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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Be Thankful for the Bathroom (and All Your Tedious Tasks)

Be Thankful for the Bathroom (and All Your Tedious Tasks)

Going to the bathroom is a pain in the butt. (No pun intended.) Oh, sure, sometimes it’s helpful, like when you’re stuck talking to someone really boring at a party, or when a sleazy dude is hitting on you at a club. “Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom,” you say, and you can politely extricate yourself from the situation. (I’ve even been on the receiving end of this trick as well – my friends in New Orleans will surely remember “the boy who went to the bathroom and never came back,” although our theory is that he meant to come back and continue canoodling with me, but he was so drunk he probably passed out on the toilet or went up to some other girl with brown hair at the club, thinking it was me.)

But I digress. The point is, in general, using the toilet is annoying. It takes up precious time (the average person will spend a year and a half of their life on the pot), and there’s nothing very interesting about it. And Geez, you have to do it, what – five, six times a day? Maybe more if you drink a lot of tea like I do. Sometimes you have to get up in the middle of a cold night and disrupt your sleep to go. “Ugh!” I’m always saying. “I have to go the bathroom again?” It gets boring.

Also boring are all the other things I do in the bathroom. Every morning I have my ritual of shower, moisturizer, make-up, and The Blow-Drying of My Hair (which is such an ordeal it deserves capitalization.) And then, at night, I have to get ready for bed, which involves washing my face, brushing and flossing my teeth, taking off my make-up, and slathering myself with various types of ointments and anti-wrinkle creams.

In a way, our lives are quite tedious. You eat, but you’re going to have to eat again a few hours later. You do the laundry, but those clothes are just going to get dirty again and need to be put back in the wash. Same thing with the dishes. Same thing with cleaning the house in general. You wipe down the kitchen counter, but it’s going to be crumby and sticky again by tomorrow.  You make your boyfriend clean the toilet, but it’s going to get dirty again by next week.

When you start thinking about daily life like this, it sort of makes you want to stop doing everything and just lie on the couch playing the new game you just downloaded onto your i-pad (Ticket to Ride – an awesome game, by the way.)

Maybe, I was thinking the other day, the holidays are necessary because they give us a break from our normal, everyday routines. Sure, we still have to go to the bathroom, but holidays spice things up a bit. (Pun intended.)

But unfortunately, a lot of people see the holidays as tedious, too. They think about how, sigh, they’ve got to put up all the Christmas decorations (just to take them down again in January.) They think about how, sigh, they have to send out cards again and attend the same old cookie party again and go through the rigmarole of buying gifts for everyone again. To a lot of people, the holidays aren’t a break from routine, they just add to the tedium.

So THIS was a toilet that was exciting...but most aren't.

So THIS was a toilet that was exciting…but most aren’t.

On Monday I went to work-exchange training at one of the yoga studios in Seattle. I’m going to be working there twelve hours a month in exchange for free, unlimited yoga. One of the managers, a soft-spoken British woman, showed me around the studio. “Most of this job is learning where the light switches are located,” she confided in me.

We went through the list of tasks that need to be done daily, and the particular tasks for each day. “So each time you come in, you’ll need to switch out the towels,” she told me, “and pop in the bathrooms to make sure there’s enough toilet paper. You’ll also need to sweep the studio.”

“OK.” I nodded. “Sounds easy enough.”

“Why don’t we have you sweep right now?”

I picked up the broom and swept around the edges of the studio, feeling awkward as she watched me closely.

“I enjoy the sweeping,” she said after a moment. “I find it quite meditative.”

She would, wouldn’t she?

Drawing by Eva Langston!

Drawing by Eva Langston!

But actually, she’s right. Chores and tedious tasks can be an opportunity for meditation and contemplation. When I’m folding the laundry or putting on my make-up, I’m not thinking or concentrating very much.  Instead of feeling annoyed about wasting time doing something boring, why not use these chores as opportunities to take deep breaths and check-in with my body, mind, and emotions?

And if you, like me, don’t yet feel confident in your meditation skills, you could subscribe to one of these “daily meditation” websites, or peruse a book of famous quotes, to find something meditative to ponder while you’re sitting on the toilet or scrubbing it.

Maybe, since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, my meditation should be that I am thankful for all the tedious parts of my life. While going to the bathroom, I’ll think about how thankful I am for flush-toilets and running water. While doing the laundry and unloading the dishwasher, I’ll think about how thankful I am that I have clothes to wear and food to eat. And while getting ready for bed, I’ll think about how thankful I was for this day – tedium and all – and how lucky I am to have a warm place to sleep for the night.

 

7 Deadly Topics & Things I Don’t Care About (Or, How to Not Be Boring)

7 Deadly Topics & Things I Don’t Care About  (Or, How to Not Be Boring)

My boyfriend has been talking about physics a lot recently. “Do you want me to explain relativity to you?” he asked me the other day.

“Nah,” I replied.

He has also been talking a lot about rockets. He’ll launch (ha ha) into a long explanation about rocket fuel and combustion while I nod, glassy-eyed, saying “uh huh,” at what I hope are the appropriate moments. He’s also been watching a lot of rocket videos on youtube, and he gets slightly offended when I don’t want to watch them with him.

Yesterday I was sitting on the floor making a Christmas card while Paul lounged on the couch reading about relativity. “OK, think about this,” he said. “You’re standing still watching a runner. At two different times, he’s in two different places.  But if you’re the runner, in your reference frame, you’ve never moved. Those two points are the same.”

“No,’ I said flatly. “That’s dumb.”

“But wait, listen…”

“Nope,” I said. “For all practical purposes in my life, two different locations on a coordinate grid are two different locations whether I’m running or not. This is just semantics.  End of story.”

“But…”

“You’re just trying to impress me with some crazy-sounding statement. You’re trying to make me say “whoa, that’s blowing my mind, tell me more about relativity!””

Paul agreed that this was, in fact, his hope.

I felt a little bad about shutting down the relativity discussion, but I was bored of him talking about physics. The problem is that it’s always a one-sided conversation. He has a PhD in physics; I don’t. I have nothing to add to the conversation. It’s not even really a conversation so much as it is Paul lecturing to me.

“You know what,” I said after a moment of silence, “my Christmas card list is getting out of control. Look at all the people I’m sending cards to this year.”

Paul looked up from his book briefly. “And who are these people?”

“You know. Friends, family. Basically everyone I know.” I considered my list. “The problem is that I have some leftover store-bought cards from a few years ago that I want to use up. So I have to figure out who’s going to get those and who’s going to get the handmade ones. And I have to remember who I sent those to last year because I wouldn’t want to give them the same card I’ve already given them. ”

“Uh huh,” Paul said.

I looked down at my card. I’d drawn the space needle and colored it green, like a Christmas tree. “You know, last year I made two different cards, but I don’t know if I have it in me this year. I might just stick with this one.”

“Hmm, yeah,” Paul said.

And suddenly I realized: I was boring him.

I really like making cards.  Here's a card I made for a friend last year.

I really like making cards. Here’s a card I made for a friend last year.

Recently there was an episode of This American Life in which a snooty British woman (Mrs. Matthiessen) expounds on the seven forbidden topics of conversation, according to her. “Never talk about how you slept,” she advises. “Nobody cares. Never talk about your period. Nobody cares. Don’t talk about your health, either. Nobody cares.” She also forbids describing your dreams or what she calls “route talk” (how you got from one place to another) because these subjects are so boring.

In a general sense, I agree with her. When people start talking about their ailments or go into convoluted descriptions of their dreams, it is boring. This American Life took on the challenge of finding stories about these topics that would be interesting to Mrs. Matthiessen. They interviewed an astronaut about how she sleeps in space and recorded a family of health-obsessed hypochondriacs at dinner.

At first, I was considering doing the same thing with my blog today – telling what I hoped were interesting stories about these supposedly boring topics.

But now I’ve realized there are a lot more subjects to add to the list. Like physics. And, apparently, Christmas cards.

Paul and Eva

Paul and Eva

“You know what’s so exciting about rockets?” Paul asked last night as we were getting into bed.

“They go up into space?” I said, yawning.

“Yes, and –“

“Paul,” I interrupted, “I’m tired of hearing about rockets.  You’ve been talking about rockets for weeks, and I just don’t care. I’m sorry, but I don’t.”

“OK,” he said, pouting a little. “I understand. I won’t say anything else.”

“I mean, I know I talk about things that bore you, too.  What do I talk about that’s boring? My Christmas cards?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “I don’t care about your Christmas card dilemma about who gets which card.”

“I know. I was being boring!” We both laughed. This was good. We were clearing the air. “What about when I talk about clothes?” I prompted.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “When you were telling me today about oh, I’m going to wear this now but I’m going to wear this other thing later because of this, I was just staring at your butt the whole time. I wasn’t even listening.”

“OK.”  I nodded.  “See. This is good. So we’re both boring sometimes. So I’ll try not to talk about things that are boring to you, and you try to do the same.”

Paul agreed to try.

*  *  *

The thing about Mrs. Mattheissen’s seven deadly topics is that they produce one-sided conversations. And that’s what’s boring. As This American Life tried to prove, anything can be interesting given the right circumstances. And as Paul and I have proved, anything can be boring when it’s one-sided.

Which leads me to think about my own writing, especially this blog, which is, essentially, a one-sided conversation I’m having with the world. How can I make it interesting to people other than myself?

Sometimes I feel like I tricked Paul a little bit. When he first met me, my friend Nikki was reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History in Time, and so she and I were having regular conversations about physics. I think Paul got the idea that I would happily talk to him about physics, too. But the difference is that with Nikki, neither of us knew the answers. We were pondering things together, offering each other ideas and discussing them on an equal playing field.

Is that what I need to do with my writing? Ask questions I don’t know the answers to? Try to engage my readers in an open dialogue? I don’t know. What do you think?

 *  *  *

“You know why I love physics?” Paul asked me the other day. He didn’t wait for my answer. “It’s like, imagine you’re reading a really good story about the universe, and it’s your job to just keep reading this story and see if you can add to the plot. That’s what physics is. That’s why I have trouble reading other kinds of books. Because physics is just such an exciting story.”

“To you,” I added.  “It’s exciting to you.”

“Yeah,” Paul conceded. “To me.”

Working hard, or hardly working? What to do when it isn’t easy.

Working hard, or hardly working?  What to do when it isn’t easy.

*Check out my short story, “Extremely Rare” on Burlesque Press!*

Once a week Paul and I do volunteer tutoring. While Paul has begun to form a bond with a mature, hard-working student who recently immigrated from Africa, I always end up tutoring this super-ADHD fourteen-year-old who I’ll call Wayne.

Wayne always shows up with a messy stack of homework assignments. “Why do you have four Geometry worksheets?” I asked him last Thursday night, sifting through the pile. Each worksheet had one or two problems attempted, but the rest of the page was blank. On some of them it looked like he’d started to write his name (“Way”) but got distracted halfway through.

“Were you absent?” I asked, but Wayne evaded the question.

“I’m going to the bathroom. Be right back!” He darted away.

I’m pretty sure the problem is that Wayne is so ADHD that he never finishes his homework. This stack was probably all of his incomplete assignments from the whole week.

When he came back, we jumped right in, but it was slow going.

“OK, let’s look at this line right here,” I said pointing to one of the many Geometry worksheets. “What’s the slope of this line?”

“A hundred and eighty?” Wayne guessed. “Three-sixty? One? Zero?”

“Well, hold on.”

“It’s zero isn’t it?”

The slope was, in fact, zero, but I doubted he knew why. “Let’s slow down a bit,” I told him. “Let’s talk about what slope is.” I launched into an explanation of slope, and with each word that passed from my mouth, Wayne got more and more antsy. He didn’t care. He just wanted the answer.

In the middle of my attempt to show him rise over run, Wayne started throwing crumpled pieces of paper at the girl sitting across the table from us.

“Hey,” I said. “Don’t bother her.”

He threw another ball of paper at the girl, who was trying her best to ignore him, her head buried in Spanish homework.

“Look, it doesn’t seem like you really want my help right now,” I said, starting to feel frustrated.

“Yes I do.” He laughed. He wasn’t even looking at me.

“I’m going to sit right here and read my book. When you’re ready to put in some actual effort, I’ll help you with the rest of your homework.”

I’m used to students like Wayne. School is hard for them, and they are constantly feeling frustrated with it. They know from experience that they might work hard and still get an answer wrong, so now they’d rather not put in the effort.  Basically, if it isn’t easy, if it takes time, they assume they can’t do it, and they give up immediately.

Can YOU find the slope of this line? Photo credit.

That morning I had ESL tutored Sergiy, my forty-year-old Ukrainian student, on Skype. Sergiy and Wayne could not be more different. For one thing, Sergiy never, ever gives up on learning English. He wants to tutor every day, even Saturdays and Sundays – even Christmas. (I sometimes have to put my foot down.) He struggles his way through reading books and watching videos in English. He keeps a vocabulary notebook on his i-phone with all the new words he learns, and he studies them in his free time.

And yet, even he gets frustrated sometimes.

A few weeks ago, Sergiy sent me the link to an ESL site in which you can record yourself repeating English sentences. The program then grades you on your pronunciation.

“I think there’s something wrong with it,” Sergiy told me. “Because every time I try, I get a B.”

“But a B is good.”  I tried to think of a kind way to tell him he wasn’t really at A-quality pronunciation yet.

“Try it and see what grade you get,” he insisted. “Then we’ll know if it’s broken.”

So I tried it. I got an A-plus. When I reported this to Sergiy, he was disappointed. “I’m glad that you got A+,” he wrote to me in an email, “but in this case I’m even more sad that I got B… I hoped it was a technical problem and now I know that it’s a problem with me.”

*  *  *

I understand Sergiy’s sentiments. All last week I was trying to play “Wagon Wheel” on the guitar and feeling like a failure. The guitar part itself is pretty easy, but whenever I tried to sing along, it was impossible. “The rhythm is just so different from the melody,” I complained to Paul. “It’s like trying to pat my head and rub my belly at the same time.”

“Keep practicing,” he advised.

Instead I got on youtube and watched videos of other people playing “Wagon Wheel” and singing along. Why did it seem so easy for them? What was the trick?

“Maybe my guitar teacher taught me the wrong rhythm,” I said. “Or maybe there’s some other rhythm I could play that’s easier to sing along with.”

“Maybe you should get a metronome,” Paul said. He grabbed my i-pad and started searching for a metranome app.

And then, out of nowhere, I started to cry.

“I’m sorry.” Paul looked startled and quickly put down my i-pad. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“You didn’t upset me,” I said. “I’m just disappointed. I thought this was going to be an easy song to learn, and I thought I’d be able to just play and sing along right away. I’m frustrated that I can’t.”

Eva and her old guitar.  (My new one is much prettier and shinier.)

Eva and her old guitar. (My new one is much prettier and shinier.)

We live in an i-world where things are increasingly easy. We’re used to having the answer in the time it takes to press a button. And when we realize something isn’t going to be so easy, we tend to lose heart. We’re not used to trying and failing until we get it right.

There’s a little whiny part of me that thinks writing novels should be easy – that they should just pour out of me, fully-formed and perfect. When that doesn’t happen, when I realize it’s actually a lot of hard work, I start looking for an easy alternative. Maybe I could write a memoir instead? Maybe I could just publish a book of my short stories?

But despite all my frustrations, I still haven’t given up – on writing, or the guitar. The other day, I played “Wagon Wheel” over and over. “OK,” I said finally, “I’m going to try to sing along, but I’m not going to be able to do it.”

But, funny enough, I was able to do it. Sort of. I didn’t sound that great, and I made a lot of mistakes, but I was able to play and sing at the same time, and I know the more I practice the better I’ll get.  There wasn’t some magic, easy answer.  Only lots and lots of hard work.  I think the same is true with my novel writing.  It will never be easy, but the more effort I put in, the better I’ll get.

I guess working hard has it’s advantages. Now I have to work hard to convince Wayne of this fact.  I’m sure I’ll be seeing him tonight.

Cross Country Trip 111

P.S.  “Are you working hard or hardly working is Sergiy’s favorite English expression.  He thinks it’s hilarious.

Grammar Mistakes & How to Make Mochi

Grammar Mistakes & How to Make Mochi

*Check out my short poem, “Sweet Tummy,” on Burlesque Press!*  

Lately I’ve been having an insatiable craving for Grainessence brown rice mochi, which is apparently only sold at the Trader Joe’s on Cape Cod and some random natural foods store in Missouri (which I found out about via the Internet). They don’t sell it at the Trader Joe’s in Seattle, and the people at the Whole Foods here told me it had been discontinued. So on Sunday Paul and I went on a Mochi Mission to Uwajimaya, the Asian food and gift emporium in the International District of Seattle.

Paul was sure I would find all the mochi I could ever want and more, but I had a feeling they wouldn’t have Grainessence brown rice mochi, because it’s more of a hippy food and less of an Asian food. But, on to Uwajimaya we went! While Paul ogled the selection of dumplings in the frozen section, I perused an aisle of dried squid with both curiosity and fear.

When we came to the desserts, we were overwhelmed by mochi products. They had every sort of gooey, chewy, rice-based confection you could possibly desire….except, of course, my Grainessence brown rice mochi. After some brief pouting, I decided to make do with the mochi options available (which were plentiful.) I chose some peanut-filled mochi desserts and a package of Omochi brand Japanese plain rice cakes.

My mochi purchases.

My mochi purchases.

Unable to wait for my mochi fix any longer, I devoured a peanut mochi in the car on the way home, and as soon as we got back to our apartment, Paul started boiling water for his pork dumplings while I examined the Omochi package for cooking directions. Then I started to laugh. Here’s what it said:

Directions for Cooking:

(HEAT UP)
When you use the microwave, please put it in and heat up for few minutes.
After heating up, please wait for a minute and remove Omochi from the microwave.

(BOIL UP)
Put Omochi into a pan of boiling water.
After a few minutes, the water is boiled again.
Please put out the fire and remove Omochi after a couple of minutes.

Please Pay Attention!
*This bag contains a deoxidant. After opening the bag, it has no effect, please throw away.
*The result from temperature change, it surface a drop of water in the clear bag one by one But it doesn’t effect to quality. Please break and throw away the bag before cooking Omochi.
*Please eat Omochi before cooking. Don’t touch heat up Omochi directly for avoid burn. And please use the chopstick.
*Please don’t put many Omochi in your mouth and don’t eat without a break. (It is dangerous to catch in your throat.)
*Please by carefull and get your mouth little by little

Directions for Preservation:
1. Unopened: Please do not expose Omochi to the direct rays of the sun and do not place it at the sun and do not place it at the place of high temperature and humidity
2. Opened: Omochi is raw things, it happens to get moldy Please fold down the bag and keep refrigerator.

The back of the Omochi package.

The back of the Omochi package.

The Omochi directions make it obvious how important proper grammar can be. Without it, we tend to deem something ridiculous or unprofessional.  We may even post in on facebook for public mockery and entertainment (which is what Paul wants to do with the Omochi package.)

But we don’t always need such extreme examples to see how grammar mistakes can cause harm. Recently, I had a story published in Issue 2 of the online magazine, Vagabond City. My mother read it, and in addition to telling me it was very odd and interesting, she pointed out two mistakes: “You said “now she had four pairs of hands.”  Should have been 4 hands or 2 pairs!  And Andrea Chang morphed into Andrea Chan later in the story.  Surprised the editor didn’t catch that!”

My first reaction was, dang, my mother needs to be a copy editor. My second reaction was frustration with myself. I must have proof-read that story at least ten times – why didn’t I catch those mistakes? My third reaction was annoyance with the editors of Vagabond City. Yeah, why didn’t they catch those? Did they not read my story carefully enough?

I started to feel like maybe the journal wasn’t very professional or prestigious. Maybe my story getting published there wasn’t any big feat. I felt embarrassed for myself, and for Vagabond City.  

Of course, I know that people will still appreciate my story, and the journal, but grammar mistakes, little as they may be, have a big impact on the way people see you. Speaking of copy editors, I went to happy hour on Friday with a new friend who works as a copy editor at a Seattle-based accounting firm. She edits articles and blurbs written by the higher-ups in the company, and she’s often surprised by their mistakes. This is why they need her, of course – to preserve their reputations as being competent and intelligent. Bad grammar would make their credibility fall.

Over glasses of wine and a plate of mushroom pate, we discussed the proper placement of hyphens and the difference between a while and awhile (yes, I realize this sounds nerdy), Then I told her about something I’d come across recently while re-reading my old diary from 2007. I had been off-and-on seeing a guy who lived elsewhere but came to New Orleans (where I lived) several times a year. We would email during the in-between time, and I wrote the following in my diary:

The thing that confuses me about A–– is why, if he went to Tulane and is therefore obviously fairly smart and well-educated, does he misspell things or spell them like a 14 year old? And why is his writing and his punctuation all over the place? Is it because he’s ADD? Is it just his personality? Is it because he’s high? It’s just weird because his emails sometimes make him seem kind of stupid, but I know that he can’t be that stupid. After all, Tulane is a pretty good school.

I told my new friend, the copy writer, about this, and we both laughed.  Ahh, poor grammar. Not only can it be a detriment to your professional life, it can hurt your romantic interactions as well.

Of course, sometimes, like in the case of the Omochi package, it can also provide hilarious entertainment.

This is the mochi I REALLY want… Sigh.

“Wagon Wheel,” Revising Novels, & Getting the Rhythm Right

“Wagon Wheel,” Revising Novels, & Getting the Rhythm Right

Yesterday I had a guitar lesson, and I showed off the Pink Floyd song I’ve been working on. “All right,” my teacher said, nodding. “I think you’re ready for another song. You like the Beatles?” 

“Sure.” I tried to generate some enthusiasm . People think you’re weird if you say you don’t like the Beatles. “How can you not like the Beatles?” they say, as if I’m telling them that I don’t like breathing air. And it’s not that I don’t like the Beatles, it’s just I’ve heard all their hits so many times over and over that I’m sick to death of them. Listening to the Beatles “1” album can actually make me feel like vomiting.

“So I think we’ll do “Hey Jude.”” My teacher started looking through his filing cabinet.

Just to make conversation, I said, “oh, you know, I taught myself a song over the weekend.” I wasn’t sure how my teacher would react to this. Was he threatened by all the youtube tutorials out there, taking the place of in-person instruction? Would he be worried that I was going to pick up bad habits or derail his teachings? Or, as I was hoping, would he see this as a positive sign of my interest in the guitar?

“Oh yeah? What’d you learn?”

“Wagon Wheel,” I said. “I mean, the chords are really easy, so…”

“OK, we can do that one instead.” He stuffed the sheet of paper with the “Hey Jude” guitar tabs back into a file and started riffling through the cabinet again.

“Well, I mean…” I wanted to reiterate that I’d already taught myself “Wagon Wheel” and would rather learn a new song, but that seemed rude.

“You’re right, the chords are easy,” my teacher said, looking at the sheet. “But the rhythm is pretty fast. Let me show you.” He started strumming. Turns out, I had been strumming the wrong way, and also way too slow. The real song was a lot harder than I’d thought.

Old Crow Medicine Show — the guys who made “Wagon Wheel” popular. (Did you know it was an unfinished and unreleased Bob Dylan song?) Photo credit.

 I recently finished the first draft of a novel and am in an excruciating period where I’m letting my novel “rest” while I wait to get feedback from a few people. The plan is that in a month or two I’ll have some distance from the manuscript as well as (hopefully) some insightful feedback, and then I’ll be ready to do a big revision. After that, I can start querying agents.

But I hate waiting, and I don’t know what to do with myself right now. I’ve already started another novel.  I’ve also come this-close to going ahead and sending query emails, even though my friend Jeni admonished that I should “absolutely not” query with a first draft. “Don’t you have other novels laying around?” she asked me yesterday. “Maybe you could use this time to revise one of those.”

And yes, she’s absolutely right. At this point I have written five novels, and I haven’t made a real attempt at revising any of them. The first novel I ever completed was a coming-of-age semi-auto-biographical stereotype which I wrote when I was twenty-four. I haven’t looked at it since, and I’m pretty sure if I did, I would cringe in horrible embarrassment.

The second was a YA fantasy novel that my professor at the time encouraged me to write so I could “get on the Twilight train.”  I started to hate the thing when I was halfway through, but I forced myself to finish it back in the fall of 2009. I hated it so much, I could never stomach the thought of going back to revise it.

The third novel I finished last fall, and though I like the way it begins and the way it ends, I cannot for the life of me figure out how to fix the whole middle part – you know, where most of the plot happens.

I wrote another novel over the summer that I liked up until the moment I finished it, and then I decided it was lame.  And now there’s this new one, which I started in the spring and finished just a few weeks ago.  In conclusion — five novels, and I haven’t really revised any of them.

When I think about trying to fix the novels I’ve already written, it seems way too hard and frustrating. I just don’t know where to begin, and it seems overwhelming and impossible, like trying to pat my head and rub my belly at the same time.  I feel like it’s easier to start over with something new.

I was going to record a video of me playing "Wagon Wheel," but it sounded too awful.  I need to practice more first.

I was going to record a video of me playing “Wagon Wheel,” but it sounded too awful. I need to practice more first.

I came home from my guitar lesson last night, excited that I had learned the right way to play “Wagon Wheel.” I have to admit that when I taught myself, I wasn’t entirely accurate. I can be very impatient at times, especially when it comes to watching video tutorials or reading directions. I had watched the video long enough to get the chords, and then I had figured out the strumming on my own.

But I had figured it out incorrectly, of course.

Now, when I sat down to play the song the right way, I realized I couldn’t sing along anymore. Now that the rhythm was faster and required more concentration, I couldn’t get my hands and voice working in unison.

“Aw man!” I threw my pick down in frustration. I wished my teacher had given me “Hey Jude” to learn instead. Here I had thought that I had “Wagon Wheel” in the bag, but it turns out I’d only just begun; I had a lot more practice ahead of me in order to get it right.

I guess I always feel like I’m making more progress when I’m working on something new then when I’m trying to correct something I’ve been doing wrong. But what’s better:  playing a lot of songs half-assed, or practicing fewer songs and getting them to sound really good?

I still don’t know if I can bring myself to revise those old novels of mine. But I do see the value in it. And I’m thankful for the guitar. It’s teaching me some patience I could probably use in other aspects of my life.

Talent vs. Practice, or, If Katy Perry Can Do It, So Can I!

Talent vs. Practice, or, If Katy Perry Can Do It, So Can I!

I started taking guitar lessons in October, and in the first month I learned how to make basic chords and how to transition between them. I went to visit my dad in mid-October, and he asked me to show him what I’d learned so far. I played him the C-major scale and my battery of chords – A, C, D, E, G, E-minor and A-minor. My dad, being a top-notch guitar player and songwriter, was less than impressed. If he didn’t actually say, “is that it?,” his eyes did.

“I just started,” I reminded him.

“Well, you’ll get there,” he said.

“It’s in your blood,” my step-mother added, insinuating that since both my parents are musicians, I probably have the talent to be one, too. But I wondered if that was true. I had never thought of myself as having musical talent. It was my brother who had taught himself how to play the guitar by simply picking it up one day in high school and experimenting until he got it to sound the way he wanted. He made up songs and played with an easy, confident abandon I wasn’t sure I’d ever have.  I thought he had the talent, not me, which was why it had taken me until I was in my thirties to make an attempt at learning an instrument.

Eva attempting to play the guitar.

Eva attempting to play the guitar.

Now, a few weeks later, I’ve gotten to the point where I can play simple songs on the guitar. I’ve been working on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” for the past two weeks. Paul’s been working on it, too, because every time I sit down to play he gets this puppy dog look on his face and asks to see my guitar for “just a minute.”

Paul used to play the violin, and so ever since I started taking guitar lessons he’s been feeling nostalgic about music and hankering for an instrument of his own. He’s been making me teach him everything I learn, so it’s like we’re getting two sets of guitar lessons for the price of one.

It’s also likely that we’re driving our neighbors insane. On any given night, I will play “Wish You Were Here” over and over for forty-five minutes, and then Paul will play it over and over for forty-five minutes. And we’re not playing it well, mind you.

I’m definitely getting better, but even this simple song is a challenge for me. Sometimes I try to play and sing at the same time, and oh man, is that hard! My left hand is trying to switch quickly between chords, and my right hand is trying to keep rhythm, and my voice is trying to sing the melody.

“I’m amazed,” I said to Paul the other night, “that there are all these people who can just sit down with a guitar and start singing along like it’s the easiest thing in the world. It is not the easiest thing in the world!”

“Of course,” I continued, “I know that it’s just practice. It’s lots and lots of practice and muscle memory, but still. It must take a long time to get to that point.”

I thought of an interview with Katy Perry I’d watched once a few years ago. She had been playing the guitar and singing, and I had thought, gee, if Katy Perry can do it, I can, too. But now I was more impressed with her than I had been before. Playing the guitar and singing wasn’t as easy as people make it seem.

Katy Perry plays guitar.  Picture credit.

Katy Perry plays guitar. Picture credit.

I recently read novelist Haruki Murakami’s “memoir” What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I wouldn’t recommend it. I found it to be mostly rambling and self-important, and Murakami is quite unlikeable, at least in my eyes. One of the things he said that rubbed me the wrong way was this:

In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.

What I don’t like about this statement is that elusive word, “talent.” What does it mean to have talent? Does it mean you can teach yourself to play the guitar?  Does it mean that you learn faster, or that you sound better than other peopel?  How can you determine whether or not you have talent? And what if you’re wrong? All these years I missed out on playing the guitar because I thought I didn’t have talent.  That seems silly now.  

And then there’s Paul and his violin.  Everyone in his family always bemoans the fact that he doesn’t play anymore. “You were so good!” they say. “You had so much talent!”

“I practiced four hours a day,” Paul told me. “My life was violin, and I got to the point where I hated it. After college I never touched my violin again.” And it’s true. His violin is at his parents’ house, and I’ve never once heard him play.

Is it practice, or is it talent that really makes someone good at something? And what the use of either if you’re not enjoying it?

My brother, Deven, playing the guitar.

My brother, Deven, playing the guitar.

I never thought I had musical talent. And I’m still not sure if I do. Maybe I won’t know until I’ve been taking lessons for a while. But what I do know is that I’m getting better. Over the weekend, I was pleased as punch when I watched a five-minute Internet tutorial and then taught myself to play “Wagon Wheel.” I might not be playing it one hundred percent correctly, but I’m able to play and sing at the same time, which gives me immense satisfaction. “This is fun!” I told Paul. Now I want to play my guitar all the time, and at least for now I think my enthusiasm and enjoyment is more important than any talent I may or may not have.

Part of being good at something is making it look easy. When we watch a professional play the guitar, or read a beautifully-written novel, we assume that since it seems easy, it must be easy for the musician, or the novelist. We assume it must be easy for them because they have talent – a talent that we don’t have and never will.

But I don’t think that’s completely true.

Everything is hard at first, whether you’re teaching yourself or taking lessons. Maybe you have talent and maybe you don’t, but at the very beginning, everyone struggles. We can’t judge ourselves too harshly at this stage. As my guitar teacher says, you have to keep strumming, even when you blow the chords.

What’s more important than this wishy-washy notion of talent is practice. And having fun with your practice, when possible. Otherwise, you’re apt to burn out.

When I finally have a novel published – and it will happen one day – no one will see the stack of practice novels I’ve left in my wake. They will only see this one beautifully-polished book. I will seem like it was so easy for me, and people will think that I must have talent. When maybe my only real talent was that I kept on practicing until I got it right.

RELATED READING:  

Interview with Murakami

Be Friends with Failure — really cute and wise cartoon about practice

MORE Crazy Cool Writing Contests aka You Can Win Beer!

MORE Crazy Cool Writing Contests aka You Can Win Beer!

I’m in the process of competing in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge.  Round 1 was at the end of September; my group had 48 hours to write a 1,000-word romance that took place in a haunted house and involved marshmallows.  I thought my story about two teenagers working together at “Scream Manor” (he as a zombie and she as a vampire) was pretty cute, but the judges didn’t seem to care for it. I only got 4 out of 15 points. Yikes.

Hopefully I’ll make up for lost points in Round 2, which was last weekend. This time my group had 48 hours to write a historical fiction story (1,000 word limit again) that takes place in a church and involves a bucket. I think mine is pretty good, and I did some actual research for it, so, we’ll see. The fact that I like it probably means the judges won’t. Or, maybe they will. That’s the thing about contests: you never know what the judges are looking for or what will strike their fancy. It’s best not to get your hopes up too high (or at all). Pick a few contests to enter a year, and think of the entry fees as your donation towards the literary arts. Because chances are, you ain’t winning any prizes, my friend.

On the chance that I haven’t discouraged you yet, there are approximately a million writing contests you can enter (find them on New Pages or Poets & Writers). A lot of them are pretty generic “we’re looking for the best writing” type of stuff. So I’m always on the lookout for contests that are slightly quirky, have interesting prizes, and/or have a low entry fees. (See my list from the spring: 10 Crazy Cool Writing Contests). Here are some contests that stood out to me this time:
MORE CRAZY COOL WRITING CONTESTS!

River Styx Schlafly Micro-brew Micro-fiction Contest– A prize of $1,500 for a short story, plus the winner receives a case of Schlafly microbrewed beer!  Deadline:  Dec. 31, 2013

Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition – A prize of $3,000 for a short story, plus the winner gets an all-expenses-paid trip to the 2014 Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City!  Deadline:  Nov. 15, 2013

Burlesque Press’s DARK Contest — The theme is “dark” — crime, horror, mystery, black magic, etc.  The winners in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction will receive a free registration to BP’s writing retreat in Krakow Poland in July 2014, plus a cash stipend.

Literal Latté K. Margaret Grossman Fiction Award – Only $10 per short story entry (up to 8,000 words), and $15 for two! What a deal.  Deadline:  Jan. 15, 2014

Provincetown OuterMost Community Radio – Live near Cape Cod (or want to visit) and want to be on the radio? In this contest, a prize of $1,000 will be given for a poem, plus the winner will be featured on OuterMost Community Radio’s Poets Corner program!  Deadline:  Dec. 10, 2013

Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Fiction Contest – This contest includes an all-expenses-paid trip to attend the 2014 New Orleans Literary Festival and give a public reading. Plus you get $1500. Enough said.  Deadline:  Nov. 15, 2013

501 Word Writing Contest – Submit a flash fiction piece of 501 words or less. The winning story will be turned into a short literary film! Deadline:  Dec. 1, 2013.

Baltimore Review Winter Contest – Theme: The Future – This one is fun because of the theme – feel free to interpret as you wish. Entry fee is a measly $10.  Deadline:  Nov. 30, 2013

Open City Magazine Rofihe Trophy Short Story Contest @anderbo – Need something to keep your middle school softball trophies company? The author of the winning short story will receive $500 and a trophy! Plus, there’s no entry fee!  THAT’S what I’m talking about!

At the AWP Conference 2013 in my Burlesque Press t-shirt.  Sorry, I have no say in who wins the Dark Contest...

At the AWP Conference 2013 in my Burlesque Press t-shirt. Sorry, I have no say in who wins the Dark Contest…