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Because there is unanimous consensus out there in the writing world that the only antidote for the waiting game surrounding all things publishing is writing and more writing, I am slowly but surely beginning another book. I have a loose sense of the story arc, and of three of the main characters, and some unformed “scenes” bouncing around in my head. I am planning on trying to be more of a “plotter” rather than a “pantser” this go-around, but we’ll see if I can pull that off. Back in August I downloaded Scrivener onto my laptop with some birthday money, so maybe that will help with the “plotter” end of things. I always start a book with a sense of where I want it to go — the book in its entirety hovers in my head, all shadowy and unformed, and it’s always so gratifying to watch it take on shape as I write. But I know there are parts of my craft that could use some work, and one of these areas is to be more deliberate about how I plan out the novel at the start, rather than just plunging in.

I’d also like to take more risks.

When I was in graduate school for my MA in creative writing, the wise poet Ruth Stone** told me after a workshop one day not to be afraid to let the edges show in my writing. I think she meant that everything doesn’t have to be neatly wrapped up; that a dose of the raw, and a glimpse of the ragged edges of life, of experience, and people, can be powerful things in writing. I have tried to take her words to heart, because I know that I like the ends to connect in my own life.

So as I prepare to immerse myself in another writing project, I am giving myself pep talks: take risks, expose rawness, be fearless.

** I’ve been thinking a lot about Ruth lately, I think probably because she really made me see myself as a writer, when I was a much younger, more insecure, more tentative, version of myself. I so admired her — her tenacity, her refusal to let the darker parts of life get hold of her or, if they did, her ability to confront them and spin them into words. This poem has always been one of my favorites:

Another Feeling

BY RUTH STONE

Once you saw a drove of young pigs
crossing the highway. One of them
pulling his body by the front feet,
the hind legs dragging flat.
Without thinking,
you called the Humane Society.
They came with a net and went for him.
They were matter of fact, uniformed;
there were two of them,
their truck ominous, with a cage.
He was hiding in the weeds. It was then
you saw his eyes. He understood.
He was trembling.
After they took him, you began to suffer regret.
Years later, you remember his misfit body
scrambling to reach the others.
Even at this moment, your heart
is going too fast; your hands sweat.

Apparently I’m having trouble keeping up this blog, too. For some reason–perhaps because I’m not sure anyone ever reads it, I don’t feel the same pressure I felt with the other one. My own personal writing has been suspended anyway, with the rush of the beginning of the new semester. The upheaval at home we’re going through as the fallout from the school issues L. is having have made it almost impossible to sit down and give my mind over to the creative processes.  I was thinking last night, as I lay in bed in the semi-dark, how like a pie chart my brain has become. It’s divided up into many wedges, some constant in their shape, some changing. As the years pass I find the wedge devoted to me and my writing–the writing that’s not for money but just for me–has expanded a little, but it is constantly overshadowed by the bigger wedges.

I have learned, too, that it does not always compute that as your kids get older, you have more time for these things. I think I have more brain for them, but not more time. It’s taken roughly six or seven years for the part of my mind that was cleaved in two when I became pregnant and was raising young ones to mend.

And now I have to use this precious window of time, on this gray and cold Sunday, to write my Family Education column for tomorrow. The kids are watching a show or two and in some alternative universe there’s the me I want to be right now. I steal away to my little windowed room, I flex my fingers over the computer keyboard, I take several deep breaths, like a diver preparing for the dive, and I plunge into my writing. The characters stretch and smile when they see me, happy that I’ve come at last.

I still remember the moment when I realized the truth about mortality–when I realized that we all die one day. I remember a creeping feeling of horror, and it washed over me, and made me wide-eyed with terror. When I woke up that next morning I had a feeling of dread hanging over me. I couldn’t articulate exactly what I was afraid of, but something had changed inside of me. The world looked different; my life different; the light in the room flatter, darker, less comforting. It was as if I had found myself inside a box suddenly, like a toy doll, and someone had tipped the box to one side, shifting everything inside of it just a little to the left. Of course since I was a child (maybe six? seven?) the feeling faded away pretty quickly. I pushed the thought of death aside as if it were a bad dream, or an unpleasant task lying ahead in the future. When I got a few years older, though, the feeling of horror and dread returned. Sometimes I’d lie awake at night with my hand over my heart, wondering about the day when it would stop beating.

I think all kids must go through this. I think it’s also one of the most painful–if not THE most painful–milestones in a child’s life. I dreaded having to explain life and death to my own kids. We’ve never had to really talk about it with L. I’m sure he has thought about it, but because he has such a hard time articulating abstract concepts and emotions he’s never asked about it, and there have never been an real opportunities to discuss it. But I know it’s there– a huge elephant in the room.

T. has been thinking about it though. In her sunny, chirpy way she brings it up now and again (can you bring up death in a sunny, chirpy way?). When I tuck her in at night she clings to my neck.

“Don’t go Mama! I’m afraid of your dying!”

But she’s so easily reassured–at least I think she is. Maybe she lies awake, wrestling with this in her own way, in the dark, surrounded by her stuffed animal friends, with their loving, fuzzy faces. Maybe. Tonight she asked me if everything dies.

“Yes,” I told her. “Everything that’s alive dies.”

“Except people,” she said confidently with a smile.

I imagined a world in which people didn’t die, and that I could tell her this. But instead I told her that even people die, when they’re really, really old.

“I’m not old,” she declared, stretching her arms out into the dark.

I just spent about an hour tinkering with this new blog; making tags, and importing some of my favorite posts from the Other Place to this one. I thought it would make me sad, but I think I mourned the slow closure of that other blog over a period of months, so that now that the time has come, I feel excited about this new incarnation of the writing ME and no longer sad about the demise of the other one. All writing projects have their end, and knowing when to end is almost as important as knowing when to begin.

I’ve been thinking about beginnings and endings a lot today; coincidentally T. clamored all morning to watch Charlotte’s Web this afternoon and we did. I so sympathize with Wilbur, poor soft-hearted pig who just can’t stand how fleeting life is, and how everything must inevitably comes to a close, who mourned his unlikely friend Charlotte, and who so believes in the power of friendship. Oh but those beginnings and endings, they really got to Wilbur.

I love that pig–I forgot how teary the story makes me, though. Then I looked over and I saw T.’s lip trembling at the most poignant moment (when Charlotte bids farewell to Wilbur). My soft-hearted girl!

*********

And around this time of December I am always struck with a little melancholy. I think I can remember feeling like this when I was a child, too. I love Christmas so much but even as we gear up for the holiday I feel it coming to a close. When I was little I had so much anticipation for Christmas that it was a big let-down when the day was over, and the magic began to dissolve into the air and it was back to life as usual. There’s a quality of suspended animation almost to Christmas; time stands still, for weeks it’s all about the Christmas tree and the lights, the smell of cookies baking, the mystery of packages and wrapped boxes. Then in a flash almost it’s done and time clicks forward a notch, all the Christmas memories are swept away and packaged up with the artificial tree (or dragged to the curb with the poor dying one) and this year’s favorite ornaments, and the next year everyone will be a year older, and the cycle begins again.

We finished most of the Christmas shopping today, and I definitely feel pretty accomplished in getting that done. Yesterday we took L. to get his eyes examined, since according to the school nurse he’s outgrown his current prescription. Scott took T. off to the next-door toy store to keep her out of trouble, and I read magazines while L. looked through a Where’s Waldo book. Those books give me a headache, but kids seem to love them. A man rushed in, apparently 35 minutes late for his eye exam. The beltway had been backed up and traffic diverted because of a man who had tried to throw himself off the overpass bridge.

“We’ll be seeing more of that type of thing, mark my words,” the man said to the lady at the front desk. She hmmmmd some response.

“You know, because of the economy.” He really didn’t need to add that last part, because everyone in that waiting room knew exactly what he was talking about. Exactly. And even if I don’t know why that man wanted to end his life in so dramatic and tragic a way, I felt sad for him the rest of the day. I thought about George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, trying to take the plunge in almost the same way. He was saved by that  bumbling angel, of course. I wonder if that man from yesterday will look back on his own life and imagine what would have been if he hadn’t existed, or whether he’ll be able to see his way out of whatever it is that’s got him so backed into a corner.

After the appointment we finished some shopping and everywhere there were other shoppers, all carrying their own private secrets–sorrows and joys–around with them as they shopped. I suppose we were, too. And I felt that old superstitious fear I used to have when I was little when things were going too well–that breath holding, where you worry that any second now it will all shift.