Friday, December 23, 2011

"If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans."

I've had this quote up on my wall for a while now because it's cheeky and applies to other people. Only the other day, at my last Bollywood Cardio class of the year, someone said, 2011 has been an amazing year for me, and I realized I couldn't quite say the same. I did have... not plans so much as notions. And I don't know who's in charge of it all, but they're sure getting a laugh out of me.

My plan was simple: it fit neatly in the little space below my name on this very blog: quit job, write book, the end. At first, things seemed to be on track. Exactly a year ago, on my last working day before Christmas holidays, I "finished" the "final" draft of my novel, saved in a folder called September 2010, and jetted off to the Cayman Islands to hang out with family. I reeled off my plans to all who asked: January I would research, February through May would be editing and by August, I'd be ready for the Squaw Valley Writing Conference where I would wow agents and editors with my complete novel, then sit  back while they clawed each other's eyes and hair out to get their hands on exclusive rights.

A month of researching Pakistan from a coffee shop in Mountain View and I was the one tearing my hair out. Seeing Wikipedia would only take me so far, I decided to go to Karachi myself, not as the foreign return I'd been the first time around (which had led to much of the inspiration for this novel) but as a writer. I spent three weeks eating, shopping, laughing, oh and researching. The only night I didn't have my notepad in my back pocket was at a wedding I crashed because my cousin begged me to leave it behind (and because there were no pockets in my sari). Upon returning to California, I knew my novel had to change based on what I'd experienced in Karachi. So I tweaked and rewrote, starting a folder called April 2011.

Suddenly it was August. I had no novel; what I had was eight chapters of mediocre lukewarm porridge. But it was time for Squaw Valley Writing Conference. As preparation, I wrote an elevator pitch, boiling my novel down to 60 seconds of succinct intrigue that would induce the clawing of eyes, etc. I harangued countless friends, wrote 29 drafts of this thing and spent the four hour drive up to Lake Tahoe reciting my pitch in an engaging, natural fashion (side bar: also not part of the plan was the $360 speeding ticket I earned but that's another story). The first agent I approached listened to the first line before walking away to talk to someone higher on the food chain. The next two people to hear it -the last two- were other wannabe writers. And then I came home.

I couldn't get over it, the dashed hopes, all the hair and eyes that remained in tact, not a claw drawn the whole week I'd been gone, and on my desk, the folder stuffed with the 29 drafts of my pitch, mocking me and my well-laid plans. Plus,  I was now on my second year of unemployment and funds were dwindling.

So I did the one thing I know how to do, the very thing that had got me into this mess in the first place: I read. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It healed me. It rubbed  balm on my tattered ego, reminded me why I was doing this exercise in sadomasochism in the first place and gently propped me up at my laptop once more.

September 2011 is the folder I'm on now. Chapter Nine was printed this morning and added to the shoebox I began a few months ago. Yes, I'm single-handedly killing several forests, but printing out complete chapters and putting them in my orange shoebox is all I have in the world so I do it (on 99 % recycled paper, I promise).

It's been a year and a half, it's been four drafts and counting, and I have no idea what the plan is anymore. I do know the honeymoon is over; I am no longer the happy sparkly kid I was last year, Ms. Look at Me On My Writing Adventure. I know I am an unemployed vagrant who skulks around coffee shops no longer sure of what the hell she's doing while all around her people work, pop out babies, cook dinner every night and get regular haircuts.

One of the irritating side effects of being a writer is this hyper-self-awareness, so I also recognize I'm in the thick of it right now. I'm in this deep, dark mineshaft and I'm too far in not to keep going till I hit gold. Or till my hands fall off from frostbite, my blue fingers still clamped around the shovel.

I have no idea what 2012 will bring. This is not said to fish for compliments but as a fact. I could be picked up by a small independent press and earn $ 500 for my efforts. I could be drowning my sorrows in cheap whiskey while warming my hands at a bonfire made out of a heap of rejection letters.

None of that matters. From where I am, inside this tunnel, I can't see above or below. And that's probably for the best.

I no longer have a plan, I just have a goal.


  1. Phi! This made me laugh out loud -- I can relate all too well. You are a hell of a writer with a wonderful sense of humor. I'm in the same boat, have been for six years (six years!). Three shitty novels later, no money, no travel, hair lost from stress, not clawing agents, I'm also wondering why the hell I stuck myself in this mess. I'm giving myself six...eight...twelve more months and then I have to go back to full time work. :) You, however, should keep at it, girl! You're in the thick of it, a delicious wicked brew that only you know the recipe for. I can't wait to read your finished book!

  2. Phi! I like your style.... of writing! :-)

    Well... everything happens for a reason. And if you cannot see the reason, maybe the issues are with vision. :-) Not the seeing vision, but "The Vision".

    From what I see, the vision is in place now - the goal is there. The journey of your 'wish' turning into a desire and morphing into a 'goal' may have taken you a few months longer than 'planned', but next time when you at a starbucks, let go of the pen for a few minutes, just hold the cup and think of the events that led to this new draft. Don't you like it better now? it is not just the same old soap in a new pack, but it is different.

    So whatever happened a few months ago, led you to this goal. And whatever will happen hereinafter will only be leading to better things. How you get to them may be decided by how and when you spot the opportunities. And if they don't seem to be magically appearing, maybe the next part of the journey will be about how you go about creating conditions for them to be there.

    I don't think even the four hours spent in near isolation as you were speeding towards the Squaw Valley, practicing your speech to lure unsuspecting wo/men were a waste, (pun intended). Hasn't the slowing down given you time to firm up the goal?

    My opinion may not entirely matter because I certainly am not the one to tear out hair and eyes for the rights, but as an independent witness, I can see the growth in you - and that can only be for the good.

    Do you also see it? If not, maybe it is just the vision! :-)

    Hang in there. The next chapter opens in 2012.

  3. it's been awhile since I've been able to read one of your entries. make no mistake, you are a talented writer and talent will be found when it's ready. the one who walks away from your 60 second blurb is not the one who will take you anywhere. when everything lines up, when time and space and all that other scientific/spiritual stuff lines up, you just watch... you'll be there in the spotlight discussing your trials and tribulations in the becomings of this book. and when you do, remember, if Oprah still had her show... we'd be booking you a seat right next to her. Oh well, that's okay... now we have a whole network to appeal to. And we will. Well you will and I'll be cheering you on.

  4. Hi Phi--So glad to hear your clear,strong voice and look forward to reading more of the writing. But in telling about the writing process you reveal a deeper struggle and this is essential to developing your voice.
    I've been waiting to read your work before I ever knew your name. There are many people whose lives you will touch with your work. Readers await you.

  5. Janet, I guessed it was you because of your eternal positivity. Trust me, you'll see SO much of the novel before the final draft. Sanjeev, philosophical as usual, thank you.Parizad, by the time this thing is done, your version of Oprah should be on, right? I'd rather talk to you any day. Susan Shireen, you always lift me up, thank you.

  6. yo~ your madrasi fan from the east coast here. looking forward to the novel when it comes - but also hope to hear in the press about how you wowed them~

  7. Phi, If your novel is half as awesome as your blogs, it will be a huge hit. I can't wait to read it! BTW hope you are printing the chapters double sided - save some trees for next Christmas! Hope you reach your goal in 2012. Then you can come back to Cayman Islands. ~~ F.K.R.

  8. F.K.R., what distinguished initials you have. Thank you so much for the support and for the perfect goal to aim for: Cayman in December...

  9. you are my hero... truly... how many of us are brave enough to chase our dreams like you... and face all our fears for months on end... what an amazing experience and how amazingly hard it is ... it is a long haul... and your capricorn persistence will get you through all of this... xoxo