One of my happy places: Elliott Bay Books in Seattle
“If I were reading you like a novel, it makes perfect sense.”
My friend Megan was trying to comfort me; I’d been lamenting about not-writing, again.
“You reached a solid point with your book, and right now you’re taking a break. Things need to percolate. Or maybe think of it like this: it’s like braising. You’ve seared the meat, and sealed in the juices, and now it’s time for the long, slow braise.”
She was speaking in terms of books and food, which helped.
Over the last couple of months I’ve stepped away from the book, and I’ll probably be away from it for a little longer. I took a day job, a short-term contract gig for a few months. It’s a big project, but it’s interesting, and it uses my skills and background from higher education. I’ve been lucky enough to only take freelance gigs for organizations and causes that I support, and this is no exception. The job is flexible and remote—meaning, I get to work from home, or a cafe, which is where I am now. It works particularly well with our family life now, where Josh is working in Seattle, the girls are at various schools, and I’m at home keeping domestic and culinary wheels running. I get to work with the college staff, who are clearly dedicated to the college’s mission. As I think many community colleges do, this college walks the talk of accessibility and diversity. Though I’ve had to step away from my own book, I’m also comforted a bit by the prospect of bringing in a paycheck, as small as it might be. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to contribute to our household income, and how that contribution satisfies part of me.
And yet. I haven’t been working on my book. I’ve been collecting links for the book again, about how we read on the page versus how we read on the screen; about how the jail at Tule Lake (where I think my grandfather may have been held for a time) is being renovated and restored. I’ve added a few book-related books that I want to read, especially Deborah Miranda’s memoir, Bad Indians, which works with some of the issues in my book: intergenerational trauma and revising history. (I recently got to meet Deborah and it was wonderful.) Not much writing, though.
The good news? My dreams have been working hard in the emotional territory of the book.
When I say “my dreams,” I mean the kind that happen when you sleep, not the fluffy pink and gold dreams that appear on inspirational posters. I’ve been dreaming again. I’ve been sleeping the kind of sleep that’s less interrupted. I’d always been a pretty good sleeper until things started to fall apart a couple of years ago. Then I began to expect my 3AM wakeups, lasting for at least half an hour or more. Eventually, I’ve started sleeping better, and I’ll tell you this: better sleep has meant better dreams.
When I say “better dreams,” I don’t mean happier dreams, necessarily. But they’ve been vivid dreams, realistic dreams with a dash of fantasy, where I can see and hear, and where I’ve told people—within the dreams!—that I’ve had dreams about them. I’ve woken up trying to remember enough to write them down.
Each time I wake up from these dreams, I am scared or surprised or shaken, and sometimes all three. Each time I wake up from these dreams, I find the same message blinking in my mental inbox: my subconscious creating dreams is a path to writing fiction. Dreams contain elements of what might and what might not happen, based on familiar characters and unfamiliar settings. (Exhibit A: a dirigible appeared in one of these dreams, followed by a record store. Nope, I’ve never been in a dirigible. Unfamiliar. But I haunted Tower record stores for almost 10 years while Josh worked there. Very familiar.)
The subconscious piece explains, at least in part, why I’ve been terrified of writing fiction, even though writing novels represent my ultimate fluffy pink-and-gold dream. To write fiction I will need to venture into territory that’s even more frightening than memoir. This vivid place, this subconscious place of the visceral, the physical, based on a combination of real-life scenarios (scenes, details, conversations) and what may never be…that is where I am already writing fiction. If I am stuck thinking about stories as moments, just moments, rather than the series of moments which lead up to moments…well, maybe that’s the trick to rethinking my approach to writing fiction.
If my subconscious is already writing fiction, surely my conscious mind can write it too. I am terrified of writing it—I’ve never taken a class in writing fiction, although my friend Ann insists that my reading novels has been my class in writing fiction. I am terrified of the necessary, repeated failure that is bound to come with creating something new. I am terrified of the inevitable gap (as Ira Glass puts it) between the quality of what I want to write and the flabby, shitty first drafts that will emerge as I write fiction.
I am going to disappoint myself, over and over. I just need to keep my head down and commit to the work. Fiction is writing based on endless possibilities—which terrifies me the most—and it’s writing with the most freedom.
If I had a new career goal, that might be it: to write, and embrace that kind of freedom.
Latest Writing News and My First Giveaway!
Since I last wrote a post, one of my essays was translated and reprinted in a few countries—an unexpected and lovely gift, thanks to the Discover Nikkei Project of the Japanese American National Museum. I’ve also been reprinted over at Avidly’s series about the writing life, a wonderful online magazine about loving things “with intense eagerness.”
Last but not least, I was happy to write a blurb for the latest edition of New California Writing 2013, where the nice folks at Heyday Books called me (squeal) an “author and food writer.” As a thank you for the blurb, Heyday sent me two copies of the book, one to keep and one to share. So, I can give one away. It’s a wonderful collection of some of the best recently published writing about California. Here’s what I said about it:
This edition of New California Writing has so many things that I miss the most about my home state: a vision of beauty from the redwoods and Point Reyes to the desert; an awareness of the abundance and the human costs of agriculture, through winter deserts and peach orchards; a wicked delight in probing the geographies (and faultlines) of diversity, from Mojave Indian Barbies to sushi and black-eyed peas. Established writers like Joan Didion, Robert Hass, and Julie Otsuka inhabit the same space alongside emerging voices. Each page-turn gives us another rotation of the maddening and breathtaking kaleidoscope that is California.
Giveaway rules: Leave a comment below if you’d like the “to share” copy and I’ll draw a name via the Random Number Generator on May 15th. Fill out your e-mail address in the form–you do not need to include it in the comment box, though. For now, I need to limit the giveaway to the US. If you are under 13 years old, please ask your parents to fill out the comment form. One entry per person. The deadline for entries is May 15th, 2013, 12:00AM PST. I will post the winner (and contact them for a mailing address) on May 16, 2013. I was not compensated to give the book away.