Small things add up. They tip the scales no matter how light. Smiles on tiny squares of paper, air in my tires. Kisses tossed from the top of the porch steps. All I can give in return are words and golden promises.
Tag Archives: nonfiction
Last week I bought a new dress.
It took me a long time to make up my mind to buy it. It’s not my usual thing. It’s red and fitted – no, downright snug – and cut alarmingly low in the front. It’s sophisticated and sexy. The fabric has just enough give that it’s comfortable, not confining, and I loved it from the moment I put it on.
Still I hesitated. I stared at myself in the mirror, turning to see myself from every angle. Every curve, every panty line. When I finally peeled it off, I forced myself to take a deep breath and bring it to the counter. Three days later I’m still wavering about whether I will have the guts to wear it when I get up on stage next month to speak in front of hundreds of people.
A friend accused me gently of having body image issues. I didn’t know how to respond without sounding defensive. The thing is, I don’t have body image issues. I like the way I look. I’m not perfect but I have killer legs from biking and plenty of honest curves elsewhere. I like the way this dress looks. It shows off the best parts of me. I look like Mad Men’s Joan Holloway in this dress. I feel absolutely fabulous in it.
I don’t have body image issues; I have confidence issues. This is a dress that says, “Look at me.” Eyes will be on me, and that’s scary. Not because of how I look, but because of how I’m afraid people will see me.
She’s trying too hard.
What was she thinking?
What were they thinking?
Next month I’m going to be up on a stage reading a thing I wrote. A thing I’m pretty proud of. And I want people to know I’m proud of it. I want the woman at the center of it to elbow her neighbors and say, “Hey, that’s my wife up there” because she knows best of anyone how hard it is for me to put myself out there. It’s not my usual thing, this dress or this attitude.
A woman I met in the park one day asked me if I was a writer. She’d seen my yellow satchel printed with a Ray Bradbury quote about writing.
“I like to write,” I hedged. It was a cop-out, I admit, and one of my favorites. I use it all the time.
This dress won’t let me cop out.
This is not a dress for fading into the background. For self-deprecation. For claiming not to be a writer. When I’m making the rounds and talking to strangers, when they ask me what I do, what I’m all about, this dress won’t let me shrug and glance down at my feet and mumble something about luck and hobbies and I-dunno-really. People are going to ask about my blog. They’re going to expect things, whatever I’m wearing. I want to deliver.
I do have a backup dress. It’s lovely. It’s sweet and feminine and it makes me feel young and pretty. It doesn’t make me feel kick-ass fabulous, though. My new dress won’t let me defer. It won’t let me be mansplained to. This dress won’t let me second-guess myself. There’s no room for it – literally and figuratively. I mean, it’s so snug, where would I hide a first guess, let alone a second one?
All right. I bought the dress; now I just need to own it.
I’m not a blogger. Or so I tell people. I’m a fiction writer who writes on her blog. Still, last Monday I decided – at the last possible minute – to attend my first-ever blogging conference: PressPublish, hosted by WordPress.com. I love learning things, and besides, one of the conference speakers (ML Philpott of I Miss You When I Blink) offered me her guest pass. After stalking her for months through blogs and secret Facebook groups, how could I pass up the chance to meet her in person?
Because part of my Grownup Job (™) is running conferences and I know conferences, I knew I needed some kind of card to hand around. And because it was last minute, I spent my lunch hour Monday designing a card with an online template and browbeating the supplier to get them to me by Friday so I’d have them for the conference on Saturday. And because it was my first-ever conference, I optimistically ordered a hundred (100!) cards.
You have to understand: I’m a social person. I like networking. I like schmoozing. I’m good at elevator speeches. I like talking to new people, and even more, I like listening to them. So I had this vision: I’d swoop in there, conference swag notebook in one hand and bag of cute little cards in the other. I’d chat people up, charm them, and win new friends and followers for my own blog and for yeah write via my adorable cards. I was certain I’d run out because all of my conversations would go something like this:
Me: What brings you here?
My New Friend: I’m on the board of the largest and oldest writers’ group in Oregon. You?
Me: I manage a weekly writing challenge for the best site on the ‘net for writers who blog and bloggers who write. Here’s my card! Come check us out! Spread the word!
MNF: Wow! That’s amazing! What a fantastic little card! I will tell all our writers! You will immediately be flooded with new devotees! Please, give me more cards so I can hand them around to everyone I know!
And then I’d move on to My Next New Friend.
Only that’s not how it worked. I did give her my card, but instead of immediately moving on to MNNF, I spent a lovely half-hour with her. I promised to check out the writers’ group and she promised to check out yeah write. I was having so much fun I forgot to look around for MNNF.
It turns out that most bloggers are confirmed introverts. Instead of the sort of speed-dating experience I expected, I found myself having quiet, interesting conversations with a few individuals. At the Friday evening reception I found myself standing with author and PressPublish speaker Jerry Mahoney comparing marriage stories and photos of our kids. In the lunch line one man explained how he uses his blog to keep track of a beekeeping project. Over by the registration table I ran into a woman I’d seen all over Twitter and we talked about how much fun technical writing can be and her new book. She’s local, so hopefully we’ll keep in touch.
All in all, I think I only handed out six cards, but that’s okay. It was about the quality of the conversations, not the quantity. Next time, though, I’ll flood the place with my cards, assuming I have any left. They’re so dang cute they are going in everybody’s holiday card next year. Just sayin’.
The first time I called home from Russia I cried for half an hour. Thirty minutes of ugly bawling on the hard wooden bench in a phone booth at the Smolensk central post office while my father sat on the other end, speechless. He barely managed to ask, “So, how are you?” before I lost it. The pressure to talk, to connect, to make meaningful conversation before the operator cut us off was overwhelming. So was the loneliness. It was the only time I called home that year.
I never once called my girlfriend. I made excuses. It’s too expensive. It’s too complicated. The connection is terrible. Let’s stick to letters. It was 1995. There was no internet in Smolensk. No cell phones, no e-mail. Instead, I wrote her letters, double-sided on translucent air mail paper. I detailed my meals and wrote poetry. I enclosed various ephemera: ticket stubs, candy wrappers, labels peeled off of beer bottles. The occasional photo. Bits and pieces of my everyday life.
I lived in a dormitory on ulitsa Przheval’skogo, d. 31. Later she would tell me how she tried to spell out the Cyrillic letters for people: Capital-Y upside-down-capital-V period. Pi capital-P Asterix capital-E capital-B capital-A upside-down-capital-V lower-case-b capital-C capital-K O upside-down-capital-L O comma Sailboat 31. Her letters would show up in the dorm common room, Cyrillic letters staggering awkwardly across the envelope.
Even in simulated Russian her handwriting was unmistakable. She wrote in large, loopy cursive. She told me about her new job as an accompanist at a local college, about her new friends and their small dramas, about the cat she wasn’t allowed to have. She told me about her favorite professor, who happened to be the brother of a certain famous movie Sicilian (inconceivable!), and how the department worked her so hard she could barely wiggle her fingers some days.
I wrote in block capitals or a haphazard mish-mash of cursive and print. I spelled her name wrong twice in one letter, after having spelled it right just moments before. Twenty years later she still teases me about that. We filled our letters with stories and maunderings that were both too unfocused and too intense for a phone conversation.
It was a relief, in a way, that the post-Soviet postal system was so ridiculously slow. The month-long gap between letters was painful, but the ache was spread over time, not crammed into the tiny gaps between words I really wanted to say and couldn’t spit out. In my letters, not every word needed to be laden with meaning or import. I could talk about inconsequential things. I didn’t have to answer the question, “So, how are you?” She didn’t have to ask, because it was all right there, between the lines: I missed her. I loved her. I was learning a lot. I wanted to come home. I wanted to stay. I couldn’t wait to hear her voice again.
There’s a house I pass four times a day: twice in the morning and twice in the evening. It’s on the corner of a quiet side street between the bike route and daycare. It’s one of those grand Portland houses with a wide front porch, old-style double-hung windows, and rosebushes and rhododendrons planted along the front. Most evenings (and some mornings) there’s a woman sitting on the porch.
She’s got a great setup. A café table and comfortable chair. A funky chandelier hanging overhead. Extra throw pillows. In the mornings there’s an oversized mug on the table. In the evenings, a martini glass. Whenever I see her, she’s got her computer open and she is completely, utterly intent on what she is doing.
I don’t know this woman. In my head I call her Linda. Linda, I imagine, is a novelist. She gets up every morning, makes a pot of coffee, and goes out to her front-porch office ready to dive into her latest book. She checks her e-mail, answers messages from her agent and her fans. Pops into a couple of forums just to rile the newbies up (“OMG Linda was here and she totally agreed with my post about casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Daniel if her book was a movie!”). Sends out a couple of tweets: “Finishing up chapter 12. Deadline’s been moved up 3 weeks. #fml #amwriting #furiously” “There goes that crazy woman on her giant-ass bike again. At least her kids aren’t screaming this time. #pdxlife” She writes for a few hours, getting up only to stretch and refill her coffee mug.
In the afternoon she makes herself a sandwich, maybe does a little laundry or some yard work, just for a change of pace. She snips a few roses to put in that vase on her little café table. A little bit of busy work is exactly what she needs to untangle the next bit of plot. Around 4:00 she makes herself a drink and settles in for another few hours of writing. By the time I ride by, kids in tow, sweating from riding three miles uphill into an east wind, she’s back to being immersed in her characters’ lives.
What can I say? I want to be Linda. Or my fantasy of Linda. My house has a porch – two, actually. The upstairs one is right off my bedroom. I have a café table and an Adirondack chair, a few throw pillows. No chandelier, but there’s a ceiling fan. I could have a front-porch office too, but would that make me a writer like Linda?
Linda-the-novelist represents to me an unattainable ideal. She’s like the Mona Lisa, attractive because of her mystery. As long as Linda is a novelist in my head, it means that I’ve got something to dream about. It makes the hard reality of trying to be a writer on the side a little more palatable.
I can’t actually see her screen, not from the street, so for all I know she’s not actually working on that novel. Maybe she’s taking a break for a few minutes or hours or days. Maybe she’s commiserating with her novelist friends about coming up with the next plot point. Maybe she’s not a writer at all and is goofing off on Facebook and Pinterest like the rest of us. Sometimes I think I’d like to stop and ask, but honestly, I’d rather stick to my version.