Recently, my paisan Eugenio Volpe tagged me in a Blog Book Tour meme where authors answer five questions about their writing process, post the answers on their blogs, and then tag three other authors to do the same.
Eugenio is the author of countless short stories and the gripping new ebook, The Message. He and I became virtual friends while serving as the other’s second reader on a lit mag and then real world friends when he moved to sunny So Cal. We’re both Italian-American writers from the East Coast with volatile, opinionated families who pride themselves on their volatile, opinionated natures. In fact, Eugenio and I have so much in common, we might as well be siblings. I feel lucky to count him as a friend.
I’m tagging Rebecca Johns, author of Icebergs and The Countess, Martin Ott, author of Interrogator’s Notebook and four books of poetry, and Stephen Dale Marlowe, author of the upcoming story collection, Digging Up the Bones.
Here are my answers to the Blog Book Tour:
Currently I’m working on a collection of personal essays about growing up in an Italian-American family whose motto is, “If you wanna play with the big boys, you can’t piss like a puppy.” I’ve always wanted to play with those big dogs. Pissing like a puppy terrifies me. But I’m a girl, so the only way to get accepted by the big dogs is to play harder and hide my fear.
In addition to the essays, I’m working on a novel, The Book of Hours, based on a murder that my grandmother—a sweatshop owner and grudge holder—helped cover up in the seventies. She was my idol for many reasons, but mostly because she was one tough lady who never worried about pissing like a puppy. She was the biggest of the big dogs, and everybody knew it.
I’m also putting the finishing touches on a short story collection, Once Removed and Other Stories, which I wrote over the span of a decade. During the time it took me to write this collection, I met the man who would become my husband, commuted between our home in LA and my graduate program in Iowa City while I finished my MFA, married that same man who tolerated my long absences and cared for my decrepit cats and didn’t care what kind of dog I was, had a baby, never slept, started teaching, wrote some, agonized more, and finally (almost) finished my book.
Some of the women in Once Removed share my grandmother’s fierce nature and long, vengeful memory (which I also inherited). Some of them avoid conflict at every turn—or so they tell themselves. For all of them, grief lies at the core of love. They struggle with the burdens imposed in the name of intimacy—the secrets kept, the lies told, the disputes embarked upon—as well as the joy that sometimes still manages to triumph.
I’ve always wanted to be a voicey writer, someone who can conjure a character just through that character’s powerful, quirky voice. But I’m not. My writing is driven instead by small, tense situations that have the potential to explode at any moment. And I’m drawn to unexpected families: two young, lifelong friends, one who’s transitioning to be a woman and one who’s desperate for everything to stay the same; a lesbian couple with a newborn and an in-law who’s determined to guide their lives the way she sees fit; a middle-age writer who chose to have a child with her best friend and unexpectedly finds herself with a second child by another man who doesn’t want a family.
And animals. I like animals, all animals, not just dogs big or small. Animals show up in many of my stories, though not always in the way I want them to.
I write to try to figure out what would have happened had I made different choices, had other people made different choices, had I learned that pissing like a puppy doesn’t necessarily mean I can’t play with the big dogs, the way my family always told me. I write to be able to lie freely, without consequence–or with as few consequences as I can manage. Or with consequences that I can accept and embrace as ones that result from choices that I’ve thought through and respect.
My goal is to write for at least two hours a day. But the reality of work and family obligations means that some days I’m lucky to scribble for fifteen minutes in one of my three journals (one for essays, one for short stories, one for the novel). And yes, I mean scribble, as in with pen and paper in cursive, that dying handwriting trick we learned in the stone age when I walked to school at 5 a.m. in the pitch black through a mountain of snow while lugging two ginormous saxophone cases for band practice. Did I mention all the snow?
On good days, when I can fit in more than a few scribbles, I’m up at 5:15 to work out and get the kid ready for school. Once I’ve dropped him off, I settle into a coffee shop to drink iced tea and catch up on emails, social media, etc. before getting down to work. Usually I attack revisions first, since revising a story or a chapter or a passage in an essay is the quickest way to absorb myself in my writing.
I save new writing for later in the morning, when I’ve got just enough work time left to finish a new scene quickly, without reading it, without really thinking about it, without letting my internal critic tell me how lousy it is. Fuck you, Internal Critic. First drafts are supposed to be lousy.
Then I go home to walk my huge beast of a German Shepherd (the beast from Shadow Walk, below, which is also on my home page). While we walk, I listen to podcasts while letting my mind wander through story ideas, though I’m often interrupted by the need to wrangle the beast whenever he goes ballistic with joy at the sight of a squirrel or a cat. And yes, the irony hasn’t escaped me. My beast is a frickin big dog.
If I’m lucky, I get to write some more after the walk, but not much. Work and family obligations usually take over, no matter how good of a writing day I’ve been having. If I’m on a roll, I write after dinner, when my amazing hubby takes over the childcare duties so that I can keep working. More often, I fall asleep over my computer and only wake up when it’s time to put the kid to bed.
The internet. Social media. Self-doubt. How could I possibly call myself a writer? What kind of arrogance lets me believe that’s true? I’ll always piss like a puppy, always.
Then I tell Ms. Internal Critic to go fuck herself and I keep going.
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