Monday, June 29, 2009

You know you're in Virginia when...

When I heard David Sedaris would be giving a book reading at the Borders a few miles from my apartment, I was ecstatic. Some people get their kicks taking body shots in dive bars on Friday nights; I pant at the thought of seeing a favorite writer in the flesh. And who better than Sedaris?

I had seen him once before in 2003 when I was in college and he stopped in Santa Barbara to give a reading and signing in the theater on our campus. The stories he chose made the audience roar with laughter, and though myriad signs were posted demanding there be "No Photography" in the darkened theater, I was "that girl" in the 8th row who forgot to turn the flash off when I snapped my picture. (Yes, I was a rebel in my heyday.)

After the reading I got in line to meet him. I'd been practicing in the bathroom mirror what I'd say when I was face-to-face with this literary master. I thought perhaps we'd briefly discuss the merits of the New Yorker, or his research tactics for his stories. Instead my mind went blank when I approached his table. "I'm, uh, like, your biggest fan," I managed to stutter, turning bright red at my idiotic statement. He laughed, though, and told me he'd be more than happy to sign my books. He asked my name, and after telling him "Crystal", he signed my first book with "Ha ha, You have a slutty name". I giggled like a school girl. The man can seriously do no wrong. Then he asked what I wanted to do with my life, and I told him I wanted to write books. So he signed my second book with "Crystal, I look forward to reading YOUR book. ~ Dave."

I know, it's kismet, right? There's a picture of me in the throes of ecstasy afterward outside of the theater, holding the two books and looking like I just won the lottery. Flash forward to last Friday, and you can see why I was so amped to see him again 5 years later, especially with where I was in my writing career. Love couldn't come as he needed to work on a project, so I went by myself, bringing my copy of his latest book to get signed. I was prepared for a thrilling night where much hilarity would ensue. Well, let's just say the night fell somewhat short of my expectations.

I showed up an hour early to try and get a seat, but by the time I arrived there were none left. I quickly found myself standing in a sea of mustached women with frizzy hair and names like "Mary-Kelly". Most of them, tired of standing for more than 5 minutes though they could have used the workout, sat cross-legged around me on the thin industrial carpeting, as if waiting to see the second-coming of Lilith Fair. One woman on the floor in front of me even had the audacity to wear these in public:
Oh she seemed quite proud of herself that she was sporting the latest in amphibious footwear while those around her still wore their faded Tevas.

Because the event took place on the second level of the Borders, it began getting hot and muggy in the crowd of at least 100, crammed between Yogi Berra coffeetable books and camping manuals. I began to grow irritated with the group I had chosen to spend my Friday night with. Not only did they smell like BO and dress like extras on Roseanne (I can forgive both these points), they had bad, loud attitudes. I could hear them snapping at one another about cutters in line and views being obstructed from their pow-wow on the floor. They nitpicked about this or that, only cordial with those they came with. I tried to make friendly conversation with a couple sitting near me but was treated like I had landed from another planet. Unnecessary hostility toward strangers never fails to make my blood boil. They were so different from the crowd I was a part of when I first saw Sedaris. The longer I stood there, the more annoyed I got. They reeked of everything I despised about Virginia but never fully realized until that night.

When I lived in California and used to imagine people from Virginia, I would think of Elizabeth Taylor in "Giant" -- all class and kindness, with an interest in social politics and penchant for horseback riding. That misconception quickly dissipated upon my arrival in the state with my various run-ins over parking spaces and spots in line at my local grocery store, and further eroded at the Sedaris reading last Friday. Prior to Sedaris' entrance, I was treated to a buffet of high-class manners, fashion and etiquette by Virginia's finest.

Then I began to wonder...what if it's not Virginia at all? What if these people are just his fanbase? That they're like this all across the country and it was a mere coincidence they happened to be different that night in 2003? Then a pang of fear shot through me. Was I just another one of them, convoluted in my notions that I was different? This last thought struck me after a girl/woman with thick glasses and offensive bushy eyebrows begging to be plucked kept turning around and sneering at me in capris made from what looked like floral motel curtains.

You know the saying "You are what you eat"? Well I also think you are what you read. But I came to the conclusion right then and there that though I'm a "Sedaris fan" (whatever that may be), I'm not a.) pretentious, b.) emo, c.) impolite, or d.) dowdy. In fact, I was so turned off I left right after the reading without getting my book signed.

Yes, I was sad about the whole affair until I started my car and put my foot to the pedal. Suddenly aware that I wasn't the one wearing the ridiculous "FiveFinger" footwear, I drove off, happy again.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Blog award!

The always-stylish Chelsa Bea over at Pencil Skirts & Pearls passed on the "Love Ya" award to me and a handful of other bloggers yesterday. I love Chelsa's blog for its simplicity and class, and always look forward to reading her musings on timeless fashion whenever they pop up in my reader. This award is slightly different than other blog awards that have been passed to me:

About the Award:

Apparently this award is bestowed on to blogs that are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in self-aggrandizement. Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers. Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this text into the body of their award.

I love it because my blog is about more than just me navigating my way through life -- it's a way to network with people across the country and around the globe. And I've "met" some fabulous people so far! I look forward to getting to know you all a lot more through your blogs and twitter. Unfortunately I can only pick eight bloggers, so don't feel left out if you're not on it as I love reading you all.

I pass this award on to:

Carrie ... On The Cheap
A Cat of Impossible Colour
She's Little and Lovely
Out of the Past ~ A Classic Film Blog
Retro Ways: Vintage Fashion and History
My Pretty Pennies
Boubou Teatime
Amber's Lust for Life

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A New Way to Think About Creativity

When I first began writing my book, I often struggled with the creative process. Feeling pressure from all angles to prove myself in some way through my writing was eliciting results that I knew were sub-par for me. It was frustrating and I couldn't shake the feeling, and I knew I wasn't alone. No matter what career or hobby you pursue, there is pressure on all of us in today's world to come off as a genius or a bon vivant of whatever it is that you undertake, but that expectation can suffocate and stifle your creativity from pouring forth.

As I mused on this truth a few months ago, my friend Tami (a blogger/reporter by day, a fiction writer by night) over at Fete a Fete passed along a video of "Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert giving a talk on new ways to think about creativity.

I immediately loved Gilbert's lecture because she touches on so many truths about creativity that apply to whatever field of work you're in or whatever hobby you dabble in. The video is a bit long (2o min.), but if you've been feeling blah lately, prepare to be truly inspired:

After hearing her speech, I came to grips early on that I am not writing for other people. I'm not writing for success. The creative process of writing is what makes me feel successful. Now if that doesn't fall in line with what society deems "successful" than so be it. I've been writing for myself in these last few weeks and can already tell you the results are significantly better than before. I've now realized that the best thing I can do for my career and my creativity is to just "keep showing up". Every day. Same with you. Ole!

Monday, June 15, 2009

A little love goes a long way

Lola at the Cherry Blossom Festival in DC.

When I first moved to Boston the summer after college, I didn't know a soul. I had gotten accepted to a handful of grad schools and decided I'd give Boston a whirl; I had spent some time there as a kid and remembered it as a swingin' city.

I love moving to new places and making new friends, so life couldn't have been more perfect when I arrived at Logan Airport that balmy July day with my suitcase in hand, ready to take on the world ... er, the sprawling New England city. A few months before, my parents and I had bought a tres chic two-bedroom apartment on Commonwealth Ave. for me to live in, so once I landed I hopped in a cab and headed "home". It was on the first floor of an older 4-story, red-brick building, complete with a real stoop. (In California we don't really have stoops -- the only one I was familiar with was Carrie Bradshaw's in Sex and the City.) Hardwood floors, bay windows in the living room overlooking the street below, a black and white-tiled kitchen just like out of the Clue boardgame. I felt like I had stepped onto the set of some 1940s post-WWII flick, and half-expected Gene Kelly to come tap-dancing through my front door, leering at me on his way in. Needless to say, I was delighted by all the old-world charm that evaded so much of the architecture in my home state.

I got to work painting my bedroom walls a warm shade of "Tuscan Sunlight", my living room walls two different shades of olive, picking out decor and reveling in the fact that I, yes I, now had an actual stoop. (This fact didn't settle in until a few months later. Even then I would sneak the occasional peek out my bay windows, make sure my trusty stoop was still there and smile.). Shortly after I arrived in Boston, I began meeting some pretty cool cats in my apartment building and at school, many of whom are still my good friends today.

All was peachy keen till things started getting ... well, let's put it this way: I don't do well by myself at night in large dwellings. Once-charming kitchens begin looking ominous by moonlight after I've watched The Sixth Sense, and turning out all the lights in a big, lonely apartment with nothing but the errant creak keeping me company (and freaking me out) as I lay frozen in bed doesn't bode well with someone who possesses such an overactive imagination. The problem was (and always will be) that not only am I a tad superstitious, but I also believe in ghosts. (Unfollow me now if you must, but bear with me otherwise!)

I know it's ridiculous and so juvenile, but I'm terrified of spirits, the paranormal, ghosts -- basically anything that has to do with the dead. Couple that with the fact that I love a good scary movie and/or book, and well, that's a cocktail I probably shouldn't mix but always end up sipping. Usually when I'm sitting alone at 1am with nothing to do. Call it masochistic, but sometimes it's just fun to freak yourself out ... right? This is much easier to do than you'd think in a building built in the 1940s. Sometimes my mind would get the best of me: Who lived in this apartment before me? And before them?? What if something horrible happened in this very foyer?! All of a sudden, that stoop wasn't so endearing anymore.

So went my first few weeks. I hadn't planned on getting a roommate since everyone I knew in Boston was already in a lease, then it hit me: Why don't I adopt a dog? Note: I didn't just adopt on a whim solely because I was petrified of being alone at night; I had grown up with a poodle in my family and had been planning on getting a dog sometime after college. But the night I had to muster all my courage to get a cup of water from the kitchen, hoping I wouldn't run into the creepy twins from The Shining asking me to come play with them, I knew I needed a dog. Stat.

During high school I volunteered at the SPCA, so it's always been important to me to adopt homeless dogs. Right away I found a solid organization who rescued dogs of all shapes and sizes from the putrid confines of (what should be illegal) puppy mills. There is much to be criticized about puppy mills if you aren't familiar, but I'll write about them soon, I promise. Anyway, I called the foundation, who told me they'd be rescuing a group of poodles soon among other breeds, and they asked what color/age/sex I wanted after they ran a background check on me. I told them I wanted a white female poodle and that I would take an older one (since the puppies always find homes more easily).

About two weeks later, I waited in the organization's driveway along with countless other families who were waiting to pick up their dogs. A large U-Haul pulled in shortly after -- it had driven through the night from North Carolina after sweeping up dozens of abused dogs from a puppy mill -- and once they opened the truck bed, displaying the many cages of confused animals, we all watched and waited anxiously.

When they handed me my Lola, she was a pitiful sight. First off, her name wasn't originally Lola, it was Ms. Say It Ain't So (basically a breeding name akin to nothing more). Naturally she did not respond to Ms. Say It Ain't So (would you?), and had been severely abused. She was a toy poodle who came to me completely shaved from her recent vet visit and was obviously malnourished, as her ribs showed through like two small washboards.

The foundation told me that she had lived her entire four years of life in a cage since birth, and had been used to produce litters in horrific, inhumane conditions. All she knew was crate wire below her paw pads. She had never been treated with love, was terrified of humans (especially men) and had obviously been hit -- probably by a man -- more than once. How anyone could hit a 10-lb. fluffy thing is beyond me. She had no clue how to walk on a leash, had never been house trained, never walked on grass, and never been in a car -- save for her 14-hour U-Haul ride. Everything was new to her and though it took me a good three weeks to begin building her trust, it was worth every second of my patience. I slowly taught her how to walk on a leash, quickly house-trained her, and even got her to love walking up and down that stoop as much as I did (milkbones helped -- with her, not me). I wasn't scared of my apartment at night anymore. Being with Lola and educating her in the ways of love, gourmet cooking and The Beatles miraculously took my mind off anything Stephen King-esque.

Flash forward to now, and Lola Belle Watkins is my partner in crime. She's quiet, well-behaved and sometimes a little too shy, but that's okay. Love often says I spoil her too much, but with all the bad stuff that's happened in her past, she deserves to be spoiled. She's going on nine years old this year, and she's become a definitive part of my family. After grad school, she and I moved back to California -- where my whole family fell in love with her -- and subsequently to DC, where sometimes (when he thinks I'm not watching) Love spoils her even more than I do. If that's possible.

Here are some of my favorite pictures of her:

Story time for the kiddies. Love recounting his day to Lola and Moneypenny, our recently adopted cat. They seem to approve.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Some (borrowed) advice for writers

Yes, I realize Don Draper has nothing to do with this post, but -- like me -- he's taking mental notes (and really, any excuse to allude to Mad Men is a good one).

One of the literary agents I follow on Twitter recently posted a link to an old 2006 blog post by Seth Godin, a bestselling author, entrepreneur and self-professed "agent of change." The agent on Twitter highlighted Godin's article as having the best advice for aspiring writers, so naturally I clicked over. Mind you, I've read many authoritative "this is what you need to do" lists on writing and getting published ... and most of them are BS, marketed toward getting me to buy some guide or book on the practice (God, I hate that, but such is the way in any industry I suppose). Godin's points, though, are completely valid and he hammers home the fact that getting published and getting printed are two very different things. One is a business and the other, well, anyone can do!

I just have to keep reminding myself of his most pertinent points:
  1. Lower your expectations. The happiest authors are the ones that don't expect much.
  2. The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you'll need later.
  3. Pay for an eidtor editor. Not just to fix the typos, but to actually make your ramblings into something that people will choose to read.
  4. Don't try to sell your book to everyone. First, consider this: " 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school." Then, consider the fact that among people even willing to buy a book, yours is just a tiny little needle in a very big haystack. Far better to obsess about a little subset of the market--that subset that you have permission to talk with, that subset where you have credibility, and most important, that subset where people just can't live without your book.
  5. Resist with all your might the temptation to hire a publicist to get you on Oprah. First, you won't get on Oprah. Second, it's expensive.
  6. Think really hard before you spend a year trying to please one person in New York to get your book published by a 'real' publisher. You give up a lot of time. You give up a lot of the upside. You give up control over what your book reads like and feels like and how it's promoted. Of course, a contract from Knopf and a seat on Jon Stewart's couch are great things, but so is being the Queen of England. That doesn't mean it's going to happen to you. Far more likely is that you discover how to efficiently publish (either electronically or using Print-On-Demand or a small-run press) a brilliant book that spreads like wildfire among a select group of people.
  7. Your cover matters. Way more than you think. If it didn't, you wouldn't need a book... you could just email people the text.
  8. If you've got the patience, bookstore signings and talking to book clubs by phone are the two lowest-paid but most guaranteed to work methods you have for promoting a really really good book. If you do it 200 times a year, it will pay.
  9. Publishing a book is not the same as printing a book. Publishing is about marketing and sales and distribution and risk. If you don't want to be in that business, don't! Printing a book is trivially easy. Don't let anyone tell you it's not. You'll find plenty of printers who can match the look and feel of the bestselling book of your choice for just a few dollars a copy. That's not the hard part.
  10. Bookstores, in general, are run by absolutely terrific people. Bookstores, in general, are really lousy businesses. They are often where books go to die. While some readers will discover your book in a store, it's way more likely they will discover the book before they get to the store, and the store is just there hoping to have the right book for the right person at the time she wants it. If the match isn't made, no sale.
  11. Writing a book is a tremendous experience. It pays off intellectually. It clarifies your thinking. It builds credibility. It is a living engine of marketing and idea spreading, working every day to deliver your message with authority. You should write one.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Myth #1

"So, how is your life of leisure going?" -- recent comment left by a friend on Facebook.

Myth #1: That working from home is, in fact, a life of leisure.

Reality: Nope, not really.

So it seems that now that I'm an official "writer" I have rescinded myself to aimlessly toodling about the house a la Nathan Lane's character in The Birdcage ("When the schnecken beckons!"), writing every now and then as if it were a chore like vacuuming. Or that's what I gather from numerous comments I've heard from friends recently, like the one above. I just need to vent, but I don't like how people assume that just because I'm not going to an office every day I've somehow lapsed into an "early retirement". Yes, that was another comment. Lucky me, right? (I don't have kids, but I can't imagine how stay-at-home moms must feel when they hear these sort of comments and have the uber-hard, full-time job of raising little ones.)

I don't know how to explain this without sounding defensive (especially when it's said over the phone), but my time spent working in the last week or two has been some of the hardest work I've ever done. And it will be during the next months and years. I hold myself to a high standard (I think most do, right?) and like to feel like I'm producing something. It gives my life meaning. Waking up everyday, brewing a fresh pot of coffee and sitting down to write with Lola at my feet is incredible. It makes me happy to get out of bed. Sure the muse can't strike daily, but even on days when I don't feel like writing, I've forced myself to because it's my job. "Not going" to my job is not an option -- that would be failing. Luckily, too, I can work during whatever hours I feel like. Sometimes it works best for me to write in the middle of the night, long after everyone's gone to bed, so I'm happy that it's flexible.

It's mentally taxing and exhausting, yet stimulating and fulfilling all the same. There are no employee reviews or periodic paychecks. Nothing to tell me I'm doing a good job or advancing along nicely. That comes when I start sending out query letters to literary agents, which comes after I finish and edit my manuscript, which is all still a few months away.

For right now, all I have to go on in terms of a pat on the back to myself is how much I produce each day. The pressure is on, but it's a pressure I relish in! Now I know what people mean when they say they've "put in a good day at work." As opposed to before, I now actually care about my finished product and genuinely appreciate the process. It's my creativity, after all, personified on paper. What can be more gratifying than seeing that daily?

But wait, that's not possible for me to do because I've done so at home. Silly me ... ;)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Week Out West

Me on my last night in Pacific Beach. Yes, I'm usually this weird.

I'm back from my week-long trip to San Diego, and I have to say it went by way too fast. At first I was reticent about the journey. I was born and raised in Santa Cruz, so I've always had beef with SoCal, especially LA and San Diego. (I think its an inherent NorCal/SoCal thing. So stupid.) I'm glad I took this trip, though, because I had an amazing time and I love San Diego! (LA, meanwhile, still eludes me.)

Some things I did:
  • Watched my little sister, Sophia, graduate from college. Can't believe she's already 21 and out of school. I'm happy for her but now I feel, well, old. (I can't imagine how I'm going to feel when I actually have kids.)
  • Got to hang out with my whole family again as everyone was down from Northern California celebrating Sophia's graduation for Memorial Day weekend.
  • Ate fabulous food. Lunches at cozy Italian bistros, breakfasts at House House a Go-Go and beyond, and enough Mexican food to fuel a small army (I heart you Cotija's Taqueria). It was all delicious and high in calories, but I've been so good about my diet in the past few months that I thought "What the heck, you only live once". Right? Ed. Note: My figure, although gorged with excess calories last week, still seems svelte. No real damage done.
  • Visited the beach more than once. For this beach-starved DCer, this was an absolute must. A special highlight: Checking out the tide pools at BirdRock beach in La Jolla.
  • Embarked on debauchery with old friends while meeting new ones. Sophia introduced me to an incredible guy who she calls her "best friend". Why they aren't dating is beyond me. Perhaps its because he's going to Columbia University in the fall for his Masters? Pressing onward ...
  • Enjoyed not being connected 24/7 to Blogger/Facebook/Twitter/email/etc. It was actually quite liberating and didn't bother me in the slightest. Not sure if that's a good thing for a Gen Yer to be saying in the 21st century.
  • Decided that if I absolutely had to, I could live in San Diego for a while if Love ended up getting a job here out of Georgetown next year. This is big, people, because as I mentioned above I've always thought I hated San Diego. But, it turns out, I actually love it. Especially Pacific Beach. It reminded me of the years I spent living in Isla Vista while I was a student at UC Santa Barbara. Though I could live down there, I wouldn't want to make it my permanent home as I'm a Bay Area girl at heart. Still, it was 10 folds better than living out here so I'll take it.
  • Finished my first short story. Oh it felt delightful plopping the ending on to my first piece of finished work. After having Love read it, he thought it needed some rewriting here and there (totally cool, it was a 1st draft after all), but that it was a good story overall. Since returning to the East Coast I've finished my second short story. It's a humorous piece that made me (and subsequently everyone else who's read it) laugh out loud, so I'll be submitting to various magazines sometime this summer.
All in all, it was an excellent trip. I wish Love could have stayed longer; he had to fly back on Memorial Day so he was only with me for three days. I wanted to stay longer, but I was happy to come home and spend time with him -- especially since I'm jetting off to Brazil and Argentina for the month of August sans him! Plane ticket purchased, now on the prowl for the perfect bikini.
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