Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What It Takes

A student asked me recently, “How long did it take you to write your memoir?”
How long? That’s a hard question to answer, for it’s hard to say when exactly I started working on it (and it’s even a bit of a stretch to now say I am done). A few of the newest pieces still need some revision, and I’m still not convinced that I’ve found the right piece or note to end on, but all in all, it’s more done than it ever has been, with no obvious gaps of stories that still need to be written, and with a nice query letter and book proposal to go along, ready to send to agents. So for the sake of feeling good and moving on, I’m calling it done.

But how long has it taken me? A few chapters have their inceptions in writing I first did ten years ago, and the themes of the book—cultural identity, bilingualism, spirituality, backpacking, China, America, Buddhism, Tibet, compassion, family, relationships, love and more—well I’ve been writing about those for even longer. While I lived in China from 1999-2002, I wrote almost every day—both in my journal and crafting pieces--, and when I returned to live in the States, I kept writing, joined writing groups, took classes and polished pieces for submission. Then from 2004-2006, I started my low-residency MFA program through Antioch in L.A., and had the privilege of more or less becoming a full-time writer. I house sat for friends, sometimes for months at a time—the most idyllic stint being the few months I spent out in Dungeness, Washington, writing from a room that looked out upon wetlands and out further to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Dungeness Spit. Every day I wrote for hours, kept company by Gracie the old Airedale, and Bonnie the obsessive-compulsive licking cat. By late afternoon, I’d go for a two-hour walk by the river with Gracie or else hop on my bike and ride along country roads and out to Dungeness State Park. At night, I’d pick tomatoes and basil from my friend’s garden, make a nice dinner, pour myself a glass of wine, and look over the work I did during the day, editing here and there, before retiring to books in bed. It was blissful—I saw no one besides an occasional nod to the neighbors, I was in between relationships so had few phone calls or distractions, and I didn’t even feel lonely. Communicating online about writing and books with my grad school companions and sending a packet of my work to my mentor each month was enough social interaction for me. I was as productive as I’ve ever been, working on new pieces at the same time that I edited the old.

For several years, I house sat like this, lived frugally, and polished and wrote what would become my final manuscript—and the core of my book-to-be. In between idyllic housesitting gigs, I lived in my parents’ basement in Seattle (not a highlight in my thirty-some-year-old life) but a way to keep writing nevertheless. Eventually I learned to call what I was working on my “book,” which somewhere along the way even picked up a title: Searching for the Heart Radical: A Journey Between East and West. By now, I’d had enough feedback from writers I respected to know that my dream of publishing was not delusional, and I’d put enough time and faith into this whole writing venture that there was no way I could turn away-- or feel qualified to do much of anything else.

That brings us to the last few years, the last few years in which I seem to have been repeating the mantra: “I’m almost done, almost done, almost done with my book…” only to see another year go by with progress made, yes, and yet still without a sense of completion. There were always still pieces to be written, or some of the oldest pieces (remember those that had their inception ten years ago?) now needed to be completely rewritten. These stories were important to the manuscript, the stories needed to stay, and yet my writing and voice had grown so much over the years, and sometimes you simply can’t breathe new life into old words, you just need to start over (if you can manage to let go of those old versions that are now imprinted in your head); you need to find a new beginning or angle of entrance, try and articulate new meaning out of the same sets of experiences, frame a part of your life through a new lens. Not the easiest thing to do.

And then there was the question of structure, the order in which to place the pieces, and the question of what to call it—a collection of essays, a memoir, a collection of linked stories? I’d heard that “essays don’t sell”, so I figured I’d better call it a memoir. Except the problem was, I initially wrote most of the pieces to stand alone so some were in present tense, some in past; some chronicled a day in the life, others looked back over a period of years; some were told in a straight-forward narrating voice, others were more lyrical. There was a more-or-less chronological order that I could put them in, but there were all kinds of gaps or overlaps in time, there were pieces that stuck out oddly in tone, and some that still felt amateurish.

For months (years?) I meditated on the question of whether I could indeed call this into a memoir. I drew inspiration from writers like Abigail Thomas or Nick Flynn who had fashioned interesting non-linear memoirs told through multiple points of views (e.g., 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person; or some chapters that read more like prose poems). I started editing out redundancies (for example, I’d had to establish the fact that I was a half-Chinese/half-Caucasian American woman living in China for practically every stand-alone piece, and now these repetitions had to go), and I started filling in blanks (i.e. writing “bridge pieces” that would explain why in one piece I’m here, and in the next piece I’m suddenly somewhere else, or seeing a different guy). Or something like that.

Finally, about a year and a half ago, I sent out query letters and book proposals (with sample chapters) to a few agents and one in particular took interest, asking me to send her everything I had. Yet in the end, although she felt the writing was good, she just couldn’t see it—it lacked a narrative arc and/or a singular idea, it still read too much like a series of stand-alone pieces. I was bummed, yet not completely disheartened. What she said made sense, and yet, there were so many pieces that I had not sent her at the time because they were not yet completed. So I decided that I needed to just finish the damn thing before I sent it out again; that way if it was rejected again (which surely it would be-- on the way to that eventual yes), I would know that it was rejected on the basis of the whole, as opposed to on the strength of the book proposal and about half of the total chapters.

So over the last year or more, I’ve worked on writing those bridge pieces, as well as agonizing through the pieces that have been most difficult for me to write-- important pieces that have admittedly been revised to death (and that in ordinary circumstances I would let go of because I’d learned what I needed to learn from that piece and because not all pieces need to see completion much less publication), but in this case pieces that I simply could not let go of because they were so central to my book. I suppose if I’d just given up on the whole ‘memoir’ thing and decided to call it a collection of essays, these pieces wouldn’t matter so much because you, the reader, would have never know what I was leaving out. But the way it is fashioned now, surely you would wonder what the hell happened in Tibet or why I quit my job in Chengdu, stories that I would have to have gone out of my way to not mention or to disguise their presence, which forced me to ask myself, again and again—what is up with these trouble stories? Can I do without them? And if not, am I willing to do the work to get to the heart of them, in a new fresh way?

Now, I’ve finally gotten the manuscript to a place where it feels whole. Now I just need to keep on at it, query more agents, thicken my skin, get prepared for the inevitable rejections, and that one, important yes. At the same time, I need to keep writing new stuff. As someone who values follow-through and needs to have a sense of completion, I’ve been so focused on this book that I’ve put so much other new writing on hold. Now, I need to consciously cajole myself into experimenting with new subject matters, genres, and forms. Hence, this blog. And hence the new book (which feels presumptuous, yet deliciously intuitive to even call a book) which will focus on my inheritance from Frank and Els, sifting through their writing and things, ingesting their lives and stories, and meditating on home, death, impermanence, what we value in life and what we pass on. (See my last post and future posts for more on this.)

So all of this brings me back to the question: how long have you been working on your memoir? Maybe I’ve been working on it my whole life, and maybe it’s only been the last few years that the actual ‘memoir’ has emerged. All I know is, for now I am calling it “done,” and moving on to the next phase of my writing life, whatever this may bring. I will always be Searching for the Heart Radical, I know that much is true. But I’ve also entered a mellower phase, a settling phase, a phase centered around the idea of being in one place and putting down roots, as opposed to the solitary wandering, heart aching, intense spiritual questioning that I lived through in my twenties.

I joke—and hope, seriously now-- that the next book will not take me ten years to write. That maybe I’ll be able to finish it in two. And I certainly do not want to suggest that others need to take as long as I did to write their first memoir. Maybe I am just one of those SLOW writers, and maybe that’s okay. All I know is, you never know what you will be given from the universe to write about-- as a gift, or an urge, or a compulsion—but when you do sense you have something to explore through words, that you have a story to tell, to uncover, and to understand more deeply through the telling, you need to trust in this gift, and you need to follow it.

You can’t know from the onset how long it will take you to get a story right, and whether or not this ‘rightness’ will then mirror the tastes of the publishing world. But if you are willing to ride that exhilarating, yet difficult edge between writing just for the sake of writing, writing for the process and for what you will undoubtedly learn from it—and writing for a greater audience, writing to craft beautiful sentences, paragraphs, and manuscripts that other people can read and gain insight from-- if you can ride this edge, and hold onto your essential love for writing no matter what praise or silence comes of it, then you have what it takes to be a writer.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Gift

I live next door to the house I grew up in.

I inherited my home from my old neighbor.

Frank was a good friend. His wife, Els, died ten years earlier, and I was close to her too, growing up as a child. But after she died, I grew closer to Frank and came to know him as an adult. He was diagnosed with cancer during the last couple years of his life, but he still managed to get out and work in the yard, do many of the things he'd always done. He was fiercely independent, stoic, and private, so he never asked for help with anything. Towards the end, he seemed to have reached a certain peace with his life and upcoming death. He died over three years ago in early May.

Frank never told me he planned to leave me his house. I found out when his nephew read Frank's will out loud at a small memorial service held by the family. My breath grew heavy and my face began to tingle. I felt overwhelmed, blown away, guilty, amazed, ecstatic. I didn't know how the family felt about it, this stranger in their midst who'd been left the biggest prize of all. They all seemed to have learned the news before I had; perhaps they'd had some time to digest its shock and thus hide their emotions. I wanted to express to them how much I would honor this gift. And yet, in that moment, all I could do was sit back in a surreal state of gratitude as the others were encouraged to put yellow sticky notes with their names on the things they wanted.

Els and Frank didn't have any children. This last bit of information seems important to disclose to help explain how I was left such a huge gift from someone who was not a blood relative. I only saw Frank once every couple months or so back then. I was living in Olympia and would try to visit him whenever I was back in Seattle. Frank would make a pot of black tea and put out a plate of cookies (Grandma's oatmeal or dark chocolate Little Dutch Boys), and then we'd sit at the dining room table and talk. I'd talk about my writing or my latest travels, and he'd tell me about what books he was reading or share news from his family. Always there'd be a huge stack of books he'd gotten from Magnuson's biannual book sale; he was an avid reader, sailor, and traveler and thus fond of books about ships and the sea, about early colonial explorers, about Native Alaskan art, about South American culture. He was also a huge fan of Conrad, Hemingway, Melville, James, Austen, and others.

Books were great entryways into conversations about life, about literature, about the world. I embarrassingly admitted that I hadn't read most of the classic canon, though some day I wanted to. Once he gave me an extra copy of Pride and Prejudice to read, and try as I did, I couldn't get through it. Likewise, he called one of the books I lent him (Tim O'Brien's The Things they Carried, set during the Vietnam War) the "worst junk he'd ever read." He thought it was a completely inaccurate representation of war, and of course I couldn't argue otherwise. Frank had served during WWII, though he rarely shared his war stories with me. One day he told me that he read a book that was even worse than the one I'd lent him; someone had given him Tuesdays with Morrie, complete crap. I laughed and was relieved that I could agree with him on this one-- sentimental chicken-soup-for-the-soul life and death lessons for the masses. Not literature.

But books weren't the only thing that we connected through. There was so much about Frank and Els, their home-- a cedar cabin surrounded by tall maples and cedars--, and the way they lived that I resonated with. Frank was a merchant marine, and spent much of his life traveling around the world. Els was a poet, and loved to paint, bake, and philosophize about the meaning of the universe. Every summer the two of them would set out in their sailboat, the Hoko, and cruise up the sound into the waters of the Inside Passage off the shores of Canada. On board for months, they bathed and washed their clothes in the water; read, wrote, and cooked hearty meals on a woodstove in the cabin; visited old Indian villages, some abandoned, some still inhabited; combed the beach for shells, rocks, beads, and bottles; climbed up into old orchards and collected apples, berries, and stories from the locals that came to know this American couple who visited each summer.

They knew how to live a simple, yet decadent life, filled with earthly pleasures. They were extremely frugal, having lived through the Depression, yet their home was filled with treasures from around the world-- woven baskets, wooden chests, woolen blankets, copper pots, bowls of shells and arrowheads. As a child, I relished in the sheltered mossy enclave that was their yard; I inhaled the scent of baking bread, pies, and cookies; I spent hours on their floor arranging smooth black stones into intricate patterns before the giant fireplace. At their home, I felt enveloped in a natural goodness and beauty.

As an adult, spending more time alone with Frank, I looked to him as an example of how life could be lived. One didn't have to spend the entire year working, mired in busy-ness with no time to sit back, listen, sail, cook, and read. One didn't have to acquire a lot of things or a big house or a fancy title or big ego. And one didn't have to only live a settled life or a wandering life, either or-- there were ways to navigate a balance in between. There were ways, it was possible. Here was an elder who understood my impulses. Here was an elder who valued silence, literature, and solitude, as much as he valued people, children, and world cultures. Here was an elder who carried so much wisdom, and yet who was so humble. He knew he didn't have much time. He was a living lesson in how to not cling or hold on too tight. As far as I could tell, he had no regrets. As far as I know, he'd followed his whims and heart in life. And he'd come out okay. In fact, more sane and at peace than almost anyone I knew.

Frank left me a gift, and in moments I am still reeling. After several years of dealing with the probate, a long drawn-out process sorting through possessions and deeds and titles with the family, and a few interim periods where friends or renters stayed in the house, my husband and I finally uprooted from Olympia last summer and moved in.

Now, I live next door to the house I grew up in. I live in the magical secret garden next door, the one with the hidden raspberry patch and giant pile of composting leaves. There is so much more I want to tell you about this still unfolding process -- about the months of cleaning and going through someone else's things; about the discovery of old letters between husband and wife in the attic; the basement filled with artifacts from the sea; the flickers, raccoons, squirrels, and jays that also call this place their home; the yard filled with native plants-- ferns, salal, oregon grape, salmonberries-- and my burgeoning obsession with naming and pruning and caring for these plants that I may very well tend for a lifetime.


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