finding inspiration from literature: nabokov’s & philadelphia’s lolita

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

– Jim Jarmusch

the streets of Philadelphia at night
the streets of Philadelphia at night

On December 20, I started reading the classic novel by Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita.  I wrote this review of it on Goodreads:

It’s easy to despise the deeply flawed pedophile Humbert Humbert, with his long-time sexual abuse of his 12-year-old nymphet/daughter Dolores Haze (his Lolita, his Lo). I have put off reading the book forever because of the subject matter, which is certainly hard to take.

That being said, it’s hard not to fall in love with Nabokov’s prose. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Jeremy Irons, and found some scenes to be so perfectly rendered, so engrossing, that I had to check the book out of the library so I could read and study the passages. Nabokov’s prose is so detailed, so observant, so meticulous, so perfect, so nuanced! If only I had such command of the English language. And to think that Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg in 1899 and English wasn’t even his first language, having moved to the U.S. in 1940. I highly recommend this book just to experience the author’s writing style and wonderful use of language.

Philadelphia nights
Philadelphia nights

I was engrossed in the book at the time we went to Philadelphia, admittedly bowled over by the author’s writing style.  So it was a strange coincidence when we went out to look for a dinner restaurant near our hotel, The Independent, and we happened upon the enticing Lolita tucked into a narrow space on South 13th Street.

Philadelphia Muses by Meg Saligman, 13th and Locust Streets, Center City
Philadelphia Muses by Meg Saligman, 13th and Locust Streets, Center City

We sat down at the bar because it was crowded; no matter, we enjoy sitting at the bar anyway.  I found an appealing new drink on the menu: a jalapeno and cucumber margarita, which was ultra-refreshing and not too sweet.  As I sipped this marvelous concoction, I mentioned to one of the bartenders, a young woman, that it was serendipitous that we found Lolita because I’m right in the middle of listening to the audiobook.

jalapeno and cucumber margarita at Lolita
jalapeno and cucumber margarita at Lolita

She gushed that she adored Nabokov: “His prose is amazing!  There is nothing like it!”  Her enthusiasm matched my feelings, and I felt an instant kinship with her. This is what reading will do to a person.

Lolita in Philadelphia
Lolita in Philadelphia

We enjoyed Lolita’s ambiance, as well as our fabulous dinners: chipotle shrimp enchiladas verdes (charred tomatillos, serranos, garlic & cilantro) stuffed with roasted sunchokes, sauteed local greens, queso mixto & radish salad for me, and queso fundido (charred corn puree, queso mixto, local mushroom mix, roasted baby corn & poblanos, served with warm corn tortillas – served with house-made chorizo for Mike.

food
chipotle shrimp enchiladas verdes (charred tomatillos, serranos, garlic & cilantro) stuffed with roasted sunchokes, sauteed local greens, queso mixto & radish salad

Inspiration is found in unlikely places.  All one has to do it be open to it, recognize it, and run with it.  After reading Lolita,  I can only dream of writing like Nabokov. I know I don’t have that talent, but if I could remotely approach him, I would be happy.  I’ve been thrilled by writers before, and I’ve yearned to have such natural and spontaneous creativity.  In writing classes, teachers often encourage students to find admired masters and try to mimic their style.  Of course, a writer is also supposed to find his or her own “voice” when writing.  But my voice seems so boring!

When I read something like Lolita that makes my heart beat faster, that takes my breath away, then I want to study it, dissect it, analyze it, and try to take something away from it.  If I could write even one sentence like that, just one….it might be possible to write another, and yet another.

In the book, at the beginning of part two, Humbert Humbert and Lolita take a road trip across the country.  I’ve taken many American road trips in my life, and Nabokov captures a small part of their journey perfectly in this passage:

Now and then, in the vastness of those plains, huge trees would advance toward us to cluster self-consciously by the roadside, and provide a bit of humanitarian shade above a picnic table, with sun flecks, flattened paper cups, samaras and discarded ice-cream sticks littering the brown ground. A great user of roadside facilities, my unfastidious Lo would be charmed by toilet signs — Guys-Gals, John-Jane, Jack-Jill and even Buck’s-Doe’s; while lost in an artist’s dream, I would stare at the honest brightness of the gasoline paraphernalia against the splendid green of oaks, or at a distant hill scrambling out — scarred but still untamed — from the wilderness of agriculture that was trying to swallow it. (p. 153, 50th anniversary edition, Lolita, June 1997)

This scene is wonderfully rendered.  The picture of “huge trees” advancing toward the moving car, clustering “self-consciously by the roadside,” and providing “a bit of humanitarian shade” is not only great description but it prompts in the reader a leap of imagination.  It endows the trees with human qualities — self-consciousness and humanitarianism — and prods us to see them with vague and tender recognition. We might not have described them that way ourselves, but we feel the rightness of the description.  The “sun flecks” suggest a summer afternoon, indolent and barely breezy, the setting for a romantic rendezvous that has now ended, with remnants of confetti scattered as reminders.  Samaras seem exotic; when I look them up, I find they are a type of fruit with a flattened wing of papery tissue developing from the ovary wall.  The discarded ice-cream sticks conjure up children, and yes, Lolita is a child, a nymphet, that thing Humbert longs for, that thing he can’t resist.  Here, like the child Lolita is the object of Humbert’s desires, the flower and the ice-cream sticks are both exotic and sexual; together, they hint at  the protagonist’s pedophilia, of which we are all too aware from our reading.  Humbert even finds Lo’s unfastidiousness attractive; we already know this from what we’ve read before. Nabokov doesn’t waste any opportunity to infuse his writing with reminders of Humbert’s obsession.

I love the different names on the toilet signs, a fantastic detail which captures the nuances in the monotony that one sees on a road trip. We all know the frequent stops we have to make on a road trip, especially as a child, “How much further, Dad?  I need to go to the bathroom!”  I can just picture the gleaming “gasoline paraphernalia” of the 1950s (Lolita was published in 1955), painstakingly polished by gas station attendants who cared lovingly for their roadside facilities. And I love how the distant hill “scrambles out — scarred but still untamed” much like his own Lolita.  She is certainly scarred, but he’s never really able to tame her.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Philadelphia’s Lolita –  the day after

How can we write fabulous prose?  It seems to me some people have a natural ability to do so; others of us have to struggle mightily to come up with one good sentence.  Just looking at Nabokov’s prose, here’s what I take away:

  • Be observant when you’re out in the world.  Notice every little detail.    This one is hardest for me, as I seem to wander around with blinders on half the time.
  • Carry a notebook or a camera so you’re always ready to capture what you see or feel, what you smell or hear, what you taste.  Take time-outs with your notebook at a cafe to write notes.
  • Note anything unique and unusual; anything that is out of place.  The flattened paper cups, the discarded ice-cream sticks.  Things that seem unimportant yet create such perfect details in a story.
  • Note things that are mundane: the picnic tables, the roadside facilities, the gasoline paraphernalia, the names on the toilets.  These are things that everyone sees and expects to see, and often go unnoticed.
  • Describe the things you see using human qualities – “cluster self-consciously” or “provide a bit of humanitarian shade.”
  • If you have trouble with this, note what you see and then brainstorm words that might describe human emotions or states.  Experiment with word pairings.  I love when a word is paired with another word in a surprising way.
  • Find active verbs to describe static things: “a distant hill scrambling out.”
  • Make something mundane seem interesting: as in the frequent stops at the roadside facilities and the bathroom names.

So, what could I come up with in my attempt to write a Nabokov-like paragraph about a road trip?

________________________

As we drive north on that white-lined freeway fenced in by concrete barriers, the Toyota RAV’s rubber wipers swish the drizzle to and fro on the windshield, a squeaky metronome.  Sedans and SUVs from Maryland, Virginia, The Garden State — even the Sunshine State with its green-leafed oranges — press in as they whizz past, their tires flinging dirt-infused mist on our windshield.  A Warehouse for Lease! slumps on the fringes, punctuated by green highway signs with white letters announcing exits like Bel Air and Emmorton Road.  Black spiny trees blur along the roadside approaching Exit 80, where blue signs announce Food: McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts.  U2 sings “Mysterious Ways” and highway vagabond Miranda Lambert wants to “go somewhere where nobody knows.”  I’ve snagged my left thumbnail and as usual, I don’t have any nail clippers in my purse.  The annoying snag persists. A brown sign announces we’re passing Susquehanna State Park and another forbids U-turns and when we cross the bridge, a ghost brigade of mist rises off the Susquehanna. Barns, silos, and bristly sepia fields scroll past and an aqua “Town of Perryville” water tower mutters a greeting.  On the stretch of industrial corridor near Port of Wilm, metal utility towers spread their triple-triangle arms and factories belch smoke, gasping their last breath.  Blue-green porta-potties stand in formation along the tracks and containers lie like coffins on idle trains.  The derelict train station’s windows are broken.  Citywide Limousine squats beside a lot of Ryder trucks and an empty pedestrian bridge covered in chain-link looms over us as we sputter underneath.

Finally, “Pennsylvania, State of Independence,” welcomes us while Hidden Figures of NASA stand in all their mathematical genius on an electronic billboard.  Run-down brick row houses hug the highway behind a thin veil of chain-links.  CSX rail cars hunker along the highway, dead in their tracks.  Another billboard promises “The Wounded Warrior Project helps me heal the wounds you can’t see.”  At Philadelphia Energy Solutions, giant cylindrical tanks with blue bands around the tops squat on the land and, next door, bundled paper haphazardly occupies a recycling plant. A pink “Risqué Video” sign entices those so-inclined.   We skid into the Philly outskirts, land of the free and home of the tired.

______________________

I’d like to challenge my readers to write a paragraph describing something or someplace and share it as a link in my comments.

the first half of twenty-fourteen: can a person really change?

Monday, June 30: At the beginning of every year, I’m always hopeful and enthusiastic about the chance to change myself, to become a better person, a more caring person, a more successful person.  I make goals for myself. I want to succeed, I really do.  But I wonder if I can ever really change.  Can I change my true nature or am I doomed to continue to fall back into my old habits, into the person I really am deep inside?

I resolved to be FOCUSED this year.  Granted, the year isn’t over yet, but as of the halfway point, I’ll recap where I am.  Not very focused, I admit.

One of the things I didn’t make a resolution about was my photography.  However, I had some nice things happen with my photography this year.  First, I joined the Vienna Photographic Society.  This is a group of hobbyists, most of whom are excellent photographers. I was inspired to push myself to excel, but ultimately, I realize I don’t have the technical expertise to be in their league.  I’m not even sure I want to have that much technical expertise. Neither do I have Photoshop, nor do I do much in the way of post-processing.  I understand now that many professional photographers do extensive post-processing. Maybe one day I’ll get into this, but at this point I don’t have the drive to attain such a level of accomplishment.

Each month the club has novice and advanced intra-club competitions in general photography and in themed contests using trained and experienced local photographers as judges.  I’m always in the novice category.

In my first competition, I won third place in the novice category for this picture.

Blue boats in Pokhara
Blue boats in Pokhara

In another competition, I won first place in the novice category for this picture “Our Soul is a Spray Can,” taken in Cascais, Portugal.  At the end of the year, when the club gave awards to everyone who entered competitions during the year, I also won Honorable Mention for this picture.

My Soul is a Spray Can
Our Soul is a Spray Can

In a PSA (Photographic Society of America) National competition for Nature, Round 2, I got 10 points for this picture of Acacia Trees in Lake Langano, Ethiopia. This meant it went on to the next round of judging, but I ultimately didn’t win anything.

Acacia trees at Lake Langano
Acacia trees at Lake Langano

One of the things I enjoyed doing was a 20-minute presentation to the club on Oman.  I put together a slide show about Oman and told stories about my life there.  I got a lot of compliments on this presentation and I loved doing it. 🙂

One of over 80 photos I showed in a 20 minute presentation on Oman
One of over 80 photos I showed in a 20 minute presentation on Oman

I also joined Instagram and have been posting a lot of my pictures on there.  At one point I started tagging my photos #natgeotravelpics.  This hashtag put my photos into National Geographic Travel magazine’s Instagram feed.  One week, they featured this photo and it got well over 20,000 likes and I got a lot of new followers on Instagram. It was a lot of fun for a couple of days.

Hot air balloons in Cappadocia
Hot air balloons in Cappadocia

Finally, I entered a photo competition at the Vienna Community Center, which was open to the public.  I won third prize in Architecture for this photo of the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Grand Mosque

It’s clear where I focused most of my energies!  Below are the goals I set on January 1, 2014.  As you can see, I seemed to FOCUS more on my photography than on the goals I actually set for myself. 🙂

1.  Pitch a travel article to at least one publication every week, beginning after January 13.

This is one goal I haven’t taken any steps toward achieving.  I started with an idea for the Washington Post Travel Section about a crazy trip I took from the chaotic spiritual city of Varanasi to the chill yoga capital of India, Rishikesh.  The story, already written in my blog, was about 12,000 words.  The Washington Post Travel Section seemed the perfect place for this story because they often publish personal experience stories. However, they do not take unsolicited pitches.  You can send a full story and they’ll decide if they like it and are interested in buying it.  But the word count on their stories must be from 1,500 to 2,500 words.  Mine required a LOT of cutting.  Besides, they generally don’t want to look at a story over a year old, and my story was from 2011.  I thought they might consider a story if it was  timeless, as mine was, so I worked on it for a while, cutting and cutting, until I got down to 5,000 words.  Still way too long.  Then I just abandoned it, slowly at first, as I continued to mull it over, and then all at once, as I dropped it altogether.  That was the only article I even attempted to write.

Why am I so easily waylaid?

Probably because I’m not sure I really want to be a travel writer.  I’m not interested in having to work on my holidays!  I want to enjoy, soak up the culture and the sights.  I want to enjoy the food and wine and the experience.  Travel writing is a job.  I’m not sure I want to make a job out of something I love doing for its own sake.

2.  Finish revising my novel by the end of February.  Spend March figuring out what steps to take to get it published and take those steps.  Begin a new book after I get that process underway.

I didn’t quite make my February deadline.  I did however finish my novel in May. Finally!  A dear friend of mine read it and gave me some great feedback.  I even came up with a title, The Scattering Dreams of Stars.  So most of the work is done.

The next step is to send out query letters to agents.  I wrote numerous drafts of a query letter and I posted a draft on a forum where fellow writers critique query letters.  Mine got ripped to shreds.  After many efforts to capture the essence of my story in a short two paragraphs, and to write a captivating hook, I let it sit.  And sit.  And sit some more. I have two friends who have offered to edit the letter, and I’ve made another attempt, but I’m still not happy with it.

I’ve decided it’s harder to write two paragraphs than to write a 350 page novel.  Some people say they write the hook and the summarizing paragraph before they write their novel.  Maybe I should have done that; it would have helped me to be more focused.

My goal is to finish that query letter and send it to agents in the next two months.  Oh dear.  Again, why am I so easily thrown off track, and sometimes by the simplest of setbacks?

As far as being a full-time writer, I now remember what I don’t enjoy about it.  During the last 6 months, while I took off the semester to write, I felt isolated and antsy.  It hit me that I function better with a schedule.  I need to get up in the morning and go to a job.  I need to interact with people.  I do better getting out and about, being around people, being accountable to someone.  I’m the kind of person who needs to squeeze in writing during the down times of a busy life.

3. Apply for at least 3 jobs a week in international development until I get one (Painful).

Yes, it was as painful as I thought it would be.  I applied for 40 jobs in the U.S. and after getting no response from any of them, I started putting feelers out abroad.  Even though I matched job descriptions exactly, I didn’t even get an acknowledgement on most of my applications.

As it’s very time-consuming to apply for jobs these days, I got disheartened very quickly.  It used to be you could send a resume and a cover letter, but these days, applicants must often fill out online applications, completing every detail of your job history on each company’s website.  It’s so ridiculous.  What’s LinkedIn for, anyway? I think there should be one central place where you post your resume and you can download from that central place to a company’s website.  You go through this cumbersome process and then you never hear ANYTHING back!  It’s so frustrating.

Finally, I got sick of never getting any acknowledgement and spending so much time spinning my wheels for nothing.  I don’t know the reason I don’t get short-listed.  Some people have told me I’m overqualified.  Others have told me I’m not qualified enough.  Or I don’t match every single qualification.  I have transferable skills, but employers seem to want you to have worked in that particular job, and they seem to want you to have no ambition to move from that job.  Also, there are so many young people with Master’s degrees in International Relations coming from the big schools in the area: George Washington University, Georgetown University, American University, Johns Hopkins.  Why would they hire an older person when they can hire a young person fresh out of college?

While I was in Oman, a woman contacted me through my Nizwa blog because she was considering working for the University of Nizwa. She ended up taking a job in China.  I wrote to ask about possible jobs at her university and she told me they had just instituted a mandatory retirement age of 60.  As I started looking at jobs in China, I saw many jobs with an age limit of 60. I figured since I only have one more year to work in China, I would focus my job search there.  I’ve always wanted to teach in China for a couple of reasons: 1) Asian students in general are hard-working and 2) there are a lot of amazing things to see in China.  I focused my job search there and in one week I had four interviews and I got three offers.  I accepted an offer to teach at SCIC (Sino-Canadian International Colleges), Guangxi University in Nanning, the capital city of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.  It’s not far from Vietnam and about a 3 1/2 hour bus ride from Guilin, where the movie The Painted Veil was filmed.

In all, I applied for 70 jobs, beginning my job search when I returned from California at the end of January and ending on June 13, when I got the offer from GXU.  That was 21 weeks at over 3 jobs a week. I believe my days of trying to find a job in the U.S. are over.  It just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Since I can’t get a job in my country, I’m thankful that someone will hire me from foreign lands.  Looks like I’m going to China!  Nǐ hǎo!!

4. Post no more than two posts a week to my blog. (This will be one of the hardest to keep!)

I actually did this.  I’ve posted 52 posts in 26 weeks, about two a week. I have neglected my fellow bloggers though, and for this I feel bad. 😦

5. Continue my explorations of the East Coast over the next year, after my trip to California in early January.  Venture to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, West Virginia, Delaware, Tennessee (Ann Patchett territory!).  Take a road trip.  And if I can get a job, or make some money freelancing, go to Costa Rica or one of the Caribbean islands. Pitch local travel articles to publications further afield.

I haven’t been to any of these places.  However, I am planning a trip to New Hampshire this week. 🙂

6. Read a lot: short stories, novels, the craft of writing, travel writing.

I love to read, so this has been easy.  I’ve read 22 books, mostly books on writing and novels.

7. Walk at least 5 times a week and eat healthier and smaller quantities of food.

I’ve been really good about the walking, but not so good about the eating smaller quantities of food.  I managed to lose 6 pounds, but then I gained back 4, so I’m only two pounds down from where I started.  Here’s a chart of my weight, which seems a kind of metaphor for my life.  I always end up right back where I started from!

My weight as a metaphor for my life
My weight as a metaphor for my life

In a way, I feel relieved to be going abroad again.  Taking a job here in the U.S. probably wouldn’t have allowed me to travel.  Besides, starting a new job in a corporation or a non-profit at this point would mean starting with only 2-3 weeks of vacation per year.  Teaching abroad allows me to have both the cultural immersion I crave and to have extensive time off to travel in the region where I’m based.  Overall, it’s a great solution to all my problems.  As I only have about 9 more years to work before I retire, and I still have my health, I may as well take advantage of teaching abroad.  Besides, my kids are nowhere close to settling down, getting married or having kids; by the time they are, I should be back in the U.S., ready to settle down and enjoy the extended family.  And best of all, they’re supportive of me having my adventures while I’m still young enough to have them!

The other thing I miss about being abroad are the expats and foreigners one meets when thrown into a foreign country.  Everyone is an adventurer of some sort.  Being in the U.S., I’m tired of having people’s eyes glaze over when I share my experiences living abroad.  I love the fellow nomads that tend to gravitate to each other in foreign lands. In addition, you meet wonderful natives of the country where you are a guest.  Two of my closest friends in Korea, Julie and Kim, were Koreans.  And I miss dearly friends I’ve made abroad, friends the likes of which I don’t have here in America.  I miss Mario, Sandy, Tahira, Kathy, Anna, Mona Lisa, Seth & Anna, Myrna… and the list goes on.  We share a common experience no one else will ever understand.

poets & writers LIVE! & a night on abbott kinney

Saturday, January 11: This morning, Rosie and I are going to the Poets and Writers LIVE! event in Los Angeles, but before we do, we take a nice walk around the Toluca Lake neighborhood.  Being in LA, it’s hard to believe it’s January. Back home in Virginia we’ve had below freezing temperatures and snowfall after snowfall, and here in sunny LA, it feels like a spring day.

Pretty Toluca Lake
Pretty Toluca Lake
Walking around Toluca Lake
Walking around Toluca Lake
Toluca Lake farmer's market
Toluca Lake farmer’s market

We drive to the Poets and Writers Event, which, much to my surprise, is just around the corner from Abbott Kinney Boulevard, the main drag that my sister Stephanie and I explored when I was in Los Angeles at the beginning of my trip.

Rosie & me at Poets & Writer's LIVE!
Rosie & me at Poets & Writer’s LIVE!

Poets & Writers magazine was started in 1970 to help writers. Editor-in-chief Kevin Larimer introduces the event, the first of many face-to-face events that Poets & Writers will sponsor around the country. The event is organized into four sessions of 1 1/4 hours each.

In session one, Larimer discusses why we want to publish: 1) for validation and 2) so people can read our work.  As authors, he suggests, we should buy books and literary magazines, thus supporting the community we want to be a part of.  He advises that an agent is helpful to writers when sorting through complicated publishing contracts, as he/she can give legal advice.

In session two, a number of speakers discuss how to build community in the Los Angeles area. This is the least interesting talk to me, since I don’t live in LA and can’t take advantage of the myriad opportunities.  The general consensus: “Creativity flourishes in community.”  Suggestions for building community include surveying the neighborhood you’re in and encourage whoever wants to participate.  Align what you’re doing with your own needs as a writer, because the needs of the organizer should be met as much as the needs of participants.

Opportunities to connect abound: 1) Find an art buddy to check in with to see whether you’re writing or not; 2) Make writing dates, where you get together with another writer in the same room to write; 3) Have writing practice groups where you practice meditation and then do a “fevered writing;” 4) Join writing groups where you get feedback within a set of guidelines.  This gives you a way to know how your work is “landing;” 5) Put together readings with other people; 6) Approach a publisher with a common-themed group project.

Other advice: 1) Find your own niche and 2) to inspire your own writing, get out of your element.

If you decide to form a writing workshop, try to discuss the works in a positive way: 1) What meaning did you get from that? 2) What did you notice in a piece of work? 3) Invite people to ask questions about form, content, what if?  Guidelines in a writing workshop should apply to everyone.  Someone should be chosen to facilitate in a smooth manner, using humor to transition.  Try to be communicative and transparent.  The workshop facilitator should be consistent about times and run a tight shift.

Sound advice: As a writer, the best thing you can do is to read aloud your work.

In session three, a panel of writers have an interesting discussion about writing, and answer questions from the audience.  Ron Carlson, American novelist and short story writer, most recently wrote Return to Oakpine.  He talks about his life as a short story writer.  Poet Harryette Mullen, who wrote Sleeping with the Dictionary, shares her story about being a poet.  Novelist Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, discusses his style of writing and why he loves the craft.  Meghan Daum, an American author, essayist, and journalist (L.A. Times columnist) who wrote My Misspent Youth, The Quality of Life Report and Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House says she became a writer because she literally couldn’t do anything else.  She had no other talents.  I doubt that’s true, but it makes for some funny stories.

The panel discusses writing in different mediums: crayons, chalk, or play dough — to spark creativity.  Draw pictures.  Think of five things and draw one, write a caption, add five more lines.  Play Sculptionary or Lego-nary.  Always try to trick your mind into opening up.  Just sit in a chair, stop whining, and do it.

In the final session, author Dani Shapiro reads from her book Still Write.  I always love it when I hear authors speak about how, no matter how many times they’ve been published, they still feel dread and self-doubt when they sit down to write.  That’s how I feel, of course, so to know that published authors feel that way gives me some small bit of encouragement.

Dani writes a blog about the creative process: Dani Shapiro.  She wants her book Still Write to be a companion to fellow writers, similar to Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life or Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary.  It’s about beginnings, middles, ends, and the puzzle-like pieces of writing.  She challenges writers to write about the things they do that they’d be mortified by if anyone knew about them.

After one of our breaks, I come back to my seat to find a Chinese man sitting next to me, in what had been an empty seat. He hands me a card: Da Chen.  His latest published novel is My Last Empress.

He asks if I’m a writer.
I hem and haw.  “Yes, I’ve written a novel.”
“What is the title?” he asks.
“I don’t have a title yet.”
“Oh.  Do you have a business card?”
“No, sorry, I don’t.”  I fidget uncomfortably, feeling embarrassed by my lack of confidence and professionalism.

He turns away, having lost interest.  I feel disheartened that I blew an opportunity to talk with someone who might be in a position to help me get my novel published.  Live and learn, the hard way.

I am thrilled that Rosie heard about this event and that we signed up for it before it was sold out.  It was so inspirational!  During the time I started writing my novel in 2002, I used to go all the time to listen to authors give readings in bookstores, and I found them inspirational.  They prodded me to finish the first draft of my book.

For the next several months, my goal is to get my novel done.  To give the book a title.  And to make up business cards for future encounters with other writers!

***************************

After the event, Rosie and I drive around the corner and stop in at The Brig for cocktails.  The picture below was taken the week before when I was here with my sister.  By the time we arrive here tonight, it’s dark.

The Brig on Abbott Kinney Boulevard
The Brig on Abbott Kinney Boulevard

We stand around drinking wine and chatting with other writers who attended the event.  It’s all very lively and authorial.  I feel a bit of a thrill by the whole thing. 🙂

There seems to be no food served at The Brig, so we walk out the front door and pick up some very decadent food at a food truck.

Rosie at the food truck
Rosie at the food truck

After everyone disperses, Rosie and I take a leisurely stroll up and down Abbott Kinney Boulevard, enjoying some nighttime window-shopping.  If you want to see the daytime view, you can check out window-shopping on abbott kinney boulevard.

A fun and inspirational day all around!  To learn more about Poets & Writers, check out this link: Poets & Writers.

RESOLVED 2014!!! FOCUS

Wednesday, January 1:  Happy New Year!!  It’s that time of year again, time to get on track with life!  I’m always enthusiastic about turning the calendar to an untarnished new year, and getting a fresh start on what I hope will be the life of my dreams.  However, I know it’s a challenge to keep myself disciplined.  Accomplishing my New Year’s Resolutions in past years has always been a mixed bag.  I achieve some of what I set out to do, and other things I don’t even touch.

“If you have the capacity to be more than one thing, do everything that’s inside of you.” ~ Bishop T. D. Jakes

This is the problem.  I want to do everything that’s inside of me.  And because of that, I actually never get anything done!

I am like the Cathy in the cartoon of the same name.  I’m the Cathy of a million brilliant possibilities.

I am pretty good at many things, but not great at any one thing.  I can write fairly well and I can do statistical or financial analysis.  I can figure out Excel spreadsheets or Word documents.  I can live abroad or at home.  I am filled with wanderlust and, alternately, with homebody tendencies.  I love solitude and intimate social gatherings.  I can help organize U.N. delegations to Middle East Peace Conferences (Annapolis 2007) or help organize events for the Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice 2008) or organize debates among students. I can teach adults or children; I can teach Koreans, Omanis, Saudis, Vietnamese, Americans or Mongolians.   I can do diligent research and draw overarching conclusions, or I can wander around dreamily through foreign lands.  I can exercise religiously or I can lazily sit around reading a good book for hours.  I can take pretty good pictures, but I’m too impatient to actually learn how to improve.  I can be incredibly organized, or I can be a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants operator.  I can study a foreign language until I’m blue in the face, scoring well on written tests, but I can never gain any facility with the language.  I am an excellent student, always.  I have been a reporter, a banker, a stockbroker, an intern (State Department), an intern again (MSI), an English teacher and an ESL teacher.  And of course a mom.  Let’s not forget that.

I have a B.A. in English and an M.A. in International Commerce & Policy.  I have ESL and Virginia teaching certificates.  I have written a novel from start to finish.  I have written short stories and poems and research papers and blogs.  I have worked as a cash control “banker” at Busch Gardens and as a bank teller, a loan officer and a credit analyst. I am pretty good with numbers and pretty good with words, but not great at either.  What does one do with such a broad sweep of mediocre abilities, and such a variety of interests?

Staying close to home this year.  There's plenty to explore in the Americas.
Staying close to home this year. There’s plenty to explore in the Americas.

The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone.  It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean.  ~ Toni Morrison

I admit now to stealing a great idea.  I read about this idea on someone else’s blog.  This person, I can’t even remember who (sorry!), advised people to choose a word for the year.  After a great deal of thought, here’s what I’ve come up with:

FOCUS

“What you focus on expands, and when you focus on the goodness in your life, you create more of it. Opportunities, relationships, even money flowed my way when I learned to be grateful no matter what happened in my life.”  ~ Oprah Winfrey

When I met Annette of Beauty Along the Road in Monterey, Virginia this fall, she inspired me to give some serious thought about what I really want to do. Annette and I brainstormed many ideas and when I left her, a lot of possibilities were floating through my head.  At the time we met, I was feeling frustrated with my teaching job, and felt horribly depressed at the thought of continuing to teach.  The college-level students I was teaching were immature, disrespectful and entitled, and I frankly hated teaching them.  I believe I shouldn’t have to deal with classroom management issues in college-level classes; the classes I taught felt like teaching middle school, and if I wanted to teach middle school, I could go to work for Fairfax County Public Schools and make a lot more money.  Not that I want to do that, believe me.  Not only was the pay extremely low after being paid well working abroad, but the hours were longer and the job was more demanding, thus leaving little time to devote to what I really love.

If you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.  ~ Howard Thurman

What I love is writing.

Now of course I know that trying to become a published writer is a difficult road.  Most people have to have a day job to support their writing habit.  But I was inspired by Ann Patchett in her fabulous book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.  She always knew she wanted to be a writer.  She built her whole life around that purpose, and looked for a job which would pay the bills but not impinge on her free time.  She knew teaching would drain her of her own creativity, so she became a waitress, and then a freelance writer for Seventeen.  That was how she paid her bills, until she made it big with her novel Bel Canto.

She has some words of wisdom for aspiring writers:  “Even if I don’t believe in writer’s block, I certainly believe in procrastination.  Writing can be frustrating and demoralizing, and so it’s only natural that we try to put if off.  But don’t give “putting it off” a magic label.  Writer’s block is out of our control, like a blocked kidney.  We are not responsible.  We are however, entirely responsible for procrastination and, in the best of all possible worlds, should also be responsible for being honest with ourselves about what’s really going on.”

I have to stop procrastinating (though I’ve never called it “writer’s block,” because I don’t believe in it either).

Besides my desire to write, I also have the desire to travel. The one good thing about teaching ESL, the only good thing, was that I was able to live abroad, and to travel extensively.  But am I willing to put up with one to have the other?  Maybe I have no choice, but I’d like to create another option.  Carol of The Eternal Traveller inspired me to try a Travel Writing Course from the Australian Writers’ Centre in November.  I completed it and now am armed with some knowledge about the process.  I know, I know, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

I loved living and working abroad, but now, I can’t do that because of family matters.  So, I would like to use my hard-earned Master’s degree to find a job in international development.  At least I could feel like I was contributing to something I care about.  So if I need to work to pay the bills because I can’t make any money in writing, then I need to find a job I love, a job that has meaning to me, and a job that I don’t have to take home with me.

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.  I want to know what you ache for, and if you dream of meeting your heart’s longing. ~ Oriah

With all that in mind, I’ve decided to take off from teaching next semester.  Yes, I’m quitting my job, at least for spring 2014.  That gives me 6 months to be FOCUSED.  Because if I don’t get something else going here, then I’m doomed to continue teaching.  That is NOT the option I want for myself.

Ultimately, I know I don’t have control over whether I get anything published or not, but I do know that I will certainly never get anything published if my work is sitting on my computer unseen by anyone else.  I also know that I will not get a new job unless I am applying for jobs.  I just can’t see strangers knocking at my door begging me to come to work for them.  I have to actively sell myself, sell my writing, sell my ideas: a very unpleasant business all around, and a terrifying one.

I went through this business of applying for jobs in 2008-2009, for nine grueling and demoralizing months.  I had just finished my Master’s and I thought I would easily get a job. After all, before I became a full-time mom for 15 years, I had never had trouble getting any job I wanted. However, after 250 job applications, I had 5 interviews and 1 internship, which lasted for 9 months at Management Systems International, until I got hired to teach English in Korea.  Believe me, I don’t relish the idea of doing this again.  But my alternative is to stay stuck in a job that pays nothing and goes nowhere and drains me of all my energy.  I have to do it again.  I have no choice.

In order to stay focused, I need to cut back on my blogging because, although I love blogging, it can be addictive and time-consuming.  I’m addicted to it because it gives me immediate gratification; I can see the stats and encouraging comments that push me to write more.  Blogging serves one purpose in that it gets me writing, taking photos, pushing the boundaries of my world by trying to see it in a different light.  It also gives me encouragement and helps me gain confidence, something I find hard to come by.  But. It isn’t contributing to my goal of getting articles, or my book, published.  And it certainly is not going to get me a job.

So, to keep things simple, here are my seven FOCUSED resolutions for 2014.

1.  Pitch a travel article to at least one publication every week, beginning after January 13.

Multitudes of travel publications.  Surely there's one that will take my work. :-)
Multitudes of travel publications. Surely there’s one that will take my work. 🙂

2.  Finish revising my novel by the end of February.  Spend March figuring out what steps to take to get it published and take those steps.  Begin a new book after I get that process underway.

3. Apply for at least 3 jobs a week in international development until I get one (Painful).

4. Post no more than two posts a week to my blog. (This will be one of the hardest to keep!)

5. Continue my explorations of the East Coast over the next year, after my trip to California in early January.  Venture to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, West Virginia, Delaware, Tennessee (Ann Patchett territory!).  Take a road trip.  And if I can get a job, or make some money freelancing, go to Costa Rica or one of the Caribbean islands. Pitch local travel articles to publications further afield.

Staying close to home, with a possible (?) trip to Costa Rica... :-)
Staying close to home, with a possible (?) trip to Costa Rica… 🙂

6. Read a lot: short stories, novels, the craft of writing, travel writing.

7. Walk at least 5 times a week and eat healthier and smaller quantities of food.

walks near home
walks near home

At first dreams seem impossible, then improbable, then inevitable. ~ Christopher Reeve

“If you want to write, practice writing.  Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say.” ~ Ann Patchett

“Forgiveness…it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.  Every time I set out to translate the book…that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper, … I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence.  Every.  Single.  Time. … I do believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.  Forgiveness, therefore, is key.  I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.”  ~ Ann Patchett in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

***********************

Ultimately, my dream is to combine writing and travel somehow, either by planning and offering writing retreats in far-flung parts of the globe, or by going abroad for several months at a time and writing like my life depended on it.  Writing retreats would combine my natural teaching ability, my wanderlust, and my writing dreams.  However, I feel the first step is to get published, so I can establish some credentials, and some credibility.  One step at time…..

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

she who was once the helmet-maker’s beautiful wife

SHE WHO WAS ONCE THE HELMET-MAKER’S BEAUTIFUL WIFE
A sculpture by August Rodin 1880-85 at The Hirshhorn, Washington, D.C. 2001

Her skin flows
          lava, rippling
down her frail neck, rib cage, legs –
then solidifies, bronzed.
          Gravity – hypnotic –
tugs at her deflated breasts. Punctuated
by sunken nipples, invisible aureoles, they lounge
against her ribs, her tired mound of belly.
Her hair hangs in a horseshoe on her back.
Her kneecaps jut in knotted knobs, dark
and pockmarked as peppercorns.

The pitted surfaces of her skin 
refract the museum light, 
          deflect her despair 
to her companions – Crouching Woman, 
Head of Sorrow, Kneeling Woman Combing Her Hair. 
The Hirshhorn docent points at her, 
while students scribble in notebooks, 
          raincoats tossed over their arms. 
Rodin insists she was once beautiful, 
and maybe she was, but today 
and until bronze disintegrates, 
her essence hides within a craggy oyster shell, 
pearly, air-thin bones under loose-fitting skin.

     Inside her hollows, she just remembers 
wandering to her husband’s shop 
on woolen summer evenings, 
moonlight glancing off canary grass, 
a whippoorwill’s lament in liquid air.

          Goosebumps blossomed 
on her skin as she watched his shoulders 
strain in the light from the fire. 
She silently slid her fingers over the cool ridge 
of a helmet, her own reflection – beguiling – 
in the metal-mirror curve.   

She loved to seduce him on those ancient evenings, 
the helmets – like a crowd 
     of   floating,   gleaming   heads   –   peering 
               silently, 
as she and her husband 
          made tangled love 
                    on the dusty floor.

~ by Cathy Birdsong Dutchak
July 12, 2001

Today, I go in search of the sculpture at the Hirshhorn, but because of an exhibit called Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950, much of the permanent collection has been put in storage. No one at the museum can even tell me if the sculpture is even still part of the permanent collection. I wrote this poem over 10 years ago in a poetry class, inspired by art at the Hirshhorn.

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novel progress: chapter 30 done

Saturday, November 2:  This morning I got up early and revised Chapter 30 of my novel; the chapter is titled “Glisser un Regard a Quelqu’un.”  Add 2,142 words, for a total of 4,056 words.

I still haven’t settled on a title for the entire novel; I’ve gone back and forth with all kinds of ideas.  Today I changed it once again to: As Sure as Far-Flung Suns.  I’m still not settled on it.  I may test out different titles as I post this month.

Here’s a short synopsis as posted on my NaNoWriMo account:

As Sure as Far-Flung Suns explores the way that yearning and grief rearrange people’s lives. The story is told from the viewpoints of four middle-aged characters in Washington, D.C. during the 2002 sniper attacks and the buildup to war with Iraq; these characters in their tangled relationships struggle to find happiness and meaning in a world full of uncertainty and turmoil.

Ian loses both of his parents in a tragic accident and comes to inhabit their world, and his abandoned adolescent life, in his grief. Taking up residence in his parents’ home, his old passion for astronomy is reignited. He explores his reawakened attraction to his old girlfriend, Lucie, who is now married to Ahmed, an Egyptian Muslim haunted by demons.

Lucie works at a suicide hotline. She is lonely and fearful, and tries, despite obstacles she places in her own path, to find courage and love. Ahmed, who reads a medical encyclopedia to improve his English, is convinced an insidious disease will kill him because of a horrific act he committed in his past. He tries to accommodate Lucie in her friendship with Ian, only to have the relationship become something more than he ever bargained for.

Audrey is torn between a calling to serve God and her earthly desires. Her son Peter is a troubled divorce survivor who struggles to come to grips with his own identity. She loves labyrinths, church history and architecture, but she also loves men. She struggles to come to grips with her growing feelings for Ian, her ambivalence about motherhood, and her yearnings to connect with God.

_______________________________________

Now that I met my challenge for today, I’m off to visit a dear old friend near Wintergreen, Virginia.  I haven’t seen Susan in two years; we used to work together as stockbrokers in Richmond, VA in 1986 and 1987.  She and I became friends as I was going through a divorce from my first husband, Bill.

This will be the third weekend in four weeks that I’ve driven south to the mountains of Virginia. 🙂

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