Friday, January 1, 2016

LOOKING BACK AT 42, or THE YEAR I DIDN'T WRITE A NOVEL



In January 2015 I got off the wait-list to take a class on novel-writing with the beloved Seattle novelist and best-selling author Maria Semple. I’d tried to sign up for the class some four months before, in 2014, but it was filled within the first hour of class registration. At that time I had yet to even try to write novel. When I suddenly learned I was off the waitlist, I still had not done any novel writing, not even in the slightest, not part of a first draft. I’d written many short stories and a memoir (an autobiographical book that reads like a novel). I was, in January of 2015, searching for an agent for the memoir. I'd had some modest success at publishing my short stories, enough think I wasn’t entirely crazy to keep working at my life goal of becoming a writer.

I was both elated and apprehensive as I did last-minute preparations for the class. It would met from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for four days in a row—more than I’d done in terms of being away from my house, in social and work setting, among ‘normal’ people, since I came down with Lyme disease in 1999.  

Not to mention the other students had all written first drafts of novels and were submitting the first ten pages to the class, while I, with only a few days’ notice, managed to edit the first pages of a half-written short story, thinking I might be able to turn it into a novel.

The class was indeed a stretch, given the way Lyme limits my stamina. By 2 pm each day my head was exploding, while my body craved both sleep and exercise at the same time. I drove home in a daze to find my spastic dog was bouncing off the walls from spending so many hours alone. The delicate balance of my well-being seemed to have been put through the shredded-wheat machine, and yet the week-long class was entirely worth it. I’d learned more than I'd imagined and had been infused with Maria Semple’s boundless energy. I was determined to write a novel.

If nothing else wonderful or even particularly good happens to me this year, I won't mind, because I took Maria Semple's writing class,” I wrote in a post on this blog a few weeks after the class. I’d been working on my novel every day since, I noted, and would keep writing until it was done.

Looking back at this I have to laugh. I notice the date of that post is February 14, Valentine’s Day. That day I was feeling particularly down about being single, and I resolved to get back on the dating scene. And so the next week I went to speed dating at a bar on Capitol Hill. I met a really cute, smart, creative guy who soon became my boyfriend.

Starting a new relationship is fun and wonderful, but I imagine for even normal people it can sometimes feel like it takes a lot of energy. Starting a relationship while you have a serious chronic illness is fun and wonderful, but can feel like it takes a supernatural amount of energy. Thankfully I'd found someone who didn't seem to mind at all that I needed to take a nap every day or pause every so often to take pills, and didn't have any particular interest in staying up late into the night. Still, I was going lots more places than usual, and each time I leave my house I need to be extremely organized, packing all my supplies, medicine, water, and food so I can stay on my diet. It took time, and I sacrificed a little writing time for this. I figured it was worth it.

From a weekend in May in Washington's apple country (my boyfriend, an architect, designed the house).

Fourth of July Weekend on Puget Sound

GOOD THINGS PILE UP

Meanwhile, I’d volunteered to be the treasurer for my dance group as we prepared to perform in the city’s annual summer solstice parade. Clearly someone needed to do it, and I figured I had the extra couple hours per week that many other dancers didn’t have. I'd be selfish not to pitch in.

Soon after parade rehearsals started, the director asked me if I would be one of the lead dancers. This was a dream come true for me—a mini dream, dance dream, but still a dream. I was elated. I was also one more time commitment, one of many that were adding up.

Not many weeks after that, one of the letters I’d sent out to literary agents in New York got a response. The agent was reading my memoir at a breakneck pace. She loved my book. We talked on the phone. A few days later I was signing a contract. This was a giant dream come true: I had an agent at a prestigious agency, meaning my book was on its way to finding a publisher.  

Things ensued from there: final edits of my book, dance rehearsals, making my costume for the parade, organizing a fundraiser for our dance group, meeting my boyfriend’s friends and family, weekend trips with my boyfriend, the parade day itself. 

The day of the Solstice Parade
Dancing with the very talented Mona Owens

Exhausted at Parade's end

In all of this my roommate moved out to live with her boyfriend. So I was looking for a new roommate, which is in itself like dating. When the right roommate responded to my craigslist ad, she turned out to be a summer intern who would need furniture, so I found myself with a drill in hand, following IKEA instruction manuals.



Next thing I knew I was devising a system to keep my medicine and supplements cool and dry in the desert without refrigeration (a combination of picnic coolers, ice, and vacuum-seal tupperwares), because my boyfriend asked me to go to Burning Man, and I figured why not just give it a try? It was a rare chance to do something different. After that my boyfriend had his first art show (watercolors) and then I flew home to visit my parents whom I dearly missed in all this hubbub of meeting people.

Hiking on the way back from Burning Man


By then it was October, the summer intern had come and gone, I had a new roommate (third of the year) sharing my house, the extremely likeable Christiana. I threw a welcoming barbeque for her.

I rounded out year with another fundraiser, this one for my friend Amanda’s organization that helps refugees from Syria and Iraq. (It seems this year I’ve hit on a good formula for raising money for non-profits out of my home, which includes having a potluck dinner and combining it with a raffle of artwork and services that friends donate. It’s a lot of fun, but it also takes quite a bit of organization.)

This fabulous print of Amman, Jordan, made by Samer Kurdi, was one of the items we raffled at the fundraiser for Syrian refugees. We raised $2,500 from the party.


In the onslaught of all these very wonderful, very social and energy-intensive things, something had to give. I put the novel on hold and never got back to it. I worked with my agent editing my memoir and worked on short stories. I was still writing every day, but not as many hours as I liked, and it seemed there was always something interrupting my writing time. I kept thinking I’d get back to the novel as soon as things settled down….

And meanwhile I was waiting to hear from my agent, who was waiting to hear from publishers about my memoir.

42: A MAGIC NUMBER?

It also happened that 2015 was the year I was 42, or at least 42 for 359 days of the year. I am not a believer in magical numbers, but for all those nerdy or even slightly nerdy people of my generation, 42 is significant. If you read Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series even half the times I have, then you’ll recall that the number 42 is the answer to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. I couldn’t help but connect the mystique of this number to all the amazing things that were coming my way in 2015, and yet I often I felt like I was on an iridescent, flying dragon—way up in the sky, riding bareback, blinded by the shimmering scales and wings surrounding me, and holding on for dear life.



Inspired by the summer parade, I made headdresses for other Fremont Arts Council events and costume parties. This one I made from tissue paper, branches and a headlamp.

A dancing girl costume at another party. I made it out paper bags, with some help from my talented BF. Rebecca Maxim, a friend from Burning Man, is on the right, looking amazing as usual.

As the weeks slipped by, there were a few times I longed for the dragon ride to end. I missed the quiet and sustained creativity that was mine when my life was more solitary, the times I was working on my memoir,  or able to focus without any interruptions on short stories. The weeks and months when I devoted four or five hours a day to writing were when I felt, despite a certain loneliness, that the greater part of my spirit was in balance. I went to bed with a deep sense of peace and woke up feeling the same. But this year, most days I managed to write only two or three hours, and even that between a series of interruptions, with an octopus-like to-do list waving its tentacles from beside my computer.

At moments I found myself more agitated than I liked. Yes, Lyme can make your heart race uncomfortably and bring on a sense of panic for no particular reason, and I've learned to ride these times out. But sometimes I felt there was more to the panic, that I simply needed more down time.

And yes, there were all sorts of wonderful things happening, or things I was helping to make happen, things I felt I couldn’t say no to, and yet the one thing I longed for was simply to write more.

Yet another headdress in progress. Not a way to write a novel.

As my days as a forty-two-year old dwindled I tried to keep at bay the uneasy idea that my run of good things was sure to come to an end, and probably before I turned forty-three. Because if there is one thing Life, the Universe, and Everything have taught me in my forty-two years, it is that Life, the Universe, and Everything are not about having an endless string of wonderful things happen to you. (And when the non-wonderful things come your way, be grateful for the things that are still good. Also, as a general rule, focus on the stuff you can change and do your best to accept the stuff that sucks, not to mention to thine own self be true, &c, &c, &c.)

Wearing the last headdress of the year, with my pal Marian at the Winter Solstice Feast.


Each time I thought of the lack of news from my agent, this thought about Life, the Universe, Etc. returned. At last I sent my agent an email and got her reply containing the disappointing news.

My book had received a myriad of complements from editors but no one wanted to take it on. It just happened that a well-established writer would be coming out with a similar book at the very same time that mine would be published, if anyone were willing to publish it, which they weren’t because this writer, who’s been given a fellowship at Radcliffe (aka Harvard) to write her book, would have every publicity outlet tied up. If my book were to be bought at this moment in the publishing cycle, it would be guaranteed not to sell. Basically it came down to extremely bad timing, and there was nothing to be done.

My agent was very, very nice to me when she told me this. We talked it over and decided our best strategy for my memoir was to wait and try again when it seemed right, perhaps a few years from now. Meanwhile, she said, it would be good to get a book of fiction out. Essentially my agent was asking me if I had a novel handy, and my answer to that was no. (No matter that I have completed a book of short stories. Short fiction is not marketable, despite quite a few of the stories having won awards or made the final round of contests. Short stories are simply not money-makers.) 

I had an idea for a novel, the first hundred blundering pages of a first draft, and a spark I’d kept cupped from the wind since taking Maria Semple’s class last January. That class now seemed a universe ago, although little more than ten months had gone by.

And so the year came to its close. The dragon did a final loop-de-loop and came in for its bumpy landing. Since the first week of December I’ve been working again on the first draft of a novel I set aside last spring.

That same first week of December I felt very, very sad for my memoir that didn’t find a publisher in 2015. Yes, I knew I should be grateful for everything good in my life—including healthcare, food, a cozy house, friends at arm’s reach, the ability to dance and run, a super new guy in my life, not to mention overall life circumstances that allow me to write in the first place. I know, I  know, my life is really good right now. So good that sometimes I think about renaming this blog The Princess of Lyme Disease. And yet I couldn’t help but feel really down. I’d lost my chutzpah, I didn’t try to find it. I just cleaned up from the last party of the year, the fundraiser for refugees, and made sure nothing interrupted my writing time.

A few weeks later and I’m feeling a mix of happy relief to have this giant writing assignment. That is to say, not throwing parties no matter how good the cause, not meeting new people, not making more headdresses, nor going on adventures, but instead retreating into my quiet house and being the invisible person I love to be. This is all I care about for 2016: staying home and having a long, complicated, introvert’s journey, a literary adventure of my own making. Other things will happen, I'm sure, but this year writing time will come first.

Resolution. Gratitude. Peace.



2 comments:

geo. m. allen said...

Noelle, I absolutely loved it. -- gma

Noelle Catharine Allen said...

Thanks, George! Glad to hear from my parents that you're doing well, shoulder and all! -nca