Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Three Weeks Until Moving Day

(Reposting this from Most Eligible Family, because it's Foreign Service and normal-life related, I think. Also, I've had so little time to blog lately! I have some decisions to make about blogging in the future, but I can say for certain I won't be doing much in the next three weeks while I finish up this round of revisions and prepare for our move!)

I can't believe how quickly the time has gone. Only three more weeks until we leave DC (we'll be in Miami for a couple of days for consultations and then it's off to Lima). I am not ready. Not physically or mentally. There is always so much to do before a move, and it seems like it all has to happen at the last minute. I have to go through everything we own and start culling, because we are short on weight limits somehow. And even though I've gotten good at letting go of material possessions (I'm ruthless these days, because in this lifestyle you have to be), I have a particularly hard time parting with the kids' stuff. I wanted to take Will's crib and dresser with me, but it doesn't look like we'll have the weight, so I have to sell them. Jack's loft bed also has to go. I think part of it is that this house has really been perfect for us this past year, and I don't want to leave it.

On the bright side, we got our housing assignment and it looks great. A big, modern house with a lot of space (and four bedrooms, so I will be expecting lots of visitors!). It also looks like a death-trap for small children, so I'm interested to see how GSO is going to "baby proof" it. We're talking a fountain out front, an outdoor staircase in the back, a deck with open rails on the second floor, all hardwood or tile floors, etc. But I will say that it looks modern and spacious, and I feel very fortunate to have gotten it.

Moving is probably my least favorite thing in the world, so it's fabulous that I married a man who drags me all around it. It's actually the logistics of moving that bother me - I enjoy the change (although maybe "enjoy" isn't the right word; it's more that I like what happens to me when I'm forced to change). Anyone who has done a military or government move knows that just because someone else is doing the packing and moving for you, there's nothing easy about it. This isn't some across-town move where all your possessions get packed up and relocated. First there's the aforementioned culling due to weight limits. Then there's the separating of household effects (HHE), unaccompanied air baggage (UAB), and items for storage. On moving day (or days) you've got to watch the movers like a hawk to make sure everything goes to the right place. And I have heard some horror stories about moving: trash being wrapped up and sent halfway around the world; teeny tiny items being wrapped in ridiculous amounts of paper to drive the weight up; the usual broken items and things being shipped to the wrong place, etc.

But fortunately, John and I already had what I'm pretty sure will be the worst move of our lives (unless of course the ship with our crap on it sinks, which also happens). You see, way back when, a month before our wedding, the Marine Corps moved us from Texas to San Diego. And somewhere on the way, the truck was caught in high winds and jackknifed, spreading all of our belongings across the desert. When what was salvaged from the accident arrived at our house, we were horrified. Our brand new washer and dryer, John's road bike, a television, a computer, and a bunch of other expensive stuff was destroyed. Other things, like a headboard, a desk, and a box spring, were never found. And then there was my plastic bin full of bras and underwear. When I opened up the drawers I was met not with silk and lace but dirt and rocks. To this day I wonder what became of my underthings; I have a vision of a Texas longhorn with a bra dangling from its horns. When all was said and done, we got $7,000 dollars of the $20,000 or so in damages and loss. I'm not sure that we learned anything from it, but it sure makes all our other moves look pretty darn tolerable.

Over the next three weeks, I hope I can stay somewhat organized and sane. But one way or another, we'll be on our way to Lima very, very soon!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Five Things I Learned at the Iceland Writers Retreat

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook may recall a post back in August, when John surprised me with the best tenth anniversary gift a girl could dream of: a four day writers retreat in Iceland with Barbara Kingsolver headlining. After months of anticipation and logistical preparation, I finally went last week, and it was even better than I'd imagined.

I could probably write an entire series of posts about how amazing Barbara Kingsolver was, how every time she opened her mouth something funny, kind, or brilliant tumbled out, and how none of it was rehearsed - it's just who she is. One of the things that appealed to me about this retreat was that it wasn't a typical conference setting, where people are more focused on networking and attracting an agent's attention than learning. And I loved the idea of spending time outside the workshops with the authors, who were invited to all the same meals and excursions as the participants. But I never imagined I'd get to spend nearly two hours talking to Barbara between workshops, or eat breakfast at the same table as her almost every day, or stand next to her at the top of a waterfall. I was so surprised by her accessibility and generosity, and her complete lack of of pretense. Is there anything better than finding out that one of your very favorite authors is also one of the nicest people you've ever met?

At any rate, I could gush about Barbara Kingsolver forever, but I won't. Here, in no particular order, are some of the pieces of wisdom I gleaned from the authors during the Iceland Writers Retreat. Erica and Eliza, the founders of the retreat, have really created something special. If you have the opportunity to go, I can't recommend it enough.

1) "Bad memoirs come out of youth; Good novels come out of middle age."
Adam Gopnik is hilarious. I didn't take his workshops but I got to speak to him a little and heard him read on our first night. His essay on learning to drive had me laughing out loud. One of the things Adam said he loved about the retreat was that it wasn't filled with a bunch of young people who want to write memoirs and have zero life experience. The retreat was geared more toward people in their thirties, forties, fifties, and beyond, many who have never completed a book. It's such a good reminder that the majority of writers don't "make it" in their twenties.

2) "Find the internal contradiction."
One of my favorite workshops was "Character Development" by Allison Pick. Allison told us that internal contradiction is what makes characters interesting. Considering my agent had just mentioned that my main character's arc was feeling a little flat, this was the perfect advice. No one wants to read about a character who doesn't have anything to learn, or who doesn't grow or change throughout the course of the novel. Point taken.

3) "Revision is where art happens."
I think this may be one of the writing lessons it's taken me longest to learn. When I first started writing, I had no idea how much revision it took to get a book from first draft to published novel. I got my second edit letter the first night of the retreat, and I can assure you that I'm becoming very familiar with revision. If I'd known when I started out that even bestselling authors like Barbara Kingsolver spend months revising their work, I don't think I would have given up on some of my earlier projects so easily.

4) "Make a promise to the reader in the first chapter."
When I told Barbara that my agent wants me to rewrite my first chapter, the first thing she did was ask me why. I told her he thought it gave too much away, which she agreed was a problem. Then she gave me this little gem of advice. She mentioned in her workshop that the best books are the ones where you say, "I knew that was going to happen!" even though you didn't really know for sure. I plan on looking back at some of her first chapters and trying to determine the promise.

5) "Always do the scariest thing."
The last morning of the retreat, the authors participated in a round-table discussion and answered questions from the audience. Several of the authors explained that they know they're on to something when an idea terrifies them. Ruth Reichl was referring to writing when she told us to "always do the scariest thing," but over the past few years I've come to find it applies to all aspects of life. It certainly served me well last week. These types of "camp" situations terrify me, and it would be very easy to hide behind my social anxiety, but I would have missed out on so much if I had, including a long conversation with my writing hero.

I learned a lot more during the retreat, but these were some of the things that stuck with me. And now it's time for me to take some of that brilliant advice and go back into my revision cave. Wish me luck!