From the Middle of Nowhere

Okay, so Iowa is actually right outside the middle of nowhere.

raygun-21

And it took less than a year for me to start romanticizing it. (It was one thing to romanticize Seattle, a place I’d never visited, a city shown on screens; but I’d lived in Iowa for twenty-two years of my life.) Hemingway (allegedly) advised, “Never write about a place until you’re away from it, because that gives you perspective.” I have to wonder if there’s a rule about how far away. Distance isn’t just geography; it’s time. And I’m not the same person who left. Not to say that I’ve become someone else; if anything, I’m more myself.

On my first ever road trip, my best friend Christine and I stumbled upon a restaurant/music venue where the owners of the establishment encouraged writing on the bathroom walls. Eighteen-year-old Anika wrote in blue Sharpie, in cursive, “Life isn’t about finding yourself; life is about creating yourself.”

36789_1424646414202_1374949_n

After our trip, I moved to Ames, IA for the next three and half years, and Christine moved to Boston, MA for the next four.

She told me once, sad and sick for home, how much she missed trees.
When I moved to Seattle, I thought that I’d never seen trees before in my life.

It took me just over 15 months to return to Iowa, and fewer than four days for reality to kill most of my romanticism about things I thought I missed most:

humidity at nighttime (isn’t exactly an invisible warm sheet straight out of the dryer)
lightning bugs (are dying off in early September)
driving (at nighttime in a rainstorm and through construction squinted into oncoming headlights all along the interstate only to be greeted by flashing lights and pulled over for going 71 in a 55 once I’ve merged back onto the highway)
seeing for so many miles in every direction (lulls me into highway hypnosis and I end miss whole songs on the album I’m listening to)
thunderstorms (okay, thunderstorms are still pretty fucking romantic)

Many of the places I loved have been replaced by literal piles of dirt (yes, dirt, the derogatory name for soil, as any agronomist will tell you): most notably the original Aroma’s coffeehouse, where I used to exclusively order hot chocolate until the owner talked me into trying a mocha, where friends lounged often and for hours, our own version of Friends’ Central Perk; and the high school tennis courts, where Katey and I ended up the first time I ever got drunk, where I spent hours hitting tennis balls against the splintered, green backboard, knowing no matter how good I got, I’d never be better.

12050651_10206298560400933_952146150_o

Fifteen months was long enough for the friends who knew to forget to warn me.

My last night there, Iowa was so quiet that I could hear: my dad’s breathing from the bedroom, while I sat on the couch at the farthest end of the living room, which I at first mistook for Jack, my cat, asleep near my feet; crickets, of course; and the sound the keys on my touchscreen phone make even though my phone’s set to silent.

The four of us — my parents, my brother, and I — stopped at Perkins to eat on the way to the airport. I slumped down in the booth across from my dad and cried with relief to be on my way. I cried more when he told me not to feel obligated to come home for Christmas. “No offense,” he said, “but I prefer it when we come to see you. Don’t get me wrong, we love having you here, too, but there’s so much more to see and do, and you’re happier there.”

At the airport bar, I ordered a tall glass of Shock Top (Midwest, wheat beer, is anyone surprised?) on a mostly empty stomach. It sounded better when the man beside me ordered it in his Scottish accent, and we went on to lament about the cost of living out west, because San Francisco is even worse off than Seattle.

I’m a transplant.

10999327_10205771205697395_83446891104709140_n

The thing is that sometimes plants need repotted: it hasn’t grown in years; the soil is drying out; roots are growing out of drainage holes; the pot’s breaking from root growth; and now it’s all roots and no soil.

And “it’s almost a given that if you repot, the plant will grow.”

I outgrew Iowa.

When I returned to my studio in downtown Seattle, I noticed on the fridge below the Scrabble magnets I’d arranged into the Halsey lyrics, “Don’t belong to no city,” my friend Lisa, who’d been apartment/cat-sitting for me, had spelled out, “Welcome home.”

11665415_10206195616267394_3630541402706451880_n

Hindsight Isn’t 20/20 If Nostalgia Has Anything to Say About It

I’m not much for introductions, so here’s a disclaimer: I once read an article that contained ten rules for writing a novel, and the tenth item on the list was: Don’t Complain. I’ve also read, time and again, that when it comes to writing, once you know the rules, you’re allowed to break them. I believe in breaking the rules. Especially that one.

Writing is hard, and nostalgia is a dirty liar.

Those aren’t my words exactly, but they say great artists steal, right?

See, there’s this post I keep running into on Tumblr, probably because I spend a lot of time there. I wouldn’t say it’s a place I go to get inspiration, but it is a place I go for something. Peace of mind, perhaps. Or maybe it’s the reassurance that there are other crazy kids out there trying to create something out of nothing, or at least something out of something else.

My own personal nostalgia keeps reminding me of the five months I spent living in my parents’ basement post-college graduation. She’s painted this rose-tinted glasses picture.

And I know it’s the glasses. I literally wore rose-tinted aviator sunglasses the summer I studied abroad in Greece, and I remember one night that I made grand exclamations about how the sun setting over the water looked. It was the sort of beautiful that made me feel I had wasted all the right words on such un-miraculous things. In comparison, all my new friends seemed underwhelmed.

I lowered my sunglasses on the bridge of my nose and raised my eyebrows, as if to say, “Are you seriously not moved by the majesty that is this sunset?”

And when I did this, all the color drained out of the sky.

969042_10200801196490271_987528555_n

I made everyone try on my sunglasses then to see what all my fuss was about, but it didn’t change the fact that the sky didn’t actually look the way I’d thought it looked.

So it is with nostalgia and those five months. As soon as I returned to my high school bedroom, I nested. I rearranged my furniture and re-shelved all my books. I bought a frame for the word poster my friend Holly had gotten me for Christmas. It says, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

My dad kept hugging me and telling me how good it was to have me home. “You know, Peanut,” he said, “this’ll be the last time we’re all living here under one roof like this.”

I tried to keep that in mind.

I tried to look on the bright side. Sure, I didn’t have a job right out of college, and sure, I had only six months before my student loan payments would kick in. But I had parents who loved me; home-cooked meals; my own room, which now looked like a mash-up of all my high school years and every dorm and apartment I’d lived in; no rent or utilities; laundry services; my beloved cat Jack; and what seemed like all the time in the world.

Dead Lord, that paragraph is dripping with sentiment. Don’t worry: nobody’s died. Everybody’s living. But my dad was right – we’ll never be under that same roof again. They officially moved last week. I don’t even have a room in this new house: just nine totes full of crap and a bookshelf I insisted they keep for me.

It’s funny because now I’d kill to have all that uncertain, indefinite time back. The time I spent with my butt in my desk chair and my fingers poised at my keyboard; in my bed with Jack sleeping at my feet and a book in my hands; reading aloud cover letter drafts to my dad, asking if I was selling myself well enough; curled up on the couch watching TV shows and On-Demand movies with my parents, my brother, and the cats.

11948555_10206126860308538_334414195_o11929946_10206126860428541_783679737_o

And for how much I miss my family – and trust me, it’s a lot – I really miss the writing.

In January, I started rewriting the novel manuscript I’d written.

A little backstory: in November, an agent who had requested my full 55,000-word manuscript rejected it. I had a good cry and started binge-watching LOST. By mid-December, I’d had a real talk with myself and admitted that I’d managed to avoid the most interesting conflict in the story and resolved to rewrite the whole damn thing.

By mid-January, I had 20,000 words rewritten, but I knew it still wasn’t right. So I trashed it (only I don’t actually trash anything; it still exists in a folder somewhere in the recesses of my computer with many other abandoned drafts).

I opened up a blank Word document, and I kept pounding at the keys until something inside of me – genius, a muse, my main character – woke up.

I wrote every single night. I’d set the alarm on my phone for an hour. Usually I’d sit at my desk with the overhead light off, my lamp on, and a cup of tea steaming at my side. And more often than not, my tea would go cold before I’d drunk even half of it.

But it didn’t matter because every single night, I hit flow.

Flow, for me, is where everything else falls away: time, self-consciousness, thirst, hunger, everything. Nothing but writing has ever gotten me to that magical state.

The thing is that when I wasn’t writing during this time, I was generally a mess.

I’d started working for the school district for money and something to do. Here I was, an English major with no interest in an educational-field emphasis, working in a school, when I hated nothing more than being asked, “Oh, so you’re going to be a teacher?” I even applied for and got a position in an E-3 room after working one-on-one with a beautiful undiagnosed-but-probably-autistic child, because we’d really hit it off when I’d subbed in for his usual aide. And here’s the thing: I liked it, but it was hard, really hard, and it wasn’t anything like what I’d planned for my life.

And it wasn’t hard for me in the way that math is hard for me. It was hard because being in that room wrecked me. What the hell did I have to complain about? I felt like an ableist asshole in the worst way when every morning I’d get ready in front of my mirror, get the crying out of the way so that I could paint my face, and give myself pep talks: this is indefinite; this is your life for now, but it isn’t your life forever; it’s going to be okay.

Fuck you, Anika. Fuck me.

My workday would be over by 3 o’ clock. I’d nap and read until dinner, eat and chat with my family, and then I’d get back to writing. My word count goal then was 1,667 words per day, thanks to NaNoWriMo, but generally I aim for 1,000 any given day. Those nights I wrote anywhere from 4,000 words, because when the timer would sound off after an hour – permission to stop – I’d silence it and keep going.

By the time I’d finished, the novel’s word count amounted to 72,000 (and since, with additional rewrites and revisions, it’s grown to 78,500).

Now that I live in Seattle on my own, which was my dream city on all counts – weather, ocean water, mountains, skyline, most bookstores per capita – and have a full-time editing job, Responsibilities, a lot more distance, and a lot less time, I pine for those days.

I don’t hit flow much lately.

I’ve read that it’s different for each book you write, and writing my current work-in-progress has been more like pulling teeth. The timer sounds off, and I breathe a sigh of relief, check my word count for the day, and say “good enough!” into the belly of my apartment.

And I know some day, maybe even one day soon, I’ll pine for these days, too.

I just can’t see it yet.