Archive for January, 2005

Who needs a mentor?

It’s always interesting when something you think was rather pointless turns out to be quite fortuitous, once you think about it enough.

Yesterday I attended an event at my alma mater: part of the New Hampshire Authors Series, in which local NH author Rebecca Rule interviews well-known authors tied to the University of New Hampshire. Yesterday’s interview, of award-winning novelist Charlotte Bacon, was the second in that series. I had found out about the interview from a former coworker. What the heck, I thought. I figured if nothing else, I could meet up with friends I hadn’t seen in awhile.

For a few hours it seemed as if meeting my friends would be the highlight of the day. It wasn’t that the interview was bad; actually, it was very enjoyable. I just didn’t learn much that was new about writing, or life as a writer.

That’s the fortuitous part. During the interview, Ms. Bacon said one thing that struck me: She felt lucky if she got a full hour’s worth of writing completed in one day, among her job as a professor, her son, and her other activities. (Hopefully a transcript will appear on the Internet. I’ll link to it if and when it does.)

Never mind that paid-for childcare probably figures in there somewhere, along with the fact that she, unlike me, can (and does) take semesters off and still get paid (“publish or perish,” after all, remains in effect), not to mention that networking with other writers comes built into her job. Our lives basically couldn’t be more different. Yet, I thought, here’s a mom who works full-time, is paid a salary and benefits to be a writer, and still struggles to find time to write. That means it’s okay for me too.

As for the mentor thing, I reflected quite a bit on that, even thought of writing Ms. Bacon to ask for her take on it. I suspect, however, that her answer would be to find a good MFA program if I feel so acutely the need to network. Although I still think a professional writers’ group of some kind could help me maintain perspective, I know that networking is not without risk. There’s the debate, for instance, over whether MFA programs turn out literary clones, not to mention the time spent “networking” might just be better spent writing. I also suspect that finding worthy writers with whom to network is similar to finding a good therapist: we’re all so unique, came into this job from so many different backgrounds (Ms. Bacon herself didn’t start writing – at all – until she was 27), that finding compatibility would take perhaps years of trial and error.

I think good writing relationships just happen, much like good marriages and good careers, and you have to be ready for them and open-minded enough to recognize the opportunity. I’m keeping my eyes and ears open, and in the meantime, I’m still writing fiction – even if it’s only for 20 minutes a day.

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Working in a vacuum

One of the hardest things about freelancing for me has always been working in a vacuum: totally on my own, no one looking over my shoulder or providing feedback.

At first, the feedback thing bogged me down. My first project was a work for hire job (which never got published) where I had to submit three drafts. I worked on that project for months before I sent in my first draft. Feedback came back and was minimal: I needed to address two particular sets of data. That was it.

Later on, I got used to it. Figured as long as I was getting published, that was good, and I didn’t need overt praise. Anyway, the more I got published, the more “fanmail” I got from readers who appreciated my work. Thankfully, fanmail outweighs hate mail – er, I mean, constructive criticism. Right.

Of late my problem has been the aloneness. Mind you, I got out of the workforce because I hate office environments. The politics, backbiting, and sheer lack of praise (neutrality toward my performance just didn’t cut it) was completely oppressive, and my creativity was sapped. Generally I thrive on working at home, alone.

There are just some times I wish I had a mentor. A long time ago, when I was a high-school police cadet, I rode with a cop who was the best mentor – not just for what he was able to teach me, but for the simple fact that he cared. I miss that. I miss the rapport, talking and joking about a job you both know intimately, a bonding no one else – not even your spouse – can really get unless they’re in the same position.

Paradoxically, however, I’ve found myself in the position of mentor a number of times over the last few years. People email me asking for advice on how to start freelancing; I’ve astonished myself, answering their questions, with how much I know. It’s clear to me that I’ve managed to learn a lot all by myself. But that doesn’t make my work any easier.

Maybe someday I’ll find the right mentor. (Probably at a point where I no longer need him or her as acutely.) In the meantime, I have work to do.

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There are days like the one I wrote about in “Harmony.” And then there are days that make me wonder not only whether I hallucinated that morning, but also whether the hallucination was caused by the same stuff I was smoking when I decided freelancing would be the perfect solution to the problem of how to use my brain while staying home with a small child.

Normal days involve one or two of the following happening:

  1. The child decides waking up at 6:30 is perfectly reasonable, thereby blowing out of the water my fiction time – or better yet, the time I needed for a deadline.
  2. The child refuses to eat what is put in front of him at any meal. (Yes, I know this is normal toddler behavior, but it’s no less frustrating. Dairy allergies and texture issues render difficult the ability to try new things.)
  3. The child refuses to nap even when he is obviously sleepy, and even despite several attempts to put him down. This means I will get no interviews done that day.
  4. The child demands my undivided attention, meaning talking to him as I type just won’t cut it.
  5. The child flings himself at my legs, sobbing, as I attempt to walk out the door for a walk or swim. No, I don’t oblige him. But it doesn’t make walking or swimming any easier.
  6. The walk or swim is interrupted by nearly being run over by a reckless local teen or soccer mom, or being splashed/kicked/crashed into/nearly drowned by… well, a reckless local teen or soccer mom.
  7. Back home, the child whines as I prepare dinner, yet still refuses to eat.
  8. The child’s sleep refusal continues into the night. (Yes, I know this normally means teething, but by the time I figure it out and inject Motrin into his angelic little mouth, it’s just too late: the last nerve I needed to work is frayed through.)
  9. Insomnia.
  10. Those who profess eagerness to “help” are unavailable the next day – or the day after that, or for that matter the next week. And our weekends have already been planned for the next month straight.

Sometimes – thankfully, as rare as the “Harmony” days – all of those problems occur together. Those are the days I try like hell to remind myself that I’m blessed to be able to work and stay home. I know I’d be bored without work. And I know I hate workplaces. There are women who would kill to be in my shoes. And there are women who would kill to stay out of them. And when I read articles like this one on BabyZone – well, let’s just say I wonder, again, what I was smoking when I decided to do this for a living, because there might just come a day when I become one of those reckless soccer moms – something tells me I haven’t seen the half of it.

I wrote “Harmony” because I was thrilled that one of my fantasies actually came true for a change (another fantasy, blissful walks in the sunshine with my newborn, fell flat on its face during his first year, when as often as not, he’d throw up as soon as I snuggled him in the Baby Bjorn). And because it’s hard for me to write about dissonance: I don’t like to sound resentful, because truly, I’m not. I know I’m doing what I’m meant to, not just in the big picture, but in the little ones too. I know a lot of people – in fact, I’m married to one – who still aren’t sure what they should do with their lives.

I know I’m blessed. It puts just a tiny bit more pressure on me to be more patient. And, well, pressure isn’t the kind of thing I seek out on dissonant days. Peace pipe, anyone?

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I treasure those rare moments when my job and my son are in total harmony with each other.

The other morning I was sitting at the kitchen table, on deadline, editing an article while I waited for him to finish breakfast. He kept pointing and screeching, and after I’d run out of things to give him to eat/play with (more Cheerios, my spoon, my empty bowl), I finally realized he wanted my pen. It must’ve been those cool squiggly things I was doing on the paper.

I wiped him off, cleaned his tray, got him his own piece of paper and his own pen and prayed it would keep him quiet until I got to a place where I felt comfortable breaking off.

I ended up finishing the edit then and there.

In between edits, congratulating him on making such nice lines, and congratulating myself on finding something that actually entertained him quietly, I mentally kicked myself for not having figured this out sooner – for not having trusted him to want to make lines instead of eat the pen. In truth, he loves all things adult, and wasn’t it my biggest fantasy to have my child sit beside me, working as I worked?

Yes folks, sometimes reality does come amazingly close to fantasy. Not often. But enough to keep hope alive.

An added bonus: that part about how my son loves all things adult? He picked up the funniest mannerisms from our writing time together. He now flips his pages from side to side, in much the same way that I turn them face down once I’m done editing them. And he clears his throat – one guess why.

I love this writing-and-mommy stuff.

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Saturday night I received a third rejection for my one short story currently in the pipeline. It was late, and I was tired. I read the email, felt disappointed, and decided it was time to go to bed. Sleeping on it would put everything in perspective, and I’d be ready to send it right back out again when I sat down to work.

Sunday morning, the rejection was my first memory of the day before. And I still felt disappointed. Even though I make it a practice to bring writing on drives, I didn’t bring it on the drive to church. Why bother? I was already thinking. I recognized the slide I was in, and it troubled me. I’d already accepted the rejection. Did feeling bad about it anyway mean something, like some inner knowledge that I should pursue journalism and not fiction?

At the same time, I debated whether to tell my husband. I didn’t want the rejection to become a bigger deal than it needed to be; it was, after all, part of business, and if business meant halting my pursuit of a fiction writing career, then so be it. However, if I didn’t tell my husband, I knew I’d end up suffering in silence, and I might need him to bounce ideas off for the future. So I told him, and he sympathized.

After church we drove home, and our son slept. He always sleeps on the 25-minute drive home from church. He gets about 15 minutes in, and then, because he only takes one nap these days, there’s no more napping for the rest of the day. I’ve learned not to expect to work much on Sundays as a result.

This Sunday, though, was different. I wanted to work. I wanted to send the story out again. I booted up the computer, started researching markets, started cutting words when I saw many markets wouldn’t accept any stories over 5000 words.

My son must have seen the obsessive frown on my face, because he immediately toddled over and made it plain that he wanted to sit on my lap and bang on the keyboard. I haven’t gotten around to installing the software that lets them bang while keeping your data safe, so I palmed him off on his father. That lasted for all of about two seconds; my husband obediently complied with the boy’s squirming, and put him down. He ran right back up to the computer and proceeded to set up his Noah’s Ark animals, one by one, on my desk. His favorite spot was the mousepad.

I had to cut it short to go food shopping, and afterward, cook dinner. I like these activities. Shopping gets me out of the house. Cooking is mindless. Sunday, they both allowed for “thinking” (i.e. brooding) about my situation. Cooking, especially, would allow for much brooding without having to interact with others. It was perfect.

My son was overjoyed when I arrived home. He immediately stationed himself in the kitchen with more animals as well as his broom. He insisted on showing me each animal as I sliced chicken. He also insisted on climbing all over the baker’s rack/monkey bars, getting his foot stuck in my shoe, and losing one of the animals under the refrigerator.

And yet something held me back from hollering for my husband to gate the boy into the living room with him. It wasn’t the fact that our son would stand at the gate howling to be let back in by me. And it definitely wasn’t a surge of gratitude that although editors may reject my work, my son adored me no matter what. Gratitude was not in my capacity that day.

No, it was a combination of two factors. One of them was all that advice I’d gotten about enjoying my child before he grows up; although my id preferred to wallow in self-pity, my superego reminded me that work and rejections would always be there, but toy zebras hidden in the toes of my boots would not be.

Yeah, that’s a cliche. Maybe more importantly, I realized that I wasn’t as annoyed by my son’s antics as I thought I should be. As distracting as they were, it was good distraction. My son’s presence prevented me from wallowing. He had no idea of the hit my self-esteem had taken, and he wasn’t trying to make me feel better, at least not consciously. His world was still revolving, even though I wanted mine to stop for just a little while. And he didn’t want his world to stop. (Especially not while his foot was stuck.) He just wanted to do whatever he was going to do, no outside influences in his way. He reminded me, in a small and roundabout way, that I like journalism, but my heart is in fiction.

When I make my first sale, I may just have to dedicate it to him.

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It took me about a day to realize what a poor choice of story – or reportage – was Wednesday’s “Around the Watercooler” on Good Morning America, ABC’s morning news program.

Diane Sawyer, in southeast Asia providing coverage on the tsunami that apparently ABC News didn’t trust with its lower-tier reporters, did a story on journalists’ living quarters. Half-paying attention while I made sure my son was eating his breakfast instead of flinging it, I heard her complain about two things in particular: one, sleeping on the floor, with “only” some mats and sleeping bags for warmth and cushioning. Two, the cramped workspaces they had to use to file reports.

By then I was in the living room watching in disbelief, and still it didn’t end. She then turned to reporter Nick Watt, looking at the ground instead of the camera and seemingly not very interested in being there, to ask him what he felt had been the most difficult aspect of covering the catastrophe.

His answer: Being there to work – to observe the victims and their suffering – instead of to help them.

Bravo, Nick.

And then Diane replied, addressing her audience: “Well, at least you got to see how we were living over here.”

Amazing. Apparently her coverage of these victims, who have just experienced the worst possible disaster in their lives, was enough for her to feel deserving of the ability to whine a bit about sleeping on a floor.

And what does this have to do with a blog about balancing motherhood with freelancing? Everything, I think. After all, a journalist is a journalist, regardless of whether the medium is print or broadcast. I used to think the question, “How does it feel?” screeched into a victim’s face was the lowest point a reporter could reach. Now I know better. As a mother, I was struck by this comment in Liz Schwarzer’s normally humorous blog: “As long as our children eat and theirs don’t, [helping] is our job.” Sounds like a lesson Diane needs to remember, lest she forget sleeping on the floor is a luxury many of her interviewees no longer have.

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The week before Christmas I went to get my hair trimmed. As I sat in the chair, the woman next to me complained about her corporate job. “All I got for my 20th anniversary at that company was a balloon,” she fumed. “And a girl in my department got the same for her first anniversary. What a slap in the face.”

“Cheapskate corporate bastards,” I said, and was cheered. “That’s why I’m self-employed,” I added, and was met with silence.

Then the woman said, “My mother worked from home. I could never do that. You don’t get paid for sick time. You don’t get paid vacations. You don’t get benefits. She was always working.” She must have seen I was getting ready to argue, because she then said, “But at least she was home for us kids.”

Which didn’t exactly inspire confidence given her complaints about her mother working all the time. And it didn’t really do justice to what was on my mind: that for me at least, not getting paid for sick or vacation days doesn’t really matter, because I make far less than minimum wage anyway. All my benefits – including the ability to stay home with my son, and the ability to take sick or vacation days when I want them – are so intangible I don’t even notice them most of the time.

And that was why I decided, at the last minute, to take the week between Christmas and New Year’s off.

My husband already had the time off. Despite his noble efforts to keep our son entertained while I work, those weeks his school district provides, because our computer is in the living room, his brand of entertainment (which usually requires me to look up every five minutes whether asked to or not) leaves me distracted and disorganized. These are the weeks I wish we had an office.

There was the husband-at-home issue. The other issues were visiting with family and friends, and the suspicion that most of my would-be sources were facing the same, well, issues. It had been hard enough to reach them in the two weeks before Christmas. I felt sure I’d be leaving ever more pointless voicemails during the week after.

So I took the week off from work. I needed a break anyway, and while I didn’t get exactly what I needed – time to work on my business plan, organizing my workspace, and more of my fiction than just a few sentences here and there – it was nice to spend time with family and friends for a change. It reminded me that breaks, whether daily or monthly or yearly, are necessary even for those of us doing what we love. And it reminded me of how much I treasure my solitude.

May the desire and the ability to take more time off this year naturally come our way. It’s just good business.

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