In Which I Am Interrogated By Harriet the Spy.

Harriet offered to ask anyone five questions.  I volunteered, thinking “Five questions?  How hard could that be?”  Four days later, haggard, bleary-eyed, gaunt, and twitchy from the “extreme” interrogation measures Harriet says are authorized by the Bush administration (I still think the water-boarding was a little over the top), I’m finally posting the answers.

1. Your house is on fire. All the people and pets are already out and safe. You can take only one thing with you. What will it be and why?

That’s easy.  The one thing I would take with me would be my laptop.  And my old laptop, because it has so many unbacked up photos of the kids.  No, wait, that’s two.  And the Mrs.’s laptop, which has pictures from the last few years, plus a whole lot of other stuff that I suspect she hasn’t backed up offsite lately.   And why didn’t I back up more to Flickr? (Update:  I spent a couple of hours this morning and evening uploading several hundred pictures from the last six months to Flickr and organizing them.)

Maybe I should grab one of the big vintage posters over the stairs, my mother’s wedding present to us.

The handwritten markup of the first 107 pages of Meet the Larssons.

The ficus we bought shortly after we got married, which has proven to be unkillable.

My collection of political campaign buttons.

My original wedding band, which doesn’t fit me anymore.

Unfocused Girl’s baby teeth.  I have them all, in dated envelopes.

An Epipen for Junior? No need, the neighbors have the one we’ve given them, so it’s ready if he needs it during playdates with their son.  That would tide us over until we could get another from the drugstore.

The chads I collected during the Florida recount in 2000.

The ultrasound pictures of the Unfocused kids, while they were in utero.

One, two, three…

Screw it.  Let it all go, then.  It’s a lifetime of stuff; take one thing out of context and it’s pointless.  It’s all replaceable, except the things that can’t be salvaged by pulling them, alone, out of a burning building.

2. A benefactor has agreed to fund you for a year. There are no strings attached – you can do whatever you’d like for 12 months, practical or frivolous, and have it all paid for by this person. What will you do?

What will I do?  Probably the two-finger dance, while singing “We’re in the Money” and jumping on the sofa.

We’re in the money

We’re in the money

We’ve got a lot of what

it takes to get along…

Or did you mean, what will I do with the money?  Oh.  Let’s see.

  • Take a one-year sabbatical from work (duh).
  • Work really hard on my writing.
  • Work really hard on taekwondo, so that I end the year as a lean, mean, dealer of bare-handed death.  Let me tell you, that would come in damn handy during settlement conferences.
  • Move for a year, if the family were willing, because it would be fun.  Of the places I’ve spent some time, I’d love to spend a year in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, or Paris.  I only put Paris second because it’s such a cliche, but seriously, yeah, Paris. I love Paris.  See no. 3.
  • Also, maybe we could live in Colorado for a while.  Not Denver; maybe Boulder.  Never been there, but it sounds cool.

3. Tell me about your favorite place (you can interpret this as narrowly or broadly as you like — a cozy chair, an interesting continent). Why is it your favorite? When did you first go there? When did you last go there? What is your favorite memory there? Is there someone you would especially like to take there?

As should be painfully obvious by now, I’m not so good at this whole “choose one” thing.  That could be my epitaph:  “He couldn’t just choose one damn thing and stick with it.”  So the heck with it, you’ll get three.  Don’t like it?  You choose one.

Our study, in our house.  I always wanted a book-lined study, with a comfortable chair, where I could work.  Check that off the list.  I think with the new chair and the sofa, it’s the most comfortable room in the house, a place where the Mrs. and I can work on our projects in the same place at the same time.  My favorite memory there is either last night, when I was sitting in my chair, at the desk, typing the first draft of this post while the Mrs. is on the sofa working on her own thing, or it’s this, from earlier yesterday evening:

Hyde Park, Chicago.  I spent years in Hyde Park, and loved almost every minute of it.  It’s where the Mrs. and I met, where I first lived away from my parents for more than a few weeks, where we had our first apartment.  It’s where I matured from an awkward teenager to an awkward young man. I visited twice before I started school:  for a tour and interview in July, 1986, and Prospie Weekend in April, 1987; I arrived for school in September, 1987, and it was like coming home.  I moved out for the last time in August, 1995, and though I’ve been back to visit, it hasn’t been home since.  Most recently, I was there was for the Chicago Half-Marathon in September.  Would I like to bring anyone?  The Mrs. and I have taken the kids a couple of times; I’d like to take them when they’re starting high school, so they know what they’re working for.  Even if they don’t go to college there, I challenge anyone to spend a weekend walking around Hyde Park, touring the campus, reading all the posters, checking out the buildings (modeled on Oxford and Cambridge, I believe), and not have a desperate need to go to college (or back to college).  My favorite parts:  the reading room at Harper Library; the two Hyde Park bookstores in the Seminary Co-op (The Seminary Co-op Bookstore and 57th Street Bookstore); and the Medici, where our blurry, black and white picture is still on the wall from the move to the current space back in 1989.

Paris, France.  I’ve been to Paris in 1982, 1989, 1996, and 1998.  I’m way past due to go back.  It’s a beautiful city, and there’s far too much to say about it than I have room for here, so I will limit myself to this:  guerilla puppet shows on the Metro, in between stations (not our video, unfortunately, but we saw different shows a couple of times during our trip in 1998). I would happily take the Mrs. and the kids, especially if the Mrs. and I could arrange for a babysitter once or twice while we’re there.

4. Of all the things that you have made or done in your life so far, what are you most proud of? Why does the thing you picked mean the most to you?

My kids.  I think we’re doing a pretty good job with them (most of the time, anyway) and I know they’re turning out great.  Again with the cliches, I know, sorry.  I could talk about the novel and the writing, but I’ll say enough about that in my answer to the next question.  What else?  Hell, I can go on at length about my many failings; choosing among my personal successes (forget about professional success, I’ve done all right, but that isn’t what this is about) is easy.

5. I’ve known you for a long time, but I didn’t know until recently that you’ve wanted to write. And now you’ve got a novel under your belt and you’ve been cranking out stories right and left while managing to hold down a serious day (and sometimes night and weekend) job and parenting your kids. What motivate you to make your life crazier with writing (or does it make it saner?) How do you make the time? Do you have any advice for those trying to figure out how to move from the “wish I could” to “I’ve finished a draft”?

It’s funny you should ask about what motivates me to do this.  As part of outlining my next novel, Project Hometown, using Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, I’ve been writing character synopses for each major and minor character.  One of the questions to answer in the synposes (at least for the major characters) is what is each character’s motivation, as opposed to his or her goals.  It isn’t an easy task for the characters I’ve made up, where I know them better than anyone and I can type out whatever answer I want.  It’s harder to do that same analysis for myself, but here goes.

In my blogiversary post, I wrote about how I’ve wanted to “be a writer” — regardless of whether I was actually writing at the time — most of my life.  That’s a goal, not a motivation.  As I sit here tonight, I think the reason I wanted to “be a writer” is because I like putting words together and using them to tell stories.  In theory, that’s my job as an attorney, to tell my client’s story persuasively enough to convince a judge or jury that we’re right and the other side is wrong.  In practice, most of what I do is process and tactics; the actual story-telling opportunties are limited.

Did taking up writing make my life saner or crazier?  Yes.

It made me saner.  At the end of 2007, I was burned out at work, and all I could see in the future was more years like 2007.  Whatever else has happened in the world in 2008, it’s the year when I stopped saying that I would do what I wanted to do when I retired, it’s the year when I stopped fooling myself that I was a frustrated writer and started actually writing.

It made me crazier.  I’ve got a very demanding job which hasn’t slowed down due to the economy, two young kids, and a wife I enjoy talking to and spending time with.  I wrote too much of Meet the Larssons on the train — my commute is short, so much of the novel was written in 15 minute bursts, which shows.  It also means I haul my MacBook to and from the office most days; on days when I’m schlepping my ThinkPad from the office, too, my briefcase gets a little heavy.

This runs into the “how do I make time” question.  I’ve given up television (with an exception for election coverage) almost completely.  I don’t read on the train anymore — that’s writing time — and I read less at home as well (my to-read pile of books and magazines has spilled off the nightstand and onto the floor).  I have tried, with some success, to establish borders around my time at home.  I still work at home in the evenings, but not every night and not always as much as I used to, and I try to be better organized about what I do; this has cost me a few billable hours, but not as many as I would have expected.  The Mrs. might say (and probably would) that I have sacrificed some of our time to talk after the kids go to sleep, and she’d be right.  She has also been very understanding and encouraging, and gives me the time I need to do this.

I spend less time running or at the gym.  I managed to keep up my running through the summer, but that’s dropped off in the fall.  I used to lift weights a couple of times a week, and I can only claim to manage once a week now by lying.  I post my work-outs on — it isn’t a pretty picture. I haven’t put on that much weight, but it’s distributed differently.

Also — and I confirmed it with the Mrs. the other day when I was thinking about this — I sleep 30-90 minutes less each night than I used to.  Yeah, I know, I’ll never catch up, yadda yadda yadda.

It sounds like I’m complaining here, but I don’t mean to.  It’s just that there really are only so many hours in the day, and you make decisions about how to use them.

Which brings us to the advice for those who want to move from “Wish I could” to “I’ve finished a draft of my novel.”  The usual disclaimers on advice apply:  I’m not qualified to give anyone advice on writing, so use it at your peril.  Just because it worked for me doesn’t mean that following my advice won’t open a portal into another dimension and allow the demonic denizens to emerge and eat your life force.

The first thing I need to tell you is the realization that got me moving, my real motivation, now that I think about it.  If you want to write but can’t muster the energy to figure out how to fit it into your life, there are two possible outcomes.

  1. You could die.  Thirteen months ago, I was still telling myself that I could write the Great American Novel in retirement.  What if I got hit by a bus before then?  I’m a careful, conservative guy — I try not to walk in front of moving buses — but you never know.  What if you have a heart attack as they’re handing you your gold watch?  Then you’ve never done it, and the rest of us are stuck without the Great American Novel.
  2. You could live.  I thought about what it really meant to wait until retirement to do what I ostensibly “really” wanted to do.  First, it meant another 20-25 years of not doing what I really wanted to do.  That’s just crazy.  Second, I didn’t want to have to start learning how to write at 65.  If a writer has to write a million words of shit before the good stuff comes out (who said that?  Vonnegut?), I’d never make it if I waited that long.  Third, what if I only thought I wanted to write, but was just deluding myself?  What if I’m really meant to do something else, like ice dance, and at 65 I’d be too old to start learning to ice dance?

You need to ask yourself:  Does any good thing happen because I put off doing what I really want to do? And really, what bad thing happens if you don’t put it off, and instead you start now?  For most of us, we have wasted time.  TV shows we watch but don’t really care about; books we only finish because we started them and feel obligated to finish; reading every article in the newspaper; balancing your checkbook; “sleep.”  Blow something unimportant off, and make room for what you think is important.  Maybe you’ll find out it isn’t that important to you.  Maybe you’ll find out just how important it really is.  Either way, I expect you’ll surprise yourself.

Now what about you?  If you want to play, say so in the comments and I’ll come up with five questions to ask you.


2 responses to “In Which I Am Interrogated By Harriet the Spy.

  1. Leave it to a lawyer to reconfigure the questions! But excellent answers all around, so I won’t hold it against you!

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