Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Conversations with Writers

When I go to book signings, I'm usually too shy to talk to the authors and ask them questions about their books, even though I want to. But if I could speak to them one on one, it'd be different.

If I could sit and talk with Dave Barry, I'd tell him that he was the first humor writer I ever read. His work inspired me to try to write stuff that made people laugh so hard their drinks came out of their noses.

If I could sit and talk with Ruth Reichl, I'd ask her how the people like her ex-husband and former friends felt about the ways she portrayed them in her memoirs. I'd ask for advice on how to portray people who hurt me without provoking them to yell, "It's ON now!" before chasing me down the street while hurling my book at my head.

If I could sit and talk with Beverly Cleary, I'd tell her how I read and reread her Ramona Quimby books when I was a little girl, and how I once got in trouble with my teacher for signing my name followed by "Age 8," like Ramona did.

If I could sit and talk with Jen Lancaster, I'd talk with her about the most annoying people in Chicago, like the neighbors who blast their music so loud in the middle of the night that I want to post fake eviction notices on their doors the next morning.

If I could sit and talk with Amy Tan, I'd tell her that one of the greatest moments in my life was when I told her how excited I was to meet her at a book signing, and she leaned back and said, "Thank you!" before smiling at me. I'd tell her that her descriptions of daughters' difficult relationships with their mothers made me feel less alone, because it always seemed to me that everyone else's relationships with their mothers were so much better.

If I could sit and talk with Stephen King, I'd tell him that I made the mistake of watching the film version of his book Children of the Corn on a farm surrounded by cornfields. I was so terrified that I kept looking around at the fields and shrieking, "The evil children are coming out of the fields! I can see them! AAAAAHHHH!" And then I'd ask him if his writing ever scares him.

If I could sit and talk with Jhumpa Lahiri, I'd say that I love the way she describes loneliness (even though she rarely uses the word "lonely") without any of the usual cliches. She does it in a way that many people, including me, can recognize the same signs in our own lives, like in her story "This Blessed House," with her description of the man who only used the top fork and knife in his silverware drawer.

If I could sit and talk with Judy Blume, I'd tell her that I had to hide her young adult books from my mother, due to the depictions of puberty and sex. My mother wouldn't even let me watch the movie My Girl, because she thought the one-second kiss between Macaulay Culkin and Anna Chlumsky would inspire me to get pregnant before junior high.

If I could sit and talk with Emily Gould, I'd tell her that she writes like a true New Yorker, and how much I envy her for living in New York. I live in a small Southern town where everyone apparently goes to bed by 9 P.M. and people drive around with large Confederate flags flying from their pickup trucks.

Most of all, if I could sit and talk with all of these writers, I'd sit back and listen to them talk about writing and books, and I'd feel happy just to be with them. 

What about you? If you could sit and talk with a writer that you admire, what would you say?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Making Time to Write

When I first moved to Small Town, Tennessee, I thought I would have more time to write. In Chicago, I was distracted not just by my work but also by bike rides along the lakefront, free admission days at the museums, cheap tickets to plays, and neighborhood festivals.

In Small Town, on the other hand, there isn't much to do, unless you enjoy hanging out at Wal-Mart or watching sports. Many of my students are athletes, and on game days it seems like the whole town turns out to watch them play. I have about as much interest in sports as the Kardashians and the Duggars do in staying away from the cameras.

However, as I stated in my previous post, there is the pressure to accept at least a few of the social invitations that have been extended to me, which takes up a lot of time that I'd rather spend writing. There's also the fact that the classes I'm teaching are significantly larger than the ones I taught at other schools, which means I have to spend more time grading papers and answering e-mails from students who ask questions like, "Is it really necessary to buy the books for this class? Couldn't I just watch the film versions?" (I'm not making that up) or "Sorry I was absent for the last six classes. Did I miss anything?" (I wish I was making that up)

So unfortunately, I find myself with even less time to write than I did before. I still feel the urge to work on my manuscripts, which have been neglected for months due to my completion of my dissertation and my move to Tennessee. Every time I look at my unopened journal or glance at the files marked "Novel" in my computer, I feel tempted to drop everything else I'm working on and write. Grading papers and answering e-mails make me wish I was doing something more interesting, like pulling out every hair in my head. Writing fiction and creative nonfiction makes me happy.

I've read about other writers who make time to write by writing during their lunch breaks or by getting up early. Others give up activities like constant Facebook updates or television. So I've decided that I need to follow their example, or I'll never finish my manuscripts, let alone get the chance to publish them.

So I've realized that there are some things I need to limit, like my Law and Order marathons or my long drives to bigger cities when I feel claustrophobic in Small Town. I also need to discipline myself to stop checking my e-mail or watching YouTube videos every time I sit down at my computer.

I always felt contemptuous of writers like E.L. James, who published novels even though their writing was not very good. But they're still ahead of me, because they made the time to write, in spite of everything else that was going on in their lives. (On the other hand, I hope no one will think I'm mean if I say that I'd rather be unpublished for the rest of my life or be trapped in an elevator with the Kardashians AND the Duggars for an hour than write like E.L. James.)

What about you? How do you make time to write? That is, what kinds of things do you sacrifice or limit your time on, in order to have the time to write?

Monday, September 7, 2015

Me Time

In Chicago, people sat next to each other on buses and trains for hours and barely looked at each other. I'd go to my favorite coffee shop or bookstore and see other regulars there, but we never talked to each other. City dwellers usually try to avoid looking at or speaking to strangers, because they never know if those strangers are just regular people or people who would whap them in the head and run off with their wallets.

In Small Town, Tennessee, although I can't go anywhere without being stared at and gossiped about, the townspeople are generally friendly and strike up conversations with me, which startled me when it first started happening (I was all, "Why are they talking to me? Are they going to rob me? Because that's what happened the last time I got robbed.") Several of my colleagues have invited me to lunch, parties, or to barbecues.

Here's the thing, though. While I appreciate their invitations and have said yes to a few of them, what I often feel tempted to say is, "Sorry, I can't! Maybe next time...or NEVER."

In my version of hell, I would have to go to parties every day and make conversation with a bunch of people. When I was a kid, I liked going to parties, because we got to play games, eat cupcakes, and bring home goody bags. Now that I'm an adult, all people usually do at parties is drink alcohol, talk about the new diet they're on, and go home feeling obligated to reciprocate the social invitation.

I have a heavy course load this term, and I'm teaching more students at one time than I've ever taught before. As an English teacher, that means a lot of papers to grade, which means I might get so stressed that I end up writing, "All work and no play makes me a neurotic workaholic" or "redrum" over and over again.

I still have my website job, which, due to the car I had to buy (there is no public transportation in Small Town), my credit card debt that I accumulated when I moved here, and my student loan debt, I can't afford to give up. So that means I'm working too many hours every week. It's still the beginning of the school year, and I've been so tired that I end up falling asleep by ten P.M. (though I have to slap myself awake to finish my work) almost every night.

That means that when I have time off, I'd like to spend it doing what I want to do, like exploring Tennessee. Once I save up enough money, I'd like to visit Graceland and Dollywood. There is no mall in Small Town, so I'd like to drive to one of the bigger cities and go shopping. I'd also like to stay in town and write in a coffee shop, and I want to read more books without footnotes in them.

I've always been an introvert, and while I don't want to be alone all the time, I don't enjoy socializing every weekend, or even every other weekend. I prefer to do things on my own, because then I can do things on my terms. On the rare occasions I do go to a party, I spend the whole time counting the minutes until I can make up an excuse and leave "fashionably" early.

I don't want to be rude to my colleagues, which is why I've said yes to a few of their invitations. And I know that it is a good opportunity to network as well. But if I say yes more often, I'll end up resenting them and blurting out things like how I disagree with several of their teaching methods, the English department's policies and how I think it's extremely unfair to give us low salaries, heavy course loads and also require us to make time for endless meetings and committees. Or I might just blurt out, "Why does everyone in Small Town keep staring at me? Is it because they think I'm an alien, or are all of YOU the aliens?"

What about you? Do you consider yourself an extrovert or an introvert, and how do you deal with social invitations that you feel pressured to accept (but don't actually want to say yes to)?