Thursday, March 24, 2011

Blank Page Removal, My Speciality

I make my living as a writer, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest reason people hire me is not because they admire my unique ability to string subjects and predicates together. Truth is, my customers are afraid, and they’re all afraid of the same thing -- blank pages. 

Even those who are possessed with overly healthy egos, who see themselves as bold captains of industry, become suddenly timid when it’s time to  pick up the pen or start clacking away on the laptop. All that white space freezes up the brain. That 's fortuitous for me, since I've got a steady gig at being the one who’s willing to get it all down on paper, whatever “it” happens to be.

I’m happy to oblige. Hiring me means that one less reader in the world will encounter a document that begins with “Webster’s defines “presentation” as …” or “Have you ever noticed how hard it is to write a first sentence?” I can’t promise you Pulitzer-prize winning prose, but I promise to avoid Webster’s definitions and rhetorical questions, so that pretty much pays for itself right there.

Once I’ve filled up a few reams of bond and sent out the words for review, of course, then everyone suddenly returns to knights-in-armor levels of bravery. If there are words already on a page, there is nothing to fear, so opinions can be formed, comment boxes added at will, and arguments about the advisability of ending sentences with prepositions can begin in earnest.

I never mind accepting edits, and I’m sanguine when receiving criticisms of style, grammar or general worldview. For someone with an exceedingly thin skin in private life, I remain unruffled when a customer wants to kill a word, a paragraph or a story. I understand very clearly that I’m a hired gun, and I’ll shoot wherever you want me to aim, even if, sometimes, it might feel as if I’m shooting myself in the foot. 

The reason for this critical nonchalance is rooted in my sympathy for how hard it is to get started, and how easy it is to correct. I’ve struggled with the frozen brain brought on by the blank page many times, but I’ve conquered it by allowing myself the indulgence of a rotten first  draft. It sounds simplistic, but, when it’s time to get to work, I write. By that I mean I write anything that’s on topic, no matter how awful. Then I let that heap of words marinate overnight. The next day, I set about trying  to find what’s worthwhile in the muck. It’s not a perfect system, but it keeps me from freezing to death, intellectually speaking, so I’m happy.

I was working on a project once with someone who had an elaborate classification system for types of writers.  I forget the whole list, but I know he included “storytellers,” “convincers” and “entertainers” in his lineup.  Then he asked me which sort of writer I was. “The sense-maker,” I said, “the one you never, ever notice.” 

He didn’t like that answer, I know, because it lacked the swagger that so many creative types seem to affect. The minute I said it, though, I knew it was true.  I aim for writing that is so clear and sensible that it seems impossible for the thoughts to have been created by a person, and more as if they just sprang up because it was time for them to be seen, like the daffodils in May.

I accepted long ago that everybody’s a critic.  I have a feeling that we humans have been that way since our paleolithic cave painting days. I’m just glad I get to be the one who slips into the cave while everyone else is still standing around, who makes those first marks on the cold, blank wall. And if everyone streams in after me to suggest that I’ll need a few more changes to get it right, I never really mind. I got to be there first, and that always makes me happy.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

With Sprinkles

There are women who buy too many purses. They are women who buy too many shoes. My best friend never met a set of high-thread-count sheets whose purchase she could not justify. And then there are women with truly strange shopping compulsions, like me. 

I think that all of us probably have one consumer good that we have a hard time saying “no” to, an item that makes our Visa card start to wiggle in our wallet. Don’t pass me up, the thing says. You really, really need just this one more, and then you can stop. People listen to the call of the credit card, and the next thing they know, there’s a roomful of crying clown figurines, or an unfortunate beer stein collection that fills a rathskeller. 

I grew up in an era when there was only one thing that aspiring intellectuals aimed to collect -- books. It was de rigueur to live under the commanding weight of too many books, stacked on cheap Pier One shelves and collecting dust. Many rueful comments were made at moving time, along the lines of, “We would have been done last week, but (sad shake of the head) I just have so many books.” (Curse you, incredible intellect and remarkable cultural sensitivity. My friends all have hernias now!) I never fell for this, realizing early on that librarians would dust and stack all the books in the world for me, and that I could check them out whenever I wanted, for free. My moving days were always a few-hours-or-less affairs. 

No books, no purses, no shoes. I can resist everything, to quote Oscar Wilde, but temptation, and that temptation is sprinkles. Those little bits of color and sugar decorations are irresistible to me. I have sprinkles in a shape that honors every holiday, including pumpkins and baby chicks and tiny hearts. I lack Presidents’ Day Washington and Lincoln head-shaped sprinkles, but don’t think I haven’t looked. I use them, often, and sometimes in unexpected ways. Brownies. Buttermilk waffles. I haven’t tried them on baked potatoes yet, but give me time.

I love them because they are small, humble and cheap.  I love them because they serve no practical function. I love them because they make people smile. I wish I could say all these things about myself, but at least I can say them about sprinkles.

And just like any other true compulsive, I hide my sprinkle collection from those who just don’t appreciate their importance  – down the stairs, behind the door, in the corner of a strange basement space where I keep French bread pans and Dutch ovens. They sit right next to my cookie cutter collection (another problem purchase area, but never you mind about that right now).

I do take some satisfaction in knowing that my inventory for the items that are usually so tempting to my fellow females is as modest as a Buddhist nun’s. I don’t much care about shoes. I own one pair of sneakers, one pair of winter boots and two pairs of black pumps. In the purse department, I have a black clutch for fancy parties and one beat-up Banana Republic carryall, purchased at a garage sale last spring. But ask me how many jars of sprinkles I have, and I’ll clam up. That’s none of your business, bub, and besides, I’m going to use them all someday.

And don’t even think of asking to see my cookie cutters. That’s a compulsion for another day.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sticking My Head in the Chocolate Fountain: Two Hours at the Bookstore

It turns out, there IS a lifetime limit for time spent in dressing rooms, and I’ve reached it. I’ve logged my allotted hours sitting on tiny slivers of laminate benches, receiving inadvertent treatments of Loser Acupuncture from all the straight pins collecting under my butt. A fair estimate would be that I’ve probably repositioned about a thousand pink junior push-up bras back onto their tiny little hangers, which is a feat of eye-hand coordination that should not be dismissed by those of you so blessed to have never attempted it. Stick a fork in the plastic tag that tracks how many items I’ve schlepped in; I’m done.

So, when Mary’s birthday dawned on a school holiday this year, and she decided on an Uptown shopping day with her sisters, I acquiesced, but with a sinking heart. As the girls discussed their choices of shopping venues (cheap new clothes and cheap old clothes holding equal appeal), my heart sank further. Then I remembered that Uptown had a bookstore, an actual independently owned emporium. Here is what it has: books, lots of them, and a few chairs. Here is what it does not have:  a cafĂ©, Kenny G muzak, or racks of Kute Kat greeting cards. I felt my gizzards unclench as I bid the girls goodbye and made plans to meet them for lunch in a couple hours.

That’s two hours. Alone. In a Bookstore. I withheld the urge to click my heels up like a leprechaun as I watched them cross the street and head into Everyday People. I was giddy with the thought of Free Time. Let me explain that an ideal 24 hours for me would be 10 hours of sleep, two hours of writing, three hours of exercise and nine hours of reading. An actually day for me does not correspond to this ideal in any way, being mostly filled with pie chart slivers best described as “driving where I don’t want to go, cleaning messes I didn’t make, cooking food I don’t want to eat and shopping for stuff I don’t want.” That last one, shopping, is the worst. If all the retail in the world were vaporized by a crazed anti-mall madman, and we were all reduced to garage sales and farmers' markets, I’d lead a celebratory parade. 

Okay, I take one part of that back.  Bookstores can stay. Especially the one I found myself in on Mary’s birthday. Just deciding where to start took me some time. Dip into my favorite parts of a new classic? Find out what all the fuss was about in the new wunderkind’s novel? Head to the kids’ section and read Betsy-Tacey for a few hours? I collected a few volumes, found a church pew in the back and plunged in. The irony was not lost on me, and the hardness of the seat, certainly at least as uncomfortable as that in the dressing rooms I was avoiding, didn’t bother me one bit. I read all of Michael Pollan’s new book. (It’s short.) I lingered over a giant photography retrospective of Hollywood’s Golden age, and I wanted to slide myself into its black-and-white pages and light Garbo’s cigarette for her. I hopped into a couple anthologies and right back out again. Outside, the snow fell, the cars went by, and countless Visa cards were swiped through countless machines, all over Uptown. Commerce continued, and I remained a dropout. 

Up the street, the girls had already tried on a hundred outfits and taken photos of themselves in 75 of them, all of which had already been posted to Facebook. So much face-making, so many pixels, such a freakin’ waste of energy.

They called my cell and let me know it was time for lunch (I was buying; they remembered me). I carefully replaced all my reading and began to wrap up for the cold trek back across the street to reality. I felt as if I’d finally gotten enough of something that I’d been needing for a very long time. It was like being a glutton who had been given free rein at the midnight buffet. I had not only indulged in the chocolate fountain, I’d stuck my head into it, mouth wide, and I drank my fill.

I didn’t even end up with any straight pins stuck in my loser butt. That’s what I call a good day.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Look of Love (Ouch)

She’s a very well-behaved person now, so it’s hard to believe, but Emma was once an accomplished biter. She avoided being shunned at the playground or expelled from preschool, but she had a pretty serious habit going for a while. Her most consistent and gullible victim was, you guessed it, me. 

I fell repeatedly for her predatory tricks because, in the ramp-up to chomping, she’d affect a look of utmost love and adoration. Cocking her tiny head to one side and making warm and gooey eye contact, she’d lean in close. A string of drool would drip from her slackened lips. I’d feel myself melting. 

Then she’d clamp down her little canines and refuse to let go. 

I fell for this act so consistently because I wanted, really wanted, to believe that THIS was the day she would Hug and Snuggle and Love Mommy. It took me a long (pathetically long) time to admit to myself that this ball of pre-nuclear energy NEVER wanted to hugsnugglelove. She wanted to move. She wanted to go to the playground NOW. And, when she felt like it, she wanted to tear into a hunk of my flesh with her baby teeth.

I had reason to remember the Biting Years just this week. Emma, newly 16, received her driver’s license recently. For a while, she was euphoric. She texted all her friends. And then she turned to me with a soft-focus gaze and cocked her lovely head to one side. “Mommy,” she murmured, “What are you doing tomorrow?”
Um, yoga, work, errands, picking up Mary after school.

She snapped the sweetness shut like a sterling silver compact. I could almost hear the click. “Do you REALLY need the car? I think it would be a better use of energy if I could drive it to school. Besides, you always say how much you hate to drive.”

So, it turns out, she wasn’t settling in for a mom-to-girl chat, she was fishing for use of the very vehicle she’s referred to as “pathetic & sad” and “a freak car.” Even though it was my wheels she was after, and not a sliver of my shoulder muscle, the feeling was similar. 

The interrogations have been ongoing. Each day I am expected to account for my intended whereabouts and offer “alternate transportation” suggestions. I finally shared an online calendar of my schedule with her, hoping that transparency will bring relief, but I don’t have much hope.

Life with Emma has not changed. She still wants nothing more than to move. She wants to go to the playground NOW. The only thing left for me to do is hand over the car keys. And maybe find a few bandaids to put over the wound.