Scene of the write: Colectivo Coffee

I envy how little kids can fall and get back up without blinking an eye.

An almost sickeningly cute child in glasses just took a nosedive off the bench outside the window, tucked, rolled, and resumed eating his perfectly in-tact, cartoonish pink-frosted donut like nothing had happened. Meanwhile, little sister in white tights and black vinyl Mary Janes looked on, absentmindedly patting the head of her minature beagle mut mix of whatever.

Last time I took a spill like that, I bled through the knee of my jeans during an entire Colts-Dolphins game at Lucas Oil Stadium. A blend of blood and leaking ego turned the denim black.

There are two women down the row from us. One just announced she couldn’t decide whether to buy something in a size two or four. Then she continued picking at her avocado toast.

What I thought might be a coffee first-date next to me turned out to be a few friends meeting up. That’s why I like coffee shops on Sunday afternoons: A lot of times you get first dates between people who met at the bar on Friday and knew they’d be too hungover the next day to be first-date worthy. But no, these are just a couple mix-matched grad students from DePaul trading stories of where they studied abroad: Peru, Sweden, Texas.

Of course, I don’t even know how many people have eavesdropped on my conversations in these places before. I’m sure it made someone’s nght when The Man With Time on His Arm and I discussed Taco Bell Cantina’s presumable house wine as a fermented version of their taco sauce. Or just now, with Frannie and I talking about starting a Tindr-like app for people who want to spend just an hour with a dog on their lap while watching Judge Judy.

Oh, the conversation snipets we leave behind, like skin cells and donut sprinkles smeared across the pavement outside this window. 

 

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#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 26: The city’s ribcage

For being called “The Oculus,” it looks more like a ribcage than something that can see — especially in this February fog. Its bones splay out, opening its spine up to the sky and exposing the invisible heart that floats within. It’s the heart that holds all of the memories of what used to be in this spot before that Tuesday in September, so no wonder the ribcage is open: It’s trying to let out some of that agony.

The Oculus building stands in New York at the World Trade Center

The Oculus in New York overshadowed by a February fog.

Writespiration: Birthing a story

Maybe I heard this somewhere else before and am just stealing it now. If that’s the case, please tell me. If not, read me out:

Writing a story is like giving birth.

I say this having never given birth myself, but knowing several people who have. No birth is the same. Some are somewhat easy — Mom says she practically sneezed my sister out — and others require scalpels and spinal injections. But in the end, writing anything leaves you feeling tired, accomplished and relieved, with a beautiful future of shepherding the work throughout the rest of its (and possibly your) life.

The same goes for writing. Some stories and poems exit fairly smoothly: Not too smoothly. That means they’re not done being told yet: And these premie stories require a lot of nurturing before they can stand on their own. That’s not to say they’re bad or nonviable. Most National Novel Writing Month stories are this way, sliding out tactlessly only to mature on the outside when an editor’s pen goes to them. They’re just deceptively slippery and too anxious to land on a page.

Then there are the 12-hour labors, the stories that leave you sweaty and exhausted but proud when they’re done. They can be reluctant to leave the warmth of the womb-like imagination, grappling at the walls with their little fingernails to stay inside just a little longer, using plot holes and unclear transitions like handholds. But eventually they, too, squeeze themselves onto a page.

And then there are the Cesarean sections of stories — the ones that a writer has to cut themselves open to extract because of a deadline or misguided promise or pressure from readers. I’ve read too many books by authors that took a knife to their brain, ripped it open and plopped the story onto a page without much more care, Sadly, the stitches used to close their brains back up often heal wrong, making it impossible for them to ever write another thing that doesn’t read forced.

If I’m being honest, Omaha was a C-Section of a book because I had a literary agent waiting to read it. But my newest project goes from easy to laborious and back again — completely enjoyable the entire time as I leisurely let it make its way from brain to page.

Writespiration: Tell the whole truth, or nothing but a little of the truth?

Today is a hot one in Chicago — the kind of wet electric blanket heat that flash-steams your lungs and makes a hot yoga studio more comfortable than out on the street. Plus, at least you know every vinyasa is toning your triceps and there’s no self-consciousness because everyone around you is sweating, too.

Well, almost everyone.

While most of us were risking our lives doing crow pose and Warrior II in puddles of our own making, the woman next to me didn’t let a single drop of sweat fall from her skin. She was perspiring, but instead of leaving it all literally on the mat, she was coated in a glossy sheen that made her look like she had the same perfectly golden skin as a roasted chicken.*

*I hadn’t eaten anything in 16 hours when I went to class, in case you were wondering.

And then I remembered something my friend Aya said — or maybe it was something I said to her, or maybe it’s something I thought I should say to her:

“Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class.”

Right now I’m working on a book that’s going to have a couple twists and oh-shit moments, and even though I know where they are in the plot, I have no idea how I’m going to get there. When I thought of that line of dialogue this morning — whether spoken in my real life or not — I figured out an important piece of that journey. Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class: And it just so happens this one character never comes out of the studio looking damper than she did when she went in. It’s the clue the main character needs to crack the mystery wide open.

 

Funny, how adapting small quotes or details from life seems to be a lot easier for me than actually writing a full story of something going on in my life.

A week ago I started mentally writing the intro for a non-fiction book that I want to write one day. It describes meeting someone who’s now a large part of my life, and if all parties involved give me permission, maybe I’ll publish it on this blog. It’s the first time as an adult that I’ve written about a relationship in my life without disguising the names or weaving it into a story about characters that only exist in my head.

The writing part was easy because I’ve told the full story to enough people verbally that I’ve had time to perfect the language, pace the plot, time the jokes and edit out the parts my “audience” finds boring. It’s like I’ve been working on an invisible draft of the story for months before even putting pen to paper.

But the actual act of committing the story to a page with the intention of someone else reading it? That takes moxie — and a bit of monstrosity, according to Anthony Bourdain:

“If you’re a writer or a storyteller of any kind, there is something already kind of monstrously wrong with you. Let’s face it — it is an unreasonable attitude to look in the mirror the morning and think, ‘You know, there are people out there who would really like to hear my story.'”

And I think that’s what it is. I don’t like putting stories from my life down on paper because it feels like my ego is getting in the way of my judgment of what makes a good story. I’m comfortable thinking “That line about not trusting people who don’t sweat at yoga is great for a book,” but not comfortable thinking “That journey about how I hated all forms of physical activity until I found yoga at 19 would make a great nonfiction piece.” Everyone has a story like that, and I guarantee more than one person has written it down — and well, too.

But I think I’ve found a story worth telling now. And so we’ll see how going from “fiction with a smattering of truth” to “truth that reads like conventional rom-com fiction” goes. I think I might be ready to sweat it.

Vignette: In search of an idea

My left shoe’s heel is worn down to the nail. Now when I take a step just the wrong way, the even click-clack-click-clack that usually accompanies my gait turns into a click-clack-tonk-clack-click-clack-plink-clack, and I’m reminded how much tile is in this office every time I walk down the hall to an uneven backbeat.
But sitting at my desk is hardly an option, because even though the click-clack-click-clack of the keys beneath my fingers remains consistent, the ideas they’re spelling out go click-clack-click-clack-plunk-plunk-plunk-plunk as I type and backspace, type and backspace. “Write something fresh,” I tell my fingers, but they don’t want to cooperate.
They’re not sure whether too many people have written about the way Christopher Nolan’s characters tend to die midsentence, like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “Harvey, listen to me, some–” BOOM. Or in the middle of Matt Damon’s villain monologue blocking out Matthew McConaughey’s warning not to BOOM. Or Ellen Paige being slammed by flying café debris while asking Leo DiCaprio why, if this is a dream, they BOOM. And they know too many people have pointed out the director’s fascination with dead or murdered wives, despite his own spouse being his producing partner on every project.
So instead they try to remember the typing patterns that wrote the letter to Pixar asking if Bonnie in Toy Story 3 was supposed to be an older version of Boo in Monsters, Inc., long before a more developed “Pixar universe theory” surfaced online.
They try to replicate how they wrote about the parallels between the Republican National Convention in July and the plot of Space Jam.
They rack their fingertips against the desk, wondering what click-clacking had at one time composed 2,000 words under the title “Bang Bang: The Sexuality of Gun-Slinging, Sword-Fighting Women of Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise and Kill Bill.”
They even tried to replicate the exact path they took across the keyboard when crash-typing the social and political messages behind the hero flying a nuclear bomb away from civilians in the finales of two of 2012’s most successful films, Avengers Assemble and The Dark Knight Rises.
But the choreography is gone from their memory, and the dance steps are out of practice, so all they can do is replicate the sound of my shoes in the hall. Click-clack-tonk-clack-plunk-plunk-plunk-plunk-click-clack-click-clack.

Nonfiction: Reset, then resolve

Why do we resolve without resetting first?

It’s like painting a wall that’s been beat up over the last year with a fresh color, but neglecting to first fill in the angry gouge we made the night we realized we let someone else do the same to our self-confidence. The pin pricks that accrued quietly and subtly as a relationship deteriorated until they became a full cavity. The scattered knuckle-sized dents from when we beat ourselves up over not landing that job, not saying “no” to that cheesecake, not writing all week. It’s easier to ignore the past and try to cover it up.

To make the paint stick and the resolutions work, you need to examine every flaw and determine just how much spackle is needed to fill it in, to heal it. Sometimes you overcompensate: You see a nail hole from a poorly placed priority and glop it on, creating that a swath of stucco that has to be sanded down to get back to the true wall — the true self. Other times you have no idea just how many layers of putty are needed to heal a seemingly shallow dent from a misguided comment, so it takes a few tries. But you do it all thoroughly, and you learn as you go, and promise that next year there won’t be so much to fix.

There will be, by the way. Possibly more. But that’s next year.

Then, only then, can you start to paint with the new color: Resolve to work out more, eat better, drink less alcohol, drink more water, work harder, work smarter, work only 9 to 5, start a side business, invent something, pitch that novel, finish that screenplay, find the one, ditch the loser, spend more time with family, travel independently, read more books, surf the web less, call that friend from college, delete your Facebook. Every resolution completed is another layer of paint, but every failure is another scratch you’re already prepared to fix this time next year.

Nonfiction: “Terminal L”

Let me tell you about Terminal L.

Because if you’ve never flown to a college town from Chicago, you’ve probably never had the pleasure to observe this part of O’Hare International Airport.

It’s like a campus in itself. There’s a McDonald’s, vegan snack station, Bank of America ATM and bubble tea stand, though you wouldn’t notice them behind the everlasting line for the crown jewel: Starbucks. The frappucino ingredients are the first to run out as students load up on caffeine and sugar — mostly sugar — before returning to institutions of higher learning, where the brain damage incurred by childhoods fueled by corn syrup, aspartame and Red Color No. 3 is no match for tuition bills and student loans.

Passengers walk around in hoodies and athletic shorts, regardless of the weather outside. Mismatched socks and Adidas slider sandals are the footwear of choice for about 49.8 percent of men here, and 38 percent of the female population carries sequined Victoria Secret tote bags that wear down the hip of their leggings. The other 62 percent lug around quilted Vera Bradley in colors God never imagined would be coupled together in one paisley pattern.

And then there are the hats. Pork pies, fedoras, newsboy caps, trucker hats, snapbacks, beanies, earflap-and-pompom hats and even a top hat crown the moving crowd, as if status is directly correlated to the obscurity of each style. Top Hat is probably working on his second PhD.

But the most utilitarian — and conspicuous — choice of headwear is a full microphone headset worn by a 20-something man balancing a laptop, mouse and external hard drive on his lap at Gate L6A, where the gate attendants have just announced a flight will be boarding. As precise as a sniper packing up his weapon, he stores the entire setup in the suitcase at his feet, nesting it around a box labeled “Game Capture HD 60” and a roll of red raffle tickets.

Replacing him is a 25-year-old woman daring to return to the place that prepared her for nine-hour days and two weeks of annual paid time off. She’s just changing chairs, though: The flickering fluorescent bulb above her original seat cast dizzying light on the pages of the Margaret Atwood novel nestled in her lap. But even in this more stable lighting, it’s hard to concentrate.

As she looks around at the people just three or four years younger than her, she wonders how a relatively short period of time has made her feel so much older than these broke dreamers about to board the same tin can hurtling toward mid-Missouri. Maybe it’s because she’s still in her office clothes — tights, boots, Calvin Klein dress, flaking mascara and her own cap of exhausted hairspray. Maybe it’s because she’s leaving for what she calls “vacation” and they call “midterm exams.” Or maybe it’s that she’s sipping straight black coffee instead of a smoked butterscotch frappucino with extra whipped cream and a cookie straw.

They call my flight. I dump the rest of my coffee in a nearby water fountain and line up at the gate, adjusting my tights on the way.