Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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Failing NaNoWriMo

Today is (or was, as of when I penned this; I had neither power nor Internet yesterday) the last day of my first NaNoWriMo, and I stand here before you (metaphorically, of course) to declare that I have failed at it utterly. I’m not sure how many words I managed because most of them are handwritten, but I don’t think I made it anywhere near the halfway mark.

And you know what? I’m OK with that. I started doing some research on my story topic in mid-October and was eager to write, but by the time November rolled around, my enthusiasm had waned. Lesson learned: when inspiration knocks, grab it and run with it. Don’t wait for arbitrary dates. Also learned: trying to write a story set in Ireland while living in Mongolia is sort of a doomed endeavor. So my attempt at NaNoWriMo was pretty half-hearted to begin with. When I started falling significantly behind on the wordcount within the first few days, I grew quickly disheartened.

Part of the problem was that i wasn’t really feeling the story or my characters, but a bigger part was that I’m just plain out of practice when it comes to writing fiction. I took two creative writing classes in college, but neither required me to write more than a page or two of anything at a time. Creating a scene is easy; creating an entire storyline, not so much.

Moreover, I’ve been reading a lot of Barbara Kingsolver lately, and I’ve found her nonfiction to be both inspiring and incredibly intimidating. For example:

The business of fiction is to probe the tender spots of an imperfect world, which is where I live, write, and read. (Small Wonder, np)

For example:

With a pile of stories on my lap I sat with this question, early on, and tried to divine for myself why it was that I loved a piece of fiction when I did, and the answer came to me quite clearly: I love it for what it tells me about life I love fiction, strangely enough, for how true it is. If it can tell me something I didn’t already know, or maybe suspected but never framed quite that way, or never before had socked me so divinely in the solar plexus, that was a story worth the read. (Small Wonder, np)

For example:

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.

This baffling manifesto is a command that rules my writing life. It believe it means there are truths we all know, but can’t make ourselves feel: Slavery was horrible. Love thy neighbor as thyself, or we’ll all go to hell in a handbasket. These are things that cannot be said in words because they’re too familiar to move us, too big and bald and flat to penetrate our souls. The artist must craft missiles to deliver these truths so unerringly to the right place inside of us we are left panting, with no possibility of doubting they are true. The novelist must do this in story, image, and character. And make the reader believe. (High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, 233-334)

For example:

The fear of being perceived as idealogues runs so deep in writers of my generation it undoubtedly steers us away from certain subjects without our knowing it. The fear is that if you fall short of perfect exectution, you’ll be called “preachy.”

But falling short of perfection when you’ve plunched in to say what needs to be said–is that so much worse, really, than falling short when you’ve plunged in to say what didn’t need to be said? (High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, 230)

[apologies about the inability to cite properly – most Kindle books aren’t paginated]

That last one is what really gets me. I am good at saying things well; I’ve been told that for a long time. I know how to take words and shape them to be powerful, or persuasive, or beautiful. But these excerpts struck me to my core; they made me question why I was writing in the first place. Yes, I can say things well – but in the light of such conviction, I’m unsure whether anything I have to say is worth saying.

There’s nothing like that sort of uncertainty and lack of confidence to gum up the works, and my ability to work on my story grew more and more impaired as the month wore on. But my ability to write other things was unaffected. This is the most active my blog has ever been, and I have a lovely long list of future entries waiting to be written. A bout of anger and nostalgia, unintentionally coupled with the new Taylor Swift album, led to the beginnings of a poem that I won’t inflict upon the Internet. It’s bad, and it’s pretty standard post-breakup material, but even so, poetry is not usually the medium I reach for when the need for self-expression calls. For one to pour forth like that is a noteworthy event.

And I’ve written a lot of things that haven’t made it onto this blog (yet) – journal entries, responses to articles friends have posted, and so on. when presented with the choice between working on a story that has yet to come to life and recording and analyzing an event that actually pertains to my day-to-day life, or that I want to remember, I think I know which I’m going to choose. My estimated output for today is probably about 1800 words – they’re just not in my novel.

So maybe I failed at National Novel Writing Month. But if you take out the “Novel” bit, I think I did alright.

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Please note: I have no doubt that this adaptation flouts all kinds of Mongolian storytelling conventions and adds, changes, or leaves out many details. The bare bones of this story were translated to me over lunch this past weekend, and I have retold them in the fairytale style familiar to me. Mongolian friends, if you have names or commentary to share, please feel free to do so.

Long ago, the world was not the cold and snowy place it is today. Instead of one sun in the sky, there were seven, and they scorched the earth with their harsh rays. The rivers held barely a trickle of water, the ground was dry and sandy, and the sheep and goats were always hungry because the grass was brown and dead. The people were hungry too; a starving sheep will not feed many people, even if you eat his lungs and his eyes and make soup from his intestines. The people were dying of hunger and thirst in that land baked dry by seven suns, but no one knew what they could do to make things better.

Finally, a young man stepped forward. He was the best archer in the land, but he was also very proud and arrogant. “I can solve this problem,” he bragged. “I will shoot the suns out of the sky, and then we will no longer live in a desert.”

The others laughed at his ridiculous boast. “You’re crazy,” they told him. “Shoot the suns out of the sky? That’s impossible.”

“I can,” he insisted. “In fact, I’ll bet that I can shoot every one out of the sky using only seven arrows. If I can’t, I will eat grass for the rest of my life. And I will cut off my thumbs, so that I can never draw another bow.”

Everyone laughed and said that they hoped he liked grass, but they all gathered to watch as the young man gathered his seven straightest arrows and strung his bow. The crowd fell silent as he knocked his first arrow. Even the earth held its breath, for there was no wind to send his arrows astray.

He let the first arrow fly, and it whistled high into the air and out of sight. For a moment, nothing happened. Then there was a great burst of light, and the first sun exploded into nothingness. The crowd erupted with a great roar as the explosion faded, and the world got a little darker and a little colder.

Again and again the young man took aim, and he time he loosed an arrow, another sun exploded and disappeared from the sky. The people cheered louder and louder, but the animals grew quiet, for they were watching too. They were glad to feel the world air cooler, but now there was only one sun left, and the world had gone quite cold. What would they do if there was no sun, and no light, and no heat?

But the young hunter had knocked his seventh arrow; he was aiming at the last sun, and he hadn’t missed yet.

As he drew back the string to fire, a bird shot into the air and flew in front of the sun. The arrow struck the bird’s long, lovely tail and split it in two. The arrow kept flying, but the bird had knocked it off course, and though it came very close, it did not hit the last sun.

The man cried out in anger, but the animals sighed with relief as they examined the wise bird’s split tail, which he would pass on to all nestlings, and they to theirs. The last sun was safe.

The crowd jeered, and the young man ran away to cut off his thumbs and eat grass, as he had promised. The people never saw him again, but several of them did notice a new creature running through the grass on the nearby hills, with long teeth and only four toes on each paw.

And to this day, the world grows cold with the light of only one sun, and the flesh of the marmot is still called хүүн мах, or “person meat.”


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Poem!

While I was making a mess of, I mean “organizing,” my room today, I came across a half-finished villanelle that I started in Ireland.

Naturally, instead of putting it aside and continuing to clean, I filled in the blanks. Still needs some polishing, but I’ll open it to critique. So here we are: (a rough draft of) my first-ever villanelle. Forgive the formatting issues; if I knew how to do away with the automatic spacing between “paragraphs,” I would.

The great ones swirl about me, burning bright

With pen-strokes they enlighten and inspire

But I am powerless to catch their light.

How could a white-clad recluse have such sight?

She who knew not the world still wrote with fire.

The great ones swirl about me, burning bright.

I would that I could meaningfully write

And struggle to pull deep thoughts from the mire

But I am powerless to grasp their light.

She overcame her silence to indict

The racists, rapists, all injustice dire.

The great ones swirl about me, burning bright.

I struggle to find words that rouse, delight

Then cast my wretched verses on the pyre

For I am powerless to grasp their light.

I would I too were blessed with such insight

To pluck such truths from life as notes from lyre.

The great ones swirl about me, burning bright

But I am powerless to grasp their light.

I feel like I ought to play with the form more and change the refrains as I go, but I’m not quite sure how to go about that yet. Thoughts?


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Letting Go

            Insight comes to you unwelcome sometimes – times when all you want to do is push it aside so that you may carry on doing whatever it was you were trying to do. As I sat in my room today, surrounded by piles of objects that I know it will take me forever to sort through, I realized why I always find this seemingly-straightforward process so time consuming. It came to me as I picked up some of my old softball gear. My glove, a sliding pad, my batting gloves: relics of a life I no longer live. It’s been seven years now since my last game, and still these things sit on a shelf in my room. The pad went straight into a bag with all the other things I plan on donating; I’m not sure I ever used it anyway. My glove I set aside for games of catch with my cousins, or perhaps with children of my own someday. But then I picked up my batting gloves, paused for a minute, and set them down again.

            I should donate them; I don’t foresee myself needing them anytime soon – or ever again, really. But my breath caught with that realization. I played softball for six years, and while I never played it well, it was something I loved. I still miss the solid thwack of a good catch, the ring of bat on ball. How could I have given it up so easily? And now, as I sat here questioning my abandonment of the sport, could I just toss my gloves aside?

            My room is cluttered and full of stuff I no longer need or use. But every time I attempt to sort through it and get rid of things, I inevitably run back to my donate pile and put half of it back. I don’t need my batting gloves any more, or the plastic bracelets I wore as a child, or the blue sandals I’ve owned since middle school (though all of these still fit). I don’t need the many figurines I’ve collected over the years, of cats and wolves and deer and dolphins. And I certainly don’t need the dried maple leaves I collected during my last autumn at Miami – not even the one that says, in my handwriting, I am thankful for the wonderful friends and boyfriend who have made this such an awesome semester, or the one bearing a similar message in his.

            But these are in some cases all I have left of times when I was happy, of memories that lie buried until I stumble across these triggers. Getting rid of them is like severing my connection to those days, to those people. And so I hesitate. I dig figurines out of boxes and put books back on my shelves, the same way I hang onto phone numbers, Facebook friends, and Skype contacts – even though I flinch at the pain every time the names come up. I watch my parents’ favorite show on AMC with them, even though it means sitting through Mad Men previews that inevitably make me feel as though I’ve been punched in the gut.

            I know I need to let go of some of these things; I need to give myself room to sleep, to work. To live.

            But I don’t know how.


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Cheerful Service: This I Believe

For one of my classes this semester, we had to write “This I Believe” essays. If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, check these out; they’re pretty inspiring. http://www.npr.org/series/4538138/this-i-believe

Curiosity satisfied? Then here you are: this is mine. 

For the past two years, I have spent my summers surrounded by adolescent boys, up in the North Woods of Wisconsin. I took the job at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan Scout Reservation in order to work with horses; the ‘Scout Reservation’ part of the title wasn’t terribly important to me. But the Scouting aspect of the camp, and the values it expressed, soon came to be a much more important part of my life.

As we turned onto the long drive into the camp, we passed a series of signs that enumerated all twelve points of the Scout Law: “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” I was reminded of these words on a daily basis, but particularly on Friday evenings, when we attended the fire at the center of the call-out ceremony for the Order of the Arrow.

I suppose these fires, with their imitations of Indian costumes and recitation of supposedly Indian legends, must seem hokey to some. But the staffers who participated in the fire and the scouts who had been chosen to join this Brotherhood of Cheerful Service took the ceremony seriously. Before I had been at camp very long, I dreamed of someday being tapped out for my own Ordeal.

 

That dream followed me home after that first summer at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan and carried me through a second. It remains a part of my desire to go back for a third. But as I sat at my desk this winter, mentally compiling a list of the achievements I could put on a resume and wishing I could include the OA among them, I realized that there was something wrong with my motivation. My aspiration to join the OA had as much to do with a desire to be recognized as a desire to serve.

Now, there’s a mirror hanging on the wall facing the bed in my room at school. Rectangular, with a simple wooden frame, it looks just like the mirrors in every other dorm room – except for the words scrawled across its surface in dry erase marker. He who serves his fellows is of all his fellows greatest, it says, and then,

Master, grant that I may never seek

So much to be consoled as to console

To be understood as to understand

To be loved as to love with all my soul.

When I grabbed the mirror, I was just looking for something visible upon which to inscribe the motto of the Order of the Arrow and the Prayer of St. Francis. But when I stepped back after hanging it on the wall, I noticed something highly appropriate about my choice of writing surfaces. The way the words floated in front of my reflection served as a constant reminder to put others before myself, turning an act of selfish vanity into a much-needed reminder to put that selfishness aside.

 

Perhaps it’s a little strange that I have the OA motto written on my wall, given that it’s a society I will probably never be able to join. But I believe in taking inspiration where you can, and the OA inspires me to be a better person. I believe in the Brotherhood of Cheerful Service and what it stands for.

Deep down, we all want to be recognized for what we do. We all want to be one of the lucky ones who will be grabbed by a grease-painted Indian and dragged down before that roaring fire. But I have to remind myself, time and again, that it’s not about the recognition; the embroidered white sash is not the point. It’s about making the conscious choice to live for other people, to put their needs before my own, and to always be mindful of what I can do to help them. It’s about fighting the urge to be selfish every time it rears its ugly head. It’s about being able to serve the newly-initiated OA members their hard-earned meal at the end of a long day and say, without jealousy or resentment, “Good job, boys. You deserve it.”