Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Writer's block

November is National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo challenges would-be authors to write a 50,000-word novel entirely in the month of November. The novel doesn't have to be good and is not even published, but the goal is to simply write something, with the idea that many people want to write a novel but never buckle down and actually do it. NaNoWriMo is the effort to knock out 50,000 words and worry about things like editing after November.

Two years ago, I wrote a novel via NaNoWriMo. After years -- really, a couple decades -- of wanting to say I penned a novel, I finally did it. My novel wasn't that great, but when I go back into it now, besides the irresistible urge to start editing, I still feel a great sense of accomplishment, as well as see what I did well. Reading it again reminds me that though I'm an inexperienced novelist, I may not entirely suck at it.

Last year, I jumped into NaNoWriMo again with a great idea that I'd been kicking around for years. Then, November happened. I got hit with a lot of freelance work that I can't afford to turn down. I turned 40. We went to Texas for five days. I had a few good writing sessions, but I never got beyond 2,500 words. And I can't pick up where I left off -- the spirit of NaNoWriMo is such that you start from scratch every November.

So here I am, six days before Nov. 1, wanting to try what I failed at last year -- writing another novel. I just went to the NaNoWriMo website and logged in, and as I did, my excitement level rose a little bit. I want to knock this out again and feel as satisfied as I did two years ago. I just have one problem: I have no idea what I am going to write about.

Sure, I have some abstract ideas, but nothing with an actual plot attached. After reading the Song of Ice and Fire books, I'd love to do something medieval fantasy-related. Bright Lights Big City explored young people getting utterly lost in the 1980s in New York, and Less Than Zero did the same with L.A. -- why not try that with the Midwest (and maybe the early '90s)? Gen X is around 40 now -- I thought about writing something akin to a written version of "The Big Chill" but with my generation instead of my parents' generation. I like all these concepts and a few more swirling in my brain, but I can't get beyond the concepts themselves and into a flowing plot, with a beginning, middle and end.

Two years ago, I had everything ready to go before Nov. 1 -- index cards with my characters, what each chapter would contain, and so on. I deviated from that original plan often, but at least I had a destination. This year, I don't know if I can come up with a destination in five days. So I'm debating winging it, potentially setting myself up for frustration or discouragement if it goes nowhere. However, the goal is 50,000 words -- I can wing it and massively adjust the plot later. Or, I can commit to blogging like crazy next month -- and hitting all the big blog ideas I've been putting off -- instead of writing a novel. With the latter approach, at least I'd be writing something.

No matter what, my goal for November is 50,000 words. Ask me how it's going, encourage me, and harangue me. Just don't be disappointed if you were expecting a novel and got blog posts, and vice versa. I need to remind myself of that, too.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Real deal

The boys didn't have soccer games this morning -- the league they are in takes this weekend off because of the mini-fall break Utah schools take this week. So what did we do on our Saturday? We went and saw a soccer game.

OK, this morning, we were mostly lazy, but we were just gearing up for the game! Not really, but it was a nice, low-key Saturday for once. Real Salt Lake played at 7 p.m., and Michael was going with his teammates, while Lori, Ben and I had our own seats in another part of the stadium.

Michael had a lot of fun. His coach took them for pizza first, then got to the game early so the boys could enjoy all the events outside the stadium. Michael made out like a bandit, with free giant foam fingers, wristbands, doo-rags, tote bags and, the big score, a bobblehead of the RSL goalkeeper for being one of the first 5,000 through the gates. I hope he watched enough of the game, especially how the goalies played -- he's been playing keeper for about a half for the last four games, and he likes the position.

Ben had fun, too, though he didn't get quite the score Michael did (no bobblehead). I'm not sure how much he followed, and it didn't help that every time a big play would happen in front of the goal (we were seated behind it), everyone in front of us would stand, sending me scrambling to pick him up to see the play.

Alas, Real Salt Lake, after leading most of the second half, gave up a goal in extra time and tied the Portland Timbers 1-1. I can watch a pro soccer game and appreciate it, but I can't get into it enough to want to get season tickets -- I'd rather take that route with the Jazz or even the minor league hockey team here in Utah. But based on this one game, I could see us going to more than one match a year, even on non-bobblehead nights.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Happy trail

The boys are on a five-day weekend for the annual Utah teachers' convention, and though I love the fact we get a few days off with them, it's been a less-than-perfect couple days. I've been swamped with freelance projects the last week (now finished), and the boys and dog have been a little stir-crazy. Yesterday was an errand day: Kohl's, flu shots, Costa Vida, Costco, soccer practice and puppy kindergarten. They were driving me crazy this morning, but one good fall hike put us all in a better mood. Popcorn has been able to do some longer hikes with us, and though our trek today was no more than three miles, we enjoyed our adventure on a sunny, warm autumn day.

Our evening adventure was Garden After Dark, a Halloween event at Red Butte Garden. Unlike other Halloween doings (like Boo at the Zoo, which I don't recommend), this one gave out no candy, instead giving kids the chance to do some fun, glow-in the dark crafts. The boys colored owl masks, made shooting stars that glowed in the black light, designed their own paper-bag mushrooms, painted a pumpkin, traveled through an enchanted forest and created fake roses that also glowed. We got there before the sun went down, did all the crafts, then did another lap around the gardens to see everything lit up.

After getting home, I pulled out the binoculars so the boys could get a better look at Jupiter in the eastern sky. We let the boys watch the ninth inning of tonight's World Series game (go Rangers! -- I really just don't want the Cardinals to win) and got them to bed after a long day.

Tomorrow is another day off, another day to find some adventures. We are going to the Real Salt Lake game Saturday, I work Sunday, and then the boys are back in school. Did I complain about this break? It's going too fast.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tangled webs

Michael has been bugging us for a couple days now to get our Halloween decorations out. He was disappointed to discover today that, well, we really don't have that many Halloween decorations. A skeleton, these aluminum pumpkin cylinders that hold candles, a trick-or-treat sign ... and that's about it. The best Halloween decorations are the ones you have to buy again every year -- pumpkins and those stretch fake spider webs. We stopped at the store on the way back from Ben's soccer practice, got some pumpkins on sale, some webs and a two-pack of glow-in-the-dark spiders, and finished decorating our front yard.

Besides the pumpkins, my favorite decor is the pumpkin candle holders. Even with small tea candles, the flickering flames provide a nice, mildly spooky, definitely autumn touch. When the city installed a street light in front of our house, it unfortunately took away from the effect of the candles, but it still looks cool.

Fewer than three weeks until Halloween, less than a month until my birthday. Fall is moving fast.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Forgotten fall

I possess an unusually strong recollection about things one wouldn't think were that memorable. Never mind I forget people's names 10 seconds after I meet them, or that I forget to move clothes from the washing machine to the dryer (which, I better do right now). But I can connect songs, events, emotions, places, and even odors to specific momenst in time. You can see much of that crazy memory here in my blog. My boys are already developing this, too -- I don't know if I'm passing it on or if my genes are passing it on. They remember something I wouldn't think they would remember, I'm surprised by it, and Lori reminds me: "Joe, they are your kids."

I already blogged about the memorable summer of 1981. That post got me thinking about the fall that followed, and this, given my abnormal memory, is what distresses me: I remember almost nothing from September and October 1981.

I know I started sixth grade in Mrs. Lynch's class, but can't picture specific moments from that beginning.

I know some of the music from that fall, but much of it was held over from the summer. Indeed, my spring/summer 1981 playlist (yes, I make playlists specific to years and seasons) is comprised of 84 songs, while my fall 1981 mix is only 39 songs. Many of the songs on the fall playlist tie me to memories after October or were songs I encountered years after 1981 that I just added to the mix because it was the proper time frame. The few songs that should be September/October 1981 songs (e.g., "Let's Groove," "Private Eyes" or "Urgent") don't take me back, even just a little.

I'm sure I did typical fall things in those two months, but I can't recall any of it. I know I saw a Monday night Bears game, but when I looked it up, they didn't play the team that, for three decades, I thought they played. I knew my memory had lost that Halloween, but I was surprised to realize it lost the entire two months. The funny thing is, I remember so much about the rest of sixth grade. I got an Atari 2600 for my birthday in early November. I remember what games I got for that Atari that Christmas. I remember playing basketball and who my teammates were that winter, and going on vacation to Florida. I remember starting baseball the following spring and the field trips our grade took. I remember the fuzzy-head pencil I owned, and the comic I drew in art class based on that pencil (which, by the way, was a Jay's potato chips pencil; do those still exist in Chicago?). I could rattle off every Number One song, every video game I discovered, every book I read, and plenty of moments from what was perhaps the most fun grade from my K-8 years. So why am I missing these two months.

If I went through the entire 1980s, I bet I couldn't come up with a two-month span where I couldn't come up with one random recollected moment. But finally, I did remember something from the fall of 1981: a girl in our grade died.

Our grade took a field trip to the Morton Arboretum in suburban Chicago. My mom chaperoned that field trip -- it might have been the only one of my field trips that either parent chaperoned. I don't remember much from the actual field trip -- an arboretum for sixth-graders probably was a little boring. We weren't supposed to have food in the arboretum, but I do remember my mom pointing out to me that two girls were sneaking cookies to each other under the guise of a whispered messages (one girl put her hand to the other girl's ear, and the other girl put her hand to same ear to "hear better" but really take the cookie). And that was it.

The next day, we learned what happened after school. A girl who had just transferred to our school and grade that fall tried crossing one of the nearby busy streets (nowhere near the crossing guard), tried turning back and got hit by a bus. She lasted a few days before succumbing to her injuries.

Continuing the lack-of-memory theme, I don't remember being sad this happened. Maybe a little stunned, but kind of resigned to the tragedy. I don't remember if any of my classmates were sad. It was early in the year and she was the new girl -- did she make any friends who would have been sobbing over the fact she died? I think her homeroom teacher was in her first year teaching -- how terrible that must have been for her: You start your career with a dead student. I don't remember if our class went to the funeral, or if the school held was a memorial mass for students to remember her (and that's not unusual at Catholic schools; two kids died while I was in high school, and there was official, very heartfelt mourning).

I don't even remember the girl very much, except for this: When my mom, after hearing the news, asked if I knew her, I related the only interaction I had witnessed. She was in my reading group, and in one of the first classes as we got our textbooks, the teacher asked a question, and the girl replied, a little snottily, something to the effect of "I sure could answer if I had a book" because she inadvertently didn't get one when they were passed out. Telling my mom this, I probably sounded callous (and I think my mom was a little shocked I was speaking ill of the girl) , but I wasn't trying to be. She was the new girl, and she unfortunately wasn't there long enough for many of us to form much of an opinion. My response was simply matter-of-fact then, just as it is while typing this now.

Soon, she seemed to be out of our collective memory. At graduation a couple years later, there was no mention of her. Sixth grade continued, and again, it was the most fun year many of us had despite the tragedy. The city put up a ridiculously placed stop sign where she got hit, but that got taken down once the busier intersections around school finally got traffic lights.

I'm not saying her death blocked out everything from my memory of that fall. It simply didn't affect me enough to do so. As I grew up, I would learn of classmates' and acquaintances' tragic deaths and feel more numb than I did in 1981. And I'm, well, not glad, but perhaps comforted by the fact I didn't forget that a classmate 30 years ago tragically, suddenly died, because such terrible events shouldn't be forgotten. I only wish that wasn't my only clear memory from those two months.