Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Self-imposed exile

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Painting by Kristin Sholl

I need time to myself. Anyone who knows me well can tell you that. I often fantasize about being alone while I am in the middle of daily life, with its deadlines and boys and husband, dog and house, cooking and cleaning. Many women do this, I think. We gaze off at the horizon and wish for a place all our own, without intrusion. Writers may be even more susceptible to this, telling ourselves, "If I only had uninterrupted time. And a little cabin somewhere. Then I could get my writing done."

So I made it happen. Aquaman was home for a while, the boys were in school - there was nothing so pressing on my calendar that I couldn't disappear for a few days, as long as I had an internet connection to receive and send daily assignments for work. Just such a place existed - a small house in the woods by a lake that family friends had offered up. I knew I needed a break - knew I had been short with everyone who crossed my path in the preceding days (okay, weeks). So I grasped at the offer, picking up the keys on Sunday and planning my escape for the next day. 

I left while the boys were at school, after carefully packing provisions for a few days. I went to the grocery store just for me. There was no way to cook at the cabin, so I mainly brought things for sandwiches. And for cravings that I might have. And things that nobody but me likes. Things like potato salad and chicken salad, vanilla cookies, wasabi almonds, hard boiled eggs, and tomatoes. And peanut butter. And Ghiradelli chocolate chips. And Diet Dr. Pepper. Just the essentials. 

I took Yellow Dog with me as a security system and because I couldn't leave her alone with all those boys. Us girls have to stick together. 

I was only an hour away, but so secluded that cell service was spotty. The cabin is built on stilts and surrounded by tall trees. The sound of the wind blowing in the leaves calmed me immediately. I had to turn on the water at the main line, which proved to be somewhat challenging - as I am clueless about such things. Aquaman was unreachable, so I fired up the iPad with its cellular connection and watched a YouTube video about how to turn on and off a water line. It didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. I figured I'd just live without water for a few days - there was a lake down the path, after all - but Aquaman eventually called and we talked through the puzzle of why the water wouldn't come on in the house when it looked as if it were on at the main line. Turns out there were two water main covers - one for the meter and one for the valve. With water flowing, I settled in to stay a while. 

The first night, Yellow Dog and I walked down to the water and she swam while I sat and watched the sun go down. We walked back up to the house and I sat in a rocking chair on the porch and read a book I'd been trying to finish for weeks. Yellow Dog introduced herself to the two or three other dogs from neighboring cabins, but returned to the safety of the porch. I sat there, surrounded by trees. And birds. The occasional dog barked, far off in the distance, and it sounded a bit like that scene from An American Werewolf in London when they're walking on the moors and about to be attacked. 

Yeah, that. 

Which brings me to my first hesitation about being alone: fear. 

Me going out to a cabin on the Texas/Oklahoma border by myself is surely a plotline in a horror movie. Bringing Yellow Dog was my defense. I wanted to conquer that fear. I thought of Cheryl Strayed in Wild, hiking for weeks by herself on the Pacific Crest Trail. I wanted to think that I could do that. But really? Um, no. No, thank you. But I would at least like to stay a few nights alone in a cabin without creeping myself out. 

I did a little work. I ate a cold hot dog for dinner, and washed down some vanilla cookies with a Diet Dr. Pepper (I paid for that caffeine later when I couldn't fall asleep until the wee hours of the morning. Prime werewolf time, mind you). I settled in on the couch and finished my book. I moved to the bed and finished the other book I was halfway through. 

And this is mostly how things went for two days. It was heaven to wake up on my own in the morning - no person or alarm disturbed me. Even Yellow Dog slept in. I worked. I got some writing done. I read another book. And my Poets & Writers magazine. I took a THREE HOUR NAP. My cell phone did not ring. No TV. No music. I had a lot of time to think. And here is what I thought:

I'm not ready for this. I don't want to live in a cabin by the water, just me and my dog. I want my husband. And our kids - them running crazy down to the lake, setting snares in the woods, having fires at night, not bathing the entire time, smelling of charred wood and sweat and BOY. I caught glimpses of the elderly man who lived one cabin over. He spent a lot of time tinkering in his garage, walking with his dogs. Alone. What I claimed to want. Only not yet. 

There was no one demanding I get up or make breakfast or lunch or dinner. And you know what I felt? Lonely. Like my family and their lives went on spinning without me. Aquaman steps right up and plans fun things for he and the boys to do and kisses me goodbye when I leave, only worried about me - hoping that I  haven't waited too long to get away for a break. 

"You going to be okay?" I asked him before I left. 

"Sure - are you?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" I didn't understand. 

"You're not going to go drown yourself in the lake, are you?"

"You mean, pull a Virginia Woolf?" I asked him, chuckling. 

"Who's that?" 

His response surprised me. He's arrived at this conclusion all on his own - he never saw The Hours - Nicole Kidman portraying Virginia Woolf - filling her pockets with rocks and walking right into the river to drown herself. And she preached solitude - A Room of One's Own - for writing. And she killed herself. 

So why do I long for space of my own? Solitude? Why do we count the years that we will be "stuck" in one place so the kids can finish school with some hope of stability? Here I am. Alone. And it's not all it's cracked up to be. Although I think there is nothing wrong with the people who live happily as hermits on a lake in a cabin with their dog, mabe that's not what I want. Maybe I need to rethink this. Maybe I need to relish the time I have with our three boys who are quickly becoming young men. Who still want me to read to them before bed every night and will try to sleep in my bed when Aquaman is gone on a boat trip. Or when they're shy at a party and will sit on my lap, even though they are much too big for it now. 

I figured out I really like hot meals. Cooked food. The second night I conveniently found some charcoal, a lighter, lighter fluid, and a grill tucked away under the house. I roasted cheese hot dogs for myself and Yellow Dog and ate my potato salad. I sat by the grill and read some more. And wished that my family was there with me. I am nuts. 

So I packed up my stuff this morning and headed home. It turns out you can only eat sandwiches and peanut butter for so long. Yellow Dog got into the car as soon as I opened it to load gear- a full 15 minutes before I was ready to leave. She was not going to get left out there. I locked the cabin up tight, making sure everything was as I'd found it. I turned off the main water line. As soon as I got off gravel roads and to a major highway, I pulled into a Starbucks and ordered a Venti, iced, soy, Cinnamon Dolce Latte. No whip. I had gone two mornings without coffee. Maybe that's what propelled me back to civilization. 

I went to the woods to live deliberately, like Thoreau. But what I mostly did was read. And nap. And eat cookies. And miss my family. 

And I guess that's something.   

Ah. Civilization. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Pity: Party of One

I got some bad news last week and I'm still getting over it. Because writing helps me to process things and move on, I decided I'd better get it all out.

I didn't win. I wasn't picked.

Way back in December, Seal Press and She Writes announced a contest to win a book deal. The deadline was March 15th. The rules were that you had to submit a full book proposal, complete with the book's table of contents, a marketing plan, an analysis of comparative titles, chapter summaries, author biography and sample chapters.

I marked the deadline on my calendar. I wrote things down - longhand - in composition books. I printed out the sample proposal and made notes all over it. I went to the library and checked out stacks of books that were potential comparable titles. And I did research. Because my book project is an expansion of my blog "Letters My Dad Wrote Me," research meant reading through all of the letters I had saved, organizing them, and picking ones to center chapters around.

Then, in February, I tried to chicken out.

"I just can't do it," I said to Aquaman. "It's too much work and there's so much to do with everything else and the boys. It's too much."

"You're doing it," Aquaman said. "You have to do it."

And so I did. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I put everything I had into this book proposal. I thought it was really, really good. Then, two days before it was due, I thought it was really, really bad. I couldn't sleep, as my brain worked in overdrive to figure out how best to resolve the parts I thought weren't ready. The day before it was due, I resolved the problems and felt good about it. I submitted it. I felt great. There were 85 submissions - and many comments online from folks that had let life get in the way of submitting their proposals and who regretted it.

Not me! I was walking on air!

Until last week. About one month earlier than anticipated, an email showed up announcing the "5 Finalists!" for the contest. I knew immediately that I must not be one of the five, but clicked on the link and read all the other names. Twice. Three times. Then I read about them and their work and tried not to be resentful.

Then I cried. A good, shoulder-shuddering, snot-slinging cry.

Then I got mad. All that work for nothing. How embarrassing! Was my book proposal just laughable? Was it so far from what the publishers wanted that it was discounted? Tossed aside immediately?

Before I could think, I sent an email off to the person who had confirmed receipt of my submission. I knew it would probably never be read or responded to, but I was compelled to ask if there was any feedback or suggestions at all. I typed through my tears. I felt even more pitiful and ridiculous. But an hour later, I had a response that told me my proposal was well received and while I had not been competitive with the 5 finalists, I was one of the 18 semifinalists.



That made me feel better.

But not better enough to stop crying. Or to get out of bed, where I had promptly crawled after receiving the news. I sent off a few texts to those I knew would comfort me. Aquaman was on his way home and asked what wine he should pick up. I love that man. Another friend offered a shoulder to cry on and pints of Ben & Jerry's.

I stayed in bed.

I stopped crying long enough to eat peanut butter from the jar by the spoonful, some of which ended up smeared on my already-covered-in-dog-hair sweatpants. My sweatpants were covered in dog hair because I of course let Yellow Dog get up in bed with me to comfort me. And then maybe I ate the rest of the Easter marshmallows and Robin Eggs. Aquaman texted, "Do we have stuff to make frozen whiskey sours?"

Why was he asking about that? I wondered. My father's signature drink was meant for good times, not bad.

"Those are for celebrations. Not defeat." I responded. "I'm gonna go stick my head in the oven."

Aquaman arrived home with a case - yes, a case - of wine and, more importantly, toffee and cookie butter from Trader Joe's. He made me toast my writing with a glass of wine.

I couldn't stay in bed for long. Boys came home from school and we had places to go and people to see. Yellow Dog had to be walked. Lunches had to be packed. The world kept turning, no matter how bad I wanted off the ride.

The next day, in a fit, I submitted a query letter to another publisher I had come across in my research. They reviewed my work, said they loved the idea, and returned a very sensitive and heartfelt rejection that encouraged me to seek wider publication, rather than their very small press.

I returned to bed. Why had I submitted again so soon? Now I had two rejections in one week! I read Aquaman the email, expecting more sympathy. "That's awesome!" he said.

Wait. What? "I got rejected AGAIN!" I wailed. "Why do you keep celebrating my failures?"

"Because they're not failures. You were one of the 18 semifinalists! And now you have a publisher telling you that you need a wider audience than they can give you! That's reason for celebration!"

Well, when you looked at it that way...

So I decided to look at it just that way. I did not fail. I got closer to my goal. I got a shitload of work done that I can now use to submit to other publishers and agents. I refined what was simply an idea into a full-blown proposal and made significant progress toward finishing the book.

And I'm all cried out. So the pity party is over. I just don't have time for it. And my stomach can only take so much peanut butter. I just might be feeling good enough to have one of those frozen whiskey sours...