-law mentioned to me that she might like to try it. Last year I signed up online, mostly for the pep talks, which come once a week from a variety of authors. Even though I didn't really write any fiction last year--that thesis seemed to suck up all my energy like a high-powered vacuum cleaner--I did enjoy getting an “I know you can do it” message in my inbox each week. This year I signed up without any reservations or hesitations. At this point my word count is still meager, but I have created characters that seem to be living with me. It's like I bump into them occasionally while I'm on my way to something else. Through these little interactions I'm always surprised to find out what sort of breakfast cereal Mattie prefers or what bedtime rituals help Jamie drift off to sleep. Still no matter how many words I actually accrue towards a finished novel, for me it's all about the pep talks.   (Erin Morgenstern thinks that “pep” sounds like a dog nickname, and encourages you to think of her inspirational note as a small dog full of spirit or energy. Gotta love that imagery.)

This year the NaNoWriMo website has an agony aunt, Maureen Johnson, in all her irreverent irrepressible glory.  Every day she responds to a question a struggling writer has submitted. The results are very unexpected but always right on target. As much as I find some wisdom in her answers, I highly enjoy the pictures she includes from old black and white films that feature the Marx Brothers, Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart. In one of her very first letters she made reference to a cheese wheel race down a very steep hill every held Spring Bank Holiday in Gloucester, England. The analogy being that this month in which one tries to write a whole novel is all about giving in, letting go and rolling with the words wherever they take you. It's not about editing, critiquing or refining; it's about writing that rough draft no matter how bad it may be.

One of the ways I foster my creative energy (and conveniently procrastinate) is to read most everything I can lay my hands on. Right now it's “Bluefish” by Pat Schmatz. Skimming the blurb on the back of the book I was instantly drawn to Velveeta. It is a name she wears with as much style as the colorful scarves she adorns everyday--each one different to suit her mood. Her real name is Vida, but she was given nickname by a classmate in second grade. Much to her dismay, she is also known as Cheap Cheese. This being a YA novel, the moniker seems obvious, but Velveeta manages to ignore it, her dysfunctional family and most everyone around her. She finds herself drawn to Travis, a boy with issues of his own. And then there is Mr. McQueen, a teacher who helps his students discover their true potential. He does it in such a sincere way (or as Velveeta calls it: all Stand and Deliverish) that I wish I could channel him in my class. As far as I’m concerned, any book that offers up “The Book Thief” and “One Fish Two Fish” as important influences is pure genius.

I am more than enchanted and excited by both of these characters and the author as well. It's like by reading her words, Schmatz has given me some highly-caffeinated, super-sugared drink that's enabled me with super powers. I can't get to the keyboard fast enough. Yet I can only maintain the buzz for so long. I find in that in the quiet moments it's the poetry of Mary Oliver makes me want to be a better writer. She instills in me this sense of wanting to put down word after word after word just to see what they look like floating next to each other in a sea of paper and ink. .

If this were somehow possible, I imagine that they (characters, authors and poet) are all on the path up ahead of me, beckoning me forward. I don't know where they are leading me, try as I might I can't see past them. Will it be a clearing, a flower-filled meadow, sandy beach or steep hill? Be it the latter, I should do up my laces, and get ready to run. Auntie MJ, I think I'm ready for those trips, stumbles and ridiculous speed you mentioned. Heck, I don't even care if I win the cheese, I'm just happy to be in the race.

Context is everything.

For the past few days I have been able to remember, very faintly, the smell of the carpet in my parents' living room.  Not the living room carpet they have now, which is red.  I think.  I have no head for details.  But the carpet currently haunting me was beige and fairly unblemished by exposure to ancient dogs.  It did not reach the walls all the way around but was framed by bare pine boards run through with squiggly dark lines that I used to suspect were secret codes implanted by a child who'd lived there before me.  The rug's weave was scratchy against my elbows.  That floor, that rug, was where I read most of the Little House books.

And when I snuggled on the couch last Friday night with T, L, B and friend D, and read to them about how to slaughter a pig and make head cheese, that rug came back like it had been lying in wait around the next bend of brain.

This happens more and more often as T reads the books I once read, sometimes the same worn copy.  He zipped through retro Gordon Korman and I found myself in a sleeping bag on a friend's floor with MTV blaring from the television on the dresser.  He read A Wrinkle In Time and boom, my mouth was filled with sharp rock candy.  It's not just kids' books - whenever I reread The Stone Diaries I taste roast beef half subs on white with oil, vinegar, and rosemary, my standard lunch during my last year of college.  Rosemary for remembrance. 

I wonder what attracted to me to those Little House books, which turn out to be a long list of instructions that could have been titled "Frontier Living For Dummies."  But T loves it.  Which is strange, since he's the one who spends months October to May wrapped in a quilt.  He's the one who avoids the outside if he hears the whine of any type of insect.  But there he sits, reading about cutting ice from frozen lakes and escaping beatings from the schoolmaster.

I wonder what he'll mentally associate with these books when he's older.  Maybe the smell of a dying fire.  Maybe the taste of eggnog of which we are all allowed one glass a day during this delightful season (some of us add spiced rum and moan like Homer Simpson).  Maybe he'll remember me, something about me.  I'd like to be remembered as all-knowing and benevolent, but most likely my voice will sound a tad, ahem, whiny in retrospect.  Probably it sounds like that now.

But we have little control over what our kids will remember about us.  Mine might remember laughing about head cheese as we sat cozy on the couch in late evening light.

Next Week's Penultimate Word: Blossom

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