The Women’s Car

A few weeks ago a high school friend put out a message on Facebook, asking if anyone might by chance be available to be a last-minute replacement for her daughter on a trip to the Middle East.  When it turned out that I would be done with spring semester in time to meet her for five days in Cairo at the tail end of her trip, she threw in the frequent flyer miles for the airfare and the extra bed in the hotel, and I was hooked (and booked)!  Now, just about a month after I first heard she wanted a companion, I am already home reacquainting myself with the experience of ten time zones’ worth of jet lag.

I went prepared to be dazzled by the pyramids, the Nile and the Egyptian Museum, and indeed I was, but as usual, it is the unexpected things that make the most lasting impression.  One of these is so relevant to my writing that I want to share it here.

We took the Cairo metro several times during our stay (we should be so lucky as to have a subway so clean, orderly and modern in our own cities!), and for the first few rides, the experience was typical. Men, women, and children shared the cars we rode in, and though most people minded their own business, the men, to put it politely, checked us out far more extensively than seemed warranted.  Then we noticed a sign for a women-only car and decided to hop aboard next time.

The experience was extraordinary.  While people in the rest of the cars traveled through2455745635_02a99d492f Cairo quietly wrapped up in their own private worlds and ignoring each other as much as possible (well, except for the stares), the women’s car was lively with conversation and laughter.  When women looked at the two of us, they often did so with a smile.  It was so pleasant and wonderful to be there, part of an instant community of people who, though strangers, know something about each other through the common experience of being a woman.

I understand there is some controversy among the people of Cairo about whether there should be such cars, but I won’t go into the various arguments here.  What sticks with me about the experience is how well it illustrates the underlying point of all my fiction.  There’s a richness in women’s lives that only comes out when they are among themselves.  Though I wish we lived in a world of greater equality of the sexes, there is something precious about the space women carve out for themselves in male-dominated societies.

There’s an analogy to be drawn between the paucity of information about the daily lives of women in the past and the women in those subway cars in Cairo. For centuries men have been the arbiters of what was (and is) important to record and remember about their societies, and the result is that almost everything about the world of women goes unnoticed.  Men concentrate on the activities important to them, i.e. the cars in which they are riding. All the while, out of sight and perhaps out of mind, women rattle along on the same train, making another world with just each other. We always have, and we are very good at it.

That’s what I want my books to convey, and I am grateful for those cars full of women for giving me such a beautiful image to keep in mind as I try to bring characters to life from cultures that missed the train altogether when it came to valuing what the women were thinking, doing, and contributing.

PS–I didn’t take the photo included here, because I figured out that many Egyptian women really would rather not have their picture taken by strangers. This is a shot I found online.


Living in the Future

I spent time this weekend with my son Ivan, going over old photo albums before close of escrow on a vacation home we have had since he was six (he’s thirty now). When he was young, “advanced” technology was to store photos in bulky albums on thick pages with sticky surfaces and a plastic film that adhered by static to the page. We had dozens of such albums, all precious, with memories if not fresh at least immediately recalled with squeals, laughter and the occasional groan. Hundreds more unfiled and completely disorganized photos had been tossed years ago into the outgrown Snoopy suitcases from his brother’s and his early childhood travels, and it all just kept coming at us until 1AM this morning.

The documentation of our past is distilled now (sort of) into one box packed to the brim with photos Ivan will scan some day.  But pleasurable–and painful–as our evening of memories was, the thing that sticks with me most is something he told me he recently heard on a radio interview. Only later did he realize how profound one tossed-off line really was, and he can’t remember now who made the comment.

“I’m living the rest of my life in the future,” the person said.

Okay, at first it sounds obvious. But is that really what we do?

As I looked at photos of my children at birth, at two, at six, and as I saw myself again as I looked in the different decades of my adult life, I found it meaningful to reminisce, but in the end, that’s allI can do.  It’s over.  I can laugh, I can cry, I can wince, I can chuckle, but I can’t go back.  Much as I love my family and friends, I don’t miss people I haven’t seen for years because I know they aren’t the same, if indeed they are still with us in this life at all. All I can miss is what once was. It feels good to remember and honor them, but there’s not much sustenance for the future in dwelling on what we can’t have back.

I do a much better job than I used to avoiding expenditures of emotional and mental energy on things I cannot change, and the biggest part of what none of us can change is what has already happened.  Still, if I add up how much time I have spent processing and reprocessing the disappointments, sorrows, frustrations, and antagonisms that people and events have brought me over time, I bet it adds up to months, if not years of my life I have spent living in the past.

I know sometimes we can’t move on until we come to grips with negative aspects of the past, but unless we understand that we are living the rest of our lives in the future, the point of plumbing that past is lost. The whole point of healing is that it sets us up for tomorrow to be as good as possible.

On the other hand, a decision to live our lives in the future is not in any way a validation of idle daydreaming at the expense of living in the present, or a decision to do nothing today because there’s always tomorrow. Far from it. Daydreaming and procrastination are not living in the future, they’re living nowhere at all.

At the lowest moments of my life, I told myself “It is your job to be happy again,” and indeed I treated my situation that way.  I didn’t expect to be happy again soon, or easily, or once and for all.  I knew, however, that if I concentrated on being open to things, however small, that brought joy to me before, and if I stopped myself from wallowing in what I could neither change nor learn much of use from, I would be happy again some day.  And I am.

Understanding that we are spending the rest of our lives in the future helps us to be ready for whatever lies ahead, and to move forward with courage, hope, energy, and focused intelligence.  It means realizing that the future will be made up of one moment after another of living in a present that hasn’t arrived yet and doing what we can now to thrive when it does.

I am living the rest of my life in the future in that sense.  I intend to be as ready for it, and as resilient, as I can be. Beyond that, I’ll just wait to be surprised.



Writers have different styles not just in the words they produce, but how they go about producing them. When fledgling writers ask the very common question, “How do you write your books?” the question is in part curiosity about the person to whom they’ve directed the question, but it’s also in part another question altogether:  How should I write the one that’s in my head?”

No writer can say the best way for another person to work, The other day I was on a panel of women authors and was intrigued, though not surprised, at how different we all were when it came to producing the words on the page.  When the inevitable “How do you write?” question was asked, one of the other panelists described a slow process of getting every word right.  She’s a novelist now but got her start as a poet, and her attitude is one of reverence for every word.  For her it’s a matter of getting everything perfect.  It isn’t complete until there’s no wasted syllable, no word that isn’t just the right choice.

I admire that approach, but it’s easy to see why some writers produce one or two books in a decade, and others, like me can keep to a pace that’s closer to one book a year.  I like to call this second approach “approximism,” a word I invented when I was a professor of research writing.  With some students the big issue is writer’s block.  With others it’s letting the finished effort go.  And of course, more often than not, writers at all levels have a little-or a lot–of both problems.

Let me tell you what approximism is NOT.  It isn’t a cynical shrug of the shoulders, a “who cares?” about communicating with the audience. It isn’t settling for poor or sloppy writing. It isn’t granting oneself permission to be less than the best writer one can be.  Approximism in no way resembles “cranking it out” on a deadline or for a grade.

Approximism can perhaps best be summed up by words from John Steinbeck I have quoted previously in another entry in this diary. Describing THE GRAPES OF WRATH, he once said, “It’s not good enough, but it’s the best I can do.”  This is the heart of approximism.

Here are the steps:

1) Make a commitment to write until you can’t write any better.  Whether you do that one painstakingly perfect page at a time or give yourself permission, as Anne Lamott famously quipped, to write “shitty first drafts,” what matters is the commitment to write the best finished product you can however you can.

2) Accept that there are always going to be different ways to say something, and don’t necessarily confuse that with better ways to say it. Try out different phrasings of passages that don’t seem just right yet, and then settle on making one possibility the absolute best you can make it.  If it still bugs you, try another way and do the same thing.  As a friend of mine once said, “I keep working on something until I quit running into things I don’t like.”  That’s the time to let it go.

3) Agonize over things as small as a word or a punctuation mark in ONE final edit (oh, okay, maybe two) and tell yourself that if this is all you can think of to do to your work, it’s done. Swallow hard at that point and go public with it, whether it’s to an open mike, a writing contest, or a publisher.  You need feedback now.

Good readers will tell you how to make something better. Even if  criticism makes you feel misunderstood and unappreciated, don’t you want to feel understood and appreciated?  How else will that happen except by knowing where your words have fallen short?

I’ll write about unhelpful criticism and rejection another day. Even published authors get plenty of both, but I think approximists may be able to handle setbacks a little better than perfectionists can.  After all, we know what we wrote isn’t good enough. Perhaps we may decide it isn’t the best we can do after all and dig back in to try one more time.

Approximists of the World, Unite!   Or something sort of along those lines….