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Can You Take Yourself Out of Your Writing?

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Can You Take Yourself Out of Your Writing?

One field of science my physicist husband studies is called “uncertainty quantification,” which, to my understanding, is pretty much what it sounds like: finding ways to quantify how uncertain scientists are about computational and real-world applications.

I’ve always thought it sounded like a rather poetic (and difficult) mission. Isn’t uncertainty something you feel? How do you put a number on your feelings?

Paul admits that this is a problem. “Uncertainty quantification implies that there is a person who has uncertainties,” he said to me the other day. “A scientist’s goal is to be objective – to take himself completely out of the equation — but UQ rests on the notion of a person with uncertainty.  The scientist is automatically a part of it.”

“Isn’t it virtually impossible for scientists to take themselves completely out of their work anyway?” I asked.

Paul admitted that it was.

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This is what our baby looks like when she is uncertain.

 

My writing life has many uncertainties. Will I ever get a book published? How long will it take? If I do get a book out into the world, will anyone read it?

I feel certain that I will have my novels published one day, but that’s just a feeling. It’s not based on anything scientific.

In fact, were I to be scientific, I might feel less certain. A quick google search tells me that most agents reject 99% of the queries that come their way. And getting an agent doesn’t guarantee that your novel will get published. Even if it’s published, you can’t be certain that people will read it.

I’ve just started querying agents with a new middle-grade novel, and I’m feeling anxious about it. In part because this book has so much of me in it.

The main character is an eighth grade girl who loves math and writes poetry. Hmm… Hits pretty close to home. (You guys were aware that I used to be a math teacher, right?)

In fact, I got the idea for the novel while reading one of my old diaries, and though the protagonist is not me, nor is the story something that happened to me, I certainly poured a lot of my actual middle school feelings into this book. There’s even one line in the novel that I lifted nearly verbatim from my ninth grade diary because it was just too perfect not to use.

So it’s scary to send this manuscript into the world. It was easier when I was querying a novel set in the middle ages about a disabled girl who goes on a magical quest. Not only was the book written in third person, which gave me a feeling of distance, but the protagonist and her story had very little in common with me and my life. This new novel, on the other hand… The protagonist and I definitely have some similarities. And her story, as well as her emotions, draw on my own teenage experiences. When an agent rejects the book (which will happen, of that I’m certain), I might feel like it’s not only my book that’s being rejected, but my experiences and feelings as well.

It’s scary to put your writing out there. It’s even scarier when your writing contains so much of yourself.

But isn’t it virtually impossible, you ask, for writers to take themselves completely out of their work? And I must admit that it is.

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My 8th grade school photo.  Note the flannel shirt — it was 1993.

 

My husband likes to say that physicists are storytellers. The universe is too mysterious for us to be totally certain about anything, and though I’m a huge fan of science, its theories are, in the end, simply stories. They are stories that help us explain and understand our world. And as much as scientists may try to take themselves out of their experiments and observations, the fact remains that they can’t separate themselves totally from their work.

I’ve often thought that I write fiction as a way to understand my world. Even if I’m not writing about my own experiences, I’m still there somewhere in the writing. I can’t take myself out of it completely.

And maybe I shouldn’t worry about separating myself from my writing. In some ways, I think this newest novel is the best one I’ve written so far. Perhaps because it contains so much of myself.

No matter what I write, I’m always going to be a part of the equation.

Of that much I’m certain.

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This is the type of book my husband likes to read for fun.  No joke.

 

Get Rolling, or, When You’ve Forgotten How to Write

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Get Rolling, or, When You’ve Forgotten How to Write

When my baby was nearly eleven weeks old, she started rolling from her tummy onto her back, and I was very impressed and proud. Recently, at three and a half months, she’s started rolling from her back onto her tummy. Again, I am impressed and proud.

What’s frustrating, though, is that now, when I lay her down on her play mat, she immediately rolls over and then starts to cry because she’s on her tummy and she doesn’t like it.

“Roll back over,” I tell her. “I know you know how. I’ve captured you doing it on video.”

But for some reason she can’t remember this previously-learned skill. And she’s upset about it.

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Baby on her tummy.  I know she doesn’t look upset, but believe me, she started crying 5 seconds after this picture was taken.

 

The other day I was doing some final polishes on my novel in preparation to start querying agents. As I was reading over the manuscript I began to wonder, how did I ever create this story in the first place?

I developed the idea for the novel a little over a year ago and wrote the first draft last spring, but I seem to have forgotten how I did it. Sometimes it feels like I’m revising someone else’s work.

Now that I’m finishing up this project, it’s time to start something new. Time to switch from revising to creating.  Time to start rolling the other way.

If I can only remember how.

 

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One way to get the baby to sleep.

 

Nap time with the baby has been a challenge these past few days. When I put her in her crib, half the time she immediately flips onto her tummy and then starts to cry. Yesterday I had to walk her around the neighborhood in her stroller for over and hour because that was the only way I could get her to take an afternoon nap.

Paul and I wonder if we should leave her on her tummy to struggle and cry. Maybe, if she gets frustrated enough, she’ll remember how to do it.

Or, maybe, we just have to be patient and give her time.

Normally, when I finish with one writing project, I rush to start something new; I’m in a panic not to waste time. But having a baby has made me a bit more relaxed. It’s a successful day if I manage to get dressed and go grocery shopping. So if a day goes by when I don’t work on writing, it’s not the end of the world.

Still, there is a part of me that worries — what if I’ve lost this previously-learned skill, this ability to create fiction?  I worry that this time I won’t be able to write another novel.

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Come on, baby!  Get rolling!

 

While walking the baby around the neighborhood the other day, an idea for a novel popped into my head. That’s how ideas usually arrive. You can’t force yourself to have one; they appear out of the blue, usually when you’re doing something unrelated to writing.

The idea has gotten me thinking, and I can feel the gears in my brain shifting from revision mode to creation mode. I haven’t forgotten how to write, I just haven’t done it in a while.

I’m not in a hurry, but I’m sure soon enough, I’ll get rolling on a new novel.

Writing About Apples, or, How to be Creative

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Writing About Apples, or, How to be Creative

Back in March, my mom texted me happy St. Patrick’s Day and asked, “so what percentage Irish is the baby? Only a math major can figure it out!” I took this as a challenge, and after texting my mother-in-law for information, I did some calculations and came up with this:

Phoebe is approximately…

  • 1/4   Italian (25%)
  • 7/32   German (approx. 21.9%)
  • 3/16   Scottish/Irish (approx. 18.8%)
  • 5/32   English (approx. 15.6%)
  • 1/16   French (approx. 6.3%)
  • 1/16   Danish (approx. 6.3%)
  • 1/32   Polish (approx. 3.1%)
  • 1/32   Czech (approx. 3.1%)

 

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My baby is probably less than 15% Irish.  But still very kissable!

 

Now that the baby is three months old I’m slowly getting back to my paying jobs, one of which is writing math curriculum.

And last week I created an assignment called “Melting Pot Math” in which the students have to figure out the “fractional ethnicity” of a person based on the countries his great-grandparents are from.

My bosses are happy to have me back; they continually praise me for my ability to come up with creative math projects. And I’m sort of amazed myself. I’ve been doing this job for over four years now; you’d think I would have run out of ideas for teaching fractions and long division. And yet I always come up with something, often based on whatever is going on in my life: wedding planning, visiting Mexico, getting an ultrasound. I even wrote a math curriculum called “Literary Agent.”

I’m also getting back to my other part-time job – tutoring – but right now I’m only doing it on Skype. I just hired a high school girl who will come to the apartment one afternoon a week to watch Phoebe while I’m on Skype, but up until now my husband has been watching her while I tutor.

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On Sunday I was tutoring, and my student’s camera wasn’t working.  She could see me, but I couldn’t see her. It didn’t matter, though. She was just reading out loud to me from To Kill a Mockingbird, and we were discussing.

Out of the corner of my ear, I heard Phoebe start crying, and it sounded like a hungry cry, so I told my student to hold on a second. I fetched the baby and then said, “okay, keep reading. I’m just going to feed her.”

I guess I had a moment of flamingo syndrome –I couldn’t see my student, so I assumed she couldn’t see me. I pulled down my tank top and started breastfeeding. A few seconds later, I remembered that my student could see me, and I adjusted the camera so that only my face was visible on the screen. Oops! I can only hope she was so engrossed with To Kill a Mockingird that she didn’t notice her tutor flashing her!

Toward the end of the lesson, my student told me that she had to give a speech the next day to the entire middle school. “Our teacher told us we could pick any topic we wanted, so I chose apples,” she said.

“Apples? Like the fruit?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

She practiced her speech, and I gave her a few pointers.

“Why did you decide to write your speech about apples?” I then asked.

She grinned. “I didn’t know what to write about, and I was eating an apple, and my friend said ‘why don’t you write about apples.’” She shrugged. “So I did.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not what her teacher had in mind for the assignment. On the other hand, it’s a good lesson: when you don’t know what to write about, look around and write what you see. Write about your baby. Write about your day. Write about the apple you’re currently eating.

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When I started this blog four and a half years ago, I worried I might run out of things to write about. But, like with math curriculum, I always come up with something. Often I take inspiration from whatever is going on in my life, big or small.  Like accidentally Skype-flashing my student.

I don’t consider myself to be an amazingly creative person, pulling brilliant ideas out of thin air. Often I’m just a girl writing about apples. I look around, shrug, and write about whatever is in front of my face.

 

 

 

The Baby Will Come Out, and So Will Your Book

The Baby Will Come Out, and So Will Your Book

For the past seven weeks, my husband and I have been spending our Sunday mornings at Bradley childbirth class. We absolutely adore our teacher. Not only is she approachable and hilarious (she introduced us to this video), but she’s a doula and a mother of four — so she knows a lot about birthing babies. She’s also a huge fan of natural childbirth, which is great because that’s what Paul and I are hoping/planning to do.

I don’t want to get too preachy, but were you guys aware that the national Cesarean rate is 33%? And at Sibley Hospital in D.C., the C-section rate is a whopping 47%!

“I just can’t believe that 47% of women going to Sibley can’t get their babies out the normal way,” our teacher has said on multiple occasions.

I agree. I know that sometimes C-sections are necessary, but not 47% of the time.  That seems crazy.

Without going into too much detail, Paul and I have learned a lot about how hospital interventions (like epidurals that numb you from the waist down, and drugs that induce or speed up labor) can lead to more interventions, which can lead to C-sections or other less-than-ideal situations.

Our teacher advises that we try not to mess with the natural process. As she likes to say, “Don’t worry. The baby’ll come out. That’s what babies do.”

Naturally, as a writer, it’s easy to liken growing a baby to writing a book. Both take a long time and are simultaneously exciting and exhausting. And in both cases, it can be scary: how am I going to get this thing out of me and into the world? Will I really be able to do it?

Sometimes it’s hard to trust the natural process.

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I am now 29 1/2 weeks pregnant!

 

One of the annoying things many hospitals do is put time limits on how long a woman can be in labor. When doctors feel a woman is “not making progress,” they might break her water, give her Pitocin (which speeds up labor), or threaten a C-section. Although some circumstances might call for these interventions, they mess with the natural process and can often cause further complications.

And giving a woman a time limit on her labor is likely to stress her out. Stress makes the woman tight and tense, which then makes it hard for her to open up and push the baby out.

As my teacher likes to say, “just leave the woman alone. The baby’ll come out. It’ll be fine. Babies come out.”

Not that babies come flying out on their own.  It’s a lot of hard work to push new life into the world, and it can be painful.  But if you stick with it, the baby will come out.

For first-time moms especially, the labor process can take a long time. And most of us aren’t used to that. In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t live in a very patient culture. We’re not used to the uncertainly of not knowing how long something is going to take. We don’t like the idea of working hard and making seemingly little progress.

 

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Birthing a baby takes time!

 

Come to think of it, those are things most writers struggle with, too. The uncertainty: will I ever get this book published?  When? And the frustration: I’ve been working on this novel for weeks/months/years but I feel like I’m not making progress!

The writing process can be hard on the impatient ego.

When I graduated from my MFA program at the age of 28, I put a time limit on myself: I would have a published novel by the age of 30.

Not only was this unreasonable – the publishing industry moves at a snail’s pace and I had never even written a full-length book before – but I also wasn’t respecting the natural process of creativity. With the self-imposed time limit, I started to feel stressed and doubtful, which made it harder to open up and let my story come out. I thought that if a book deal didn’t happen now, it never would, and I got to the point where I almost gave up on writing altogether.

I wish someone had told me this: Don’t worry. Your book will come out. That’s what books do.  It’ll be fine.”

I know I have to work hard and push myself, but I will bring my stories into the world…eventually.

 

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I’m glad that Paul and I are working with a group of midwives that doesn’t put time limits on labor unless there is truly a concern about the safety of mother or baby. I’ll be allowed to labor as long as it takes in order to bring my wee one into the world.

And I’m glad that I’m no longer imposing time limits on my writing. It might take a while, but my book will come out when the time is right. I just need to open up and trust the natural process.

 

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The baby will come out — that’s what babies do!

May Memories: Why Meditation is Like Writing

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May Memories:  Why Meditation is Like Writing

May Memories:

Today we flashback to a post I wrote six months ago:  You Can Go Your Own Way:  Why Meditation is Like Writing.

Paul and I are still trying to meditate together once or twice a week, but I often find it extremely difficult / boring / frustrating.  I often think that writing is my preferred method of meditation.  I’ve started writing “morning pages” as suggested in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (see my post about that), and I’m wondering if this should just take the place of the whole lotus-position-concentrate-on-your-breathing thing.  Still, I’m going to keep trying meditation as long as Paul will do it with me.  It certainly can’t hurt, and sometimes it’s nice to sit quietly on the floor next to my man and listen to his breath going in and out.

Eva and Paul

Eva and Paul

Translating Dreams: The Difficult Job of the Writer

Translating Dreams:  The Difficult Job of the Writer

The other night, I was already asleep when my fiancé got into bed. “I have two important things to tell you,” I murmured, my eyes still closed.

“OK,” he said. (In the morning he recounted this conversation to me… I do not remember what comes next.)

I took a deep breath, as if gathering up my energy. “Cory and… um… Cory and Melissa,” I managed to say. (Cory and Melissa are two of my best friends who are about to have a baby.)

“What about them?” At this point he still thought I might be lucid.

“The seeds,” I whispered.

“What seeds?”

“The seeds are…” I drifted off.

“Did you send them some seeds?”

“No!” I was growing frustrated with my inability to communicate what was obviously very important. “Cory and Melissa are sad.”

“Why are they sad?”

I sighed and rolled over in the bed. He wasn’t getting it, and I wasn’t saying it right. How to make him understand? I tried again. “Cory and Melissa are sad. Because they can’t come with me on the Skyway.” Then I fell back into a deep sleep.

Cory & Melissa and Eva.  (In real life.)

Cory & Melissa and Eva. (In real life.)

In the morning, I vaguely remembered having this conversation, although I did not remember the specifics of what I had said. I remembered that I was struggling to tell Paul something I felt very strongly about, but I couldn’t make the words come out right. It made sense in my head, but when I tried to say it out loud I lost my train of thought. Each time I tried to explain, I got further and further away from the point, and I just couldn’t seem to make him understand. I remembered being frustrated and exhausted. I don’t remember what the “two important things” were.

This is the way writing can feel sometimes. In your dreamlike, creative state, you find a story, but getting it from the depths of your mind and into the real world can be a struggle. It makes sense in your head, but once you start to explain it out loud, or write it in words, or, god forbid, create an outline for it, the confusion sets in. You lose the thread of the story, it doesn’t seem to come out right. What seemed like such a great and important idea starts to crumble.

That’s why the job of the writer can be so difficult. We try to find ways to translate our dreams into stories that make sense to others. We struggle to speak the truths of the unconscious mind and to write words that just might awaken the sleeping soul.

This is what I look like when I'm asleep.  Charming, huh?

This is what I look like when I’m asleep. Charming, huh?