I forgot to do a birthday post, but I came across this today and I want to claim it as my getting-a-bit-more-grown-up mantra. Turning 26 felt a bit weird/panicky/that’s-funny, I-thought-I-had-paused-at-23 sort of feeling. But now I am thinking how constantly growing older and growing into yourself is a good thing, because otherwise our awkward phases would stay awkward and we would never be able to look back and feel grateful for how far we’ve come. So instead of freaking out about the big unknown of THEN (you know, the whole “where do you see yourself in five/ten years” question)–I should feel relieved, knowing that each unknown year will at least meet me with a handful of wisdom. Every now and then, a place of gratitude for where I’ve come from and where I’m headed.
The subtitle of Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? caught my eye: “A Novel from Life.” Perhaps a fictional memoir could be expected, yet within a few pages I knew that identifying the precise type of this book would not be possible.
Sheila, a young creative and aspiring playwright, offers a story of self, art, and friendship told through literary prose, strings of emails, recorded conversations presented in screenplay form, and personal observations that go above stream of consciousness and land in finely crafted questions with echoes of acute self-wondering and self-reckoning.
When her marriage ends, so does Sheila’s creative flow, specifically with a play that she has been commissioned to write. She begins to question not only the creative process but the process of self. When she meets a painter named Margaux, Sheila explores both the strength and delicacy of true kinship and how friends help form us. The rest of the cast include fellow creatives—one, Israel, a new exotic lover—and it is through all of these relationships that Sheila studies closely the idea of “how a person should be.”
“You can admire anyone for being themselves,” Heti poses in her prologue. “It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it. But when you think of them all together like that, how do you choose? How can you say, I’d rather be responsible like Misha than irresponsible like Margaux? Responsibility looks so good on Misha, and irresponsibility looks so good on Margaux. How could I know which would look best on me?”
This “novel from life,” written in unconventional form that is both highly readable and relatable, How Should A Person Be? is a rare and raw beauty of a read. I was drawn in by the author’s honest, probing questions and real-world realizations, burgeoning with a deep homage to friendship and its lasting effect on who we are and might become.
After a long month of “replacing my normal life with word docs, thesaurus apps, inner dialogue, pinterest boards created for fictional people, and more coffee consumption than usual,” I finally earned my nano badge!
30 days, 50,000 words, hundreds of pages, thousands of notes, two macbooks, lots of lattes, two labyrinths (one metaphorical), one jungle (symbolic), a handful of librarians, one lumberjack, one artist, one year, twelve quests, three memories, a full circle ending, and the feeling of getting it all down on paper: priceless.
I’m actually not quiiiite finished with my draft yet, however. My outline sneakily stretched further on past the 50K mark (as did my husband’s)… but I’m getting close to wrapping up all the plotlines with a nice big bow. Until then, here’s my novel’s just-for-fun cover art, a brief synopsis, and excerpt:
Raised by ex-hippie artists for parents in a home referred to as the Rembrandt Jungle, Olivia practically has acrylic paint fumes running through her veins. But the day she’s supposed to start her Master’s in Fine Arts, she chokes. Her muse is gone, probably hanging out with her imagined Future Self, who is the high-def, high-saturation version of herself, with better hair.
Meanwhile, Olivia winds up with a job at the campus library, working in the Underground office of creatives, a group of twenty-and-thirty somethings who believe in digital revolutions, minimalist design, and mind-blowing coffee. Planning a campus-wide scavenger hunt culminating in a labyrinth for the library’s upcoming Centennial is their chance to prove to the elusive Alpha Librarian that both books and touch screens can shape the future.
Olivia, however, gets caught in her own labyrinth of self improvement. Attempting to meet up with her Future and Better Self–and hopefully, her muse–she implements “Olivia’s Extraordinary 365-Day Everyman’s Quest for Self-Actualization and Personal Bliss.” For each month of the year, she plans to focus on one thing to improve. But the paths she takes along the way curve in unexpected ways, and not even Olivia knows what she’ll find at their center.
“The Everyman’s Quest… where’s that from?” Nate wonders.
I shrug. “I don’t know, Philip Roth? And my own existential crisis?” I’m doing that thing where I use slightly hyperbolic humor to mask my real issues. I have really got to stop that. I think it makes people feel uncomfortable.
But Seth brings it home. “Ooh, extended metaphor. I like it. We are all tangled up in our own personal labyrinths,” he makes a dramatic, faraway look.
People are nodding. I’m saved. Nevermind that slip of giving away too much personal information.
“Yeah, okay, I get it,” Jenny ruffles her bangs. I think there are even more pieces of auburn highlighted from amongst the black of her hair. “We promote this Centennial as historical but also personal.”
“Yes, exactly,” Amber jumps in. “And come on, who doesn’t like the word ‘quest?’”
“Truth,” Nate points like, you nailed it. “Girl’s got a point.”
All the guys are laughing now, like we are dudes and we own the appealing nature of quests.
“You know,” Seth ventures, “People should be allowed to go on one quest, at any given point in their life. Like, you wouldn’t even have to use vacation time. Because Questing would be one of the code options for your timesheet.”
Paul likes this idea. “Seriously, that would be awesome. Think how enlightened and shit you’d be after coming down from that mountain.”
Kevin raises an eyebrow. “Who said anything about a mountain?”
“I did,” Paul says.
Seth laughs. “Well, I guess we know where Paul would go questing.”
“What, you wouldn’t choose a mountain? I would go backpacking for months,” Paul leans back in his chair, stretches his arms behind his head. “Like in Switzerland or something. Live outside, mostly, with no real time frame for anything. Unconstricted by the rush of culture. Just you and nature.”
“Sounds good to me,” Seth says, rolling up the sleeves of his flannel shirt. For a second I wonder if he’s envisioning himself as a lumberjack.
“Okay, so wait a minute, what are the stipulations here?” Nate wants to know.
This group really gets into their hypotheticals.
I consider. “What about none?”
Jenny’s chair swivels. “None?”
“Say you could pause everything,” I propose.
–in the spirit of Thanksgiving, an excerpt from my NaNoWriMo novel, WHAT WE WOULD BE:
“The meal is fairly painless, and the food fairly satisfying. Aunt Gwen made some mean casserole thing, and Mom is pleased that Remi’s eating the seven-layer salad, once she’s adequately removed three layers. Phillip inhales some of everything. When he asks for someone to please pass the something, I swear he moves his mouth but I don’t hear words. Luckily he also points, so I am able to send him the appropriate food items down to his end of the table. Dad and Rog attempt to talk sports, which Dad knows just enough about to feign excitement over. Also, it’s the only thing they have in common.
When Gwen asks me about art school–which frankly, I didn’t even know she knew about–I think I almost catch a quick empathetic look from Remi, and definitely do not look at Mom or Dad when I tell Gwen in somewhat careful and vague wordage that my plans have been put on pause.
Gwen is very good at sugar-coated communication, and I don’t even care that I can tell it’s fake. At least she doesn’t grill me. She just smiles with her too-white teeth and nods her platinum blonde head. And then I compliment her casserole.
When the bottom of our plates have again been found, our silverware tired and resting up before dessert, Dad suggests we go around the table and say what we’re all thankful for. Aunt Gwen loves this idea, and starts us off. “I’m thankful for my Rog, she says,” touching Rog’s elbow, and Rog, who is the quintessential big-boned Harley type who cleans up nice and also happens to be alarmingly rich, chuckles heartily and places his enormous and hairy hand over Gwen’s for a love pat. “And of course, my two beautiful children,” Gwen continues, almost crying, and both Remi and Phillip show physical signs of geez, Mom, don’t be such a drip. “Remi, I know you’ve had a tough year, sweetie, but you’re becoming a strong and lovely young lady, and I know you’ll be just fine,” she says, nodding a bit towards Remi like they’re having this moment the rest of us can’t understand. And then she turns to Phillip, who’s eyeing the un-cut pie on a trivet in the middle of the dinner debris. “Phillip, my young man. You have so much potential. You’re a man of few words, but many interests, so you should have an exciting road ahead,” and with this she freezes her smile as if to lock in everything she just said.
After Remi rolls her eyes some more, she says she’s thankful for her friends. And when it’s my turn, I echo this, because Remi’s assurance reminds me of how at age 16, your friends really are your world then, and maybe she won’t stay with them or Dexter forever, but right now, they matter.
I think of how in only a couple months’ time, I feel something about the group of creatives, these people that would have otherwise kept on as strangers, self-contained in the Underground, removed entirely from a chance of crossing my path. I feel a surge of gratitude for my chance encounter with Jenny that first week in the coffee shop, and how if she had not felt so strongly about Tom Hanks, she might not have become my bridge to close the gap between blending in and not blending in. And how now, I feel attached to this space in the Underground, and I am familiar enough with each person’s mannerisms, the rhythm and tones to their voices, and how they will react and what they will do. And how every wormhole that opens up into their other-lives makes me miss my old friends less, because I feel like there’s a chance I have stumbled across a place where I fit all right and it’s here and now and real. And so I wonder if I am especially drawn to Seth and his boy scout past and his flannel shirt future and the smokey scent of English tobacco, or if I am exaggerating things, and this is merely another wormhole into the personable realm that I crave. I wonder if this isn’t further evidence of how we follow what we think might take us to our muse, how suddenly everything is possibility, how we are a little bit in love with everyone.”
–from the nano-files:
Getting ready in the morning is the worst part of my day. I’ve never been a morning person, but as I finally do roll out of bed, it feels as though I’m taking with me all of the burdens that have amassed subconsciously in those sleeping hours. They collect in the folds of Nonnie’s patch quilt and attach themselves to me. And unfolding myself from this state of heaviness is a process. I wake with judgment tangled in my hair. Contempt seeps from the pores of my skin and collects in the lines on my face. The mirror is above all deceptive and a Cheshire cat of changing, warning grins.
I think creative types deal with a certain amount of insecurities and frustrations that normal people appear to not consider. I know, of course, that we all have baggage we tend not to display or share, and that, (according to Plato?), everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. But that doesn’t mean I won’t notice a leggy Blonde, 24, Life of the Party and assume she just wouldn’t understand.
–another nano-clip for you:
Paul leans forward. “If the Alpha Librarian is the White Witch of Library Narnia, then we’re those damn beavers just trying to live.”
I suppress laughter. “Wow. Sounds intense.”
“That’s why we limit our time Upstairs. We always get that even-the-shelves-are-spies kind of feeling.”
“I think her name might be Brenda,” Kevin recalls. “She hates technology. But she’s been one of the head honchos for too long, so nobody bothers with trying to get her impeached. The good news is that the other librarian-in-power is all for tech, because she’s aware of which century we’re living in.”
“They kind of hate each other, though,” Nate mentions. “Watching them interact, it’s like Peter Parker and Norman Osbourne–they act fiercely polite in public, but it’s obvious they’re killing each other with kindness, and in cardigans, no less.”
Seth grins. “I bet they’re secretly in a fight club.”
I admit I’m slightly intrigued by the idea of librarians with ulterior motives and cardigan-wearing arch nemeses. But the conversation moves on then to all of the awesome technology and gadgets they get to work/play with, since they pretty much run their own ship, and as long as “Omega Librarian,” the pro-tech higher-up and enemy to Alpha, sticks around, she will support the creatives and let them do their thing. Which then somehow provokes a ten-minute discussion on webcams. I’m also told to never set foot in the staff lounge, because it smells odd and just being there is depressing.
–here’s a small bit from the beginnings of my NaNoWriMo novel, WHAT WE WOULD BE:
I swear my parents injected acrylic into my veins as an infant—or at least intentionally let the fumes get to me. In kindergarten, I was the emo child who refused to participate in the class art project of making paper mache ornaments, because I felt that paper mache would obstruct my current study in contour line and mess up the flow of the artistic process. It was my very first blue period.
I know. It’s been awhile. See, my excuse is that when I moved into a new house, I thought about also moving into a new space in the blogoverse. Which I am still considering, actually, but this will be a gradual process if and when it occurs. In the meantime, I’ll try not to let the guilt of my intermittent hiatus hover over me like an iCloud. Rather, I’ll just tag back in and offer you bits of blog and pieces of present life.
Currently: I am 18,000 words into my 30-day, 50K-word novel-writing initiative for NaNoWriMo, as November has officially been declared National Novel Writing Month. The goal for NaNoWriMos is to reach 50,000 words by the end of the month, and end up with a first draft of frenzied plots and paragraphs protected by a Nano-forcefield from the looming and nit-picky Inner Editor. Last year my heart wasn’t fully in it–I was stuck in the midst of a project that had already been over-worked before the starting line, and although I do plan on coming back to that story, this year I knew I needed to start anew. In fact, winning a “Masterpiece in a Day” community writing contest a couple months back was the reminder I needed as to how liberating it feels to begin with a fresh page.
Word count is a tough mark to meet for someone methodical like me, but if you are also stubborn like me, that helps. What is also helping in a really annoying way is that my charming redheaded and equally stubborn husband is nearly lapping me in the word count racetrack, but I shouldn’t be surprised by that; in college he practically zapped his literary criticism papers in the microwave. But since he will without a doubt get to the 50K finish line, I know I don’t want him there without me.
So, I am nano-ing for real this time, and actually enjoying doing so, despite the fact that the rest of my life’s normalcy is being put entirely on pause, and being replaced with word docs, thesaurus apps, inner dialogue, pinterest boards created for fictional people, and more coffee consumption than usual.
I may or may not post some nano-snacks here and there.
Otherwise, see you in December!
Last weekend, Joelly & I picked out paint colors for the new house. According to Martha, these are “18 go-with-everything, paint-anything, put-anywhere hues that will work in any room.” We used this palette as our inspiration, and, after a bit of deliberation, our final lineup is…(ahem):
Living room & Bathroom: “Rope” (light grey. Refer to Fig. 8).
Master bedroom & Kitchen: “Toasted Almond” (the one our house guys picked/already had on hand. A shade lighter than Fig. 10).
Dining room: “Linden” (a shade lighter than Fig. 2 but darker than Fig. 4 — or, what we refer to as “Death Cab Green”– an obscure reference to a color square from Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs album cover, which Joel brought in to Lowe’s for color matching when painting his brother’s room a couple years back).
Loft room (guest bedroom/office): “Rainforest” (the love child of Figs. 4 & 5).
I should note that our samples of “Soothing Aloe,” “Bamboo Shoot,” “Bamboo Reed,” and “Let’s Do Lunch” were all busts.
Thankfully, we are very pleased with our final selections, and can’t wait to move in and see them showing off, which awfully handsome shades are prone to do.