So, as anyone who has been reading this blog knows, I finished a book I've been working on actively since 2011 and conceptually since January 2010 - when I found small boxes and envelopes of my grandmothers' photos and memorabilia from her early life at the bottom of a box under some metal object in my recently deceased father's impossibly disorganized storage locker in the inaptly named Citrus Heights, California. It was raining outside, it was January. He had just died. I was miserable. Then I found those photos and a whole other life of a woman I had only known as a fairly bitter, resentful person emerged. A young happy woman on the beach, clearly in love (in love?!) with my grandfather, in dresses she had made herself, in front of a tent she had erected in her backyard, with her best friend Helen in 11 year old flapper-inspired dresses on the second floor (of a house I discovered just this August - on Washington Avenue in Seymour, CT - the thrill of seeing this house - knowing the balcony was the one I had seen in a photo from 1927 - still there in 2015)...and the seed of a book idea was born...
But this year, 2015, is the year I set aside to complete a book that I had worked on actively in fits and starts since early 2011. Last New Year's Eve and a couple weeks earlier at Kripalu (a wonderful yoga retreat near Lenox, Mass), I had promised myself I would complete a draft of the book in 2015 - one good enough to begin sending out into the world.
By March I had a rough draft. By May I had revised that draft. By mid-August, I had edited that revision. Then I started sending it out. Right away. Which was probably a mistake. Would have been better to take a breath, but I had to turn around and teach right away and was somehow spooked that I would lose momentum.
I am now waiting for responses, from readers and agents.
I wrote a very long book. So, it takes time to read. I have received some responses so far, mostly positive, with some good constructive feedback, some of which is useful and some of which isn't. I wrote the whole book before showing it to anyone. I wanted - for once - to let myself create something on my own terms. As a theater person by nature and training, this felt very weird and at times downright uncomfortable, but I was determined to find a way to be the expert at my own writing. I am too damn codependent - also by nature - to not let others' ideas have too much sway, so wanted to know I was sending something that I Knew What it Was, before getting feedback, so the feedback could go through the filter of I-know-what-the-fuck-I-was-doing...rather than a more childish, "oh, wise one, please tell me what this is!"
OK, so I did all that. Woohoo. And I should probably take time to celebrate that, which to be honest I haven't really done.
But, what I also want to write about here is the cost of doing what I did. Of spending 8 months of a year focused so intensely on one thing, especially when that one thing involved inhabiting the hearts and souls of two women to whom one is related, but is not.
Regardless of subject matter, what it cost was:
My ability to be present to anyone else fully. Ever. As I said to anyone who even tried to be close to me at the time: I am at best 75% present right now. At best. Ask John. He lived with me. Imagine what fun That was. I had friends visit from Germany with whom I could barely hold a conversation, because I'd just come back from an intensive writing retreat in Vermont and my mind was entirely taken up with the book. I could at best send up flares of attention.
This meant of course I neglected friends, some of whom were in acute distress. Am I happy or proud about this? Absolutely not. Could I have finished the book and been present to anyone at the same time? No.
I have never done anything like this except in much shorter intensities in the theater - anyone who makes performances knows the drill - 4 to 8 maybe even 12 weeks of intense working with others. Everyone and everything else takes a distant second place. Then the show goes up for another 4 or so weeks. In that time you've probably fallen in and out of love with everyone in the cast (emotional intensity is what I mean - not infidelity - in case you're wondering)...but the fact is because there Are Other People Involved, you don't realize what a selfish bastard you're being, because Everyone Else is Doing It, Too...and most of the people you hang out with do the same thing, etc.
The thing is - when you're writing a book - and this is the first time I've done so (my PhD was similar but not the same - I was able to telescope those time slots so it didn't seem quite so crazy, plus was with someone who traveled All the Time, so there wasn't any guilt there) - there is No One Else Involved. So, you're just stuck with the fact that you are sitting around - by yourself - working on a project.
I kind of had Dick and Jani (my grandmothers) with me, but they are ghosts, and so when I talked with people about talking to them, they looked at me funny. But they were my only companions. And because I wrote a book in their voices, I had to sink into their souls, as much as humanly possible.
Did I succeed?
I don't know.
Did I try and feel like I almost died trying?
Is that melodramatic?
Maybe, but it is how it felt, so like whatever...it's my blog. Deal with it.
I now have so much respect for other people who write books all the time. It's a crazy thing to do. I also want to give a pro tip to anyone thinking of doing this: don't. Or if you do, write fiction. Being in the realm that I have been inhabiting between fiction and non-fiction is crazy-making. It may or may not be more true, but it can drive you close to mad.
OK, so that pretty much sums up the negative side of the ledger.
So, what did that cost 'buy' as it were?
Well, I discovered the camaraderie of other writers, when I joined Paragraph - a writing studio in Manhattan. While I am still crazy shy in those circumstances, when I could get out of my own idiotic way and talk with people, I usually felt a sense of solidarity. Every once in a while, someone was in a very different space, and I felt lonelier, but generally in the kitchen-zone where folks talk while drinking too much coffee and looking at each other nervously and/or printing out something they usually hate because it's Another Goddamn Imperfect Draft but also secretly hope will be genius so Something of This Insanity Will Be Worthwhile, I would have a conversation with someone that would give me courage to go on.
In the quiet writing studio, listening to others type away or hearing sighs, seeing furrowed brows when walking in or out, sometimes all the other writers' energy acted like a proverbial wind beneath my tired and bruised wings that kept me working a bit more that day...
Then at the writing retreat in Vermont, a delicious two weeks of solidarity with other writers, was fabulous, though because I was so focused on revising the draft, I didn't get to know folks as well as I wanted...but those I did, writers and artists, are still friends now and I hope always will be. Another retreat at my friend Marietta's place in NH was great, including being able to literally jump in a lake after a rough day wrestling with the editing, and finally where I finished, Wisdom House, in Litchfield, CT, where a labyrinth and a bunch of badass nuns kept me company, and another solo artist working, Lisa, and some silent retreaters and some women geologists and other fabulous people. My gift upon finishing was a ride back to the train with cousin Patti, who gave me a photo of my long-lost great-grandmother, Rosa, who died in the influenza epidemic in 1918...and the next book subject, of course. I had never seen her face and cried when I did. She was beautiful, old world (she came from Hungary or Lithuania through Ellis Island at 18 years old alone) and she was holding a book. I think she was probably Jewish, but that's another story...the next one.
But the other thing that happened, which is the hardest to write about, is the pain and beauty of sitting inside my grandmothers' lives, contemplating the inconceivable, such as: living through World War II, learning your brother had died in the Pacific because of a Kamikaze pilot but there was no body because he was incinerated, or finding out about Concentration Camps from your husband who helped liberate Dachau and had photos, or your husband works on the Manhattan Project as a secretary so you know what happened in Hiroshima, for real. All while being home, living on rations, moving from place to place, Not Knowing Who Would Win (during the war)...and before that, living through the Depression, all the fear and poverty - in both cases, their families losing so much, but also a sense of solidarity that each would miss in their own ways as they got older...Then the 1950s, when everyone drank themselves to death to forget the former...the 1960s when everything changed and one grandmother ran to embrace that change and the other shrank from it, horrified...the 1970s when one grandmother left her last, third husband and moved in with her activist son in Milwaukee roaring as a newly-minted feminist - terrifying young children in her path, breathing alcohol and cigar smoke - a heroine to so many, so broken and yet shiny, charismatic, and in all ways: incredible. The other grandmother, as usual, picking up the pieces, taking care of me as everyone else had their 70s moments...grumbling, not happy, hating the music, the clothes, the Whole Thing of it...
Realizing, when considering their childhoods that they grew up without radio until the 1920s, so households would have had to create their own entertainment. Make their own music, read the news...etc. A time, I conjecture, of much More imagination, because there is no such thing as being a passive consumer of culture....But also before women could vote.
All of this, I got to live, in my own imperfect way - and at times being sure I was failing miserably - feeling through the 20th Century...way back further than I lived, trying my damnedest to get beneath all the family legends and ways of seeing - so as to extract something like what May have been their lived experience.
What preceded these 8 months, by the way, was many years of research and many false starts. Much of the rough draft in March was upended, or just shelved.
In the end, I have a really long book, perhaps too long, but believe it or don't, this is the Pared Down Version. Maybe it needs to be split up, I don't know. I am glad of the new Long Book Trend that seems to have emerged. My theory is that we're all getting sick of Tweet length insights and want to just luxuriate in worlds for a while. Some people say it might be because of the long TV series trend of such multi-year epics like Sopranos, et al. Maybe so. But for whatever reason, I like to think - hope - there are readers out there who would like to take the time to live in the worlds of these two very different women making their ways through the 20th Century...we'll see.
So, was it worth it?
I don't know if that's totally my call - at least not in terms of the quality of the book.
As for me, as I am writing this now, I think maybe, yes. Because for all my necessary selfishness in getting it done, I did finish the thing...and in so doing, unearthed a lot of my own delusions about my grandmothers, and therefore many family truisms/delusions, and therefore my own delusions about - well - me. So, in this way, it was - as a friend of mine who I trust implicitly keeps insisting - a spiritual exercise.
The last few months, aside from haphazard attempts at getting in touch with agents, etc., I also started writing again - will it be a book or is it just random journal-like stuff? I don't know. I called the project with no discernible form 'Touching Ground.'
I needed to find myself again. Who am I? Who am I now? Have I changed?
I'm still figuring that out.
I also taught some classes, which was probably good to get me out of myself but was also exhausting. If had had any money left, I would have taken these months off, but such was not my fate. Some of my students are writing better now than they were when we met. When that happens, I feel my time as a teacher is not worthless. But because I am a codependent whack job (as mentioned earlier), it's hard to teach without getting way too caught up in their lives, etc.
Last year around this time I wrote a blog post about the politics of the US. I am not doing that in this post. I tend to do that kind of thing on the dreaded Facebook now (another story - see last post). But, I spent this past year immersed in the politics of this country for the past 100 years. I emerge from two strains, one grandmother of the dyed in the wool Democrat-variety. She would be a full-throated Hillary Clinton supporter now, I'm fairly certain. She would be furious with me for supporting Sanders, or maybe not. She was always surprising. The other strain is the GOP-loving side. Some of them now believe Sarah Palin gets a raw deal, etc. My grandmother, Dick, defended Nixon to the bitter end. I lived with her during Watergate. "He just got caught," she would say. "They are All criminals." We lived then in South Yarmouth, next to the Hyannisport Kennedy compound. Anyone who cut her off on the road was "one of those damn Kennedy kids, who do they think they are?" etc.
So, I feel I was born and raised into all of this whacko country. I lived in most all socio-economic backgrounds (in many places, however, all primarily within the Northeast and primarily white). Unlike many, I don't have one playbook I heard growing up, instead many contradictory ones. All of these people are now in my life again. After much shame over the GOP branch, I reached out, to find where Dick came from, and while I don't agree with it, I certainly understand it better. I also flirted with that world when I was younger (as in 11-14 years old), so I get it. I made myself into a born-again Christian, the works. That horrified Dick, just FYI. That was going Too Far...She and my grandfather had worked so hard to get out of the lower middle class, so my Baptist tendencies scared her - way too low rent. As the old joke goes: Baptists are Methodists without shoes...
I just finished reading Elena Ferrante's brilliant Neopolitan novels. Her incisive writing about both class and gender made me incredibly happy. I can't say as I managed the feat she did, but I certainly did my best. I recognize in her a soul sister. Her books reminded me of the first novel I tried to write but didn't finish in the early 1990s - about working class Connecticut - not the pretty version (similar to her version of Italy, which as one reviewer said is "more like Cleveland"). I see now, as Ferrante has written her masterpiece while in her 60s, that I was probably too young to do what I hoped to do. Maybe I will return there.
I love authors - and all types of artists - who try to write and create on giant canvasses, who risk failure and go ahead anyway. I have spent my life doing this in one way or the other. How many times have I succeeded? How many times failed? Hard to keep track. But the trying is all.
In a prose poem by David Whyte, when he writes in relation to Jacob wrestling with his angel, he quotes Rilke: "Winning does not temping that man. This is how he grows, by being defeated decisively, by greater and greater beings."
I hope, pray, that the byproduct of this 'growth', the book is worthwhile to more than just me, of course, but there is the inevitable defeat involved in reaching past one's abilities and comfort zones, which I had to risk for this book.
And that, my dear blog readers, has been my year.
Welcome to my blog..
"We struggle with dream figures and our blows fall on living faces." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
When I started this blog in 2011, I was in a time of transition in my life between many identities - that of Artistic Director of a company (Apocryphal Theatre) to independent writer/director/artist/teacher and also between family identity, as I discover a new family that my grandfather's name change at the request of his boss in WWII hid from view - a huge Hungarian-Slovak contingent I met in 2011. Please note in light of this the irony of the name of my recently-disbanded theatre company. This particular transition probably began in the one month period (Dec. 9, 2009-Jan. 7, 2010) in which I received a PhD, my 20 year old cat died on my father's birthday and then my father, who I barely knew, died too. I was with him when he died and nothing has been the same since. This blog is tracing the more conscious elements of this journey and attempt to fill in the blanks. I'm also writing a book about my grandmothers that features too. I'd be delighted if you joined me. (Please note if you are joining mid-route, that I assume knowledge of earlier posts in later posts, so it may be better to start at the beginning for the all singing, all dancing fun-fair ride.) In October 2011, I moved back NYC after living in London for 8 years and separated from my now ex-husband, which means unless you want your life upended entirely don't start a blog called Somewhere in Transition. In November 2011, I adopted a rescue cat named Ugo. He is lovely. As of January 2012, I began teaching an acting class at Hunter College, which is where one of my grandmothers received a scholarship to study acting, but her parents would not let her go. All things come round…I began to think it may be time to stop thinking of my life in transition when in June 2012 my stepfather Tom suddenly died. Now back in the U.S. for a bit, I notice, too, my writing is more overtly political, no longer concerned about being an expat opining about a country not my own. I moved to my own apartment in August 2012 and am a very happy resident of Inwood on the top tip of Manhattan where the skunks and the egrets roam in the last old growth forest on the island.
I am now transitioning into being married again with a new surname (Barclay-Morton). John is transitioning from Canada to NYC and as of June 2014 has a green card. So transition continues, but now from sad to happy, from loss to love...from a sense of alienation to a sense of being at home in the world.
As of September 2013 I started teaching writing (composition and rhetoric) as an adjunct professor at Fordham University, which I have discovered I love with an almost irrational passion. While felt blessed for the opportunity, after four years of this, the lack of pay combined with heavy work load stopped working, so have transferred this teaching passion to private workshops in my own apartment and working with writers one on one, which I adore. I will die a happy person if I never have to grade an assignment ever again.
I worked full time on the book thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign in May 2014 and completed it at two residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Wisdom House in summer 2015. I have done some revisions and am shopping it around to agents and publishers now, along with a new book recently completed.
I am now working full-time as a freelance writer, writing workshop leader, coach, and editor. Contact me if you are interested in any of these services.
Not sure when transition ends, if it ever does. As the saying goes, the only difference between a sad ending and a happy ending is where you stop rolling the film.
For professional information, publications, etc., go to my linked in profile and website for Barclay Morton Editorial & Design. My Twitter account is @wilhelminapitfa. You can find me on Facebook under my full name Julia Lee Barclay-Morton. More about my grandmothers' book: The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani
Recently, I started a website Our Grandmothers, Our Selves, which has stories about many people's grandmothers. Please check it out. I will be blogging there, too, now. You can also contact me through that site.