Things I Carried Home

Tuesday we returned from our 10-day journey to the West mostly intact. “Mostly” is the key word here.

Aside: Mostly, I held my shit together during the trip. There was that one incident when we finally arrived in a hotel room one block from Ogden City LDS Temple, and I started yelling expletives at my children as soon as the door slammed shut. They were fighting. We’d been in the car together for six hours, the rolling suitcase weighed 49.5 lbs. (my husband is a Boy Scout), and we were at day 5.

Hahn Vagabonds

Hahn Vagabonds

Unpacking our suitcases in the safety of my own home reminded me of a grad school writing assignment. The esteemed Alan Cheuse asked our class to describe a room, a person, or an object without including commentary. I’m sure there was a profound lesson in writing that I failed to grasp because I had to redo the assignment.

Aside: I’m a non-fiction writer; I thrive on navel-gazing. Also, my MFA diploma is safely on the wall, so I am I’m going to break the rules again, Alan.

Mixed in with the dirty laundry, these objects emerged: 

  • The Fault In Our Stars sounded like a quick read for a vacay, but I ended up reading by the bathroom light in the hotel room late one night and sobbing myself to sleep. My mother has congestive heart failure and pulmonary fibrosis, so a novel about a lung cancer patient probably wasn’t the best choice for this particular excursion that involved pushing Mom around in a wheelchair and changing oxygen tanks every two hours.  
  • Disposable booties from touring the Ogden City LDS Temple (disclaimer: I did not actually save these, but I wish I had because they were far more interesting than the tract I picked up during the tour). Growing up in Utah as a non-Mormon, the temple had an invisible DO NOT TRESPASS sign posted on it. Only Mormons in good standing can enter. The exception to this is during open houses for new or remodeled temples when the public can tour a temple before the consecration ceremony. Throughout my childhood, Mom did her best to convince me that these spaces were sinister. Nonetheless, I could not resist the invitation that coincided with our vacation. While I sat with my children and husband waiting for the tour to commence, I reminded myself to take deep breaths because I was good enough to be in God’s presence.
  • Receipt from Rooster Restaurant on 25th Street in Ogden, Utah. Back in the day, this particular street was associated with hookers and drug dealers; however, the downtown area has since undergone a revitalization. While walking to dinner with my best friend from high school, I passed an “adult” shop to have dinner at this hip watering hole. Utah has long boasted microbreweries and coffee shops as a certain counter-cultural badge of honor. Spending two hours with my wonderful friend provided so many chances to laugh and reflect on my rich life is as a mother, wife, and writer. The two vodka tonics also helped, which brings me to the item that should have come home in my suitcase:
  • Bottles of @FiveWivesVodka I’ll admit that I only ordered that brand for bragging rights, but damn if it wasn’t tasty. I’ve been lighting up twitter with my praises for the distillery in Ogden, Utah in hopes they’ll send me a case (or at least a bottle). A bottle could help relax the back spasms that started the morning after we returned home when I reached into the suitcases to sort dirty laundry.
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SUP?!?!

My kids are ridiculously athletic. Me, not so much…

Aside: Twenty years ago, my then-boyfriend, now-husband didn’t believe that I couldn’t ride a bike. While visiting his family in Wisconsin, he insisted that I borrow his sister’s bike for a spin around the neighborhood. I can “ride” in the sense that I can balance and push the pedals with my feet, so he was probably feeling quite smug as we coasted down his parents’ cul de sac onto a neighborhood street. He was likely basking in his victory when we turned left onto a street that actually connected to a street with real traffic. What he didn’t understand is that my brain freezes up when I am on a bike. When he hollered from behind that I should hang a left into the strip mall, he did not instruct me to yield to the on-coming car. Luckily, the car came to a dead stop; I did not.

I’m the only member of the family who doesn’t own a bike. It’s better that way. However, I do occasionally feel guilty about this parental shortcoming, which might explain why I suggested Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP) as a family activity.

Like all of my ideas, this sounded great initially. The problem with kids is they actually listen when you wish they wouldn’t. Once the suggestion left my mouth, it was a pinky-promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die-stick-a-needle-in-my-eye affair.

Aside: Brainstorming is a great practice for a writer. I can turn ideas out on the page, test drive them for a paragraph or so, and turn off the ignition. This post, for instance, could have been about my return trip to Costco, or any of the conversations that I had with friends last week while eating Mediterranean food, sipping mimosas, or inhaling Korean pastries. Coincidentally, my three friends are all Kristinas, or more accurately, Kristina, Kristina, and Christina. But alas, the subject is SUP….

I see fun family activities as a way to keep my children from beating the crap out of each other and as a means for me to earn parental currency. For example, the next time my daughter complains about going to church, I can remind her that we skipped one Sunday and went SUP-ing.

Aside: I realize that line could cause an epic backfire. I’ll make sure to assess the situation before I bust that out.

The impending SUP outing was a carrot to dangle in front of my children. It’s rough when Santa Claus is holed up at the North Pole making toys in June. Any good bribe/threat requires an immediacy factor. “Do I need to cancel that SUP lesson for Sunday?” I asked anytime my children looked at me the wrong way.

The problems didn’t really arise until Sunday morning when my son woke up everyone at 6 a.m. yelling, “SUP!?!?” My brain registered, “Holy shit this is really happening. What was I thinking?” Images of me falling into the lake filled my head. Embarrassing myself in front of my family was one thing, but the thought of making a buffoon out of myself in front of our neighbor, the SUP instructor, unsettled me. What a bad idea…

Aside: I feel this way at some point while drafting an essay, or this post. Writers often claim that a muse visits them. That’s bullshit. Part of the creative process involves self-loathing: stepping back from your creation with a critical eye as if to say, “What the fuck did I do?” In this way, writing and mothering are very similar.

I did what any good parent and writer would do: I bullied myself into following through. The kids will be so disappointed if you back out. Then I reassured myself: our SUP instructor also volunteers as a certified adaptive snowboard instructor. Maybe he’s had a skier whose artificial leg came off while attached to a board. Wouldn’t that be embarrassing to have your prosthesis slip away on a black diamond run?

Aside: No offense to those with physical challenges. I’d throw my own mother under the bus to make myself feel better. For my literary readers, please note how Flannery O’Connor likely influenced this rogue limb fantasy.

Thus fortified, I drove our family to the lesson and listened intently when Steve Gurney explained that kids get a kick out of seeing their parents fall into the water. I interrupted, “When do they do that? When they’re trying to stand up?” My neighbor/SUP instructor said, “No, it most often involves them trying to help one of their kids.” With that comment, he offered me the magic pill: don’t try to help your children.

During the 90-minute excursion, my motto became “Each person for herself.” The children had life vests. Steve hung back with my son. My husband stayed close to our daughter. I practiced knelling, standing, paddling and balancing enough to avoid a dip in a rather murky lake.

Aside: According to a fiction professor in my MFA program who adhered to Chekov’s rules for short stories, a writer cannot introduce a gun without having it go off before the end. Sometimes real life follows these rules for fiction writing, but mostly not. This is one of those rare instances.

As I climbed off my SUP and crossed the rocky beach on bare feet, I breathed a sigh of relief. Safely on land, I watched my son flailing in a shallow mix of water and mud near some cattails. Instead of playing the buffoon, I got to calmly wade in to extract him. Win-win.

Photo courtesy of Surf Reston.

Photo courtesy of Surf Reston.

Big Cheese

To celebrate my massive readership for Off the Page (Thanks to my twelve commenters), I succumbed to the desire to shop with the masses in a members-only warehouse last Friday. Now that I’ve paid my $55 annual fee, I can stroll through the aisles with abandon wondering if pallets of 72-roll toilet paper might lose their footing and come toppling down to crush me.

I come from modest roots. My people steer clear of “big cities” and get “cleaned up to go into town.” My mother drives her truck an additional ten miles to get cheap gas. We are the target audience for these types of megastores.

Aside: I am getting to the writing part. Notice that I used “audience” not “consumers of cheap shit.”

Nonetheless, it had been several years since I belonged to one of these places. Proximity is a big issue. Five years ago, my family moved from a suburb where construction companies were clear-cutting forests to build these behemoths in favor of living in a closer-in suburb where mature trees threaten to flatten houses during derecho storms. At our former residence, we could hand a Miller Light to the next-door neighbor from our deck. Currently, we can forget we have neighbors while we sit on our deck sipping IPA.

Aside: we don’t actually consume beer that often, but my in-laws do. They are lovely people, who have been married for nearly 50 years now. When buying food to prepare for their visits, I have noted that my MIL likes Miller Light and French’s yellow mustard; my FIL prefers IPA (the more expensive, the better) and Grey Poupon.

Now, back to the shopping spree… I experienced a bit of reverse culture shock while maneuvering my oversized shopping cart across concrete floors. Everything looked smaller under the three-story ceiling: one 32” HDTV resembled the 13” black and white set with rabbit ears that I took to college. A 1½ lbs. brick of Gorgonzola cheese looked like reasonable quantity to add to my salads.

Gorgonzola WedgeRight

Amazingly, my haul for the first trip came in just under $100. As I drove home with my wild caught salmon, fancy rice crackers, California-grown apricots, organic chocolate milk, and hunk of cheese, I realized that I hadn’t seen a book section in the store. Had I missed it? Was it tucked away in some corner I hadn’t found yet? What if they didn’t have such a section?

Aside: My reading material usually arrives in brown boxes at my front door because I am too lazy to drive to the few remaining bookstores housed in strip malls. I’m mildly embarrassed by this lapse in literary snobbery.

Lamenting the chance to see dozens of Hillary Clinton’s 600+ page memoir stacked neatly on a table, I wondered if I’d made a mistake in joining.

Thinking about memoirs, I reflected on my own manuscript. Part of wooing literary agents and publishers involves convincing these people who work on commission that my words can put groceries on their tables or yachts in their slips.

There are essentially two categories for traditional publishing:

  1. Small presses that print under 3,000 copies of a book, usually in hardback, with a hefty price tag and place them for sale in fancy bookstores. For foodies, Bouteque de Fromage would be the equivalent of a small press.
  2. Large presses print no fewer than 30,000 copies of a book, usually in paperback, and expect to sell these in bulk for cheap prices. Think individually wrapped American cheese slices.

Aside: You’d think that people in the literary world could come up with more creative titles than “small presses” and “large presses,” but who am I to judge?

Whether you love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton can sell books. Enough books to help her climb out of debt and finance not one, but possibly two trips to Iowa in hopes of trading in her FLOTUS hat for a bigger POTUS one.

This will come as a shock to some of my loyal fans, but I am no Hillary Clinton.

Numbers wise, I’d be lucky to sell 3,000 copies of Outside the Temple Doors. I have fewer than 300 FB friends even after “friending” everyone I know from high school.

If reality television is any gauge, freak shows have mass appeal. I could align my Mormon characters with the small rogue sect represented on Big Love and convince my mother to grow a scraggly beard like Phil Robertson. That would sell books! Believe me it’s tempting. True, I’d have to discard the storyline about my journey from prejudice to acceptance, but hey, celebrating diversity is really overrated, right?

Aside: It’s easy to be snarky about the New York Times bestseller list when you’re sitting in an ivory tower earning a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing. I once attended a session at an Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference wherein the speaker advised us to “Look around the room because these are the people who are going to buy your books.”

I’m not really highbrow enough to get all of the writers who hold MFAs to buy my $25 hardback memoir even if I sign copies at a swanky book launch. I’m not the gourmet wheel at some fancy London cheese shoppe, but I’m also not the individually wrapped American slices.

Aside: I apologize in advance to anyone whose book has ever sold over 30,000 copies, especially anyone who might one day write a blurb on the back cover of my memoir. I love you, Mary Karr and Jeanette Walls and Cheryl Strayed!

I need small numbers at a cheap price, or at least a Medium Press for that chasm between <3,000 and >30,000. I’m a hybrid or a Goldilocks.

“What about self-publishing?” you ask. Hold that thought. I won’t consider that route until I have a respectable amount of rejection letters. Also, I’m out of words for this week’s post.

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop 2014

When I met her, Sheryl Rivett was working on her MA in creative nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins. She is currently a fiction candidate in the MFA program at George Mason University (my alma mater). Her work has appeared in This I BelieveSo to SpeakMidwifery Today, Quail Bell Magazine, and Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine. An essay appears in the anthology (t)here: Writings on Returnings. She is the author of Mothers & Midwives: Women’s Stories of Childbirth. Sheryl asked me to participate in this blog hop with a set of questions about my writing process. We have been in a writing group together for several years. I envy her eloquence in both fiction and nonfiction writing, her willingness to experiment with form, and her passion for researching. To learn more about Sheryl’s work and read about her writing process, visit her site. (Make sure that you read mine first because Sheryl makes me look like a slouch!)

What am I working on?

In fits and spurts, I am working on a novel set in Uravan, Colorado in 1952 that is loosely based on my grandparents’ lives. Fiction is a new realm for me, one that I was lucky to start exploring with Courtney Brkic in her MFA fiction workshop at George Mason University last fall. My “new writing” file also contains an essay tentatively entitled “Bring Out Your Dead” that examines our death rituals and what they say about us. In the past year I’ve attended four funerals. I need a place to examine why standing over an open casket becomes an opportunity to critique the deceased’s attire. Although I didn’t think of it this way initially, the essay is shaping up to be a companion piece to one that I wrote several years ago about fascination with the pregnant form. These projects provide a more creative outlet for my full time focus on finding a literary agent to represent my completed memoir manuscript, Outside the Temple Doors, about growing up as a non-Mormon in Utah and later confronting my own religious intolerance as a parent.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I primarily operate in the nonfiction realm and am more drawn to developing characters rather than plot. Every day I notice things that make me say, “I can’t make this shit up.” Life is full of contradictions and ironies. Growing up, I always felt like an outsider in my community; now I am a transplanted Westerner living along the Atlantic coast. These experiences inform the way I see the world and in turn my writing. Most of my observations have a hint of melancholy laced with humor. Although I don’t set out to talk about faith, I can’t escape the myriad ways that my religious identity shapes who I am. It wasn’t until my grandmother started reading my published work that I realized how consistently sexuality figures into my pieces. Now, I carefully screen what she gets to see.

Why do I write what I do?

When I moved to Virginia in 1999, I wrote to survive. My husband started his first job out of graduate school here; I missed my previous life teaching English in a Catholic high school in Salt Lake City, Utah. I spent months in my pajamas, sipping coffee, watching Katie Couric on the Today show, and writing. A bad experience teaching middle school had me questioning my career path, so I had picked up a copy of What Color is Your Parachute? from the local library. The assignment to write about ten stepping-stones in my life gave me purpose and provided plenty of material. I signed up for a couple of creative writing classes through community education. There I met Shaileen Backman who has been my writing buddy for nearly 14 years.

My writing life continued when I returned to the classroom. At one point, I was reading E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” and George Orwell’s “To Shoot an Elephant” with a room full of high school juniors enrolled in my Advanced Placement English Language and Composition class. To my surprise, I was reading as a writer, dissecting some of the best personal essays and learning techniques from the masters. That inspired me to hone my craft.

When my husband and I decided to start a family, I left my podium behind and enrolled in an MFA program. My daughter was five months old when I began classes. Reading and writing for my courses gave me a way to combat sleep deprivation and boredom; it was a lifeline. I walked across the stage to receive my diploma while I was seven months pregnant with my son. Both of my kids are now in elementary school, which allows me more time to pound keys, trying to make sense of my world.

How does my writing process work?

I know instinctively which events to write about before I understand their significance, so I guess you could say that I write my way into their meaning. I have to trust that I’ve selected the correct piñata, as I swing a bat trying to crack it open. That takes many drafts and many readers as well as plenty of time for pieces to collect dust inside files on my computer hard drive. Often, there are six to eight iterations of a scene. My grandparents took my sister and me to Disneyland when I was a teenager. I dragged them through the ride It’s A Small World three times because I was oddly attracted to the garish displays and repetitive song. Writing about the trip years later, I kept circling back around that experience, framing it in different ways, but it always sounded like a school essay on my summer vacation. I knew there was something important there, but I just couldn’t identify what. At some point in writing my memoir, I discovered how the experience related to my spiritual journey. On those boat rides in 1987, I encountered a worldview that was more inclusive than my own religious upbringing.

Next Stops on the Tour

It is my privilege to introduce three additional writers. When I auditioned and was selected to read my essay “Sick Mama” during the Listen to Your Mother DC 2014 show, I joined a group of talented female writers. Being an intellectual snob, I quickly located the other cast members with MFA credentials and tried to impress them.

Callie Feyen originally asked me to participate in this blog tour and hosted my piece on her site in April. (Yes, I’m recycling my work.) She is a writer for The Banner and Christian Home and School and a grad student in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. Currently, she is feverishly working on her MFA thesis in order to graduate in August 2014. I had the pleasure of reading many of her meditations on writing and mothering on her blog, as well as seeing some of her yet unpublished work. Check out the post on her writing process here. She has a wicked sense of humor that will be on display later this summer when her performance at LTYM DC 2014 hits youtube. Stay tuned.

Jessica Rapisarda knows poetry and poop — a fabulous combo when it comes to writing about parenting a toddler. I had to clench all 53 of my sphincters (a physiology factoid that I learned from her blog) while she read her piece “Ground Control to Major Mom” on stage during the LTYM show. She has taught college English classes, designed a correspondence course for “amateur poets,” and managed journal production for the National Academy of Science. Currently, she works as a technical editor and writer at an IT company. She waxes poetic regarding her writing process here.

Last year I sat in the audience at the Listen to Your Mother DC show 2013 and listened to Lauren Boston read “Crazy in Love” about her mother’s self-sacrificing antics. Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting her in person and finding out more about her blog and her nonfiction book At Least It’s a Good Story: Travel Tales From an Awkward American. Her humor writing has appeared in The Washingtonian, The Huffington Post and a 1996 apology letter to her parents. An award-winning writer and blogger, she has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, Association Media & Publishing and Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals. Look for her post on her writing process next week on her blog.