Observe and Write

At nineteen I acquired my first full time job at the local dog pound. My  day jobs ran the gamut from fielding complaints of little old ladies about dog packages ruining their lawns to, in my last full time work, fielding complaints of engineers and supervisors about my policy team ruining their lives. In the “busy-ness” of life I gave little thought to the teachers and mentors who had fostered my early bent toward creativity.

As a full fledged writer I developed a new appreciation for the subtle suggestions and wise words floating in my head, words that had been planted decades before. Norman Siringer comes to mind. He was my first Creative Writing teacher. I was thirteen.  The sole assignment for his summer school class was to keep a journal, to observe  our daily lives and comment on them. He then said magical words (at least to me) from Socrates: the unexamined life is not worth living.

The words rolled over and over in my mind all week, all month, all summer long. They rolled on through the years too. I had never considered that I could look at my life. I was too busy living it.  But now I was being asked to stop, to observe, to write it down. And I did not stop at the end of the summer or fade out when the school year commenced. I am still writing that journal today.

My journal has carried me through thick and thin. It has been an unpaid therapist, a steady advisor, a sounding board, a standard and truth bearer about what it means to be me. I observe, I analyze and I write. I question not so much out of curiosity but out of the necessity to be true to myself.

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On Writing

In her book, The Writer’s Workout, writing coach Christina Katz directs her readers to write until “not writing makes you anxious.” I know what she means. Two years ago—well past the date I was to be done with post-graduate school—I found myself in the throngs of a major melt-down, terrible-twos style.  No, I hadn’t been taking lessons from my four-year-old granddaughter. I had simply and clearly suggested to myself that I give it all up. Even my patient and easy going husband had to duck for cover when the ghost of Jimmy-the-Fish, my late father, seemingly rose from the grave to take possession of my will.

Give up my dream? Never! Abandon the motivation which has driven me through my roller coaster life? Leave off the career for which others had been sacrificed? Walk away from the dream I’ve held since nursery school at San Mateo City Park when I first saw a teacher turn a piece of chalk into a word that she picked from a book? In the turbulent rush of memory I saw all the energy in my will whirling away to nothing and like Macbeth, could only whimper that all my “yesterdays have lighted fools” to a dusty death.

In that moment, I realized that I must write, that I am compelled to write by some hidden engine revving my DNA to tell the story. I knew I would finish this book—whether or not I received a Masters in Fine Arts, whether or not any publishers were interested in it, and whether or not anyone else wanted to read it. The book I finished in January is a story of hope and loss, and the enduring power of love.

I hadn’t set out to write such a serious novel. In the nineties, trying to escape from the brain-deadening detail of IBM manuals and endless computing specifications from vendors and software engineers, not to mention corporate politics, I immersed myself into mystery novels, that black and white world of simple problems and easier answers. After reading hundreds of novels, and tiring of writing white papers and strategies for the information age,  I tried my hand at the flighty fun of cozies, where characters danced across the pages through campy capers.

After four years and a half-dozen classes, that first novel was returned with a generous note from an agent that said cryptically “story-telling issues.” For sure, in my campy cozy I had developed archetypes of Dostoyevskyan proportions in what was really a Nancy Drew plot. Everyone, even the janitor, had a distinct character, was steeped in peculiarities heavy with history and motivation.

The stories deep inside me had been leaking out— all the ones I did not want to write about. That is, the trials and tribulations of an Irish-Italian-American girl growing up in a suburb of San Francisco after World War II. Who cared about the ‘burbs or about a kid negotiating around irreconcilable parents? Stories of immigrant grandparents were common and more interesting than mine, whose darkly held secret of fifty years was never revealed, even when my grandfather burnt all the photos and papers after Grandma died. The stories of other pioneer families were older and more important than my Irish family, who settled in San Francisco in the 1860’s. And my grandmother’s story was too painful, too personal as she wasted away in a ratty hotel in the tenderloin, drinking to drown the memories she couldn’t bear.  Even the peculiar story of her father, a man who survived the 1906 earthquake without mishap, but died three months later, from a bet in a barroom that involved a heavy keg of beer.

These are the stories and people that spill over into my storytelling. Every character is distinct. Everyone has a history and is driven by deeply held beliefs, even when I can’t see them. So when I approach a character, a whole history spills out along with a destiny—of character, of progeny, of community. The past that forges and shapes a character also rises up to drive her through the story. Untended, that past will catapult the character into a future carved out for her by others unless she seizes the moment and changes her life.

Change is the critical spark, the transformation that takes an ordinary person and makes a hero. I write to discover those forces of transformation.

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