Monday, October 31, 2011

A realistic NaNoWriMo goal?

Late last night, in a fit of exhausted inspiration, I signed up for NaNoWriMo, even though I questioned recently whether I should attempt it again.

This year I am being realistic—that is, not very ambitious, since it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to carve out enough time this week to start it off well.

The working title of my forthcoming work: (NaNoWriMo insists that you provide a novel title in order to register): Whatever I Can Think of to Write in Any Given Moment.

The genre: Memoir/Stream of consciousness (a genre I may have made up since I had to write it in under the category of "Other").

I'm aiming for 10,000 words this year, one-fifth of the official NaNoWriMo goal, or around 350 words a day (not the 1,667 words that the contest suggests). I've decided to write about the people and moments I've wanted to recall over the years, to remember them more vividly, to recreate and then ameliorate the past. This may only last through the first five days before I go on to something else I've always meant to do.

So I say am trying to be realistic, but I confess there's some tiny glimmer of hope inside me that Whatever I Can Think of to Write in Any Given Moment eventually will be considered a ground-breaking, creative masterpiece marking a new and unforeseen category of memoir-ish fiction.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The economics of the creative life

Occupy Wall Street resonates with me because I was once young, out of college, and unable to find work. Even then,  it was hard to find gainful employment with a humanities (Western Civilization) degree.

But, in retrospect, things were easier three decades ago.  I moved from California to Idaho and soon found work at a local bookstore. My top salary there was $4.65/hour, which allowed me to pay my rent ($160/month including utilities for a one-bedroom apartment), buy food from the local food co-op, buy clothes and shoes, and go to movies and eat out occasionally.

I had no health insurance so, of course, I was one accident or serious illness away from debt. Still, I was able to go to the doctor for check-ups on my meager salary. The cost of my last doctor's visit in Coeur d'Alene, at a specialist's office, was $20—my insurance co-pay is more than that now.

Most importantly, I graduated from UC-Santa Cruz virtually debt-free. At that time, there was no tuition charge for state residents, only a quarterly fee of $300. My rent—in houses ranging from shabby beach cottages to elegant Victorians downtown—was never more than $160/month. My total debt after I graduated was around $1,500.

Now UC-Santa Cruz costs $26,000/year for room and board—just tuition and fees is around $13K. The average rent in Santa Cruz is around $800 for a studio apartment and $2,500 for a three-bedroom house. There used to be students living in makeshift tree houses and teepees in the woods—I imagine the woods are getting pretty crowded now.

And local bookstores are virtually gone, as are all the other former fall-backs for the well-read and over-educated—video stores, comic book stores,  etc. But even if they were around, and still paying a buck or two above minimum wage, I can't imagine how a graduate would be able to work there and live independently while paying off thousands and thousands of dollars of student loan debt.

Perhaps it is cruel to allow students of small means to continue to graduate with English and other types of humanities degrees, especially to take on massive debt in doing so. It was short-sighted when I graduated with no marketable skills—but the world was more welcoming then. I could make and live on a small salary without the despair of being indebted and stuck in my indebtedness. I went on to graduate school specifically to get a better paying job.

But I also don't want to imagine a world where only the rich can study literature and brilliant students with limited incomes must go directly to fast food or retail or whatever jobs will still be left in this country for non-math majors (or skilled laborers) in the near future.

I'm not sure that drumming and singing on the sidewalk is really helping. Yet, at least, it is giving voice to the discontent that has been welling up for years—a frustration that could, still, turn to rage.

Photo above: Lake Coeur d'Alene, circa 1984. Back then, the lake was just a few blocks from my cheap digs. Now houses along the lake go for more than a million bucks—so this is no longer an easy visage for the poor.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

NaNoWriMo or NaNoWriNo?

A friend asked recently if I intended to do NaNoWriMo this year. I said I wasn't sure. Since that time,  my potential answer has swung daily between "How could I?" to "How could I not?". That's because I'm in the midst of revising the middle-grade novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo last November.

Without the pressure to write a novel in a month, I probably wouldn't have written this particular novel—so I'm thankful to NaNoWriMo for that. But writing that fast, without any time for revision or reflection along the way, also means that some of the resulting text is extraneous, to put it politely.

I had to try to meet my 1,800 word goal every day, so I often wrote about whatever popped into my head. New characters would appear and speak their minds, whether they needed to be in this particular book or not. One description (not five or six) about how much my heroine loved to read would have been sufficient.

The hard part now is figuring out what is worth keeping. I've realized that good prose doesn't necessarily mean good fiction—hence, many well-written sentences need to be deleted. I've spent as much time now hacking through my second draft as I did writing that first draft last year.

If I attempt NaNoWriMo again, I've decided the best option will be to try to write interconnecting-stories-as-a-novel. That way, I can choose the best stories to keep, hacking away without the worry of any visible scar tissue between chapters or even paragraphs.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Despite my earlier disdain for Twitter, I have begun to tweet a few times a week. It has helped ease my withdrawal from Facebook. And, unlike other social networking sites, it's surprisingly easy to do from my non-smart cell phone. But the real reason I like Twitter is: subject headings.

(Once upon a time, my dream job was to be a subject cataloger at the Library of Congress. It was a vision of putting the universe in order, one subject heading at a time. Alas, it was dashed when I actually took a cataloging class. Cataloging is a precise art, particularly the assignment of call numbers. The Dewey Decimal system drove me up the wall with its long strings of numbers. One number off in a class assignment meant that it was all worth zero points, even with perfect subject headings.)

But I still like labeling things. Hence, my new-found (and probably temporary) love of Twitter. The hashtags (#) mark the searchable phrase—the creative part is in coming up with new phrases. I've been thrilled to discover that I'm the first to type in: #5wordTVreviews (based on an earlier blog post). I'm planning to also start #literarymaps, to mark any new ones I find. The possibilities of new, searchable phrases appear to be endless—though, the downside is that no one will know to look for them if they're not already well-used (and that most Twitter users are not looking for insights from the middle-aged anyway).

So, for whatever it is worth,  I add my voice to the narcissistic hum, in as few characters as possible.