On writing

18 04 2011

I took off three months from work to get cracking on a memoir. That was my declared goal. Before it started, I created an excel-spreadsheet timetable, like in school, with slots for everything from breakfast to yoga to food shopping to skating to flying and, of course, to writing. According to my timetable, I was due to write for something like 7-10 hours every day.

Unfortunately in my immense wisdom and unbridled ambition, I forgot to schedule slots for basic things like showering, phoning with my husband, reading, vacuuming, paying bills and paying attention to the world around me. There was no time to “veg”. And I discovered (and perfected) the fine art of getting in my own way.

Though I have been a writer of sorts for more than 20 years (journalism counts, doesn’t it?), I’m finding that the act of writing, the physical undertaking, is much more difficult and excruciating than I expected. Or maybe I have just forgotten how to do it. Wit, truth and insight are buried deep. Wherever they are lurking, they seem to like it there.

Lots of words on a page. Easy, huh? (Not really.)

In the past few years, I feel like creativity has bled out of me, replaced by ordinariness and tedium. Like my craft has abandoned me. I can’t put a finger on the time or the place – it was a process… it happened much like a stealth bomber approaches a target, creeping in under radar, with folks on the ground not noticing it’s there till it’s too late.

But perhaps I was never the fountain of ideas and the visionary of originality that I thought I was in the first place. Still, the (perceived) end likely came after I traded in my journalism combat boots for corporate 6-inch heels. Press releases, communications strategies and report launch plans do not inspire me. At least not in the industry in which I am currently caged.

This afternoon’s visit to the local bookstore was a sobering experience. Hundreds of biographies and memoirs, most of which are probably exquisitely written, lined the shelves, each story more compelling in its shock and tragedy than the next. And I only skimmed the back covers of maybe 30 of them.

I once read somewhere that a good story is one where the protagonist changes somehow. That through some event or encounter she matures, grows and becomes a different person. It’s this transformation, this emotional evolution that forms the core of a good story. And in many books I saw today, this transformation happens through one or more of the following: death, disease, drunkenness, denial and destruction.

So that’s another thing I’m wondering as I wade into this ocean of words. Must one have hit rock bottom in some way in order to write a convincing and gripping memoir? Must the road of personal growth always be paved with catastrophic and wretched experiences? Doesn’t that get old after a while? Is this the only formula that works? Or that publishers publish?

There are thousands of websites that offer tips and advice to hopeful writers, and the glut of information makes your head spin. If you read enough of them, you will find absolute contradictory information. One “expert” advises one thing on her blog, and the next advises the opposite on his. This wealth of data leaves the nascent yet increasingly insecure creative non-fiction writer to pick and choose to the best of her knowledge and belief. She’s left guessing what’s important and what’s not. This seems like no way to be successful.

Some famous writer in ages past once said something like: writing is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration. If I was inspired, I would go on google right now to find out who it was. But I’m not. I’m already sweating and overwhelmed by the information I already posess. And with every passing day my discouragement grows. Do I just not have what it takes? What does it take? And why does every writer go through these toxic fits of paralyzing self-doubt and hesitation? And who wants to read about my lousy, insignificant life, anyway?

My writer friends tell me this is all quite normal. But honestly, it is truly crushing. And I’m not sure anymore that I am cut out for the job.

Just another Saturday night

23 03 2011

A cacophony of voices, a throng of people of all ages, all shapes and sizes, black, white and brown, mingle on the beach promenade. The stroll, skate, sit, eat, talk, run and bike away the lazy day.

I spread my towel on the beach facing the water, take off my sandals and let the clean beige sand slip through my toes. The wind comes out of the Northeast, and the late afternoon sun warms my back. My shadow gets longer and longer as the sun sinks westward, behind the beachfront restaurants, the intracoastal waterway, the Everglades, and the earth beyond. I take out my journal, and write down what I see around me.

Watching my shadow.

To my left, four generations of an extended family chatter away in Spanish. All at once and without punctuation or paragraphs. Some of them sit on blankets in the sand, others on coolers, a colorful umbrella angled away from me is their shelter. Turning right, I see some teenagers play 3-a-side soccer in the sand while, other, smaller kids watch as ice cream from their too-large cones drips off their faces, and between their fingers.

A disembodied orange flag in the ocean mysteriously creeps closer to shore, snaking around to the right. Only as the flag, floating on a buoy, approaches the shallow water do I notice the scuba diver, dressed in black neoprene, attached to it by a cord. He emerges from the waves, takes off his over-long flippers, gathers up his flag-buoy and walks out of the ocean. He looks around at his surroundings as if he was a Martian, just landed on earth.

In my line of vision to the open sea, a small girl sits in a hole in the sand that it probably took her all day to dig with her tiny white plastic shovel. Her head is the only part of her body still sticking out above ground. The incoming tide inches ever closer to her construction site. And just a few minutes after her mother calls to tell her it’s time to go home, her hole is inundated with water, the waves rolling in like last week’s Japanese tsunami.

Beyond the beach, a triathlete swims parallel to the shoreline, his labored strokes witness to the fact that he’s probably got a few miles in those arms already today. But he soliders on, bobbing up and down with the surf, moving slowly and steadily from right to left. After a few minutes he disappears to the north, continuing on his way.

Miles off shore, huge cruise ships – cities on the water – march steadily out of Port Everglades in the opposite direction, one after the other, heading towards Caribbean points south, unknown.

On the beach promenade behind me, Tony the Pizza Chef serves up his pies the size of hors d’oevres platters to a hungry clientele. Still, eyes grow wider yet when they see dinner arrive at their tables.

As dusk falls, the blood-red, radiant supermoon surfaces in the distance. Cheers go up, cell phone cameras are aimed and thousands of underexposed, shaky photos are shot, filed, emailed, messaged, uploaded.

An honest attempt with a compact camera.

A rock band strikes up the first chords of its evening set in the bandshell. People dance, tap their feet, embrace life.

On just another Saturday night at the beach.

Daily devotions on eight wheels

14 03 2011

One of my goals on this three month vacation unpaid personal leave of absence is to get a head start on inline skate training for the 2011 race season ahead of my European friends. While they are still shoveling snow and enduring blasts of arctic weather, I get to bask in Florida’s springtime. It’s dry and warm almost every morning when I head to the coast at 6:30 a.m. for my sunrise skate. It’s my personal devotion to the dawn of a new day.

Meantime, my skates are wondering what the hell is going on. In the first two weeks of my stay here I have put in about 100 miles (160 km) or so, probably more than I would do in any given summer month in Switzerland.

Giving the skates a rest at the beach.

But I’ve found out that skating on the beach or along the intracoastal waterway here in South Florida can also be mighty tricky, with many unfamiliar obstacles and sights to see.

First of all, there is the wind. The coastline skate path is, pretty much, due north to south. So when the wind comes from the north or the south, it’s logical that when you skate the one way (into the wind) you are basically standing still. Every yard (meter) forward is unbelievably hard work. And then when you turn around to go back the other way (away from the wind) you are doing nothing less than flying. OUT OF THE WAY, EVERYONE!!

It’s when the wind comes right off the ocean, from the east, that it socks you in the head BOTH ways. Florida has these winds coming off the water probably, oh, I will say, 90 percent of the time.

Second, the sand. It’s everywhere. I don’t even want to venture a look into my ball bearings after these first two weeks. Before I leave here in June, I will owe those babies a serious professional cleaning job. Hopefully they will bear with me that long.

And third, the flora and fauna one encounters in the tropics as opposed to in the old world is so… interesting. In Switzerland, I skate past farms and quaint villages with half-timbered houses that are probably 700 years old. The cattle and horses in the meadows, happily and lazily munching on luscious green, protein-rich grass, lift their heads as I pass. Last Spring on one of my favorite routes near Zurich, I skated by one cow in the process of giving birth to a calf.

Here, I skate past all sorts of crazy-looking palm trees, nouveau-riche waterside villas barely as old as I am and… manatees.

Sea-cows are watching.

Given the choice, though, considering the time of year, I will gladly take the wind, sand and manatees. When hurricane season starts, I will reassess.

Yoga for beginners

6 03 2011

The primordial “OOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM” echoes through a darkened room. Nine men and women ranging in age from 25 to about 65 sit on their mats laid out on the bamboo parquet floor and call on the forces of the universe to strengthen them. A ceiling fan above whirrs quietly.

OM. The most important mantra of yoga.

Yes, I am trying out yoga for the first time. No, I have not yet joined the ranks of the truly esoteric. Though the smell of the aromatherapy essential oil in the room is slowly going to my head.

In the past couple of months, many of my friends have told me yoga would be good for me. Not only as a sharp contrast to all the exercise and physical activity I do, but also to help me calm down and relearn healthy sleep. So, I thought, if it works for everyone else, I’d like to see if it would really work for me.

From afar, and as a hopelessly practical, realistic and grounded member of the human race, I always thought yoga was something for spaced-out 60’s flower-power wannabes who either mourned the passing of time or were born a generation too late. Or for those who recently read “Eat Pray Love”.

The first class I attend, on a bright and fresh Wednesday morning, is taught by Gina, a very nice, petite yet strong-looking woman in her thirties. She welcomes me, the newbie, and makes me feel comfortable in a room full of folks who know each other and seem to have been doing this for a while already. The course is listed as “Basic – Level 1” but for the next 90 minutes, I have serious trouble keeping up and keeping my balance. I periodically peek through supposedly closed eyes at everyone else to make sure I’m doing this right. Every so often, petite, strong Gina comes by to introduce me to muscles I never knew I had.

Some of the positions I learn in my first 90-minute yoga torture session include: cat cow, downward dog (an alledgedly “relaxing” pose), child’s pose (oh, feel that pain!), warriors I, II and III, triangle pose, and the classic: tree pose. Deep breathing exercises are the core of yoga, and I now better understand how that can aid in bringing stability and centered-ness into one’s being. Or at least how you get a really good temporary oxygen high.

And if nothing else, my first yoga class instills in me a new respect for the practice. For the first time ever, I realize how truly physically challenging this is. It’s really hard! Makes me break out in a sweat even though it doesn’t really look like I’m doing anything all too strenuous.

But the whole time I still don’t think I’m doing this right. Maybe I didn’t call on the forces of the universe with sufficient conviction. Maybe I need to practice my “OM” some more.

I wonder if Gina will let me back in next week.

Nighttime Anxieties

22 02 2011

A single night can be monumentally long if you spend it lying in bed and waiting…Waiting for it to end.

Demons are abundant in an unquiet mind, and sleep is elusive. I thought I got rid of those critters a few years ago. Valerian tea, lavender-eucalyptus sleep balm and finding a soul-mate successfully chased them out of town for a while.

But now it seems like it was only a changing of the guard – a younger and more aggressive generation of these parasites lies in wait for every moment of weakness. A car in the distance, a squeaky floorboard, the neighbor out walking her dog on the gravel path under my window – all innocuous sounds that open a door to insomnia and conspire to rob me of that which I so desperately need.

There are many reasons sleep escapes me and every night it’s something different – imagined or real and often incomprehensible to those who have never had a problem with it. Emotions long repressed play nasty tricks on my sanity. Deep personal fears, invisible in the light, reappear and go toxic with darkness, conquering the remnants of an afternoon’s happy memories.

The night drags on. And when it finally turns grey, bleeding light into the darkness, my demons run and hide. Suddenly the world appears in color again. And the thought of having to get up into the daylight is nearly unbearable. I must again function as a responsible adult in society after seven hours spent staring out the skylight above my bed into black, and chasing windmills.

A first unsteady moment on my feet passes. My pale face in the bathroom mirror features new shadow under the eyes. The flat feeling in the pit of my stomach goes away after a few minutes of splashing under a hot shower, and the fresh smell of “wild honeysuckle” bath gel infuses life into my lungs and brain.

I will be fine, I tell myself. It’s okay, today I will be fine.

And the day passes like any other. In the afternoon I am tired, my concentration lapses in phases, I look out the panorama office window at life beyond. And I was right – it’s okay, I manage. I function.

But the cycle repeats itself a few hours later. With darkness, the demons of the night return, once again bringing with them the iron grip of insomnia. I lose my way trying to find the cliff of unconsciousness, with no chance in hell of dropping off.

And that constant, repetitive fear of the insurmountable – the pressure I impose upon myself – turns it all into a self-fulfilling prophesy: A non-event that ends up happening anyway, because I will it to not happen.

A few days go by. Soon, it’s not just the weariness of one night lost, but a complete, thorough, crushing fatigue that punishes the soul. The body craves sleep, hemorrhages energy and it’s almost impossible not to lose is one’s mind as well.

But the new day always gives me hope that this too, shall pass. I’m sure I will grow out of this, someday. And that the waiting in the dark will end.