Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


I’m back from a little blogging break! I’ve been focused on a work-in-progress as well as some fun promotional things for Tokyo Heist that are in the works. And I’ve been dealing with a conundrum on the home front.

I generally resist writing about my child on this blog, or parenting in general, partly because I’m not sure how much it interests my readers and mainly because my blog is an escape hatch for me, a place where I can just think about books and writing and art.

But occasionally Life just can’t be filtered, so I’ll share the problem that’s eating at me. 

My son is soon to turn five. He is starstruck fan of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Alvin CDs have been in constant play on my car CD player since December. We’ve seen all the movies. He even, though somewhat grudgingly, likes the Chipettes. Believe it or not, I used to have a son with some musical taste. He listened to CDs like “Jazz for Babies.” He went through an Afro-Cuban phase, around age two, which we all enjoyed. And then he discovered the Chipmunks, and life has not been the same.

This isn’t the problem I’m facing, though. I’m actually learning to live with the Chipmunks. I’ve found clothing and hats to disguise the tail and small ears I am sprouting. I don’t really get out much these days, so I find I can keep my high-pitched squeaky voice pretty much a secret (though now you all know).

The problem is he has his heart set on a birthday cake that would feature Alvin, Simon, and Theodore — AND the three Chipettes — riding in a green sports car with the top down and their “hair” blowing in the breeze. (“Hair” is in quotes because it’s really just little tufts on top of their heads. Chipmunks don’t have real hair. Silly!) For some reason, this vision of loveliness has appeared to him, perhaps in a dream, and he is convinced that this is the cake he Must Have.

This from a boy who doesn’t even EAT cake. He takes two bites, if that. He’s an ice-cream guy.

The last three birthday cakes, from our local bakery, were all the same: a red and yellow racecar. My son was deep into cars for ages, and despite my requests to change the car design each year, we kept getting the same car design from this particular bakery — the decorator, it seems, does not have a wide repertoire of designs. So, happy not to have the usual plain racecar request this year — happy he’s been diversifying his interests over the past year — I went to our local bakery, shared my son’s vision, brought in pictures, and asked what they could do.

The girl behind the counter looked shell-shocked. The baker shook her head. No chipmunks. No way. They could, however, do a red shirt, like Alvin wears, and some musical notes. I settled for that. Then I told my son what the cake design would look like, as he’s not a big fan of surprises.

The switch did not meet his design specifications. The image of a lonely, chipmunkless shirt actually made him burst into tears. As did the concept of Alvin without his brothers. I asked for alternative ideas. Simpler ones.

“How about the cars from Dr. Seuss? From the Lorax? Those are fun,” he said cheerfully, wiping his eyes.

“They are. But they’re pretty hard to do in cake frosting. And we’re having a rock-n-roll party, remember?”

“Oh. How about an electric guitar? With sparks flying out of it?”

“Better. But maybe not the sparks?”

“Wait. I’ve got it. Transformers, in a battle!”

I tried to show simpler cake photos online. I showed a YouTube video of how a cake decorator squeezes frosting from a tube. I explained the concepts of “simple” and “complicated.” Usually he listens to information like this and comes around, but this time he could not be persuaded that his cake visions were impossible to execute. And the fact is, they are NOT impossible. A high-end cake decorator would rise to these challenges. For a fee. But I’m not willing to invest in that for preschoolers. Who do not actually eat the cake.

We’ve been hotly debating cake decoration for a week now, and where we left it this morning was with him sighing and saying “Fine, let’s just get the same racecar.” Well, that bothers me too. It feels like giving up. There must be some creative solution, something simple yet feasible, that we haven’t hit on.

Now maybe most parents — sensible parents — would just buy a simple cake from the grocery store and be done with it. I don’t recall my own parents ever asking me for cake design input. Cakes appeared, and were eaten, end of story. And maybe other parents — cooking parents — would make a cake and tackle the design themselves. But I’m a horrible cook — I can actually screw up cake mix from a box — and have no cake design talent. I know because I once worked in a bakery, in high school, and my shortcomings as a baker were glaring, especially when I accidentally sold the model cakes out of the display case, not knowing the frosting designs were actually covering Styrofoam.

Then it dawned on me this morning that I am so caught up in this cake dilemma because — watch out, writing metaphor coming! — it hits a nerve related to my own creative issues.

I too get grandiose visions of what is possible in a story and refuse to admit impossibility. There’s no room for all these characters. They can’t go to place X and Y and Z. These subplots are too complicated. Hyperventilation usually follows. Then sheer determination. There has to be a way! I WILL make it happen!

Sometimes the effort alone makes me see that a story really is too crowded, that a subplot or character must go. But I have to go through the effort first. And sometimes multiple efforts lead to creative solutions. Maybe characters who are similar can actually combine. Maybe they don’t go to place X, Y, or Z but to a different place altogether. Maybe a scene can do double or triple duty, working on several levels, and I don’t need three scenes after all. A little cutting, trimming, reshaping, moving flowers around — a design is taking shape.

But then it collapses; maybe the design looks OK but there’s a flaw in the cake structure, or the basic ingredients. Too much flour or too little. And I try again. And that’s where I’m at with my work-in-progress. Reshaping, rebuilding, making those painstaking decisions. Piece of cake? Not really. Many hours of work. But hopefully worth it in the end. If I’d given up on my design with Tokyo Heist when I was most afraid of incorporating many different elements, I wouldn’t have had the finished product I have today.

So I’m torn between teaching my son to lower his expectations and be realistic versus encouraging his wildly creative ideas and teaching him ways to make them happen. Ways that don’t involve my shelling out fifty bucks or more.

So . . . how do you make artistic decisions about how much to include in a story or other work of art? Do you tend to overwrite and need to pare down, or do you underwrite and need to develop? 

And does anyone know a good, cheap cake decorator in the greater Boston area?

It did not hit me that my son’s first year of preschool was really ending until yesterday afternoon, when I took his art projects and papers out of his cubby. There it was: the letter Z. I felt the floor drop away from me as I stared at that final worksheet. My hands actually shook. I marveled at how neatly my son had traced the dots to form the Z and then how he’d copied the letter beneath it. At the smiley face sticker to reward his good work. I thought back to A, B and C back in the fall. The wobbly lines, the tentative pencil. This Z, in comparison, exuded confidence. Z may be the last letter, and underutilized, but it should never be underestimated. It’s fierce. Zounds.

I remember the middle of the alphabet, which hit in the dead of winter. M, N — what awful letters. How to tell them apart? They’re like close-in-age siblings who look like twins, dressing up in each others clothes, fooling people.  O is Okay, I guess. But  P, not so much. And Q  . . . Q! That maddening little tail! And don’t get me started on R — so hard to distinguish from its cousins B and P.

There were dark days this year when I didn’t see how we would make it to Z. The end of the alphabet, like the spring, seemed elusive and receding. Even when W and X appeared in the cubby several weeks ago, I was in denial.

But here we are at Z. Even preschoolers get to enjoy a sense of completion and a sense that goals can be attained. They made it through the alphabet. They are LEARNING TO READ AND WRITE. This is big stuff, people. This is where it all begins. 

I have my own receding Z to look toward right now. The next stage of my novel revisions. Back to work I go, fueled by my son’s amaZing final letter, now proudly tacked above my desk. 

Cleaning is the first thing to neglect when I’m on a writing or revising binge, as I am these days. For the sake of my family’s safety and sanity, I keep a semblance of order by scooping up clutter and throwing it into boxes or bags, to be sorted at some future date. Lately I’ve been looking at these boxes and bags in horror, wondering when I’ll ever have time to deal with them, hoping I don’t someday appear on the TV show “Hoarders.” But I’m trying to reframe the way I look at this stuff. I’ve realized that all the strange odds and ends I’m accumulating, the flotsam and jetsam of my daily life, might make for fun writing prompts some day. (Assuming I someday finish my edits, and that my son stops getting these weekly colds and ear infections, and that I will one day write something fresh again).

So today I’m picking a random bag — which happens to be my “purse” — and listing some of its contents, for a future writing exercise. At the very least, it’s a fun exercise in noticing details, and makes me feel like my clutter-gathering is actually productive. Feel free to swipe any of these bizarre items if you are so inspired:

1. A one-inch foundational layer of spilled pretzel sticks. (My son loves these pretzel snack bags for the car, but never finishes a bag. I put them in my purse. They spill. We open another bag. The cycle continues).

2. A toy double-decker bus from London. (Not that I actually went to London. It was a gift. For the pretzel guy — see item #1).

3. A silver dinner fork, nicely weighted, from Brasserie Jo, a hip bistro in downtown Boston where my husband and I ate a few weeks ago. Disturbingly, I have no memory of dropping a fork in my bag, nor does he. (An excellent writing prompt here . . . does it contain DNA evidence for some crime, and was it planted in my bag? Or am I prematurely embarking on an elderly person’s penchant for stealing cutlery from restaurants? What’s next — dinner rolls wrapped up in napkins?) (More disturbingly, I found the fork several weeks ago, and then . . . PUT IT BACK IN THE PURSE. Oh my God. Who does that??)

4. A prescription of Paxil for my cat.

5. Three mismatched mittens. (From three little kittens?)

6. Six straws from Starbucks. (Not really straws. They are Units of Time. My son can sometimes ride out a long wait in a line by playing with straws. However, they do devalue).

7. Four hand sanitizers — gels and sprays. (Note: none worked this winter).

8. Coupon for the Big Apple Circus. (Good times!)

9. Small bag of Halloween candy. (Bribe for pediatrician office yesterday).

10. Five receipts with notes for my novel revision scrawled on the back. (Valuable).

Individually, any of these items could become the seed of a story.

Collectively, these things give a pretty accurate snapshot of my personality and life these days. I keep a semblance of order, but it’s illusory and temporary — chaos threatens to erupt from the neat-looking boxes and bags. I have zero spare time, and am desperate for any snatch of time I can grab. I spend much of my time caring for a small child and facilitating a distressed cat, but fight to keep my identity as an individual person and as a writer. I crave a classier lifestyle at times (Brasserie Jo, London) but don’t always get there (I’ll be using that Big Apple Circus coupon next week).

What’s in your bag? What do the tiny, random objects from your daily life say about you, or about a possible character?

I’ve always loved writing about adventures abroad. I spent my 20’s and early 30’s with a suitcase constantly packed, and brought home more words about the places I went to than photos or souvenirs. But what’s a travel writer to do when she’s grounded? When she has a family and can’t fly so far?

I’ve been wrestling with this issue because my current work in progress is partially set in another country. Wondering if my journals and photos were enough to jog my memories and provide the details to bring scenes to life, I thought about returning. It might be good to check some facts. Update my information. Smell the diesel fumes again, eat the local food. Record the sights and sounds anew. Then I remembered I had a three-year-old. And not the most adaptable sort of three-year-old either. The kind who loves to curl up on the couch with his beloved Pixar movies, and who won’t eat unless his particular brands of mac n cheese and sliced cheese squares and cheesey chicken nuggets are available. (Hmm . . . is Wisconsin in our future?) Well, in other words, I have a very typical three-year-old. I hear mythic, romantic tales of people who travel the world with their toddlers, strapping cheerful babes to their backs and setting off for a lengthy hike, or zipping around Europe with them babbling contentedly in a bicycle trailer. Right. Not happening here.

                                          Source: www.freedigitalphotos.net

And leaving my family to jet off on a research trip? At this stage, it’s unimaginable. I’ve never left my son for more than one night, and the one time I had to board a plane without him — for a one-day business trip to Washington, D.C. — I was consumed with visions of a plane crash leaving him motherless. 

Yes, I’m grounded for the time being. It’s a temporary state; I know I’ll travel again, both solo and with my family. Just not in the next six months. This has left me with decisions to make about how to update my information about the setting of my work-in-progress.

Fortunately, so much is available online now. Travelers post photos and videos daily. Travelers write blogs. Local news stations broadcast online around the world. Webcams show the weather as it’s actually happening. And guidebooks, both hard copies and online, can provide a lot of the basic information I need to stay current.

What I was craving, I realized, was a sense of the mood of this region these days, since the political and economic climate has altered. I also wanted to get a sense of the pulse of life for young people there now. Where they hang out, where they avoid. Where they meet locals, where they meet expats. How their perceptions of the country have been challenged or changed. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that even if I dragged my family there for a week, I wouldn’t necessarily get that information. Not sealed up in an air-conditioned Marriott drinking our bottled water. I had a sense of youth culture and the pulse and pace of life by actually living and working in that country, years ago. If I went there now, it would be a different trip altogether.

It occurred to me that an avatar would be useful. Some ability to send a version of myself to walk those streets and absorb the culture there today, without leaving home. But wait — couldn’t technology make that possible? I got to work.

I designed a three-page questionnaire for people under 30, living and working in that country. I got in touch with schools I had worked with in the past and organizations that cater to young expats. I offered Amazon gift certificates in exchange for thoughtful answers to my questions about life there today. I got a fair number of respondents, and the surveys are flying back to me now, with useful and insightful information — exactly the kind of word-on-the-street stuff I wanted to absorb. Collectively, the responses are giving me a picture of the place right now; they also jog more memories of my own experiences there. Everyone so far has offered to be available to answer further questions. At some point in the story I’m writing I’ll need to figure out a certain type of travel route, and I hope one of my avatars, or ground troops there, will be willing to test it out for me.

I’d love to hear from others who set their works in distant places: how do you jog your memories or take virtual trips? How important do you feel it is to actually visit the places you write about?