How I Write, or Why My Day Begins So Early

Several people have asked me since the publication of CHICAGO TIME, how I managed to write a novel while my primary job was as a Stay-At-Home-Dad (SAHD).

Here’s the short answer: slowly.

Here’s the long answer….

My day begins at 5am when the alarm goes off on my phone. I get out of bed and go downstairs to make myself some breakfast and coffee. Then I sit down and nibble and sip while I write. This is how it usually goes, though I let myself sleep in until 6am on the weekends, and twice during the week I swim laps in the pool at the YMCA.

I write until the kids get up. No writing can take place while the kids are awake and in the house.

I’m a morning person. Before my wife and I were married and had kids, when we were living together I figured out that when I got up to write before heading off to work, I was in a better mood all day. I had started the day doing the thing I loved most to do.

I found that after a full day of working and reverse commuting in Chicago, I was too damned tired to write anything worthwhile in the evenings.

As time went on, I stayed with this early morning habit because it worked for me even when much of what I wrote was dreadful. (It was dreadful because I did not know what I was doing.) Early morning writing worked through the first years of our marriage, through my masters program at USC, the birth of our son, moving across the country, becoming a SAHD, becoming a blogger, the birth of our daughter and the last several years.

I first conceived the idea for CHICAGO TIME about six months after my son was born. I just started jotting down ideas for what I envisioned as a GRAND EPIC TALE ENCOMPASSING ALL ASPECTS OF CHICAGO. The ideas flowed on and off while I worked on other projects.

Beck then I was still working on some short stories and attempting to polish up what would become my best failed attempt at writing a novel. It’s the novel I eventually accepted as the one that taught me how to write a novel. In the summer of 2007, that novel was given a funeral by me and buried in the back yard.

When I actually began work in earnest on what would become CHICAGO TIME four years ago, the grand epic scale I had envisioned did not prove to be feasible. For a number of reasons which I won’t go into here.

There were plenty of times when I managed to squeeze out a few hours worth of work on my novel in the evening. Those tended to be days when I wasn’t so tired at the end of the day, when my mind was heavily focused on some aspect of the novel.

I worked on the novel bit by bit during these hours carved out of my day. There were several drafts, there were mornings I wasted by surfing the net reading and researching who knows what, there were sinus infections and bouts of flu, and trips out of town for vacations and to visit family.

But eventually, day by day, hour by hour, word by word, I finished writing the book.


Manic Monday

Here are two links for your Monday morning that, depending on your view, either signal the end of civilization or the bringing about of new possibilities.

From the Guardian: Soon, it will no longer be possible to judge a book by its cover.

Covers increasingly exist not as foot-high billboards and paintings on shelves, but as blurred, compressed little icons in lists on websites and devices, inscrutable jumbles of pixels that tell us little about the work. When read on an e-reader, books open to the first page of the text; the traditional cover increasingly seems irrelevant.

From Sasha Grey has signed a publishing deal.

“For the very first time I can create my own world, my own characters, my own story, and express my own vision with publishers who are just as passionate about the subject matter as I am,” Grey said in a statement. “I’m not interested in trying to reinvent the erotic novel, but I look forward to taking it back to its source as a salacious treatment of sex, particularly female sexuality, as something mysterious and sensual. Me sensual? Go figure!”

Enjoy your week.

My Summer Training Program (aka Running and Walking in Shanghai)

As I said the other day about running my first 5k, I managed to run steadily during our time in Shanghai this summer. Shanghai has a subtropical climate. Running in this kind of very hot and humid weather is probably no big deal for people who live south of the Mason-Dixon line in the U.S. For Midwesterners like me who are used to short summers of hot humid weather, it was an adjustment.

The sun rose around 5am so by the time I hit the track or entered a park before 6am, there were already lots of people out and about. Mostly older people who were running, walking, or doing a variety of exercises like Tai-Chi, badminton, or even ballroom dancing.

At first I ran in parks, once around Century Park in Pudong and once around People’s Park in Huangpu. It took a long while to get to Century Park by the Metro from where we were living in the Hongkou district. People’s Park is also a decent place to run around, but again, it was a busy Metro ride down and back.

Since we were staying at a guesthouse at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), most mornings I ran around the campus track. Other times I ran in Lu Xun park. Regardless of where I ran, I was usually the only non-Chinese person.

As always, the heat was strong, even at 6am. One morning, after a particularly sticky run, I went online to check the weather and according to it was 82 degrees with 89% humidity.

It was two weeks before I adjusted to running in that kind of heat. I learned to go at a slower pace. I also learned to drink most of a half-liter bottle of water before my morning runs. That way I wouldn’t feel so thirsty, or worse, get a parched mouth. The parched mouth happened once. I’d never had that during a run before, but then I’d never sweated so much during a run before.

One morning it started raining during my run at the track. Then the rain got heavy and everyone left the track except for me. I don’t know why. As I said, after a run I was always soaked in sweat. Being soaked in rain seemed far more appealing. I kept looking up for thunder clouds and lightning, but there were none. So I just kept running. It felt great, like when I was a kid and I would ride my bike in the warm summer rain.

A few words about Chinese track etiquette: there is none. It’s just like waiting in line in China, in that there is no line. Slower runners run in whatever lane they feel like running in, including the inner lanes. Faster runners simply have to go around the slow runners. Then there are the packs of 3, 4, or sometimes 10 runners who set up a wide slow-moving mass that you have to run around. Then there are the walkers who might or might not be in the middle or outer lanes. One morning, two very old women, clearly older than the rest of the morning crowd, were walking together on the track. That’s not what was unusual. What was unusual was that they were walking side-by-side in the two inner lanes clockwise; in the opposite direction of all the other runners and walkers. We all simply went around them.

I never tried running on sidewalks through the neighborhood because then I’d have to cross at lights and that would disrupt my run. A few times I tried to use Google Maps to chart a run on the streets of Shanghai, but the site would crash on me every time. Besides, I didn’t know the streets very well. Streets in our neighborhood weren’t always straight, and they often turned and changed names frequently, making it difficult to calculate distances and commit to memory when and where to turn.

The other bit of exercise I got was from walking. It was our main form of transportation for getting around Shanghai. I walked more than I have in years. I hadn’t walked that much since my wife and I lived in Chicago.

While walking, I also carried Meredith around a fair bit. In Nanjing, I carried her up to Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum and back down again. After awhile, I told myself that carrying my four-year-old daughter was all part of my unofficial conditioning program.

At any rate, I’m hoping this will all have helped me to be in proper shape to run that 5k in a few weeks.

My First 5k

On October 7th I will run my first 5k race. It’s official. I signed up and paid money to run in the MSU Federal Credit Union Dino Dash.

I chose the race because I thought by October I’ll have enough mileage and have been running steadily for long enough to be able to run the race comfortably. It’s also close to home. The course is on MSU’s campus, which is a very pretty campus on days when there is not a football game at Spartan Stadium.

As I said months back in My Obligatory Middle-Aged Exercise Post, I started running about a year ago and had to take some time off because of an injury. Since the early Spring I’ve been running steadily every week. Even in China. (I’ll put up a post about running in Shanghai in a few days.)

My race results, whatever they might be, will be a gift or an insult of sorts. The run just so happens to fall on my birthday. I did not plan it this way.

I have not given up swimming. Tomorrow morning I will go back into the pool. I miss the water too much. We had suspended our YMCA membership for a few months while we were in China. No sense in paying for something we were not going to use.

For you curious gearheads, here are the shoes I wear to run and will wear when I race for the first time.

New Balance MT20s in beautifully obnoxious orange. I’m pretty sure New Balance has replaced these with a newer model.

Though I’m in my early 40s, the following story gives me plenty of motivation. An 81 year old man in Canada ran a half-marathon in 1 hour and 38 minutes, setting a record for his age group. But that’s not all.

Whitlock fell on ice last November and broke a rib, one month after lowering his 80+ marathon world record to 3:15:54. He missed months of training and didn’t resume his famed routine of daily two- to three-hour runs in a nearby cemetery until mid-summer.

It goes to show that you do not have to go gentle into that good night. You don’t have to rage at the dying of the light. You can just go running past grave sites and on and on and on.

Bye-Bye Diaper Bag!

Last Friday as I was doing some cleaning in the kitchen, I came across the diaper bag. This was our second diaper bag. We used diaper Bag #1 with Henry for awhile, and then that one met it’s end after years of use and abuse.

So we moved onto Diaper Bag #2, which took us through Meredith. It wasn’t very fancy. It had been given to us by the hospital when Henry was born. We just had it around as an extra.

As you can see from the picture above, it was falling apart.

Meredith is potty-trained and just started pre-school. I can’t remember the last time I had to change her diaper while being out at the mall or in the grocery store or at a restaurant or at a friend’s house. I can’t remember the last time I needed to change her clothes because she had an accident. I can’t remember the last time I took the diaper bag with me anywhere. I can’t remember the last time I needed to check the diaper bag.

When I looked at the bag, still filled with a box of wipes, some mis-matched socks, a tiny green toy camera, lots of unused tissues, a few used and dried tissues tucked into a side pocket, with its ripped sides, and stained pockets and compartments, I knew it needed to be thrown out. Into the big brown trash bin outside it went.

Later in the day, at a picnic for my wife’s department, I saw some friends with their three-month-old son and their three-year-old daughter. They said to me, “Please tell us there is light at the end of the tunnel!”

I laughed and told them, “You’ll never believe this. But today I threw out the diaper bag. We no longer need it.”

“What is that like?”

“It feels awesome.”

Summer Is Over

This past Friday afternoon I took Meredith to her favorite playground, the “brown playground” as she calls it. She had been missing it in China. Other than a couple of park workers who looked like they were doing some end-of-season tidying up, Meredith and I were the only people there.

I don’t think there’s a clearer symbol for summer’s end than an empty playground.

The kids have started school, with Meredith now in pre-school a few days a week for half-a-day.

Henry had his first soccer practice last week, with his first game this Saturday.

The semester has begun for my wife at the university.

This is the last month of the baseball season with my White Sox surprisingly in contention for their division, the beginning of Fantasy Football season, cooler temperatures, and….there is some more work to do to promote my novel CHICAGO TIME.

There are also so many more stories to write.

Living on Chicago Time

Clock at Marshall Field and Company, Chicago (taken at the corner of Randolph and State Street). Photographer: David K. Staub under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.5 License

The working title for the novel that would become CHICAGO TIME was WINDY CITY. Then I found out Scott Simon had taken it for his novel. (His is a very entertaining novel about the political machinations taking place among Chicago aldermen upon the death of the mayor.)

This forced me to come up with a new title. I took the new title from a rant by one of the main characters, Elise, about a commonly used phrase in Chicago. You see, when you live in Chicago you live on “Chicago Time.”

It’s a curiosity about Chicago that almost no one who lives there, when referring to the time zone, ever says “Central Time” or “Central Standard Time” or even “Midwest Time.” I have no idea how this came about.

I spent most of the first 30 years of my life living in and around Chicago, and I often used the phrase “Chicago Time.” As in, “The Sox are on a road trip on the West coast, so the game against Oakland doesn’t start until 9 o’clock Chicago time.”

It wasn’t just me or everyone else I knew or heard speak. You also see this in more formal situations like this local CBS news report.

After driving past the prison a few times, then stopping at a hamburger restaurant for a Coke, Blagojevich arrived by car at FCI Englewood, a low-security federal prison in Littleton, Colo., and walked into the complex at 12:50 p.m. Chicago time, approximately 10 minutes before his required surrender time.

Or a report by columnist Lynn Sweet about the mayoral debates last year.

7:01 Chicago time
Miguel del Valle, Gery Chico bland openers.
Rahm Emanuel–the front-runner–nothing special
Carol Moseley Braun–in a new hairstyle and new highlights (I would note a new look for a man)…crisply summed up her biography…and makes the best pitch in the opener.

[Emphasis added]

This mindset does not necessarily occur in other places.

When I lived in Los Angeles, people didn’t say “LA Time.” Instead, they would say, “West Coast Time” or some variation of that, or even “Pacific time.”

In Michigan, no one says “Michigan Time.” You couldn’t even if you wanted to: half the UP is in the Eastern Time Zone and the other half is in the Central Time Zone.

In China there is only one time zone for the entire country.

When it’s not just the average Chicagoan who uses the term, but members of the media, it becomes something beyond local slang and approaches being legitimate. The phrase “Chicago Time” creates the sense that Chicago really does indeed have its own time zone. I have to agree with my character Elise, that it does reinforce the city’s warped sense of itself. Unlike her though, I wouldn’t have it any other way.