Conversations with the Past

I’m back from visiting my grandparents and I have tons of family tree information, along with pictures of photographs (he wouldn’t let me take his albums so I improvised by snapping pics with my phone), hours of taped conversations, and pages of notes. I also came back with the comforting knowledge that Yes, I do have family roots. And boy do they have stories!

Foolishly, I’ve always compartmentalized my family. Dad and Mom have their roles as parents; Gigi and Grammy have their roles as grandparents. And they’ve seemed happy to let me think this way. Until recently when my grandfather asked me to write his life story.

He spoke to me like an equal for the four days for which I showed up chronically late each day. He referred to himself as Pete, not Gigi, and referred to Grammy as Mary. My dad was called David in our talks. Slowly this person emerged and presented himself to me via jokes, stories, and photographs. Pieces of an elaborate puzzle floated without an anchor.

How did he get from the youngest of thirteen children (a fact I’m still trying to verify since he couldn’t remember all of their names. Regardless, there was at least ten of them); to the smiling, carefree sailor posing with family before shipping off; to wearing a kilt (yep, the Navy promised he’d go places and one of those places was Scotland); to this tall, handsome man in a suit standing in front of his newly built home that he built himself; to a dad who adored his children (the proof is in the pictures); to a grandfather who seemed so stoic only to shed a few layers and reveal a dark humor similar to my own?

Those four short days I spent in a time machine, in a place that isn’t quite the past, but definitely not the present. Not only did I learn about my family tree (which I never imagined to be so large and so full of life), but I learned more about the people who have had a hand in shaping my life. In doing so, I am beginning to learn more about myself.

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Excavating the Past

Recently my 92-year-old grandfather told my parents that he wanted me to write his life story. Living on the other side of the country, I wasn’t in attendance for this revelation, but my mom texted me about it almost immediately. Of course I was thrilled and began planning a short visit home.

It’s now August and I’m entering the final week before I fly home for six days. How do I prepare for this? What (if anything) do I need? Should I have questions ready, or just let him ramble? How emotionally exhausted will we both be at the end of a session? Are just some of the questions swirling in my head right now.

I did what a logical writer (is that an oxymoron?) would do: Posed these questions to my fantastic writer’s group. Their responses and insight were humbling to say the least. Their generosity with their own experiences, their regrets, and their support has been crucial for me in prepping my visit.

Walk around the house with him and note what he looks at or picks up, does it hold a special meaning for him? What are his reactions to the events he’s lived through (at 92, he’s lived through a lot!)? How did he know Grammy was the one (personally, this is one of my favorites and I cannot wait to hear the answer)?

I don’t know much about my grandparents’ lives pre-Dad-being-born. I’ve always been told they don’t remember, or don’t want to remember, their own childhoods. Their parents (my great-grandparents) didn’t want to remember the old country, so nothing is known. I hope to dig deep and discover some roots on my sparse family tree.

In addition to letting him speak without interruption and asking questions here and there to fill gaps, providing him with his own tape recorder to speak when I’m not around was one of the best pieces of advice. To have his (and my grandmother’s) voice recorded so that I can listen to later will be a treasure unto itself.

It’s a big undertaking, and overwhelming when I stop to think about it. Time is not on my side. But I am so very fortunate to have this opportunity and I am going to enjoy every moment leading up to and while I’m there, in their company.

What Querying Has Taught Me

Rejections and the struggle to not take a standard form letter as a personal attack on your words. Then there’s the elation a personalized rejection brings. Constant stress eating. Welcome to the dreaded query process.

Querying agents is a necessary evil, and one which I loathe. “The Thing That Will Not Be Named,” as it’s known in my house. But the process isn’t all bad. Just mostly. Querying these past two months has taught me a lot.

First, it’s taught me that rejection won’t kill me. I’m still alive. I’m still determined most days. Some days are hard, and that’s when I hug my cats (sometimes too tightly).

I’ve also learned that I have no patience to be patient. But I have to deal with it. I’m relying on others now, so it’s their timeline. Not mine. To cope, I began vomiting a first draft of manuscript #2 and that has helped me whittle away the time. When I don’t want to write, I find something else to occupy the daylight (and sometimes the late night) hours. Yoga (finally, after months with a broken foot I can do some basics!), cooking, and even cleaning help pass the time when I can’t find a cat to hug.

I have a great support system. I have critique partners, a circle of writer friends, a book group, not to mention my non-writing friends who support me with food, alcohol, and a shoulder to cry on. So while I’m being rejected, I’m also networking.

Finally, querying has taught me discipline. Since I’m self-employed, I sometimes need the super power to not get distracted. Did someone say squirrel? Since I know approximately how many queries I need to send per month to hit my rejection goal by the end of the year, I can block out chunks of time per week to do the The Thing That Will Not Be Named. I schedule the rest of my work around the days I query. I treat it like a job I’m on the clock for.

While the process is daunting, slow, and mostly filled with rejection, I know my agent is out there. Likewise, I know that if I can survive this process, I can survive a lot.

 

 

 

My Tribe

More than a week later and I’m still experiencing a surge of energy from talking with like-minded people: my writing group. I secretly call them my tribe. They probably don’t know the impact they’ve made on my life unless they read this personal, but not-so-personal blog. (This is published on the inter-web, after all.)

I met these two kick ass writers at a local class. When we kept in touch outside of class, I assumed it would be like every other writing group I’ve been a part of: we’d exchange pages a few times and things would fizzle out.

Months later and we are stronger than ever! Pushing boundaries and making things up as we go. The three of us come from completely different backgrounds, both social and educational. But perhaps that’s why this works so well. We all want the same thing: to be better. And we all bring unique experiences to the table so learning from one another never turns stale.

Even though we don’t know many personal details about one another, we know each other intimately through our writing. We have a place to share ideas and pitch crazy off-the-handle stories that any sane person would say, “this person has LOST their marbles!”

I guess the moral of the blog is this: I write for me. My tribe inspires me to write better.

 

Currently reading: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz & After by Amy Efaw

Past Self vs. Future Self

We look to our past to get a sense of who we are. Where we come from. Our genes, our ancestors. But why don’t we look at our present and ask who we want to be. Who are we in this moment? Are we thrill seekers, the introvert gamer, the 9-5er? Or are we somewhere in between? What experiences and how do we react to things make us more of who we are than any family hierarchy.

My friend is addicted to solving the mysteries of her family tree and recently found out her background isn’t what she’s been told for thirty plus years. When she told me, I was stunned. It was like our giant pink balloon had popped and we were left with broken pieces. Until I realized that this piece of knowledge doesn’t change one thing about her or our friendship. She’s still my best friend, she’s still the most beautiful soul you will ever meet.

While I’m not saying it isn’t great to identify with your heritage–because it totally is. Own it! But you shouldn’t let it define you. Let your current actions and your future dreams define you. Who are you today? Who do you want to be tomorrow? And finally, what will you DO right now to be the person you are meant to be?

What I’m reading now: Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach

A Hiker’s Peace

I climbed to the top of Camelback Mountain. People do it every day, no big deal. Except that it was a HUGE deal for me. I’ve never done something like that (and probably won’t be back to Camelback in the near future), but I reached the summit. I stood at the top and spread my arms wide as gusts of wind bit at my face. Adrenaline coursed through my body and I breathed heavy from the climb (and a little bit of residual panic attack), and I thanked myself for believing in ME.

Above the noise from the city, the smog that hung in the air like low clouds, and away from my phone I found a peace that is hard to come by. The solitude (but camaraderie) at the top was something so unique that only fellow hikers probably know what I’m talking about. Yes, there were other people at the summit, but for a moment we all shared a bond. We smiled at one another, silently congratulating the other for making it to the top.  We were giddy, taking pictures to remember. Remember what, though? For me, it was to prove to myself that I did it. I set my mind to a goal and my body followed through.

When I feel like stopping a project because it is too difficult, or I am metaphorically stuck, I can look at this picture and remember there were moments where I was stuck on the side of a mountain, hyperventilating “I can’t” until I made up my mind that I was going to reach the top. And I did.

 

Currently reading: Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff

My Version of the Truth

Someone asked me last night if I tell the truth. What a loaded question. This person referred to a specific event in our lives, but their question got me thinking about my writing. What truth is in my writing?

“Write what you know” is common advice for writers. Does that mean that fiction books represent real events? Maybe, probably, no way in hell. But a real event can be construed so many ways by the “what if this happens?” question that writers ask themselves as they place their characters in the middle of a huge shit storm.

A seed of a truth can be taken, used, morphed, rewritten so many times that the original seed is no longer visible. Does this make something any less true?

While writing, I take an incident– or several incidents– and blend them into a story. The only truth that matters to me while I write is the question I ask myself every day: did I tell this story to the best of my ability? This is one of the hardest questions to answer truthfully, but also one of the most important instances for me to be honest.

So, truth in writing only matters at the end of the day, once the words are on the page. Is this my best work to date? Did I pour my soul into these words? If the answer is yes, then it is the only truth that matters.

Currently reading: Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion