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Trashy Novels, Americanah, & “You Write What You Read”

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Trashy Novels, Americanah, & “You Write What You Read”

A few weeks ago my husband and I were lying in the same lounge chair on the roof of the house where I’m currently staying in Mexico. I’m here for the month as an Artist in Residence, and we were lying in the same chair because he was only able to visit me for three days, and we had been missing each other a lot.

What are you reading?” he asked, looking over my shoulder.

“Nothing.” I snapped my Kindle shut. This was the disadvantaged of sitting in the same chair.

“Are you reading about gay vampires?” he asked.

“No.”

“Let me see.”

“No. I’m embarrassed!”

The truth was, I was reading Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris — the first book in the series upon which the TV show True Blood is based. And yes, I happened to be reading a scene about some bisexual vampires.

“Don’t tell my housemates,” I said. At the time I didn’t know them very well, and besides, it seemed inappropriate that I was getting paid to teach a class in fiction writing, and here I was reading a trashy vampire-romance novel. (Actually, I thought the novel was pretty decent — fast-paced plot, clever characters — but I know that a lot of people would turn up their noses.)

“Why are you embarrassed?” Paul asked. He’s a scientist. He doesn’t understand the snobbish book shaming that goes on in literary circles.

The next thing I knew, my housemate came onto the roof.  “Hey Marico,” Paul said.  “Guess what Eva’s reading –a book about gay vampires!”

“I’m sitting in my own chair now,” I told him.

Before leaving for Mexico, I downloaded a bunch of books onto my Kindle. But I was having trouble reading some of them — especially the ones that took more concentration.

I’m not alone in this by any means. There have been studies that show when people read on an e-reader it’s harder to remember and harder to concentrate on what they read (see here and here). After a while I gave up on the more high-brow, literary fiction on my Kindle and downloaded some stuff that would be easier to read… like Dead Until Dark.

I was also able to read Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina on my Kindle with no problems, as well as some middle-grade novels by Rebecca Stead. (The novel I’m hoping to publish soon is middle-grade, so I like to see what’s going on in that market). But then I tried to read Kazuo Ishiguro’s new literary fable, The Buried Giant on my Kindle. And even though I was enjoying the beautiful and melancholic poignancy of a mist that makes people lose their memory, I started having trouble following the meandering story, as if I, too, was being affecting by the mist.

So, on a whim, I downloaded The Lying Game (Book 1) by Sara Shepard. Sara Shepard is the author of the Pretty Little Liars series, and (I didn’t know this until I googled it just now) The Lying Game was turned into a TV show that used to air on ABC Family.

Anyway, I devoured the book in two days flat. It was like candy: delicious, addictive… And I felt slightly guilty when I got to the last page. Plus, I couldn’t stop at just one. I requested the second Lying Game (Book 2: Never Have I Ever) from the library. (It wasn’t available…which was maybe a good thing?)

I wondered, was I going to read nothing but fluffy books for the rest of my time in Mexico?  And if so, are they really like candy:  OK as an every-now-and-then indulgence but harmful if I consume too many?

I mean, you are what you eat, right? Maybe the same is true with books. Do you write what you read? If I read a steady diet of sort-of-trashy books, will my writing become sort of trashy, too?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m getting into the business of manuscript consulting. As in, getting paid to read someone’s unpublished novel and give him/her feedback and revision advice.

“Do you really want to do that?” a friend of mine asked. “What if you end up having to read a bunch of horrible manuscripts? It’ll be painful.”

True. And, I couldn’t help thinking, what if reading a bunch of terrible novels makes me a terrible writer in the process?

I think it’s true to a certain extent that you write what you read. But in part that’s because people tend to read what they like, and hopefully you are writing books that you yourself would want to read. I mean, honestly, I enjoyed The Lying Game, and it wasn’t god-awful writing like Fifty Shades of Gray. Sara Shepard knows how to plot a book.  She’s creative and clever, and she knows what she’s doing.  Besides, I think it would be fun to write a mysterious page-turner about bitchy girls and murdered ghosts. If I ever end up writing something like The Lying Game or Dead Until Dark, I won’t be ashamed.

As for reading painfully bad manuscripts, it’s probably helpful. I can see what isn’t working and what makes them so bad then use that knowledge to recognize my own bad habits and learn what not to do.

On the other hand, I should also be reading high-quality, literary books. Books that make me think, books that turn a beautiful phrase. Books that are healthy for my mind.  Reading writers who are better than me will improve my writing as well.

I guess, like any diet, it’s best to read a variety. And if I’m going to read a light-and-easy novel, some choices are better for me than others.  Choosing The Lying Game over Fifty Shades of Gray is like choosing a fruit popsicle over of a fried Twinkie.  There’s a difference.

I had trouble reading The Buried Giant on my Kindle.  I will try again sometime with the paper version.

I had trouble reading The Buried Giant on my Kindle. I will try again sometime with the paper version.

After I requested the second Lying Game and it wasn’t available, I scoured the library e-books for something with substance that I would still be able to read on my Kindle.  Naturally, all the novels I could think of along that vein were unavailable.  So, I went against my Scrooge-like tendencies and bought the Kindle version of a book I’d heard lots of good things about:  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I went up on the roof — alone this time — and started reading.  Americanah was no candy book.  It was the winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction as well as one of The New York Times’s Ten Best Books of the Year and an NPR “Great Reads” book.  Within the first few pages, Adichie wowed me over with her pitch-perfect descriptions, thought-provoking observations, and a particularly elegant simile about relationships.  And, what’s more, I had no trouble concentrating on this story about race and class and love in Nigeria, despite the fact that I was reading on my Kindle.  I sat there for an hour, completely engaged.

Which leads me to think that there are certain books that seem like candy because they are delicious and un-put-downable (and hence Kindle-friendly), but they are also healthy for your mind.  These are the beautifully-written page-turners.  These are the books you don’t have to try to concentrate on because they are so completely absorbing already. These are the kinds of books I most like to read, and these are the kinds of books I hope to one day write.

According to my Kindle, I am 22% of the way through Americanah.

The Story I Didn’t Tell about Our Trip to Mexico City

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The Story I Didn’t Tell about Our Trip to Mexico City

Last weekend my housemates and I went to Mexico City, and I wrote a lovely post about it here. But, I left out an important aspect of the weekend because, up until recently, we didn’t want anyone to know…

Here’s what happened. On Saturday night we all went to sleep at an airbnb apartment. Marico and I slept in the big bedroom, Dacus took the small one, and poor David, the most exhausted of us all, resigned himself to the couch.

In the morning, David stumbled down the hallway, looked like a madman and telling us that he’d had the worst sleep of his entire life. All night long he had been plagued by an incessant band of aggressive and whiny mosquitoes.

“They were buzzing in my ears and all around my head,” he told us. “I kept slapping myself in the face just to kill them. It was horrible. I got zero sleep.”

“Yeah, there was a really annoying mosquito in our room, too,” I said. “I burrowed under the covers, but it still managed to get me.”

“Let me see your bite,” David demanded, and I displayed the puffy red circle on my elbow.

That’s when we started to notice that David’s bites didn’t really look like mosquito bites… And he had an awful lot of them…

Unlike mosquito bites, these were small and very red. He had a rash of them across his forehead and at least twenty-five on each arm.

“Maybe it was some other kind of bug?” I suggested.  As soon as the words were out of my mouth, a terrible feeling skittered into my gut.  I looked to my housemates and saw that they were thinking the same thing.

And that’s when we went to wake up Dacus, who used to live in Brooklyn, where he’d had an intimate experience with bedbugs.

David, Degas, and Marico looking happy...the day before we discovered the bites.

David, Dacus, and Marico looking happy…the day before we discovered the bites.

Dacus, too, had been eaten alive by mosquitoes (or something) in the night, and there were tiny dots of blood on his sheets to prove it. He also had dozens of the small, red bumps on his arms and legs. “They’re not itchy,” he said, and David agreed that his weren’t either. As for me, my mosquito bite itched, and I was starting to get a creepy-crawly feeling all over the rest of my body.

“Maybe Mexican mosquito bites look different?” I said, trying to be optimistic. But that didn’t explain why I had a normal-looking mosquito bite. Also, why did David and Dacus have the strange bites while Marico and I didn’t? We looked suspiciously at the couch. We’d all sat on it the day before.

“Dacus, when your apartment was infested with bedbugs, what did you do?” Marico asked. Her brow was furrowed.

“Got rid of my clothes. Threw out all my furniture.” Dacus shrugged. “You know.”

I laughed, even though this was not remotely funny. This was horrifying. What if we brought bedbugs back to the house where we’re staying in San Miguel? As in the nice, fancy house that we’re staying in for free thanks to the San Miguel Literary Sala…  We could be the reason why the artist-in-residence program doesn’t make it to Year Two.

The lovely back patio of our house in San Miguel.

The lovely back patio of our house in San Miguel.

“I’m not going to tell Paul until I know for sure one way or the other,” I announced. There was no need to alarm him if they weren’t bedbugs, and I was hoping to god that they weren’t.

“I feel like these are probably mosquito bites,” David said. “I mean, I know there were mosquitoes swarming around me all night. It seems impossible that they weren’t the thing that was biting me.”

“But did they bite you that many times?” Dacus asked.  He was on his computer, looking up information about bedbugs. “It says they don’t always itch,” he reported. “And it sometimes takes up to forty-eight hours for bites to show up. So we might have gotten them at the last airbnb place.”  David and Dacus had spent the previous two nights in Guanajuato.

“That would explain why Eva and I don’t have them,” Marcio said.  She was already making plans to burn all of her clothing.

“I mean, they don’t look like mosquito bites. And we have a lot of them,” Dacus said. “I’m pretty sure they’re bedbugs…”

Oh god, I thought. This was actually happening. I told myself to look ahead to the day when we would all laugh and tell the hilarious story of how we got bedbugs in Mexico City.  No one was laughing right now.

“So what do we do?” David asked.

And that’s when we made a plan.

Bedbugs are disgusting. And very wily.

The most important thing, of course, was to not bring the bedbugs back to our house in San Miguel. So, when we got home that night, we did what we called “the routine.” We went into the house one by one and stripped off all of our clothes. We dumped our electronics and toiletry items in the front hall and then ran naked upstairs to the laundry room, where we stuffed our clothes, shoes, and bags into the dryer and hightailed it to the shower. We put the dryer on the highest setting for a good two hours, hoping that the heat would kill the bugs and their eggs.

After the dryer, we washed the clothes on high heat and dried them again. For extra safety, David sealed all his things in garbage bags, and over the next three days I regularly heard his shoes tumbling around in the dryer in what was his paranoid continuation of “the routine.”

And, it seems to have worked. Except for a suspicious red circle on my cheek that I finally determined to be a pimple, Marico and I remained bite-free. And, four days after our return from Mexico City, David had no new bites.  In fact, now he wasn’t even convinced that it had been bedbugs in the first place.  Maybe it had been some kind of vicious flying, biting insect.

And so, four days after our trip, I finally told my husband.  (I think Paul was still a little freaked out.) Now that the fear was (mostly) gone, I could tell the story of our naked-roommate-run and laugh.  I could post the story on my blog and not worry about upsetting the Literary Sala or the owner of this lovely house in San Miguel.

People always says you shouldn’t be afraid to “tell your story.” But sometimes it’s a good idea to think about how your story is going to affect others — is it going to upset them now, but maybe, in time, they’ll be able to see the humor in it? Sometimes it’s best to wait a while, until the story isn’t quite so fresh, or until you know for sure that the bedbugs are dead.

Eva in Mexico City.

Eva in Mexico City.

Mexican Shorts & Writing in the Most Influential Language in the World

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Mexican Shorts & Writing in the Most Influential Language in the World

For the past week, San Miguel de Allende (where I’m staying for the month as an artist in residence) has been host to the Guanajuato International Film Festival (GIFF), which means tons of free, international films playing in various locations around town.

On Monday I went to see Mexicannes Cortos, which comprised four short films: one from Turkey, one from Israel, one from Finland, and one from Italy.

As I was sitting in the theater, waiting for the films to start, a woman tapped me on the shoulder. “Which film is yours?” she asked.

“None of them.” I laughed, surprised.

“Oh. Where is your film playing, then? When I met you and your sister last night you said…”

I shook my head. “I don’t think I am who you think I am. I’m just here to see the movies.”

I turned back around, feeling pleased to have been mistaken for a foreign filmmaker. Then the lights dimmed, and the films began.

San Miguel de Allende.  Photo taken by me on one of my many walks around town.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo taken by me on one of my many walks around town.

It was interesting to see so many settings, so many perspectives, so many languages, one after another. The first film, “Ice Cream” was set in a desolate and dusty village of Turkey. A man arrives on a motorcycle with a cooler containing a single carton of soupy ice cream. A wily nine-year-old boy sprints desperately towards him, hoping to trade two eggs he stole for an ice cream cone. When the boy falls, and the eggs break into a yolky mess in his hands, the entire theater gasped — that’s how much we felt this boy’s desire for something cool and sweet.

Next we traveled to Jerusalem in the poignant and beautiful “Last Calls.” Six months after her sister dies, twenty-one-year-old Tal finds her cell phone and begins calling contacts.  In this way she ends up meeting her sister’s last lover, who doesn’t know who Tal is and doesn’t know that her sister is dead.

We then moved on to a funny-but-disturbing farce from Finland, “Mercy All the Way,” about middle-aged women who have sex with marginalized teenage boys to keep them from bombing their schools.  It was weird, but I liked it.

And finally we got a haunting depiction of the cycle of poverty, crime, and imprisonment among Italian gypsies in “Young Lions of Gypsy.”

Ending scene from “Ice Cream.”

When the films were over, I walked home in the pouring rain, foreign gibberish echoing in my brain: the throaty whisper of Hebrew, the staccato rhythm of Finnish, the lusty melody of Italian. So many languages. And yet, despite the fact that I’m in Mexico, all of the films were subtitled in English.

Currently I’m teaching a fiction workshop class, and one of the women in the class is Mexican. “Please, be gentle with me,” she begged on the first day of class. “English is not my first language.”

I told her she was brave, and she said she wants to write in English because it’s the most widely-read language in the world.

And it’s true.  Scholars have named English “the most influential language in the world.”  If you want to communicate with the most people, English is a good way to go. In fact, the submission guidelines for the Guanajuato festival say that films must be subtitled in either Spanish or English, but all of the films I’ve seen so far chose to use English subtitles. It’s the closest thing we have to a universal language.

giff

I’ve always known that I was lucky to be a native English speaker. I’m lucky that when I travel it’s generally pretty easy to find someone who speaks English. I’m lucky that if a foreign book is popular it’s probably going to get translated into English really quick. And I’m lucky that I can go to see four films from four very different places, and all of them will be subtitled in my native language.

But what I hadn’t considered is this: I’m also lucky to be a writer who writes in English.

Oh, sure, there are authors who become successful by writing in their native language and having their books later translated into English. (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, originally titled in Swedish Men Who Hate Women, comes to mind.) But, like Luisa said, English is one of the most widely-read languages in the world. The fact that I write in English to begin with gives me an advantage.

When I think about how many languages are spoken around in the world, it amazes me. To my ears they are like music, like secrets, like abstract art painted with sound. And yet, what should really amaze me is that I get to speak and write in such a universal, influential language. In the language that all other languages have to be translated into. I’m one lucky girl.  And one lucky writer.

Americanos in Mexico City, or, Using Writing to Break Stereotypes

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Americanos in Mexico City, or, Using Writing to Break Stereotypes

I spent the weekend in Mexico City with my housemates, but I almost didn’t go at all. I told them I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the money and maybe I should use a quiet weekend to get some writing done. Both of which were true. But also, I must admit, I was secretly harboring negative thoughts about Mexico City.

“I don’t know,” I told my housemate, Marico. “Maybe this is a stereotype, but in my mind it’s just this big, loud, crowded, polluted city. I mean, I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but…”

But I wasn’t actually sure that there was. I didn’t know anything about Mexico City other than the fact that it was huge.

“Well,” Marico said, “maybe that’s reason enough for you to go — so you can dispel those stereotypes.”

And that’s when I realized what an ignoramus I was. I knew next to nothing about Mexico City, and yet I’d been willing to write it off completely due to a few stereotypes I picked up from god-knows-where.

So I told Marico yes, I wanted to go, and then I sat down to read part of the Wikipedia page about Mexico City, or DF (Distrito Federal).  I learned that Mexico City is the oldest capital city in the Americas and one of the richest metropolitan areas in the world.  The current local government has passed many liberal laws including strict ones to reduce and monitor pollution.  The more I read, the more it seemed like DF was the New York City of Mexico — an important cultural mecca.

Mexico City at night. The city has a land area of 573 square miles, so that IS pretty darn big. photo credit.

On Saturday morning, Marico and I rode a very luxurious bus (wifi, bathroom, free snacks) from San Miguel de Allende (where I’m living as an artist in residence for the month) to DF. We took a cab from the bus station to an airbnb apartment in the neighborhood of Roma to meet up with our other housemate, David, and his friend, Dacus. We then had approximately 26 hours until we had to be back at the bus station.

In that time, we ate at three very hip and very delicious restaurants. (I had one of the best beet salads of my life on Saturday night, at a place called Rosetta.) We also went to three different (free) art museums, two of which were located in a lush public park, Chapultepec, which happens to be one of the largest city parks in the Western Hemisphere.  The whole set up (museums, parks, monuments, a zoo) reminded me of the national mall in Washington, DC. Funny how, when I thought of Mexico City, I assumed there would be traffic and heat and crowds, but I never once wondered about what art and culture that might be there. As it turns out, there’s a lot.

We didn’t have time for much else, but we did see some pretty parks and squares, along with a street that is closed to traffic every Sunday so people can bike through the city. How pleasant! And as we wandered through the cosmopolitan neighborhood of Condesa, I marveled at something: it was so quiet!

“Where are all the people?” I asked as we strolled down a tree-lined street of 1920’s era apartments mixed with more modern buildings. This was certainly dispelling my stereotype of a loud and crowded Mexico City.

David, Degas, and Marico being serenaded at a restaurant in Roma.

David, Dacus, and Marico being serenaded at a restaurant in Roma.

Of course I’m not the only one to fall prey to stereotypes, and of course stereotypes often have their roots in reality. (Later on, we visited a crowded public square near Frida Khalo’s house where there was traffic and people and noise,  Let’s not pretend that DF is not a giant, heavily-populated city because it certainly is… But that’s not all it is.)

The point is, I need to be willing to look past the stereotypes I’ve picked up over the years.  I also need to be mindful about stereotypes in writing. It’s so easy to reach for that stock character (a fat cop with a donut in his hand, a ditzy blond cheerleader with a too-short skirt). As we build characters and stories, we often use stereotypes without realizing it. (I recently wrote a story with a minor character — a butcher — who happened to be a fat, middle-aged white man with a red nose. I didn’t realize until someone pointed it out to me that this was “such a stereotype.”) And the problem is, using those clichés only serves to perpetuate stereotypes. Stereotypes about police officers and cheerleaders and butchers, but also more damaging stereotypes about race and gender.

There’s been a big push lately for diverse characters in literature, especially by the We Need Diverse Books campaign. At a panel on this subject at The Loft’s Children’s & Young Adult Literature Conference, one of the panelists said something to the effect of, yes, as a white writer you should have a black character in your novel, but please don’t make him a drug dealer — there’s no need to perpetuate stereotypes if we can help it.

As fiction writers, we have the luxury of making our cops and cheerleaders and drug dealers whatever we want them to be. We have the power to break stereotypes… so why not do it?

In San Miguel de Allende.

A street corner in San Miguel de Allende.

Perhaps one of the things my housemates and I will remember most about the trip to DF is what happened when we were having a late lunch at a restaurant in Roma.

Dacus wanted a coffee, which, in Mexico, is a café Americano. The server came to take our order. She looked to him, and he said, “Americano.” She didn’t seem to understand so he leaned towards her and shouted “Americano!”

A panicked look crossed her face. “Un momento, por favor.” A moment later, a male server came to our table. “You are Americans?” he asked. “You want for me to speak English to you?”

We realized that the poor girl must have thought that Dacus was screaming at her: “I’m American!” We laughed raucously and ordered drinks, and I felt like we were perpetuating a stereotype: the loud, obnoxious Americans, being difficult and insisting that everyone speak to us in English.  I wished we could tell the first server that Dacus had actually been trying to order in Spanish, but in real life we don’t always get a chance to explain.

All-in-all, it was a whirlwind trip, and I’m glad I went. I’m happy to have dispelled some of my misconceptions about Mexico City. And I’ll be on the lookout for ways to break stereotypes in my own writing. You should, too.

Eva

Eva in Chapultepec, in Mexico City.

 

Having the Confidence to Be Wrong — in Writing and in Life

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Having the Confidence to Be Wrong — in Writing and in Life

The day after Paul and I got married, I received an offer to be an artist-in-residence in San Miguel de Allende (which is where I am now). I felt sort of bad.  “Hey, new husband, I’m going to Mexico for five weeks without you. Adios.” Luckily, Paul was able to use his frequent flyer miles to come visit me for a few days this past weekend, which was great. I’d been missing him dearly.

On Paul’s first day in San Miguel, I took him to the artisan market. Paul jumped eagerly into Spanish, asking a ceramics vendor if he had any espresso cups and small plates. The man cocked his head, confused. Probably because Paul was speaking Spanish with an Italian accent, and, in fact, half of the words he’d just said were actually Italian. If that had been me, I would have felt embarrassed, flustered, but Paul only laughed and tried again. Words — half right and half wrong — flowed out of his mouth in a never-ending stream of attempted communication, and eventually he was able to make himself understood. We bought a nice little collection of ceramic dishes for an absurdly cheap price then went to lunch.

Later that day, we hiked up the cobblestone streets to the botanical gardens, where some dudes were using the multi-purpose area to shoot off very loud fireworks in the middle of the afternoon for no reason. “That’s San Miguel for you,” I said. I was still laughing at the way Paul spoke Spanish. He kept saying capito by accident. And yet, I was amazed at his confidence and his willingness to put himself out there.

The next day, Paul and I drank free margaritas with friends at a nearby restaurant and met a random American woman who certainly had confidence and a willingness to put herself out there.  She was loud and drunk (well, I hope she was drunk — if this was her natural state I might be concerned), bursting often into manic, cackling laughter, and she told us about the books she had written, including Falling in Love with Me: Every Woman’s Guide to Adoring Herself.  Ahh, retired gringos. “That’s San Miguel for you,” I told Paul.

Margaritas with friends, including the American woman who is the author of books such as Surprised by Joy and the Mastering Life series, volumes 1, 2, and 3.

Meeting Valerie, the author of books such as Surprised by Joy and the Mastering Life series, volumes 1, 2, and 3.  Photo by Marico Fayre.

Let’s see — what else did Paul and I do? We went to a cantina and sang along to the jukebox. We went climbing on a homemade rock wall at a Mexican artist’s house. We ate paletas in the jardin, watching the roaming mariachi bands and smelling the enticingly meaty aromas of the taco trucks. Every day we ate delicious tamales and burritos and organic salads and drank jugo verde.

And, every day, Paul spoke Spanish to anyone who would listen. He developed something of a crush on our housekeeper, Conchita, and talked to her every chance he got. “You need to talk to my wife,” he told her in Spanish. “Eva needs to practice her Spanish. You should make her talk to you.”

Conchita laughed, and I flushed. I should be talking to Conchita more. I’m taking Spanish lessons twice a week with an American ex-pat, but what better way to practice than to chat with the native Spanish speaker who comes to my house every day? And yet, I’m always nervous about saying much more to Conchita other than buenos dias and como esta? because I’m afraid of sounding stupid or saying something wrong.

In fact, that’s my number one problem when it comes to communicating here in San Miguel. I’m so afraid of being wrong or sounding stupid that I hardly say anything in Spanish — I certainly don’t strike up conversations like Paul does — and therefore my Spanish never gets any better.

Paul in the Jardin (main square) of San Miguel.

On Paul’s last night in town, we ended up drinking wine on the rooftop with my housemates. “You have one hour,” Marico told Paul, “to ask me anything you want.”

Paul leaped at the opportunity and began asking some intense and perhaps politically-incorrect questions on various sensitive topics.

At first, I was a little on edge. I hate to offend people or sound ignorant or seem insensitive, and Paul was asking questions that had the potential to do all three.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m probably wrong, or maybe I’m not even asking the right questions… I probably sound ignorant, but I’m just trying to understand.” He laughed. “I mean, you see how I speak Spanish, right? I just start talking and half of what I say comes out wrong.”

And in that moment, I was so proud of my husband. I go through life afraid to ask hard questions or write about sensitive topics. Afraid to speak Spanish. Afraid to be wrong or sound stupid. Paul might be wrong sometimes, and he might sound stupid sometimes, but at least he’s attempting to communicate. And in the process he’s learning. He’s gaining a better understanding of the world around him.

Rooftop with friends.

Rooftop with friends.  Photo by Marico Fayre.

As the night went on and the bottle of wine was consumed, our conversation turned to the topics of race, white privilege, and people with disabilities.  I have attempted to write about all of these things, but I often chicken out.  I’m afraid of being offensive, of saying the wrong things, of seeming stupid.

“You can’t worry about that,” my housemates said.  “I mean, you do your research, you treat the topic with respect, but in the end, if you have a story to tell, you should tell it.”

And they’re right.  If you’re afraid of writing something stupid or offensive or just plain bad, you’ll become paralyzed by you’re own fear. If you are afraid of the words coming out wrong, chances are, they won’t come out at all.

So perhaps we all need to be more like Paul.  Let the words flow — the right ones and the wrong ones — and clean it up later.  Don’t be afraid.  This is the way you learn. The way you communicate. When it comes to writing (and to life), have the confidence to be wrong sometimes and the willingness to put yourself out there.

IMG_8004

Walking the San Miguel streets. Photo by Marico Fayre.

 

Bottom Feeders on the Bus, or, Throw Rocks at Characters Not Yourself

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Bottom Feeders on the Bus, or, Throw Rocks at Characters Not Yourself

*Please note that in this post I am writing about riding the Greyhound bus fifteen years ago.  For all I know, it might be a super pleasant experience these days.*

The other day my dear friend Jason emailed me a picture of a chubby fourteen-year-old kid with a shaved head and a discman. “Found this old pic,” he wrote. “God that kid was creepy.”

And suddenly, I was transported back fourteen years (almost exactly to the day) to when Jason and I were riding the Greyhound bus from California to Virginia.

The particulars of why were riding the bus across the country are a story for another time, but let’s just say that a) we had not intended to take the bus  but suddenly found ourselves car-less and b) we were wearing neck braces — Jason had used a Sharpie to draw a bow tie on his in order to cheer me up.

We got on the bus in the little desert town of Barstow, California and rode for the next three days (and nights), stopping for twenty minutes or so in every podunk town along old Route 66. Twenty minutes, in case you’re wondering, is about the time you need to go to the bathroom and pick up a snack from the vending machine or, if you’re lucky, the bus station restaurant, which might serve you a cold, grayish hamburger on a stale bun. It is not, however, enough time to find a place to shower or buy a salad (and sometimes salads don’t exist in those podunk towns anyway), so by the time Jason and I arrived in Virginia, we were exhausted, smelly, and cranky, and we had been subsisting on a diet of vending machine animal crackers and Gatorade.

Our bus friend.

Now, it’s a known fact that the creepiest, most down-on-their-luck people ride the Greyhound bus, and in looking back at items a and b from above, perhaps Jason and I fit into that category. Some other creepsters we met along the way included a woman who talked to her canned peaches (“I’m gonna eat you”), a guy and his f-bomb-spouting mom who were picking fights with people for fun, and the chubby kid in the picture above who kept trying to get us to smoke pot with him. (I’m unclear as to why we took his picture — I suppose he was our best bus friend.)

There was also a group of skinny, greasy, gap-toothed dudes in the back of the bus who Jason called “the bottom feeders.” As we barreled through Arizona, one of the bottom-feeders sauntered up to the front of the bus to hit on me while Jason was taking a nap.

“What are you doing with him?” He nodded towards Jason, who was slumped against the window in a restless sleep.

I wanted to point out that, for one thing, Jason still had a full set of teeth, but I was hesitant to make anyone angry. Unlike the airport, there are no security measures on the bus, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if some of the bottom feeders were packing heat, or at least carrying Bowie knives.

“When we stop my buddies and I are gonna smoke crack behind the station. You wanna come with us?” bottom feeder boy asked. This was not a joke. This was a legitimate bus pick-up line.

“No, that’s ok,” I said. “But thanks for asking.”

A bottom-feeder fish. photo credit.

Jason and I can laugh about this now, but at the time it was pretty miserable. The lack of showers and sleep and proper nutrition. The smell of the bus bathroom… The smell of other bus patrons…

And yet, I have actually had the thought that I might do it again — I would take another cross-country bus ride. I would try to be more prepared, of course. I’d pack healthy food and bring podcasts to listen to, and I might stay overnight in one of the podunk towns so at least I could get a shower… But I’d only do that once because the real bus drama happens when you’re on the bus for several consecutive nights with the same creepy people.

Why, you ask? Why would I put myself through another round of misery and creepsters? The answer should be obvious. Because of the characters! Because of the stories! It’s a known fact that some of the weirdest characters and some of the greatest stories are to be found on the Greyhound bus. Jason and my bus trip might have been miserable, but damn it made for a great story later on. In fact, I used it as a basis for my short story, “Red,” in which a girl in a red hooded sweatshirt goes to Grandma’s house on the Greyhound bus and meets a wolfish bottom feeder.

See, here’s the thing:  stories need conflict. This was something I struggled with early on in my writing career. I created characters and made them do stuff, but I didn’t want anything too bad to happen to them.  I didn’t want them to make any really bad decisions.  I wanted things to end up okay.  But without the “bad stuff,” there’s not much of a story. As Vladimir Nabokov famously said: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”

Good advice for writing a story, but it now occurs to me that if I ever take another cross-country bus trip, it’ll be like I’m putting myself up a tree and hoping for rocks…

For years, whenever bad things happened to me, I would tell myself, “at least it’ll make a great story.”  And sometimes I even made poor decisions just to see what would happen — so I could get a new story.

These days, I’m not so much into that.  I realize I can use my imagination to put characters up a tree.  I don’t need to get in the tree myself.  The joy of writing fiction is that you can sit comfortably on the patio of your Mexican casita, typing on your lap top and drinking tea, while all sort of miserable (but story-making) things happen to your characters.

I don’t know if I’ll ever actually take another cross-country bus ride.  But I might write a story in which my character gets into a fight with a creepy guy and his trash-talking mom.  Then she might go to smoke crack with the bottom-feeder boys behind the bus station.  I’ll throw the rocks at my characters, not at myself.

The back patio of the Mexican casita, where I am currently staying, and where I wrote this post.

The back patio of the Mexican casita, where I am currently staying, and where I wrote this post.

Conchita’s Cooking & Writing to Communicate

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Conchita’s Cooking & Writing to Communicate

The house I’m staying in here in Mexico has a housekeeper six days a week, which, I have to admit, is weird. I mean, it’s great that I don’t have to wash my own dishes, and that the jug of purified water in the bathroom (for tooth-brushing) is magically refilled each day, but still, I’m not used to having someone clean up after me, and this situation is made all the more strange because Conchita doesn’t speak English and I barely speak Spanish.

Hopefully that will change soon because I just arranged for Spanish lessons while I’m here (my first one is this afternoon). And I’m not completely hopeless. I know how to ask for the check at t restaurant and how to say “I need toilet paper,” along with some other necessities. But half the time, when I’m out in San Miguel, I freeze up when it comes time to speak Spanish. I get flustered — nervous about saying the wrong thing — and half the time German comes out by accident. (The brain tends to store all foreign languages in the same spot — try to access one and you might get the other.)

That’s probably my number one fear and frustration when traveling abroad. I’m not afraid of pick-pockets or getting lost. I’m afraid of not knowing the right words and seeming stupid.  I’m afraid of not being able to communicate.  It makes me feel awkward and isolated and not quite like myself.

The back patio of our house, where I wrote this post.

The back patio of our house, where I wrote this post.

But back to Conchita. My housemate, David, read in the guestbook that she’s an amazing cook. “We should get her to cook for us,” he told me and our other housemate, Marico. We all agreed. But we weren’t sure how it would work — would we buy the ingredients or would she? How much should we pay her? And how, most importantly, would we communicate our request?  Day after day went by, and none of us had the guts to ask her.

“I know how to say puedes cochinar para nuestros,” I said, “but what do I do after that?” I worried that she would respond with questions about logistics, and I would stand there gaping at her, saying “que?” and “no comprendo,” which is what I tend to do when people start speaking to me at a level higher than pre-school Spanish.

“I have the same concern,” David said. He was under the impression that my Spanish was better than his, and so I decided that if we were going to get these amazing home-cooked meals, I needed to buck up.

“I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

And so, when Conchita came the next morning, I was lying in wait in the kitchen with a pad of paper and the necessary phrases echoing in my head: Puedes cochinar para nuestros? Cuantro dinero?

“Conchita,” I said, clearing my throat. “Tengo una pregunta.

Si?

What came next was a rough-and-tumble conversation made of mostly Spanish, hand gestures, and confused laughter, in which both of us were only grasping about twenty percent of what the other was saying. But, as far as I could tell, we came to an agreement. I would give her money on Monday, and she would make us enchiladas verdes on Tuesday.

The dinner Conchita made for us.

The dinner Conchita made for us.

And she did. On Tuesday Marico and I sat down to eat (David, after all his excitement, wasn’t home for dinner) and enjoyed chicken and cheese enchiladas, along with veggie rice and a green salad.

Over dinner Marico and I had a nice getting-to-know-you-better conversation. After a while, our conversation turned to writing.

“For me, writing is about communicating,” I said. “I don’t necessarily want to hold the reader by the hand and explain everything, but it’s important to me that they understand what I’m saying.”

Marico agreed.

“I mean, sometimes I write poems that are just for me,” I continued, “but I don’t show those to anyone. Otherwise, I’m writing to communicate.”

Somehow I communicated with this man and his donkey!

Somehow I communicated with this man and his donkey!

I know there are many reasons why people write. They write to be clever, to make people think. They write for fun or to explore their own minds. They write to be creative, artistic. They write because they have to get the freaking words out of their brains. Some people even manage to write and make money from it.

But still, the number one reason people write is to communicate something — an emotion, an idea, a story. For me, writing makes me feel more connected to the world. It’s a way of understanding myself and my experiences, and then sharing that with others.

So is this why I feel stressed out in foreign countries? As a writer I spend my days picking out the perfect words and crafting just-so sentences in order to communicate with others. But here in Mexico, I’m working with a very limited number of words. I can’t communicate the way I’d like to. Is that why I feel awkward and isolated?

And yet, I am making myself understood. For one thing, there are an awful lot of English-speakers here in San Miguel. I really need not worry. And besides, did I not manage to put enchiladas on the table for me and my housemates? Perhaps there are times when I should to worry less about the perfect words, about making sure that everything is understandable. Context clues, body language, good old human logic… It’s amazing what a person can understand with only twenty percent.

Eva in San Miguel.  (This was taken on July 3 -- my birthday!)

Eva in San Miguel. (This was taken on July 3 — my birthday!)

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