Now I have a true confession to make: I'm not the only novelist in my house on the avocado ranch by the sea. Strange but true, there are two of us here: me and my husband, the fabulous Irish writer James Claffey.
Living with another writer is both amazing and difficult. On the upside, we both understand the need for alone time (When else can the words appear on the page?). We get the idea that our collective time and resources need to be channeled towards a potentially financially fruitless artistic pursuit. Need an in-house editor? Done. Want a living, breathing thesaurus at 10pm? He's here, in the kitchen, probably brewing a final cup of Barry's Irish tea (with milk, of course).
Less wonderful, however, are the inevitable comparisons between careers, petty jealousies, parallel deadlines and quibbles over who gets ownership of a particular amazing detail (like a person with pale, translucent skin being named the "glass fish"). At its lowest moment, I compare our relationship to the crumbling couple in that great indie film, The Squid and the Whale.
Unlike that couple, however, we're still happily together. We have managed to work these scribe-related annoyances out over post-dinner beers, when the baby is asleep and important topics can be poked and prodded and ironed and smoothed out. I guess I was totally naive when I imagined our writer's life together, pre-marriage, pre-kids, pre-dueling MFAs. I had no idea how difficult it would be for us to navigate both creative careers at once.
Back then, James dreamed of writing a novel, while I had three manuscripts under my belt (and also unpublished in boxes under my bed). I encouraged him to apply for writing programs and then, behold, he got in and, behold again, he got a great scholarship! He wrote and wrote, and I wrote a little, and soon enough he'd graduated and was still writing like he was in grad school (I have no idea how he found the time) and soon enough we both found ourselves buffing our manuscripts (his bright new Blood a Cold Blue
and mine, Women Float,
like an ancient vampire from the crypt) out to their final shine and preparing to send them out.
At this point, I got really nervous. It felt like a no-win moment. Of course I wanted us both to get books published. However, I felt anxious about the order of things. If I got a book deal first, I worried that I'd feel horrible at somehow overshadowing my writer-love. But if he got the acceptance first, that meant that I'd have yet another debilitating bout of "trailing wife" syndrome, that creepy feeling that you're living in your partner's writing shadow. You see where this is going.
"Wouldn't it be amazing if we both got book deals at the same time?" I asked my husband one day last year.
He gave me the "poor dear" look, that wordless Irish sneer of his that speaks volumes. I was probably pregnant at the time, which never helped me win any logic-bound arguments.
"What?" I asked. "It's possible."
But we both knew that idea was ridiculous. Childish. Magical thinking. An outlandish thought, like many of my so-called brilliant schemes, like owning a used car lot and selling all the cars for a penny. Not going to happen.
And then it did. But of course, James had to out-do me by getting two books into the world (more on the second one later this year.) It turns out both of our book deals were less "Oprah" moments, and more carefully negotiated conversations that resulted in publishing deals with small presses. I think this simultaneous show of success is the universe's way of reinforcing our bond, telling us, "Hey, you two, stick together and I'll make big things happen for you both."
I do believe that creative people, when paired up, have a logarithmic affect on each other, like the Richter scale to measure earthquakes. Two creatives don't double each other's possibilities. Instead, their energies are increased exponentially, in ways they can't always see. Get a group of creatives together and watch out. I've seen this happen more than once with my own circles, but somehow I didn't anticipate it in my marriage.
Or for my own creative work. Individually, I've labeled this in-tune-with-the-universe moment, "en fuego." You've seen this happen. When a friend gets drink bought for them, wins the lottery, gets honors bestowed without trying, this is all an "en fuego" moment. Now I need a new term, for two people in the flow. Or more. Do you feel like James and I are influencing your creative luck? Are you part of this pod of creative souls who are flinging yourselves into our orbits? Or are we all just becoming aware of the same creative moon as it rises on our collective horizon at the same time, like people living on the same lattitude and longitude of the same slow-spinning planet that is just now seeing the rising of its lone moon for the first time in our lives?
James and I are not always on the same planet, nor in the same place at the same time, creatively speaking. Sometimes we're not even in the same solar system. But when we are: watch out. We are like supernovas of writing brilliance. Or at least my Irish writer is a pretty stunning cosmic array. To find out what I'm talking about, pre-order his book Blood a Cold Blue HERE
Does anyone remember the Richard Scarry children's books about various animals engaged in everyday misadventures, like a cat flying a kite that gets caught in a tree or a fox as a carpenter banging his foot? With characters like Lowly the Worm and Huckle Cat? (See the above YouTube video for an animated version of his stories.) Well, I've been thinking of these bizarre remnants from my childhood all week for two reasons.
First of all, the characters in these brilliant books all drive cars that echo either their personality, job or both. For example, Lowly the Worm drives an apple-helicopter and the monkey drives a giant banana-shaped car. I loved this as a kid. It made so much sense to me and these whimsical automobiles were so much inspiring than the typical vehicles I rode around in.
So, after more than 30 years of dreaming of my own car that mirrors my true persona, I now have my own mermaid-car. Well, sort of. I don't drive a long, voluptuous, half-naked fish woman with flowing locks (yet), but I made my first step in that direction by sticking on a car magnet with the cover of my new novella, Women Floa
t, on the side of my very pedestrian ride. Now, stuck in traffic, I imagine people looking at me and wondering about the book and how to get their hands on one and how cool I must look with a book car magnet on my door.
The second reason I keep thinking of Richard Scarry is because of my daughter. She loves the image on the side of my car and she toddles over to it and points at it repeatedly, a high compliment for her. I also had an 8-year-old girl from the afterschool group I lead at the farm admire it. Mermaids are making me big with the pre-pre-pre teen crowd. Are there any marketing stats on this group? I'd call them neener-tweeners and let me tell you: mermaids are huge.
Is it the mythic fish-lady or Richard Scarry that is appealing to my daughter? See, just she started reading her first Richard Scarry book. A friend got it for us at a Carpinteria Friends of the Library Used Book Sale. I understood why the board book was on sale as soon as we got home. Each of the 10 pages included a jigsaw puzzle embedded in the page, all of which fell out and were lost as soon as we got home. No problem. My daughter doesn't worry about something trivial like losing puzzle pieces. She's still got pictures of Huckle Cat riding Lowly around on his bike and then watching him buzz off on his applecopter. And she now gets to admire Sargeant Murphy pulling over the monkey, Bananas, in his banana car.
I can't confirm this, yet, because she's not really talking but I think my daughter has re-named me with my own Richard Scarry-esque persona name, now that my car has a makeover. I think I'm now Wawamama. (That's Watermother to you.) I'll let you know for sure in a few months when I can discuss all this, and more, with my little reader.
In the mean time, thanks to everyone for their cheers of support for Women Float.
Jason, my publisher at CCLaP, told me to tell everyone who pre-ordered that books should start arriving this week. The book is now officially for sale here
and I look forward to the book launch, this Friday, in Carpinteria. Come see me so I can sign your book and we can discuss why so many of the Richard Scarry characters wear lederhosen.
Today, my debut novella Women Float launched. I'm at a loss. My book and I existed so well underwater, underground, entombed in that kind of perfect solitary wind tunnel that any artist understands. Input and output, all occurred in secret, a great compost heap of digested memory, experience, fantastic imagining, poof, into the brain and out through the great Play-Doh spaghetti factory of imagination. Never to be seen by anyone looking in from the outside.
Until today. You'd think I'd be prepared. Ready. It's not like I've never seen my writing in print. For better or worse, I've slaved or scammed a thousand fast and easy stories for weeklies, monthlies, newspapers, websites, anything. When people have asked me what I write, I've sometimes answered, "Anything that pays."
Is that like literary prostitution? If so, then I'm guilty of being a woman of the write. But writing on assignment, regardless of how minor the water board meeting or major the red carpet, was never like this. Because Women Float feels personal. The book feels like me.
I know, I know. I can hear you writing workshop graduates. I am not these words or the ones in my book. But I've cared for my characters, nurtured them, fed their existence and conjured them from air. I want everyone to love them, without judgement, like me. Besides my dear characters being exposed, there's also me, their writer. I'm their creator. I always wanted to publish a book and when I hadn't for so long, I became familiar with that, too. That void, like the unborn child or lost beloved or cancelled vacation. I got used to this feeling of something both precious and unattainable, and then I built stories around it to make myself feel better and then I inhabited those stories and wrapped them around myself like a warm Alpaca shawl, homely but comfortable.
Today, I removed that ugly sweater of failed writer-dom. Today I also ate the season's first ollalieberries from the forgotten bushes leftover from my family's abandoned u-pick berry farm. I shared them with my daughter, her first taste of that dark and surprising blackberry. Then, my daughter picked her first ripe apricot and showed it to me. I broke it in half and she pushed the half-moon into my mouth again and again, smiling as I admired the tartness, flavor. She smeared the leaking orange orb across my face, until the clear juice stiffened like white glue, drying in the sun as a reminder that the world is too much sweetness.
This important day of delightful publication is both unprecedented and uncomfortable. Fear of failure sandwiched neatly by fear of success. Today, I bite my first fruit of true writing success and it is all sweet, with no bitterness at all. I force myself to rest here, for one, two, three, four breaths. I will engage just one reader at a time. That is all. That is enough.
"Queen of Working Mothers," oil on canvas, Maureen Foley, 2010
I no longer live in Louisiana. Strange but true. And like so many other times in my life, just before I left there was a sudden burst of creative energy that fizzled into a lull once I completed the move back to California.What do I mean? Well, during the last two weeks of my Louisiana adventure, I modeled my wearable art piece "Sadness Jacket" at the Old Governor's Mansion in the 2011 Uncommon Threads Wearable Art juried show in Baton Rouge. My writing was accepted in Artichoke Haircut and Spittoon
. I participated in a final poetry reading with the women in my Milk & Honey Writing Workshop at the Arts Council in Baton Rouge. And, I sold a painting to a fabulous new friend, artist Tina, and she is kindly helping me show my work on the East Coast the 70 Main Coffeehouse and Art Gallery
. I felt dizzy and en fuego, like a whirling dervish of creative fire.Jump to a stalled car in the desert, or me, now, my feet are now firmly on the ground and my face turned toward the joyous and infinite task of generating work. I have unpacked the paintings I produced in Louisiana, like the Queen of Working Mothers, and it is strange to know that my time there is over. From a hundred miles per hour, my creative engagement has slowed to the pace of
flower sprouting its first tentative leaf up from the moist soil. Still, the life here on the avocado ranch reminds me that there is always abundance: more weeds, more gophers
, more leaves falling. Shows, workshops, sales, publications will all return, in time. I've set up a single workshop in October and have leads for a class in winter 2013. Slowly, a season changes. The creative life is full of cycles and patterns. Our job is to make sure the soil is ready for the rain.