Radar

It’s generally safe to assume that when I’m not posting much it’s because there’s a lot going on.  When I pick up the talking stick, it’s because I’ve had time to think—to transpose everything that’s happened into words.  It takes me a while but you know I get there.  There’s been a lot going on.  I don’t know if I’m there.

THE LIST

For one, there’s my book.

Then, I had to move.

And the 2nd of October marked the one year anniversary of the last day I sat beside Pio and held his hand.

I took his ashes into the ocean on that day.

Also, not specifically related to any of this but happening simultaneously, I’ve started experimenting with intermittent fasting.

So there’s a lot going on inside of me, but I don’t know what to say about most of it yet.  Here’s a feeble attempt to start:

UNSOLICITED ADVICE

I guess I can begin with an unsolicited piece of advice about what to say/not to say to your friend who has lost someone as significant as air.  Do that person a favor and don’t make comments about how fast time has gone.  Have I said this before?  I’m sorry.  I’m saying it again.  Like, for example, “Wow!  Time is flying, isn’t it?  I can’t believe it’s already been one year!”  Please don’t say that.  Because to the person who lost someone, the first week took a year.  I guarantee you that friend of yours feels like they have already lived without their person for 100 years and I promise you they don’t think it’s a nice feeling.  Just so you know.  There’s that.

LUCKY AND UNLUCKY

AMAZING reviews have been coming in about Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie.  I’ve also had touching private conversations with friends who have experienced journeys that are similar to mine in one way or another.  I can see now that I was right:  this book did need to be written.  And it did need to get out of my computer and into other hands.  I’m so proud of it.

And, yeah, I moved.  My landlord suddenly needed his extra house back, so I had to make other plans.  I was SO SAD to get the news that I needed to move, but then something happened that you kind of won’t believe.  I almost immediately (2 days?) found another house.  It’s about the same price and it’s so close to the beach I can hear the waves all night long.  If there is ever a tsunami, I will never know what hit me.  But the best part is that back before I even knew him, Pio built this house.  Can you believe it?  It feels exactly like home.  It is home.  Caramelo and Ambrogio like it as much as cats can like a new house.  Is all of this some random coincidence?  I have no idea.

So again, I’m lucky.  And unlucky.

I’m not ready to tell you about the ashes yet.  I might have to write it as a poem because I don’t know now you make a thing like that fit into sentences.

And the book deserves more focus than what I’ve been giving it.  You’re supposed to blog mercilessly about your new book and drive everyone who knows you insane with shameless self-promotion when it comes out.  I don’t think I’ve been doing that.  That would have been hard for me to do even if this was the only thing on my plate.  It isn’t.

I have a good friend who does intermittent fasting and got me curious.  I didn’t think I could do it.  It sounded horrible. I  thought I would be miserable or dizzy or grumpy or…  I just thought it would be too hard or somehow unbearable.  It isn’t.  It isn’t easy, but what’s easy?  Pretty much nothing worth doing is easy.   And there’s the spiritual/emotional side of it too.  I’m not sure I have words that give this any meaning, either, but I’m acknowledging it.  Either fasting is a spiritual practice that turns out to be good for your body, or it is a health practice that turns out to be good for your spirit.  I don’t really feel the need to differentiate.  If you get curious, you can read about it on line.  If it was anywhere near as bad as you think, I would not be doing it.  I always say I’ll try anything once, and I didn’t think I could live with something as lame-sounding as “intermittent fasting” being the one thing I wimped out on and wouldn’t try.  I’ll save that for something actually dangerous.

I didn’t take all the ashes.  I saved some.  That’s cheating, but whoever does the surviving gets to make at least a few of the decisions.  I made up that rule.

BATS

I’ve been thinking a lot about bats.  How they fly around in dark caves and no, they can’t see, but they “see” with other senses.  Radar.  They turn on their radar and they can tell where they are, where other things are, where they should go.  I’ve been trying to navigate by radar.  Because I can’t see shit.  It’s all fog.  But I try to see and listen with other senses.  Sometimes when I walk or run on the deserted beach, I close my eyes and try to keep going in a straight line by listening to the sound of the ocean to the side of me, feeling the wind in my face, feeling the sun on my back.  It isn’t easy but I can do it.  I keep trying.  I follow my gut, hoping that will teach it to give good advice.

I spent a whole year of evenings, essentially, lying in a hammock on a dark porch in silence trying to take it all in.  Not unlike a bat in a cave, except I wasn’t hanging upside down.  I was hanging though, in the hammock.  Most people are afraid of or dislike bats and dark places and sadness.  Most people run away from the cave.  Not me.  I am trying to see my way around in it like a bat.

I told you, there’s a lot going on and I’m not sure I’ve arrived at the words for it yet.  But I’m trying.  I never stop trying.  I’ll get there.

 

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MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE: The Costa Rica Scenes

I haven’t actually been straight with you yet about Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie. As usual, I don’t throw all my cards on the table at once.

So, the story is that the book isn’t only about somewhat-silly/somewhat-naughty Mennonite girls learning about the joys of cheap wine and no curfew. The book is also about what happened to me the first time I came to Costa Rica—how I fell so completely in love with something I was supposed to find curious and interesting. How I fell in love with someone I was supposed to walk away from and forget.

Yeah. I don’t talk about it much. But the book is coming in mid-September, so I’m about to.

Throughout the book, interspersed with the vignettes about that unforgettable summer in that precious and miserable apartment, are snapshots of moments in Costa Rica. I named the town they took place in “Los Rios.” The scenes from Los Rios are placed there to show you what I saw, play the sounds for you, create a moment of the feeling of complete immersion in a different world. The Los Rios segments are spoken in a different voice than the rest of the story. They might almost be considered prose poems, and are told from a more distant, omniscient point of view than the main story of girls in the summer figuring out to survive.

Today I am sharing the first Los Rios scene with you. It’s a picture of a kitchen unlike any kitchen I had ever imagined on any day of my life previous to the day I walked into it. My intent is to convey a sense of stunned admiration and wonder at its essential simplicity, and therefore, its beauty.

On the kitchen in the house in Los Rios, from Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie

There is no refrigerator in the kitchen. Nothing here requires electricity except the bulb. The kitchen is not even a room in the house; it is a wooden addition with a brushed earth floor connected to the back of the house made of cinderblock. It is neat as a pin. It is virtually empty.

Beside the back door is a woodstove. Is that what I will call it? It does not have a name in my language. They call it the oven but it isn’t that either. On top of a roughhewn wooden base, two open-ended clay ovals are placed, and, inside of them, sticks smolder. There is no stovepipe. Thin white smoke escapes through the spaces that are purposefully left between the boards that form the walls, the space below the roof.

The kitchen sink is a sectioned cement tub. It is set through the wall so that the drain runs into the scorched yard where chickens dash around clucking. Cool water comes from a faucet with a round metal knob like the one outside the farmhouse where my mother hooked up the garden hose on dry August evenings. The sink is also the washer, where every morning Hilda who asks me to call her “Mamá” scrubs the clothes of the day before into spotless submission and drapes them over the barbed wire fence at the back of the yard to dry.

In the shallow section of the sink sets a clay pot, its opening covered by a lid. Inside the pot, the half shell of a round nut called a jiícaro floats on water. When we are thirsty, we reach into the pot, scoop water into the jiícaro and lift it to our lips, cool water running down our chins in the smoke-blackened kitchen. Curling mango leaves skitter and sun stripes slip across the floor.

In this kitchen, more than anywhere else, I am a foreigner. Here, I not only have no words, I am helpless. I do not know how to wash my own clothes. I cannot fry an egg. We do not have cereal or apples or bread. We have rice, beans, tortillas made of corn that my papá, called Tito, grinds. We have canned tuna, sometimes a tomato, a strange sweet custard made of purple corn, stewed chicken for a birthday. When Diego who says he is my brother goes fishing and brings home little bagre, mamá Hilda fries them in boiling vegetable lard, eyeballs and all, and we devour them down to the brains in their heads, driven by a need for nutrients for which we have no names.

Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie will be available from Amazon.com on September 17, 2018.

Hybrid Genre, Broken Rules

MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE, as you know, is a true story—or more accurately, it is a true set of stories. It is, therefore, a memoir. It’s not a pure-bred memoir, though, because lots of fiction is stirred into the mix. You’re not supposed to do that in memoirs, but I did it anyway, and in this post I am going to tell you why.

The publisher calls MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE a “Fictional Memoir,” which is a description that I like. The book is more true than false, but it’s chock full of little lies. I imagine that puts it in the category of “hybrid genre,” which is a thing, and (as I learned) one that big publishing houses are not wild about. That’s ok.  Keeps a girl humble.

Here are the 3 reasons that I combined fact with fiction in this book:

1. I fudge the truth to protect people’s privacy. Rather obvious, I imagine. This is why I changed most names except mine and the cat’s, and changed details of people’s families and such like. People who never asked to be written about are going to find themselves on these pages, and I feel like the least I can do is not throw everybody COMPLETELY under the bus. Right?

2. I’ve made things up to fill in the blanks. This is the reason for most of the fiction mixed in with literal memories in MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE. Keep in mind that the writing of this book took place over a 20-year period from 1996 through 2017, and during that time I may have sacrificed a few brain cells. There are so many things I don’t remember or never knew. You can’t, for example, write a book about 4 college students living together if you don’t remember one of your roommate’s majors. So, you make it up. And then you have to make up more things in order to make it believable. You end up with quite a web of fabrications. And? The story is still true. Another example is that I don’t remember where Dan went that summer, so I made up some adventures for him. Who cares? The point isn’t what happened while he was gone. The point is what happened to Nina when he came back. I don’t remember where the heck Sheila’s Grandma Friesen lived, so I put her in the retirement community. Sorry, Grandma. I don’t remember what Mean Tabitha really said that upset me so much the night Beth invited her over to dinner, but I remember how I felt about myself and how I felt about her. Etc, etc.

3. I use fiction to develop characters and situations. A conversation with Beth might be mostly or partly fictional because the point of the story is what we talked about and the conclusions we drew, not which exact words we used. The completely fictional segments of the book are there to illustrate a relationship, or a realization, or a dilemma, or dynamic that the combination of actual experience and my imperfect memory couldn’t provide me with. But something still needed to be said. So I made something up—drew my best picture where I didn’t have a photo.  And no, I’m not going to tell you which ones they are no matter how nicely you ask.

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, there is some type of debate going on about things like this in the memoir-writing world. I had no idea about this debate because I invest zero effort into discovering what current writing debates are. I just write the things that stand in front of me and won’t get out of the way.

The person who clued me in is someone I contacted to ask for a promotional statement to use on the back of the book. Imagine my surprise when she mentioned that the “mix of fact and fiction” in my book causes her concern because “these kinds of questions are ‘hot’ in memoir writing right now,” and she is unsure of where my “particular blend of these things” puts me “in the debate that’s out there.”

I am sure my eyes widened as I read. Debate? There’s a debate about this? Oh.

My next thought was that I’d better get busy with my friend Google and try to figure out what’s going on with the debate so that I can determine where I am in it. I mean, it’s “hot” and all, right? I wouldn’t want to be some clueless jungle dweller and find myself in the middle of a debate I know nothing about.

Or would I? I think I might.

I’m not going to change the book or retract my story no matter what any “hot debate” says, so maybe ignorance is bliss. This would be a particularly bad time for me to start second guessing my work. (This person was not suggesting that I should second guess anything. She was referencing something that I’m sure she thought I was already aware of, and, in true Diana form, I wasn’t.) I can investigate the “debate” later if I’m curious.  I’m not claiming that this book is a straight-up memoir anyway. I’m calling it a fictional memoir. If “hybrid genre” is a genre, then I guess I’m a little confused about why the debate in memoir writing. You can hybridize other genres but not these two? Yo no sé.

I bounced back and forth many times over the years on whether this book should be presented as a novel or a memoir.  I had finally settled on “novel” when the New York agent who tried to sell it in 2017 said something to the effect of, “This is a great book but why are you calling your memoir a novel?” Which was a good question because he was completely right.

So sit back and enjoy the ride. Crossing the lines between literary genres is just the beginning of the rules that are going to get broken.

“So What Made You Write The Book?”

Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie is my new memoir that will be released this fall.  The most common question that I hear regarding it, other than “What’s it about?” is “So what made you write it?”  In this post I will answer both questions, and explain how what the book is about changed over the 20 years it has been with me.

The scene in “Marry A Mennonite Boy and Make Pie” is the summer of 1991—the summer that 3 other college girls and I lived in our first apartment. I’m calling it a memoir because it is more truth than fiction, although there are splashes of imaginary details/events/conversations stirred into the batter. You will learn more about that in a future blog post.

I wrote the first version of this book in 1997, when the summer it describes was only 6 years in the past. The manuscript was about 40 typed pages, completely factual, and I called it “The Summer of the Riotous Walls.”  Why I wrote the original story is different than why I “wrote the book” that is going to be published in the fall.  Let me explain.

In 1997, I was 26 years old and married to my first husband. I had a job that required me to show up at a small tourist information center and wait for tourists who needed information. It wasn’t exactly a busy place. And what do you do when you have all day to stay put and wait? You think about things. And what do I do when I think about something for a while? Exacatmente.

I wrote “The Summer of the Riotous Walls” for the pure joy of it, for my own entertainment, and so that I wouldn’t forget anything about what I recognized as a pivotal summer in my life.  I was still in my 20s, mind you, but even then, I could tell that summer was one of those points of no return. Not because of something cataclysmic that happened, but because underlayers began to melt, laying fault lines for the giant chunks of iceberg that would break free later, reshaping the land and seascapes of what is me. I wanted to remember what we did, the things we said, what mattered, what hurt, how things came together and fell apart. Because that process is important. And necessary. Unless, perhaps, you never “leave home.”

And the title? We painted all over the interior walls. What started out as a fun idea (yes, we got the landlady’s permission) to decorate horribly disgusting walls turned into a disastrous riot of multicolored chaos. It went from cheerful and pretty to ugly and desperate. Or at least that’s the way I remember it.

I wrote that first version of the book for the same reason you take pictures—or for the same reason we took pictures before digital cameras and cell phones. Now, we take pictures to show off. We used to take pictures to remember. I wanted never to forget how I went from being the little girl in my first book, When the Roll is Called a Pyonder, to the adult I am. It didn’t all happen that summer, but that summer was the end of something and the beginning of something else.

And then I put the story away for 17 years. It was too short to be a book, but too long to be a short story. And nothing really happens in it—nothing dramatic like rapes, murders, house fires and terrorist attacks. Which is a shame, because I thought it was pretty good. But not that good. But still, a shame to have it just there on a sheaf of papers in a folder. But hey. It is what it is. Or isn’t.

Then, in 2014, my book When the Roll is Called a Pyonder was accepted for publication. I kind of couldn’t believe it, and I knew that if that book has something to say to the world, this one has more. They each speak more clearly when they speak together. I knew immediately that what I really have is a trilogy (yes, there is another one) that maps how the little girl from When the Roll turns into a woman like me. And that story about that summer in the apartment is the pivot point in the middle.

But it was going to take A LOT of work.

So, I pulled it out, typed those 40 pages into the computer and started working. Between 2014 and 2017 I added scene after scene. The focus of the book changed. It wasn’t about nutty girls painting on walls anymore. I realized that the only way to tell the story right would be to add scenes that are snapshots from my first visit to Costa Rica. Yes, Costa Rica entered the book. I tried to keep it out because it complicated everything for me, but books don’t care how much they complicate your life or how hard they are for you to write.

It turned out that the book wanted to be about a lot more than the amusing antics of girls, although it is still built on them. All along, it wanted to be about the summer after I came back from my first visit to Costa Rica and was turned inside out by it in more ways than I had words to express. I kept waiting, that summer, to feel like the same self I was before and it wasn’t happening. The book wanted to be about breaking apart, connecting, and it wanted to be about expectations. Thus, the new title, Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie, is drawn from a line in the first chapter where I contemplate possibilities for my future.

Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie had to wait a long time for me because it’s not a book a 20-year-old can write. That’s not an insult to 20-year-olds, either. If I hadn’t written the (very entertaining) bones of it when I was 20, how could I have given it the rest of its body at 40? The 20-year-old has the adventures and takes the pictures. The 40-year-old pulls it together and tells what it means.

I needed this book desperately when I was the girl in the story, but I didn’t have it. I needed the permission, the forbearance, and the open ended questions.  Now, I have it to give.

 

*  * * * *

Do you have a question about the book?  Ask me, and I will answer (or address) it in a future blog post.

The Good Book That is “Too Quiet”

I thought you might be ready for a change in subject matter. And I have been talking to myself about something new lately, so I’m not forcing a different conversation. I need your input. I want your opinion, maybe your permission, perhaps your forgiveness. This conversation that I’ve been having with myself is not unrelated to the events in the last year of my life, which I think will be obvious. But it is also not about sickness or death.

Whew.

I have a book. It’s not a new book; it’s one I’ve been working on (off and on) for 20 years. I’ve mentioned it before, although not recently. It’s the memoir, with some fiction stirred in, of a certain summer in the middle of college.  It’s a damn good book. I mean, really. There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind. And it’s as finished as it’s going to get. Not perfect, but good enough, and done.

After “When the Roll Is Called a Pyonder” was published in 2014, I pulled this one out of the vault, and worked on it as hard as I could for …about 2 years. I poured my heart and soul into it. I paid real money for a writing to coach to help me. And then I started sending it to publishers.

Through 2015 and 2016, I sent this book to every small publisher that (a) publishes either fiction or memoir and (b) doesn’t charge a reading fee of more than 20$. I even pitched it to a bunch of literary agents. I have the loveliest collection of complimentary rejection letters you ever saw. Like I said, it’s a good book. But nobody wants to publish it. Nobody is convinced it will make them boatloads of money, which is what “the business” is about. What can I say? These people know their business. They’re probably right.

Then in January 2017, something amazing happened. A real literary agent in New York City wrote me back and said he loves my book, he thinks he can sell it to a big NYC publisher, and would I sign a contract? I was so happy I practically cried, and Pio was so proud of me. I almost splattered the great news all over Facebook, but then I didn’t. Because a contract with an agent does not equal a book deal. And how embarrassed would I be if he couldn’t sell it either?

Which is exactly what happened.

The feedback from The Big Boys is that I don’t have a big enough “platform”—meaning followers on my blog and on social media. In other words, it’s a good book, but I’m Nobody. And that my book is “too quiet.” I interpret that to mean there’s not enough, sex, drugs and violence. Well.  Guilty as charged. First, I don’t really write about sex, drugs and violence. Why would I? After “Pulp Fiction,” what could I possibly add?  Second, it’s a book about Mennonite kids, for the love of God! A little imagination? Anyone?

So, I can think of 3 possibilities for this book:
1. Give up.
2. Spend more years of my life sending this book to publishers and agents.
3. Self-publish.

The problem with #1 is that I can’t do it. I’ve even tried, but I can’t.

The problem with #2 is that I have a limited number of free hours to spend on surfing/reading/writing/lying in my hammock looking at the stars/pestering the cats/drinking wine… doing anything that isn’t sleeping or working. And honestly? I have other things to write. I can either spend my free time on cover letters (like I did for 2 of the last 3 years) or I can get on with life and write something else. I would love that.

The problem with #3? It has 2 problems. On one hand, even though this may be bogus, self-publishing a really good book feels like a cop-out, like giving up. And maybe there are ways in which I am ready to do that. What the hell? Who am I kidding?  What am I doing?  Hold out for an imaginary audience of people I don’t know, when I have you and me to write for?  Why?  Are they better people or more worthy?  I think not.

The other problem with self-publishing is a very deep very personal can of worms that I would rather not open. But if I self-publish this book, the worms are going to be all over the place, let me tell you. All over. And I might need a whole lot of moral support.

I would rather have introduced this book to the world with the support of a traditional publisher (no matter how small) behind me because this “too quiet” book is going to deeply upset/offend/dismay every single person in the state of Pennsylvania (and a few in upstate New York) who is a blood relative of mine. Each and every single one. I am choosing my words carefully as I write this. If you don’t get what I am saying, go back and read that again. Unless I somehow publish this book “in secret” (oxymoron?!), there are going to be painful personal conversations as a result. That I am not looking forward to. And I would just rather have had a publisher who thinks I’m awesome holding my hand, instead of having to stand here spitting into the wind all by myself. But I’m not sure I’m going to get my way this time. Sometimes, being a big girl sucks.

I’m 47 years old. It shouldn’t matter. I didn’t think it would at this point in my life. If I had known, at 17 and 27 and 37, that it would still matter this much, I would have been devastated. So now I know: it’s never going to go away. Never. Which ties directly, for me, to the reason you have to read this book—the reason it must get out of my computer. Because if I have a heart attack in my bed tonight and this book NEVER gets read by anyone, THAT will be the real and true failure. I will have failed to face something that has been waiting for me my whole life.

I actually believe this. It makes me shake in my shoes in the way that happens when you know a thing is true. …And it’s kind of also what the book is about.

So.  What do you think?  I’m asking.

 

P.S.

Please know: There is nothing even remotely scandalous in this book for anyone who was born anywhere other than where/when I was.

(O, the ironies of knowing your “too quiet” book will shock the covering pins out of some people’s hair…)