It’s been a few years, and there’s a chill in the air. When the time comes and my current books are launched, they may have to include a new paragraph on the copyright page. To whit:
This whole work is about me — my story about as much of the world as I’ve experienced. The world is vast. Imagining, let alone claiming, that I’m trying to speak for or in the voice of you or your family or your kinfolk, tribe, culture, religion, conspiracy theory or whatever you identify with or as — well, that’s about you and the alchemy of storytelling. If you find yourself in this work and dislike what you find, don’t make it about me. Write your own story. That’s where you’ll find what you’re looking for.
I’ve been struggling a bit with my emerging writer’s identity. I realized that, while I have many clear ideas for children’s books that I could be pitching and selling quite readily, that’s not my primary motivation right now. I’m so full of secrets that I need to tell. This is very scary. What if they get me in trouble? What if no one cares?
In this mood, I think about Bobby McFerrin, the musician who got famous for his song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” He is one of the bravest artists I have ever encountered. I remember the first time I saw him in performance, online in a video recorded after he’d repudiated “Don’t Worry.” He stood before a huge audience on an empty stage with nothing but his self and a mike, and brought the universe of human music down to earth. Every person in that dark audience, including me, was persuaded to enter his dream with dancing hearts.
And in this video, look at how he rejects the efforts of the people behind him to turn what he is doing into mere amusement, that old shuckin’ and jivin’ for the Man. The audience, after that first spontaneous tonal jump, is 100% with him, learning what he has learned, delighting as he delights. The men in the chairs — you feel sorry for them. They’re trapped in a nervous, tittering hell of their own making, while McFerrin and his happy flock are playing in Paradise.
Earlier in my life I turned my talents to making a living. Now, with the wolf farther from the door, I have space to make art. Dark stage, invisible audience, just my mind and my words. Cue the spotlight. Here we go.
For the past five-and-a-half months I’ve been living in a dream world of my own making. I miss it.
When I was a child, I read to escape. Escape from boredom: our TV was a tiny black-and-white with no cable, I didn’t like sports and my school friends lived scattered and far away. Escape from company: I like quiet but I was in the middle of six kids and my parents liked to entertain, so I would retreat with a book to my bedroom or, if that wasn’t safe enough (I shared rooms with an older or younger sibling until I was 15), to the assured solitude of under-the-guest-room-bed. Escape from pain: in the worst year of my childhood, I read hundreds of folk- and fairy-tales, craving the triumph of the youngest over the oldest, the poor over the rich, the dreamer over the doer, the weak over the strong, whether through magic or the hero(ine)’s own, surprisingly sufficient nature.
One of my favourite writers, Diana Wynne Jones (may she rest in delight), said somewhere that she started writing for escape, too; that she and her sisters were insufficiently supplied with books to read and so she had to write to relieve the privations of not-so-benign neglect. I didn’t envy her lack but I did wonder what it would be like to be that motivated. I wanted to write so badly but couldn’t seem to stick to it. My notebooks were full of sparky ideas, beginnings and endings; I constantly described things in my head, in beautiful sentences that went nowhere; I wore myself out trying to figure people out and cast them as main characters in their own stories. I wrote good letters, all this time, and I helped many, many writers of stories see their way through sticky bits to the best story they could create, as an editor of children’s and YA fiction. I learned so much.
Finally, I got a job where I could create and write short works and be paid for them immediately. I went through hard psychic times, in which I figured out a few things about myself; I was seized by a story idea that wouldn’t let me go and which I worked on for over two years while I figured out a few more things about myself, including the probability that I have ADHD (diagnosis pending). With that last discovery, I’ve been able to forgive myself for “wasted” time and really get to work, using all the skills I’d gained so far. While I was working on my YA science/speculative novel, I discovered that I could get lost in writing the way I do in reading. I can wrestle with the angel of attention and win its blessings: total absorption, suspended time, surprise and delight and, finally, a finished project — beginning, middle and end.
The title of my novel is Otherwhere. I think there is going to be a sequel.
P.S. I have been blown away by this photographer, whose Instagram posts have often captured exactly and eerily what I imagined for my invented lands.
I am “defecting to the typewriter”. I believe in the luck of my children, who have not devoured me; I believe in the luck of my husband and lover, who keeps a free woman. (Thank you, Carolyn Kizer!) As of March 1, 2021, I am a writer only. The first day went great. The second day started earlier and with even more enthusiasm. Here’s a little bit of what I’m working on:
In dole service I was a little more judgey, because I was older and looking for something — evidence, reasons, a clue. Dole service has a element of choice to it, at least until the choices become who you are. I was working in a market, once, wrangling folding tables and sweeping floors. It was the kind of market where the hard goods are second- or third-hand and the groceries are all past their best-before dates. A frowsty-haired woman named Brinda had a table there, displaying gloriously scented bruised pineapples and small piles of limp or desiccated vegetable items I didn’t know the names of. I bought avocados from her. I only knew one thing to do with them, a kind of creamy, spicy spread, and the very soft, beginning-to-blacken ones she offered suited that purpose. We got to talking about journeying and I said I was thinking about going home for the solstice festival.
“Oh, I never go otherwhere for something,” she said. “I just go, and see what there is when I get there.”
“Why?” I asked.
She squinched up her face as if tasting something sour. “You gotta to leave at the right time, and get the hops timed just so,” she said. “Weeks in advance, sometimes, you have to plan. And life’s not like that; you can’t count on things staying the same for long.” She shook her head. “Too chancy. I go when I want to.”
I didn’t know what to do with that. I felt sorry for her mysteriously stormy, precarious life so prone to falls. On the other hand, her reasoning felt itchy. Wasn’t it more unsettling to go any otherwhere at a moment’s notice than to go with planning and purpose? So what, or who, was chancy here?