"Diana Nyad decides at age sixty-one, two years older than I am, to swim from Havana to Key West. She enters the water on a day I'm thinking about failure—lack of success, not achieving the desired ends, a decline in strength, being insufficient. It's that one, "being insufficient" that weighs on me. I've become skilled at detaching from my submissions. I write them the best I know how and send them to the appropriate venues in the appropriate manner and that's no small accomplishment. But today a rejection has snuck under my chest bone and sits heavy against my lungs while I consider the possibility that my writing is (that I am) insufficient.
I go to bed thinking that at least Diana Nyad is out there swimming an impossible expanse of water, in the dark, with sharks and stinging jellyfish, and she's doing it by lifting and dropping her arm, one stroke after another. I sit up in bed and make a list: add a paragraph to the first chapter of the new novel, finally write the essay about my last menstrual period, revise the story of my mother and the London Blitz. Write one thing after another until momentum is restored.Diana Nyad hasn't made it from Cuba to Key West. This is the news I wake up to on the radio. After years of grueling physical training, all those people believing in her, all of us watching, and thirty hours of swimming, she left the water. And, of course, she did make it. She inspired people, she pulled together a world community of supporters, and she swam for thirty damn hours. I lie in bed and listen to the rest of the morning news and know I'll keep writing and recognizing success in all its manifestations. But today all of us long distance swimmers, me and Diana Nyad, we get to honor this particular loss. I put aside my morning list and let the mattress cradle me. We get to be sad. We get to yield."
Consensus is that I should take all these essays I've written and piece them together into one long something. So I've written a couple of line description of each scene in each essay and labeled each little paragraph with the name of the essay and the page number and then I printed out the list of these paragraphs and took my cutting mat and ruler and sliced them all apart. The dining table is cleared off and these moments of my life are spread out. I wander by and slide the moments around, slide them back, go away and think about it. These are things I've noticed. I have two types of essays. Some describe a specific event. Others trace a theme (swimming, my menstrual period, loneliness, etc.) throughout my life. Also,there are scenes missing. I think I have the first and very last scenes in place. But maybe not. This is going to take awhile.
As part of a "blog hop" I was tagged by the writer Sally Bellerose. (Have you read her novelThe Girl's Club?) So, now I'll answer the same questions she did about a work in progress. And at the bottom of the post, I've linked to Libby Ware, who's the next Wednesday author on this "hop." Okay, let's go.
What is the working title of the book? Titles, sheesh. I'm so bad with titles. But this is a collection of personal essays and some of their individual titles are "Rolling in the Mud," "A Certain Loneliness," "I Am Here, in this Morning Light," "The Last Period," "Horror in the Okefenokee," "Poster Children," and "The Wild and Wooly Waccasassa."
Where did the idea come from for the book? I'd always thought of myself as a fiction writer since I always had a novel going. From time to time, I'd intersperse the novel writing with a short story or personal essay and these essays, more than anything else, kept getting published. So I'd write more of them. And more would get published. At this point six of them are out there (or about to be out there) in journals that include New Letters, The North American Review, Arts & Letters, and The Alaska Quarterly Review. The anthologies First Person Queer and Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing printed a few more. The word count of all these essays combined is becoming book-length respectable. When I started judging book covers from the perspective of what I'd want for mine, that's when I knew I was working towards a collection.
What genre does your book fall under? So on the flyleaf, under the ISBN, the Library of Congress subject listing would be, in no particular order – Personal Memoir, Disability, Lesbian, Nature Essays.
Which actors you choose to play your characters in the movie
rendition? The natural world of Florida would be one of the main characters, and I'm the other "main character" so I'm not thinking the film rights are going to get snatched. But since you asked, for the younger me's, I'm sure there are all sorts of up and coming braces and crutches and wheelchair-using actors that would do a great job. For the old me, I'd want Linda Hunt for sure. Oh, oh, oh – I can so hear her as the voiceover throughout the movie.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? This collection is the love-child of Lucy Jane Bledsoe's The Ice Cave and Kenny Fries' The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory.
What is the longer synopsis of your book? As a disabled baby, child, teenager, and a young and now aging adult, my life has flourished within a world of uncertain tomorrows. I've negotiated my way through the mud and sand of Florida and felt a permeability between my body and these environments whose survival is dependent upon the extremes of flood, drought, and fire. In response, I'm working on a series of essays that layer together my travels with the particular journey of my own body. Now, all sorts of people with all sorts of disabilities write all sorts of things, but I've noticed that there are some common characteristics, and one of them is that we almost never leave the body out of our writing. The physical cannot be ignored. The challenge in an essay is to write about the details of the body and the ways it moves through the world—the tiresome frustrations, the slapstick moments, the grand triumphs—but wind them within the long history of humans and our relationships to the earth.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an
agency? I'll for sure send some queries out to agents, but I'll also be submitting to university and independent presses.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your
manuscript? My first essay ever was published by Common Lives/Lesbian Lives in the eighties, and I scribbled a yellow pad draft of the latest yesterday.
Who or what inspired you to write this book? I've already mentioned the collections by Kenny Fries and Lucy Jane Bledsoe, but I'd have to add Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams and all of Jack Rudloe's books. And there was this moment, after I'd finished that last brilliant, poetic chapter of Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, that I just knew I wanted to be a serious writer. And the language in Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road - I always hope for a smidgen of something like that in my work.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? There are alligators.
Jane's Stories Writing Women Retreat has its schedule of events out. First up is a two hour memoir workshop with Karen McElmurray. (And it doesn't conflict with my presentation. Whew.) "The Floating World: Truth, Facts and Memory in Memoir Writing" - Really and truly, the title makes me think Karen peeked over my shoulder as I wrote and thought "this woman needs a little help here."
Karen McElmurray is a novelist, creative non-fiction writer, teacher, and ex-sporting towel factory worker. Her books include the memoir Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother's Journey andThe Motel of Stars, a novel. Southern Scribe offers a compelling interview with Karen that includes this quote - "To write this memoir . . . I had to look hard at events that I’d scarcely spoken about with anyone, no less summoned as words on a blank page."
So Jane's Stories Women Writing Retreat - Saturday, October 15th in St. Augustine. Be there.
Retreat Report - I didn't write as much as I had imagined, but wrote more than I have in a long time. The memoir did not pull itself into a seamless whole. It did deepen and have moments of organization. The next nature essay is not submission ready, but it does have form and direction. So, except for my put-upon-myself expectations, the week was a success.
Lovely Downtown Deland was a good retreat site. My suite at The Artisens Inn was beautiful, De la Vega Restaurante y Galeria, where I ate three times, has scrumptious food, and I desserted at three different homemade treat places and visited a bookstore and two museums - all without ever getting in my car. A friend met me for the trip home and we strolled around the Lake Woodruff NWR (photos included here) and then ate make-your-own (apple slices with cinnamon and blueberry for me) pancakes at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill in DeLeon Springs.
The first day reddish egrets danced over the mud flats. On the second, dolphins rose and huffed in a high-tide bay while silver anhinga wings gleamed out of from the walls of mangroves. Today, the third and last day, I haven't left the hotel room. I'm writing. (Imagine my voice rising into a squeak on this last syllable.)
35, 569 words. No, that is not the word count for today. Get real. But there is a pile of yellow pad notes finally typed into the computer. They are stories, vignettes really, about these past years of mother-care. Some of them I expanded and revised. There was crying.
And this is where I've stopped. The next step is, well, I don't know what it is. Something organizational? Taking each individual scene and polishing it? Writing new scenes? But what I could do, right now, is count up all the words - 35, 569. Not bad.
It seems to be a problem. I dart off of freeways for micro naps. I doze over the computer and wake to find a line of sssssssssss's where my finger was heavy on the keyboard. I tape TV programs so that I can rewind and try again, and again. It seems I'm making up for this past mother-stress era of crappy sleeping.
Can a person write anything worthwhile in this dazed, unreal state? It's as if there is a veil between me and the world. It's odd not to be on alert, ready, prepared. I keep thinking I should do something to be awake - travel to Vancouver or Spain or Savannah, start drinking coffee again after giving it up twenty-five years ago, muster my will power, cold showers, something.
(Okay, I just yawned and yawned, but managed not to fall asleep writing this.)
But maybe this blurred place is real. It might have something to offer. Perhaps this is not the time for will power.
And then it's one final trip to Roswell, Georgia for a memorial service. For thirty-eight years this is the drive I would make to visit her. And this is where I accompanied her to the sale of her precious house, loaded her (She was sobbing.) into my car, and delivered her to a retirement community here in Gainesville. She was angry about this for a long time.
It feels good to bring her back.
It's been two weeks of hospice world with my mother. We've all worked hard for her to settle in on this new (lower) plateau and today is the day for me to take for myself. I'm going to try writing again.
This post is for me to remember where I was. A list will help.
1. A generous writer friend gave the "Rolling in the Mud" essay extensive notes. It's time to look at them.
2. The still unnamed essay set in the Everglades was left pulled apart in an attempt to figure out what it is really about. Wouldn't it be great if I opened that folder and there is the answer all obvious after this long break? Right.
3. The memoir about this time with my mother - you'd think I'd start here what with the recent wealth of material. Except that it's not "material" just yet.
4. Oh, and then there are the novel chapters an agent requested and now has waiting on his desk. That's an archaic phrase these days. "On his Kindle" is probably more accurate. Whatever, it's best not to think about either too much.
5. The next novel. It's a faint siren call that compels me to write obscure notes like "future - everything recycled," "anger under everything," "have a real plot," "a bookstore owner in a dying business."
6. Submissions. Somewhere in this neglected pile beside me is a list broken down by month. I'm pretty sure that April's are done, but I should check on that.
Okay, I'll start with #2. It offers the best chance of quick accomplishment.
Or I'll go figure out where to plant the Hop Hornbean tree I bought at the Native Plant Sale. Or I'll watch reruns of Criminal Minds. Or maybe take a mid morning nap. And I'll have to call and check on my mother. Just in case.
During the camping trip to the Everglades, in the middle of one night, while smashing mosquitoes against the ceiling of my van, I thought about my writing life and figured out a couple of things. I decided to continue with the memoir, that there was something to work with there. And also that I would balance all the "delving into" of the memoir by doing more with my essays about the natural world of Florida.
I'd almost forgotten these during the dark of night illuminations when the postcard pictured above arrived in my mailbox - a travel and memoir writing workshop put on by the Anhinga Writers' Studio not three miles from my house. I signed up immediately. Does anyone want to join me?