Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Coffee Shops in the Morning: Advice to Young Writers

If you are a writer, live near a coffee shop. It doesn't matter if you don't like coffee. Order tea. Or a Coke. Or juice. Whatever. Just live near a coffee shop. Why? Because everyone goes to coffee shops. At least, all manner of people do. I sometimes meet the people I interview for my column in the Crazy Wisdom Community Journal in coffee shops (and tea rooms). I've overheard people being interviewed for all manner of jobs, from dishwasher to corporate. People have their first dates in coffee shops - I've had several. Also follow-up dates. I've met up with old friends I hadn't seen in years, met their children and their spouses for the first time. Coffee shops are places people go. So go! Eavesdrop. Observe.

I also often use coffee shops to write. It's important to get out of your home if you're a writer. A change of scenery can do wonders for the scene in your story. Or maybe you aren't having trouble with a story and just feel restless, or directionless. You need to move. Take a walk. Go to a coffee shop. Eavesdrop. Observe. 

It might alarm the general public to know just how much eavesdropping writers do. And if you ever find yourself wondering, mi-conversation with me, if anything you say might end up in one of my stories someday, the answer is probably. Even if it's not your exact situation and your precise problem, you're there. Your mannerisms, your turns of phrase, even, occasionally, your looks. The certain way your mouth quirks when you're amused, or how your nose turns up at the end, or how your eyes seem to change color depending on the lighting. 

Every single person I meet adds to my experiences of people in my brain. These perceptions merge and mix and new people - characters - pop out. So are my characters you? No. Are they based on you? Partly. But they are also based on everyone else we know, customers I've encountered in my jobs, people I watched on the bus or train or in traffic. And it isn't just me doing it - writers are everywhere. The person behind you in line might be a writer observing you for inspiration. Probably half the people in coffee shops are, in fact, writers all quietly observing one another. Coffee shops are like dens of thieves. Life experience thieves!

A writer's mind works differently from other minds. Take my morning at the Ugly Mug in Ypsilanti this past weekend as an example. (It was a great way to start the day!) As I sat and sipped my macchiato in the front window, I thought about the taste. How I would describe it, which words fit best and which were subpar or misleading. How did the mug feel? Warm? Too hot? Smooth? Chipped? All words. 

I observed a gaggle of cyclists in serious cyclist gear come down the street and pull into the parking lot. I thought about how I would describe that sight to someone else. What words would best capture the feeling of suddenly having a surge of cyclists in orange and black spandex, helmets, and sunglasses - serious business cyclists - suddenly flood my view, like a swarm descending? And what about the children in Sunday dresses skipping down the sidewalk across the street and the church steps, solemnly greeted by men with that day's service pamphlets, followed by their more serious parents in sedate clothing that would stand out at any other occasion that wasn't church. (I've just used the word serious an awful lot. Is there another word?) How did the light change as I sat?

That is how my mind works. Does it matter how I'd write the cyclists? Does it matter how I'd describe the little girls dresses? Or how they moved in relation to their parents? No. I don't intend to write a story about that exact moment. But that doesn't matter. It's the first thing I do when I encounter something new: how would I write this?

So my advice to younger writers is always this: Get out. Go for a walk. Go to a coffee shop. Eavesdrop. Observe. Then write.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Becoming Homeowners

After looking at houses since Christmas, Greg and I are finally homeowners! It's been a long and stressful process. There are not nearly as many houses on the market in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area as there are people looking. Our Realtor said that the number of houses is up over last year, but the number of homebuyers is also up - way up. And houses in our price range just weren't showing up in the neighborhoods we wanted, within walking distance to stuff.

There were plenty of cookie-cutter homes in suburbia, but living in a place that requires driving to reach any little thing profoundly depresses me. (And I don't mean that metaphorically.) I like walking and biking - being active - and I hate driving. It's a drain on the environment and my finances.

The house we bought is a short walk from downtown Ypsi, and the strip of restaurants across from Eastern Michigan University. If I get restless from writers block, I can just toss my tablet in a bag and hike over to a number of cafes. I have always found that walking is good for writers block, not to mention a simple change of scenery. Where we are now, I have to drive to reach someplace safe to walk. The house is also about a thirty minute walk from Depot Town - quicker if we ride bikes, which means I'll soon be in the market for a bicycle (and a shed to keep it in since the house lacks both shed and garage).

The lot is quite large and very blank, which suits Greg quite well. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with. My father was a master gardener and the yard was his domain. My mother helped out, but the master planner and the one who took real, active interest was Pa. I foresee a similar relationship in my future. I like gardens, don't like grass, and love the outdoors. I just don't really know what to do with it. Once handed something and told what to do, I can maintain it. I'm better with the interior of a home. (I almost went to college for interior design, but writing just makes up too much of me.) 

Speaking of yards, one of the neighbors behind us have chickens! Hens to be exact. Ypsilanti, along with most cities, does not allow you to have roosters. We've talked about having chickens and goats, but neither one of us is home long enough to get a dog let alone farm animals. If we had "normal" Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 jobs, maybe. Last night neither of us got home before 10:30pm, not uncommon for us, so more animals than our two independent cats is out of the question.

We intend to do some repairs right off the bat since we can't break our lease for another few months. (Better to do it while we're not living there than dealing with the mess in-residence.) We've already mapped out the kitchen to begin updating that. The cupboards are crumbling and the oven door doesn't sit right (I think one of the hinges is busted). There are also pieces of the floor tiles missing, and the chandelier has lost a canister and a light. One of the door knobs is also troublingly dented. It works fine, just... what the heck? How does that even happen? Our first scouting mission to Home Depot resulted in a how-to packet on remodeling a kitchen and scads of paint samples. Hoping to set up an appointment to get an estimate on the kitchen project soon. 

I am really excited! I've even geared up to clean up our junky apartment with the help of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. I know this book has been getting a lot of attention lately, and there's a reason for that, it's really that good! Her philosophy boils down to this: keep only the things that spark joy. The crate of empty glass bottles that has been sitting next to my trash for two years does not spark joy. Quite the opposite, in fact. They are a contributing factor to why I don't want people to visit us. Ever. Which also makes me sad because I used to entertain all the time - from elementary school on - and I really don't feel like myself without it. I just hope I can convince Greg to give it a shot and part with some things. (I highly doubt the Christmas card his sister sent us two years sparks any joy for him, or that he's even seen it since she sent it to us. But it's still in our
apartment, I guarantee it.)

Ok, I am off to do laundry and finish stage one of the KonMari method, purging clothes. I can't wait!!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Tulip Time in Holland, Michigan

Last week was packed! I visited two places for my upcoming Journal deadline, covered an open shift at work (giving up a precious day off in the process), and Greg and I went back forth with our realtor and the bank over a new offer when the house we are trying to buy appraised at far less than the price we'd originally agreed upon. (This works in our favor, of course, but it was a big headache getting it all done and the right paperwork signed and sent to the right people. Then the sellers didn't even have to agree and we would have had to walk, which meant starting all over from the beginning of the house-hunting process.) 

I realized on our late night drive to Kalamazoo Thursday night that I hadn't updated this blog yet, and I knew I wasn't going to have time. We had an appointment the next morning to look at a potential wedding venue all the way out in Benton Harbor, then were planning to spend the day in Holland to check out the Tulip Time festival, the largest tulip festival in the United States, which Greg had never attended. (I hadn't been since 2011 when my mother and I took Kimmy, newly arrived from California.) 

The weather was perfect - warm, but not too hot, and the right amount of sunny - and most of the tulips were at their peak. A festival that occurs at the same time every year can often be hit or miss with flowering seasons, so this was spectacular. Tulip Time also celebrates the region's Dutch heritage and includes Dutch food, crafts, and old timey Dutch clothing which includes the infamous klompenor wooden shoes. (There was a man in the market making them, and you could also buy yourself a pair. They're actually more comfortable than they look.) 


When I was in elementary school in Portage (next to Kalamazoo), we always had a week in music class during which we learned Dutch songs, dances, and dressed up in wooden shoes and aprons for the girls (I don't remember if the boys wore anything special other than the shoes). We didn't put on a performance, it was strictly a class activity, but we all understood that wooden shoes and tulips were a shared part of our heritage. Except for me. The only Dutch ancestry I have is from the 1600s or before and via England. That doesn't change the fact that West Michigan is extremely Dutch. Just look through a Grand Rapids phone book! So many Vans.

Outside of tulips, I've never much been a fan of the Dutch, or at least the American offspring that settled here 100+ years ago. They are extremely conservative, which might sound weird to people who mostly associate "Dutch" with "Amsterdam," "prostitution," and "marijuana." Jesus and Holland have always gone hand-in-hand in my mind. Remember those WWJD bracelets that were all the rage in the 1990s? Those were invented in Holland, Michigan. In my high school, you were one of the cool kids if you had one, so naturally, almost everyone had one. (I did not.) 

Many of the Dutch-founded counties of West Michigan were dry until 2006 when they finally realized banning places like Applebees was bad for economic growth. I am told I also have the Dutch to thank for my pronunciation of "milk" sounding more like "melk" (the Dutch word for "milk") and "pillow" as "pellow" (which I actually don't do anymore, but I still sometimes say "melk").


So yes. The Dutch are conservative. But they grow some beautiful flowers and Greg and I had a lovely time looking at them. Watching the presentation of children dancing in klompen and singing a Dutch song brought back amusing memories. (Five pairs of socks to wear those things!) I even got Greg to try on a pair and snapped a picture. 

There are a few pubs in downtown Holland (because alcohol stimulates economic growth), a downright charming place with more than a little high-end shopping. We ate lunch and had a few drinks at the New Holland Brewing Company Pub, bought some delicious chocolate from the Holland Peanut Store, and almost bought a sign for our soon-to-be house from Apothecary Gift Shop.

Even though I have barely a speck of Dutch blood in me, Dutch heritage is my heritage and it was nice to share it with my future Mr. Me.