Saturday, September 20, 2014

lather, rinse, repeat: writing process blog tour 2014

I met Cynthia Romanowski a few years ago when I interviewed her for Poets & Writers’ coveted fellowship program. As with any paying gig in the literary world, we got a ton of applications from absurdly over-qualified, bright-eyed young people (for a funny, book-length rant on this topic, see Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members). P&W tries harder than most orgs to be kind and fair to its employees, and yet the gist of our call was: Get an advanced degree from an impressive institution, possibly accrue a lifetime of debt, have publications up the wazoo and come do data entry for roughly what is deemed a living wage in L.A. County (but not really, because it’s only part-time and there will be no health benefits).

A lot of people called this the Friends cover. So no one told you life was gonna be this waaaay....
Most of the applicants were way more impressive than I was at twenty-five, when I’d started working at P&W (full-time, with health insurance…albeit for $25,000 a year, which would probably be $29,000 a year in today’s dollars). But I’d slipped in when the economy was better; the director happened to share my sarcastic sense of humor and be tired of interviewing people. It was a right-place, right-time deal, and it changed my life in wonderful ways. I should remember this when I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, or with the wrong genetic predisposition.

But I digress.

Cynthia didn’t get the P&W gig, because only one over-qualified person could. But I’ve run into her a few times since, and she seems to be doing just fine without P&W. She seems to be working her ass off, writing interesting things and making her way in the literary world. I’m inspired to watch her trajectory. And I was flattered when she asked me to be part of the Writing Process Blog Tour, which gave me an opportunity to check out her own really well written blog.

What are you working on?

Too many things:

1) a young adult novel about a sixteen-year-old who finds herself running an adoption scam
2) a memoir about the clusterfuck that has been the last four-ish years of my life (infertility/miscarriage/relationship shit/cancer); I want to add an asterisk in which I explain that I’m full of shame about writing a tragedy memoir, and that this one will also maybe be kind of funny, and that I’m not sure what format it will take (which is true, but also a cop-out).
3) a very short story about a gun
4) an article about indie comedy in Northeast L.A. for Razorcake

Not to mention the two finished-ish but unpublished novels that I should be sending places.

But for the purposes of this blog, I will write about #1, because it’s what I should be working on, because I promised the agent who tried very hard to sell one of the finished-ish novels that I’d give her a draft months ago.

How does your work differ from other works in the same area/genre?

I’ve always had respect for middle grade and young adult novels (waaay before Harry Potter and Twilight, just to be a hipster about it) because my mom was a children’s librarian and read them voraciously. When I was a kid, I made up stories, but—without necessarily imagining myself ever being an author—I also made up the teaser lines (What is the ghost cat trying to tell Katie?) that would go on the cover and the blurbs for the back. That was the pattern that the big publishers, Dell Yearling and Apple Books, would follow.

All of which is to say, this is a genre I’ve had my eye on always, but didn’t necessarily plan to work in. In terms of voice and territory—realism, no vampires; ironically this may be the first book I’ve written that didn’t include a ghost in the early drafts—I plant myself alongside Andrea Seigel and Cynthia Kadohata. They both write about regular kids who are smart, irreverent and brutally honest in the way they observe the world around them (without being overly precocious or precious, which is a pet peeve of mine). Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that both have written for adults too.

I guess a difference would be the worlds we write about. Andrea Seigel’s characters are upper-middle-class Orange County kids, sometimes secular Jews. Kadohata’s are mostly Japanese-American and working class. These differences matter and don’t matter.

My character, Tilly, was raised by a young single mother in a small desert town. When her mom decides to go to UCLA, Tilly lands in Westwood, a neighborhood of wealthy kids and Iranian immigrants. Although this is just the backdrop for what is ultimately a mother-daughter story, backdrop matters. Tilly has to make her way in this new world without her overworked mom’s help.

In the psychotherapy world, there’s this concept of the “good enough” mother, the mother who will be there for her child but also give her child space to develop healthy coping mechanisms. Regular Bread and Bread readers might imagine what a useful concept this is for me. Tilly’s story is the story of learning to live with her own good-enough mother. This feels very quietly radical in a genre that is still rife with perfect dead mothers (see this article, which I found fascinating and embarrassingly triggering because in my fucked-up little mind I am the dead mother, the bad stepmother, the father with womb envy AND the orphan).

The saddest movie in the world. At least she got to live a little while before they offed her.

Why do you write about what you do?

My current projects are shamelessly autobiographical. My partner and I started trying to adopt a baby through open adoption a few years ago; I think there’s a reality show about open adoption, and it’s no wonder.* The process is rife with drama. You’re basically sending a woman in crisis on a blind date with a person/couple/family whose hearts have already been broken in one way or another. Writing about this process (hopefully with a bit more insight than the average reality show—although some reality shows are better than anything I could come up with) was a no-brainer.

I assumed I would write from the point of view of a pregnant teenager or an adopted child. (One of my early ideas involved a kid with five moms—birthmom, two adoptive moms who had split up, two stepmoms. Maybe I’ll still write that at some point.) The open adoption world is also full of scams, from really obvious money-grubbing ones to mysterious “emotional” scams. Somewhere along the way, it dawned on me that the more interesting and unusual story would examine why someone would do something like that.

Having an adoption scammer as my protagonist has been interesting. It’s the first time I’ve written about a character who’s done something so undeniably and (somewhat) intentionally bad. What’s the saying about all unhappy families being unhappy in their own unique way? I think the same is true for emotional adoption scammers. There is probably a through-line of wanting attention, but there are a million reasons someone might be desperate for attention.

Also, it’s the first book I’ve written where the plot has been at the forefront. Usually I start with a mood or a theme or an idea, and the plot follows. That said, there are still all kinds of ideas I’m working through with this project:
  • The Good Enough Mother, like I said
  • Why/how pregnancy is such fucking currency in our culture
  • High school being about more than high school, especially when your home life is in upheaval
  • Mentors, role models and idealized figures (which can be different sides of the same coin)
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Popular kids who aren’t assholes, weirdoes who aren’t saints (but also some popular kids who are assholes) 

How does your writing process work?

Well, sometimes it doesn’t. See this post about how I just flipped my schedule on its head to deal with the fact that I suck at writing in the evenings. I don’t have kids—have I mentioned we’re trying to adopt?—but I am married to a person who likes us to have a social life (I do too) and I have a pretty demanding job, so time management is a constant, unglamorous juggle.

And by “time management” I mean “trying to create a day that doesn’t leave me so exhausted that I waste all my time on fashion websites and trolling Facebook making myself feel worse, when I really want to devote only like an hour to those activities.”

On a good day—and today is a good day because of the aforementioned schedule-flipping—my writing process looks something like this:
  • Go to a coffee shop (home is both too quiet and too full of things that need cleaning; plus by this point I have a Pavlovian response to the smell of coffee, where it makes me want to write)
  • Read something inspiring while drinking coffee and possibly snacking on carbohydrates
  • When the words and caffeine kick in, start writing
  • Keep writing till I have to go to work/etc./etc.
Lather, rinse, repeat until I have a book.

The larger process-arc of every project is a little different, but I’ve discovered that I tend to write straight through until I have a draft, outlining as a necessary evil as I go. My first drafts have unusually clean sentences (thank you, college journalism!) and predictably messy plots.

I’m going to tag two writers I adore, as writers and people, who may or may not have time to play this game: Noel Alumit and Myriam Gurba.

*Do you have a spare baby? I mean, like, seriously? Or maybe your teenage daughter or next door neighbor is knocked up and thinking she’d like to keep in touch with the kid but not actually do diaper duty? Check out our adoption page and then email me.

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