Desert critters: part I

The tortoise is what I aspire to.
     Methodical.
     Steadfast.
     Self-contained.

I am no tortoise.

I think of the lizards us kids would stalk and chase
and hunt, not to kill, but to capture: live.

To keep as a pet in a shoebox with some sand.

Sometimes on those desert hikes
you come across the ghostly scales shed:
curved, in the shape of a snake,
or the tail and maybe part of a leg of some friendlier
     creature
(in sidewinder and scorpion territory you fear no lizard)

I enjoy sunning myself on a flat rock,
     feeling that warmth in my cold blood.

I flick my tongue to taste the air
     for water, for danger

And I know when it is time
to shed my present skin of scales, to leave that
ghostly impression of me somewhere on a desert floor.

How 2011 looks from the rearview mirror

Given that everything changed in 2010, 2011 had a lot to live up to. My expectations were high. And while not everything I planned to accomplish in 2011 came to pass (thought I’d finally buy a car– oh well), much more than I expected did.

A funny thing happened yesterday: for about a minute, I was feeling sorry for myself because David and I just ended things about two weeks ago after close to a year together (we started dating at the end of January). Single again, just like last year, I was thinking. In the same job, making the same wage (well, except for that 3% cost of living increase back in October). It’s like I’m right back where I started. Haven’t gotten anywhere. Aren’t you supposed to look back on the year and think about how much you’ve grown? Which is, of course, ridiculous. What have I managed to do with myself this year?

Well . . .

I was in my second musical: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I kept up with my jazz and ballet classes, and even added tap to the mix, though I really didn’t want to, at first.

I saw lots of great live theater, including Mark Morris’ dance troupe at the Mondavi Center, Urinetown, The Wizard of Oz, Cabaret (twice; I really liked that one), and The Doorway, which knocked my socks off.

I made it to two baseball games– the Rivercats in May, and the Giants (to see Timmy pitch! for my birthday!) in September.

I traveled plenty, with trips home in March, October and December, plus first-time visits to Lawrence, Kansas in March, and Amador Wine County in May, and then there was the best vacation of the year: the really lovely train/road trip that David and I took to the Northwest in August.

But the real story of 2011 was writing. That’s where all the real growth happened. Yes, the blog has been sporadic at best. While I’d hoped that by now I’d have begun serious revisions of the memoir I completed in September, the draft still languishes. But that the draft exists still blows me away. And all the writing that enabled it– I’ve been journaling daily. Three pages, every day (The Artist’s Way). And while I’ve slipped on some days, I’ve always managed to dutifully get back into the habit. Now that I’ve got my first complete year of daily practice under my belt, I can do a little simple math, and recognize that I’ve written more than a thousand pages this year. I’m not so good with numbers so I don’t know how many words that translates to, but when I think back on it, it’s a lot. It’s a lot of hours I’ve spent hunched over my desk, pen to paper or fingers to keys, putting words on paper. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes incidentally. And some of the time, I have been extremely pleased with the results.

So much so that I am ready to make a go of more seriously pursuing the craft! If you had told me a year ago that I would be applying for MFA programs right now, I would have found that highly improbable. If you had told me that I would be applying with confidence that my writing sample is strong and merits real consideration, I would have doubted you entirely.

And that‘s what happened in 2011.

Oh! and I can’t let the year in review go without nods to Poetry Night in Davis, for the wonderful experience I’ve had listening to poetry and sharing at the open mic there, and to my writing instructor, Rae, for whom no adjectives suffice. The three Creative Nonfiction workshops I’ve taken this year have altered the course of my life in the best possible way, and I cannot wait to begin my fourth.

So I guess you could say I have grown this year. As sad as I’ve been lately about the breakup, I know it was as good an ending as one could hope for: no hard feelings, no ill will. I even have hopes that we’ll manage to maintain a friendship.

I’ve gotta say, 2011 set the bar pretty high.

You’ve got some big shoes to fill, 2012. Let’s do this thing.

Momentum

Blogging must be the hardest writing there is.

Oh, I’ve been essaying like a mad thing. All year I’ve been working on a book, a memoir, and I’m in my third section of a creative nonfiction writers’ group, during which I’ve workshopped six pieces, four of which I’ve submitted for publication. I’m hopeful, but certainly not holding my breath.

But blogging feels like something different. Perhaps it’s an unfair bias, but I don’t want to put my essays into the blogosphere. I want literary recognition. Is that silly? Am I a luddite to still believe in paper and editors and things that take a long time?

I’ll tell you some things. I’m applying to MFA programs for next fall. I’ve told my boss that I’m leaving my job next summer to pursue writing. I fully expect to be back in school next fall, but that’s out of my hands. If it doesn’t happen? I’m still leaving my job. Even if just temporarily, just to see if I can piece together a living through words.

This has been the plan since forever. I just forgot for about ten years.

Last weekend I went home. I rented a car and made the seven hour drive (each way) solo, wanting to take in the landscape between Davis and Victorville one last time before potentially leaving California. I spent lots of quality time with my nephews, brother, Mom. We visited my Dad’s grave in Riverside. We brought flowers and circus animal cookies. It was 92 degrees in Riverside and I foolishly wore jeans. I got the kids to play ’20 questions’ to help pass the time on the 45-minute drive to and from the cemetery– a mere blip compared to my long haul, but to an 8- and 9-year old, interminable.

At home, I gathered old photos. I wanted remembrances of all my departed to make an altar for Dia de los Muertos, and possessed no pictures of my maternal grandparents or paternal grandfather, or of Dad’s Grandma, Granny, the oldest relative I knew. I found photos of each of them, and of some departed uncles, great-uncles, and some fabulous black-and-whites from the 40s and earlier, of people I don’t know and even Mom didn’t recognize, but photos that spoke to me of history and lineage nonetheless.  I brought them all back, but that’s not all I brought.

There were lots of good reasons to make the long drive instead of taking a short flight home last weekend, but what I really wanted to do was collect my trunk and bring it back. The old-fashioned steamer trunk-style foot locker that my parents bought for me to tote my personal effects to my college dorm room, and which wound up coming back with me and remaining at Mom’s house during my first boomerang move back home in 2000. I filled the trunk with memories: snapshots and portraits, journals, yearbooks, letters and greeting cards, old poems, stories, and essays. It lived in the closet of the spare room/my room, with a lock on it, and naturally I left the key at my place in Davis. Steve helped me load the trunk into the back of the rental (it was too heavy for me to lift by myself), and I drove it the long way back to Davis. Across the desert and over the Tehachapi pass. Highway 99 from Bakersfield to Stockton, jam-packed with trucks and cars and people getting from here to there. Highway 4, the shortcut across Stockton, to the 5 North and Sacramento and the 80 West and traffic all throughout the causeway, traffic and NPR my constant companions from Stockton on. And I got home and I wrestled the trunk into my apartment and found the padlock key in my dresser drawer and unlocked the treasure chest.

So many memories. So much evidence of who I am, who I have always been. The whole history is there: I have been writing so long. And I was always good at it. Maybe I wasn’t as keen of an editor as I think I am now, but even in early works it is plain that I was in love with words. And I think I’ve come so far but all the things I’m thinking about, working through, focusing  my writing on– it’s always been what it is now. My poems and stories in high school deal with all the same themes I’m up to now. Isn’t that amazing? Or utterly unsurprising?

I gave myself a deadline of my thirty-third birthday, now a month and a half ago, to complete a draft of a memoir, in thirty three chapter-essays. I met that goal, but have had difficulty returning to the manuscript to begin the work of figuring out what it’s trying to be. I want and need more time to spend on it, but my pesky job keeps getting in the way. But if I’m honest with myself, I know there is no hurry to finish the book. The writing has been patiently waiting for me to pay attention to it for all these years, and now that I am, I feel obligated to make up for lost time, all the years I spent out of practice because I thought I didn’t have what it takes. Now I’m coming to consciousness that I do have what it takes. The book will happen in time. For now, I will just keep writing.

And, I hope, blogging.

Blossom

A perennial flower, blossoming, blooming, thriving, then dying; going to seed, returning to earth, waiting a season or three, then blossoming, blooming again: let’s say that’s why my portfolio is so slim, so sporadic. I’m a late bloomer.

I didn’t think it was going to happen that way. I was 9 or 10 when I started writing in earnest. By high school, I believed I was going to win a Pulitzer by the age of 30.

My 5th grade teacher, Mr. Morgan, gave us weekly creative writing assignments. They were always due on a Monday. One weekend, on or around Groundhog’s Day, I had been procrastinating, and didn’t work on the assignment until the last minute, Monday morning at my desk, waiting for the bell to ring.

That glorious Monday, I learned about the power of deadline, and under pressure, produced a masterpiece.

The masterpiece, a poem in trochaic tetrameter with ‘abab’ rhyme scheme, was called “The Groundhog.” I astonished myself with the way it flew from my pencil, fully formed, instantly apprehended. That piece, and the way it came to me, assured me of my Gift. “The Groundhog” won first place in a district-wide competition for creative writing at the end of the school year, and with that little taste of victory, I grew hungry for more.

In the 6th grade, our D.A.R.E. program featured an essay contest. My treatise on why drugs and alcohol were bad won. That was also the year I won our district’s spelling bee, and took home a trophy nearly as tall as I was.

But it went underground a few years– middle school, 9th grade, I wasn’t writing. I mean, I may have journaled some, but there are no poems or stories from those years, when I was just anxious a lot of the time. Sassy magazine was my bible and I conjured a nascent feminist identity from its glossy pages, among ads for T’rific skin care products and Caboodles. All around me girls were turning into women, but I was small-breasted, with glasses and braces, painfully adolescent.

I guess I was too busy trying to author my womanhood to do any writing then. It makes sense that I started up again in the 10th, 11th grade, just as I was getting comfortable in my skin. Braces gave way to perfectly straight teeth; the boobs I wanted never quite got to the size I’d have liked, but at least there was something there; I got contact lenses. Emerging into confident teenagehood, my pen was suddenly prolific. Short stories became my new preferred genre, and I cranked them out weekly. My junior year I submitted a slew of my work for Barstow’s Desert Heritage Writing Contest, and practically swept all the awards in every category.

At college, I invested a lot in the cultivation of a proper aesthetic. I started exploring poetry. I worked hard on reading it, writing it, made friends with fellow poets and harbored a secret desire to read at a poetry slam like the ones I sometimes went to. I won Gonzaga’s poetry prize, the Costello Award, in 1999. I got a plaque and $100. The plaque was presented to me by the chair of the department at a ceremony where most of the honorees were faculty. I listened with great interest to the kinds of academic work that was being recognized; it was my first glimpse at what professors did when they weren’t teaching. After the ceremony, I approached the English Department chair, my Shakespeare and Milton instructor, to ask him about the $100, which was not presented at the ceremony. He sent me to the Department secretary, who sent me to the Registrar’s office, where I eventually did get my check, but first he said to me, “Yes, seize upon that prize money, make sure that you get it; it may be the most you’re ever paid for your poetry.”

I mean, I know where he was coming from– after all, this was the guy who had told us that more volumes of poetry are shoplifted than sold at bookstores each year– but, still.

I decided shortly thereafter that my life and needs would best be suited by a career in academia. After all, why would anyone want to hear anything I might have to say, before I was fully versed in the Greats?

That misapprehension lasted about five years, before I took my Master’s and fled. It took another five years before I’d put pen to paper, fingers to keys, and start calling myself a writer again.

I’m a writer. I’m writing my first book right now. I’m writing it because it seems silly to be thirty two and have a bibliography of zero. There’s a lot of work I have to do, lots of books I have to write, that I have been waiting to write. I’ve got a lot more reading to do, as well. But I’ll never make any of it happen if I don’t get all this out first. The memoir. The story of the life, up to now. My introduction to the world of letters. What I see, how I see it, in the way I want it told.

Debut

Last fall, I gave myself a deadline of September 14, 2011 (my 33rd birthday) to write a book– a memoir in 33 short essays or vignettes. In January, I enrolled in a proper Creative Nonfiction course, and I’m now in my second session of that course. Last week, I submitted my first essay for publication in a local lit mag. I’m not sure whether to expect it to be accepted, but I’m proud of this personal milestone that subjecting my work to the possibility of (gasp!) rejection represents.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m a writer.

And now that I’m a practicing writer, and it’s 2011, it seems the appropriate step to take to have a blog. I suppose I could wait until after I’m published, but as I previously mentioned, it’s 2011.  Lately I’ve been feeling a little sheepish that I didn’t have one. Plus, this way, when I am published, I’ll have a blog address to include with my author’s bio, and when readers visit, they will be delighted to find that the blog is extant, if new.

I sweated bullets over naming this thing, and was ready for my inaugural post to include a list of potential titles (finalists) and encourage readers to pick their favorites. That is, until “Mira, Mi’jita” popped into my head, and I knew it could be named nothing else. I did not make the decision lightly: this is not jut a blog, it’s a brand. And it’s a brand that’s affiliated with Melanie Madden, Writer, so it has to be of a piece with what I’m here to say, what I write about.

I’m glad that I found the right title (or that it found me), but because it’s fun, I now present the list of rejected blog names and my notes on the sort of blog direction I figure they implied:

False Start 2.0
Tongue-in-cheek: its melancholic humor is characteristic of my style. I want to distill and express all the amazing truth and beauty that I can get my hands on, and get my language on. I tried once before, but the route I was taking led me, personally, to a dead end (academia is not for everybody, but it is for some people), so this is my second attempt: False Start, 2.0 as a challenge to myself to remain a contradiction. To stick with this enterprise, this life of being a practicing writer, no matter how awkward it seems, no matter how delayed I feel.

Also, it looks cool abbreviated: FS2.0

Themes I Deem Seemly
I like to play with language, to the point of silliness. Themes I Deem Seemly points to that impulse: to play with English, to put on characters, to slather heavy coats of literary technique in places it doesn’t necessarily belong. Strong internal rhyming in a blog title, to wit. Alliteration is another atrocity (as is assonance).

Themes I deem seemly might cover a lot of ground. There are a number of topics that interest me, paths of inquiry that I hope to explore in my writing. I’m just one writer, and I can’t pursue all of them, but I will pursue the ones that I’m most driven to tackle. Right now I am working on a memoir, so issues of family and self-discovery are forefront on my mind. So you’ll probably be seeing a lot of that in this blog.

Also, it looks cool abbreviated: TIDS

If Enough of You Read This, I Can Quit My Day Job
Dripping with self-consciousness and hipster irony, I position myself as literary kin to all the cool kids in the blogosphere and contemporary letters. The blog becomes my real-life inspiration to turn writing from a part-time passion to a full-time profession.

Awkward to abbreviate, at best: IEOYRTICQMDJ
The abbreviated abbreviation isn’t bad, though: ICQMDJ

Ad Nauseum, Limited
Ad Nauseum:To a disgusting or absurd degree
Limited: 1. Confined within certain limits 2. Mediocre or qualified: A limited success.
Again, I like the playfulness of the oxymoron, the self-consciousness and humility. I promise to go on and on, to cover an exhaustive litany of topics… within reason.

I’m ambivalent about its abbreviation: ANL

Border Blender
This title acknowledges my culture and heritage as a half-caucasian, half-Mexican American, and the influence of Gloria Anzaldua, whose Borderlands/La Frontera is the most important book I’ve ever read. One part baseball and one part beisbol, half Halloween and half Dia De Los Muertos, one part missions and one part cathedrals. Blender to conjure refreshing slushy mixed drinks, like margaritas.

Can’t fault this abbreviation: BB

And here is the first draft of the possible blog title list, in its entirety:

Potential, Realized
Writer in Progress
Literacy for the Functionally Illiterate
Not-Boring Childhood Stories
Weird Shit I Notice
False Start 2.0
Life: A Miraculous Celebration
Themes I Deem Seemly
Define “Dream”
Love in an Elevator
If Enough of You Read This, I Can Quit My Day Job
Emotions Unleashed
Ad Nauseum Unlimited
Ad Nauseum, Limited
Walking Reverie
Prose and Portraiture
Border Blender
Stroke and Mirrors
Point on Pointe
Cocktail Hour for Your Conscience
People Prose
Nerve Tonic
Voice and Flow
Point of View to a Kill
Mel Verbs Words
Smarty Spice’s Soapbox
I Was on Jeopardy, Bitch
Making the Memoir: A Manual By Melanie Madden
Putative Poetry

* * *
That’s all for now!