A Writer’s Identity

A few months ago, I attended my first writing group, and I instantly realized that I had no identity.  Because I was a newcomer, all the seasoned, confident, group members – many of them published – were asked to introduce themselves, which only some of them did.  The group, so accustomed to each other and seemingly unused to newcomers, had a hard time staying on task as the leader prompted each of them to share their names and writing genres.  Even before the meeting officially began, the man I sat next to asked me what I write.

“Ahhh, … essay, … some memoir,” I responded. My answer sounded more like a question than a statement and I was sure I looked intimidated, unsure of myself.

“Do you mean essay, memoir, or memoir essays?” He continued.

“Um, … All of the above?” I fumbled for an answer again, the student who thinks the teacher is asking a trick question.  Thankfully, he gave me a break, anddescribed the mix of writers’ that attended this particular weekly session.  I was silently grateful that the meeting began before I could be further flustered by his polite attempt to match my face to a genre.

Becky (Facilitator, anxious to get the meeting moving): “Tom, why don’t you start us off?”

Tom (Pleasant, bald gentleman, whose well-groomed salt and pepper facial hair makes me wonder if he invented the goatee): “Sure.  My name is Tom, and I am writing a novel – a dystopian thriller that takes place in the Bay Area.”

A what? I thought, but nodded and smiled as though I knew exactly what that was.

Becky: “Joan?”

Joan (Disgruntled woman that looked of retirement age and wore a tired facial expression): “I don’t want to read tonight.  In fact, I might never read here again after last time.”

Becky (Slightly snappy, losing patience): “This isn’t about reading.  Do you want to introduce yourself?”

Joan (Confused, still oblivious to my presence): “No, I don’t.  Why would I?”

I really don’t mind if she doesn’t introduce herself.  I mentally attempted to head off the awkward conflict.

Becky (Exasperated): “There’s a new person here.  Can’t you at least introduce yourself?”

Joan: “Oh.  Well, I guess.  I’m Joan.”

Boy, is she grumpy.  I smiled, unfazed by her bitterness – it reminded me of a relative I’m fond of, so I could easily look past it.

Becky (Rolling her eyes as she gives up on Joan): “OK, Liz?”

Liz (Late twenties, bubbly, all smiles): “Hi, I’m Liz.  I write YA, and have a novel coming out next February.”

I’ve always wondered what motivates people to write YA.  Maybe now I’ll find out.

Becky: “Mike?”

Mike (40s-ish, excited): “I have a new piece tonight.  I’ve been working on a Sci-Fi short story.”

Wow, talk about diversity.

The introductions continued, and in addition to the YA (Young Adult for those that don’t speak in writers’ code), dystopian (Wikipedia says a dystopia is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian), and Sci-Fi writers, I learned I was amongst a group that included writers of historical fiction (one WWII novel in progress, another set in the time of the Spanish Conquistadors), Western (which I would soon learn involved drunken cowboys reading their destiny as inscribed on the worms found at the bottoms of bottles of mescal), creative non-fiction, a rather vocal reviewer whose genre I cannot remember, and a poet.  Then we got down to business.

Various members of the group read from their works in progress, and each had a fifteen-minute time slot for reading and taking comments.  As we listened and read along, the rest of us made notes. We corrected grammatical errors, noted misspellings and typos on the printed pages and passed them back to the author at the close of each reading.  Spoken comments were kept to major points about things like characters and writing tone.  A novelist suggested that a short story be turned into a novel.  The poet recommended a prose piece be edited into a poem.

Luckily, new members aren’t allowed to read until they’ve attended three sessions.  I’m not a very outgoing person, and it took some courage for me to attend the group at all.  In fact, I’d been tossing around the idea for three months before I actually went.  If I were expected to read, I surely would not have come, and if my attendance represented one step forward, then the unexpected genre identification drove me at least three steps backward.

I listened intently to each speaker, though, and felt satisfaction when another member of the group brought up a point I’d also thought of.  If I had no identity as a writer, at least I was capable of reading.  The comments were all over the board.  There were some words of encouragement, but also some blunt criticisms.  In all, the readers took their lumps pretty well, though Becky did have to stop an exchange or two when a writer and reviewer disagreed.

Periodically, Becky leaned over to whisper to me, providing backstory.  Her comments were about logistics – authors weren’t supposed to respond to reviewers’ feedback.  They could follow up later, if they really needed to, but fifteen minutes flies by.  The group had to be repeatedly rushed along like children unwilling to brush their teeth before bed.  She told me it’s always a good idea to bring copies because reading spots open up if scheduled readers don’t show – which happens especially on rainy nights, like that one.

Rain or not, I couldn’t see myself reading my work in front of this group.  Perhaps my hesitation stems from my introverted character, or maybe from the fact that I’m fairly new to writing.  Though I assume the authors probably don’t cling to their genres as tightly as the introductions suggested, each person read or commented with confidence (except perhaps Joan, in her wound-licking state of mind).  The investment they had in the pieces they shared was evident, and each clearly had a writers’ identity.  I couldn’t imagine emulating their performances with any semblance of grace.

I don’t know that I really have a genre.  Because I don’t write fiction, perhaps it’s fair to say my genre is non-fiction.  If I agree with that statement, though, it sounds as though I’ve made a definitive choice, which I haven’t.  And that’s not to mention that like fiction, which runs the gamut from dystopian to romance to just plain literary fiction, non-fiction, too, breaks out into any number of subcategories – memoir, essay, biography, and journalism, to name a few.  Examine the category of essay, and the world of identification opens up all over again.  Lyrical essay, personal essay, nature essay, travel essay – the list goes on and on.

Since I began writing in earnest, not quite a year ago, I’ve simply written about whatever is on my mind.  I’ve written a lot about my life, though I have yet to produce more than a couple of finished pieces.  Perhaps that means I write memoir.  I’ve also written a million papers on leadership as I wrapped up the final year of a Master’s program.  That could mean I’m an academic writer.  I write articles for my professional blog.  In this case, technical writer might be the best label.  Then there are the posts for my personal blog, which range from stories about work to short pieces that come from writing prompts.  Maybe that means I’m an amateur.

Critics of creative non-fiction and memoir say it is weak in comparison to fiction.  They believe that only great minds can tackle fiction, so alternatives are seen as inferior, conceivably because we write about what we know, not what we imagine.  Sometimes, I almost agree with them.  There are moments when it seems an impossible feat to create a world out of words, with imaginary inhabitants, events that shape their lives – offer them pleasure and pain, force them to struggle, but then grow – their personalities emerging slowly on the pages, like a fine piece of glass arrives at the hands and mouth of a master with fire and a blowpipe.

Then I think about my writing.  I often don’t know where to start, and I rarely know where I’m going before I get there, but I strive no less to provide the rich experience I’m sure a fiction writer aims to deliver.  And although I’m not writing fiction right now, I do not preclude myself from doing so at some point.  If I do, who knows what genre I might choose?  Surely, I don’t.  I can’t even say what I’ll write about tomorrow.  In truth, I write to figure out what I have to say, and perhaps that’s why I don’t yet have an identity.  First, I’ll focus on finding my voice.  Perhaps then I’ll be able to tell you what I write.

Catching up

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, so I thought I’d catch up with a completely random collection of thoughts…

First, some recent blog spam (typos intact):

Several months ago, I heard exeictd cawing and looked outside my window to see a semicircle of crows gathered around a crow that lay spread face down on the sidewalk with its wings extended. My first thought was that the crow had died and the others were mourning and upset. Then I noticed one crow run up to the prostrate crow, pull at its wings, peck energetically at its head, and then go back into the circle. This behaviour was repeated several times while the crow lying on the sidewalk seemed to be attempting to protect itself by endeavouring to lie more flat on the pavement. After ten minutes or so, the lying-down crow got up and flew away and the circle of crows dispersed without paying any more attention to the crow who seemed to have been under attack. There is a family of crows who live on my block and many other crows also gather daily. Over many years, I have never before seen this behaviour. I live in Vancouver BC.

I’m not quite sure what to think of this, but Graham, being a Canadian citizen, perhaps you can comment on the behavior of crows up in your neck of the woods…

Next, I’ve been to my local watering hole plenty of times, and often, I think I want to write about my adventures there, so I make a few notes on my phone.  I generally don’t use the notes on my phone, so at the moment, they are filled with obscure references that I will try to decipher, given I was under the influence when I wrote them.

I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned this before, but the ‘company’ that mans the karaoke booth is called ‘Kontrolled Kaos Karaoke.’

I also found a great picture online of the  interior of the bar, and I’m sure when you see it, you’ll wish it was also your neighborhood bar.

A couple months ago, there seemed to be a Spanish theme. Axl Rose was greeting everyone in Spanish, which doesn’t fit at all, considering his classic rock and metal personality, and his Norwegian heritage.  Then, someone sang Heart of Glass, by Blondie.  You’d think there would be no connection, but to my surprise, while reading the lyrics on the many teleprompter screens in the bar, I noticed some more completely inexplicable Spanish in the song:

Once I had a love and it was divine
Soon found out I was losing my mind
It seemed like the real thing but I was so blind
Mucho mistrust, love’s gone behind

On another occasion, getting Chinese before we went people-watching at Mel-o-dee, a friend got this fortune in her fortune cookie:

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question

Anyone who might be able to shed some light on that one, please let me know.

Last weekend, a friend and I made two new friends at Mel-o-dee.  My friend recently moved to the area from our home state of Wisconsin, and was in desperate need of someone to cut his hair.  He wasn’t ready to pony up the average $75 a haircut, but luckily, we met a transsexual FTM barber with a handlebar moustache who was out partying with his mom and girlfriend and only charges $30.  My friend had an appointment within 15 minutes for the next day and loves the haircut.  Score.

The next friend we made is a Tibetan named Karma.  He taught me a Tibetan greeting that I can use with the man who walks incessantly around my block every day with his prayer beads.  I can’t pronounce it very well yet, but it means “Good luck, good health” and I expect my elderly Tibetan neighbor to be very surprised when I do something other than wave or give him an apple, which are the only ways I have been able to communicate with him thus far.

We spent a little time discussing Buddhism, and Karma shared a brilliant piece of advice with us, which I will close my long overdue post with….

When there is a disaster or something goes terribly wrong, before you panic, you should examine the situation.  Pause, and ask yourself if there is a solution.  If there is a solution, then there is nothing to worry about.  If there is not a solution, then there is nothing to worry about.

Pictionary Woes

My other half and I had dinner at Grass-Phobia Girl’s new place this past weekend.  It was a great time – good food, good cocktails, and some fiercely competitive Pictionary.  We busted out the dry erase boards – no skimpy little notepads for us – split into two teams of 4, and were off to the races.  Well, the other team was off to the races.  My team languished near the starting spot for way too long.  We just couldn’t catch a break.  To give you an example of our Pictionary woes, I had to draw “Blink.”  No big deal, I thought.  I expected to have it sealed in seconds – but, my team thought otherwise.

I quickly drew an almond-shaped eye, added the iris and retina.  My team began to yell.

“Eye!”

“Eyes!”

“Eyeball!”

“Look!”

“See!”

“Stare!”

Next I added a lid, half-closed, and dashed some eyelashes onto it.  Then they hollered.

“Eyelash!”

“Lash!”

“Lashes!”

“Mascara!”

By then I was frantically switching back and forth between stabbing the dry erase board, literally in the eye, and slashing in blue marker in a down-then-back-up motion.  I thought for sure I had it when they began to scream

“Close your eye!”

“Close your eye!”

“Close your eye!”

But, time was called before they ever thought “Blink.”

Beginnings and an Introduction

My first week at the new job has been nothing less than a spectacular whirlwind of activity.  It all started last week when my boss called me and asked if I would join her and two others at some client meetings on Monday and Tuesday.  Monday was to be my first day at work, so I was a bit flabbergasted that it would be spent in client meetings without my having any real background about the company to speak of, outside what I learned in my interview.  Add to that the fact that the client was in Milwaukee, and I’d have to travel at the last minute, and the stage was set for a crazy beginning.

Lucky for me, my family lives only an hour from Milwaukee, so I was able to squeeze in dinner with a few relatives – not a bad bonus, all things considered.

Everyone else flew in on a red-eye Sunday evening, so I met them in the hotel lobby just in time for us to drive over to the client meetings on Monday morning.  I sat in the back seat with the technical guy that was along for the trip.  He is Russian, which was exciting for me, given my love of diversity and passion for communicating with foreigners.

The Russian introduced himself, and immediately explained that if I had any trouble understanding him because of his accent or because his English wasn’t good enough, I need only stop him to clarify.  He added that his written English is much better than his spoken English, though I think his spoken English is just fine.

Making small talk on the ride over, I mentioned that I was from the area as I explained why I’d flown in Sunday morning instead of Sunday evening.  His response was maybe the best response I’ve ever heard from a stranger after revealing where I grew up.

[Don’t forget the Russian accent…]

“The only thing I know about Wisconsin is from Slaughterhouse Five,” he said.

“Ah, of course!” I replied.

“‘My name is Yon Yonson, I work in Wisconsin, I work in 
a lumbermill there.’ The people I meet when I walk down 
the street, They say, ‘What is your name?’ And I say 
‘My name is Yon Yonson, I work in Wisconsin…”

“Yes, yes,” he said, grinning and nodding his head emphatically.

What could be better than that?  A Russian who thinks his English is bad, but who can quote Vonnegut – granted, it’s perhaps the most well-known Vonnegut book, but still.  All I could think was ‘Wow, it will be cool to work with this guy!’

I now have to settle on a name for my new Russian coworker.  ‘The Russian’ might work, since he seems to be the only one at the company.  I also tend to get ‘Sergei’ stuck in my head when I think of him, even though that is not his name.  I’m tempted to go with Yon Yonson, even though the real Jan Janson credited with the song was Danish.  I’ll think on it for awhile before I decide…

 

The end of my days with Gopher-Man, et al

Well, it’s official.  I’m leaving the world of Gopher-Man, Longback Guy, Barefoot Boss, and The Chinese Contingent.  Yep, I’ve got a new job.  I start in a couple of weeks.  I have high hopes that this gig will be a better fit for me than the last one was, though based on the many comments I have received about my Gopher-Man stories, I realize this may be something of a disappointment to many of you.  I’m sorry about that, but I hope to find new characters for you when I begin my next adventure in the world of software (this time I’ll be back in the world of Marketing again, too, which holds a lot of promise for ridiculous work related stories).  I will be commuting into the city again, which should translate into many fun-filled tales of crazy BART interactions or observations, but until then, I leave you with a couple entries from my Blog Spam folder for entertainment.

Comment #1:

“I expect that what you say is true, but which one of us can understand all these changes these days”

Comment #2:

“At the same time my two brothers prayed to Mary, cited saints and periodically wandered into very odd doctrines indeed.”

Enough said…

Translation challenges

It’s that time again.  I’m in the middle of a deployment tonight – this time it’s not a new software release, but the replacement of a server that runs a portion of the software platform my company is responsible for.  It’s a pretty complicated process, made more so by the fact that The Chinese Contingent is conversing in Chinese in the Skype chat I have going with them.  To keep up, I’m constantly copying and pasting their messages into Google Translator.

Rewind to lunchtime yesterday, at the office.  I ate with Long Back Guy, and we discussed work stuff – no funny stories from him this time.  As I was leaving the lunch room, I said, “I hope things go OK tomorrow,” referring to this server replacement.  He just laughed at me, heartily, as though to say there was no way this would go smoothly today.  Of course, he was right.  We’re having problems as we speak.  Problems I can do little about, except use Google Translator to have some sense of what they are.  The step we’re at right now involves copying data – normally, there is a centralized process we can call that copies all the data we need and we just have to sit and wait around for it to finish.  It takes an hour and a half or so.  This centralized process isn’t working, though, so the guys are copying data for each individual application that runs on the platform.  When the point person handling this was asked how long it would take, he replied with this (Note:  this part was typed in English because the person asking the question asked in English):

there are 39 applications need to do copy

if we figer 5 min for each app, then got 200 min almost

i will update my evaluate, when first app done

So, my task at the moment is to wait for his evaluate.  Since I am stuck translating tonight, I will share the love and give you a different sort of translation challenge to chew on.  Earlier this evening, I got an email about the server replacement (technically called a cutover), and my other half was closer to my computer than I was – I asked her to read the email to me.

There is a  trust from beaver to coyote, I  have confirmed with Mike and we think it should be configured the same way for mouse (from mouse to coyote).  Please ask Frank to do it as well.  We need to make sure that on mouse the following command can be executed without inputting a password:

oracle@mouse:/$ssh oracle@coyote

[Note:  Person and animal names changed to protect the innocent.]  Now, I didn’t give my other half any background before reading this email, and she only got through the first sentence before she looked at me, puzzled, and said, “Is this real?  Is it a joke?”  I said, “No.  Keep reading.”  When she got to the final line, she read $ssh as “Shhhhhhh!”  This was highly amusing to me, though it may not be to you unless you are also a computer nerd.  It is common practice for development shops to give their servers names, and they often pick fairly random classes of terms to use.  In this case, animals.  Our client names their software releases after cars, and their servers after animals – most of the time.

I got this message in a recent email about an unrelated project:

I dropped off the gzipped tarball on nap-happy

I love that sentence, don’t you?  If you are really interested in knowing what it means, let me know, but it’s not actually very exciting at all, and I expect most of you would fall asleep if I spelled it out.  I will say, though, that ‘nap-happy’ refers to a server, so there must be some servers our client has that are named according to emotions – or perhaps the seven dwarves – I can’t really be sure.

Gopher-man’s vacation adventures

So, Gopher-Man just got back from vacation, and I never could have predicted what stories he’d come back with.  I generally try to avoid conversations with Gopher-Man, because he is so incredibly long-winded it’s painful to have to hear him out.  He pulled me aside yesterday, though, to express his concern that he is not the best resource to be assigned to do some work that he’s been asked to do.  A typical escape attempt on his part, but this one a bit more subtle than normal.  I listened and listened and listened, and then suggested that if he really thought he wasn’t the right guy for the work he was assigned to do, he should talk to his boss, which is not me.  I tried to give him this advice in the most compassionate way possible, considering I could’ve spit out the sentence after two of his, but had to listen to fifteen minutes of his introducing the concept to me instead.  When I finally had the opportunity to put in my two cents, he nodded his head seriously, and told me that he, too, realized, this was what he needed to do.  But he was so concerned about giving the wrong impression to his boss, he was afraid to have that conversation.  In an effort to motivate him, and make it not my problem, I offered to talk to his boss for him, knowing he would turn me down.

I then made a horrible mistake.  In an effort to make some polite small-talk after our heart-to-heart, which was clearly quite stressful for him, I asked about his injured finger.  His ring finger on his left hand was all wrapped up.  When I looked closely, I could see the stiff outline of a finger splint under the wrapping.  It wasn’t wrapped in just anything, though.  It was wrapped in what I am pretty sure was one of those awful plastic grocery bags.  The wrapping was pretty puffy and wrinkled, as though he’d circumnavigated his digit with plastic multiple times, then wound a rubber band around and around the base of his finger, criss-crossing it repeatedly to make it tight enough.  I couldn’t for the life of my understand the need for the plastic grocery bag on his hand – I had to find out more.

Turns out while Gopher-Man was on vacation, he slammed his finger in between two doors, breaking it and beginning a long-lasting blood-gushing ordeal, in which he ended up in a hospital in Thailand and got stitches.  What I just wrote in one sentence, though, took another ten minutes for him to explain.  He can’t leave the finger alone – he’s constantly squeezing it with his good hand, running his fingers up and down and over the curvy part of the metal splint, even trying to flex his broken finger despite the stiff metal holding it straight.  He’s like a six-year old that has to constantly peek under his band-aid.  I never did ask outright if he’d wrapped it in a garbage bag.  I don’t have guts enough to do that, but I swear, the Safeway logo was tucked away in there somewhere.

You may have noticed that Gopher-Man went to a hospital in Thailand.  I, too, was intrigued by this part of the story.  I’ve been to Thailand.  It’s a beautiful country, and I thought perhaps we could talk about something that maybe wouldn’t drive me so absolutely crazy as everything else I have to discuss with him.  So I asked him about it.  I asked if he’d been visiting friends, or just travelling alone, and I almost fell over when he told me he went there to “get engaged.”  I’m not sure if I’ve made clear that Gopher-Man is not a young man.  I’d put him in his fifties somewhere.  He is mostly bald, with just a few hairs on the top of his head that look really soft and wispy.  The only conclusion I could come to was that he ordered a bride from Thailand.  I am not sure if I am right, but so far, that is where the story goes in my head.  Next week, I will brave the conversation current in an effort to find out the gory details of his engagement, and don’t worry — I will share them with you.  I’m sure you can barely wait!