I look into my tea leaves and what I choose to see is the life of a writer. A quiet house by the sea or in the country, a child playing in the living room, a husband editing in the study or rehearsing for an audition, and me in a nook with a computer diving deep into other worlds. In Maui we dove down to 120 feet at Molokini Crater—the deepest we’ve ever gone. I swam at the bottom of the sea with eagle rays and octopus, but writing feels deeper. In a marathon writing session the real world melts away and suddenly I am through the sea, on an adventure with Niguel, Iris, and Gus, trying to escape the vengeful Callum before he gets to Iris’ father, Peter Applegate.
You have no idea what I’m talking about, I know. These are characters in my book. They’ve become close friends of mine, and I know they feel neglected.
The neglect is making my wings hurt. I feel them pushing hard against the chrysalis that has protected them for 32 years, and if they don’t make it out soon the bones will break. I know this to be true, so why am I making it so hard to break free?
In writing the first draft of my novel, several challenges emerged, one of which was knowing when to finish a chapter. Often, it was clear. The chapter finished itself and I sailed on into the next. Sometimes, though, sometimes, I’d want to stay in a chapter for reasons that were perhaps unclear, but what was clear is that I knew it was going on too long. The third chapter of my novel was such a one. I kept writing and writing, knowing that nothing about the chapter was helping to move the story along. I loved the characters in the chapter. I found the action of the chapter humorous and charming (if I do say so myself), even though I knew it was irrelevant to the ultimate motor of the book. In my heart I knew I should end it, perhaps even cut out the whole thing, but I liked it too much. It was comfortable. It was clever (if I do say so myself) and it had the desired effect of distracting me from making the book truly great.
I wonder if I’m a bit stuck now, in my life, spending precious time in a chapter that is comfortable and full of clever characters. It’s hard to know when to move on.
That’s not true, I suppose. Knowing is the easy part. It’s the moving on that is hard.
Growing up makes moving from chapter to chapter effortless in a sense, because the pages were turned for me. I was born. I started school. I twirled baton. I survived middle school. I went to high school. I got into college. I studied in London. I graduated from college. I moved to L.A. The outline was all there, and then—suddenly—the outline stopped. Suddenly it was up to me to structure the chapters. I’ve done pretty well so far. Chapter 10: Rebecca gets a job. Chapter 11: Rebecca joins a theatre company. Chapter 12: Rebecca gets married. Chapter 13: Rebecca works at jobs and produces plays and spends a lot of time on Facebook and watching Netflix.
In revising the third draft of my book, I got wise and removed the chapter that was gumming up the action, but I didn’t delete it. I moved it to my “Some other time” folder. I’ll bet the characters and the very humorous dialogue (if I do say so myself) will appear in a future book, but they will only find their right place and time if I let go of them for now.
My wings hurt. Soon, very soon, I need to decide how important it is for me to fly because wings can break and wilt. Of course I know how I feel. Flying is the only thing I’ve ever truly wanted to do. If there is a heaven, I know it involves flying.
It’s time to write the next chapter. Like a mystery shape on the horizon, I’m not sure yet if it’s a ship, a whale, a lighthouse, an island? Time to grab Brad’s hand (Brad is in every chapter you see), and swim out there to find out. Time to let go of this chapter that I’m in—turn the page. Come back perhaps “Some other time.”
In fifth grade I became a competitive baton twirler. It was fun, until I threw up in the middle of my routine at a regional competition—but that’s a story for another time. My specialty was two baton. That’s twirling two batons at once. I was the only member of my team that did two baton. You throw one baton in the air, twirl the other one under your leg then spin around a few times and catch the first. That type of thing. It was almost impossibly hard to learn, but I stuck with it and finally felt the magic click. You know the one. That click you feel when something awkward turns into something effortless. The moment your muscles remember something for the first time. Magic. Once that happened both batons glided around each other like pieces of a puzzle doing a dance. I won’t lie—it was impressive.
I guess I’ve always done a lot of things at once. I don’t even realize how many things I’m doing at any given time because the choice isn’t usually a conscious one—I just do things. A friend of mine often comments on my time management skills and how amazed she is that I do so much, and I’m always surprised to hear it. Why should I be surprised? Why don’t I see the impressive motion of all the batons I twirl at once? If asked to describe myself I would use terms like lazy, master procrastinator, laid back to a fault. But if I objectively look at my docket I must admit that I too am surprised by all that I do.
Last Monday I felt unproductive for what reason I can’t remember other than it’s become a state of being for me at this point. I always feel unproductive. I can never do enough. There’s never enough time. I paused and took inventory of what I actually had done that day and my jaw sort of fell open a little. I rehearsed for The Designated Mourner, got lunch with Brad, went grocery shopping, did some laundry, squeezed in a photo shoot for Whimsy Do, went for a three mile run, cleaned out our closet, all with time left over to veg on the couch watching Bloodline. That’s kind of a lot. So why the heck did I feel so useless?
I can’t answer that. This particular entry is not for dissecting that neurosis. This post is meant to rattle me, wag a little finger in my face and say, “You better accept that you’re good at two baton, because you’re going to have to keep juggling if you want to do the things you want to do.” I act, run, clean, and make Whimsy Dos at the same time because I like doing all of those things and the stakes are relatively low on each of them. They’re recreational and relaxing for me, so I just puzzle them together somehow and make it work. When I look at my goals that have higher stakes, I freeze.
I wrote a novel that’s desperately waiting for revisions, yet there it sits in my Dropbox, rough and sad. I have career goals that need outlining, nurturing, executing. I ignore them because they’re hard. I want to be a mother.
Here we get to the hardest puzzle piece of all.
After thinking about this rabidly for the past several weeks I feel like I can map out the next few years of my life. Once the play is open I can carve out time to write. I’m putting pen to paper when it comes to planning my career. I’m laying out the steps. Brad and I have a new savings plan in place to build our dream tiny home here in L.A. The problem is that these things happen one after the other in my grand plan.
Then there’s a baby. I can write a novel, make career moves, and build a house in some semblance of succession. Baby however? I can’t stop everything to have a baby. I also can’t wait until the above items are complete to have a baby. I’ve given myself a headache analyzing my timeline to figure out where a baby best fits, and the answer is nowhere. There is never a good time to have a baby. Maybe retirement. You’ve done the big career stuff, hopefully, and now you can just have a baby and focus on that. I guess this is why being a grandparent is so awesome.
But I’m never going to be a happily retired grandparent if I don’t take up the parenting thing first. If I want to be a mother, I’m going to have to have a baby while I’m doing something else at the same time. That’s a fact. I turn 32 in two weeks. Still viable but the clock is ticking. I don’t know how long it will take me to activate my career goals, to finish my book, to build a house. I have no idea, but I’m guessing it’s going to be more than three years and if I wait until after I’m 35 I’ll be starting a vicious game of roulette with mother nature.
There is never a perfect time to have a baby, so if you want to have a baby you have to learn two baton—or three or four baton—and hope that eventually you’ll feel that magic click. And at some point I’m sure I’ll drop all the batons but if there’s one thing I learned from my competition days you always pick that baton back up and keep going—even if you dropped the thing in a puddle of your own vomit. (I did keep going by the way. Took home 3rd place).
I’ve been so terrified of juggling high stakes items for so long that I’ve been blind to the fact that I’m actually really good at juggling. It’s just that I’ve been juggling apples. They fit nicely in a hand, they have a good weight to them, they’re kind of fun, you get to eat them after, and it’s not the end of the world if you drop them. Maybe a bruise or two but they’re just apples. Apples are simple.
I need to conjure the bravery necessary to juggle fire.
Maybe it’s time to take up fire baton.
Unfortunately I don’t have any video of me twirling at competition. I guess that puking incident made my mom a little video shy. Check out this clip for a representative two baton routine. This girl reminds me of—well—me.
I sympathize with the thousands upon thousands of people out there to whom “writing a novel” is an expressly important line item on the old bucket list. Me however? I’m not one of them. I love to read. I devour novels. I am the wormiest of book worms. My Kindle is my most prized possession and when I thought I lost it last week I wept for 2 days nonstop. Seriously. Ask Brad. I never had the itch to write my own novel, though. Don’t know why. I certainly fit the description for the type of person I’m referencing in that first sentence. Creativity, intelligence, art, beauty, all huge priorities to me. Perhaps I always worried that trying to climb that mountain myself would destroy the joy I get out of reading. There’s a great line in a Billy Bragg song: “The temptation to take the precious things apart in life to see how they work, must be resisted for they never fit together again.” God I love that line. It’s like going backstage at Disneyland. You think you want to, but the second you see Mickey Mouse with his head off smoking a cigarette you regret the decision. I don’t know what it took for F. Scott Fitzgerald to write something so elegant, so brilliantly threaded together and evocative as The Great Gatsby and I’m not sure I want to know. I like to think it was magic.
I am, however, a writer of children’s stories. Writing children’s books is something I’ve aspired to do since I was 7 years old. I loved to read at that age, and I had a vivid imagination of my own so writing stories seemed accessible, easy, something I could actually succeed in doing. I had plans to be published by my 8th birthday. Of course, I wasn’t. That plan fell into the trap of something one always *talks* about doing but never actually does. Allow me to quickly share with you the story of the The Little Red Toolbox:
I have very few crystal clear memories of my childhood. I don’t know why, I had a happy one, I just have an absolutely terrible memory. I do remember a small handful of moments incredibly vividly as if they just happened. One such moment was the day I realized it would be “easy” to be a children’s book author. I was 7 years old. My mom was driving me to school in the morning and I sat in the backseat quietly daydreaming to myself, as I was wont to do. I had already discovered my love of reading and writing but I wanted to take it to the next level. I wanted to be published by 8. It just seemed so easy. I had this great idea for a book about a toolbox, a little red toolbox to be exact. I practically had my pitch to Random House completely worked out. Each page would have a description and illustration about different things one can find in a toolbox. It would target the pre-K to Kindergarten age group and would be very simple, elegant, and educational. My little 7 year old brain thought to itself on this morning drive to school “This is going to be so easy. I’ll just write, draw the pictures, send it all off to a publisher and voila! I’ll be published by the time I’m 8!” I kid you not. I thought that. No fear of failure. No struggle. No bellyaching about how hard it would be to succeed. A sentiment that we adults seemed to be plagued by from our peers as well as ourselves. Pure, innocent, beautiful childhood delusion.
I never wrote The Little Red Toolbox. I suppose even as a child I had a penchant for becoming easily distracted. I’m sure as soon as Thaddeus from the 2nd grade class walked by I forgot all about my career goals and became consumed with whether he would sit next to me at lunch that day. I never wrote it, but I also never forgot it. I’ve conjured up that memory and thought about it constantly over the years. I never let the idea go. Somewhere in the back of my mind I figured someday I’d write The Little Red Toolbox. Someday.
2 years ago I’m in a Barnes & Noble shopping for a gift for my little cousin Ian. I’m browsing through all of the children’s books. I turn a corner to look at the Pre-K reading level and, oh my god, what is that? Oh my god it’s impossible. It was a book called My Little Red Toolbox. And every page had a description and illustration about what one might find in a toolbox. I couldn’t believe it. My jaw dropped, my stomach turned and my heart broke. Someone did it. Someone stole my idea. Someone stole my childhood dream. In fact, he did not. I know for a fact that no one could have stolen the idea from me because I never told anyone about it. I kept it to myself. Someone just did what I was too lazy, too scared, too apathetic to do. In that moment of frustration and heartbreak, a cloud over my head cleared away and I had one of those whatchamacalits, those moments of clarity. The truth is, our ideas are not our own. They are gifts to be used and if we don’t use them, someone else will. Creative people are merely vessels for stories and ideas to flow through, but the stories existed long before us. If Herman Melville had not written Moby Dick I’m certain someone else would have come along and written, not the same novel, but a similar one that filled that same needed hole in the canon of great literature. No, an idea that’s just an idea does not belong to you until you claim it, and more importantly share it with the world. Then it becomes yours forever. I could say that I had the idea first, but who cares? That person discovered the same idea. The difference is that he had the guts to write it down. He had the guts to share it, and now it’s his forever. He didn’t steal it from me. I let it go. I know why I never wrote The Little Red Toolbox. I was afraid. As I got older I lost my sheen of childhood optimism and became afraid that, oh, maybe it was actually a stupid idea or, oh, maybe it would actually be kind of hard to get published. Maybe people would judge me. I was afraid and creativity has no patience for fear. The idea lost patience with me and left to go find someone who would have the guts to realize it.
I realize we’re talking about a pre-school book about a toolbox. We’re not discussing the lost text of War & Peace here, I know. But god, that little red toolbox meant a lot to me. The profundity of the moment I discovered that book opened my eyes to the potential I was neglecting in myself. I have a million other ideas in my head to accompany The Little Red Toolbox. Better ideas. I made a promise to myself that day that I would not let anyone else take those ideas away from me simply by writing them down first. Standing in that bookstore amidst the likes of Dr. Seuss and R.L. Stine, I wanted to be there too and I knew that I could. I was right about everything when I was 7. I did have a great idea, I could have been published. I was right about everything except for one thing, the easy part. The truth is, it would not have been easy, and the day I realized that is the day I gave up. Such a shame.
The moral of the story: All of the great ideas in the world are like fairies flying around in the air. Not everyone can see fairies. Special people can. Artists. Dreamers. The passionate ones know that fairies exist. But you have to figure out how to catch them, make them your own, and send them back into the world as something people will recognize, will see, and will believe in. If you don’t, someone else will.
So what does this have to do with NaNoWriMo? (National Novel Writing Month)? Everything. If you don’t know what it is, click on that link. I’m not going to become a novelist and I’m pretty sure the novel I started yesterday is going to be an embarrassment to the English language, but I will write everyday. Writers have to write. Every. Single. Day. That much I’ve heard from the best, and I believe them. I look at the next 30 days (29 now) as writing boot camp. This month is going to discipline me beyond belief and whip my lazy Say Yes to the Dress/Roseanne/South Park-watching butt into creative shape. Come December 1st 2011, I will be so used to sitting down with a pen and paper everyday, the rest of those Little Red Toolboxes will finally start to flow out through my pen and into the world. And I will accomplish my childhood dream of being a published children’s book author. You just wait and see. I missed the 8 year old mark. Let’s aim for 30.