Relocating isn’t easy. My first day at college, a friend of my brother’s dropped me off in front of my new dorm on his way to work. When the people arrived to unlock the building, they found me waiting with my suitcases and boxes. By the time the other students showed up with their parents and started carrying in their stuff, I had already pretty much moved into my single (singles are the norm at Hampshire, even for first-year students). Freaked out at being away from home by myself for the first time, and too afraid to speak to anyone, I shut myself in my room and cried.
Moving to Rhode Island three years ago was almost as scary as those first hours of college. I was long past 18 and hardly alone, and in the intervening years I had successfully relocated several times. But any time you move to a new place, it’s a challenge. You have to find your way around, figure out where you’re going to buy your food and get your hair cut, sort the good guys from the bums among the local politicians and, most importantly, make new friends.
After three years, I can find my way around well enough to turn off the GPS before we reach the reconfigured highway interchange and it starts furiously recalculating. I have not one but several grocery stores: the one where I buy bread and bagels, the one that carries fair-trade coffee and happy meat, and the one I go to for pretty much everything else. I’m not totally thrilled with the guy who cuts my hair, but he’s nearby and fun to listen to. Local politics is easy: our state senator and local rep are good guys; everyone else belongs in jail. We’ve made lots of friends, in large part through the synagogue we joined right away. (Those first few months, when I was supposed to be praying, I’d be sitting in my pew, silently counting the number of my fellow congregants about whom I could state at least one fact. When I lost interest in the game, I knew I had arrived.)
But there’s one aspect of my life here that still makes me feel as self-conscious as a newly-minted college student. Unlike when I moved to Pittsburgh and L.A., in Rhode Island I’m not in school and I don’t have a job. And unlike when I moved to Burlington, I don’t have any kids in tow. For the first time in my life, I’m free to do what I had always wanted to do: write fiction full time. When I first arrived, the prospect was as terrifying as it was thrilling.
It wasn’t the thought of spending my days writing that worried me. I had been working on my novel one day a week for about eight years, and I was looking forward to finally giving it my full attention. But without the convenient cover of student, librarian or mother, I would be presenting myself to new acquaintances with my embarrassing, audacious secret identity unmasked. And what do you do? They would ask. And I would have to answer I’m a writer. And sound as if I meant it.
(Sure, I had written stuff before. I had even visited schools and library conferences and so on as a Visiting Author. But before now, writing had always been what I’d done when I wasn’t doing real things, like shelving Papal encyclicals in my Catholic high school library or making tuna melts for my kids.)
As with the other aspects of starting this new life, I have managed. First I learned how to say I’m a writer with a straight face, and then I came up with a sound bite to answer the inevitable follow-up question, What is your novel about? (My sound bite: “It’s two parallel stories: one tells what happens to three adult children after their mother dies, and the other is a fanciful story about how their grandmother came to America. It starts off as separate threads, but by the end they come together. It’s called LITTLE GRANDMA’S MIRROR.”) For long time, I would tell people I was still trying to finish it, and then I would say I was looking for an agent.
Now that I have an agent, the process is pretty much out of my hands, and my job is to write something else. I’m working on it. Which means that for many months now I have been diligently writing every day, having new ideas and starting new projects, losing interest and starting new ones, then returning to the old ones, all the while hoping that one will take. It’s not an easy place to be. But all I can do is keep plugging away and look forward to the time when I’ll feel as comfortably ensconced in my new work as I do when I’m exiting onto 195 and I tell the GPS, Don’t bother recalculating. I know where I’m going.