The Unwritable

original

There’s this story I’ve been trying to tell, to write. I’ve made several attempts at it, attacking it from different angles, but somehow it stays out of my reach. And I think I know why.

There’s been a certain level of frustration building inside of me about the status of women today, in 2016. While we’ve made strides in certain fields, it feels like advancements in many places are eroding, if not being ripped away, and I don’t know what to do about it except for this frustration that’s gathering speed. Women barely managed to be recognized as equals in Western societies and already the discourse is back to us needing to hide, to not show traits that are too feminine; actually to not show ourselves too much, to literally cover ourselves.

And then there’s this story which, no matter how I try to shape it, wants to come out submissive, accepting of the inevitable, and I’m raging against it by stopping a few paragraphs in, not liking its voice, its tone, pushing it aside, and yet the story remains in my head because it still wants to be told. The trouble is I don’t know if I can do it. I’m not a great writer (maybe I’ll never be), I’m still a work-in-progress, I haven’t really found my voice yet (and maybe I never will). I want to try to tell this story, but I don’t know if I can do it justice by writing it the way it wants to be written. I also feel half-crazy for talking about a story as though it has a will of its own, but this one does.

So I’m left with this frustration, this anger, and a story that’s just not being written.

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2015 or the Year of the Disappearing Friendships

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It’s been a tough year. So many had it worse, I know, and I’ve tried to remember that as I was struggling to pull through, to stay above the surface, or at least not too far from it, so I could push myself up and take a deep breath before it was too late.

It began with funerals. My grandmother’s. She was old, a month shy of a 100, actually, and she had been “dead” for a while, her brain claimed by Alzheimer’s many years prior. Then my late stepfather’s brother. One of his brothers (he came from a very large family of 14 children), but his closest brother, so an uncle really. A man who had been in my life forever. My stepfather came into my life when I was still a toddler. In fact, I can’t remember the time before he was there.

After the funerals came the dying friendships. I tell myself it’s not all bad. Fairweather friends are not friends at all. But still, they occupy a space, a time, a role, however small. When they leave, they remind you of your loneliness, of your need to come out of your shell more. So 2015 has been rough.

On the brighter side of the coin, 2015 has also been the year where I decided to write more, to put some of my work out there and to face rejection (so far, it’s only been rejection), but to not let rejection deter me from writing more, from working at it, from improving myself, from seeking feedback and criticism.

I am concluding the year with that accomplishment in mind, hoping it will help me strive forward and perhaps put more than my writing out there by putting myself out there as well. I’m not a big fan of resolutions because I think we should try to work on ourselves continuously by setting up small but clear objectives and keeping at them no matter what the calendar says. So I will continue to soldier on and maybe try to make a friend or two along the way. The good kind. The kind that actually wants to be my friend.

Happy New Year.

Fated to Last-Minute Syndrome

LASTMINUTEB

I’ve been trying to write more. Short fiction. I’ve entered a few contests so far with no expectations except for that of an imposed deadline. In the process, I’ve learned something about myself, something I do not like (an addition to a very long list): I seem to suffer from last-minute syndrome. I learn of a contest’s existence weeks–if not months–in advance, and yet, here I am again with nuggets of two potential ideas and deadlines looming just around the corner, i.e. this weekend.

The thing with writing is that there are no rules. Oh sure, there are tips and perspectives.

“This works for me, so it might work for you. Or not. But try it. Maybe.”

There are schools of thoughts.

“A story should be written in full in one sitting.”

Or

“If you spend more than six months on a story without nearing completion, forget it… Except if you’re Harper Lee. Or Flaubert.”

There are even mathematical formulas.

“Take your draft + Cut off about 25% of it = Get final cut.”

And here I thought I chose a career in letters to avoid the whole math thing!

I know distance is good; it could actually be key. You write it all down. You take a breather. You come back and you can see it for what it is and make the necessary cuts and additions to make it shine, or at least make it less dull. But when you suffer from last-minute syndrome, you lack the time required for distance. You rely on your first readers (and you drive them a little bonkers: “Got time to read this? I have to ship it in, oh, two hours. Swimming in time, right?”).

I’m left hoping that the cliché of practice makes perfect will turn out to be true; that the more I will write, the better I will be at getting started earlier and at completing a first draft at least a few days before a deadline.

But I dream…

On Transitions

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Being in limbo may be one of my favourite expressions in the English language (it’s so evocative, is it not?), but when you find yourself in that position, it’s darn right uncomfortable. Sitting between two chairs, trying to leave the familiar behind for the fuzzy perspective of something new (exciting!), unknown (scary!) and uncertain (have I mentioned scary?). And as it often happens in life, transitions can be forced on you.

In my case, it’s the loss of a client–through no fault of my own; only the reality of business–that makes me question my field or, more to the point, a future in my field. I’ve been freelancing for seven years now. Most of the time, the work is flowing in steadily, but I’m noticing changes, shifts, which make me wonder how sustainable my career choice will be in the long run. So now I’m looking to diversify.

I’ve been told by a few people who are not afraid to criticize and speak their minds that I’m not too bad at the whole writing thing (can’t you just tell by this superb sentence?). Since I’m a translator, the move to writing seems natural in a way, but writing what exactly? That’s where the scary transition comes in. This particular transition is made scarier by the fact that change is looming its ugly head in pretty much every aspect of my current life. Tackling the safer area of work (safer for me, anyway) might be the easiest shift of them all, though it’s still unnerving for me.

Where to start? What to do? How to become as credible and respected in writing as I (hopefully) am in translating?

This will be a long to-do list, won’t it?

On reading “trash”, i.e. romance novels

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(This is fake book cover, by the way. Just thought I’d specify that.)

As a translator, I get all sorts of assignments: some fascinating, some boring, some really badly written (there, my proper title should be “decipherer”) and some “trash”. Trash as in romantic pop fiction. I use trash with quotation marks because I don’t think there is anything wrong with it: it can be quite entertaining. It’s the type of fiction you often find on “summer’s must-read lists”. It’s on the lighter side, brushing up with fantasy and thriller, but at the end of the reading trip, everyone is happy. It’s easy-to-digest fiction and, again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

So I’ve translated a good amount of that kind of fiction since I’ve been in the biz, and while it can be quite enjoyable, it also led me to the thought of: “Why couldn’t I actually write a novel like this?” And the answer, of course, is: “Why not? Give it a go.”

To write a genre well, you have to read that genre extensively. Actually, to write, you should read extensively. That’s not me saying this, but Mr. Stephen King himself in his book On Writing (which I highly recommend, by the way–not that Mr. King needs more money or anything). So lately, I’ve been reading some romance novels. Studying them would be the more appropriate phrasing. What makes a romance novel good? What kind of storyline grabs the reader from the get-go? How detailed should it be? Must romance always include erotica in this day and age?

I don’t mind telling you that it’s a fascinating journey even though it leaves me puzzled at times. Must everyone be perfect for the romance novel to work? Are women readers (let’s face facts) only interested in strong, alpha male characters? Is there room and interest for something else? The truth is if I want to have the slightest hope to get a romance novel published, I will probably have to stick to the clichés while finding a way to make them sound fresh.

Romance novels may be an easy read, but the more I study them, the more I understand that they are not that easy to write.

Wall of TVs

A month ago, I entered a short fiction contest for the very first time. Today, I found out I did not make the shortlist. As it was my first attempt, I am not too discouraged. I entered the contest mostly to exercise my writing muscles and to be forced to complete a story since there was a deadline attached.

And so I thought I’d share my story here.

Without further ado…

Wall_of_Televisions_by_Loops_Of_FuryWall of TVs

Under the spotlight of street lamps, the wet pavement looks slick like well-oiled leather until the next pot hole comes and shatters the illusion. She avoids the craters her eyes are quick enough to spot, but the crowd surrounding her—a crowd that is both trying to rip apart and stay together—remains dense and makes and breaks rules on a whim. Crowd or no crowd, in this city, the streets are always an accident waiting to happen. Some pot holes are marked with bright orange paint; paint that will fade away as the days get shorter and as the holes get filled, but right now, the cracked and uneven pavement simply enhances her feeling that this is a country at war, when it isn’t.

Tonight, she feels like she’s been to war, a war that’s raging still, though she has no frame of reference, no past experience against which to bounce the sensations of the last few hours. To her, the city is still a mystery. It’s exciting, but often enough, it seems like it is waging a war against her, pushing her out, branding her as an outsider. She was born in the suburbs, grew up in a bungalow with a car port her mother had so wished would be turned into a proper garage. Aboveground pool and soccer games; videogames in the basement of the next door neighbour who also turned out to be her first sorta serious boyfriend; school with classmates she’s known all her life, except for the proverbial new kid thrown in the mix each September; then the city at eighteen to go to college.

And now: this, nine months later.

The chaos: in a pretty small radius. The annoyance: definitely. The feeling of being lost and all alone in a crowd: overwhelming everything else.

She continues to feel the warmth of his hand in her palm. In her mind, she replays the moment when his hand was torn away from hers and panic had set in. Not torn away, exactly: there was a sense that he was letting go. Perhaps he realised sooner than she did that hand-holding in a crowd was an exercise in futility. Or maybe at that point in the battle, he needed both hands to push people and throw things and raise his fists in the air. He had said a few times that tonight was an important battle in all-out war. Even now, she still doesn’t know if she truly admires him for it or if her infatuation kicked her logic to the curb.

School’s out; she’s moved out of the dorm. He lets her crash in his place but doesn’t give her the official nod in the form of a key. He’s met her family but she’s only seen his in the form of a picture on his dresser. She now wishes she had done more with her time over the last months beside studying and falling for him because it feels like he’s all she’s got.

She had tried to cut through the mob and run after him, to no avail. She had caught some glimpses of him getting further and further away. Then her phone had panged—though the pang, she did not hear with the thundering noise of shouts and batons knocking against riot shields—and vibrated with a two-word message: “meeting place”. Now she repeats the message in her head like a mantra as she tries to move in one of the directions taken by the ever slowly scattering horde.

The irony of the fact that she didn’t want to be there in the first place is not lost on her as she merges with a group she decides to follow; a smaller group that will perhaps be able to slither away. In truth, she had half-assed the whole thing. She didn’t disagree with what they protested, but she felt like an imposter going through the motions. She recalls the argument she had with her family about it over Sunday’s dinner. He had done most of the talking (talking, then arguing) along with her dad. Her dad had called him a punk, under his breath at first but then loudly, coined with a popular expletive. On the long bus-metro-bus way back from the suburbs to his place, he had carried on and on about the bourgeoisie, the need to kick the system in the teeth, her cushy upbringing. She had resisted the urge to throw his own upbringing back into his face. In the end, she had relented—the argument and the decision about the protest.

As the cluster of runners she picked reaches a wall of barricades, she realises she’s panting, out of breath. The runners seep through the barricades and keep pushing forward, and she follows along, more or less through her own volition. She’s a tiny thing that’s being shoved this way and that until her foot gets caught in a pothole—this one, marked with white paint, as though it’s less important than the others, yet she can see it’s pretty deep—and her ankle twists in pain. She yelps, but the kids are busy fleeing. For a few seconds that seem to stretch out like a small eternity, she thinks she might get trampled on. A more dramatic thought crosses her mind: she might die here. Time rolls on again, and she is pushed to the left, lightweight that she is, and against a smart car that was tipped over, probably because it was small enough to be lifted and toppled over. She presses her back against a wheel, not caring that it will leave a mark on her shirt; a shirt that’s already drenched in sweat and the water the policemen in scary mob control uniforms had hosed down at the mob. She pauses, dazed for a moment, and watches. Feet are still pummelling the pavement, people (kids) in all size and shape and form pass before her eyes. In the distance—the not-so-far-off distance—sirens sound and whistles blow. And there’s still that unnerving sound of batons beating down riot shields. Her breathing slows down, not to a normal rhythm; she doesn’t think that’s possible, but normal enough. She tries to move her ankle, and pain shoots through her leg, but she persists. She lifts her leg and moves her foot in a circular motion. It hurts a little, there’s no denying it, but the kids running in front of her and the humming in her ears tell her to push herself off the car and to keep moving as fast as she can, half-stumbling, half-running, away from the bedlam.

She uses her small frame to her advantage, slips into a second pack of kids that just seeped through the barricades, and is carried forward in the momentum. Despite the pain, her feet get into a rhythm, and her mind starts racing again with the mantra, “meeting place.” She stops running when the riot noise dies down and she keeps limping on the main street. She only has a few blocks to go now.

“What if I lose you in the crowd?” she had asked.
“What do you think this is, a day at the beach?”
“No, but if we get separated, I have nowhere to go tonight.”
“All right, all right. Let’s meet at that electronic shop with all the TV monitors in the window,” he had said.

The group broke down a few blocks ago, moving into sideways as soon as they could see perpendicular streets cleared of barricades. In front of the wall of TVs of the electronic shop where she is standing now, she can only hear the faint rumour of the dying chaos downtown. There’s a bench not so far off. It doesn’t face the shop’s window exactly but it’s close enough for her to sit and watch the images on the TV monitors. Half of them project scenes from the protest back to her, while the other half is playing a baseball game—the Yankees Vs the Blue Jays. She stares and stares, thinking maybe she could spot him there, on the other side of the glass, in the wall of TVs that makes her feel like this is not quite real. This whole night she’s felt like she wasn’t exactly there, living it. But he is nowhere in sight, neither in the virtual world on the other side of the store window nor in the flesh.

It’s getting late.

She looks down at herself: her dirty legs under her shorts, the scuffed toes of her black Converses, and her swollen ankle. She takes her mobile out of her pocket and tries to call him. It rings and rings and rings, then goes to voicemail. She doesn’t leave a message; no point. She sends him a text, and she waits. Five minutes turn into ten turn into twenty. The leg attached to her good ankle shakes in nervousness. Her eyes dart back and forth, between the screen of her mobile phone and the wall of TVs. Half the screens have moved on from the protest. She catches a glimpse of an enthusiastic weatherwoman before the monitors switch to a map displaying several bright yellow suns. On half of the other screens, the Yankees are dominating the Jays in the fifth inning.

She remains seated on the bench, and the adrenaline subsides, slowly, giving way to great fatigue. Her backpack gets too heavy for her shoulders. She shakes it off and puts it down on the bench, next to her. It contains her tablet, clean tank top and underwear, a toothbrush, a wallet with a five dollar bill and a maxed-out Visa, her charger, and ear buds. Music.

She plugs the ear buds into her phone and scroll through the music selection. The battery is low. She’s afraid of losing the phone completely. She unplugs the ear buds, and waits.

He’s not here.
The last bus to the suburbs left a while ago.

Holding tight to her phone to keep her left hand from shaking, she fights back the tears, and she hates it; hates that there are tears to repress in the first place. With her right hand, she browses through her contact list and is tempted. She could call them. She’d probably wake them up. Her father would need some convincing, but he’d get behind the wheel in the end. There would be a lecture tonight, more to follow tomorrow, but in between, in the meantime, she would be sound asleep in her bed.

She steals one last glance at the TV screens, waits five minutes more, eyes glued to her phone, and then gets up. The weight on her bad ankle makes her wince, but it’s only a few more blocks to the East. She walks so slowly, wondering how she managed to run on this foot only half an hour ago. Up ahead, the bus stop is like a beacon of dimmed light. Two people are already standing next to it; a man with a cigarette and a woman with half a dozen bags. The bus rolls in just as she’s crossing the street with the green light on her side. She limps onboard like a wounded soldier and lets her body sink on the first available seat. The bus rolls on.

From his stop, she only has a block to go. She sees the building of beige bricks just up ahead. Five steps lead to the main entrance and the locked door to which she doesn’t have the key. She plops her backpack on the third step, slumps next to it, phone in hand. Still no message. So, head in her hands, she waits.

Well…

I’ve read somewhere (somewhere… isn’t that a sign that you’re getting on in years?) – I think it was in one of those “10 Things that Great Writers do every Day” lists; yep, that sounds right – that writing regularly is the way to get a work of fiction done. Makes sense, right? You have to write to write. To write, to write, to write, to write.

I don’t expect many people to read this blog. In fact, I expect to be the only one. The point is to write. So writing, I will do.