The bar is called heaven*

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Dear Tom,

At the time that I post this it will be one year since I bought a one-way ticket to Denver to say goodbye to you. It feels like yesterday. It feels like last week.

One of the greatest gifts is that I got to spend such concentrated time with you in the final eight months of your life, and to talk to you openly about mortality and the afterlife. You asked me to help you figure out how you could come back as a benevolent spirit, but I don’t think you need any help. Your energy is palpable to so many of us; you are with us constantly. So many of us have received signs from you in the past 365 days, from Buffalo nickels found on the ground to train whistles piercing our sadness at unexpected times. Songs on the radio (I’ll keep it old-school for you, you who eschewed technology and the rolling suitcase), license plates and graffiti bearing your name, and dreams, so many dreams so vivid they had to be you.

Like every single person who was packed into the Capitol Theatre for your memorial, there are things I miss about you that are specific to us, 25-year-old jokes, shared experiences, and the characters we created. We were Ringley and Laura, star-crossed family friends who wrote letters and postcards to each other as we waited out “that blasted war” in the summer of 1944. We were Smoky and Sweets, the blue-collar 1950s sitcom couple whose every episode ended with an adorable mishap. And we were us, the real us, you who saved me from a runaway horse in Half Moon Bay, who invited me right back into the fold whenever I felt I had been ousted. So many adventures, and so many meals. Dining with you was one of the great pleasures of my life.

That you gave me such a prominent seat at your table in your final months is something that will forever impact me. It was an honor and a privilege to be by your side when I could. It was a different version of our friendship, to be sure, and it wasn’t always easy, but it was always important. It was doctors’ appointments and procedures and efforts to eat more healthily and to dial it back on the evenings out. It was Laverne and Shirley marathons and meals of pierogis and kielbasa—occasionally, and always followed by those healthy shakes in the morning. It was big “family” dinners surrounded by puppies. It was a visit to Cheyenne to tour the steam shop, and a Kentucky Derby party that turned out to be a crawfish boil. It was trips to Ace Hardware—my goodness you loved that place—to make your home more beautiful. I have your phone, and I found a picture you took of me on your back porch after we hung those lights. I love this picture. 

There was so much laughter in those final months. And there were a fair amount of tears. Yet you never complained, never bemoaned your fate, you who comforted the woman on the bike next to you in physical therapy by pretending you were riding through Paris together. I know you had regrets, we talked about them, but I think that you ultimately died as you lived some of the best parts of your life, surrounded by friends and music and beauty and love—including the love of a beautiful woman to whom I will always be grateful. The sun setting on the Rockies, John playing guitar, all of us holding you and loving you as you took your final breaths. To say I am profoundly shaped by that experience would not do it justice. 

*Do you remember all of us singing this song in your hospital room? It was late Friday night. It was your last party on earth. I’m certain there are many, many more wherever it is that you are now.

A few weeks after you left us I had dinner with Erik and Gib and we talked about our TVaught-inspired goals for the next year. I said that one of mine was to finally finish my book and I said I’d aim to do so by your birthday. Gib suggested I aim instead for the anniversary, as that was likely more doable. He was right.  I’ve just sent out my first couple of queries. It is out of my hands now. I know you’d be proud of me.

In our final phone conversation, the Monday before, when you were getting ready to have surgery, we talked about how we’d visit New Orleans together once you got better and find me a little house to be my writing retreat. You named it the Jewel Box and in it you designed a sunken living room—my writing room—which you named “The Cat’s Paw” because it would be, somehow, shaped like one. When I showed up at the hospital four days later, I leaned in to say hello to you, and you opened your eyes briefly and said my name and smiled. And then you mumbled something about a cat. It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized what you were probably talking about. 

If I am to believe that you are around still, and I do, then you also bore witness to the upheaval your death brought to all of us. You saw the unraveling of relationships that were held together by a bond that you created. You saw the wheels come off as we grappled with our collective identity. In your absence, some of these longstanding connections no longer made sense. And that is okay. 

But oh, that memorial. What a beautiful, perfect event that was. And on that day, none of those differences or conflicts mattered; all that mattered was you.

When you came to New York in July, over lunch we talked about your timeline. You said, “I don’t want to die around the holidays and ruin them for everyone. But then after the new year things are already kind of depressing so I don’t want to do it then.” At the time we had no reason to think things would take such a sharp turn. At the time I said, “I was at those doctor’s appointments with you—you’re not leaving us any time soon!” And I truly believed that. And now here it is, your anniversary, November 3. How fitting, somehow, days after Halloween and the Day of the Dead. It will never be “fitting” that you are gone, but within the confines of that brutal reality, the time of year you chose makes some sort of sense. 

Alas, my love, there will never be a way to end this letter that feels “enough”. And I talk to you constantly, you’re with me constantly, so ending this letter isn’t all that consequential. But I wanted to write it to mark this day. I recognize the irony in writing about you on that newfangled internet thing, but just as you are still with us on an alternate plane, perhaps these words will find their way onto parchment and into your hands.

You know that I love you, and I think you know how deeply I appreciate you. You continue to inspire and influence me in the most beautiful ways. Thank you for that.

Always,

Laura (Sweets)

 

As time goes by

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I uploaded several black cat photos before choosing this one. I’m not really a Cat Person (allergies and such) but I do love the look of them. This is one of the many I’ve seen in New Orleans, and (s)he seemed appropriate for today.

Today is Halloween, which means that the rest of the year is around the corner. I’m generally loathe to lament the passage of time—like the weather, it seems a futile thing to complain about—but at this point in the year it’s difficult not to notice. I thought of a metaphor this morning. I was a fairly clumsy child; it was not uncommon for me to take the first three-quarters of the staircase in my childhood home at a steady clip, and then inadvertently speed up and run/trip down the last few steps. This seems an apt comparison for the pace of the years … we move along through the first many months, summer comes and goes, we start to embrace autumn and then BAM! it’s Halloween, and immediately after we prep for Thanksgiving, and then the holiday season. And this year we have the added seasonal pressure of midterm elections, the results of which so crucially impact this country that it’s hard to breathe in anticipation. If you are reading this and are NOT planning to vote, you are a big part of the reason we got to this point in the first place. You don’t have to share my political views (though today we are far beyond politics and into the basics of humanity), but for the love of all that is sacred, please vote.

I digress.

Someone asked me what my favorite Halloween costumes were when I was a kid and I couldn’t really think of any. We have photos, of course, so I remember being a prom queen (I was about eight years old and in the photo I’m holding my middle finger to the camera. Delightful child I was.), a movie star,  Cleopatra—that was one of my favorites. But the one that’s really coming to mind is a princess, when I was three or four. Not because of what princesses represented—I don’t think I was cognizant of that, and we weren’t inundated with Belle and Jasmine and all the rest—but because the costume was pretty and shiny and I liked those things. Of course, it being the 70s in the suburbs of New York, no costume was complete without the requisite long pants and down jacket. A kindler, gentler, colder time.

I’ve been having conversations lately about how much Manhattan has changed, how much “better” it was before (speaking strictly of the logistics of living on and getting around the isle; state of the world notwithstanding, I like my life these days). This morning my Lyft driver said that people have told him the city is much more crowded than it used to be and I said that yes, it seems that way, and that I think I preferred the way things were in the past.  He said,  “Oh, like in 2013?” Thanks to good genes (and Botox and hair dye), I don’t think he realized that no, I meant more like 1993. Which lead me to the realization that my satisfaction living here is probably as much a product of my age as it is anything else. Yes, it’s more crowded, institutions are closing, rents are increasing, but that was happening back then too. Back then I was part of the crowded, and part of the new guard that had moved in. I was hanging out in packed bars in the east village and waiting on line for brunch (actually I pretty much avoided that then, too). It was easy to be 23, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

And still, I wouldn’t trade the wisdom and the experiences, good, bad, and ugly, that have led me to this point. It helps to be one of those weirdos who believes in a master plan and an afterlife.

Speaking of both, I spent last week in my beloved New Orleans on what turned into a fairly successful creative retreat. I spent my days writing and my evenings with friends and it was delightful. It was my first trip there this year and I’m glad I  made it in time to celebrate the city’s 300th birthday.

This is a photo from a year or two ago, in the séance room at Muriel’s. It is in this room that Antoine, the resident ghost, allegedly took his life after losing the building (which was his home) in a poker game.

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Happy Halloween!

VOTE.

When autumn leaves start to fall

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I was in New Orleans last week and it was hot, and I got to see some of my favorite people, and I consumed my weight in roux. The impetus for this visit was my friend Elena’s business trip there; I don’t get to see her often, and this was her first visit, and so I was happy to join. By and large I got to soak up my beloved Nola, got to share my tiny version of it with her, ate great meals, did some new things (restaurants I’d not been to, the Musée FCP, the sculpture garden at City Park), but the trip was marred by the fact that my Lou-dog took ill while I was there and so I came back early.

Louie is 15 and has a variety of age-related issues and last week was a particularly tough one for him; he spent three days at the vet getting fluids. Thank God he was in the hands of my more-than-capable co-parent, but it has been very stressful for all involved.

Of course I planned this trip not knowing this would happen, and of course I have tremendous guilt for having been away when it did. For now, we are managing symptoms, but I am aware that the week to week is unpredictable. It’s not fun, and as a friend said yesterday, accepting what is going on around us is one of the only ways to handle it all without falling apart. I do accept. I don’t like it, but I accept, and I realize that this is what I signed up for when I got a dog.

There’s an important distinction to be made between accepting and embracing. The inconvenient truth that has dominated my thoughts since I was old enough to think is the inevitability of death. I hate it, but I accept it, I’ve dealt with it, I will continue to do so. I was speaking to a friend recently and she mentioned that she lost her mother when she was 6. I said, “Wow, that must have sucked” because wow, that must have sucked. She teared up and said, “You are so emotionally accessible.” That is a huge compliment and a lifelong burden – I get it. It’s so very hard, all of it. And so many people in my life are going through challenging times right now. You have your health? you don’t have a job. You have a job? your love life is a mess. You have your health and your love life and your career? Donald Fucking Trump was elected president.

Oy. Vey.

On that note … we are coming up on one year since that, and I have a strong feeling that anyone who is reading this and who voted for him is chagrinned at best. Because, come on. You still support the guy and yet are intellectually and anthropologically curious enough to read random blogs?

I try not to talk about politics in this forum; that’s what my Resistance group is for. (If you’re on Facebook and you’d like to join, please send me a private message.) But I’m having a really tough time with it all this week. Some weeks are easier than others regardless of how awful the specifics of that week are, but this week, because things are challenging AF on a micro-level, of course what’s going on on a macro-level is hitting me harder. I feel very anxious, and that is not generally my go-to. I’m more of a depression gal. But the state of things in this country and this world is making me anxious and my dreams are reflecting this.

I don’t want to talk about it anymore. #AvoidanceIssues

I’ve applied for a writers’ residency in New Orleans. The idea of unfettered writing time in that city surrounded by other writers is a thing of beauty. However, there are a lot of people applying for a very small number of spots, so I am managing expectations.

I workshopped pages of my new book in my writing group yesterday and got very encouraging feedback, so that’s nice, and offsets the fact that, while there, I glanced at my email and got another Agent Rejection on the first book. I’m contemplating another revision—not a total one, but changing a few key details. The two projects are entirely different, so it’s conceivable that I might be able to work on both simultaneously. I mean, not simultaneously simultaneously, because that would be crazy, but at least during the same general period. This new project I’m writing is in the first person POV (have I already told you this?) and this has been fun and challenging in a different way. There is a terrifying amount of freedom that comes with writing in first person, because most of us think in a way that is not linear or plot-driven.

What else, what else … doing some freelance writing/editing, which is a relief right now because vet bills are high. But I will subsist on ramen before I will skimp on care for Louie, and so there it is. And I’ve not yet had to resort to ramen.

Oh, the challenging realities of life. Hug your loved ones and tell them you love them. Embrace your strengths and those in the people you meet and deal with every day. Forgive yourself and others (within reason), and know that brightness follows every squall.

You are wonderful. Thanks for reading.

Right back to where we started from

IMG_0530 (1)Not exactly, but I’m working on a new book. These are words I did not think I would be saying anytime soon, but as the querying process for the other one got under way I had a mini existential crisis, à la “Now what? What if nothing comes of this? If I’m not working on it anymore, who am I?” and a friend who is a prolific songwriter (and very talented musician, I might add) said, “You set out to write a book  and you did. Great. Now write another one.”

And so I am. Writing another one, and it’s entirely different from the first (which is really the second but for these purposes we’ll call it the first). The book I’m writing now is sort of a comedy-noir, which are two of my favorite genres of film. The protagonist is male. It takes place roughly today. It has been such a very long time since I began the first book that I’ve forgotten what writing a first draft is like. It’s hard! But, as anyone who’s ever taken a class or tried to write a book or read a book about writing knows, you have to write what Anne Lamott calls “the shitty first draft” in order to get to the decent one. Or, as another talented writer friend says, “You write the first draft to figure out the story you want to tell.”

I think because the first book is a tough sell, I’m determined to write something more accessible and salable and this is making it difficult to really dive in. But that’s the only way to approach it, diving in, so enough with this procrastination. Right? Right.

I am returning to my beloved Nola in a couple of weeks and that town inspires me. This will be a combo writing retreat/holiday, as I will get to see some of my favorite people. What I need to do is get better at writing at home; what I want to do is travel the world and write elsewhere.

Much more to say but I’m tired. My sleep has gotten weird again but one interesting thing is that, in the month or so since I started New Book, I’ve dreamt about it several times. Dreamt about the characters, dreamt about the writing of it, dreamt it was a series. So it seems my subconscious wants me to work on this thang.

I’ve been reading a lot more lately, I’m happy to say. Fiction again—I took a long breather from it while I slogged through those last several rounds of First Book because I didn’t want to compare my writing to anyone else’s or be accidentally influenced. Right now I’m reading Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”— my first time reading her though she’s been on my radar since “White Teeth.” I saw her speak at the Girls Write Now gala in the spring, and she was awesome and inspiring.

What are you reading?

Someone asked me recently if, where writing is concerned, I have a fear of success. I responded that I think what I have is an expectation of failure—which sounds much darker and more dramatic than the way in which I mean it. But she, an intuitive person, to say the least, suggested that it really is what she suspected, a fear of success. So this is something I have to think about, what that means and why I would have it.

The Jewish New Year is upon us; l’Shana Tova to all. My resolutions goals for the new year are many.

The lazy Mississippi

IMG_5110If you are lucky enough to know what it means to miss New Orleans, then you likely recognize the area where I took this photo, Jackson Square. Yes it’s the heart of the Quarter and yes the Quarter is riddled with tourists but some of my closest friends who are not tourists live and love in this historic part of town.

If you pay attention to this blahg you may have noticed that, until today, I’ve posted quite minimally since 11-8. It’s been really difficult to do anything since then, and I’m one of the lucky ones. My life will not change dramatically because of what is going on in Mar-A-Lago on the golf course in D.C. But life, and any semblance of security that many of the people living in this country may have, has and will change dramatically, and this is what I now fight for every day.

But I digress. I have not written in FSP much because I’ve not really been inspired to do so, and now, having made my first trip of the year to New Orleans, I am inspired to do a lot.

This was my 13th visit to the city, and it was wonderful. I saw some of my favorite people and made new friends. I played among the Mardi Gras beads and stray cats that line the streets. I know that the city is far, far from perfect. I know its political and social and infrastructural problems are many. And I know that when I visit there, I feel creative and I believe a little bit more in the magic that I so want to believe in.

I love that, on this trip, I met a woman who has a pet pig, and that on hearing this, I asked , “Oh! Do you live on Frenchmen?” and she replied, “No, my pig doesn’t get along with the one who lives on Frenchmen.”

I love that I was invited to conflicting crawfish boils at 4pm Sunday, and that when I didn’t go to either because I wanted to stay in and write, no one questioned me.

I love that people I barely know and have not seen since last July remember that I’m “the one from New York who’s writing a book.”

Speaking of which, I’m almost done with said book.

This time around I didn’t feel sad leaving New Orleans, because I know that I will be back soon. I left there looking forward to my life and loved ones here. And I look forward to getting back to my life and dear friends there when I can.

Thank you all. You know who you are.

 

Don’t believe the hype

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I’m back, and fully recovered from last weekend’s conference. Thank you to everyone who’s asked me about it and expressed interest in hearing more; I will not bore the rest of you with the details.

I left there feeling as though I had to completely reinvent my book, from the year it takes place (1999) to the structure to the plot, in an effort to make it more commercial (e.g. sellable). The fabulous Ginger talked me down off that ledge, as I knew she would.

She reminded me that this was my first time really going out into the world as a Writer, my first conference, and the one that happens to be the biggest, most overwhelming, and most commercial. She told me not to get bogged down in parsing all 0f the conflicting advice that I received, or to weigh the feedback of each of the agents I pitched with equal importance.

“The way to not survive the writing process is to listen to everyone else,” she said.

How liberating. (That, and I needed a tie-in for the photo above.)

So, the aspect of this conference I was most anxious about—actually, the only aspect I was remotely anxious about—was the “Agent Pitch Slam”. This was speed dating with literary agents, only unlike real speed-dating (what the hell did I just type?!), we had decent information about the people we were meeting well in advance. A few of the agents I met expressed interest in my project and asked me to send them pages when the thing is ready.

One of them asked me why my book takes place in 1999, and for that I have an answer—unlike “What are the stakes in this novel?” for which I have about 12.

I’ve set it in 1999 because I want it to pre-date 9/11, but for 9/11 to be looming. I wrote the book’s first sentence (or a variation of it, anyway) in 2006, and at the time, it felt inauthentic to set any book—let alone a ghost story—in downtown New York without 9/11 somehow informing the plot. When I picked it back up years later, that day was not as fresh in our collective conscience. But it still felt like the right year for it to take place.

The other reason: I did not want technology to be as ubiquitous as it is today. I got my first cellphone in December of ’99—I was late to the game, but not the latest. In 1999 we still wondered about things. We didn’t have an electronic dossier on everyone in the world at our fingertips. My protagonist, Josie, couldn’t just Google the guy she was dating and find out the truth about him. She could have Ask(ed) Jeeves, but he wouldn’t have known much, either.

Another agent asked me why, if Josie is so frustrated with her restaurant job, she doesn’t “just quit”.

Anyone who’s ever had a job they didn’t love want to field that one?

I read fiction today for the first time in a while. I’ve been reading a fair amount of nonfiction but it’s been hard to read novels while attempting to write one. We went to the beach today—my first time all summer—and I brought and read Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays. It’s a tight and fairly short novel, recommended by the aforementioned wonderful Ginger—and wow, I want to take a master class with Joan Didion. Before this I’d only read her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which I was drawn to out of title-envy. Now I want to read everything she’s written.

I’m going to my second writing conference in October in Richmond, Virginia. If you know anyone down there, please let me know. I’ll have a couple nights to myself and will be researching great restaurants to take myself to; I’d love recommendations.

Thanks for reading, friends. Until soon.

 

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …

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…it was my first writers’ conference. I’m being dramatic, of course; such is the danger of absorbing 72 hours-worth of advice and tools for writing fiction.

If you are not interested in the writing process, this will be a very dull post. I’m a bit burnt out.

I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York this weekend; if you are a writer I highly recommend a) subscribing to Writer’s Digest and utilizing its excellent website b) attending this conference next year, or in October of this year in L.A., and c) looking into other conferences. I’ve just registered for my next one. If you are lucky enough to write in a commercial genre, which I’m not, there are conferences and associations created JUST FOR YOU!

There is not, however, a conference or association dedicated to the literary-ghost story-that’s-not-entirely-a-ghost-story-but-is-sort-of-speculative-and-sort-of-magical-realism genre, but that’s where conferences like this are helpful.

I learned a ton, about the craft of writing and the business of publishing, and it was everything — inspiring, encouraging, exhausting, discouraging, enlightening … I learned that freedom from genre constraints, while wonderful for those who love the written word, makes for a tough sell. But all is not lost; there are plenty of agents who appreciate literary fiction.

Before I seek them out, though, I have a tremendous amount of revision to do, and this weekend was invaluable in helping me to strategize.

Following are the events I attended and my main takeaways from each:

  1. Pitch Perfect: This was open to everyone who planned to attend the following day’s Pitch Slam (see #something, below). Here I learned that once an agent expresses interest, the offer, in theory, “never expires”. This is because the emphasis is on the quality of the work and not the speed with which you submit it. Which is not to say one should pitch prematurely, but if revisions are necessary, take the time to make them.
  2. How to Be Your Own Best Publicist: Well, this was interesting, because suggestion #2 was to hire a publicist. Other than that, the speaker emphasized the importance of a platform (this was repeated in many different ways by many different people throughout the weekend) and of social media fluency.
  3. The Changing Face of Publishing: Another recurring theme of the weekend. While this is not news to me, it was very helpful to hear it outlined so clearly by the literary agent who ran this session: there are strong advantages to publishing in untraditional ways. Of course being published by a Random House or Simon and Schuster, any of the big guns—or the small guns, for that matter—brings prestige and a slew of advantages. But … there is potentially more money to be made through self publishing, partner publishing, co-op publishing, or a hybrid approach. Beyond the money, there is the advantage of having absolute control of one’s book, from title to cover art to things-I-learned-the-next-day.
  4. Story Trumps (← ugh) Structure: I took a lot of notes on this one. The fundamental message was to ignore the rules; if you have a good story, it doesn’t need the classic three act-structure. A good story depends on tension, and tension is caused by unmet desire. It is the pursuit of the protag’s goal that propels a story forward. I knew this, but the speaker made some excellent points that I applied to my book, jotting down specific notes as he spoke. Among them: repetition undermines escalation. The best way to move action along is to get to know your character(s) well enough that you know how they would likely react to escalating tension. If you focus on what would naturally happen next, versus what would further your plot to its predestined climax, your story will flow. Write logically, not chronologically. In every scene, consider what your reader will think, worry about, want, be surprised by … and deliver. Give the readers was they want, or something better.

**Brief break: I apologize if this is clunky and hard to read; the outlining function on WordPress is not as sophisticated as I’d hoped. Or perhaps it is, and I’m not a sophisticated enough user to figure it out. Either way, chicken or egg, I will be very happy to answer any questions you have about any of this or to clarify any confusing points.**

5. How to Write a Query Letter: Write like you’re handing a letter to your best friend. State what the book is about. Begin with the protagonist and her problem. Do not mention themes of the book. Do not provide back story. Share only the essentials of Act One. A query is not a synopsis. Do not ask rhetorical questions; who would want to read them? Do not put live links in your email query. Use a query tracking system.

6. Say Yes to the Writer’s Life: This was the first keynote speaker, Kwame Alexander, who spoke at the end of Day One (yep, this was all the first day). He was excellent — funny, charming, inspiring. Basically, he took matters into his own hands for 20 years, never letting rejection stop him, until a book he planned to self-publish (after he made the rounds and got rejected) was picked up by Houghton Mifflin and won the Newberry Prize. Earlier in his career, when he couldn’t find a publisher he started his own imprint. When he wasn’t invited to a festival he wanted to attend, he built his own festival. When he was turned down for a fellowship, he created his own fellowship, and one year later had raised enough money to invite the recipients of his DIY fellowship to spend three weeks on a writing retreat in Tuscany. He was not financially solvent when he did all this; he was impulsive and optimistic. The last question of the day was, “How did you stay so positive and keep going after all that rejection? What meds to you take?”

Change of plans … I’m going to stop here and write another post about days two and three. Because this is a lot to process and write, as I imagine it is to read.

I have a lot of revision ahead of me, and I’m half-excited and half-nauseous about it all. Eventually I will need beta readers, who have not read any of this before. I will be reaching out to some of you.

It was wonderful spending the weekend surrounded by writers and words, and it was absolutely worth it.

Overheard in the hallway, “I’ve just chopped 110,000 words from my manuscript!”

Sigh.