Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Back to Birgitte - second post from South America

Guest blogger, Birgitte Rasine checks in with manuscript and toddler from her writing travels in the wilds of South America...

A Clash of Two Worlds

The tropics.  Hot hot sun, exotic fruits, amazing local food, plenty of wildlife and songbirds, a hammock swinging in the breeze, cool drink in your hand… what more could a writer want for inspiration?

As I quickly found out, that depends on what you’re working on at the moment—and whether you’ve got a toddler in tow.  After Christmas, we drove down to “Los Llanos,” the tropical grassland plains of Colombia, to spend 10 days at a small fishing lodge secluded near the banks of the ancient Manacacías river (for reference, the Manacacías joins the Meta which then flows into the legendary Orinoco in Venezuela).  Normally, a trip like that would be a dream for a writer looking for a faraway place to get away from the emails, the cell phones, the constant interruptions and stresses of the modern world.

But when you bring your two-year-old, a paradise quickly transforms into an obstacle course of potential hazards, and your writing time drains down into maybe an hour or two a day.  Malaria-bearing mosquitoes, uncertain water sources, weird and unfamiliar food, parasites lurking in every crevice and pool of standing water, rivers full of electric eels, anacondas, water cockroaches, crocodiles and all kinds of other eminently friendly and compassionate creatures.  Then there’s the ever-present potential for running into paramilitary or guerrilla forces, although fortunately these days that potential runs very low in this area.

Sure enough, the first day my little girl got sick—we didn’t know if it was the water from the swimming pool, the oatmeal that sat in the heat a little too long, or some unseen insect that had bitten her… but instead of succumbing to the strong temptation of panicking (we were hours away from a decent hospital), I spent the day watching over her and administering lemon and garlic water, a mixture that works wonders on E.coli and all kinds of parasites and stomach bugs.  I myself had suffered from a rather aggressive E.coli infection shortly after our return from the island of Providencia, and the lemon/garlic cured me in 3 days.*

Thankfully, the next morning my baby was fine, jumped in the boat with us, and spent the day fishing the wild ancient rivers of the Colombian plains.  Remember that piranha I was after?  I’m proud to say that I was the first to catch a fish on this trip, and it was indeed a piranha—although not the giant black one, it was a gorgeous red-bellied piranha.  We let it go: it’s illegal to kill piranhas here.  They’re incredible river janitors.

And my writing?  On this trip I brought my psychological thriller with me, the one that takes place in the Parisian métro.   Yes, I know: Parisian metro vs Colombian tropical flood plain.  The most unlikely bedfellows.  Normally, I have no problem plunging into the world I’m writing about regardless of where I am physically.  But this time, I found it very difficult.  I tried writing in bed, in the hammock, by the pool, but found myself wandering off, gazing at the trees, the birds, the river… I even considered staying at the lodge by myself while my husband and the rest of the family spent the day fishing, but I just couldn’t do it.  After all, who travels thousands of miles to this remote place and give up even one day on the river? 

So I resigned myself to editing in the early dawn or in the evenings after dinner, which worked fabulously well.  I was able to edit the majority of the work I had written to date, most of it tucked away in my mosquito net, away from would-be biters and stingers and other annoyances of the minuscule kind.  And because there was literally nothing to see (light pollution is minimal here), I could edit in peace knowing I wasn’t missing anything.

Besides, I told myself, I can write when I get back to Bogotá… and California.  There was simply too much to see—and see we did (I’ll write about that in my next post).  The Llanos have a way about them… the plain enters the very marrow of your soul, and won’t let go long after you’ve gone.

Birgitte Rasine

p.s. Medical disclaimer and a note about that lemon/garlic mixture: it is a known fact that citrus has extraordinary cleansing properties.  After all, they make detergent out of it don’t they?  It turns out that if you blend lemon, orange and grapefruit, pulp, rind and all (no seeds), with a bit of raw or powdered garlic, and drink it ideally with food, anything sitting in your gut that shouldn’t be there (as in, E.coli, parasites, worms, whatever) runs for the proverbial hills. 

It’s natural, won’t kill your flora, and you can get it practically anywhere.  And yes, if you can’t stand the bitter taste, you can add honey or sugar.  But as with any health-related suggestions, please talk to your doctor before using this mixture to cure specific ailments or conditions.  I know it works for me and my family, but if you’re allergic to citrus or garlic it’s obviously not a good idea.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

and now, a word from our Fellow...

Sarah Gerkensmeyer, you will recall, knocked our socks off with her story "Monster Drinks Chocolate Milk" when she accepted her $1000 Fellowship. She has not disappointed us in her year of living writerishly (is that a word?) - she is currently at the Vermont Studio Center at a writing residency (yes, she has small children!) and she writes a guest-blog from there about an article that was in Scientific American last month...among other things. Her story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, is forthcoming by Autumn House Press on February 15, 2013.

Please welcome: Guest Blogger and 2012 Pen Parentis Writing Fellow, Sarah Gerkensmeyer!


“ScientistsDiscover Children's Cells Living in Mothers' Brains.”  I wish this were the title of one of my short stories. 
            As someone who juggles the roles of mother and writer (among many others), I was most definitely intrigued by this article in Scientific American last month.  I think that many parents who are artists spend a great deal of time thinking about the gulf that seems to exist between their work and their family life.  And this gulf can be so discouraging.  So riddled with guilt and worry.  Since becoming a mother, I've wanted to insist that my writing has opened up, that among the new joys and stresses of a family I can now conquer the world in my work.  And yes, there have been glorious, fleeting moments when I've felt this kind of spark, pushed into an urgent and intoxicating sense of discovery while writing during my sons' nap time or while they are away for a couple hours at school and daycare.  But often the negotiation of my family and my writing life seems fraught with imbalance and uncertainty.  I haven't read my four year old enough stories today.  I haven't worked on my novel in weeks.  If I let my writing slide, I'll lose a piece of myself.  If I devote myself too much to my writing, I'll become that nutty woman who locked herself in the attic with her notebooks and her Shirley Jackson and her Carson McCullers.  My two sons will never see me again—a mother who got lost in the wilderness of her stories.
            But then I read this article about fetal microchimeric cells that have been discovered burrowed into mothers' brains and bloodstreams and who knows where else.  I gave birth to two sons, but it seems that my babies never completely left me.  And what a comfort that is.  I wrote some of my strangest short stories right after my second son, Charlie, was born.  I was too overwhelmed during the sudden quiet of his nap times to try to dive back into the draft of my novel, and so I allowed myself to write very short and peculiar tales, little stunted creatures that I didn't  recognize when they landed there on the page right in front of me, the cursor blinking in confusion.  But I didn't care.  I was writing again.  And my new baby was asleep, warm and well. 
            Quite a few of those little stories ended up cementing my story collection together in unexpected ways.  Suddenly, I had a book.  I had a new baby and I had a book.  I like to think, now, that those newer stories are Charlie's in so many ways.  When I was huddled at the dining room table during his naps, hunched and desperate and spewing out odd tales, I wasn't fighting against the pull of my tiny newborn baby.  I was inspired by him.  When I was pregnant with him, those weird stories were in me, washing around and fusing together right alongside my developing son.  It's a nice, strange thought, isn't it?  That he gave me those stories to tell? 
            My husband and two sons dropped me off at the airport a couple days ago so I could head out to the Green Mountains for a two week stay at Vermont Studio Center.  I am lucky.  I have a generous husband who insists that I am a writer, not just a mother and all of those other things.  He insists that I deserve time on a mountain, with just my stories.  He insists that I fight through the guilt of leaving home, that our sons need to grow up seeing a mother do what she loves.  And I have two sons who are happy.  Who love me.  Who will welcome me home in two weeks.  But my family is also right here with me, my two sons especially—little bits of them burrowed into unexpected parts of me and my work. 
            On the way to the airport, Charlie (now twenty months old) chattered away in his carseat behind me.  He listed things, a mash of words I could recognize (horse, snow, mama, dog) and things I couldn't.  He was absorbed completely in the urgency of his language.  Now that he has started to talk, he often gets frustrated when we can't understand him.  He'll jabber a string of sounds that we don't recognize and he'll cry when we don't catch on—pointing at the television or the refrigerator or a stack of his books, a concrete need bursting to get out.  But I like to think that sometimes he's telling us something else entirely.  Sometimes he's lost in a long-winded diatribe that we will never be able to piece together.  Maybe it's the stories.  The ones that were swimming around alongside him when I was pregnant.  The ones I wrote after he was born.  The ones I haven't written yet. 

--Sarah Gerkensmeyer
2012 Pen Parentis Writing Fellow