Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Pretty Nervous Writing Aardvarks Speak Out!

Now that I'm back from Europe and life has settle down somewhat, it's time to think about my next trip: The PNWA Writers Conference in Seattle on July 25-28. That unpronounceable acronym, by the way, stands for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. I call them the Pretty Nervous Writing Aardvarks so I can keep the letters in the right order.

I hadn't planned to attend the conference; it seemed like an indulgence so soon after Europe. But on Memorial Day I received a call from the Writing Aardvarks: My unfinished memoir, Too Small to Succeed, is a finalist in the Nonfiction/Memoir category. The PNWA lady (I was so amazed I now can't remember her name or hardly any other word in the phone conversation other than "finalist") asked me if I was attending the conference in July. Well, I am now, I wanted to stay, but mustered my manners and said I would very much like to attend.

So now I'm going, and I haven't been to a writing conference since I was 10, when I won a school writing contest with a poem about World War II. It went like this:

That crazy Hitler, he started a war,
and I have no doubt that there will be more. 
They won't be by him, because he is dead,
but from my point of view he had rocks in his head.

The poem went on for pages, I'm sorry to say, and my mother actually sent me a copy recently. Well, Benny liked it, anyway.

Anyway, this means that Too Small to Succeed is no longer just a Weird Little Project on the Side. I wrote the first two chapters in 2010 and then dropped it for two years, picking it up again last year. I kept working on it even after rejoining the Business Times in January and it's passed the 30,000-word mark now.

To help things along last summer, I joined a local memoir group. You know you're in a heavy crowd when your recession memoir tracing the country's financial collapse is the most lighthearted of the group. The other writers' topics ranged from sex cults to the Holocaust, much to the disturbance of other patrons at the Berkeley cafe where we met. The memoir group's leader ran a tight ship, necessitating a constant stream of emails and long phone calls about my writing purpose after I missed a few meetings.

So I ditched the memoir group, but I still needed feedback, so I entered the memoir's first 27 pages in the Writing Aardvark's literary contest, lured by the promise of detailed critiques from two judges.

Be careful what you wish for, for now my finalist status, the critiques and my preparations for the conference are making me self-conscious. Yesterday I read my 11 chapters for the first time in over a month, and while they hold up all right, writing new stuff has been difficult. I spent six hours writing yesterday, muttering at my laptop while Benny watched Sponge Bob and read his Percy Jackson books, hoping that eventually I'd produce something that wasn't terrible.

The results are not great: Chapter 12 is about September 2007, a month full of adjustments to our new apartment, my new editing job and Benny's new preschool, not to mention a horrifying pile of bills that added up to more than Ron's monthly take-home pay. Shiver. Throw in a Sept. 17 deadline to write 24 Latino Business Awards profiles in my spare time and this chapter makes me want to crawl under the dining room table with the cat. Not so funny. I'm having difficulty maintaining the amused detachment of earlier chapters. That humorous tone the judges liked so much is nowhere in evidence in Chapter 12, so now I must decide whether I've lost my voice or whether the story has simply shifted in a new direction.

This, of course, has happened before and as Stephen King says, sometimes writing feels like you're just shoveling shit from a sitting position. You just have to have faith that something good is buried in there, and if there isn't, that what you're shoveling will eventually lead to something good. In times like these, any encouragement helps and so thank you again, Pretty Nervous Writing Aardvarks.