In the Armpits of the Night

Excerpt from current NaNoWriMo

You didn’t tell him your name, you realize as you walk back into your house, if you can call it that. A shack resting on bricks is a description more suited. It’s a moving house, the kind that can be carried on trucks to places far away and made out to be charming and quaint. The kind of house children lean out of windows to watch as they go by because they don’t know that whole structures can move on trucks big enough to hold them.
You only told him your position. Your role. Your so-called calling. That you’re a priest. You don’t know why. Maybe it was the color of him, the starch darkness of it, the way he lay on the ground and thought you were a threat. It reminded you of your friends back in the eighties, when things were bad, how some of them dropped away from you. Years before you joined the Catholic faith, of course. Back when everything and everyone you knew was first disgusted and a few years later, scared.
You woke up tonight not because of the boy in your graveyard–your realize how proprietary you’ve become of the stones, old and new, burnished and faded to nothing. The grass, which it is not your job to tend, is long and messy because the person whose job it is to tend to it has not come around for two weeks. Sick mother, he said over the phone, in a heavy accent and a voice so strung out that you know he’s lying. You’ll have to do something soon. Reach out? Visit? Just call a bureaucrat and ask for someone new? Make the phone call yourself to fire him, the poor Dominican man who still lives with his mother and father and grandmother even though he’s thirty, because he can’t hold down a job?
You should have more sympathy, more compassion. But you don’t. Your life for the past twenty-five years has been not so much a lie as a fabrication stitched together from truths and half-truths, snippets of belief sewn alongside a safe escape, and tonight was a stark reminder of what you’ve been missing, what you miss. You could see it in his eyes, the youth’s, the boy who missed his friend a little too much, a little too hard, a little too lovingly. You recognized it in him because you’ve seen it in the mirror for years. Which is why you don’t have one in your house, why you smashed the one you had as an heirloom from your mother, your hateful mother who gave you a dying gift of a gilded mirror with a Post-It note on the back reading “Behave.” As if you hadn’t been. As if you hadn’t already reformed your ways and become the man you are today.
The teakettle is whistling away when you get inside and you rush to turn the gas off. You forgot you’d put it on and left it on. You could have burned out the bottom of the kettle, which is darker now than it used to be but still usable. You could have started a fire. You could have let the flames take your possessions, your house, your calling. The pictures. You collapse in a chair. Not the pictures. Never the pictures. You’ve tried to burn those before. It hasn’t worked. Though if it were out of your hands… In God’s…
But God didn’t burn down your house. And He hasn’t struck you down yet, despite your sins. He is forgiving, like they told you He would be. And He is merciful, which is not the same. You get up and pour your tea, saying your prayers silently, thanking the God and the man who became God and was God all along for your salvation, for the life you’ve come to live. For your safety and security.
A knock on the door makes you spill hot liquid on your hand and you curse, your usual goddamnit, which somehow you haven’t managed to train yourself out of. And the knock comes again as you’re running the cold tap on your hand and apologizing for the curse, for blaspheming. You think it must be the boy, the boy in love with a boy who’s dead, the boy whose eyes you could have drowned in and whose voice, traced with the slightest English accent, you wanted to feel vibrating through his throat. Your insides jump. You have kept yourself away from temptation for so many years. If it falls into your lap, what will you do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you? You haven’t listened to music in a long time, not music that is solely for pleasure, but you remember lyrics from before.
“Who is it?” you ask, because there is no peephole in the not-heavy door that could be broken by the slightest fisted or shouldered pressure.
“It’s me!”
You start breathing again and allow your shoulders to slump. It’s not the boy. Of course not. Even if he did dream the way you think he does, why would he come to you and yours about it? “Come on in,” you say and open the door.
“Finally.” She barrels in like a hurricane. Named for one, too, the one that started on the day she was born, on a rooftop above floating cars and carcasses. It was bad luck, you always think. But there’s no such thing as bad luck, you always remind yourself. Still.
“Hello, Kat.” She’s already sitting on a chair, her hands wrapped around your mug of tea. You turn to make another one, not wanting her to see the annoyance on your face. She’s quick to pick up on these things.
“Hello! It’s late,” she says. “Why are you still up?”
“Why did you come visit me if you thought I wouldn’t be up?”
“I wanted to wake you up! You’re always funner when you’re sleepy. And funnier.”
“More fun.”
“Funner.”
“More fun.”
“I checked. Online. Funner is okay now too.”
“Never mind.” It’s a losing battle and you know it. You don’t have internet in your own house , though ironically the church has free wi-fi that just doesn’t reach as far as your house, so you have to carry your laptop there and sit in a hard pew if you want to write emails or read articles.
“So what’re you doing?”
“I was having tea until you took it.” You’re over your annoyance now so you bop her on the nose with the new teabag before putting it in another mug of hot water to steep.
“Sorry.” She doesn’t sound apologetic.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Drinking your tea,” she says, grinning, which twists her upper lip to one side. She had a cleft pallet surgery when she was young; she’s never told you this, but the scarring on her lip, clearly not taken care of well after some reparative surgery or it would have gone away, has marked her. You looked up pictures to figure out what she could be scarred from and then wished you hadn’t. Children with mouths gaping open, some with their entire cheeks torn asunder-it made you wonder why they’d been marked that way. What they’d do later in life. What God’s plan was.
“Yes. You are. But why are you here?” You don’t need to add “this time” because you both know that’s what you’re really asking. Katrina shrugs and plays with the string of the teabag, tucking it in and out of itself in the knot you taught her how to make around the handle of the mug.
“He did it again.”
When she’d first started coming over after dark, after she’d met him at church and been to confession a few times, you were apprehensive about what “it” was. You thought “it” was even worse than it was. Not that her “it” isn’t bad enough. But-and it’s terrible that you think this way-it’s better than what your dad did to you when you were her age. You’d have exchanged those its in a heartbeat. Especially as your it, you believe, is what made you what you are and what led to your positive diagnosis, which led first to recklessness and then to self flagellation in the form of a different sort of recklessness, and finally led you here, to Him. But here she is, led to you by her him more than your Him.
You wait her out.
“With a belt this time.”
You want to wretch, though you’ve heard worse over the years, but usually with the pretense of a wall between you and the other. This girl, so vulnerable but trusting… What if you were someone like him, this so-called father of hers, rather than a Father whose vows and beliefs run entirely contrary to his? What if you were one of the priests whose behavior is so repugnant that finally they are being expelled, slowly but surely, or at least attacked in the court of public opinion? But Katrina, she knows you’re trustworthy. She sees you as you are and she knows that you’ll take her into your home and sit with her alone and that you will do nothing, not touch her, not hit her, not yell at her. You will listen to her and you won’t make the faces she’s seen on others. You will keep your face calm for her, to make it easier.
“With a belt, huh?”
“Yeah.”
“Was he really angry?”
“He was really drunk.”
“Ah, yes. Well. What was his reasoning?”
She shrugs again. Takes a sip of tea and then says “Fuck!” You give her a look. She mumbles an apology she doesn’t mean. “No. He was drunk.” As if that is explanation enough. “He smelled bad when he got home so I told him so and then he-” She mimes the lashes.
“That’s no reason. That’s an excuse.”
“I was mean.”
“No, honey. You were honest.”

A Well-Rounded Roundup

I’ve been neglectful, rather, of this lovely lovely blog, but there are good reasons. There always are, aren’t there, when people neglect things. Excuses, excuses and all that. Well, here’s what I’ve been up to:

  1. Moving to New York City.
  2. Trying to find a job.
  3. Failing, miserably.
  4. Getting into freelance work.
  5. Don’t ask me what freelance work is, because it’s a ridiculous mishmash of things, most of which involve hustling my butt off to try to find more work.
  6. Got me a boyf.
  7. Got me some cats.
  8. Reconnected with old friends in the city (because that’s what we call NYC here, “the city,” rather like San Franciscans call it “the city” too).
  9. Got rejected from a bunch of literary places.
  10. Got accepted to some cool places like McSweeney’s.
  11. Did NaNoWriMo…
  12. …and finished the novel I started over a year and a half ago in Oxford.

What does this mean? That hopefully now that I’m not quite noveling, I’ll be back here more often and updating.

Camp NaNoWriMo!

So, as promised, here’s my new project – another novel. Sort of.

Last summer, I finished a novel that I’d worked on with Brian Morton, who is an incredible author who teaches at my school. It is extremely first-draft-y. June is going to be my month to write a second draft.
True, it’s not a completely new novel that I’m writing utterly from scratch, and perhaps the men and women at Camp NaNoWriMo would object that I’m not quite following the rules, but honestly? I don’t think they would. Because the point is to write, to work on your writing and commit yourself to it for a month. And gosh darn it, that’s what I’m doing.

I’m currently reading the novel that I wrote. It’s a strange experience. I’ve tried to do it a few times before, but I never could. It made me cringe, or it bored me. But now, now that I am actually in the process of preparing to edit it, I’m able to do it. Or maybe I just needed to wait for nine months to be able to deal with it. Writing a book in a month is possible – but rewriting it takes a bit of cool down time.

There is so much I’m going to change. So much that simply makes no sense to me. I have the characters so firmly set in my mind, and have had them there for the past year and a half, that I can’t understand how I wrote some of what I did. One character, for instance, is painfully shy in my head, but in the novel as it stands, she is an RA at her college. This is absolutely ridiculous – she would never sign up to such a job. True, she’s become less painfully shy than she once was and she has friends, but her retraction from others is still her default state. Why on earth did I make her a bubbly RA in some scenes? Strange, indeed.

I’m excited about this coming month’s project, even though I will also be working, once again, at Hebrew Book Week (third year in a row!) and as a result will be stressed between June 6 and 18 (yes, it’s much longer than a week, I am aware).

Just to be clear – I am still going to complete the 50,000 words in a month part of Camp NaNoWriMo. And I’m so excited about this whole editing business, that I’m going to actually ask you all to sponsor me! The Office of Letters and Light are a wonderful nonprofit that organize NaNoWriMo and thus help more people to overcome their fear of writing, and, even better, they organize writing programs for children in some 2700 schools around the Unites States.
Here’s the link where you can donate, if you’d like. No pressure! You can donate as little or as much as you like, or not at all. If you do, though, and would like to be kept abreast of my writing, let me know! Here’s the link to my fundraising page:

http://slightlyignorant.stayclassy.org

Spammers

I’ve had an upswing of spam on my blog recently. I even have a couple spam websites subscribed to or following my blog, which feels weird. I don’t think I have enough audience to be spam-worthy, nor do I write about subjects that seem to be particularly relevant to spammers, but I guess that really doesn’t matter.
The thing is, it’s getting on my nerves, because half the time when I get a fun email saying that someone “liked” a post of mine, it ends up being some spam-bot. Which is just kind of sad.

In other news, today, for the first time since NaNoWriMo 2011, I sat down and worked on a story for a while. It felt lovely. I’ve been writing in my blog nearly every day, true, but there’s a huge difference between my experience of putting down a short blog post and working on a story where I lose myself and end up with an hour and five pages behind me.

There Should be a Verb Form of “Drawer”

You know, we can say “to shelve a book” but we can’t say “to drawer a book,” because that’s just silly and grammatically wrong. The reason this seems relevant is because I don’t feel that my NaNoWriMo novel deserves a shelf – it really deserves the depths of a well-lined, jumbled and often-neglected drawer.

I’m not being self-pitying. I know that there are good elements in it. The teacher who leads my writing workshop at school gave me all sorts of compliments – he said that my observations are a lot more mature than my age warrants, that each scene on its own was interesting, engaging and enjoyable, and that I managed to keep my images from becoming clichés. BUT – and I agree entirely – there isn’t enough of a thread leading through the novel. It started as one thing, and ended up as something else entirely.

There are too many narrative voices – two of them I had planned as the main characters, but then two more cropped up during the process of writing. Each of those separate voices could easily take over the novel from the original characters.

Most importantly, there wasn’t a clear, driving force. The two short stories that I wrote for this workshop – and that I’m quite proud of – each had the feeling that there was a deep, emotional connection between the writer and the narrative. I had reasons for writing those stories; unconscious reasons, but their presence was nevertheless present. The novel didn’t have that.

I also feel that unlike my previous three novels, I really didn’t know what I was doing with this one. It was an experiment, more than anything, in writing about people who I didn’t like so much, with whom I had a harder time identifying. I wouldn’t say that the experiment failed, because I feel that the fifty thousand words I wrote are a jumping off point that might lead to two or three entirely separate novels, eventually.

It’s kind of nice to know that I can put this piece of writing away, even though I spent so much time on it, without mourning for it or feeling like I failed. I know how to handle criticism and I seem to be learning how to evaluate my own work. It feels good to be able to do that.

November is Over

I finished a novel and won NaNoWriMo. I have a hard time believing that it’s actually happened, that I actually managed to do it. True, it’s only fifty-five minutes into December; it might take a while for me to actually feel the fact that I’ve actually finished the first draft of a fourth novel.

I’ve been extremely busy over the past month, obviously. Not only with NaNoWriMo, but also with schoolwork, hanging out with friends, and generally living.

But now November’s finally done, I’m going back to posting every day for the PostADay2011 challenge here on WordPress.

I’m also looking forward to sixteen days from now when I’ll be flying back home. I’m looking forward to this more than I can describe. I’m looking forward to it so much that I haven’t been sleeping properly at night, because I keep picturing myself taking a taxi to Newark airport in New Jersey, going through the endless but familiar stages to get onto the plane, flying for twelve hours, landing in Israel, and getting to hug my mom when I get off the plane and into the arrivals hall. Those images flash across my mind’s eye every night, and keep me awake, my heart pounding with excitement and with the fear that I always have about flying, even though I’ve done it so many times.

The next two weeks aren’t going to be easy. I have a final exam, a long paper, and a bunch of smaller assignments still due before I’m Scott free. But each day brings me closer to the blessed end of my first semester of my sophomore year. It hasn’t been easy. There have been lots of emotional ups and downs. But I have found my place.

Currently, I’m sitting in one of the quiet rooms in the library surrounded by friends – there’s a red-haired woman on my left, typing away on her white MacBook, a blonde on my right who’s reading Facebook posts on her PC laptop,  a girl with dyed pink and purple hair sitting across from me who’s leaning over her reading assignment with a pencil and next to her is a skinny black-haired woman who’s crossed her arms and folded her legs and is trying to catch a nap. We’re all here together, in this trench-warfare that is the last three weeks of the semester. It’s good to know I’ve got people on my side.

Progress

It’s four days into NaNoWriMo. I’m ahead of the required daily word count. I’ve written some twenty-five pages since November 1. There also happens to be incredibly annoying music coming out of one of the windows in my building. But that’s entirely beside the point.

My nose keeps bleeding because it’s so dry in my room. That’s irrelevant as well.

Okay, so I guess what I’m trying to avoid writing about is this: I’m not really sure whether or not I like the novel I’m writing. I have this issue that spans across almost everything I write: I create characters that I like. Almost without fail, my characters have redeeming qualities and are people that I can relate to. But that can get incredibly boring, and most of the writers I know who take this approach invariably begin churning out repetitive books that have similar voices. One of my favorite writers does this, and I forgive him because I love the style of his writing and his characters as much as he seems to: but I also know that there are probably many readers who he’s alienated this way. This is one thing I’ve developed since taking writing classes – a heightened and more realistic sense of literary criticism.

So this year, for NaNoWriMo, I’m writing about characters who are incredibly different than me. They’re people who I probably wouldn’t like very much if I met them. I have a soft spot for them – of course I do, despite everything – but I don’t particularly like them. Sometimes I get mad at them as I’m writing, because they’re selfish or annoying or mean. It’s an interesting experience, but it’s harder for me to gauge whether what I’m writing is any good or not.

Oh, well. Here’s to another twenty-six days of writing and finding out!