. . . or Colleen Corby, or Sally Field in Gidget, or Cher in her early years, or Liza Minnelli in Cabaret.
When I was a girl–9, 10, 11–I didn’t care what I looked like or what I wore. I was happy writing stories and drawing pictures and reading books. I traipsed through our woods to the creek and set paper boats afloat, hoping one would make it to the Atlantic Ocean. On hands and knees, I trailed after our cat, trying to discover her secrets. I watched the sky, longing to see an eagle.
I rarely glanced in the mirror. I knew who I was.
Then someone thrust the big August issue of Seventeen at me and suddenly it became important that I have the right clothes and wear my hair in a shiny flip and buy Yardley make-up. Studying Seventeen and Ingenue (which I pronounced an-jan-oo even after five years of French), I first realized I was living the wrong life. I should have been Colleen Corby, the hottest teen model around. If I was Colleen, my lips would be pouty but not too sexy and my textured tights wouldn’t sag around my ankles.
Around that time Gidget came on TV and I wanted to be Sally Fields, surfing at the beach all day and going to parties at night. Since I sank like a stone in two inches of bathwater and willingly went to bed at eight o’clock, I didn’t know how I’d manage her life, but it seemed vital to look cute and curvy in a two-piece and pouf the top of my hair before twisting it in pigtails.
Along came Cher and I desperately wanted to be exotic and beautiful with long straight hair and dramatic eyeliner. I grew my bangs long but couldn’t see where I was going and begged my mother to sew pleated panels on my Alden’s pants to simulate Cher’s wide-legged bell-bottoms. On one pair she stitched bobble trim around the hem. I loved those pants until the day the bobbles got tangled and I fell in a mud puddle which I never saw because of my bangs.
I spent a lot of time in the mirror, frustrated and unhappy. I didn’t write as much.
When I was 20, I saw Cabaret and craved to be Liza Minnelli with her green nail polish and distinctively carved haircut. I bought colored nail polish and, with my last three dollars, went to a barber and asked him to cut my hair like Liza Minnelli’s. I wound up looking more like Moe from the Three Stooges.
By then I’d figured out the girls I wanted to emulate were all big-eyed brunettes. I had round eyes and brown hair but lacked their vivacity. Worse, I had drifted away from my real true self, the girl who dreamed of eagles and followed annoyed cats.
In The Girl Within, recommended by my friend Christina Rukavina, author Emily Hancock states that nine-year-old girls meet the world with confidence. "A soaring imagination combines with competence and adventurous longing to take her far from home, both in imagination and reality . . . she is proud of her newfound ability to order and direct her life." But this freedom and confidence is short-lived; even the most high-spirited girls bend under the changes of puberty and demands of peer pressure.
Years passed. I found my way back to the keyboard and my burning desire to be a writer. But I never quite trusted myself and yearned to be like the Gidgets and Lizas of the children’s book field. I became "inside" Candice who wrote in her bedroom office and "outside" Candice who faced the world dressed in Gunne Sax costumes. The mirror told me the two reflections did not match.
More years passed. The carefully-maintained size 3 figure spead with extra weight due to medication. My brown hair turned gray, then began falling out. Body parts that had been neatly pinned into place dropped like lead balloons. I shifted my admiration from Cher to Eudora Welty. Welty’s plainness freed her from the yoke of cotillions and dance cards. She spent her time writing and became one of our most lauded authors.
I wish I could write like Eudora Welty. However, from her I learned that it’s the work that counts, not what you wear or how you look. These days I hardly ever look in the mirror. When I do, I search my eyes for a glimpse of the young girl who launched paper boats into creeks. I want to see her waving at me. But I don’t.
Instead I see the person she was meant to become.
It snowed the day before yesterday and we were tired of food. Not tired of eating, just sick of foodie-food. Chicken and mashed potatoes. Casseroles. Spaghetti. Much of it from a jar, package, or bag. I longed for something homemade and fresh, not so much distance from the source to our plate. Grocery stores are well stocked with fruit and produce shipped from Peru or even Africa but it’s often tasteless.
So I ventured out, thinking that this hunting-and-gathering of food puts a big dent in my writing day. I could opt for pre-made dinners at Wegman’s but we deserved better, even if it meant I had to cook it. Out into the snow I went. When running errands, I always treat myself to one fun place before the "chore" place (post office, grocery store, dry cleaners). I went to our new Hobby Lobby.
Inside, I slowly pushed my cart past displays of Tuscan-style cache pots and resin wall plaques with messages like "Faith" and "Cherish." I heard the two young men before I saw them. They were moving fast through the store, clearly on a mission. One complained, "How come you’re always right in front of me wherever I go? One step!" The other said, "Hey, man, what can I tell ya?"
They shot by me like bottle rockets. One said, "Made in China. Made in China. That’s what everything is in here." "Because everything is made in China," said the other, finally speeding ahead of his buddy. "We should go there to live."
When I was ready to check out, the cashier looked eagerly at me, as if she’d been waiting all morning for me to show up. She was small and blonde but not young. She took my items–three packages of black notebook rings, the new issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, a mousepad–awkwardly in her two hands as if she was going to ring them up in a big clump. Then she put them on the counter and rang up the notebook rings the wrong price.
She remarked I had a variety of things and marveled over the black powder-coated notebook rings as if they were mine-cut alexandrite. She kept up a steady patter as she finished ringing, I swiped my card (used so much it should leap from my wallet by itself), and she bagged my purchases.
As I left she said, "Have a beautiful day" and meant it. I told her to have a beautiful day as well. She said, "It’s already beautiful. I have a job!" Her smile was sweet and genuine and her blue eyes shone with hope. I sensed she had been very close to falling into the crack. But now she had a job in a craft store where everything for sale is made in China.
In Wegman’s I glanced at a cooking magazine and decided on a menu. I bought two see-through slices of prosciutto ($35 a pound) for 70 cents, one tomato, a loaf of French bread, cream, and shredded provolone cheese.
For supper last night we had eggs scrambled with cream, prosciutto, tomato, and parsley, cinammon-vanilla French toast, cottage fries, sliced bananas in orange juice with poppy seeds. I made every single dish with my own two hands and served it on Fiestaware, still made in the U.S.A. Outside our window, birds pecked at the seed bells and suet cakes. The snow didn’t amount to much and January is almost over. Soon those birds will be singing again.
Starting a new book is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Exciting because you are embarking on a new journey; nerve-wracking because you can no longer carry the idea of the book around like a lucky penny in your pocket. Last night I was talking to my friend Connie. We’re both fixing-to-get-ready to begin new books. I told her I had a book idea I’d been carrying around for nearly two years. I buy presents for that book idea: "Oh, look! So-and-so in my new book would love that purse. It’s just her style! I’ll buy it for her."
But then comes the time when you take the idea out of your pocket, or open the notebook where you’ve kept notes on the idea, or move the "book" folder that’s been at the bottom of the pile on your desk to the top. Time to begin building the book. Character sketches, outlines, notes-to-self, notes-to-book, timelines, plotlines. You can use Scrivener to help sort out the tangle (though I find Scrivener would keep me chained to the computer longer than I am already). You can use old-fashioned note cards and notebooks and hand-drawn charts, but whatever method you use, you have to start.
You map out a course, set coordinates to get from Point A–book idea–to Point B–finished manuscript. In the beginning it’s all very look-at-me-I’m-writing-a-new-book important. You walk around the house dreamy-eyed. You barely answer people’s questions. You don’t remember where you put your car keys or maybe even your car. You’re deeply involved with your book and only half in this world.
The first week.
Then come the distractions. You try to stave them off. "No! I’m writing my book! Go away!" But they creep back and you sort of don’t mind. You tell yourself you’ve worked hard the last day/hour/minute and deserve a break. Or, worse, you let distractions knock you off-course. People think I’m the most disciplined writer, that I take my manuscript in progress into surgery with me.
Let me tell you about the last few weeks. First, there was the day of the Newbery announcements. I’m eager to know if any of my friends got the medal or an honor. But I’m also a little bummed. I don’t have any books in the running (and probably never will). So I spend that day and maybe the next couple days reading comments and thinking, "I need to write better. I need to hurry up and write better because I’m not getting any younger. How can I do this?" This obsessive thinking led to a tiny little meltdown that ended when I recognized I write what I write and that’s that.
A few days later I learn about a YA book deal in which the writer got a half a million dollars. I nearly choked when I read the amount. Oh, to have even half that money! I wouldn’t run out and buy a Jaguar or put in a swimming pool, but do homely things around the house and maybe take a real vacation. The money would buy a cushion of time in which I could learn to write better so I could win the Newbery and/or get another lucrative three-book deal. I flittered around my office like a bat trapped in the attic, once again caught in obsessive thinking before I realized that I write what I write and that’s that.
I’d cozied up to my book once more when LiveJournal informs me my storage space is all used up. I find this out in the middle of a post. And so began three and a half days of a major meltdown that involved frantic e-mails to LJ support techs, creating and taking down a blog on Typepad, creating and taking down a second blog on Blogger, starting a WordPress account, starting a Photobucket account, hundreds of Googled questions, shifting and moving and whining and crying–it was the last act of Faust. My husband got numerous tearful calls at work. Entire nations were dragged in.
How much work got done on my novel? None. Not only did I stray off-course, but I fell off the map entirely.
One night last week I heard a flock of Canada geese fly noisily over our house in the fog. I couldn’t see them but I could hear them calling. "Where are you?" "I’m here!" "Where’s Junior?" "I’m here!" "Where?" "Here!" By constantly calling out to each other, they stayed on course.
You have to constantly check your coordinates when writing a book. Make sure you’re where you want to be and are aimed in the direction you want to go. Distractions will make you stray. When that happens, call out to your book. "Where are you?" "I’m here!" "Where?" "Here!" The pull of your book will lead you back on the path. It’s stronger than all the obsessive thoughts, unearned awards, and technical difficulties put together.
Her desk notebook is already half-filled with notes.
The go-with-me-everywhere journal is a composition notebook covered with one piece of really cool scrapbook paper! I only buy Vera Bradley purses big enough to accomodate these journals.
I’ve gathered the necessary totems.
Can you guess the theme of this new book? C’mon, Maisey Poe. Let’s go!
Plastered with tin signs, the old wooden store stood by itself at the edge of 522. We almost whizzed past but I yelled and my husband practically slid the truck into four-wheel drift as we careened into the gravel lot. The tin signs and the building were the real thing, but though I was hoping for penny candy in big jars I knew I’d find Lotto tickets instead.
"Chicken Dinner candy!" I shrieked, snapping a picture of the sign. When I was a kid, my stepfather told me he used to eat Chicken Dinner candy bars. I thought he was teasing–who’d give candy such an unappetizing name? Sperry Candy Company created the chocolate-covered nut roll in the late 1920s, basing the name on Hoover’s Depression promise of "a chicken in every pot."
We walked through the narrow double doors characteristic of country stores. My shoes scuffed on the worn plank flooring and my eyes opened wide. My husband said I lit up like a pinball machine and became quite animated.
I expected modern shelving stacked with Wonder bread and racks of Doritos. But the store was outfitted with original fixtures–old-timey brass cash register, glass-topped wooden cases. It was an antique store with nothing but collectibles! No big ol’ furniture to negotiate, just vintage stuff, mostly from the 40s and 50s.
The owner, a tall man with gray hair meticulously slicked in a doo wop, reinforced the illusion I’d stepped into a time warp. Since the merchandise was arranged by category, I thought I might be in a museum. No, the man assured me, everything was for sale.
I didn’t know what to do first–look around or ask questions. The owner once lived a mile down the road from where we live now in a two-hundred year old farmhouse he’d restored. I pass that house whenever I go to the vet’s (often). Then he and his wife fled to Mineral and this 1842 general store that served the community until 1963. The original J.C. Whitlock sign had been ripped off to patch a hole in the roof of a house on the other side of Contrary Creek (where I suspect my husband thinks I’m from). The house burned but the sign remained intact under the shingles.
The man talked a blue streak. He and his wife now live in the attached old tavern. He had crawled under every floor except the main store. I imagined the vintage goodies packed to the rafters in the tavern and wondered how to wangle an invitation. Meanwhile I was freezing. Most big antique stores aren’t heated. I have Raynaud’s, a vascular condition that affects my hands and feet, and within seconds I was in pain. I raced through the aisles with all the enjoyment of skidding through the Louvre on a skateboard.
After picking up dozens of items, I settled on a set of red and black Scottie glasses in a wire carrier and still-in-the-package kitchen decals. My husband asked if the Chicken Dinner candy sign outside was for sale. It wasn’t but I loved that he offered to buy it for me. I promised the man I’d return with my sister (when it was warmer).
Dickinson’s, a modern-day general store, was by our turn-off. I loaded up on Zingers and Honey Buns and French burnt peanuts and a local weekly newspaper. Since I grew up during the Golden Age of Sugar, I miss buying single packages of cupcakes and crackers–grocery stores make you purchase "family packs." Although I balk at the $1.49 price tag for ten cent Zingers, I dearly relish a goodie haul.
That evening, while munching on a raspberry Zinger and skimming The Central Virginian, I was comforted to know that Ethel Mae Morton Yancy "took her flight of wings" after a lengthy illness, and that Alvin J. Smith "leaves to cherish his memories" a wife, two sons, and a daughter. I wished I had met them. I bet they had wonderful stories.
It seemed impossible to miss the Mineral Restaurant on a two-lane road but somehow we did. In the next town we stopped at Joe’s Place, a tiny luncheonette that had more kitchen space than tables to eat at, so I could ask for directions. An unshaven man, "rough as a corncob," as my mother would say, delicately probed his incisors with a flosser as he told me how to get there. Fascinated, I made him repeat the directions ("go straight back up the road, cain’t miss it"), as I’d never seen anyone maneuver a flosser in public before.
A chirpy girl at Joe’s Place added the Mineral Restaurant had recently been "redone" in a Mexican style. If "Mexican style" meant a spray coating of stucco and a string of Christmas lights, then we had found it. I ordered an astonishing amount of food so we would be there a good while and I could eavesdrop.
Two elderly African-American ladies came in and sat companionably side by side at the next table. They didn’t remove their knit berets. As they perused the menu, one said to the other, "I don’t want anything hard." I assumed she meant crunchy, like fried chicken. They helped each other to the salad bar in a way that indicated long-standing friendship.
The cook came out often to joke and chat with customers. He wore a white tee-shirt under his apron. Someone had slapped produce stickers on the back of his shirt.
Behind us was a lively table of four in their 70s. The lone man ate with single-mindedness while the women gossiped. One woman, shriveled with illness, said she "got a good report from the doctor–it wadn’t cancer." I kept checking out another woman’s hairstyle: thin "mall" bangs and a layered heap of dyed blonde hair fluffed over a long, very skimpy mullet. I tried to figure out a way to take her picture but my husband said no, so I settled for a sketch.
When the man finally pushed his plate away, he proclaimed the trouble with people nowadays was too many of ’em sit in front of TVs and don’t get out. I wanted to state the problem was much worse not too far up the road, where people not only sit in front of TVs, but also computer screens, cell phones, and Blackberries. I have noticed on these junkets into rural corners that people seem happy laughing and eating mediocre food in restaurants with mismatched light fixtures and coffee cups advertising "Foster’s Grave and Burial Vault Services," wearing their white Reeboks and baggy light-washed jeans. They don’t ask for much from life and yet seem to have so much more.
My goal was to hit four towns in Louisa County: Louisa, Mineral, Cuckoo, and Bumpass. On the map the towns were only a half inch apart. In reality we drove and drove and drove over one- and two-lane roads, searching for 609 or 722 or 617. We did a lot of back-tracking. Once, trapped on 609 or 722 or 617 with no way to get off, my husband said we weren’t lost, we just didn’t know where we were.
Louisa with its Walgreens and McDonald’s was of no interest. Mineral, the next sizeable town, was noted for its early mining industry–copper, iron, pryite, and gold. Apparently every settler brought his gold pan to wash the streams that crossed his land.
We flew past Cuckoo before we knew it. The place consisted of a magnificent Federal house built in 1813, with early-twentieth-century Colonial Revival additions. It was in nearby Cuckoo Tavern, named for the cuckoo clock on the wall, supposedly the first in Virginia, that Jack Jouett overheard news the British were bent on capturing the Virginia government. Jouett’s 1781 ride to warn Governor Jefferson was more dramatic than Paul Revere’s.
I had high hopes for Bumpass, a name I like saying. Virginia novelist Ellen Glasgow lived in an eighteenth century manor house called Jerdone Castle somewhere in Bumpass. We found no castles, only the post office and an auto transmission garage.
The tan January landscape seemed dull and lifeless. Yet there were signs of life if you looked. A black and white cat ambling through a corn-stubbled field. Smoke pumping from the chimney pipe of a bright blue trailer. A woman walking slowly down her driveway to fetch the mail. A red-tailed hawk, mouse grasped in his talons, lifting up from the ditch.
Along these quiet lanes, everyone knew exactly where they were. And you can bet they noticed the silver Toyota Tacoma with one pale face pressed against the passenger window, gazing out in wonder.
Generally I have to be hog-tied in a croaker sack and thrown in before I’ll eat in a fast-food restaurant. It’s not just the terrible food, but the fact you have to stand in line, have a snarling clerk shove a tray at you, and sit on hard plastic seats while racket–loud talking, suspended TV screens, music–echoes off hard plastic walls.
The best lunch-time places are gone. Ukrops, our favorite grocery store, had a nice little cafe that served the best chicken salad croissant sandwiches and fudge pie. But the Richmond-based stores closed last year. We gained a Wegman’s but I find it too crowded with too much running back and forth between the Asian buffet and the pannini bar and the burrito bar and the sub place and the salad bar. Last week, we discovered our sweet little Chinese restaurant–in business for 19 years–had closed. Bereft and lunch-place-less, I went to Chick-fil-A.
For the uninitiated, it’s pronounced chick-fill-AY and is a Southern fast-food place that majors in chicken and all things greasy. When I walked in, I was greeted by two counter clerks who nearly had a fist-fight to wait on me. I ordered medium waffle fries and a lemon pie with a small Sprite. The tray was on the counter with a flourish before I’d finished speaking. My change was handed over with the care of rare coins. The counter clerk asked me how I liked this cold weather and directed me to the booths, which I could see plainly. I was surprised he didn’t whisk out a velvet cape for me to walk on.
I sat down with my book and began dipping big, thick waffle fries in mayonnaise and mustard. While I ate, a counter clerk rushed over to refill my Sprite for free. He asked me what I was reading. Trying to sound important (not easy to do when you are eating fries globbed with mayonnaise), I said a book by an NPR commenter. The book was Mama Makes Up Her Mind by Bailey White, who is an NPR commenter. Still, I thought I should be reading The Red and the Black to match the upscale atmosphere.
Another counter clerk came by with–wait on it–a silver tray of wrapped butter mints! He offered them to everyone. I took two, even though I was eating my lemon pie (sturdy graham cracker crust, tart filling, and vanilla wafers that keep the deep meringue from slipping). By now I was wondering if Chick-fil-A had morphed into the Ritz Carlton. We only needed a guy playing a grand piano. Another counter clerk glided by and discreetly swept away my tray.
An alert, petite baby girl stared at me with banjo blue eyes while she wallowed her applesauce spoon around her mouth. I grinned at her. Her mother told me her nine-month-old daughter was walking and trying to feed herself. While we chatted, I took my drink cup to the trash can. When I returned to my booth, yet another counter clerk was wiping the table.
"Is everything okay?" he asked, vigorously swabbing the tabletop like the side of a battleship.
"Yes," I said. "I just threw away the rest of my trash."
"Oh," he said, sounding disappointed. "I’m so sorry."
He was sorry I’d had to carry that heavy ol’ empty cup all the way over to the trash can! Maybe it’s the economy and fast-food places are in keen competition with each other. Or maybe this is a return to old-fashioned civility, a commodity that Virginia’s reputation rested on but seems in short supply lately. Whatever.
Chick-fil-A has become my new lunch spot. There are no TV screens. There are polite young men who seem eager to tend to my every whim. What’s not to like? Next time I’ll get a cookies-and-cream milkshake. And three butter mints.
Yesterday I went to Richmond to do some research. On my way back, I swung back through Mechanicsville to visit my oldest niece, Susan. My sister came over, too. We ate and talked about nothing and everything, like we always do.
My niece’s birthday was Monday. Because I’m incurably nosy, a trait my family members tolerate without comment, I went through Susan’s birthday cards. On the bottom was one made of construction paper from Sherri, her nine-year-old daughter. I read it eagerly. The front has a koala bear clinging happily to a coconut tree.
Inside it says, "Be a lazy kauala on your speacail day." I love how the koala is tucked in bed with a multi-colored bedspread. And then Sherri made her mother a little koala bear clinging to a coconut tree out of clay. Aren’t the best presents made with small hands?
Sherri made me a clay cat for Christmas. It’s shown with the very small paper tag for scale (note how she ran out of room in writing and had to erase and start over–don’t you love the feeling of writing pellmell right off the edge of the paper?) The cat is my favorite Christmas present. I keep it and the tag on a shelf in my sitting room.
From the time she was able to stand, Sherri has been an artist. Drawing, painting, coloring. She favors me (has my eyes, eyebrows, and fine hair) and takes after me in that she is always making something, is a picky eater (clearly I outgrew that), likes things "just so," loves cats, especially her black and white cat named Stinky, and is color-sensitive. She’s already blasted through her pink and purple girl phases and has settled comfortably into turquoise, my favorite color at her age.
I noticed Susan was crocheting a bedspread for herself. She had another bag of yarn, filled with skeins of white and a soft turquoise color. She told me she saw the turquoise yarn in Michael’s and called Sherri at home and asked if she would like a bedspread in her favorite color.
Sherri: Oh, yes, Mama. And do they also have white?
Susan: Yes, they have white. So you want a granny-square bedspread?
Sherri: Yes. [I pictured her already picking out turquoise throw pillows.]
My sister is also crocheting another bedspread. I scrapbook in the evenings. Sherri and Ashley, my ten-year-old great-niece by my other niece Stephanie, are both avid crafters and artists. The girls in our family create. They start young. They don’t think about it too much, they just do it. So don’t be a lazy kauala. Start making your mark. Just start.
Do you remember autograph albums? They’d be passed around on the last day of school and if you got someone’s to sign, you’d flip through to see what everyone else had written. Then you’d try to write something killingly witty (unless you didn’t like the person and then you just signed your name). If you wrote something special or personal, you folded the page from corner to corner, making a triangle flap to protect your words.
Saturday was the first day of 2011, but tomorrow will be New Year’s Day for me, work-wise. Today I’ll finish the revisions to Rebel McKenzie Will Never Wear Big Hair, old-year’s work, to deliver to my editor. And tomorrow, I’ll clear my desk for a new project.
It’s hard, this starting of new books. I linger with my old characters, having another cup of tea with them before we head out, each of us going our separate ways. I’m eager to meet my new characters but they play coy for a long time. And I worry about how to start or when to start work on the new book.
Josephine Humphries, author of Rich in Love and The Fireman’s Fair, says of this book-hesitation: "All you have to do is start, and the writing feeds the writing. I don’t believe in the inspiration of the muse. I think it’s a habit of your mind that you can get into."
She’s right. Even if your characters aren’t speaking to you yet, write something. A snippet of dialog. A description. Thoughts your main character might have before sleep. What your main character ate for lunch. It doesn’t have to be inspired, but it does have to be out of your head and onto paper or the computer screen.
I feel a lift in my spirit as I send Rebel off into the world again, this time with her socks pulled up and her hair combed. My new main character waits, unsure if we’ll be good friends. But I know different.
Happy New Year! Follow my New Year’s Day guide and 2011 will be filled with prosperity, good health, and lots of book contracts!
1. On the first day of the new month, say, "Rabbit, rabbit!" first thing. Good luck for any month but especially good luck on New Year’s Day.
2. Don’t let money leave the house–don’t pay bills or repay a loan.
3. Wear something new on this day for luck all year.
4. Don’t go out until someone comes in. "First-footing" is serious business: the first person to enter your home should be a dark-haired man, but not a widow. Blonde man, no dice. It’s extra lucky if he brings a present of food.
5. Do something you want to do all year long. Write! Create art!
6. Don’t begin a serious project, or do any serious work.
7. Don’t wash dishes on New Year’s Day.
8. Don’t sweep, but if you must, carry the broom under your arm and not over your shoulder. A broom laid across your threshhold will keep evil spirits out of your house.
9. Southerners eat black-eyed peas cooked with ham and a new dime (don’t swallow the dime!) and collard greens (the greens represent folding money). In our house I fix Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas with rice), greens, and sauerkraut for my Pennsylvania-born husband.
10. Don’t eat chicken because they scratch backward–this could cause regret or a tendency to live in the past.