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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“Roommate(s)”

Most of us think of “roommate” as a fairly simple concept. You pick a friend (or are sometimes assigned a stranger) to live with, and then the two of you split the living space and the rent. If you get along well, maybe you agree to share food and set up a cooking rotation.

That’s what you’d expect of an American roommate. But upon arriving in Erdenet, it quickly became apparent to me that having a Mongolian roommate is an entirely different experience – it’s more like having a part-time host family.

I’d estimate that some relative or other stays the night at least once a week. Sometimes, it’s her mother or father, who live in the ger district. Often, its her two nieces (the duu of last week’s post). Last night, it was their parents, Namuunaa’s sister and brother-in-law, who I think live in the same hashaa as her parents. I think. They’ve told me their names enough times that I feel embarrassed asking again; maybe I’ll just get Namuunaa to write them down for me, so that I can actually remember.

These frequent visits leave me with a couple of obvious choices. I can shut myself in my room, and sometimes I do – usually when Inguun’s been getting into everything, or I have lesson plans to write or other work to do. This week, it’s lesson plans and NaNoWriMo (I still have half of today’s wordcount to get through, plus all of Saturday’s to make up).

But in addition to being antisocial, it does feel like a wasted opportunity to shut myself away while the relatives are here. I do try to talk to them at least a little, though there’s still not a whole lot I can say. Mostly I’m limited to simple questions like “what kind of food are you cooking?” And answering questions posed by the adult relatives is complicated; they don’t speak as slowly as Khaliun does, so I usually have to ask them to repeat themselves. And even when I do understand what they’re saying, I don’t always know how to answer.

Last time he was here, for instance, the brother asked me how long I’ve been in Mongolia. Or maybe it was how long I’ll be here. The only words I caught were чи, хэдэн сар, and монгол – you, how many months, Mongolia. To cover all the bases, I told him that I came in August and I’ll leave in June (or rather, “I go June,” since I don’t know how to form the future tense, and I couldn’t remember the ending for the dative/locative case). I got the message across eventually, but it took awhile.

In some ways, it’s really nice to have them over. Khaliun is wonderfully patient with my laughably bad Mongolian, and as long as she’s not throwing a tantrum or spilling milk on everything, Inguun can be pretty darn cute. She recently added two phrases to her vocabulary that even I can understand: сайн уу and баяртай. She spent most of yesterday afternoon practicing these, which is to say that every five minutes, she’d peek around my doorframe, say ‘hi,’ and then disappear again.

I eat more when the relatives are here too Namuunaa and I gave up on cooking for each other a while ago, since, our schedules and meal times are pretty incompatible. But the brother-in-law always feeds me if I’m around while he’s cooking. It’s a nice gesture, and pretty typical of the everything-is-everyone’s attitude that most families seem to have. I just wish I liked his cooking more. LIke most Mongolians I’ve met, he uses a lot of oil and salt, and he usually cooks with mutton. I don’t mind mutton in a lot of foods – I like it in хуушуур/бууз (dumplings), бутаатай хургаа (rice with stir-fry), and цуиван (stir-fried noodles with meat and vegetables. I don’t think I’ve ever met an American who doesn’t like it). But in noodle soup, (made with mutton, noodles, water, maybe some salt and garlic, and enough fat to create a nice layer of grease at the top), the flavor’s just too overpowering for me. Even after I threw some spices and lemon juice into my bowl, I still couldn’t manage much of it. I’ll put the bowl back in the kitchen – I’m sure someone will eat it. Mongolians aren’t picky about sharing food.

I had meant to do laundry today, but since the sister had the same idea, I may have to wait until tomorrow There’s a mountain of clothes in our hallway, which she’s slowly working her way through. I guess they don’t have a washing machine, so Namuunaa lets them use ours. It meant I was without internet for most of the day, since you have to unplug the router in order to plug in the washing machine. Also that I haven’t showered yet today, since she was also using the tub to do laundry by hand. But the lack of internet, at least, was probably a good thing. I’ve a lot of writing left to do today, and if there’s no internet to distract me, so much the better.


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Greetings and Annou- er, Messages

I still think twice about saying that word. Even on Wednesdays.

Anyway, hello from my new blog location! Trying to work with tumblr was getting to be more trouble than it was worth; I think WordPress should be much more suited to my needs. Anywho, I did promise I had things to announce.

Message the first: I will now be posting content on a regular schedule. This month, you can expect new posts on Mondays and Wednesdays – barring issues like internet unavailability, of course. That’s always a possibility here.

Message the second: I’m not promising long blog entries because I’ll have other things to work on. I’m going to attempt NaNoWriMo this month, and I’m posting that here so that I have to follow through with it. Ideally, of course, NaNoWriMo would have taken place in October, when I had tons of free time, instead of November, when I’ll actually be teaching, but oh well. This will still be the least busy November I’ve had for a long time, so that story that’s been bouncing around in my head for four years needs to make it onto paper, even if it’s virtual.

Message the third: I’ve got a few blog entries on Mongolian culture drafted for future posting, but be prepared for some filler from Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve been reading (and loving) a lot of what she has to say about writing – and it’s good, so I’ll be sharing.

This week, as our warm-up activity, I taught the kids a song and then asked them to underline the verbs in the past simple tense. The song in question? “Би Уржигдар Баавгай Харсан” – “The Other Day I Saw a Bear.” I think that explains the dining hall nature of this post.