Writing distractions

Wax statue at the Netherlands Open Air Museum (Nederlands Openluchtmuseum) Arnhem, the Netherlands

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt deals with the writing of my fifth book, The Sky Inside. This was a particularly challenging time for our family. Joe was regularly having to work twelve-hour days. The rape of Elena at thirteen, a deep dark secret at this point, had completely altered her personality. It had wrecked Elena’s relationship with her sister and the happiness of all of us. Witnessing the girls’ misery, I had removed them from the boarding school, and they were finishing the school year in a correspondence-course program. I was having trouble handling the grading and the bad attitudes of my angry daughters.

In all of this, I still tried to write, and as usual, my writing was an exploration of and an antidote for the problems I was facing in my daily life. But it was a process filled with distractions and unhappiness.

This excerpt begins on page 67.

I created a new Word file. It would be the future home of Martin, a thirteen-year-old boy. He looked like my husband had looked at thirteen, and he lived in a kind of parallel future. That was almost all I knew about him.

Now, I stared at the white Word page and waited for my imagination to take over. What is Martin’s world like? I wondered.

I could answer all of your mail in five minutes.

I shook my head like an Etch A Sketch to reset the movie playing there.

Not my world. Martin’s world!

Vague patches of color began to blossom in my mind and block out the view of the white screen. Bright colors. Grape soda. Gummy candy.

Jell-O—that was it! Bright Jell-O colors.

Almost the first thing I see, when I start to work on a book, is patches or pools of color. These colors set the palette for the whole book. Kate and Marak’s story had started with clear forest greens, along with deep-hued satin and the sparkle of gems. In spite of its gloom, it was a rich, sumptuous world.

My werewolf’s world had been smudged and gritty, with gray peat smoke, flickering firelight, and the bright red of spilled blood.

Martin’s world was going to be colorful, I could see that already. It was too colorful, in fact—highly artificial. It was clean, I could see that, too. I took a closer look into the patches of color. Now I could see bright plastic flowers stuck on window glass.

What are they doing here? I wondered.

It was spring. That’s why those flower stickers were there. This world had no trees, no flowers, no bugs. That was all this world had left of springtime.

And now I could see brick around that window. A brick wall. A garage door. A front door. It looked like the door of an apartment or condo: a flat metal door with a peephole.

What’s inside? I wondered.

A living room. A little living room. Here was the easy chair, here was the couch. And over here were stacks of papers to grade—I had so many papers to grade! And unfriendly, angry eyes.

Why should I care what some mythical teacher in Washington State thinks about me?

Again, I squeezed my eyes shut and gave a little shake. Not my world! I needed to see Martin’s world! Hadn’t this been easy once upon a time? Hadn’t I had to fight to keep my dreamy head in the real world? Now I was having to fight to keep the real world out!

Slowly, the living room came into focus again. The biggest thing in it was the television. It was on. It had no switches or buttons. It couldn’t be turned off. It was the most exciting thing in the whole boring room—the most passionate thing in Martin’s whole world.

“The ALLDOG!” the television shrieked. “Large or small, sleek or fuzzy—all the dogs you ever wanted rolled into one!”

What does a computerized dog look like? I wondered.

Images flashed through my imagination. Exactly like a real dog, full of energy. Boundless energy and hopeful enthusiasm.

I needed some hopeful enthusiasm right now. I started typing.

A large object struck Martin in the chest, knocking his chair to the ground. Something heavy proceeded to dance on him. He gave it a shove and got a look at it. A big golden-coated collie was attacking him in a frenzy of affection, licking his face and yelping ecstatically.

I smiled. I loved that dog. I loved the affection.

“He’s all yours, son,” Dad said, helping Martin to his feet. “They had us send in your photo and a dirty sock and programmed him right at the factory.”

I laughed. It made sense, practically speaking. But it also tickled my fancy.

The collie, unable to contain itself any longer, began swimming forward on its belly. When its nose rested on Martin’s sneaker, it toppled sideways and began running in place. Its warm brown eyes never left his face for a second.

“‘The Alldog,’” read Martin’s little sister Cassie, “‘is the perfect pet and particularly good with children. Do not place your Alldog in a strong magnetic field. Some assembly required.’”

“Mom?” came the voice from downstairs.

It was Valerie. But Valerie and Elena had had me all day, and they had snapped at me all day. Surely I could have a little time to myself. I kept typing.

Now I was in Martin’s room, and he and Cassie were talking, but things weren’t so happy anymore. Martin didn’t like his dog, no matter what kind of dog it changed into. It kept switching dog breeds to try to please him, but nothing worked.

Because that’s what warmth and enthusiasm brings you these days, I thought sadly. It doesn’t necessarily win you friends.

Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and the garret door pushed open.

“Hey, Momma,” Valerie said as she came in and sat down on the floor. “Did you ever play the guitar?”

“Um . . . No.”

A little cream-colored Chihuahua came crawling out from under the bed, whip tail curled between skinny legs. Its large ears lay against its round head like crumpled Kleenex, and tiny whimpers rose from it at every breath. Its enormous brown eyes practically held tears.

I had it all: the feel of it, the sound of it, the way the room looked, the emotions, the next four or five paragraphs. But it was slipping. I could feel it slipping. I squinted with concentration.

“I used to play Gabi’s guitar,” Valerie said. “Do you know the band Echt?”

“Uh-uh,” I muttered, still typing.

But the Chihuahua began to look more and more like Kleenex, and that looked like crumpled paper. Stacks of school papers gathered in drifts in Martin’s room. I could see that they hadn’t been graded yet.

“Before I left the school, I bought a Toten Hosen CD,” Valerie said. “Do you know the Toten Hosen?”

Toten Hosen? Dead pants? A pair of black pants went walking through Martin’s room, stepping over the stacks of school papers.

“Dead pants?” I heard myself ask. “What kind of a band name is that?”

“They were supposed to be the Roten Rosen, the Red Roses,” Valerie said. “But a drunk fan called them the Toten Hosen.”

Now the black pants walking through Martin’s room had bold red roses embroidered on their pockets. The Chihuahua was a crumpled-up essay because Seriously, Mom! What difference does it make? The collection of words waiting to be racked into the next several paragraphs dripped and flowed into messy, sticky clumps of phrases with no meaning.

Then it was over. I was back in the garret room.

But did it even matter? Who would want to read this book, anyway? Joe didn’t have time these days. And let’s face it: my whole family thought that my writing was a waste of time.

Or maybe they just hated to share me.

So I closed the file. Good-bye, Martin. I hope I see you tomorrow.

And I said, “So, tell me about these Dead Pants.”

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books and Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Photo of a wax statue at the Netherlands Open Air Museum (Nederlands Openluchtmuseum), Arnhem, the Netherlands, copyright 2014 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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