Fear the Love

Sometime in the 1940s, my grandmother took her first child, an infant girl, out in a stroller around their neighborhood in Brooklyn, either to meet friends or simply to get out of the house. My grandma was still in her twenties, but was much older than most first time mothers. I imagine her taking that walk, her red hair glittering in the sun beneath a no-nonsense hat, her sensible shoes crunching gravel and dirt clumps as they rolled along.

 

My grandma continued on her outing, for who knows how long, unaware the center of her universe had stopped breathing. There was no dramatic trauma, no catastrophic incident. My grandma would later check on the baby and discover the truth. Her greatest joy had slipped away in one tiny breath. SIDs had claimed her firstborn child.

The last time she spoke to me about baby Mary, she sobbed quietly into the phone. It was one of only two occasions I can remember her crying. There was nothing I could say. I held back my own tears, not really knowing if it was right or wrong to cry or withhold.

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My grandmother was a mythical figure of contrasts. A stern, intelligent woman who came alive with energetic delight around young children. A bookish world traveler who remained both devoutly religious and scientifically curious. A fabulous story teller who rarely tolerated nonsense. A lady who wore only white, black or beige shoes but habitually dyed her grayed ginger hair a bright, unnatural red. An independent woman who had married a friend of her parents, a widow over 13 years older than her, primarily to be mother to his orphaned son.

Some version of the woman I knew as "grandma" appears in all of my stories - Finas is more closely related to her than I am. I've written pieces of her into dozens of characters, a woman both distant and admirable. She couldn't have been born that way, of course. Her godfather, a cousin who sent her lace handkerchiefs while stationed in France, was killed in the Somme. She lived through the Great Depression and lost her father at 21. Still, she told me the dreams she had back then. They were full of traveling and painting and learning. I imagine she retained those hopes when she left for that walk with her baby. The young woman she was never came back. She would go on to lose another child - her son was drafted and swiftly killed in the Vietnam War.

 

I'm not sure if she loved me, but I adored her. Some of my happiest moments in my childhood were with her. Outings to the aquarium in Coney Island, daytrips to the Natural History Museum and Central Park, shopping in the grocery store and cooking at home.

She was often cruel, perhaps unintentionally so. She regularly criticized my cousins to me; successful, happy people with advanced degrees who still failed to meet her standards. During our last phone call before she died, in a matter-of-fact tone, she insulted me in detail. My withdrawal from Catholicism, my choice of boyfriend, my inability to afford and complete college, and my lack of children. She said she had always expected me, of all her grandchildren, to succeed in life. She called me a disappointment. In anger, I told her I was hanging up, and did. I didn’t know that I would never speak to her again.

 

Grandma was often cold, often unhappy with her surviving children and grandchildren. I used to think anyone as hardworking and intelligent as her was never going to be pleased by the average human, related or no. I don’t think that explains her attitude. It was fear, I think, to love unconditionally.

Being Unproductive, Enjoying Things

I have an endless list of items I need to do, ranging in difficulty from a five minute phone call to reviewing my editor's notes on my latest book (sorry, Meghan!)

So, what am I doing? Well, I'm not relaxing. I'm rushing through every free moment - jumping through the shower, wolfing down meals, wearing out the fast forward button while watching Premier League games, and definitely not proofreading this post (sorry again, Meghan!!)

I'm the proud parent of a newborn, a toddler, and a dog who thinks she's a human teenager. I never thought I would be here - health issues and years of financial idiocy almost robbed me of this experience. I love my little family. People on the street, when not decrying my baby's lack of a hat, frequently tell me, "ENJOY IT!"

This is well-intentioned but entirely unnecessary.

I'm fortunate enough to take time off from working to focus on my young family. My mother never had that option, let alone decent maternity leave. I value the moments in this bubble I've constructed, knowing they are slipping away even as they occur. Knowing these things is why I haven't been to the movies, gotten my glasses fixed, or coordinated my socks in weeks. Strangers don't need to tell me to enjoy these moments - I know how lucky I am, how rare this experience is in the United States.

The cost of these moments is my "productivity", and that's ok. I'm sorry for ignoring your emails, not wanting to chat on the phone, and generally not fulfilling my non-child, non-health obligations. I'm busy forgetting baby hats and enjoying moments.

Creative Writing Gold: Advice Columns

Back when physical newspapers weren't bizarre relics of yesteryear, I would only glance at the advice column section. Many of the problems seemed so detached from my childhood existence that I couldn't summon the interest to read them. Cheating spouse? Budgeting issues? Crazy in-laws? I honestly cared more about stock prices than whether Bummed in Boston got his wife back on her antidepressants.

It wasn't until 5 years ago that I started reading advice columns. I'm still not sure what the intended audience looks like, but I read them for three main reasons:

 

1) Everyday Problems

Sometimes, I think writers get too caught up in making interesting characters 100% interesting. Advice columns are handy for reading through the sort of problems that average people face that are kind of boring. We aren't all saving the world-- some of us just want to know, how do I stop lending my loser cousin money?

 

2) Bizarre-People Problems  

When you are writing about a person with low or non-existent empathy, it can be hard thinking up all the ways they would interact with others on a day-to-day basis. Advice columns seem to attract people dealing with sociopaths (and on rare, joyous occasions, the sociopaths themselves write in to learn how to deal with the rest of us). They aren't all Dexter. Many sociopaths are committed assholes trying to disinherit their stepkids, gaslight their loved ones into believing they have mental disorders, or get away with killing their neighbor's dogs. 

 

3) Domestic Problems

For me, this category of advice column is useful simply for validation in how I depict family relationships. I've been in, near to, or affected by a range of chaotic domestic scenes and romances. When you're facing the consequences of one, it can feel like such an alien experience that the only conclusion is that you are entirely alone. Later, when I write about these scenarios, some readers push back, making it difficult to stand by them.

For example, in my next book, I used a real-life example from a friend's past relationship. The first time her husband beat her was over toppings on his fast food order.

One of the first people to read the story questioned whether I should change the topic of this argument to something more important, substantial. Abusive monsters abuse, and kill, over asinine nonsense. Reading through advice columns (and the news...), I get validation for my choice to stick with this story.

 

4) The Problems of the Advice Giver

In all of this, I have focused on the questions being asked, but the person answering those questions can be just as interesting. I've been following Slate's Dear Prudence series for years. In particular, it's fascinating to read Mallory Ortberg's responses to privacy on cell phones (the first Q&A in this article sums up her viewpoint, but it appears elsewhere). She makes her argument in favor of cell phone privacy within marriage with more genuine feeling than I can understand. I posted my initial reaction on social media, got into a discussion with my husband, and thought about it more later.

This may seem like a dumb thing to get drawn into. This advice response was, for me, a brief window into the opinions of someone with a completely different viewpoint on privacy. I have worked in tech, finance, and, for a brief period, the medical industry. One can learn quite a lot about the private lives of people in these fields, either through the necessary research involved in the work, inadvertently reading the wrong screen, or, in some cases, intentionally seeking out private info on celebrities, friends, family, and neighbors. My experiences have made me form a completely different viewpoint on this issue. As a writer, it is imperative I have my viewpoints constantly questioned.

Write What You Know: The Tech Industry

Even the dogs get swag out here.  Photo by Norah Woodsey

Even the dogs get swag out here. Photo by Norah Woodsey

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I celebrated our ninth year living, breathing, and occasionally suffering the tech industry. Before that, I did various odd jobs on computers and helped teams who did software development for my employer, but really nine years ago is when we got started. Though this industry is incredibly powerful, there aren't many people who have had the privilege to see it from the inside. While writing books and short stories, I get to tap into events that pass for real life out here. 

To give a brief example, let's start at a wedding. We were guests at a friend's fancy wedding celebration a few years ago when a VERY IMPORTANT man who shall remain nameless showed up.  I can say with full confidence that if the HBO show Silicon Valley hasn’t made a character based on him yet, it's an intentional oversight. 

I mention this guy because he showed up in gym clothes. And sandals. Late. To a wedding.

I doubt the groom was offended or even noticed. I thought the bride looked confused. I know from a liquor-fueled rage whisper that at least one parent of the couple was annoyed. However, most of the attendees loved the mystique of this individual to such an extent that if they did notice the comically, probably intentionally lazy appearance, they simply added it to their gospel of tech.

This very specific type of intentional laziness is the sort of feature that can't be overlooked when writing about this industry. If you aren’t familiar, diving into these waters teaches you that the appearance of disregard is crucial. Sure, a CEO will wear an expensive blazer, but only with a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. Yes, a startup will subject a candidate to 18 separate interviews before they make a decision, but the manager offered beer from the office kegerator, so it’s 'laid back'. An engineer gets a laptop that costs more than the monthly take-home pay of the average American, and promptly covers it in ugly swag stickers.

There are great things about the tech industry. The intellect of tech's brightest can't be overstated. These people are the bedrock of the entire industry -- they are inventing new ways of solving problems, bringing in unique perspectives, and no bullshit changing the world. Personally, I have found working at the right startup to be superior to any other collaborative work environment. 

Those people, while more common than I've found elsewhere, are still a small fraction of what you'll find out here. You can’t survive in this industry without developing “a lively, playful disposition that delights in anything ridiculous”. Take it from Jane Austen; the only way to not throw your hands up and move to a fly-over state to start an ostrich farm is to let yourself laugh at the other people in tech.

Who are these "other people", you ask? Support personnel who refuse to wear shoes. Programmers who insist on the company supplying them with expensive stand-up desks but work from home 90% of the time. HR reps who earn the company's only HR complaint. CEOs who are obliviously outright sexist and racist during presentations. I'm often baffled by complete idiots who have jobs in this industry who shouldn’t be gainfully employed anywhere, let alone in positions of authority at multi-million (even billion!) dollar companies.

This is the gold that a fiction writer needs to seek out. You can read about the ping pong table bubble, that gym laundry service even exists, the serious diversity issues that somehow are only getting worse. But these are just the mildly interesting summaries of things that happen in tech for an 'outsider' audience.

Think about your own industry, and how popular media represents the conflicts, events, or products that you are familiar with. Make notes about these kinds of observations in a document on your smartphone or, if you are super old school, a tiny spiral notepad. Refer to it later when you invent characters and settings.

Childhood as Inspiration

Lonely tree  Photo by  Jimmy Casey

Lonely tree Photo by Jimmy Casey

I recently purchased Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret in preparation for a future book. When I first read this famous work as a kid, I expected a book about puberty and periods. That's all anyone talked about - the period book! Like many books distilled to one fact or event, Are You There...? is more than that. In the first chapter, you meet the main character in the midst of a major transition from city to suburb, with parents who seem to be trying too hard to sell the move. Reading the book for the first time, I was a fifth grader who had attended four different elementary schools in three states. The story of a child adrift in a new place was easy for me to relate to.

Reading the book again as an adult wasn't intended to be anything more than reviewing subject matter related to my own story plans, but it's been an emotional and sometimes difficult read. I had forgotten the religious-outcast element, something that my siblings and I faced on a regular basis. Memories returned of being asked about my Sunday school by the parents of neighborhood children, followed by the ostracism directed at us by those children. In the first chapter of the book, a similar but less intense scene plays out for the main character.

I've finished the book since I started this blog entry. It ends without resolving many threads, because it's a book about a kid's life. There is no resolution. Judy Blume is an amazing writer who can perfectly execute the subtle, persistent discomfort of childhood. I've been trying to keep notes of these thoughts and feelings as I go. It's not cathartic, but it is useful material. Adults can easily forget how difficult childhood can be. The homework you hated doing because it was useless was useless. The teachers you remember belittling you or your classmates were not aberrations.

Reading a good children's book, particularly one you enjoyed as a child, brings back feelings you may no longer think about. It's important to not let those go -- they are some of the most sincere reactions you've ever experienced.

From Nowhere

I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My father was born in Brooklyn, my mom in Manhattan. Two of my grandparents were Brooklynites, one was from Manhattan, the fourth from "the motherland," Ireland. Before that lay various threads connecting Brooklyn to western Ireland (one scandalous thread lead from our Brooklyn-Irish outpost to Sweden). 

My ancestor's experience of the American dream -- suing your boss!

My ancestor's experience of the American dream -- suing your boss!

 

In the early 1990s, when I was preparing for the first grade, my family abruptly moved. This had happened a couple of times before I was born, and we had always returned. I just figured this was all temporary.

We moved to places where a kid with a New York accent was ostracized. I went to four different elementary schools. I got older, more alienated and lonely, still hoping we'd go back. But we never went home.

I was teased by immediate family and friends for saying I was from New York, and rightfully so. Sure, I was born there. There were home movies of me speaking in a Brooklyn accent. I had been harassed by classmates for sounding different. But that accent, like the geographical knowledge I had of the city, had died away. I certainly didn't belong where I was -- I enjoyed diversity in places where very few differences were permitted. Close friends were hospitalized for beatings received for their religion, politics, race, or sexual orientation.  The last place I remembered feeling like I was part of a place that had moved on without me.

This feeling of being untethered is a theme in most of my writing. Main characters are disconnected in some fundamental way. They are outsiders who don't try to assimilate because it is impossible and distasteful. Some pretend to blend, others hold on to the public displays of their differences, often to their peril. Some try to go home. This is a choice that sounds simple, but the result is only more pain. This is a lesson I have also learned. 

Morning fog in Manhattan.  Photo by Norah Woodsey

Morning fog in Manhattan. Photo by Norah Woodsey

When I finally grew up and met the man who would become my husband, moving back to New York became a goal. We married in New York City. We visited regularly. But the older generations of my family had moved on, one way or another. The younger generation had been priced out or had chosen to build lives elsewhere. The genetic infrastructure I remembered was lost.

I still love New York City, but now for its own sake than for my sentimental recollections. My older brother, who was nearly in high school when we left, has moved back to Brooklyn. My younger brother wants to move there after graduating college. I'm a parent now, and I want my kids to experience that their worldview is one of many. I want them to be New Yorkers. 

I'm no longer a wistful, angry and lonely kid dreaming of moving to where I fit in. I'm an adult now. I know that life is always active in altering your plans. Being rigid in expectations simply prevents you from negotiating unexpected challenges. So I'll keep visiting NYC. When people ask me for directions when I'm there, I'll apologize and say I'm a tourist. Here in San Francisco, I'll remind ignorant friends of New York City's dark days, before the Disney-fication of Times Square, as I remember them.

When people ask where I'm from, I'll try to respond honestly; "I was born in Brooklyn, but I've lived all over the place." I'm from nowhere.

 

Correction: Updated to show my mother was born in Manhattan, and moved to Brooklyn as an infant. If you know anything about New York City, this is not a minor oversight. My apologies, mom!

The Book Blurb

"Are we giving up now?!"  Photo by Norah Woodsey  

"Are we giving up now?!" Photo by Norah Woodsey 

When I look at books to read, I skim the blurb but ultimately base my decision on a random page. This has served me well as a reader and, this week, utterly failed me as a writer. 

Faced with the task of writing 100-150 word blurb, I knew it would be tricky. I didn't anticipate it would be this bad. I remember writing this sort of short, snappy "sales copy" pieces for famous or at least existing books in a high school English class. I found the assignment challenging, and in those instances I only had a small grade depending on the outcome. My own book? My first book? SMH.

I've enlisted help, so for now I'll stop staring at the word "conscripted" and wondering if it feels right. I'm going to step away, enjoy someone else's writing, and have a snack. But I know one thing - I'll never look at the back cover of a book with disinterest again. 

 

The Age of LIFELESS

When I first came up with the basic elements of LIFELESS, I was living in the sort of apartment glorified in tales of woe - a poorly-insulated, roach-infested studio with horrifying wiring in a sketchy part of town. But, hey, cheap rent, on-site laundry and a free parking spot for my old Buick! I was alone on a Friday night because I couldn't afford to go out, sitting in front of my computer eating rice with butter for dinner (not for the first time). While my new boyfriend was bowling with his friends, I was thinking about my senior year project. Despite being old enough to drink, I wasn't anywhere near my senior year in college. But I was bored and decided giving the project some thought was a productive way to spend the evening.

The Black Death had fascinated me since I was a kid. How could it not? A pathogen, currently thought to be carried by fleas on rats, wiped out so much of Europe's population that entire towns were given back to the forest. I went from reading National Geographic articles and watching whatever PBS, History or Discovery channel show that happened to come on about the topic to reading journal articles. One that stands out discussed strange weather patterns and the explosion of great gerbil populations in Kazakhstan in the months leading up to the first outbreak of the plague.

As a bored adult college student, I started my formal research with the subject's Wikipedia entry (like you do), opened the included reference links in new tabs, rummaged through JSTOR, and started writing down some notes. After a while, I brought up a text document and did some creative writing inspired by this research, calling it the highly inventive "Black Death Story v1". I eventually gave up and fell asleep on the air mattress that served as my bed.

Fast forward a few years. I now owned a real bed, was selling short stories on the side and attending a new school. It was finally, FINALLY time for me to use this Black Death research I had gathered for a class assignment. My instructions were to compile an annotated bibliography for a topic, and I had a healthy list of bookmarks and research material ready to go.

Unfortunately, my professor didn't care for the abundance of digital material. The first book I found was an amazing work of non-fiction called The Black Death by Rosemary Horrox. It is an entire volume of first hand accounts of the Black Death written by witnesses, survivors, dying victims. It is morbid, sometimes gruesome but incredibly vivid and tangible. Merchants who lost their entire families, priests using orphans as human shields between themselves and the dying, the few using the fear of the masses to murder countless numbers of Jewish families, the widespread spiritual revolt against the Catholic church. It made me fully commit to the Black Death story, now called LIFELESS. I had a title. This was it, I was ready to write.

Then I got a new job. A very demanding job.

I was still working on the story, but between full-time school and work, it wasn't a priority. Survival was a priority. Days away from the book turned into weeks, which sometimes turned into a month. I would look at the dates in the "last modified" column of my LIFELESS folder in despair. Here and there, I'd edit paragraphs, add a chapter, delete a character, write a monologue. By the time I left that job several years later, I had also graduated college. Most of the book had been written. Now that I could dedicate all of my time to it, I knew just what to do. I butchered the entire book and put it back together. Obviously.

What's my point?  I spent almost a decade of my formative adult years working on this book. I started as a pitifully broke 22-year-old college student, picked away at it as a tech minion to manager, edited and added to it while experiencing the haze of new motherhood sleep deprivation, and I am now wrapping it up as a 30-something actual adult ready to call herself a novelist in her tax returns.

Life happened.* It made the story better by forcing me to write through so many phases of my existence. I wrote being a slightly vain, carefree young woman when I was one. About being a workaholic as an active workaholic, a university researcher as a science student, and, most importantly for the story, motherhood as a mother.

My advice to you is if you want to write, don't give up because life gets in the way. Life is supplying you with raw material. Spend whatever time you can, even if it is just 20 minutes on the train typing through the cracked screen on your hand-me-down smartphone. It might take 9 years, but it is worth it. I promise.

*I've glossed over some details. A disabling illness, marriage to my incredible husband, a life changing solo trip to Ireland, a cross-country drive. You know, formative stuff. You get the idea.

Lifeless
By Norah Woodsey