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On Writing 4

I do not find it hard to write every day.

Like the explorers of old whose journals have taught us about history, I feel hardwired to write things down, and when I’m traveling, even more. After a very late night with friends talking and arguing over Spanish politics and history, my head hums with ideas. I get up after 2.5 hours sleep, give Basil breakfast, and then sit down and type 1000 words. When we were in London a few weeks ago, I stayed up later than anyone else, writing about the party boats sliding by on the Thames outside the window, the book I was reading, and the meaning of losing oneself in a novel. When I’m at the park with Basil back home, I notice the conversations children have, or the group of nannies I see there every day, and later jot things down in my notebook on the way home.

Gathering material is not the hard part for me. The challenge is turning it into something I want others to read. This is why I blog, and why, since finishing my degree, I have started working more on the craft of writing. I have never had formal training in writing and I feel like I have a lot to learn.

Stephen King says, in his book On Writing, that if you want to be a writer, you should do two things: read a lot, and write a lot. So I read the latest Atlantic cover to cover, noticing how the essays are written. I play around with beginnings for an essay about my research on language and national identity. I re-read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. I go through The Best American Essays 2012 and read the first paragraph of each essay and copy down the first sentence of a dozen. Then I work on my essay, trying to incorporate elements that the best writers use.

Everyone says that if you want to be a serious writer, you need to submit pieces for publication. I feel like I’m in kindergarten when I think about publication. Sure I show up and write, but who am I to publish something? Blogging is wonderful because it’s a place to put my writing out there, and experience how writing is a conversation. It’s a community where I can appreciate others’ writing, and be inspired. It’s a way of practicing the craft of writing, and support others in doing the same.

But blogging every day? I have been trying hard this month since joining Megsie in the challenge. And I am seeing how good it is. How it becomes more of a conversation with other blogging friends. How it has me trying harder to implement what I’m learning about essay writing into my posts. How it pushes me risk a little more, try a little harder.

So I get back on the horse and post, though I’ve missed a day. I think about what my goal will be after July.

And I keep writing, every day.

The Restless Days 5

There’s an arc to every trip here. A recognizable shape that my body knows, and my mind and heart weather. First there are The Arrival Days. Everything is bright and chattery. Phone calls to welcome us, an uncle stopping by, a first trip to the old town to visit Basil’s great grandma. Glorious quiet during Basil’s naps, and time to myself in cool morning breezes. Late nights writing with bare shoulders outside on the porch like right now. Day after day of dresses and sandals, never once taking out the light sweaters I brought.

Then about a week or 10 days in, The Restless Days hit. Suddenly I’ve been away from home long enough. I am tired of how little we do here, how it’s the same day after day. How I’m not working towards anything, and I want to be. How we get not family time just the three of us. How it’s too hot to do anything.

On the first morning after the restlessness comes, I lay down on the cool grass by the lavender and listen to the bumblebees and honeybees at work. I look up at the blue sky and feel the grass prickling my back. I play with Basil and take pictures. By 9 he’s ready for a nap and it’s too hot to be outside much longer. But the pictures of the lavender fill me up the rest of the day. Somehow their wistful purple against the unchanging blue sky captures the yearning I feel.

On Sunday the mid-trip restlessness drives us to brave the furious evening heat to walk around in old town Toledo and get frozen yogurt at our favorite place. The sun had finally left all the main plaza’s benches in the shade. But it was still so hot that I burned the back of my legs sitting down on one stone bench. It was like sitting on the roof of a car after hours of driving. We had to eat the ice cream fast because it turned liquid at the edges with each spoonful. Basil watched other children playing and turned to us for bite after bite. Then we wandered in and out of a couple air-conditioned stores looking at the sales, and I bought a light cotton white sweater appropriate for the more mild temperatures of home.

I came home a little bit renewed. Mostly from the sweet time with just the three of us. But the mid-trip restlessness continues. Today, JJ left on the first train for Barcelona, and I started making lists for my week. What to cook. What to write. Where to go with Basil when my in-laws are off doing their work and activities. It helps a little.

Later this week when JJ gets back we’ll go into the final chapter of the trip, The Last Days. There will be favorite meals made. Technology for JJ to install. Last visits to family and friends. Suitcase conversations three days out. And tears because Basil is more fun every time we come and it’s harder to say goodbye. Every trip has the same arc, the same familiar shape like an old tree outside your kitchen window. The hardest part is the restlessness of these middle days when I’m still firmly here, but wanting here to feel different.

A Faraway Fourth 2

Evening brings a neighborhood phone tree of yipping dogs, one fierce bark setting off another at intervals. The barks ring out in synchrony with the children’s yells that puncture the air. It’s 10pm, and the sun just set. The sky is a soft steely blue. The cicadas hum in the tall junipers, then stop, until just one is left in the wisteria arbor across the pool. A breeze as gentle as grass blades whispers at the curtains.

Independence Day is a funny holiday to be across the Atlantic. Like Thanksgiving, its ours and ours alone. No fireworks, no BBQs here in Spain. We had breakfast, lunch, and dinner like any other day. The heat pulsed like a July Fourth in Northern California, but the sweetish smell of sparkler smoke did not fill our lungs tonight. When Basil is older, maybe we will do something special for the Fourths we spend here.

Today, we swam instead. In and out of the pool before lunch, then again before dinner. Basil was uncertain about the water. His small body clung to me at first. We hadn’t been in a pool since last summer. But then he warmed up to it. His abuelo grinned at him, and swam to the end of the pool and back, blowing bubbles and making him giggle. In a moment of excitement, Basil lunged from my arms towards his abuelo, dipped his face in the water, and came up crying in surprise.

This is why we’re here. For afternoons like this. So Basil can feel his abuela’s love as he gets wrapped in a bright green towel by the pool. So Basil can feel the happiness he causes when he decides to come back in the pool again, lets his abuelo hold him.

The shadows deepen now, the street lights click on, and the last cicada falls silent. I can hear only silence now, a hum of soft crickets in the distance. The children have gone inside, for their late Spanish dinners, then bed. Just one child across the scrubby meadow calls out now, setting off the dogs again. I lean back and feel my dress get soaked from a wet pool towel hung to dry on the chair behind me. The air still hangs heavy with the day’s heat, so it will dry soon enough.

Each Trip a New Beginning 3

It’s 97 degrees in Toledo, and we’ve just arrived for our annual summer visit. I haul suitcases up the stairs from the garage while the abuelos show Basil his new toys and exclaim over how much he’s changed. JJ prints his train ticket for tomorrow’s business trip to Barcelona, and I get us settled in. I hang up sundresses next to winter coats from the last trip. Stow sandals in the shoe cupboard next to an old pair of sneakers. Organize baby shirts and pants. Then we all go sit outside in the shade with cold drinks and Spanish tortilla sandwiches to talk and watch Basil play.

When you have family on the other side of the world, trips to see them become markers in the seasons of your life, like the first snow signaling the start of winter. Each Christmas, each summer, we decide on our dates. Buy our tickets. Make plans to see friends and family before we leave. Pack our suitcases. Worry over keeping the baby entertained and fed on the flight now that we have Basil. And then we do the nearly 24-hour trip from California to Spain.

The trip itself is always exhausting. Two flights, one 9 ½ hours with a 16-month old. But once we are here, and start settling into a routine, I always feel the possibility in a life lived like this. The ways that having family in two countries stretches you. It makes you cross boundaries more often. Language, culture, food boundaries. There is a way that travel makes you see yourself anew, and these family trips to Spain do that for me. They make me start fresh. Each time I go through the list of things to attend to before leaving, make the trip, and then we’re here. And while the isolation of being far from family and friends can be hard, it also makes me read and write more, and I like that. I like the distance from daily life that comes with being in a faraway place.

Now, with Basil’s milestones marking the passage of time, each trip is even more of a new beginning. Last Christmas, he had just begun to crawl. He was pulling himself up on the dresser for the first time, opening drawers, figuring out how to get up stairs. Now he is walking, exploring each room on his own, climbing up on furniture, holding his Poppy’s hand as we walk through the old town to visit his Great Grandma.

This is the first trip to Spain since I finished my degree. Another new beginning. I’m excited to write while I am here, and see where it leads me. See how the future looks 2 weeks from now when I’m home again. And thanks to Meg’s challenge, and NaBloPoMo, I’m going to share more of the process here this month. See you tomorrow!

It’s in! 3

After four years of work, months of late nights and working every weekend, I turned in my dissertation almost 2 weeks ago! Two Mainstreams, One School System: The Complexities of Immigrant Integration in Barcelona. Finishing was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I did it, and I am proud. Now it’s time to think about what’s next. Get a job in research? Teaching? Work on a writing career? Explore work in digital storytelling for kids? Something else? All of the above? The possibilities feel wide open right now…

The Final Push 2

Nothing but baby and thesis around here for 27 more days. I have help every day. A babysitter, my mom, JJ. I work all the time, until 12 or 1 every night. It will get done, but only if I stay extremely focused. Finishing a dissertation really is that hard. Yesterday, an hour at the beach with JJ and Basil, playing in the sand and watching the sailboats. It was like having one bite of dessert, a small taste of what it will feel like to relax together again.

Baby, Thesis, Baby, Thesis 2

My days have been a river of one thing to the next lately, baby, shower, breakfast, thesis, baby, park, write, lunch, baby. A nap on a good day. Then baby, clean, cook, baby, baby, maybe thesis, baby, dinner, husband, thesis, write, read, sleep, baby, sleep, baby, sleep.

Then get up, and do it all again.

It’s really hard, this final push of my dissertation, with a one year-old. Thankfully, I have help. A babysitter two mornings a week. My mom a few days a month. A sister now and then. And most importantly, a supportive husband. A partner who’s thrilled to get home and scoot Basil off to the park, who loves being his dad as much as I love being his mom. But still, it’s really hard.

It’s hard to nurse Basil, put him down, kiss JJ, maybe make a cup of tea, and go sit down at my desk, every night. It’s hard to be tired, and to work anyway. It’s hard to think so much at the end of the day, every day.

All this focus makes me lose track of days. Whole weeks go by like a blur of fence posts on the interstate. Thesis baby thesis baby thesis baby. What, it’s Sunday again?

I’ve got so much other writing I want to work on. An essay about motherhood and work, inspired by an excellent post I read last month. Another for a post about how to get things done. And a page of scrawled notes about what it means to be original in the age of Instagram.

Maybe someday I’ll learn how to share these notes and ideas without feeling I have to refine and refine. I mean, we can have a conversation, tell a story, without perfection, right? The more I write, the better I feel at it. But it’s still so hard to post here sometimes, especially when I’m so tired. I can’t wait to have more time for all that other writing.

In the meantime, I jot things down, keep 5 different draft documents open and work on them when I can. And I keep wrestling the wild work in progress that is my thesis. Thanks to Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, I think of it as a wild tiger:

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”’.

I’ve learned that if I “tame the tiger” a little bit every day, I can remain the boss. Sitting down and writing for an hour or two today makes it possible to sit down more easily tomorrow. And when I stick with it, I have days when the tiger is curled at my feet, docile and purring, while my fingers fly over the keyboard with clarity and inspiration. Sometimes even at 11pm.

Out for Another Walk 6

I feel like most people I know wish they took walks more often, and are always glad when they did. And you’re always hearing about the health benefits of taking walks. As a mother, writing at home, I don’t get very much alone time, so lately I’ve been trying to take walks more often. And every time I do, I think, this is the simple key to happiness.

I bring along a little notebook and pen. I pull my sweatshirt tight against the wind, breath in the fresh air, notice primroses, tulips, a house for sale. I pant up flight after flight of stairs that cut up the hill to Twin Peaks, San Francisco’s highest point. Problems with the current thesis chapter hover in my mind like helicopters, somehow louder and clearer as I walk. Today, I realized this is reason alone to get out on walks. I’m currently inspired by how the novelist Dawn Tripp describes why she runs, in her post for Cynthia Newberry Martin’s blog Catching Days:

“I don’t run for time, speed, or distance. I don’t run to stay physically fit. I run to find a clearness of mind.”

And later in the post:

“Every morning I go out and run for this precise reason–to find my way deeper into a character’s self, some key turn of a story, to find that certain edge between intellect and free creative thought, to feel that shift in consciousness that allows me to write well. It’s not a state I can simply sit at a desk and think myself into–though many writers I know can. I have to be outside. I have to move. For me, it is that experience of the world–when I can breathe in the wind, the sun, the heat, the salt smell, the cold, and the light until the floss is stripped, and I am right there, in the pulse and life of a separate and entirely real, fictional world.”

What if I walked every day? What might happen in my writing?

Tell me, does walking (or running, or biking, or other movement) help you write?

 

Lost in Abstractions 2

I walk down the San Francisco streets lined with Victorian row houses, and instead of noticing grand rooflines, or the often spectacularly ornate doorways and windows, I look at drain pipes, and telephone poles, and air vents. I crouch down to frame a shot of curling Magnolia tree bark, or the shadow of a twig in the slanting afternoon sun. I wait through three traffic light changes, Basil impatient in the stroller, to capture staples and bolts on a telephone pole.

Maybe it’s because my brain is filled beyond capacity with big ideas from my thesis, and I’m not getting nearly enough sleep. Or maybe it’s the endlessly clear, wide open, blue skies we’ve been having, bright and warm every day. Or possibly the craving for nature, and open space. But lately I go out in the world and focus on abstractions, on lines, on colors. I obsess about images that thrill with their negative space. I take picture after picture of corners, and slants of light.

Want to join me this week? What do the colors, shapes, objects in your daily life look like in the abstract?

Thesis Nights 2

 It’s 7:30 at night and the house is quiet. I hear a car pass heading uphill in the clear, winter night. I make a cup of chamomile-peppermint tea in my favorite hand-thrown ceramic mug, and prepare a plate of chocolate cookies and almonds to nibble. Then I sit down to work on my thesis, joining the thousands of working mothers across the country whose second shift begins when the children are in bed.

This is my last semester in grad school; I file my thesis in May. The finished dissertation will be about 200 pages. I have 127 written, of which 111 are the important ones, the pages telling a story of my research into the changes immigration brought to two Barcelona schools in 2009-10. It all needs rewriting and further work, but I’m getting there. One night at a time.

What will I do when I’m done? Here is what I thought when I applied to grad school in 2005:

“In my Ph.D. study I aim to further develop my analytical skills and research expertise while looking more closely at poverty and inequality in education. Specifically, I want to learn to evaluate educational reforms using quantitative and qualitative research methods while examining issues around school funding, equality of opportunity to learn, and education and development.”

I know. Stilted, boring, and so serious! What was I really aiming for? I know I was ambitious, and hell-bent on making a different life than the one I grew up in. I’d always been good at school, and continuing to study seemed like the answer. But really, I had very mixed feelings about what I was doing.

Nearly 7 years later, in the home stretch of my program, I’ve concluded the academic life – at least as I understood it then – is not for me. I love the writing and teaching parts, but not the research. The pressures, pretentiousness and pettiness of university jobs weigh too heavy, obliterating the joy of learning, teaching, and discovering new ideas that also come with being a professor. And, it turns out, I want a life a lot closer to the creative one I grew up in than I was willing to admit at 26.

So I’m not going to be who I thought I was going to be. Most of us aren’t, it turns out. But I am loving writing my thesis. No exaggeration. Loving it. Sure, working the second shift is tiring, and I get stuck at times. But working on the thesis has shown me I really am a writer. And I’ve learned enough about self-discipline, and managing unwieldy, long-term projects to write my first book, or start my own creative business, or possibly found a school one day.

For now, another late night of writing awaits. See you next Tuesday, if not before!