As my memoir Friends of Mine: Thirty Years in the Life of a Duran Duran Fan celebrates its third anniversary this week, I can’t help but reflect on the bonds that have been formed and the highlights marked since its release. Among them is Andrew Golub, known to the masses as “Durandy,” owner of the world’s largest Duran Duran memorabilia archive and a fan whose love and passion for the band and its artifacts is surpassed only by his kindness and generosity toward fellow fans.
I met Andy in person for the first time a little over one year ago, during a summer road trip to Seattle. We’d already established a long-distance friendship, but our time together solidified our mutual love and appreciation. I spent two days in the archive, ogling rare and priceless contact sheets, perusing international articles, and drooling over the pinups of my past. Andy documented every moment, snapping photos of me in all my Duranie glory. Last week we reunited, for one day this time, and continued the archive adventureland following our overdue hugs.
To date, Andy is the publisher of two books: Beautiful Colors: The Posters of Duran Duran, a work of art in and of itself which showcases the promotional posters that span across Duran Duran’s almost forty-year career, and his new release, The Music Between Us: The Concert Ads of Duran Duran, a dazzling display not only of a selection of concert posters and advertisements beginning with Duran Duran’s early performances at the Birmingham nightclub Rum Runner right up to their spectacular Paper Gods tour-in-progress, but also a tribute to the fans that attended them worldwide. Like Beautiful Colors, The Music Between Us displays every poster on glossy pages in full color; however, their accompanying text is written in the words of the fans themselves. Each vignette contains recollections from fans around the world, including one from yours truly, as well as a beautiful testimonial from my fiancé, who attended his first Duran Duran concert with me at the Hollywood Bowl last year. The result is a most gratifying experience. With every fan remembrance, I found myself looking through the lens of the words, jumping through the poster in Mary Poppinsesque fashion, and landing at the Palais in Melbourne, Australia in 1982, Roseland in New York City in 1993, or Sheffield Arena in the UK in 2011. Moreover, I tracked my own concert dates and posters and memories, and found myself back at those as well, reliving the anticipation of the lights going down, the band taking the stage, and the music seeping into my soul for the next two hours.
Beautiful Colors is a collector’s book. The Music Between Us, however, is a fan’s book. Because within all the memories lies the one thread that connects us: the music. The teenage dreams have come and gone (and come again), but every note and lyric of Duran Duran’s discography lives and breathes and springs eternal. Durandy’s gift to all of us is, as bassist John Taylor so accurately inscribed in his copy, “Keeper of the Paper Flame.”
Here's the deal: I'm getting married in five months. I'm also 25 pounds overweight.
I lost said 25 about four years ago, and it took me pretty much an entire year to do it. So I figured I'd be in a good position to do it again when I got engaged eleven months prior to our wedding date.
I tried and failed in January. And tried again and failed again in February. And March. And April.
So now I know. Not gonna happen.
Please don't tell me how I'm wrong, suggest diets, exercises, etc. That's not the purpose of this blog post. The purpose is that yesterday I ate a piece of chocolate and was reminded of my wedding dress.
A piece of chocolate = GUILT.
It's utterly ridiculous.
We do it to ourselves, and others do it to us. Sometimes even well-intentioned. And I want it to stop.
I bought a strapless gown, one that's going to expose my flabby arms and highlight my ample bust and, at best, perform a visual trick to minimize the belly that doesn't go away. I haven't tried it on since ordering it.
But this morning, in the shower, I finally listened to the voice that's been telling me it's neither about the dress nor the wedding. It's about the marriage.
Because this is also the deal: Every day my fiance tells me how beautiful I am. Every. Day. He doesn't tell me to make me feel good, and he's not restricting the compliment to my eyes or my smile or my calves. He means my entire body. He means me, inside and out. Last month, I tried on dresses for my twin brother's wedding, and while I was self-critical, my fiance broke into a smile that simply melted me when he saw me in each one.
I'm marrying a man who loves the body I'm in now.
I'm marrying a man who holds me when I have nightmares and hugs me when I have good news.
I'm marrying a man who willingly splits the housework chores with me.
I'm marrying a man with whom I laugh countless times a day.
I'm marrying a man who apologizes if he is in the wrong, and forgives me when I am.
I'm marrying a man who picks up the slack when I am on a deadline, and appreciates when I do the same for him.
I'm marrying a man who says "Thank you" every day.
I'm marrying a man who gets me.
I'm marrying a man with whom I can spend 12 hours in a car, and who will allow me to clasp his hand for the duration of a flight.
I'm marrying a man who is conscientious, intelligent, talented at everything he does, witty, silly, well read, well written, and makes the best pancakes around.
I'm marrying a man with whom I am deeply in love, as much as he is with me.
Fuck the 25 pounds. Fuck guilt.
For the next five months, I'd like to eat mindfully and joyfully rather than vigilantly or responsibly. I'd like to remember my wedding day as "Man, that was so much fun," rather than, "Shit, I looked fat in that dress." I'd like to keep my eye on the marriage, not the wedding and certainly not the dress. I'd like to wave those flabby arms in the air while I gleefully dance at my reception. And I'd like to keep on waking up to my fiance, who smiles upon opening his eyes, and says, "Good morning. You're beautiful."
I'd like to spend the next five months, and the rest of our lives, seeing me through his eyes.
Believe it or not, today is the first Valentine's Day that I'm in a relationship. Or rather, a love relationship. Throughout my adolescent and young adult life, Valentine's Day was a day of dread, when I longed for a card or a heart-shaped box of chocolates from someone special, someone outside my family, someone male, who longed for me. I longed to not be the kid with the fewest Valentines in the class, the teen with no carnations from admirers or a date to the dance (I even remember one year in which the carnations were handed out on a Friday and I was out sick; I returned on Monday to find three wilted, somber carnations from my girlfriends). I wanted a bouquet of roses delivered to me at work. I wanted a romantic dinner for two.
I wanted to be loved. Like, in love, love.
By my thirties, I said, "Fuck it." Not just to the day, but to the whole damn fairy tale.
After all, it wasn't about the hearts and roses and candy. It wasn't about the romance and the cards and the sentiment. It wasn't about a day. By my forties, I'd learned that love wasn't something to be attained. I'd learned to shower myself with roses and romance and heart-shaped cakes. I bought myself cards, left myself love notes. I took myself to the movies and the museum and for long walks on the beach. I fell in love with myself. I fell in love with my life. And I radiated that love outward whenever possible.
And yet, as a single person, I still couldn't help but feel ostracized every February 14th. Especially in the advent of Facebook-- I remember one year in which the trend was to post profiles photos of you and your significant other. I openly voiced the discrimination. Since then, I've stayed away from the fray as much as possible, and remained vocally cynical of the day.
But here I am, on Valentine's Day, in love. Engaged. Living with a man who is the reflection of the love and light in my life. For the first time. And I confess: I'm conflicted. How do I treat this day that has historically treated me and other singles rather shittily? How do I not turn into a hypocrite? How do I reconcile going out to dinner with my sweetheart tonight, and the heart-shaped pendant he presented me first thing this morning, with the commercial, Hallmark-hellish aspects I've avoided and abandoned these last few years without abandoning others?
By remembering the message Sarah Girrell and I delivered via protagonist Eva Perino in our novel, Why I Love Singlehood:
Singlehood is a State of Mind
This is my message to singletons and couples. A day devoted to love is nice in theory. But a life lived lovingly every day, regardless of relationship status, is the best gift you can give to yourself. That may be a corny sentiment, but I've experienced its truth.
Yes, my fiance and I are acknowledging the day. Yes, I love the simplicity of the pendant and the thoughtfulness behind the gift. But, had there been no Facebook, no displays at Target, no gaudy jewelry commercials, I doubt today would have been much different. We still woke up to laughter. We still give each other space when needed. We still don't depend on each other to be the supplier of happiness. It's not that every day is Valentine's Day. It's that every day is the love of our life.
Yesterday I stumbled across a blogpost in my Facebook newfeed (click here to read it) that, according to Amazon, "only 40 self-published authors are a success" and "making money." Before you get thoroughly depressed, however, read on and you'll find that "making money" is defined as "selling more than one million e-book copies in the last five years."
We'll get to that in a minute.
I'm not going to address the stats featured throughout the post that were taken out of context. Instead, I'm going to address the following two quotes:
"In fact, writing is a poor man’s occupation."
"So if you’re not selling your books, take heart, you’re not the only one. If you’re considering becoming a writer, think twice, it won’t make you rich."
Nothing irks the shit out of me more than when a fellow writer -- especially a fellow writer -- spouts this kind of nonsense, and uses a gross definition of one million ebook sales as the bar that determines "success."
Here's the thing the blogpost didn't mention:
I don't have the numbers on this, but I'm willing to bet that, aside from celebrities, Stephen King, E.L. James, and J.K. Rowling, there are also probably only about 40 traditionally published authors who have sold one million books in the last five years, ebooks or print.
It also doesn't mention the number of authors, traditionally or self published, who are making a living from the royalties of their book sales, ebook or print version. I'd be willing to bet it's still a relatively small number compared to the thousands of authors who publish every year, regardless of the track they choose. However, I could probably name about 15-20 author friends -- myself included -- who fit in this category.
I don't deny that writing is a difficult business in which to make a living. There is no quick road to publishing success. The competition is fierce, and sometimes exceptionally written books--traditonally or self pubbed--don't find commercial success for reasons unknown. It doesn't help that, thanks to the ease with which one can publish now, the market is saturated. I also don't deny that I was one of the lucky ones, having been in the right place at the right time with the right price when my then-self published novel Faking It peaked at #6 on the Kindle Store Bestseller list around this time in 2010.
But it is possible to make a living.
Yes, publishing requires perseverance. Yes, the chances are that the more books you publish, the greater ability you'll have to eventually sustain a living. And regardless of whether you sell one or ten or one hundred or one thousand or ten thousand books per year, write good books, dammit. Hone your craft. Always respect and focus on your craft.
I've got no problem with people who use money as a motivator for writing. I've certainly got no problem with people who want to write books and make a living from it. I was one of those people.
Since 2010, I've sold, worldwide, in English, German, and French, print and ebook, close to 450,000 books. I've had some great luck and support and also put in a lot of hard work. But my success isn't defined by those numbers; rather, I define my success as having had the tenacity to write novels that I'm proud of, find an audience, and eventually make a living without setting unrealistic expectations or letting naysayers set the standards for me or feed me the bullshit that it's impossible to do so.
If you're a writer, and you want to make a living from it, either as a self-published author or with a traditional publisher or as a freelance writer, I cannot tell you that it will be easy or that it will happen quickly. I can tell you, however, to go for it-- as long as you write kick-ass material. Set your own goals and standards for success and making money, but dammit, write well.
Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I craved marriage without ever truly knowing the reality behind the word and all its social connotations, expectations, and pressures.
That’s right. Craved it. As if it were a cupcake in a bakery display case, my nose pressed against the glass, unable to reach it.
The word was even more romantic than the thing itself. I was puzzled when married couples told me marriage was “work.” Kind of like people who said they thought reading was work. I didn’t get it. That wasn’t the vision in my head. I’d always pictured something fulfilling, satisfying. When the I Dos were said and done, so was the work. Happily ever after.
I’m grateful my ideas were never tested, because then I’d be writing this blog post as a divorced woman.
In my late thirties and especially my early forties, I realized that everything I’d sought in my utopian vision of marriage was actually attainable within myself. What I expected from a man, I provided instead. The fulfillment I’d desired could only be achieved by being my most authentic self. Satisfaction was the product of tapping into that authenticity and expressing it in all facets of my life, from teaching to writing to hanging out in a coffeeshop, either by myself or with a friend. It was about running to, rather than from, my stories.
And then came the master key: I am neither responsible for nor dependent on anyone’s happiness but my own.
I’ve had several life-changing realizations in my forty-five years, and that was one of them.
The result was that I loved being single. I loved the independence, the roominess of flight. I’d come to view marriage not as an elusive confection but rather a bullet I’d dodged, especially when I witnessed the struggles of loved ones in their marriages. Where I had once seen contentment, I now saw constraint. But the word, and the thing itself, was still too abstract for me to comprehend. I knew I’d never fully get it until I was in the thick of it. And yet, it didn’t seem as if I’d ever get there, and I was more than OK with that.
I knew one thing, however: if I did finally meet a man I wanted to marry, it would feel like home. And that’s exactly what happened.
Craig and I knew early into our romantic relationship (remember, we’d been close friends for the better part of two years, and knew each other for four) that we were on the road to marriage. It was on the boardwalk at Sunken Meadow in May, actually, when he first took my hand and said, “I think I’m going to marry you,” and I looked up and said, almost matter-of-factly, “I think you’re right.”
But he and I are practitioners of what we call “intentional living.” Just because we knew this information didn’t mean we needed to act on it with any sense of urgency. In fact, we were very tuned in to what felt calm vs. what felt crazy. (Still are.) We had yet to live together, day in and day out. I had yet to see him in a bad mood. He had yet to see me lose it in an airport. We had yet to experience grief, loss, frustration, or illness together. We had yet to see our childhood traumas rear their ugly heads in our adult behaviors.
That was the “work” I’d so often heard about.
But here’s the thing: when the relationship is attended to, day by day, moment by moment, the work feels more like maintenance. And the tools are appreciation, kindness, generosity, communication, and, most important, boundaries. It’s that master key: I am not responsible for Craig’s happiness, and he isn’t responsible for mine. This is not to say that I don’t want to or can’t say or do kind things for him; but if Craig can’t be happy unless I am, or unless I say or do something kind for him—or vice-versa—then we’re in big trouble.
When I came to Billings at the end of September to spend a week prior to our trip to California, and I asked, “Do you want to shop for a ring?” he replied without hesitation, “Yes.”
Even at the jewelry store, as we surveyed the selection, we kept checking in with each other. “How are you feeling about this?” “Does it feel calm, or does it feel like chaos?” It felt like home, through and through. And yet, much like Billings, it was a home I’d never been to before. I still had to get used to the idea. I had to shed all pre-existing notions and former selves—the self-satisfied singleton and the starved one as well. Re-examine what marriage meant to me in the here and now, as a word and a concept. It was no longer a thing to be attained or consumed. Like everything else in my life, it was a state of being.
The ring is beautiful. And Craig’s proposal is a story to be told again and again. But it’s not about that. Or the wedding. Or the word. It’s about the maintenance. And it well may be my favorite part of the journey.
Remember those back-to-school essays you were assigned, when you had to drone on about how you spent your summer? If you were like me, there wasn’t much to say—went swimming, fended off boredom (and summer boredom was the best kind), and played outside until well after dark, carrying an old peanut butter jar with you for the purpose of catching fireflies.
You probably didn’t know that those essays were diagnostic in nature—an opportunity for your teacher to assess your writing skills. How much had you progressed from the previous level? What did you still need to learn? Had you been to the library at all? (If you were like me, you had.) And maybe it was also an opportunity for your teacher to get to know a little something about your life, although I suppose by the end all the snippets of sleepaway camp and beachgoing and Disneyworld melded together like marshmallows on a stick.
Last fall, I moved back to Long Island after a near-20-year absence of full-time residence. I had written about driving off the Cross Sound Ferry and entering Orient Point, knowing there wouldn’t be a return trip to New England, or North Carolina, or anywhere else. At least not for the purpose of anything other than a visit or vacation. I hated the seeming melodrama of the statement, but I’d felt as if part of my soul had awakened from dormancy. In short, it was good to be home.
But the universe has a sense of humor. Before the year was up, I fell in love with someone who lives in Montana. And he with me. And he loves living in Montana as much as I love living on Long Island.
When we discussed the idea of my spending the majority of the summer in Billings (although we did a shitload of traveling to Seattle, Portland, Mt. Rushmore, Medora, to name a few places—we covered about eight states in four weeks, all of which I’d never previously visited), my sweetheart dubbed it “test-driving the relationship.” He’d spent a week with me in New York late spring. I’d watched him scout the surroundings—the beaches, parks, Sag Harbor, Northport, the LIE, the LIRR, the bagels, the pizza, the prices, the people—with the whispering questions: Can I see myself living here? Can I see myself loving her, day in and day out? Fortunately, the answer to both was Yes. But I owed him—and myself—the same opportunity to answer those questions regarding him and Montana. And we needed more than a week to be together.
Fortunately, my career as a full-time novelist allows me such flexibility. His, too.
Those who know me know I avoid getting on a plane for any reason not Duran Duran related. I mean, I have to really want it. Twenty-seven days apart from my sweetheart following his New York trip, and I was practically ready to fly the damn plane myself.
I arrived in Billings on June 20th, having shipped two cartons of my belongings earlier in the week, and lugging a suitcase, duffel bag, and laptop shoved in my purse. Haggard, but never so happy to see the person at the foot of the stairs in baggage claim, both of us grinning profusely, him waiting to fold me in his arms. Since the moment we left the airport, I’ve been in a perpetual “tennis neck” position, constantly twisting it left and right, taking in the panorama of scenery in Billings and Bozeman and Missoula. The Rimrocks. Sacrifice Cliff. The Crazy Mountains. Ranches full of grazing cows and sagebrush and rolling hills and badlands as far as the eye can see. A horizon set into the distance. They don’t call Montana “Big Sky Country” for nuthin’.
We took road trips and found we travel well together. Ten hours in a car ended with us laughing in that silly-stupid, overtired way rather than biting each other’s heads off. We held hands for much of the drive. We took selfies. Lots and lots of selfies. And I took snapshots from the passenger seat, looking past the windshield pock-marked with splattered bugs, and failing to capture the depth and wonder outside.
But we also lived together. We set into a routine of waking at seven a.m. (in New York I’m lucky to get out of bed at nine—I suppose the time difference works in my favor here). We made breakfast. We divvied up chores. We worked—he at his writing desk in the corner, me behind him at the table where we eat—each toiling over our respective manuscripts and puttering on Facebook (and yes, even though we’re mere feet from each other, we’ve continued our infamous banters on Facebook). We ran errands and planned meals for the week and I cooked and he did the dishes and occasionally we walked into town for an ice cream cone. We watched movies. We even had a lazy Sunday or two. You know, summer boredom.
I met his friends—lots of them—and by the time we parted company, they were my friends, too. I went to the Billings Library and the Western Heritage Center and ate nutella crepes at McCormick’s and a decadent caramel cinnamon roll at Harper and Madison. I saw places that had made cameos in my sweetheart’s novels—the Babcock Theatre, Albertsons supermarket, Grand Avenue—and learned that a traffic jam consisted of five cars queued up waiting for the train to pass.
And huckleberry! Huckleberry milkshakes, huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry chocolate bars, huckleberry dipping sauce, jam, syrup… I’m a woman obsessed.
I'm still here.
As I reflect on my summer vacation, I am making assessments. Because with each passing day, I am not at some sleepaway camp. Rather, I am connecting to a community. I am test-driving more than a relationship; I am test-driving a life. Can I see myself living here? Can I see myself loving him, day in and day out? It was no longer a matter of “seeing”—I was already doing.
Now, the looming question: Will I stay?
Almost every day of the last four months has contained a conversation about where we will live together. We are diagnostic in our approach: What are our family obligations? What are we willing to give up? What are we clinging to? What can we afford? Who needs us most?
In some instances, the variables balance out. In others, they are significantly skewed in one direction or another. I’d spent many years being single because I was content not to make those compromises that one must make when two lives merge. Today my contentment is in the challenge—making the tough decision(s) with him.
And trust me, it is a challenge. I pang for the things that made the previous nine months on Long Island so intrinsically gratifying: my mother and siblings and nieces and nephews. My grandnephew. Sunken Meadow and Sagg Main beaches. Trader Joe’s in Lake Grove and Innersleeve Records in Amagansett and Main Street in Sag Harbor. The bagels and the pizza and drives across the Island in my Volkswagen Beetle. I haven’t re-established community there yet, however. I haven’t found my people, other than my family. It’s the downside of a career that is solitary and isolating in nature.
Part of me misses home while I am in Montana. If I leave Long Island again, will that part of my soul that awakened go back to sleep? I don’t want it to, and am afraid it will.
And yet, I undoubtedly know that home is where my beau and I are together; he knows it as well. Long Island can’t be home without him, and Billings can’t be home without me. Or perhaps some yet unknown destination will be an awakening for the both of us.
With every incoming academic calendar comes a time for planning and preparation. Because of my academic background, fall was always like a new year, fertile with possibilities. A time to assess what’s been taught and needs to be taught. And I was always eager for the new semester. I was eager to teach and eager to learn. I was eager to make things happen.
Summer is almost over. We will spend much of the fall months in our separate states, save for a few events and splitting the holidays. We are dreading the time apart.
We know a decision awaits. But in the meantime, we make the most of these days. Living together. Working. Traveling. Sharing. Merging.
The view is spectacular; the horizon is distant.
You wordsmith your terms of endearment.
Him: How do you feel about “sweetheart”?
You fight about who gets first dibs on potential novel fodder.
Him: Anything that happens on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays is yours.
You write down your best (spoken) dialogue to save for the aforementioned potential novel fodder.
Him: On any given day, I’m going to strive to be 1.3% funnier than you. Anything higher would endanger your self-image.
You visit your hometown’s public library just to look for each other’s books, and are more excited to spot his than your own.
Joint author appearances = mutual endorsements.
[At our recent talk in Sag Harbor]
Free editing services.
Best. Love letters. Ever.
(Sorry. No samples here. Some things you just gotta keep to yourself.)
You became close because you told each other your stories. And you realize that you want to keep on telling each other those stories. And then tell new ones. Together.
Throughout the years, I have spent Thanksgivings, Easters, and birthdays in other places with other friends and family. But I always came home for Christmas.
The journeys began in 1995, when I left my native Long Island for college (I entered as a non-traditional-aged sophomore—25 years old, to be exact). During those undergraduate years, I packed my car at dawn following my last final exam, piled Christmas music cassettes on the passenger’s seat (I drove a 1989 Chevy Caprice Classic, lovingly and aptly named “Tanker”), and walked through the familiar front door by 12:30 p.m. The sight of the Twin Towers and the skyline from the Throgs Neck Bridge were always something of a comforting presence, like a lighthouse.
In later years, during and after graduate school, when my mother sold our house and moved to the East End, I parked the car on the Cross Sound Ferry—not quite so early this time—and sat outside on the deck for 90 minutes swaddled in layers of thermal and fleece and my old dorm-room comforter. Didn’t matter how cold or rainy it was.
When I moved to North Carolina in 2006, going home proved to be more challenging. One year I flew (and those who know me know I hate to fly). Another year I took a train. Prior to buying my beloved Volkswagen Beetle, I had to rent a car because my 1996 Oldsmobile Ciera couldn’t make it (the Caprice Classic became an organ donor for my mechanic’s muscle car). And I endured the 12+ hours of toll booths and traffic jams and the god-awful Belt Parkway as best as I could, always with the hope that I’d soon be in my mother’s house, which had come to be almost as much of a sanctuary as my childhood house had once been.
The skyline had changed over the years. When the Twin Towers came down, so did that beacon of light beckoning me back to safer shores. I was a grown-up now, with a career and student loans and an ever-increasing fortress of wisdom, the kind that can only be acquired from mistakes and experience and the passage of time. I viewed wisdom like a road map—a way to mark your current location while measuring how far you’ve traveled. “Home” had become something of a generic word, defined by whichever direction I was driving on I-95.
Because of end-of-semester responsibilities—first as a student and later as a professor—I typically departed one or two days prior to Christmas Eve. As a result, my mother waited to put up her tree. Sometimes the tree didn’t go up until the 24th. My twin brother would come over, and the three of us would exhume the dusty, antiquated boxes of ornaments—some of which are older than I am—along with lights, stockings, and the tree itself. My job was to assemble the tree and arrange its artificial branches into something more lifelike. My wombmate was in charge of stringing lights. Mom was in charge of garland and sorted through ornaments, each one with a story to tell. All this set to the yuletide soundtracks of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby and other musical staples. Sometimes we’d reminisce about Christmases from our youth. Other times we’d remain in the present moment, always admiring our decorating talents and making each other laugh. And, of course, Mom would make last-minute ornament relocations.
Because of this ritual, I’d never seen the point of getting a Christmas tree for whatever apartment I was living in at the time. I wasn’t there to enjoy it throughout the holidays, so why bother? And yet, as the years progressed, during the time period between Thanksgiving weekend and going to the East End, I found myself feeling the absence of Christmas cheer and anticipation in my cluttered dwelling of end-of-semester student portfolios and revised novel manuscripts and to-be-read books. And so, one year in North Carolina, I bought a 3-foot, pre-lit tree from Big Lots, unfurled its branches just like I did with Mom’s tree, and decorated it with the ornaments I’d been collecting for almost twenty years that had been packed and pristine. When I finished, I couldn’t help but notice that it looked like a mini version of Mom’s tree.
It did the trick, I suppose. Something to tide me over until I got to Mom’s house. At best, it was cute. At worst, it was trying way too hard.
I took that little tree with me when I relocated from North Carolina back to southeastern Massachusetts two years ago. Yet the lingering melancholy signaled that I wasn't settled.
Thus, this past fall I moved back to Long Island to be a full-time resident again. I had described the final descent from the Cross Sound Ferry as “an awakening of a part of my soul that I never realized had gone to sleep.” And even prior to Thanksgiving, when the shops in Port Jefferson were already playing Christmas music and lining display windows with twinkle lights, I had mentioned to my sister that the early commercialism wasn’t getting to me this year. “Why is that?” I asked. “Maybe because you’re here for good this time,” she replied. She was on to something.
For the first time in almost twenty years, I’m not going home for Christmas; rather, I am home for Christmas.
And so, my twin brother (of course) and I shopped for the best artificial tree we could find (he unsuccessfully persuaded me to buy a real one). No more 3-footers for me; I wanted something “grown up.” By myself (although with several loved ones keeping me company in heart and mind) and to the accompaniment of Nat and Bing and the rest, I decorated the 6 ½ -foot tree with Looney Tunes and Cookie Monster and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Duran Duran ornaments, along with baubles that had adorned my grandmother’s Christmas tree for the last thirty years (she died on December 19 last year). I even did the garland. With each ornament, if not a story, then a marker on the road map of my life. And the hope—dare I say, the promise—that a year from now, there would be a new ornament, with a new story and a new marker. And I wouldn’t be hanging it by myself.
That night, in the dark living room save for the glow of the lights reflecting off the silver, tinsel-like garland, I sat in the present moment. For the first time, the house I’m renting felt like my house. And when my niece brought my 8 ½-month-old grandnephew to see the tree—the first to see it in person (and who better?)—and his eyes widened with the magical wonder we all strive to hold on to well into our mid-forties, the tree became real, and it took root.
Readers, I'm thrilled to feature my good friend Alexis Spencer-Byers: poet, screenwriter, and editor. Her first book, Urban Verses, was a collection of poetry and prose that wonderfully captured the frailty and grace of the human spirit. Her latest collection, Another's Treasure, is more mature, more insightful, and more wondrous.
Alexis Spencer-Byers was raised in San Francisco; completed a degree in English at Amherst College in Massachusetts; engaged in various types of community development work in Jackson, Mississippi; and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she works as a church administrator and freelance copy-editor. While in Jackson, she co-founded Koinonia Coffee House, an inner-city café and community gathering place.
Meet Alexis, everyone!
Q: When did you start writing, and why? What keeps you at it today?
A: I started writing in the fourth grade, when my teacher, Mr. Kritikakos, gave the class a short story assignment. We were supposed to imagine that a famous person came to have lunch with us and write about the experience. I chose the royal family of England as my lunch guests—speculating that since Princess Diana and I shared a last name, we were actually distant cousins. This assignment introduced me to the joy of exploring possibilities beyond what I had experienced in my day-to-day life.
Later, as I continued to write stories, novels (none published and really all quite bad), and eventually poems, I discovered how wonderful writing was, not just as a way to imagine alternate realities, but as a means of making sense of actual realities. This is its main value to me today—it helps me to process the things I experience, observe, fear, wonder about, etc. As I am not at all talented in more visual arenas (drawing, painting, interior design, etc.), it is also my one shot at contributing something of beauty to the small corner of the world which I inhabit.
Q: Tell us a bit more about yourself today. What do you do for a living, what are your hobbies, and when/where do you write?
A: My vocational life is a complete hodge-podge at this point. I work part-time as a church administrator and also freelance as a writer/editor/proofreader. On a volunteer basis, I have begun serving with a few organizations in the Los Angeles area that work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth and young adults. Some of these organizations are specifically writing-focused (Street Poets and InsideOUT Writers), and it’s a real joy to see writing provide a means of creative expression, emotional release, and self validation to young people who may never have thought of their voices and stories as having value.
Does watching baseball count as a hobby? Because that is how most of my discretionary time has been spent the last few years. [Elisa interjects: Congrats to your San Francisco Giants winning the World Series!] I also enjoy various types of puzzles (jigsaw, crossword, etc.).
I mostly write at home (often after jumping quickly out of the shower, because something has suddenly occurred to me as I washed my hair), in the car (I promise I pull over before starting to scribble!), or at Street Poets’ weekly Seeking Peace poetry circles. I confess that I am not disciplined about writing a certain amount at a certain time every day. I mostly allow ideas to show up as they will, although if I notice I’m in a dry spell, I will occasionally sit myself down at a coffee house with a notebook and put myself in a sort of artistic “time out,” from which I am not allowed to emerge until I have written something.
Q: Tell us about Another’s Treasure.
A: The poems in Another’s Treasure were written over the course of nearly 10 years, but I didn’t start thinking about assembling them into a collection until about 3 years ago. I put together a manuscript over the next year or so, and then sought feedback from a few family members and fellow writers. One thought that came back was that the California section did not feel as finished as the Mississippi section did. (At that point, I had been back in California for just a couple of years, after living in Mississippi for almost 15.) So one of the challenges was to do enough California living to have more things to say about it!
The greatest challenge for me, though, is that sending my words into the world leaves me feeling incredibly vulnerable. Sharing any writing is risky, but sharing work that is largely autobiographical and very personal makes me feel like so many parts of myself (including both my writing ability and my life choices) are on display and open to judgment.
Of course, this ties in closely to the most rewarding part: having another person resonate with my experience or ideas. There is nothing quite like hearing someone say, “I’ve felt just like that. Thank you for putting it into words!”
Q: What's the coolest place your poetry has taken you to? It could be a place, or an experience, or even a person/people you've met because of your poetry.
A: This is such a great question! While it’s a bit strange to call juvenile hall “cool,” I think that’s going to have to be my answer. For many years, I had been concerned about violence among young people and the high rates of juvenile incarceration in the U.S., but I hadn’t found a way to involve myself in work to address these issues. Then, shortly after moving to Los Angeles, I made the acquaintance of some folks who served with an organization that ministered to incarcerated youth. They told me that many of the young people they interacted with were interested in poetry (which seemed highly unlikely to me, but who was I to question their testimony?), and they suggested that I come visit one of the detention facilities with them. When I did so, I discovered that they were absolutely correct—for many of these youth, writing is a lifeline that helps them survive their time in detention and allows them to imagine a future different from what they’ve experienced previously. It has been my privilege and joy, over the last couple of years, to assist a few young people in compiling collections of their writing, and to encourage numerous others more generally to continue developing their talents and voices. I’ve also met a number of “alums” of various facilities/programs, and they are both powerful writers and amazing people.
Q: Why do you think poetry survives, in this day and age of TV, video
games, YouTube... ?
A: I think that as human beings, we long to connect and identify with other human beings. As I mentioned before, poetry is often very personal writing—a way of sharing our own experiences, emotions, questions, etc. There’s an intimacy to it that can make both writer and reader feel a little less alone in the world. Obviously, we can get some of this sense of connectedness—along with the entertainment—from video content as well, but maybe this is another pacing thing. We experience video at the speed at which someone else decided we should experience it (unless we take the trouble to slow it down). Poetry—written poetry, anyway—we can take in at our own pace and mull over until it’s had a chance to settle deep within us and work its healing/inspiration/affirmation/challenge/comfort/what-have-you.
So remember that manuscript I submitted to my publisher? Here's what happened to it...
Right off the bat, my acquisitions editor expressed concern that the genre was too Young Adult. I hadn't set out to write a YA novel. Rather, my protagonist just so happened to be a sixteen-year-old girl, one that my readers had already been introduced to. What I had done was write not a sequel but a spinoff of She Has Your Eyes.
After passing on Love, Wylie (yes, I'm finally ready to reveal the title!) to another imprint* who rejected it, my acquisitions editor also decided to pass on it.
Here's where I say, "Thems the business, kid."
And it is. None of the editors who read it had anything to say against the writing or the story. In fact, they liked both very much. However, neither believed the novel was "a good fit" for the imprint.
This frequently happens in publishing. I can't tell you how many agents/editors said the same thing about Faking It when I'd first submitted that manuscript. I finally got to the point where I thought, "Well heck, it fits with me-- I can sell it!" And I did. Doing so led me to my current publisher (with whom it fit very well), and here we are today, over 100,000 sold ebook units later.
I'm not going to lie--this rejection stung like hell. I really, really wanted the support of my publisher for this one. In terms of craft, I believe in the story. Furthermore, I believed, from a business standpoint, that Love, Wylie would capitalize on my previous best-selling books. I still do. I was massively disappointed to get the news, especially after months of waiting.**
But as I recently mentioned to a good friend and fellow author, we didn't get where we are because we settled on one way of doing things.
And in the same way I believed in Faking It's potential over five years ago, I believe in the potential of this novel. And so, once again, like I did with Faking It, Ordinary World, and more recently, Friends of Mine, I'm independently publishing Love, Wylie, solidifying my status as a "hybrid" author.
If all goes well, I'm planning a late winter-early spring release. I'm excited to work with my developmental editor after I relocate to New York in the fall. And I'll be calling on you -- my kickass readers -- to get out the word when the time comes.
So here's to Love Wylie--may she follow in her parent novels' footsteps!
* An imprint, in this case, is a named division of the same company that typically targets a specific genre. For example, I'm published with Amazon Publishing's imprint, Lake Union. They also have imprints Montlake for Romance, 47 North for Science Fiction, Skyscape for YA, and so on.
**Please don't take this as a slight against my publisher. I still have a terrific relationship with the entire team at Lake Union, and am grateful for all they've done for me -- namely, allowing me to be able to do what I love full time. I'm looking forward to working together on future novels.
I'm an author of commercial women's fiction and a writing instructor. My claim to fame: I can say the alphabet backwards.