The annual writing trip

I don't always succeed, but each year I try to escape my ordinary routines for a few days to work on a project. I can't remember the year this began, but it would've been around 2004 or 2005. I haven't been particularly ambitious with my destinations; I'm usually just looking for someplace relatively quiet, away from people I know, where I can turn my attention solely to a book. I've stayed in a cabin in Cambria, California; I've spent many such trips in Klamath Falls, Oregon. 

This year I tried someplace new: a little cabin on Whidbey Island, in Washington, known as the "Writer's Refuge". It's tucked into the woods just outside of Langley; the owner of the cabin lives on the property nearby, and has established the cabin as a destination for artists working on projects. There are rules, all of them designed to encourage focus and work: no more than one occupant; there's no television or DVD player provided; etc. To get there, I had to cross a small expanse of water—Possession Sound, I think?—on a ferry.

Earlier this year, I booked nine days, anticipating work on one of two projects: I'd either still be editing my current novel, or I'd be writing the next one. My current book is still in edits, but as I'm awaiting the latest letter from my editor, I instead opted to spend the time planning my next book. During the editorial period on Eleanor and my current book project, I've discovered all sorts of little useful revisions I wanted to make to my own writing process. This seemed like the perfect time to put that into practice. 

In past years, these little writing getaways have been extremely productive. I'd gone on benders, writing as much as fifty thousand words in a week, sometimes doing ten thousand words a day. Unsurprisingly, when you're producing work at such volumes, you find there's a lot of revision required. I remember a particularly productive trip, maybe in 2009 or so, when I tore Eleanor down to its base concept and began rewriting it from page one. That was the fifty-thousand word week. If I were to drag out those fifty thousand words now, and compare them to the published draft of the book, I doubt I'd find many of them still present in the book. 

This time, I wanted to spend the time away just thinking. Bombarding myself with questions, with what-ifs. I wanted to focus on smoothing out the story until I understood the possibilities more completely. I wanted to do the same with each of the characters. In the past, I knew "enough" of these things before beginning a book. But as Eleanor transformed with each successive draft, and as my current project revealed more layers with each new draft, I realized that there was a lot more pre-work I could be doing. I love the editorial process—but I wouldn't mind getting to some of those big realizations sooner. 

So that's what I did over the course of those nine days. You won't be surprised to learn that I caught a cold, which appeared on the very first day of my trip, and which persists to this day. Coughs and sneezes notwithstanding, I began to blanket the walls and doors of the cabin with Post-It notes and sheets of paper and index cards, mapping potential story arcs and character motivations and relationships. I'd done this sort of thing before, but always gotten so excited by the process that I rushed into actually writing the book. This time, I didn't let myself write a single word of the manuscript, and by the time my final day arrived, I'd produced the first draft of the book's outline, and a stack of character profile sheets. I'd created a couple hundred notes in Evernote. 

So: all that's done. I haven't started writing the book yet. I'll get there in a few weeks, I think. I'm giving myself a little room to let all this thinking settle, and as it does, little things drift to the surface. Problems that I need to solve in the next draft of the outline; slivers of a character's makeup that weren't immediately apparent. I didn't write a word of fiction during this trip, but it might have been the most productive and useful writing trip I've taken yet. 

But it was nice to come home again. I'd FaceTimed with Felicia and Squish throughout the week, and arrived home earlier than planned. Squish and I spent the day roaming Powell's Books, drinking hot chocolate, and reading Lumberjanes comics together. Oh, and if you follow me on Instagram, you might have noticed that Squish has become quite the little Star Trek aficionado recently. I can't think of a better way to end this post than with this:

Squish long and prosper.

Squish long and prosper.

The nominees are...

Now and then, a big theater chain does something that isn't altogether terrible. Beginning last weekend, Regal Cinemas offered a Best Picture Nominee Film Festival—$35 granted you access to watch all nine Oscar-nominated movies, as often as you wanted. (I mean, come on, they're making that money back through the concessions, of course, so they're fine.) 

Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, and Sunday afternoon were almost like holy days for me. I've said before, I think, that I'm not a religious person. I have no church affiliation. But there are places that, for me, are fairly close to church, places where I go to disappear: diners, or bookshops, or ballparks. And movie theaters. 

I'd already seen two of the Best Picture nominees (Arrival and Hell or High Water) but I'd missed all of the others during their original theatrical runs, mostly because I've been in edit mode on my latest project. It was nice to make up some ground here, and see the remaining few movies in a short marathon. Friday started things off with Manchester by the Sea and Hacksaw Ridge; Saturday was Lion and Moonlight (for which Felicia joined me); Sunday was Fences and Hidden Figures. The only movie I failed to watch was La La Land. I was so rocked by Lion that I couldn't bring myself to move straight into a lighthearted musical so soon. 

There were several deserving films here, along with a few that I thought didn't quite rise to "Best Picture" level, whatever that level is. Almost every last one of them seemed to scrape me from the inside out, some in unexpected ways.

I know there's lots of talk about who's going to win, but I don't care that much. I'm happy to have seen all of these movies for myself. My personal favorite was Lion, which I knew a little about. Perhaps it's because my child is not far from the age of the little boy who has lost his way. It was beautifully acted, and I'm fairly certain I watched the entire film through blurred eyes. Of the remaining films, Moonlight stands out as something exceptional and beautiful. 

Monday was a federal holiday, so I spent it with Squish. We saw The Lego Batman Movie. She laughed. At one critical point, she loudly demanded, "What. Just. Happened." It was everything the previous three days of movies had not been. It won't be a Best Picture nominee, but I couldn't care less, because I got to share it with her. I'm looking forward to the day I can share movies like Lion and Moonlight with her, too. 


This will be long. I can't help it. 

For the first few years of his life, Oscar didn't like me very much. 

He became a part of my world when he was a tiny kitten: rescued from a cardboard box of kittens in front of the Anchorage, Alaska, Wal-Mart by a friend of my ex-wife's; delivered into our home already saddled with the name Hoya. He was a pepper-colored gray shorthair, with too-big eyes and a serious face, with a chest emblazoned with a white flourish of soft fur, and four paws socked in pure white. Whoever named him Hoya thought they were clever; boxers wear gloves, this cat's feet look like gloves, let's name him for a boxer. 

The best thing I did for him was change his name, at least in the beginning. 

In the early years he played with newspapers and sat beside the fish tank, watching studiously as its occupants flitted past. He never seemed interest in eating them, but he liked to watch. If he encountered a closed door in the apartment, he inserted his paw beneath, and fumbled around as if looking for some nonexistent latch. When he encountered a Christmas tree, it became his singular goal to take it down. He succeeded once in sending a tree down half a flight of stairs.

But he did most of this without collaboration. He had no interest in my lap, or in head-scratches. He clawed me a few times when I tried to befriend him. When we relocated from Alaska to Nevada, he rode in the cab of an overstuffed pickup truck—perched high upon stacked boxes, near the ceiling of the cab, in the furthest corner from where I sat behind the wheel. In Reno, he found an unfinished wall in the basement which led into a dirt crawlspace beneath the house, and when he wanted to escape me, that's where he went. 

Which made it a little difficult to retrieve him when the marriage failed, and it was time to leave. In that house, there were two cats: Oscar, who had resolved to hate me; and Foley, named for an Elmore Leonard character, who had resolved to piss anywhere but his litter box. Each participant in the marriage decided to take one cat and go their separate ways. Confronted with two hard-to-love choices, I opted for the one who wouldn't urinate on my belongings. 

I once described Oscar and myself as survivors of a disaster, flung from sizzling wreckage, and that's sort of what we were. And like two living things trapped together in an unpleasant scenario, we forged a different kind of relationship to one another. No longer were we adversaries trapped in the same house; we were adrift together now, with only a U-Haul and a few scattered belongings to our name. As we traveled, Oscar began by hiding in the back of the rental truck's small cab, as far from me as possible, but never quite out of reach. And by the time we'd driven for a day, he'd ventured closer, and eventually fallen asleep on the floorboard, just behind my legs, as I drove. 

When he entered my life, I was twenty years old. With the exception of my very first novel and my current project, every book I've ever worked on has been written, to some extent, with Oscar snuggled up by my side, or obstructing progress as he reclaims my lap from my computer. He became my constant companion, the one who was still there with me when other people left my life, or when I asked them to leave, or when I chose to leave. He traveled with me wherever I went—from Alaska to Nevada, from Nevada to Washington, from Washington to California, from California to Oregon. And after those first couple of rocky years, we became inseparable. When I read a book, he head-butted it away, as if trying to suggest my hands existed for one other purpose, and one purpose only: to provide scritches and scratches. The faintest whisper of his name—or even just the sound of its first two consonants colliding together, a tiny click of the S and C—prompted a flurry of sound from deep inside his throat, and brought him trotting over for snuggles. 

Some of our best years together began in 2004, when I moved us to California. We settled into a cute little space, the bottom floor of a house, in Morro Bay (where, if I stood on tiptoes, I could see over a back fence, past some shrubs, through a tangle of eucalyptus trees, and between neighboring houses, to catch a sliver of a glimpse of the ocean). On rainy days, Oscar sprawled on the tile floor of the kitchen, writhing shadows of raindrops thrown down on him by dim light shining through the windows. On sunny days, he sat in the window—like in the photograph at the top of this post—and chittered at strays who darted along the fence rail, or at birds and squirrels. I recall one particular moment when he leapt onto the windowsill—at three or four in the morning—not realizing I'd drawn the venetian blinds, and managed to entangle himself in the them, then fight them, yowling loudly. Or the time the power went out, and he flipped out over my flashlight beam, chasing it in circles until he lost his bearings and collided with the wall.

I blogged mercilessly in those days, and I found so many little anecdotes about him in the archives of my long-dead web site, Deeplyshallow:

2004: Today I sat on the patio in the backyard and watched Oscar stalk the perimeter. He's nervous about the grass, and he stops dead at the perimeter of the patio, always backing down from that wall of green. So I picked him up, and walked around the yard with him. He was nervous, but after a while he relaxed—and I put him down in the middle of the grass. He lifted his paws, one at a time, recoiling as if being tickled, and hopped frantically sideways, searching for a non-vegetative surface to land on. But then he saw a butterfly, and the hunt was on. He'd chased the thing halfway around the yard before he looked up and realized he'd put a good fifteen yards of green between us, and his tail went straight up. For a good two minutes, he stared at me, frozen, utterly at a loss for what to do next.
2005: Migraine today. It's bothering me. It's bothering Oscar, too. Earlier this evening, prone on my bed, I started to cough. Oscar, who had been sleeping on my chest, woke up—and place his paw neatly over my mouth, then flexed ever so slightly, showing his claws, just to make his point absolutely clear.
2005: Yesterday I returned home from a day away to discover the front door open. Nothing was missing; there was no evidence that someone had broken in, only that I'd probably failed to close it securely. Inside, Oscar was curled up on my bed, looking only a little shaken. He regarded me briefly with a Don't you ever fucking do that again look, then went back to sleep.
2005: Today I woke to small puffs of air on my face—which freaked me out a little, since I'd recently read about all of the things which can bite you in your bed as you sleep—and opened my eyes to see Oscar, mere centimeters away, eyes shut tightly, half-snoring. Apparently, as I'd slept, he'd squirmed his way beneath my left arm, and tucked himself in close to my neck, and was puffing little bursts of cat-breath contentedly on my cheek.  

He was eight years old when I met Felicia; nine when Felicia brought another cat, Gabby, into his life; eleven when I married her; twelve when our daughter was born. He stuck with me through the awkward twenties, managed to hang in there while I figured out the challenges of being a responsible adult, and lasted well into a period of satisfaction and warmth and contentment. His first home was an apartment in Anchorage, and his last was Hill House, which Felicia and I bought just five months ago. Last year, a visit to the veterinarian revealed the onset of chronic kidney failure, and brought changes to Oscar's diet, and we realized that our good friend had somehow gotten old without us noticing. Felicia told me that our other cat, Gabby—now nine years old—qualifies as a 'senior' cat, by veterinary standards. Oscar, at eighteen years old, was well into the territory of the elderly. 

When I called his name, he didn't hear it as often. Two nights ago, he struggled to drink from his water dish. He wavered unsteadily on his feet, struggled to walk. I lifted him into my arms and he felt less...substantial. As if beneath his beautiful gray coat he had been slowly disappearing. We scheduled a visit to the veterinarian for the following morning, but Felicia and I both had an ominous feeling, even without knowing the doctor's verdict. That night felt like the last night before the worst day. 

That night I lifted Oscar into bed, onto my chest, to the place where he used to sleep for hours. He purred, but he was visibly uncomfortable, uneasy. He didn't push his face forward, tipping his head against my chin, as he so often had done. He didn't settle into place, and I realized that he just couldn't. His hips were hurting him; his body was betraying him. After a few moments, he needed help climbing down, and then he moved—with heartbreaking difficulty—through the door. 

When morning came, Oscar and I climbed into my Jeep, and we drove forty minutes to the veterinarian's office. Oscar was quiet during the ride, watching me. He'd been my passenger on so many journeys before, traveling down the Alaska-Canada highway with me, or sailing down the 5 to a new life. I didn't know that this trip would be the last time he accompanied me anywhere, not for sure. But it was. 

Yesterday afternoon, we made the very difficult decision to relieve Oscar of his pain. Each of us said our goodbyes, and the only one of us who wasn't a teary wreck was Squish. She petted Oscar and said farewell. At five years old, we've talked about death, and its finality, and what it means when someone passes away. She asked if she could give something to Oscar for when he was buried. When the time came, everyone left the room except for me and the doctor, and I held my friend, and didn't even attempt to hold onto my composure. 

When we arrived home afterward, fog had settled in on the hill, and it was nearly dusk. We picked a quiet spot beneath a tree, near the small orchard on the property we bought last fall. We've talked about building a small writing shed out there for me someday; the idea of quietly writing while our beautiful friend rests nearby comforts me. Squish drew something to bury with Oscar, and then, in the house, she made a little sculpture from large blocks. "I made Oscar for you both," she said to Felicia and to me, "so you will feel better and not be sad." 

I buried my friend beside the orchard, under a tree, as it grew dark. I am grateful, my family is grateful, to have had so many years with him, grateful that all those years ago, I chose Oscar, grump that he was, to come along with me. Perhaps then he was just the better of two disagreeable choices, but after all these years together, it's clear that he wasn't simply a cat to me. He was a part of me, and so a part of me is gone now.