Friday, December 2, 2011

Close Reading

I know that this is the way that I should’ve been reading through my whole MFA program.  But who want to read with pen in hand making notes like “POV switch here with lack of descriptors.”  Yuck.

The reason I’m a writer is because I’m a reader.  As a kid, it was the only thing I consistently loved.  And loved more than anything else in the world.

I now have all sorts of other things that take my time and attention, but I still can’t get to sleep unless I read at least a page.  Reading is still the way that I settle down my confused or unhappy mind, it’s still the way I anchor myself.

So right now, as I’m in the middle of this massive thesis struggle, reading is what’s keeping me together.  But strangely enough, it’s that horrible “close reading” that’s helping more than anything else.

This year I’m working with Jo-ann Mapson, a writing hero, and a writer’s dream for a thesis year MFA mentor.  After reading all the existing pages of my book she recommended that I read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.  I picked up a copy in September and immediately ate it up.  I’ve now re-read it twice since then, pen in hand, trying to suss out how Rhys accomplishes her tone, how she switches between narrators, time, and scene without a hint of hesitation.

How does she get to the clear-clean core of her story without losing all of its mystery and beauty?

I want some of her magic to rub off on me.

Weirdly, it actually feels like it is.  I’ve written new pages in the last week and I already like them better than anything else I’ve written in months.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dance Class Saved My Life (In Numbers)

Three hours a week.  Three hours out of one hundred and sixty eight hours in a week.  It looks like this:

3:168 or .01785 or 2%

It looks even sadder when you think of it in the context of the whole time I lived in Finland.  I was there for eleven months.

The Finnish equivalent of prom is called vanhat paiva, it's the day that the seniors leave the school to study for their finishing exams and the juniors become the oldest students in the school.  A formal dance is thrown that evening.  And by formal, I mean everyone wears costumes/dresses that would've been appropriate in the 1830s and performs choreographed classical dance.  As in Viennese Waltz and Polonaise.

So we had a three hour class once a week for four months. Forty eight hours out of seven thousand three hundred and ninety two hours in eleven months.

48:7,392 or .00649 or 0.6%

God bless the guy who took pity on the shy exchange student and asked me to the dance class, and therefore vanhat paiva, with him.

I knew nothing about Finland before I left, so it was a surprise to find out that there's little to no physical contact between people.  I'm not talking sexual contact, I'm talking every day contact: no pats on the leg, no quick hugs or kisses, no bumped shoulders, no nothing.  No. Touch.

It was half a year before dance class started.  And it wasn't like I was a touchy person to begin with.  But then that first dance class.  The first one was tricky, we were all giggly and shy, uncomfortable.  But even so, the structured intimacy, even just for brief moments, was blissful.  Those later classes would become easier and easier, when our hands dropped, we remained within a breath of each other, easy.

It was like being drunk.  Like being a drunk - and the only time I could get the goods was for three hours a week.  Everything in me pointed towards those three hours.  Up until that point, I had never needed anything so badly.

And what if I hadn't been asked to the dance?  What if it had been

0:7,932 or 0.00 or 0%?

I don't think I would've made it.  I would've come home early.  Or come home later even more messed up than I did.


Tonight I attended the swing dance class at The Canvas (our local community arts center).  Since Finland, I don't really do dance classes.  I'm not sure why, maybe because that structured intimacy is intimidating outside of a bar without a buzz.  But it was a blast.  And not awkward.  Maybe because I'm mostly past that phase.  Coming home from the class I couldn't help but think of Finland, and the contra dances we went to when I was young, and the Folk Fest contra dances, and the one salsa class Andrew and I took (dis-as-ster), and dancing in Texas dance-halls, and dancing at the festivals in Louisiana.

I love dancing.

I love watching people dance.

I love dancing with a variety of partners.  I love how every dancer has their own style, their own unconscious signature, their own favorite moves.  I love knowing a partner's signature.  I love being surprised by a new partner.  I love that some partners throw you around like a hurricane and some partners hold your hands like they're holding small birds.

I love that dancing makes me laugh and giggle and cackle (at least that's what Andrew calls it).

I love that when you go to the dance-halls in Texas and Louisiana there are distinctly different tones.  I love that when you contra dance it's best to stare as intensely as possible at your partner's shoulder in order to keep from getting dizzy.  I love the way that an entire rowdy bar slows down into a dreamy slow-motion when the dance floor goes into three quarter waltz time.

I don't think that I will ever stop loving dancing.  And I think that I feel most in love with Andrew when we're dancing.

In other words, if you're not already out there on dance floor, get to it!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Learning Lessons - Taking Lumps

Here we are again.  Fall in Juneau.  That dreaded span of months between the hope of summer sun and the hope of winter snow when all that we can look forward to is a break in the perpetual wet and grey.

Today is one of those days.  Clear and bright in the best of ways.

Maybe it’s the weather.  Maybe it’s always been the weather, but fall is a difficult time for me, including in my writing.  But finally, after three years of an MFA program, I’m starting to see a pattern.

This is my third and final year (THESIS YEAR) and, as would be expected, total panic has set in.  But this year, the panic is feeling familiar.  I realized two days ago that my last month and a half of writing has been extremely similar to what happened with my writing in Fall of 2010 and Fall of 2009.  Mainly, that I have been torturing myself by writing the same scenes (or lack of scenes) over and over again without actually moving.

In Fall of 2009 I thought that there was no way I was ever going to write anything good and that I probably wouldn’t finish my first year of the program.  Fall of 2010 I thought that there was no way I would even come close to moving my novel forward, it would never be a novel, just a pitiful collection of mismatched scenes.  Both falls were terrible periods of punishing repetition, no climbing word or pages counts.

But then, in the following Winter/Springs there were major surges.  Last Spring I wrote what I believe to be some of the best work I’ve ever put on paper.  Pages and pages, six, seven, eight pages a day, cramping my hands.

So here I am, complaining to every person within earshot about how miserable I am.  How much the book sucks.  How much I hate it.  How frustrated I am.  How terrible the writing is.  How much I just want to throw the whole thing away, or maybe burn it, or shred it, or use it for papier-mâché piñatas, or weigh it down with bricks and throw it into the center of Lynn Canal.

And then I realized that this has happened before.

I turned back through the pages and realized that even though I was writing the same chapter over and over and over again from scratch, that I had learned something about my book.  I had learned about where I was writing about and who I was writing about.

I’m still terrified.  Still convinced that I no longer know what my book is about.  Still don’t know what is going to happen.

But in the middle of that frantic drowning, it seems like maybe there’s a ray of hope.  That maybe this is part of my process.  And maybe, just maybe, I should stop complaining, stop worrying, and start breathing again.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Step on a Crack and

I usually only notice when my stride begins to alter unnaturally: steps shortened, or lengthened, a little hop to make it fit.  My toe hugs the edge, and then, a few steps later, my heel just barely squeaks over the line.  I know what's going on here.

It's fine.  Nothing happens if you step on a crack.  I know that.  So step on the crack.  Step on it.  STEP.

I pull my feet forcefully back into line and place my foot deliberately on the seam.  I step on another.  Until finally I'm walking normally again, not paying attention.

See?  No broken backs.

When I was a kid I would jump on the cracks viciously anytime I was mad at my mom.  I'd get a running start on a good crack and pounce, pounding my feet into the pavement.  I'd hold both feet flat, parallel to the sidewalk, and slap them down, again again again.

It was a time when I hadn't yet learned that it's no good to fight fire with fire, that's it's much better to use cool water.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Where to Draw the Roller Derby Line

What kind of rollergirl do I want to be? What kind of rollergirl can I be?

This last weekend I joined 120 other Alaskan/Canadian rollergirls for a boot-camp thrown by the Rage City Rollergirls. Ten gals from Juneau Rollergirls went up. None of us knew what to expect, and with our very first roller derby bout quickly approaching (next Saturday!) we were nervous.

The bootcamp featured workshops run by three rollergirls from down south. Two of whom are some of the most famous rollergirls in the world: sisters Psycho Babble and DeRanged, who led the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls to victory in last year’s championship. Watching them skate was like watching Michael Jordan slam dunk over and over again. Their speed, agility, and power was unbelievable. And here we were, just trying to keep our feet under us.

And when they talked about derby, they talked about a sport of extreme athletes and extreme competition.

For one of our hitting drills I was paired up with one of the other Juneau gals, a gal who is on my team for our upcoming bout. We took a break for water and she said she thought we were doing well, but we hadn’t knocked each other down. I told her that I guessed I didn’t actually want to knock her down - I didn’t want to hurt her before the bout.

“Well I’m hitting you as hard as I can,” she said.

We went back on the track and continued to try and block each other out of bounds, cutting our skates across so that our full bodies slammed into the other skater, thigh to thigh, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder.

DeRanged was running our group of skaters and paused the drill to pull us all in to give us a little pep talk. She told us that we shouldn’t fool ourselves, we’re all here for blood. And if we weren’t there for blood? Then maybe we shouldn’t be doing derby. So when we hit each other, we should mean it. And I thought to myself Not me. I’m not in it for blood, am I? I don’t want to hurt someone.

I don’t know. I really enjoy derby. I like the physicality of it, I like the team aspect, I like that there’s a campy side with the names and outfits, and I do like that it pushes me to be an athlete. I like getting hit and I like falling down. I like it because sometimes I don’t fall down, and when I do, I get right back up. I like the challenge of that. But does that mean that I’m in it for the blood? I wouldn’t want someone to hold back on me, I would want someone to hit me as hard as they could, so why aren’t I hitting as hard as I can?

Watching DeRanged, Psycho Babble and Helen Wheels skate, it was clear that they are skating on a level that I will never achieve, and don’t want to. They’re skaters who have dedicated their lives to derby.

We met several of the Rage City Rollergirls’ skaters as well. Plenty of those women skate on a level that I consider extremely proficient. But watching them skate with the guest coaches, even the best of those skaters was clearly several degrees below them. So do I think I’ll ever skate on a top ten ranked team? Hell no. What about even a team like Rage City’s All-Stars? Probably not. But a B team? A home team? A team in it for nothing but fun and exercise? Yeah. That’s where I belong. Not to say that I don’t have some skill, because I do. This weekend I gained a lot of confidence in my skating and could actually feel myself developing greater strength and agility.

But this weekend I realized that I just don’t have that killer instinct, or that all consuming competitive drive, to become a top tier skater. I’m really looking forward to our first bout and I’m looking forward to continuing to bout, both within our own league and with those other Alaskan and Canadian teams we met at the boot-camp. I’m going to work on my skills, continue to push myself, but at least I now have some idea of where I’m going to draw the line.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Growing Old and a Defense of the Midwest

There are loads of things to write about, so why haven’t I written about any of them? The only thing I’ve felt like blogging about lately has been my search for loafers. LOAFERS.*

A giant lilac bush.

What I should be writing about is my recent visit to the Midwest. My father and I went for a week and a half to see my grandmother and to visit a bunch of my college buddies. I love the Midwest. I get angry at people who badmouth it or refer to the center of the country as “the fly-over states.”  I come from the most beautiful place on earth (Juneau, Alaska) and I find tons of gorgeous landscapes in the Midwest: lush, green rolling farm lands dotted with big old barns and silos; the red and orange limestone cuts you drive down through to cross over the Mississippi, the river wide and ranging; the broad expanse of the Great Lakes, inland seas; the small ponds and forests full of giant, sweet-smelling lilac bushes and silvery birch, echoing with the sound of frog trills; the small run-down towns with old store fronts, faded art-deco facades and peeling 50s billboards.

But of course, we didn’t visit to sight-see, we were there to visit people, most importantly, my grandmother.

Next month she’ll be 94. She lives in the Northfield Retirement Center in Northfield, Minnesota, a facility in which she’s lived for the last eight years or so. It’s the kind of place where you can start out independent in a little apartment, and then as your health fails they have increasingly intense assisted living sections. The people there are extremely friendly and many of the workers have been there since the day my grandparents moved in.

Grandma is currently in the nursing home section and has been there for a year and a half. A year ago my grandfather died, leaving her the last living member of her generation in her family. She told me then that she was ready to go. And yet she’s lived another year. This visit was a hard visit. She’s no longer able to move without assistance and spends her days napping or sitting in her wheelchair in front of the large television with the other residents.

Her Alzheimer’s has progressed significantly in that she seems to get lost in her sentences and can no longer draw up memories from the past when questioned. I still want to know her, know about her life, but discovered that, unlike in past visits, when I question her now her only answers are “I don’t know” and “I can’t remember”. It was frustrating for both of us. I didn’t want to make her feel bad because she couldn’t answer my questions and I didn’t know how to talk with her without asking questions. It took several days for us to figure out how to communicate in a way that felt like it worked for everyone. My father and I would sit with her, discussing whatever topic came to mind, and here and there she might chime in. Mostly we would pause to check in with her, make sure she was still happy listening or find out if she was tired and wanted a nap.

A year ago, after my grandfather’s funeral, I spent some alone time with my grandmother. Her mind was slipping, but she was still there. We had a very personal discussion and I came away upset, a total wreck even. But on this year’s visit, I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t upset, I was accepting. I think part of the reason I got so upset a year ago was because I could tell then that she was leaving us.

I love her dearly, but I don’t want to grow old like my grandmother. Her departure is long, slow, and drawn-out. She’s had, from what I can tell, a long loving life, but the way it is ending makes me afraid to grow old.

*Why has the world switched over to ballet flats? Loafers are the greatest shoe of all time: they slip on, you can wear them with or without socks, and they’re both casual and work appropriate. I’ve been searching for a new pair of cute, inexpensive loafers for about six months now and am starting to get pissed.

Monday, May 2, 2011

People v. Symbols - Thinking About Bin Laden

Like a lot of Americans, I’ve spent some time in the last twelve hours trying to figure out how I feel about the death of Osama Bin Laden. My Twitter feed was practically exploding last night with a strange mixture of: “I don’t like celebrating death,” and “WOOOHOOO.”

I guess I agree more with the former sentiment than the latter, but, even though Osama Bin Laden was a living breathing person (at the basic level, just like me), thinking about his death I realized that I didn’t really think of him that way. I think of him as a symbol. Which is an odd way to think about any person.

Part of this thought process may also be coming from the way I was thinking about the royal wedding this last week. Watching the replay footage of Kate and William taking their wedding kiss before a cheering crowd of thousands with newscasters commenting, the only thing I could think about was how weird it must be to be Kate Middleton (or William for that matter). These are living, breathing people who have been turned into an idea and have become symbols for thousands (millions?) of people.

Yes, Osama Bin Laden was a fellow human, but he was also a symbol, and more than that, he actively sought the role. There is no doubt in my mind, that once you achieve that level of symbolic recognition, your life’s meaning changes, for yourself and for others. Most of us go about our days with little concern for the impact of our actions upon society at large. But for a person who has become a symbol? That’s the point.

Clearly Bin Laden’s death is meaningful to many different people for many different reasons. The best I can think to hope for is:
  1. That some of those people find some solace in the destruction of one of society’s greatest symbols of terrorism.
  2. That his death isn’t viewed as a martyrdom by too many and used as inspiration for retaliatory attacks on any scale.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Secret Agent Dreams

This is going to sound nuts, but when I was in middle school, I was secretly convinced I was going to be a spy. I was pretty smart, I was athletic, and I felt like I was different from other people. I think every single adolescent goes through a period where they feel “different” from others, but what it manifested as for me, was this uber-awareness of what was going on around me. I felt like I was often observing the world from outside my head, always watching, always listening.

I was also a big reader and during middle school I got hooked on spy novels. Robert Ludlum was my favorite. I’m fairly sure that I have read every single one of his novels. I also read plenty of John Grisham and Tom Clancy. I’ll admit that even now I’ll pick up a thriller for a plane ride – Steve Berry is my current favorite. I’m a huge James Bond movie fan and have probably watched every single one at least twice and my favorites, many more times. I went to Turkey when I was 19 specifically because of the scenes in Istanbul in “From Russia with Love”.

I envisioned myself going to boot-camp, shocking people with how tough I was for how small I was. I imagined myself becoming fluent in four or five languages, living in foreign countries, blending in as a sleeper agent, and one day, sneaking into a vague foreign embassy to steal information that would save the lives of hundreds of Americans. At that point I had no real understanding of how actions could affect thousands, or millions of people. The most I could imagine was two or three hundred.

My mother and father, but especially my mother, constantly drove the message that we could be anything we wanted to be. I thought that maybe someday I would work for the president after my long and accomplished spy career. I didn’t want to be the president, but I wanted to be someone who was important to the president.

Now, fifteen years later, I can safely say that none of those dreams will come true. Thank goodness. I can safely say that I will never have to choose between the safety of an indefinite number of Americans and holding possible terrorists in prison for indefinite periods of time, torturing them, depriving them of any sort of human kindness. I’ll never have to follow an order that goes against my morals. I’ll never have to decide whether someone lives or dies.

Thank goodness I never followed through on those naïve day dreams.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

37th Alaska Folk Festival - Survived!

I’ve been wanting to write a post about the 37th Alaska Folk Festival, but I can’t figure out how to pull it off. It’s like trying to describe a color to someone who has been blind from birth, if you’ve never experienced it, there’s no way to even conceive of it.

The easy description is this: it’s a week-long free music festival in which anyone can play (all you have to do is apply) and everyone who plays on the mainstage plays for no more than 15 minutes. Because of this you can go to one night of the festival and hear punk-rock, sea chanteys, polka, ripping bluegrass, child fiddlers, and on and on. There are also two nights worth of dances, both contra and general, and two days worth of workshops. Again, it’s all free.

There are also bands at every bar in town, every night of the week.

But that’s just the formal festival. That’s the festival as described on the festival homepage. And even leaving it at that, it’s a totally unique event.

Alaska is a small state in a lot of ways. Everyone knows everyone knows everyone. Especially when you’re dealing with the music community. And the Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau is what one of our friends refers to as “The Gathering of the Tribes”. Everyone shows up, and if you don’t show up, you receive phone calls, drunken messages, emails, texts, and ultimately at least one toast to how you’ve been missed. I would loosely estimate that we had 50 to 60 people in town (including Juneauites) that belong to these tribes. And the most amazing part is that most of these people are incredibly talented musicians that can play an infinite combination of instruments and music.

A ridiculous five mandolin jam at the Triangle Bar.

Listening to people you love play the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard within four feet of you at five a.m. is one of those experiences that I will never be able to fully explain.

 It’s an all day, all night love fest in the most dorky of ways. By the Monday after the official end of folk fest I had completely lost my voice and was wearing a notepad around my neck. There were at least four other people in the same, or almost the same, boat. I didn’t lose it just from singing. I lost it from yelling, laughing, shouting, conversing, screaming, giggling, and hollering.

It says a lot that the two unofficial anthems of the tribes are called “We Are So Fucking Lucky” and “We Are Bands of Free Men”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Waterfowl and Roller Derby

When we teach girls how to do a two knee fall in roller derby we tell them it’s like doing a rock guitar knee slide: lean back, throw your hands in the air at first, and fall with all the weight on your knee pads. When I watch a group of girls do these slides, the sudden drop, the hard thwack, the raised arms, always remind me of a flock of surf scoters landing on water.

A surf scoter coming in from
The surf scoter is a common sea bird in Southeast Alaska. At first you think that there’s nothing graceful about the way a scoter hits the water: wings back, crashing at full force into the water, sending up a spray of white. But in the brut purposefulness of the landing, there’s something about it that is uniquely appealing, there’s no pretty finish to it, it is what it is.

I think about that a lot with derby. Derby done with skill is beautiful, but there is never the intent to be beautiful. If you focus on trying to skate gracefully, or are too conscious of how you might look, somebody’s going knock you on your ass. I’ve been helping with a beginner skating class, and over and over again when I’m trying to break down a skill or am speaking about skating form, the words I use are: efficient, power, stabile, strong, force.

Next month is the one year anniversary of the start of Juneau Rollergirls (if you count from the first day we actually skated). July 2nd, we’ll have our very first bout, a local event featuring all local skaters.

Gate City Roller Girl doing a two-knee slide from
 It’s been a pretty amazing development. There were six or seven of us at the first practice and only one person there had ever spent any significant amount of time on roller skates. The rest of us clung to the walls on shaky legs and tested out our new pads by trying the slides we had seen on YouTube tutorial videos. I had spent many of my pre-teen years obsessed with inline skating, which is pretty different from roller skating, but it meant that I was at least comfortable with the idea of having wheels on the bottom of my shoes.

Our first practices consisted of us skating around in circles, attempting to stop, and not really knowing how to start learning the game. Fast forward a year and our practices are highly structured, run by two dedicated coaches and a team of refs. We’re skating hard, working hard, and when I sit on the team bench during a scrimmage and watch the jam, I’m not watching a bunch of ladies trying to figure out what the heck is going on with their skates, I’m watching roller derby.

A couple of practices ago, as all of us were lined up doing wall sits* Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” came on the iPod and in the middle of our wall sits, practically every lady out of the twenty starting singing.

I’m so thankful to spend a couple of hours every week with a group of ladies who can sing through their pain and even in the midst of trying to knock each other down, give advice to their teammates on how to stay standing.

*A unique form of torture in which you press your back against a wall and drop into a squat so that your legs are at a 90 degree angle. Then you hold that position for a minute. We’re now up to doing four wall sits every practice.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dreaming in Russian

Last night I had a dream entirely in Russian.

I am a dreamer. I mean that in the most literal sense. I have dreams every night. Vivid dreams, and more often than not, adventure dreams. I’m usually trying to accomplish some task, find some thing, help some one, achieve some goal. I often remember my dreams in great detail for the first five minutes after I wake, and then, as the sleep rubs away from my eyes, I am left only with the major points of the dream and the overall tone.

This dream involved living in a floating village which was part of a chain of villages within a complex system of fjords. I had to sail a sailboat somewhere and it was a boat that was too big for one person to sail. I remember narrowly dodging submerged boulders which were demarcated by tattered traffic cones.

The dream, like most dreams, was unimportant. The fact that the entire dream took place in Russian is what really amazes me.

I was a Comparative Literature and Russian double major in college. I went to university in Moscow for a semester and spent the following semester traveling solo through urban parts of Siberia with long visits to St. Petersburg and Moscow.

I have not spoken Russian in five years. Beloit College has a great Russian program, and compared to the other students, I was a hack. I lacked confidence and drive. But I still loved the language. I loved the structure of it, I loved the way the language was built of small blocks that allowed you to take words for complex abstract ideas and break them down in to concrete images. I loved the sound of the language, and more than anything, I loved the literature it produced. I think about returning to Russian at least once a week. But where is the time?

Even now, I sometimes flirt with the idea of becoming a Russian translator. One of the professors in my MFA, Zack Rogow, translates French poetry and when I asked him how he got into it, he said that he just started translating poems that he was curious about.

Once again, proof that all it takes to begin doing something that you want to do, is to just do it.

There are so many paths to follow.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

10 Years to Publish

Ten years. That’s how long it takes to publish your first novel. At least that’s what I keep hearing from people who probably know what they’re talking about (read: every professor in my MFA).

Of course, the question then becomes: from what point do you count the ten years? Do I count from the point when I first began muddling through an attempt at fiction? If so, then I’ve got one year to go (counting from that week I spent writing in Romania).

Or do I start counting from the moment of that first flash of inspiration for this particular novel?

I was in Merida, Mexico with my parents. It was fall break my senior year of college. That summer I’d begun a romance with my co-worker, Andrew, and after I’d gone back to school we’d both come to the conclusion that we were in love. He came along to Merida and, despite my parents being there, it felt like a honeymoon.

I don’t remember when the actual idea came, but I remember the first time I said it out loud. We were all sitting at tippy tables in a tiny little café on a cobble stone street. We were having flan and coffee for breakfast and a perfectly temperate breeze was rustling the napkins on the table. I told everyone that I was going to write a novel about “a man who is a bear who is a man.”

“I don’t really know what it means yet,” I said when everyone looked blankly back at me.

If so, that means I’ve got four years to go.

Or do I count from when I seriously started putting words to the page? Seriously began assembling chapters?

Seven years to go.

I like reading physical books because I can see how I’m progressing. I hold a finger on my current page, flip the book up to look at the top edge, and come up with a fraction for how far along I am: 1/5, 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, and then I stop paying attention because I’m almost finished. This helps when I get stressed out by a book. For instance, when Prince Andre “dies” for the first time in War and Peace, I was devastated until I flipped my book up and realized that there was no way Tolstoy could rob us of Prince Andre in the first quarter of the book and not bring him back to us.

So where am I? What fraction of the way am I? I’m almost through my first draft. That’s where I am. And then I’ll write a second draft. And another. And probably another.

And then I’ll write the second book that’s currently lurking on edges of my mind.

In the last two years I’ve been telling people that I’m a writer. In this last year, when I finally, truly let go of any hope of a timeline for when my novel would be finished, I actually became one.

I do want to publish. I do want to hold my book in my hands and to be able to give it as a Christmas present to every single person I know. But, I’ve got to write the damn thing first.

So. How long? It doesn’t really matter.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Shoot Those Pigeons Down Girl!

During the spring I shoot trap once a week with the only all women’s team at the Juneau Gun Club. There are two things that I always have to explain when I say the above sentence:
  1. Trap Shooting – Trap is a competitive clay pigeon (those orange clay discs) shooting sport. You shoot in a group of five people first at 16 yards and then at 20 yards from the pigeon house (the location where the clays are shot from). There are five shooting stations, each at slightly different angles. For each distance each person shoots a total of 25 shots. The shots are taken one at a time until each person has shot five times at the station they’re standing at, then everyone rotates. Once everyone has shot five shots at each of the five stations, the whole group moves over to the next distance.
  2. A diagram of the set-up stolen from
  3. The Juneau Gun Club – this is a private shooting club which has a club house and the set-ups for trap. If you’re a member you can buy cheap shells, shoot, borrow guns, and drink coffee. They run the league after work during the winter, so they also run floodlights for the shooters.
The team I shoot with started three years ago with a group of gals who had never shot trap, and in some cases, never shot a shotgun. That’s still true this year as the team is made up of whoever we can find who might be interested. It’s a no pressure team, which is great, and I’m sure we’re the only team that shoots out there that thinks that getting one pigeon out of fifty is great.
The majority of the folks we shoot against are white, early to late middle aged men. Many of these men have special shooting jackets and shotguns that are only used for trap and cost thousands of dollars. The first year our team shot, they didn’t quite know what to do with us. Now, three years in, it feels like we’re an accepted part of the club, if a totally bizarre part. It’s probably because we giggle.

In general I shoot around 18 or 19 out of 50 pigeons. Last night I had my best night of shooting and got 26.

Trap shooting feels a lot like you’re in a live video game. When you have a great shot, the pigeon explodes in a satisfying neon orange firework, the shards dispersing over a huge patch of snow.
For our team, it’s all about personal goals. Last year my personal goal was to shoot at least one pigeon at each of the ten stations. This year my goal is to shoot at least two pigeons at each of the ten stations. I came close last night, but have not yet achieved this year’s goal.

But the result of having these goals is a complex series of mental summersaults I go through.

The interior narration:

Sweet! Got one. I love getting the first pigeon! Okay. That’s great. Pressure’s off. It would be great to get another one, but if you don’t that’s okay. You already got one. So to meet your goal all you have to do is get one more. But if you don’t, that’s okay. Okay. Stop thinking. Stop thinking. Breathe. Shoot. Dang it. That’s okay. You still have three more shots at this station. Three more chances. But if you don’t get any, it’s okay, you already got one, which is good.
The gals from the trap team who shot last night.

And on and on.
During the league, each team has two work nights. On those nights our team doesn’t shoot, but fills up the pigeon houses when they run out of pigeons and scores other teams while they shoot. Scoring the other teams is usually a bit of a shock. They shoot so quickly! They shoot so many pigeons!  The best shooters shoot 48 or 49 out of 50.  It’s clear that the mental game these shooters play is very different from mine. Their expectation is that the pigeon will always explode and when it doesn’t they tighten their jaws and stare up at the night sky.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Self Contained and Abroad

This morning, the howl of the wind moving across the roofs of our neighborhood sounded exactly like a faint adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. With eyes closed and still on the soft edge of sleep, I woke with Turkey on the mind.

It’s hard to believe that nine years has passed since I took my first major solo trip. I was newly 19 and had settled on Eastern Europe as a good place to try: it was cheap, most of the countries were on the verge of entering the EU, it was mostly out of the major Europe travel path, and it was western enough that I wasn’t scared to go (like I was a little bit of South America and Asia).

The path:
U.K.: London
Czech Republic: Prague
Hungary: Budapest
Poland: Krakow, Oswiecim, Zakopano
Back to Hungary: Budapest
Romania: Targu Mures, Cluj-Napoca, Brasov, Sighetu Marmatiei, Bucharest
Bulgaria: Sofia, Pernik, Plovdiv
Turkey: Istanbul, Cappadocia Region
Back to Cluj Napoca, Romania
Back to Prague, Czech Republic
Back to London
Back home.

Two and a half months. A lone American woman. My first day in Prague I watched with the other hostel folks as America dropped the first bombs of the second Iraq war. That was the first moment that my trip scared me and it was the first time I ever felt the need to call myself Alaskan rather than American.

I had very little money to survive on and a strict budget. I wrote every single expense down in a small notebook, calculated my daily costs and then adjusted if needed. Some days I ate nothing but rolls with cheese from the market.

Almost everyone I met was shocked to find a nineteen year old American girl traveling by herself. This worked in my favor. Instead of being the vulnerable target that everyone thought I must be, I became the opportunity for people to do a good turn. Almost every person I met thought I needed help, I needed protecting, and as a result it was like all of my problems melted away. And I did have problems, and other scary times, but inevitably a good Samaritan would step in to help me out.

Maybe this trip is why I retain my belief in the inherent goodness of people.

It took me most of my trip to figure out that I was taking advantage of an attitude towards woman, and girls, that I had always objected to. I considered myself strong, independent, un-needy. And I was those things, but I know now that the only way I made it through those two and a half months was by allowing other people to see me the way that they wanted to and taking advantage of that attitude. I learned that there is nothing weak about accepting help when you need it.

This trip was also when I started to learn how to talk to people. I was extremely shy, nervous, and reserved around unfamiliar people. But now, traveling by myself, there were times when I thought I would go crazy if I didn’t find someone to be around and share with. At the first hostel I stayed at I watched another traveler go around and introduce himself to everyone at breakfast, ask where they were from, what they were up to, where they were going. He walked away from breakfast with two new people to spend the day exploring with, me and an Irishman.

I learned and adapted.  If I hadn't opened up myself to new people, I never would've: traveled to Poland, gone to a bathhouse, gone spelunking, learned how to deal with corrupt train guards, gone to a monastery, or learned that French fries are the secret ingredient to delicious kebabs.

Turkey was the hardest place for me. Blondish, blue-eyed, big-boobed, I was a target there more than I ever had been, constantly harassed on the street. If I had gone to Turkey earlier in my trip, it would’ve been a disaster, but towards the end of my trip I had grown stronger, more willing to throw myself into uncomfortable situations and believe I could make it out the other side. Sitting in the Blue Mosque for an hour every day was my reward. Exploring the underground cities in Cappadocia, living my Indiana Jones dreams, all made it worth it.

I left Turkey and went back to Cluj-Napoca in Romania, the place I had felt the most comfortable on my trip. There, sitting at a small café, watching the tiny sparrows hop around my feet, gathering crumbs like mice, I began my first attempt at writing fiction.

Odd to know that I am that same person, even though I feel so changed.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


At lunch with my mother this week I started off with giving her the bulleted update of how-things-are-going. I was talking for a long time, which is when I realized that my life has gotten exponentially more complicated:
  1. The writing has been going well. After two months of dithering I finally got things moving and have been writing every day for going on three weeks now. I’m pushing pushing pushing forwards and trying to accept the fact that, while I need this prose be good, it’s going to be re-written, so I also just need to get as much framing up as possible.
  2. Roller derby has been going well. There are now forty people in Juneau who refer to me as #574 – Hellion Hanson. My skating has been getting better, I’m constantly pushing myself to try new skills, and I’m hitting harder. I’m also now helping teach a beginning skating class through the Juneau Community Schools program. I’m feeling confident that we’ll be bout ready by the summer.
  3. Music has been going well. I’m up to 40 songs in my repertoire and that now includes one song in Cajun French. Andrew, our friend Sergei, and I have been getting together every other week to make dinner, talk about how awesome Cajun music is, and pretend to play a song or two. Recently our pretend playing has been sounding more and more like the real thing. On the honky tonk front, it looks like I’m playing and singing with a three gal band as the Honky-Tonk Angels for a 20 minute set in March. P.S. Singing in Cajun French is hard, especially if you don’t know any French.
  4. Trap shooting has been going well. Last week I had my best night of shooting yet and our team is in second place in our heat (last year we were dead last).
  5. Editing is going well. I’m now a member of the new editorial team for, an online and print-on-demand journal dedicated to short-short fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Reading the submissions is like getting little shots of writing energy, and trying to do a good job of responding to poetry is a new, but really exciting, challenge. We just finished our first submission deadline and our first issue goes live on March 1st.
  6. Work is going well.
  7. Andrew and I are doing well.

The two month dry spell that I’ve written a lot about recently was also a dry spell for all of these other activities. Nothing was going on. Thinking more about it, maybe that’s part of the problem, for those two months I was freaking out so much about all of the different irons I had in the fire that I stressed myself out of doing most of them.

Weirdly enough, I think that having all of the balls in the air, is the way to keep all the balls in the air. If I lost one or two, suddenly the others would start to sag as well.

I get that this is a lot of me me me talk, but in the next couple of posts, I’m going to go through each of these foci, bust them apart, and try to produce more thoughtful writing about each.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Not Exactly Resolutions

For the last three years I’ve spent my days at a desk, on my butt, in front of a screen. My partner Andrew is a health conscious guy and the two of us have been trying to figure out a way to exercise together for all three of these years. Finally, a month ago, we broke down and joined the local gym, I switched my work schedule to 8:30 and we made our goal to be out the door by 6:30.

I’m bad at routines. Which is part of the reason I’ve never successfully had an exercise regimen and is the main reason that I’ve never followed the one piece of universal writing advice: have a writing routine. My writing, like my exercise, has been hodge-podge, wherever I can fit it in.

But last week I deviated from the new exercise routine and left the gym a little early to go sit in a café and write for forty-five minutes. For the fiftieth time, I began the same chapter I’ve been working on for the last two months and in those forty-five minutes I busted through all that self-torture and finally wrote something I liked.

I altered the exercise schedule. Now we leave a half hour earlier for our physical exercise and then I go sit in a café for forty-five minutes of writing exercise. So far, things are looking good, and now that my day starts so productively, I end up on such a high I barely need a cup of coffee!

Being the dork that I am, I googled how to establish and maintain routines. Apparently it takes about three weeks for something to officially become a part of your life to the point where you feel obligated to maintain it.

I’ve got two weeks to go, but I’m feeling confident.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Don't Go Towards the Dynamite

Cerro Rico in Potosi - The Rich Mountain, currently a major co-operative silver mine and once the main source of Spain's silver.

Two pieces of advice when traveling in Bolivia:

1. If you hear a dynamite blast in the city - go the opposite direction.

2. If someone tells you that you should get out of town for a while because there will probably be riots - get out of town.
Usually I offer this advice directly after telling people that they should definitely go to Bolivia.

You’re probably wondering: how do you know what dynamite sounds like? The answer: you know as soon as you hear it.

While we were in the country the embassy advised all American citizens to leave. This may have had something to do with the fact that the president ejected the American Ambassador. Everywhere we went, and what felt like every day, we could hear people protesting. It was as if protesting were a national sport, and everyone got in on it. If buses weren’t running? It was a protest. If the store was closed? It was a strike.

If we had been aware that the country was in such flux, we probably wouldn’t have gone. Probably. But once we were there, it became a normal part of life. We kept our ears open and followed advice that was always generously given. We never once felt in danger and every person we spoke with was kind and helpful.

I would go back to Bolivia in a heartbeat. And after traveling there, I’ve begun considering traveling to many other places that I would normally shy away from. Because really, if you just stay away from the dynamite blasts and listen when people give you advice, you can probably make it through a lot of different countries.