Tag Archives: writing

Tiny Beautiful Things

1 Mar

I recently read the most wonderful book: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, the author of the best selling memoir, Wild. This lovely little book is a compilation of letters sent to the author while she worked writing an advice column for the Rumpus called Dear Sugar. My childhood friend Michele (one of my fellow creative soul sisters) recommended it to me as she understands my constant angst about trying to find happiness through creative expression.

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I needed this book right now. I haven’t felt like myself lately. Each morning when I turn on the television I want to either scream or cry at what’s happening in our country. I need to start my next novel and every time I sit down at the computer–I’ve got nothing. I stare blankly at the screen until I finally give up and log into Facebook where the political posts made me even more depressed. Just before falling asleep in bed each night, my brain manifests all kinds of wonderful and exciting writing ideas, then when I wake up the next morning, I can’t remember a single one.

The best thing about Tiny Beautiful Things is that we learn something that we already know: life is hard sometimes. We are all sad and raw and completely lost at some point in our lives. the trick is to understand that with each experience there’s a lesson to be learned. We don’t always pay attention, but it’s there.

I’m not sure what my lesson is lately. Certainly, I need to feel more gratitude for what I have. And I have so much. So I will pay attention to all the tiny beautiful things that are right in front of me.

 

 

 

Midlife Crisis

17 Oct

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I’ve recently decided that I’m going through my first real midlife crisis. At least I hope that’s what it is—perhaps I have another 54 years ahead of me. Whatever it is though, I’m struggling to find the joy lately.

I could blame my depression on several things:

1) No takers on my novel so far. I do have one agent still looking at it, but no word back yet. I’m savvy enough to know that for new writers trying to get published, this is not uncommon. It’s still hard on the ego, though.

2) The ELECTION. Like a looky-loo at a car accident, I’m sickened but at the same time, strangely captivated. I can’t seem to pull my eyes away from the tragedy playing out on television while eagerly waiting for another car (or scandal) to plow into that already huge pile of carnage.

3) My children are growing up and leaving me. I know this is as it should be, but shedding my role as caretaker of four is harder than I thought it would be. Thank goodness I still have six years left with Isa.

4) Getting older sucks. Menopause, wrinkles, aches and pains all remind me that while inside I’m still that sixteen-year-old girl, my body proves that she is long gone. I should have loved her more when she was around.

“White-privileged, first-world problems,” my husband admonishes me. “Get over yourself.” As a person of color, he’s allowed to say this to me. Growing up poor in Mexico, he knows about real poverty, discrimination and suffering. Sure, I’ve had my moments of pain, but fully understand I’ve lead a privileged life. After recently calculating our wealth on Globalrichlist.com. I’m actually embarrassed to admit how far up on the scale we are. I have NO reason whatsoever to complain.

Still, I can’t seem to shake this feeling of “What if?” What if I’d starting writing earlier? What if I’d made exercise a priority throughout my life? What if I’d traveled the world when I was young and had the energy? What if I’d learned to love myself a long time ago?

Hey Jess—do you want some cheese with your whine?

Okay, rant over. No one can fix me but me. I need to look for the good, so I’m off to practice some intentional gratitude.

I’ll start with a heartfelt THANK YOU for following my blog. I truly appreciate your readership.

There. I feel better already.

Just to remind myself of how lucky I am, I’m posting some photos of things I’m grateful for:

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Black-eyed Susans in the garden

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Time spent with my beautiful daughters

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My daily view of the Santa Ynez mountains

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Isa and our babies, Cody and Leo

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The vibrant color of this late autumn hollyhock.

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There are really no words to express my gratitude for my family.

The Bully

12 Aug

I live with a bully in my head who says awful things to me all day long—despicable things I would never dream of saying to a friend, let alone an enemy (if I had one.) Yet I find myself listening with rapt attention to my tormentor, choosing instead to believe the negative rhetoric when I should be grabbing it by the collar and telling it to SHUT UP once and for all. It’s like having a personal Donald Trump in my brain. Even as I write these words, Donald is telling me that I’m a terrible writer, that no one cares what I have to say—that I’m basically a DISASTER, folks.

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I’m sure my depressed state of mind can be attributed to quite a lot of recent rejection and the fact that I still haven’t found an agent to represent my novel. I was off to such a great start back in May. After querying some agents, several requested to read the full manuscript. I happily emailed my novel off to them, halfway expecting them to all say YES! Your novel is exactly what we’re looking for! Please sign with us!

Yeah, right. Instead, it was “While your writing is quite good, no one here is willing to take on your novel as a project…” or “This is not the right fit for our agency, but as the literary business is quite subjective, I’m sure there are other agents out there who will feel differently…”

We’ve all heard the stories—writers pasting up their rejection letters on the wall or keeping a file folder of rejection emails—or how now famous writers received hundreds of rejections before finally publishing that bestselling novel.

I know I’ve just begun the process of many months—maybe even years of trying to get published. As of today, I’ve received over twenty-five rejections—twenty five people telling me that they don’t want me. I know this is to be expected, but it still hurts. I will hold out hope that I soon hear from the one agent who liked my story and told me that although she had a pile of manuscripts to read, mine was on her list. She told me to be patient.

I will wait. I will keep sending out queries. And I will fight with everything I’ve got to ignore that annoying Donald Trump voice in my head.

That bully is going down.

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What Now?

4 Apr

I’ve loved books forever. As a young girl, I was never without something to read. Whether it was a library book (best smell in the world, in my opinion) my brother’s tattered MAD Magazines or the back of a cereal box, I devoured words. Books allowed me to escape into a world of my own choosing; they took me on adventures, they let me be somebody else for a little while when it was too painful to be me.

As a kid, my dream was either to become a concert pianist or a writer. I ended up pursuing music because I was pretty good at it, although I don’t think I was ever competitive enough to make it as a concert artist. Instead, I became a piano teacher. Truthfully, I’m glad I chose that path as it allowed me the chance to raise my four children while I worked from home.

My other dream–the writing dream–never did die out, though. For years I fantasized about writing a novel but never did anything about it–either I was too busy or the fear of failure stopped me before I even wrote that first sentence. That changed when my youngest daughter was diagnosed with cancer. I’ve beaten that story into the ground so I won’t rehash it, but I will say that experience was the turning point for me. The lesson was obvious: time is short so follow your passion.

I got to it. I began blogging. I published an essay in a small magazine and one in an online publication. Nothing big, but it was a start. I blogged some more. Then I sat down and began writing a novel. I blogged some more and got better at my writing.  I joined a writer’s group and shared my stuff. They liked it. Now, ninety thousand words later, I have actually finished a novel.

Now what?

Here comes the hard part. Being new at this trying to get your noel published game, it’s like I’m starting back at square one. Everyone has opinions on what to do: send out queries; find and agent; no, no–don’t do that–self publish instead! I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who can help you.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what happens. I wrote a novel and I loved the process of writing it. I didn’t do it for the money or the glory (well maybe a little.) I did it because there was something inside of me pushing to get the story out. I did it because I couldn’t not do it any longer.

Dear readers, I thank you for hanging in there with me over the past several years, always encouraging me to keep going. I value your support more than I can ever express. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Now if I can only come up with a decent title for the damn thing.novel on desk

 

 

Let the Storm Rage On

4 Jan

stormUntil today, I have not written a word for over a month. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I have written some words—a line or two on Christmas cards, posts on Facebook, a few sentences here and there on Twitter and Instagram—but nothing substantial or concrete. Nothing significant.

And it’s not like I haven’t had the time to write. I’ve been on vacation for two weeks so I’ve had many opportunities to sit down and work on my novel. Instead, I chose to avoid doing any writing by deciding that I needed to purge my house—to de-clutter and clean every drawer, closet and cupboard that have been spilling over with excess stuff for far too long.

Cleaning out years of accumulated household junk is not an easy job. I was ruthless, hauling boxes and trash bags full of clothing, books and kitchen items to the thrift store. I bought an office shredder and spent hours chopping up reams of documents covered with important account numbers that could ruin my financial life if some identity thief got their hands on them. I donned my yellow rubber gloves, tied a dish cloth around my face and cleaned my oven for the first time in ten years (that Easy-Off Oven Cleaner really works!) I even stocked the laundry room with emergency food supplies and laid sandbags in the backyard in preparation for El Niño. I worked so hard that I had to swallow three Advil every night before bed because I was so sore from lifting, scrubbing, sorting and reaching.

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Sandbags in preparation for any flooding in our backyard.

When I finally finished every task on my list, my back ached and my hands were chapped and raw. I sat down on the couch and looked at my clean and organized home and waited for that blissful sense of accomplishment to wash over me. Nothing. I felt only exhaustion. I also felt depressed and guilty for not using all that free time to write.

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The view of my clean and organized kitchen/dining room from the living room couch.

I sat there and contemplated why I felt the need to avoid writing in the first place. I realized it all started after I met with an editor friend who, after reading a few chapters of my novel suggested that I needed to make some drastic changes—going as far as changing the narrative form and story line/plot in ways that I found a bit overwhelming—to say the least. It’s difficult to hear those words after putting my heart and soul into this novel for over three years.

But today is a new day and I’ll forge ahead, knowing there is much work to be done. As painful as it will be, I know it’s my time to purge words, sentences and paragraphs. It will hurt, but hopefully when I’m done, I’ll feel that sense of accomplishment I’ve been longing for.

The good thing is that the El Niño storms are lining up in the Pacific. This week I’ll be stuck in the house while the storms rage on outside, giving me absolutely no excuse to avoid writing any longer.

Now if I can just deal with those storms raging in my head and in my heart, I think I’ll be all right.

Happy New Year, dear readers!

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Happy New Year from our family to yours!

Encouraging Words

9 Nov

IMG_4512I’m almost done and I’m scared—terrified is more like it. When I first started writing my novel over three years ago, I didn’t believe I’d even complete a few measly chapters, let alone finish the damn thing. I now realize that I should’ve never told anyone in the first place. Now that I’m on the last chapter, people are going to want to read it.

Oh, god—what have I done?

Thanks to self-publishing, there’s a plethora of good writers out there who are getting their work read. On the other hand, there are also a lot of bad writers who publish as well. I follow a few Twitter sites that promote self-published novels and sometimes I’ll click on a link to see what’s out there. Sometimes I cringe at what I read—much of it is downright awful. I find myself hopping up on my literary pedestal and turning into this judgmental critic who actually takes delight in finding poorly written sentences, bad grammar and trite dialogue.

I’m better than that—right?

Deep down I know that I’m a decent writer and editor. What I don’t know yet is if I can tell a story well enough to connect with a reader and to keep them interested in the characters and the plot. I also know that like most writers, that lurking self-doubt leads me down that road of wanting to do anything but finish what I started.

Lucky for me, I’ve surrounded myself with those who believe in me. My family, my friends, my beloved writing group. The other day out of the blue, a member of my writing group sent me a text. He’s been a dear friend since high school and although we lost touch for close to thirty years, we’ve re-connected over the past three and our friendship has blossomed. At our last group meeting, I expressed to my fellow members that I was feeling a bit blue about finishing my novel and how much work I was facing in the coming months to get it ready. This is what he wrote to me:

Hey there. I just wanted to say that I’m so, so proud of you for what you have accomplished in getting your novel written. It’s a huge and massive undertaking and you’re nearly there and ready for rewrites. The percentage of people who never finish that novel (myself included) is so high as to easily discourage first timers. But you have done it, Jessie. I know there may be a little energy sag now or soon, but never stop appreciating and applauding what you have done here. It’s really quite something and I hope you will give yourself more pats on the back than disparaging remarks. There is more work to do, of course, but it’s clearly a labor of love. Please don’t forget that as you move into this next stage, you have done a wonderful and extraordinary thing. Don’t forget to appreciate yourself with as much love and consideration that you offer others. I’m proud you’re my friend and I’ve had the privilege of watching this creation from the front row!

He didn’t have to take the time to text that to me, but because of his generous spirit, he did. And with those encouraging sentences, his words managed to lift me up out of that mire of self-doubt and fear.

At least for today.

The Narrative Bug

16 Oct

BKS_l_BooksByTheFootLast night my ten-year old daughter caught the narrative bug. This was quite a surprise as my husband—the elementary school teacher—was always having to push her write anything. Isa is lucky (or unlucky and she will undoubtedly assert) to have a built in teacher at home who knows how to teach all the tricks for writing the essays needed to get you through school—or life, for that matter. The tricky part is that when it’s your dad telling you what to do, one tends to resist the help. And one also tends to whine a lot—or outright cry at times.

That was our story until last night when Isa decided to try her hand at narrative writing. Her dad gave her an old laptop and she went into her room for an hour and wrote. Now this kid has always been exposed to literature—in fact, she’s quite the book junkie. Case in point—just yesterday at school, she got to eat In-N-Out with the principal because she earned so many Accelerated Reader points (not sure if rewarding reading excellence with junk food is the right way to go, though.) Isa reads all kinds of stuff—Percy Jackson, Diary of Anne Frank, The Book Thief. She even pretends to read the New Yorker, but I know she’s really only looking at the cartoons. Her idea of a fun afternoon is to head to the library.

A book so good you can't put it down.

Her favorite thing to do.

Before bed last night, she brought the computer upstairs and asked if she could read her first couple of chapters—yes—chapters! Mind you, there were short chapters, but still. Not only that, her first paragraph hooked me right from the start. The voice of the protagonist—an eleven year old girl named Fiona Garcia (is that a great name, or what?) is so likable and funny that I can’t wait to find out what happens to her.

You’re probably thinking—get a grip, Jess—it’s just a story. It doesn’t mean Isa is going to be the next Pulitzer Prize winner in Literature (hey, you never know) or even become a published author. I guess the reason I’m so elated about Isa catching the writing bug is because I wish I had embraced writing more when I was young. To see such light come into her eyes when she talks about her story reminds me of my own childhood passion for creative writing. I remember often being told I was a good writer but as I lacked my own internal self-motivation, I allowed my writing bug to fly away. Now, over forty years later, I’ve managed to recapture that bug and although it’s often difficult, I think I’m managing to tame my it enough so that it won’t fly too far from home.

I’m more than happy to support Isa in all of her writing efforts. I will lovingly make suggestions and eagerly help with any editing requests. What I won’t do is tell her about the crushing self-doubt, fear of rejection or hitting that hard wall of writer’s block. I’ll let her discover these things on her own.

Where the magic happens.

Where the magic happens.

I’ll keep you posted on Fiona Garcia’s exploits. Or maybe Isa will. She just told me this morning that she wants to start a blog.

Oh Lord. Here we go.

Our Home Away from Home

28 Jul

oax 16Our family just returned from a two-week vacation in Oaxaca, Mexcio. We had a wonderful time lounging on the beach, eating the most delicious food, visiting with family and traveling up to my husband’s isolated hometown in the mountains.

Much of the novel I’m writing (which I swear to you is almost finished!) takes place in Oaxaca so it was wonderful to travel there and research even more ideas and descriptions for the book. It is truly a magical place.

The Oaxacan people are some of the most interesting, kind and generous people in the world. Someday, we hope to build a vacation home there. Ah, it’s good to have dreams…

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This is the main church in Yalalag, my husband’s hometown.

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While we were in Yalalag, we attended a wedding. This is the bride, Melina who is wearing the traditional wedding outfit of Yalalag.

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I thought this was interesting because the little girl is tied to the back of her mother with a traditional Mexicanl “rebozo” and yet the little girls is wearing sparkly gold shoes instead of huaraches.

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This is an old photograph hanging in the municipal building in Yalalag. It was taken in 1936 and shows a family standing in front of their home wearing traditional clothing. Not much has changed in 75 years (except that the town now has internet!)

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You can’t go to Oaxaca without eating Mole Negro. Delicioso!

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A painting of La Virgencita in one of the churches.

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Oaxacan chocolate is to die for!

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The fresh produce in the marketplace smells wonderful!

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen any building painted this shade of cobalt blue before!

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Dried chilies for sale in the marketplace.

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My absolute favorite Oaxacan treat: Rose flavored sorbet!

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Another stunning doorway in downtown Oaxaca.

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The inside of the Church of Santo Domingo. Awe-inspiring.

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One of the many meals served over the course of the weekend for the wedding. First the men would all sit down and be served by the women, and then the women would sit and be served by the men.

Leaving the Guilt Behind

28 Mar

flower 3All week long I’ve been chanting in my head: “Just four more days until vacation…just three more days…just two more…just one”—and poof—it’s finally here. I’m actually on vacation where I don’t have to do anything, go anywhere or teach anyone how to play the piano for nine glorious days.

Husband is off to L.A. to watch a soccer game. Ten year-old has been dropped off at the sleepover. Son is off somewhere in southern California with his friends. Daughters are off living their lives.

No one is asking me what’s for dinner or why there’s no milk in the fridge. I’m not having to bite my tongue to keep myself from screaming at that particular student who’s played the same wrong note for the third week in a row. At the moment my husband is not lying on the floor in front of the television watching Mexican soccer at full volume while begging me to please rub his feet.

The house is quiet—check. I’m barefoot—check. My unwashed hair is up in a messy pony tail—check. I’ve taken off my bra—double check. I’m wearing my most comfortable show-all yoga pants (which my husband tactfully calls unflattering—translation: your butt looks huge in those)—check. I’m on the couch with my feet up—check. The dog is curled up on the couch next to me—check. I have a hot cup of Starbucks coffee right in front of me—oh baby—CHECK!coffee cup

I am totally and utterly alone to do whatever my little heart desires and my mind is abuzz with all the things I should be doing with my free time. It’s the most beautiful spring day outside and I tell myself I should be going to the beach or out taking a hike even though I don’t really feel like doing either of those things the moment. I tell myself there is a huge basket of clean laundry that won’t magically fold itself; I tell myself the front lawn needs to be mowed; the flower garden needs to be weeded; there’s hair on the bathroom floor that needs to be vacuumed up; there are bills to pay; I need to go to the grocery store…ARRRRGH!

I can come up with a million things I should be doing with all this free time, but the truth is, I don’t want to do anything but sit right here on this couch and write. Writing makes me happy. Writing is my bliss—thoughts, words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters—eventually a finished novel. This is what I love to do.

So, for today—for right now, I’m leaving the guilt behind.

And I’m writing.

Self-Sabotage

11 Feb

GetAttachmentI honestly don’t know what’s wrong with me. When did I become a self-sabotaging idiot who will do just about anything to avoid working on her novel? Since last Friday, I’ve been practically salivating about today because incredibly, there is nothing on my calendar for a four hour block of time. I’ve been eagerly anticipating finishing a particularly difficult chapter that’s been hounding me for weeks and yet I’ve already wasted more than an hour of precious writing time on the most mundane tasks possible.

Here is a list of the things that I believed were more important to complete today before working on my novel:

1) Stripping the bed and throwing the sheets in the washing machine. I mean, who can even think of writing anything when they know the bed sheets haven’t been washed for over a week?

2) Running out to Starbucks to get a coffee. I really shouldn’t count this as unnecessary as all writers know that coffee is needed to get the creative juices flowing (and other important juices as well.) Plus, they know my name and order at Starbucks and this makes me feel important.

3) Realizing that I need to pick up 25 Valentines for Isa’s class, plus candy to attach to each Valentine even though you’re not really supposed to do that because candy is so unhealthy and the school district frowns upon it. Then after seeing how crowded Michael’s Craft Store is, immediately deciding to let my oldest daughter handle the whole Valentine undertaking when she gets off work tonight.

3) Arriving home and switching the sheets into the dryer while noticing that there are toast crumbs all over the counter and the dishwasher needs emptying.

4) Wiping toast crumbs off counter and emptying dishwasher while mentally grousing how nobody in this goddamn family ever cleans up the kitchen but me.

5) Opening the refrigerator door and noticing a rank odor that turns out to be a bag of rotting cauliflower florets that now resemble hunks of yellow mucus. Throwing said cauliflower away while grousing that nobody in this goddamn family ever cleans out the refrigerator but me.

6) Taking the dog outside to poop. This task is quite a production and can take up to ten minutes as Cody, our Jack Russell/Chihuahua mix must sniff every inch of the front lawn while intermittently pausing to bark at invisible threats before his own creative juices start to flow, wherein he’s finally able to produce the tiniest nugget of poop imaginable. Wherein, I have to praise him in a high squeaky voice and give him a treat.

7) Removing sheets from dryer and realizing that two balled-up pillow cases got stuck inside the fitted sheet which means they are still sopping wet while everything else is dry. Deciding to put wet pillow cases on the pillows anyway and hope they’ll dry by tonight.

8) Reading and answering emails. Checking Facebook. Sharing a post about how Annie Lennox thinks older women are more interesting. Love her!

9) Deciding that even though I’m an older woman and I’m certainly more interesting, I still can’t think of anything compelling to write about lately, and it’s been way too long since I posted anything on my blog. Realizing that if I don’t post something soon, my readers might eventually forget all about me which will be a problem when I finally get this stupid novel written and want them to read it.

There. Almost two hours gone. Damn.

Now it’s time to start thinking about lunch.