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A Writer's Accouterments
October 2006

I can’t tell you “how to be a writer!!” I mean, if you write, you are a writer. If you get remunerated for what you write, you are a professional writer. Besides, there are ten billion books on “How to be a Writer” or “What Every Writer Needs to Know” and I’m sure they’ve thought of crap that just wouldn’t cross my mind. I have no magic cure for writer’s block. And I have no real idea how to get published, since my experience with the publishing world showed me that the authors that primarily get published are not the most talented, but rather, the most marketable. (This is why people like Nicole Richie, Jamie Lee Curtis, Billy Crystal and Kathie Lee Gifford get multi-book publishing deals, and a mss. that could be the better than Absalom! Absalom!, The Waves and Finnegans Wake combined will be dropped in the trash can by a harried editorial assistant.)

Obviously, the NaNoWriMo boards exist for suggestions on how to get through the month. There’s even the book Chris Baty wrote about it, called No Plot? No Problem! that also has plenty of suggestions. But I figured I’d get my own mental space cleared up and focused before the big kickoff this week. What are my ideal writing accouterments?

First, there’s the obvious. I need my laptop. I have docs of notes for things… years’ worth! And, yes, I appreciate the art of writing with a pen and all that. When I was 14, my writer’s accouterments were simple: I needed lined 3-hole-punch notebook paper and Bic Erasable pens. But in 2006, it’s a frank fact that I write faster and more accurately, and can edit better, with a word processing program. No, Fitzgerald did not write on a laptop, nor did Hemingway or Stein or Faulkner or Woolf. But they totally would have, if they could.

That doesn’t mean I limit myself to writing only on the computer. Hells no! I gotta have my journal, too! I’ve been a regular and avid journal-keeper since I was 13, and have a stack of innocuous-looking notebooks filled with, off-and-on, most of my adult life in journal form. I usually carry my current journal with me most of the time, and it’s handy for scribbling down a plot idea, a chunk of eavesdropped-upon conversation, a list of character traits, a quote from a book, a description of a person or a shirt or a market or anything that might find its way into my writing or contain the germ of a reminder of an idea. Not to mention, you know, like documenting trips or sorting out feelings or copying down a poem or that sort of stuff. Plus, as a writer, I’ve had numerous instructors and guidebooks suggest metamorphosing personal stuff into fiction, so it helps to go back and read 14-year-old Dwanollah’s frustrated rants about asshole Stepfather 2, or to read the entries that indicated my burgeoning self-ness as I traveled and explored in my early 20s, or even see where I lost “me” a couple times, when I was 21, 22, 23, and my journal entries were little more than admonishments and lists on how I needed to lose weight and get a better job and pay off my credit card, or when I could only copy others’ words – lines of Millay, Dickinson, Akhmatova – to express the psychological upheaval I was experiencing. Not that I’ll venture into Mary Sue-ness with a thinly-veiled “novel” about stuff that’s exactly what I went through. But it can help to think about how my 17-year-old male/22-year-old woman in 1910s New York City/British exchange student main character might experience a similar situation. And sometimes there’s a grain of possibility in reading over stuff, like my comment in 1995 about seeing one of the wretched hags from Jr. High who was so mean to me come into the bookstore where I worked, and not only was she a totally fat, slutty, white-trashy looking hot mess, but she only bought bad erotica, and if only I’d known in Jr. High what I’d see that day– Say. What if a 13-year-old class asswipe COULD see what would happen to all the jerks who picked on her? What might happen? Is there plot potential in that?

As mentioned before, I also need a good place to work. Obviously, things’re a little up in the air right now, since, at this very moment, my office is a freshly–drywalled mess of raw boards and sawdust back at La Casita. I’ve spent the better part of the last year on the Los Angeles Coffeehouse Quest (soon to come!), and am currently enjoying the authentic riches of North Beach’s coffeehouse culture. But I have to be careful… if I’m settled in to work for a stretch, I can suck up 2/3rds of my day’s Weight Watchers’ points on hot cocoa alone, so I have to limit myself to one a day before switching to herbal teas for the long haul.

I need something to keep my hair out of my face. Usually one of my chopsticks from Chinatown will work fine. Or a ratty headband. Or a ratty bandana. In fact, my oldest article of clothing still in use is this pink bandana I’ve had since 8 th grade that I’ll still use to yank my hair back. But nothing plastic or pinchy.

Of course, I need my herbal compresses for when I have a stiff neck or a headache – more likely, both – from staring at the computer screen in one position for several consecutive hours. I have a couple kick-ass ones, and a few minutes in the freezer or microwave, whichever, is usually all it takes to get the thingie to Proper Soothing Temperature.

I need tchotchkes as well… very specific ones. This is the tough part, because right now, most of these things are in boxes gathering dust in La Casita’s garden house. But I horde old pictures, and have quite a nice collection of them. I’ve made one into a collage of Fictional Inspiration, and find a lot of character possibilities in the old, hundred–year–old snapshots of total strangers. (I’ll have to scan some one of these days.) I also have a real Parisian street sign I had made that says 27 rue de fluerus, for inspiration. And I have a little altar–like shrine that includes a Japanese figurine for “success in examination,” a collection of Stuff Stolen from Author’s Houses (rocks from Dickinson’s yard, a piece of wood from Hemingway’s Oak Park house, a dried palm leaf from his Key West house, pebbles from the creek and a plum pit from the yellow plum I ate On the Banks of Plum Creek, a magnolia flower petal from Faulkner’s house in Oxford, a sprig of ivy from Helen Keller’s Ivy Green cottage, pebbles from Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane’s Rocky Ridge Farm, prairie flowers from the Little House, leaves from what might have been Betsy’s writing tree next to the Hill Street house, rocks from Alcott’s Orchard House, Emerson’s house, Hawthorne’s house–)…

…and finally, my piece of chalk.

The piece of chalk is totally silly. Until I was about 24, I’d never really believed that I could actually, really, truly, for sure go on to have a career in academia and literature. Deciding to actually go for it was the riskiest, bravest thing I’d ever done in my life at that time. I wrestled with all my usual doubts and critical inner voices, but realized that, no matter how timid and insecure I was, someday, I wanted to stand in front of a classroom and teach literature as a published scholar and professor. I was sitting in my empty English class at the time, writing in my journal feverishly, finally daring to think that I could be more than a high school counselor or teacher, that I could go beyond San Diego and community college, when I closed my notebook and wandered to the front of the classroom, trying to see it from a potential teacher’s perspective… and for the first time, I could. I could feel those possibilities. I picked up a new piece of chalk from the blackboard and held it, talisman-like, as a representation of that ambition and the promises I’d just made to myself. Someday, I would wield that chalk with authority! I kept the chalk in my wallet for a quite a while. Then I kept it on my desk. For years. When I had my first teaching position, on the first day of my first class, I took The Chalk with me, and used it to write my name on my classroom blackboard. My mom still teases me about having “the power of The Chalk!” It’s just a nub of chalk now, having been worn away from its spot in my wallet, but I keep it as Proof. Or something. But now it’s in a little box, wrapped in cotton, packed in a bigger box of my office stuff.

Also packed up is my beloved hardcovered Roget’s Thesaurus. Technically, I don’t really NEED it; Microsoft Word has a handy thesaurus with one right-click, and if that ain’t enough, I can search on dictionary.com to my word-obsessed heart’s content. But that thesaurus is something tangible, sentimental and treasured. The Christmas I was 11, I asked for Happy Birthday Barbie and a porcelain doll I’d seen at a nearby store. The Christmas I was 12, however, all I asked for was a thesaurus, and that’s the one that’s sat on my desk ever since. The cover has fallen off three times, and has been sewn and/or taped back on. Pages are dog-eared, and there are faded pink and yellow highlights on lists of synonyms for 15-year-old Dwanollah’s favorite words: pensive, ephemeral, sensuous, introverted, romantic, cobalt…. Now that I’m older and have done my share of writing, as well as reading about (teen girl) writers, I have an added fondness for that thesaurus, remembering how my scribbling heroines from Emily Starr to Julia Redfern made lists of “favorite words” and read word reference books themselves. Dorky little Dwanollah, reading her thesaurus and making character scrapbooks out of magazine pictures, was in good dorkwad writer company.


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