Category Archives: Writing Life

Worldbuilding, 1,000 Words at a Time

Alexandre Duret-Lutz via Flickr CC 2.0

Alexandre Duret-Lutz via Flickr CC 2.0

Six months ago, my writing routine was upended. My husband and I put most of our stuff in storage to properly stage the condo before it went on market. We moved to the new house at the end of March, and several rooms were in serious need of renovation. I didn’t bother unpacking much until the contractor’s crew finished the rooms we decided were part of “phase one.”

The consequence? The fourth novel has been on hold. The Muse haunted me daily. So I delved into the world of flash fiction. One piece won a contest over at Indies Unlimited, and I expanded my literary horizons between the flash fiction site Describli and Chuck Wendig’s (in)famous weekly writing challenges. I tried new voices and genres. I even wrote a piece of fan fiction. The stretch of time gave me insight into how characters could develop, and what features of the worlds I was building would look like. In short, I was still producing—not in a linear or organized fashion—but producing nonetheless.

These spontaneous excerpts have helped immensely. One of Chuck Wendig’s writing challenges, using photos of unusual places, resulted in the final pages of my third novel. Another helped with the details of the fate of one of the characters of the novel I’m currently working on. A fantasy series I’ve been working on for ages has benefitted the most.

A “random title generator” challenge led to the creation of a character and secret sect for the series. (Old D&D fans, dust off that 20-sided dice!) I didn’t expect to get so attached. I was simply trying to add more to this world—the scenery, the ambiance. I didn’t even plan on adding it to the series. A comment appeared below the link on the post of Wendig’s blog: “I want more of this. Now.” So did I. “The Oathkeeper’s Forge” struck a nerve. This character just appeared on a whim, and she intends to stay. Every time I watch the reality show Forged in Fire, I learn something new to help this character in her trade.

Another random title generator challenge inspired me to create a land that was largely believed to be a myth. “Five Days of the Cartographer” gave me a grumpy man who baited people into a dangerous region of the world, where they would be exploited at the whims of a society that wanted no visitors or trade agreements. They take what they want, when they want it.

Then there are the random stories that appear and threaten to become novels in their own right. An “X meets Y” prompt challenged me to blend the worlds of the Matrix and Twin Peaks, and while I was certain the universe would tear itself to shreds at such a combination, the results were intriguing.

Worldbuilding Collage

I’m ending the summer with nearly 40,000 words for my fourth novel, and a wealth of new ideas for works in progress. Now that my life has stabilized and my new writing routine is established, I look forward to integrating more flash fiction into the process. If I feel stuck on the current work, these little writing prompts are a great way to think about something else for a while, or perhaps help me find the missing piece to the current work.

I look forward to returning to the writing workshop powerhouse, Scribophile. I was also recently introduced to Scriggler via Twitter. Scriggler’s a platform for writing and discussion, and while I haven’t tried it yet, it looks promising.

It’s going to be a busy fall as a try to finish my new novel by the end of 2015. I’ll be signing up for NaNoWriMo for sure to help in this endeavor. In October, the fabulous authors behind The Emotion Thesaurus series (a must-have resource for writers!) are launching a new platform called One Stop for Writers with a developer who works for the company that produces the writing studio software Scrivener. I’ve joined their “street team” to help promote the project.

And all along the way, I continue writing, and building new worlds, an excerpt at a time.

Why I Write

When I saw the writing prompt about this week’s writing challenge by Chuck Wendig, I didn’t even have to think about what to say…

LittlePunkRocker

1977: It’s a rainy day in second grade and recess is inside. The fluorescent lights shine with a certain yellow glow under the dark grey skies, and I watch the rain stream down the windows as I think of how to string the words of a story together. I’d stapled some lined and plain paper into a neat stack. Illustrations filled the plain paper, and my shaky writing stayed as close to the blue lines as possible.

A shadow loomed over my desk. “What are you doing?”

“Writing a story,” I said. I still remember the feeling of the thick yellow lacquer on the pencil. It was starting to crack.

The teacher scowled at me. “What a waste of paper!”

I was then instructed to put my head down on my desk and take a nap. My “book” was thrown in the trash.

So much for supporting creativity in schools. My mother was horrified.

*****

I’ve always been obsessed with writing. I’m filled with anxiety if I don’t have a means of putting pen to paper. There is a notebook and an abundance of pens in every bag I carry. (I’m old fashioned. My preferred implement is also a fountain pen. I’m more thoughtful about my words when I do it by hand.) Back then, characters were like invisible friends. I worked out the plots by talking to people no one saw. I suppose it’s still like that to some degree.

Up though high school, my stories were derivative of my favorite fantasy series: Tolkien’s work, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and the Dragonlance series. In 1994, my brother told me I should see The Crow. I told him I hated stupid love stories. It was the last conversation I had with him. A few days later, he was killed while walking to work by a man who had no business driving. His closest friend brought a copy of The Crow on VHS with him when he stayed with me in the days before the funeral. I wasn’t able to tell Matthew how much I loved the movie, but while it played, I felt a desperate need to keep him alive. Writing him into a novel was the only way I knew how to do that.

Four hundred pages later, I was too wrapped up in the grief and had to put the manuscript aside. I began graduate work at Harvard Extension and found other sources of inspiration. And though I didn’t set out with this as my mission in life, a common theme was evident in all that I wrote: finding real women marginalized in history and giving them a voice to tell their tale.

It began with the consort of Vlad the Impaler. Legend had it she committed suicide during a Turkish siege. In movies, she’s referred to as his wife, but the more research I did, including reading Vlad’s letters, it was evident she was a concubine. I traveled to Romania to do research and stayed in the shadows of the Carpathians. This novel became the focus of my graduate thesis, and I self-published it two years later, in 2010.

People were intrigued by the list of women I kept for inspiration. Friends dropped off biographies of women they thought I should write about. Some made it to the list. Since then, I’ve written about Irish pirate queen Granía O’Malley, who negotiated with Queen Elizabeth I for her family’s freedom. A short piece was published about a woman who dressed as a man to travel with her betrothed, who was fighting for the Spanish armada and she couldn’t bear to be away from him. Her ghost allegedly haunts a barn in England. A trip to an Arizona museum resulted in finding an affidavit about a woman who shot her lover and served as the only female prisoner at the time in an all-male prison. May Woodman ran a cigar stand in Tombstone, and knew all the famous names we associate with that town. Her lover was killed on the same corner as where Virgil Earp was ambushed after the gunfight at OK Corral. May was scrappy and couldn’t stay out of trouble. She was pardoned and subsequently exiled from Arizona after officials discovered she was running a contraband cigar business out of her jail cell.

I delve into all eras and cultures: ancient Mesopotamia, medieval Baghdad, coastal Maine during the War of 1812, and beyond. I’ve branched into speculative fiction as well, bringing Sumer into the modern era as a space-age superpower in my fourth novel, due out next year. Visions of Enheduanna, named by some historians as the world’s first (known) author, link the story to the roots of civilization’s history.

I don’t write about Cleopatra or Anne Boleyn. As much appreciation as I have for the most famous names in history, what draws me to the women I write about is that they’re all underdogs, outcasts, and rebels. I never thought I put much of myself into my novels. I’m thorough in my research and hope to portray the most authentic world possible, no matter which slice of history I’m focusing on. But as I look back over my life, I see that correlation. I’ve always been the rebel and outcast. Like I’m an alien stranded on this planet, listening to dark ambient and space music while I write, focusing on the voices of women who led extraordinary lives but are generally overlooked or misrepresented. I’m so into creating accurate settings that I began a blog series about how food is portrayed in historical fiction, recreating recipes in my kitchen to more closely connect with my characters.

I’m 45 and my fourth novel is due out next year. My list of works in progress continues to grow, and I worry about how many I’ll actually get to. I just hope I’m doing them justice, and that somewhere out there, people are enjoying the books about these extraordinary women I happened to find on my journey through this incredibly strange, frequently discouraging, and yet absolutely amazing world.

Fan Fiction—and an Irresistible Urge to Write Someone Else’s Story

ThiefVistaGarrett

Fan fiction can be a touchy topic. Some authors fiercely protect the worlds and characters they create, while others endorse fan works inspired by them. Hugh Howey happily promotes some fan fiction based on the Wool series. Several years ago, a person who loved my first novel contacted me about writing fan fiction about it. Why not? After all, Vlad Dracula and his family were not of my making. Sure, I took some artistic license in how I portrayed them, but anyone has free reign to write about historical figures.

While some of my earliest unpublished works are strongly influenced by other books or video games, I can’t say I’ve really indulged in fanfic—until now. I feel odd delving into a copyrighted world, even if the creators of the world don’t mind. Knowing 50 Shades of Grey began as fanfic based on the Twilight series doesn’t make me feel any better.

There are many sources of inspiration. People who know me well may guess if I were to dive into fanfic, it may be the Elder Scrolls games or George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. However, there is only one story that captures me like no other: Thief.

In 1998, I pulled the box off the shelf at a store, enchanted by the graphics and description. I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d come to love this world. Every game in the series has been amazing. I’d actually have it share the number one spot in gaming experiences alongside the beloved Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls has inspired me with its worldbuilding as well, but it was Thief that inspired me to put pen to paper.

In short, the world of Thief had (until the recent 4th installment) two factions of faith. The solemn and technology-driven Hammerites, and the pagans who worshipped nature. Both religions were replaced in the latest 2014 release. I miss the old gods, but look forward to seeing where this new lore may be taking us. It’s always been gloomy world—the City is ancient—one layer built on top of another, with eras of secrets and artifacts. Garrett, a pickpocketing youth, was taken in by a secret organization called the Keepers. Though he leaves them in favor of becoming a master thief, he’s continuously manipulated by the Keepers through the end of the third game.

The revamped version of the story is gorgeously gritty and dark. Yes, the longtime voice actor who played Garrett is gone, and the change upset me for a bit, but after 20 minutes of gameplay I was so deep in the storyline I didn’t care. And I want more.

While there have been consistent elements of the story throughout, there is plenty of mystery. The kind of mystery that tantalizes a writer.

In Thief 4, there are several sets of collectible items Garrett saves for his home in a broken clock tower. The paintings are cool, but it was the little snippets that threaded together the collection known as “The Pinned Castinets” that lured me in enough to write fan fiction.

With each pin discovered, a piece of the story is revealed:

  • It was written that the Castinet daughters were married to lords of the highest standing, all to enrich the family reputation.
  • Perhaps some of Castinet’s daughters found love. Others knew only the shame of a cold bed and an empty facade.
  • But his youngest was lucky enough to find freedom from her family’s expectations.
  • “I will show them all!” she wrote in her diary. “I will show them what true freedom looks like!”
  • They said her broken body was found at the foot of The City’s walls, and all Dayport wept.
  • And every summer for years afterwards, pale butterflies would flock to the site, then scatter.

Granted, it’s always the haunting and slightly morbid stories that light my imagination on fire and summon the Muses. You should see my list of novels in progress.

After recently finishing the game for a second time, I was unable to let this story go. I initially refused to write about it. It’s not my world, after all! But then I checked in to one of my favorite flash fiction sites, Describli, and one of the images used for a writing prompt caught my eye. It may as well have come right out of the City where Garrett dwelled. And the prompt involved a visit to a witch. Suddenly, I knew what happened to the youngest daughter of the Castinet family, and I wrote the following story:

PinnedCastinetsLine

The Butterfly Girl

The girl was crumpled by the hearth in an endless fit of weeping. Her red gown and velvet cloak caused a stir when she rushed down the City’s wharf to get to the witch’s house. She didn’t care. Consumed in her own anguish, she only sought a cure to her problem.

“I won’t marry him!” Sofia said for the twelfth time. “They can’t make me. I’ll run away. All I’ve ever wanted was my freedom!”

“You’re a long way from home, sweetness,” Agatha said, petting the girl’s head like she was a pet. She admired the comb in the girl’s coal-black hair. Shaped like a butterfly, jewels of pink, lavender, and pale blue sparkled in the fire’s light.

The girl looked up at her, confused. “But I’m from Dayport.”

Agatha smiled. “Indeed you are. So knows every thief, pimp, and lowlife in the South Quarter. A little discretion would do you a lot of good.”

“I have to leave the City.” Tears streamed down her face.

“And where do you plan to go?”

“Anywhere…a place where I can be free to live the life I want. To be an explorer, maybe. Do you think one of the sea captains will hire me? I can read, draw well, and can keep things orderly.”

Agatha suppressed a laugh. “My dear girl, women are not allowed on ships for a reason. Imagine one woman on a ship full of men, out to sea for months at a time. You haven’t thought this through.”

“What can you do to help me?” The last words were choked in a sob.

“How much coin do you have?”

Sofia held up her purse. Agatha weighed it in her hand. It was too light to do anything meaningful. The petted the girl’s hair again. “This hair pin will do.”

The girl unpinned it and handed it to the witch without a thought. Agatha expected more of a fight. Some are too easy, she thought.

Agatha stood and went to the window. The hearth’s bright flame played on the dusty windows. In the grimy South Quarter, it was a futile effort to keep the glass clean. The City seemed endless. Superstitious folk who never left their own neighborhoods believed it was endless—and that nothing lay beyond it—no pastures or farms, no meadows or vast forests. That the zealous builders devoured all of nature in their plan to obliterate the pagan faith. In the darkest of nights, when the rain was driving and the hearth’s flame threatened to be blown out from the winds that spiraled down the chimney, Agatha wondered too. Maybe it does go on forever.

“There aren’t many of us left,” the witch said. “All but driven to the ends of the earth. A few communities remain. I know an honest captain who can take you to the sunny coast of Illyria. I’ll write you up a letter, and you can be an apprentice of the witches until you can maintain a shrine of your own.”

A smile broke through Sofia’s tears. “That sounds wonderful. When can I leave?”

“Whenever you wish.”

“Now, if you please. I need naught but the clothes on my back.”

“You can sleep in the attic until I make the arrangements. Shouldn’t be but a day or two.”

As a humble host in the poorest region in the City, Agatha fed her guest well. She shielded her from prying neighbors, who came to this relatively peaceful section of the wharf wanting to know about the pretty girl in the red dress.

The South Quarter factories churned in the distance, filling the sky with smoke and soot. Tradesmen and merchants filed in a never-ending procession down the Baron’s Road, on their way to buy and sell goods, and drink their fill in the mangiest of taverns. The girl watched the City in fascination from the attic window. This was nothing like the luxury of Dayport.

Soon enough, Sofia embarked on a ship and cried tears of joy at the prospect of freedom. She vowed to become the best witch in the land. Agatha waved and walked back to her house on the dock.

A torrential storm hit that night. As if summoned by magic, it rose up and smashed the ships heading out. The storm continued for days.

“The gods are angry again,” Agatha said. “There’s no pleasing them.”

When the news came, the witch endured her creaking knees and sore back to go down to the shore where the shipwrecks lay. The girl’s broken body lay by the city wall. The unusual sight of people from Dayport astonished the residents of South Quarter. Her red dress was sodden like blood and oil.

Pity flickered in the witch’s heart. She stayed until the bodies were cleared, and walked to the spot where the girl’s body had lain. She pulled the butterfly hair pin from her pocket and cupped it in her hand. She whispered a brief spell, and a spirit in the shape of a butterfly emerged from the jeweled piece.

A glittering display of pink, lavender, and pale blue, the butterfly spirit hovered in a circle. With each turn around the spot, another butterfly came to be, until there was a cloud of them.

“We all have to make sacrifices,” the witch said. “But you finally have your precious freedom.”

And from then on, on each anniversary of the girl’s death, a flurry of ghostly butterflies appeared and lit up that dark corner of the wharf for the night.

A Tribute to an Amazing Influence: Tanith Lee

Sappho-Charles-August-Mengin

My mom’s closest friend has been a mentor to be in many ways. Though not a writer herself, we share many of the same interests that helped shape my life as a writer. When I was growing up, it felt like the height of sophistication to visit her in Boston. My mentor, godmother, and pseudo-aunt all in one, she’d take me shopping after my parents dropped me off. We’d stay up late watching Elvira take down the cheesiest of old horror films while indulging in candy and sips of Grand Marnier. It was a great place to be. I was always the only kid in this three-decker full of great friends. I was always treated like an adult. I related to this world far more than the one I knew at school. One of the best parts? The books we shared.

My mom’s friend turned me onto the Gothic path with H.P. Lovecraft and a lot of beautifully illustrated dark fantasy. She introduced me to one author’s work that captured my imagination—Tanith Lee. It began with Sometimes, after Sunset, and I considered Vivia a masterpiece.

Tanith Lee’s books are filled with gorgeous turns of phrase—the kind I’d scribble down and pin to a corkboard for inspiration.

Even though I consider myself a fan, I hardly scratched the surface of her work. She was a prolific writer. There are certain authors whose works I pore over time and again, pulling apart sentences and thinking about why certain wording resonates so strongly with me. I tend to love flowery prose. For me, it’s where literature and painting intersect. I mainly stuck to the florid styles of epic fantasy and literature reminiscent of 1001 Nights, but after being a teaching assistant for a course on Modernism in Paris at Harvard Extension School, Hemingway taught me otherwise. Painting and writing can be fused on a more basic level. It doesn’t have to be so elaborate.

“I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put n them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” —A Moveable Feast

Authors like Tanith Lee taught me to paint with words. Sparingly or with intricate flourishes, these words provided portraits, landscapes, and rich tapestries that fed my artistic spirit. Her books will always be shelved with the authors who influenced me the most.

I was sorry to hear about the loss of Tanith Lee this week. Her work enriched me as a writer, and for that, I’m ever grateful.

After Sunset

A Work in Progress

A-Cthonic-Key

I held the cabinet while my husband used the socket wrench to undo the screws that fastened it to the wall.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Fine,” I said.

With the last screw undone, the cabinet shifted and came away from the wall. Together, we started to bring it to rest on the floor. A splash of color caught my eye. I gasped.

“Are you okay? Don’t hurt yourself!”

“No, it’s not that…look at this creepy wallpaper!”

It’s like an insidious riddle written by H.P. Lovecraft. Insect, jelly, man, note, octopus? Have we stumbled upon the key to release Cthulhu from R’lyeh? Surely the insects refer to his minions, and man discovers the note—you know the one—that “bloop” sound recorded by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that is roughly where Lovecraft claimed the sunken city of R’lyeh was located? And the octopus, well, of course that’s Cthulhu himself!

Or maybe it’s just creepy wallpaper.

My home office is quite Spartan at the moment. Just the desk, my chair, and the computer, and a big pile of junk from when we ripped down the drop ceiling to see what kind of renovations were needed. The room is the color of a peach dropped in the dirt. New windows are on order, and I’m talking with contractors about the work that needs to be done.

A-Work-in-Progress

It’s not my writing space yet. One could argue that the lack of distractions could make it a perfect writing spot. Just me and my dark ambient music. But without the artwork I love, especially that self-portrait my brother painted that has served as a sort of Muse for 21 years, it feels like the soul of the room is missing.

I’ve been mostly getting my writing fix through flash fiction: Describli and Chuck Wendig’s weekly writing challenges. And then I got stuck in the editing loop. The one most people in the writing biz tell you to avoid. It’s one of the tenets of NaNoWriMo: Do not go back and edit while working on the first draft!

And yet here I am, in round five of editing the first nine chapters. I have a good excuse, I tell myself. I had to drop writing around the holidays, when the hubs and I started to look for a new house and prepared to stage our little condo in Somerville for sale. Five months later, now that a daunting stack of papers has been signed and boxes packed and moved from one place to another, how could I remember all the little nuances of the novel? Must refresh my memory!

Fair enough. At least for the first round. But we’ve been unpacking and figuring out room layouts since the beginning of April, to say nothing of all the stuff that happens at the day job. And getting used to the new commute. And the volunteer gig. And just being tired. Sigh.

So I haven’t been able to concentrate. If I just edit this next round, I’ll easily pick up where I left off.

Part of the issue is that ninth chapter. It didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the novel as it currently stands. Whether I need to omit the whole thing and start over or just edit down the chapter and keep the best snippets, we’ll see when I get there tomorrow, when I finally enter in this last round of edits…and move forward with chapter ten.

At least in the near future, I won’t have this creepy wallpaper staring down at me.

my-creepy-wallpaper

 

An Evening with Laurie Anderson

Big Science Cover

1982: My mom comes home from work, raving about a song she heard on the radio. The next album we purchase is Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, and so begins a lifelong fascination with unusual music for me. I was probably the only preteen in the audience for the concert we went to that year. I had no one to talk to about this kind of music/performance art outside of family. At dinner, we listened to Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Shadowfax, and a host of obscure New Wave/New Age LPs that are still an important part of the “soundtrack of my life.” Kids in school were bonkers about light pop like the Culture Club and an array of big hair bands. Laurie Anderson made me feel welcome in an alien world, though even at the time, I understood it wasn’t an alien world at all. Her performances were about our world, seen through keen observation, wit, and a tremendous amount of creativity.

As a family, we went to her concerts whenever possible. I can’t tally the number, but it was a lot. We went to French films and my dad and I revered every Werner Herzog film we could find. Being a teen raised in an alternative cultural environment shaped who I am today, as a writer, an artist, and someone who loves an unusual view of the world.

Laurie Anderson is enchanting on stage. When I saw she was giving the Louis C. Elson Lecture at Harvard this March, I was determined to go, regardless of my intense schedule. Honestly, she can talk about making grilled cheese sandwiches and it turns into an amazing tale. She has a dedicated following, and I swear, even after all these years, I still recognize the regulars from the audience. We never spoke, but certain people stand out. It’s a silent inner circle that gathers to appreciate one of the most amazing artists of our time.

She opened by polling the audience about their own interests: who’s a musician, who’s a painter, who’s a writer. She preferred “multimedia artist,” because it prevents the “art police” from pigeonholing her. And really, it’s impossible to do so. She only considers herself “a dedicated amateur musician.” She’s a master of storytelling. She sees the stories within a stories, and talked about a childhood diving accident that sent her to the hospital with a broken back. She was put in the burn unit, and the dark nights with were filled with tears and sounds of suffering. Over the years, the body and memory change and cleanse some of that imagery, and it took her decades to realize some of the empty beds she woke up to were the result of children dying in the night. The creepiest parts of then stories are the ones that go forgotten for time, she said. And as Anderson puts pieces of them together, and even the saddest or most disturbing of stories have a positive note. It’s part of her philosophy of life.

Home of the Brave

Anderson described her early years as a “self-righteous minimalist,” who delighted in creating spare components of performances. Though it was never explained to me growing up, this concept clicked with me as she talked about stage design for her concerts. The epic concert film Home of the Brave is probably the best example. People dot the stage in small groups or individually. Some wear costumes. Others move in an erratic dance. A film of animation and/or words plays in the background. There is dance, lighting, movement, none of which seems to fit together in a linear way. It’s all part of her master plan. Everyone has their own rhythm, she said. You have your own way of constructing stories, and you put together the components in a way that suits you best. It was an epiphany that tied together years of seeing her performances. Whether you watched the musicians, the shadows of people on the screen, or to see what unique item she’d use in the center of the stage—be it a glowing violin or goggles with lights like high beams, there is no one precious single meaning she wants you to take away from it. It’s all about how you want to enjoy what she offers.

Experimentation takes many forms, and “I appreciate the feeling of not being sure.” Getting out of your niche is key. She plays with tones and pitches of voices. Anderson has created countless films and art installations where the experience of sound is the feature of the work. “I love broken things,” she said as she described the studios where she uses old analog equipment and digital technology to fuse styles into experimental works. She used carpenter’s level to create a speaker system, depending on how it was tilted, you heard a male voice, female voice, or both. When setting up for a performance once, she told the crew to use the most broken-looking but functional equipment they could find. A photo of a keyboard and decrepit microphone stand that looked like it was set up in an old basement appeared on the screen behind her. “I loved it,” she said.

Ever the traveler, Anderson shares a wealth of experience from installations and performances around the world. Her stint as the first (and only) resident artist for NASA illuminated the connection between art and science. Truth and beauty are much more present in science than most people realize, she explained. Even Einstein didn’t accept some of his own theories because they were not beautiful enough.

Though she had many things she wanted to talk about, and surely the audience would have gladly spent the entire evening with her, time ran short. She shuffled her notes and decided which stories she wanted to tell the most before she opened it up to the audience for questions.

Book Cover

When asked about collaborations, she talked about working with Peter Gabriel on “Excellent Birds.” Each respective version has its own bass because they couldn’t agree on one together, she said. A perceptive member of the audience noted how a portion of one of her stories reminded him of Spalding Gray. She nodded, acknowledging they were close friends. “I’d like to think we keep the people we lost in the back of our minds,” she said. “You don’t lose the texture of someone’s voice.”

With time being finite, one person asked, how do you decide on what to work on with so many varied interests? The first criteria, she explained, is “Is it fun?” It’s best to enjoy as much as you can. Have the best time doing whatever it is at the moment. Everything else falls into place. “I choose to believe in progress because it makes for a happier life,” she said.

I walked home feeling lighter. It had been a stressful few months, and that brief session made me feel so much better. Art heals, it helps us reflect and learn, and while the pieces of the story shift, as she demonstrated with great eloquence, the story is ours according to how we want to make it. As I enter a new era of my own, I’m deeply appreciative for the artsy life my parents gave me, and that I’ve been able to carry this particular treasure with me for more than three decades. Laurie Anderson’s amazing work has become part of me too, and like her friend Spalding Gray, you never lose the texture of voices, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.

Farewell, Somerville

Davis Square

1990: A series life-changing events brought us here, like refugees from our own respective storms. My mom transitioned to a new career at Boston Children’s after a divorce. To say my first three semesters at UMass Amherst were turbulent would be an understatement. When my mom found an apartment in Somerville, she suggested I transfer to the UMass Boston campus. No dorms meant less chance of getting swept up in the chaotic high drama that was devouring any sense of well-being I had. In an amazing coincidence, my best friend from childhood was moving to Somerville the same weekend.

Our first walk into Davis Square felt alien. We had spent lots of time in Cambridge and Downtown Boston, and at the time, Somerville felt kind of desolate. Not many people were around. Pockets of old guys hung around dive bars and smoked. On that first night, we found ourselves the only customers in an Indian restaurant. The apartment we shared was small and didn’t get a lot of light. Our hyper Labrador, Tessie, was all the more anxious now that she away from the bucolic, slightly run-down farmhouse she knew as a pup.

Tender from our respective personal ordeals, we were eager to explore the Boston area as residents rather than remote suburbanites who visited often. A Wiccan shop in Porter Square called Arsenic and Old Lace quickly became one of my favorite havens. My new space was redolent in incense and cluttered with stones, amulets, and books on mythology and witchcraft as viewed by many cultures. Countless nights were spent making mix tapes. Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, and many others were my musical solace.

Somerville Dragon

In the UMass Boston café, where I consumed vast amounts of orange-flavored coffee, people joked about living in “Slummerville.” Though the Somerville Theater was a hidden gem, there was little draw to the city other than cheap rent.

The move to Waterhouse Street had been hasty, going to the first vacant place we could find. A friendly elderly gentleman with a salty sense of humor sat on the porch of the nursing home at the end of the street each day. He always greeted me as I turned onto Broadway to head to the subway, and on occasion, I’d go sit with him for a while. His family shuttled him off to the home because they didn’t want to deal with having him around, even though he was sharp as a tack and got around well. So well, in fact, that “the hookers in Davis Square give it to me for free,” he announced with a happy smile one day. Indeed, they clustered around a brick wall outside of Papa Gino’s—their business as open as any store next to them.

My mom and I eventually settled into a bigger place on Sycamore Street near Winter Hill. With my 21st birthday came an ideal college job: beer brewing. The owner of the homebrew shop wanted all staff to know the craft well, so all supplies and ingredients were free to everyone who worked there. Soon, I stacked cases of every type of beer imaginable in my basement. I specialized in mead, and had a carefully tended witch’s garden to grow lemon verbena, rosemary, and other fragrant herbs for my infused concoctions.

Somerville phone

My best friend worked at Rounder Records down the road from the homebrew shop. There was a lot of social cross-over and in five years, and my friend and I even traded jobs. She became a beer brewer and I became the assistant international sales rep. Together, we drank more free beer and attended more free concerts than we can reasonably tally.

Meanwhile, the nascent hipster culture began to arrive in Somerville. The Burren was new, and my boss at the homebrew shop worked out a short-time deal with Someday Café—free beer in exchange for free coffee for employees of each establishment. (The closing of the Someday Café was much-mourned. Many refused to enter Mr. Crepe on principle.)

My first post-college apartment that I shared with my best friend on Broadway was $600 a month. Not each—total. We lived on Ramen noodles, watched Ren and Stimpy, and were ridiculously happy. It was an artist’s life. We were delighted to see the evolving hipness of Somerville, Davis Square in particular. ArtBeat and the flourishing arts culture made us feel like it was really becoming home.

The wheel of fate turned. My friend got married. My brother died unexpectedly, and a ravaging depression sent me back home to mom. She had bought a home on Alewife Brook Parkway, and my grandmother moved in with us because she needed our help. Troubles at Rounder led me to find a “real office job” outside of my artists’ realm, and I eventually made my way to Harvard, where I picked up a career in publishing and two graduate degrees. I began writing my novels and short stories in earnest. My own first marriage brought me to a money pit on Lowell Street—a large two-family that went for $249,000 in 1998. Neither the house nor the marriage lasted long. Both were naïve decisions, but I recovered quickly and in 2003 found a lovely little condo that became a perfect writer’s garret. I knew it wouldn’t be forever, but it didn’t last as long as I thought it would.

Somerville graffiti

In 2009, a fateful message on Facebook changed it all: “Do you remember me?”

Indeed I did. We had mutual crushes on each other in high school, but I was too shy to date him. After finding me more than 20 years later, he invited me to visit him to celebrate our birthdays, which fall on the same day. The rest, as they say, is history. He relocated to live with me in my once-perfect condo. It was now far too small. When we began looking for a place of our own, the real estate prices in Somerville skyrocketed. What were once multifamilies selling for $249,000 were now million-dollar homes. Single family homes like we wanted were equally out of sight.

Malden, Revere, Lynn, and surrounding areas felt like frontier territory, but were our only options for commute and pricing for the space and style we wanted. We found a home we loved and well—yet it seems strange to say goodbye to a city where I’ve spent 25 years. Of course, yes, I can still visit, and will. But as I walk down the streets now, I’m haunted by what once was. Each store front that has been more than one venue…I alternately forget its past or present name…and each apartment where a friend lived (or, in another amazing coincidence, multiple, as when aforementioned best friend moved into the apartment my grandmother lived in when she was first married, cheerfully telling me and my friend about passing out on the floor from drinking too many boilermakers. Having indulged in occasional boozy fun in the same space, we giggled.) Ah, the circle of life.

Getting off the subway at Davis during rush hour was nothing like the crushing zombie horde you experience now. However, my sentimentality is hardly steeped in flowery nostalgia. Davis Square had its creeps back then. There’s a ton of cool stuff happening in Somerville today. Though I won’t miss the bureaucracy of the City with a capital C—it’s as challenging as it ever was. But in that past lies so much of my own evolution, as well as the city’s. Reading the diaries of Anais Nin years later as a writing instructor and teaching assistant at Harvard Extension reminded me of the divorce that brought us to Somerville. She too struggled with an unavailable father. My career at Harvard was amazing, but I lost a bit of my artist’s soul there. This latest turn of fate’s wheel has given me back some of what I lost and taken some of who I have been. My family is a lot smaller, but a lot happier. I am free to embrace my artist’s soul to the fullest now. Many new novels and stories are underway. I’ll miss being near the last vestiges of what I knew in 1990—like McKinnon’s, and the many places I’ve grown to love, like Five Horses Tavern and the Painted Burro.

Tres leches

When my old high school flame and I got married, he called ahead to the Painted Burro and arranged to have a rose delivered to the table with each course and drink, and a rose garnished the tres leches dessert that served as out wedding cake. It’s a fine memory to say farewell to, because it leads us forward into the future.

So farewell, Somerville. It’s been real. Time to watch another “frontier” town change and evolve.

March 22, 2105

Sunset Icicle