An hour later, Illy was lying under an afghan on the couch, staring at mysterious grey stains on the ceiling. She had rewritten the Mocha Man paragraph four times and had finally achieved the perfect balance between small realistic details and an emotional pull that would touch the reader. She wished someone could read the paragraph right now in all its newborn energy. Some writers never shared anything until it was finished and edited to death, but Illy loved constant input. She called it Process Feedback, and she thought it was a key element in writing. With Process Feedback, writing became a communal activity, which Illy knew was important in the postmodern era. The image of writers as isolated hermits was so outdated, and the new generation of writers- she loved that phrase, the new generation of writers– was more of a community.
She really needed someone to read this paragraph. Her mother was probably home, but Illy didn’t think her mother would appreciate the romance of it all. She was pure pragmatism and didn’t understand the value of writing a novel in the first place. She was trying to convince Illy to write a recipe book instead, which Illy thought was the most embarrassing type of writing ever. One of her cousins had written a recipe book a few years ago called Farm Feasts with Fanny. Her cousin’s name wasn’t even Fanny- it was Caroline- but she thought the title was too catchy to pass up. Illy felt so sorry for Caroline that she’d bought a copy of the book, but she worried that if too many relatives bought the book out of pity, Caroline might actually think the book had been a good idea. Illy’s mother, of course, thought it was brilliant and kept it propped up on her kitchen counter, hoping that Illy would eventually follow in Caroline’s illustrious footsteps. Obviously a woman who thought Farm Feasts with Fanny was a clever title would never appreciate the genius of a literary creation like Dylan.
June was usually willing to read Illy’s work and give appropriate compliments, but she was out of town this weekend, visiting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. Illy thought it was exceedingly brave to spend a whole weekend at their house when she’d only been dating this guy for a few weeks. But June had been sure that they’d hit it off immediately, and her only concern was whether she should hug them when introducing herself or just shake their hands and then hug them when she said goodbye. Illy tried to convince her that not everyone’s parents were as warm and huggy as June’s, but June just laughed and rolled her eyes, accusing Illy of being cynical. Illy couldn’t wait to hear about the weekend and hoped June’s new relationship was still intact by the end of it.
Illy couldn’t think of anyone else to go to for Process Feedback. How was she supposed to move forward in her writing if she had no sense of the quality of her work so far? She was just about to call her mother when there was a knock on her door. She jumped off the couch and glanced at her reflection in the window. Her purple scarf had slid back on her head kerchief-style and made her look like she’d been out milking the cows. She snatched it off her head, tousled her hair in a desperate attempt at artistic disheveledness, and ran to the door. Maybe Mocha Man had just discovered his girlfriend was a lesbian and was looking for some sympathy. Illy smiled, leaned casually against the wall, and opened the door.
“Mother?” Illy’s smile disappeared as her mother strode by her into the apartment, a crumpled sheet of paper and a mutated mop in hand.
“Hi, dear. I thought I’d stop by for a moment on my way to the gym. Did you just roll out of bed?” She was staring at Illy’s hair. Illy’s mother went to the gym every morning of her life. She’d always been freakishly disciplined and had even run in the half marathon the month after Illy was born. Illy felt insulted every time her mother mentioned the gym, as though Illy’s own lack of exercise discipline somehow made her less of an adult. She reassured herself with the fact that she would join a gym when she turned thirty. It seemed like a reasonable plan. Though she had also promised herself to start a daily yoga practice when she turned twenty, and two years into the decade, she was still unclear on what exactly constituted a yoga practice. Would her morning arm circles, for example, count as yoga if she did them with calm, focused breathing? What about the time sitting in the circle at the belly dancing class? Maybe she had more of a yoga practice than she realized. She pressed back her shoulders with a new strength and serenity. She might not even need the gym in her thirties if yoga was this natural and beneficial.
Illy’s mother thrust the mop contraption at Illy as she walked into the living room, scanning the horizontal surfaces for dust and clutter. Illy’s shoulders drooped a little as a familiar presence formed at the base of her neck. For someone who put almost no value on tidiness, she managed to harbour a surprising number of housekeeping insecurities, eager to rally at the sound of her mother’s voice. She ignored the accusing throng. “What’s this? It looks like a mudflap on a hockey stick.”
“Oh, it’s the latest cleaning gadget. Supposed to pick up dirt and bacteria without even using water. I thought maybe you’d like it.”
“Why don’t you like it?” Illy still couldn’t figure out which part of it actually cleaned.
“Too fancy. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t get on my hands and knees to scrub the floors every week. Wouldn’t feel right somehow.” Illy’s mother was also addicted to housework. “Anyway, I thought you might be interested in this.” Her mother was examining Fern while holding out the crumpled sheet of paper in Illy’s direction. “Have you been misting your plants regularly? This one looks a little wilty.”
Illy, who had been meaning to ask her mother about Fern’s wiltiness for weeks, was offended that her mother had brought it up first. “I don’t need your plant counsel, Mother, we’re doing just fine on our own.” Illy winced. Why did she always do that? Now she’d never know what she was doing wrong. She grabbed the paper.
“Cell Phone Sales Technician? What is this?”
“A great job opportunity. It was posted on one of those little shiny kiosks in the mall and I thought it would be perfect for you.” Illy’s mother was filling up a spray bottle at the kitchen sink while she talked. Illy pretended not to notice.
“You thought that sitting in a metal box in the mall selling phones would be perfect for me? Are you angry at me about something?”
“Oh Ilia, don’t be so dramatic. I just thought it would be convenient and easy and, well, you do need a job.” She began misting Fern. Illy thought she saw Fern’s leaves turn a shade brighter in instant gratitude. How did her mother do that?
“I do not need a job.” Illy ignored her own unconvincing tone. Truthfully, she did need a job, or at least would need one soon, but was determined to first give her Five Year Dream Plan a legitimate chance. When June and Illy had graduated from high school they had taken a celebratory road trip to New York City. Well, the plan had been New York City, but the station wagon June had borrowed from an Uncle had broken down in Akron, Ohio, so they’d considered that the hand of destiny and spent the week watching their favourite musicals in an Akron motel room and planning their futures.
June’s future involved a lot of European destinations and PhD dissertations. Illy’s, on the other hand, really only involved one thing: Writing. She was determined to be an author and wanted any of her jobs or studies to contribute as directly as possible to that goal. The Five Year Dream Plan, written in scratchy blue ball point on Super 8 Letterhead, that she tucked into the glove compartment in Akron and that was now taped to the door of her refrigerator looked like this:
Year One (Age 19): Take creative writing classes at community college. Work part time at public library
Year Two (Age 20): Work full time at public library. Take at least one on-line writing course from big New York Writing Institute (Try to go to New York to meet with instructors. And see Les Miserables on Broadway). (Establish Daily Yoga Practice).
Year Three (Age 21): Back to part time at library. Begin submitting articles and stories to (paying) newspapers, contests, and literary journals
Year Four (Age 22): Have enough money from library and literary prizes/publications to write full time. Write first novel.
Year Five (Age 23): Publish first novel. (first need an agent?). Begin second novel. Make guest appearances at Public Library. (Maybe start teaching yoga in the evenings?). Enter romantic relationship if suitable partner appears (must support life as author).
End of Year Five: Road trip with June to celebrate Five Years! (NYC? Baja?) Write new Five Year Dream Plan
The plan had gone smoothly for the first two years. She’d taken classes at a community college and worked at the local library for two years. Granted, her work there mostly involved shelving books and wiping up juice spills after the Toddler Story time, so it was hard to see how the job directly contributed to her development as an author, but at least it helped her pay her rent. She hadn’t found time to take the online course or go to New York or start a yoga practice, but she did watch the movie version of Les Miserables a number of times, and really those were all secondary to the overarching goal of writing.
It was around year three that her Dream Plan started to veer alarmingly off the tracks. She hadn’t yet submitted any piece of writing to any contests or newspapers, and so by the time she’d quit her job at the library this year to jump back into the plan at Year Four, she really only had enough money saved for three months rent. Her mother appeared to have intuitive access to her dwindling back account.
Illy mustered more conviction than her bank statements warranted as she continued, “I’ve saved up plenty of money from my job at the library and now I’m a writer, remember? I work every day. And so even if I don’t get a pay cheque each week, there will be plenty of payoff in the end. An end which may be in the very near future, I may add.” She paused here for dramatic effect and retied the scarf on her head. “I have a publisher.”
Her mother looked up from her misting, eyebrows raised. “Really? A publisher who has agreed to publish your book?”
The impressed tone in her mother’s voice revitalized Illy’s earlier Audrey Hepburn confidence. She smiled, flopped with great elegance on the couch and stretched her arms above her head as though talking about her publisher was getting so old and obvious. “Yes, Mother darling, They want me to bring the first installment by the end of this week.” Yawn.
“Are you feeling okay, Ilia? You look awfully tired.” Her mother had proceeded to the African Violet and was rubbing its leaves between her fingers. Illy thought her mother should be some sort of homeopathic plant doctor.
“No, no, I’m feeling great. Just bored with all this sitting around. I really should be writing, you know.” Illy honestly couldn’t tell if she was trying to give a false but impressive impression or if this was the authentic new her. Her fingers really did feel charged with electric writing energy and she was eager to get back to her typewriter. Her Life as an Author Vision was becoming a reality. Illy wondered if she could tell her mother that this was the first time ever she wasn’t just pretending to be a writer, but decided her mother would be distracted from the significance of the moment by the revelation of so much dishonesty.
“Well, don’t let me stop you. I wouldn’t want you to fall behind on your deadline. Any idea when the book might be finished?” Illy’s mother set the spray bottle down on the coffee table, which Illy had to admit would be a helpful reminder. For how much expertise her mother possessed on nearly every topic, she really was pretty good at doling it out with subtlety. Illy smiled with gratitude. Now that she was a nearly-published author, she felt freed from years of defensiveness.
“Oh I don’t know. It’s really just flowing right now, so I’m thinking with a good stretch of uninterrupted writing it should be done in a couple months.” That seemed pretty realistic, considering how quickly she’d been able to develop Dylan’s character. From here the story would take off on its own.
“Good for you, honey. Well, keep the cell phone ad just in case. And don’t forget to mist!” Illy’s mother blew her a kiss, then made spray bottle motions as she walked out the door. Illy was still stretched out on the couch, her hands behind her head, smiling. She’d just had a conversation with her mother about writing without the subjects of cookbooks coming up, and she had a dreamy man waiting for her in her novel. Maybe she could add in a short mature kissing scene with the mochas.
Continue Reading: Chapter Eight