Saturday, February 7, 2009

Stupid in Germany

I am a word person. In college, my best friend bought me a word of the day calendar. In law school, I embraced words like 'tautology' and 'specious', using them not just in class, but also in social situations. I'm sorry friends and thank you for still being my friends. And while I am not a collector of things - beanie babies and Hummels just aren't my speed - words have a value all their own. For years I've placed the best of them in my mental curio cabinet with care, displaying them proudly and in a way that has managed to serve me relatively well both in writing and the practice of law.

When I decided to take a hiatus from work and move with my family to Germany for the better part of 2008, I had grand plans not only to read the likes of Roth, Carver, and Coelho, but also to pen stories like Conroy. And, in between traveling, hosting guests, my son starting kindergarten, and marathon training, I did read those authors. And while I'm not ready to take on The Prince of Tides, I did write, among other things, two stories that at least don't make me wince when I read them. But something happened on the way to the Biergarten with respect to my verbal communication. I started losing words, unable to complete sentences, snapping my fingers and saying "you know, that one word, you KNOW. . ." And the word was often something like 'significant' or 'valuable' - not exactly high dollar vocabulary. Its as if the Riesling or the male Speedo exposure or the shades of red hair dye, ubiquitous as they were unfortunate, unlocked that mental curio cabinet and the words fell out and rolled under my cerebral cortex or some other place I no longer knew the name for. In other words people, I got stupid in Germany.

Like many such declines, it was insidious, happening little by little, day by day. As my interaction with the English speaking waned, so did my vocabulary, my ability to speak in complex sentences, my recall of multi syllabic words. And while I love my alone time, I don't think it helped matters that, for most of the day, I was alone with my own thoughts. My apparently increasingly simple thoughts.

When it came time to pack up the lederhosen and beer steins, my compromised diction and I weren't quite ready to leave. The ability to drive to Paris for the weekend or hop a quick flight to Italy never did lose its appeal. On the other hand, I missed my family and my family of friends, the people who add color to my life in a way not even Paris can. I've been back for over a month now and have been happily steeping in the company of those friends and family. And while I always knew they brought color to my life, I didn't readily realize they also made me smart. But they do. Our conversations, our kidding around, our confidences; all of that is valuable in more ways than I ever imagined. And slowly, little by little, I'm locating and replacing the contents of my mental curio cabinet. In fact, I'm pretty sure just last week I strung together a seven word sentence. And for that, my friends, I thank you and promise never again to use tautology in social conversation.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Two Roads Diverged...

Kris and I are at a crossroads of sorts. (By the by, each time I use the word “crossroads,” I picture that scene from The Muppet Movie where Kermit tells Fozzie to turn left at the “fork in the road.” In perfect Muppet fashion, they soon come upon an actual giant fork stabbed into the ground.) Kris recently returned from her great European adventure and is settling back into American life, so it’s to be expected in her case. Me, I’m stripping wallpaper—not the kind of activity that generally raises life-altering questions, but there you go.
In a nutshell, we’re wrestling with our writing habits—whether we’re disciplined enough to become writers. (I also wonder whether one “is” a writer or “becomes” a writer, but I’ll save that for another day. Let’s just say we wonder whether we’re sufficiently disciplined to write for a living. Or to even get published once, for that matter.) As rabid fans of those who purvey the written word (we are the literary equivalent of groupies), we often search for information about authors we love. What inspires them? How did they start? What makes them tick? We are particularly interested in writing habits and advice for writers. For example, on her website, Jodi Picoult explains she has a firm discipline. She doesn’t believe in writer’s block, because in the early days when she had to fit writing around her children’s schedules, she couldn’t afford the luxury of writer’s block. She generally writes all day, every day, but not on weekends, and she writes rather quickly.
We don’t write all day, every day. We sometimes go days, nay weeks, on end without writing. We both have small children to raise, dinners to cook, paychecks to earn, and, in my case, moldy wallpaper to strip. There are soccer games and classroom help and rare, stolen, intimate moments with husbands. We exercise, clean our houses, and catch up with friends on occasion. I’ll be honest. At night when I finally have a couple of free hours, sometimes Cabernet and a good book seem infinitely more enticing than a blank word document and a mocking cursor. And yet, we both want (dare I say, need) to write. We both crave creativity. But do we want it badly enough to devote every spare moment to it? And if we have to question our dedication, do we even have any business writing in the first place? After all, Ms. Picoult has three kids, and she managed to make it work.
Of course, I’m terrified a potential agent will read this and question our work ethic. (Note to agents: if you show us even the whisper of interest, we will spin straw into gold for you.) And then I have to remind myself: we have written a book. We wrote over 250 pages while working at the kind of law firm you read about in Grisham novels. We wrote briefs and motions all day, six days a week, and then stole time in the early morning and evening hours to create The Pecking Order. We have effectively rewritten the book twice. We spent countless hours on the synopsis, outline, and query letters, not to mention time spent researching agents and publishers. The fact that we’ve recently taken a much-needed breather from daily novel writing(during which I wrote a short story and Kris wrote two short stories and took a writing class), does not diminish our previous efforts; it does not portend a future devoid of creativity.
As that most admirable of writers, Elizabeth Gilbert, says, it’s natural to be disappointed in both the substance and process of our writing. But, it is important that we continue to write, nonetheless—that we continue to put our work, our soul’s language, out there. According to Ms. Gilbert, strict discipline in writing is sometimes overrated, but self-forgiveness is essential.
And so, I forgive myself for not writing in every spare moment. I, for one, needed a break. I needed to do something mindless—something that, unlike writing, was finite. At some point, I will have stripped my wallpaper and repainted my bathroom and I’ll reevaluate my time. For now, I’m staring at that giant fork and taking the “easy street,” knowing that the road runs both ways, and I’ll be back here again in no time, hopefully refreshed and ready to charge (pen in hand) off the beaten path once again.