stray thoughts, in chronological order

1. on the plane to st. louis on friday i was looking out the window at the houses below, noticing how strange christmas lights look from an aerial perspective, and this thought came out of nowhere: if i’m never going to marry and have kids, i will have no excuse for being unsuccessful. i don’t know where that thought came from, and i’m not sure i even think it’s true, but i haven’t been able to forget about it since.

2. in large groups of people i don’t see often, i usually spend more time with the kids than with the adults. i’m sitting there eating my dinner or drinking my beverage, and then i’m surrounded by young people asking me who are you how old are you how many bracelets are you wearing why is your hair pink how many earrings do you have did that nose ring hurt what are you doing? once i get used to the questions, i find the directness refreshing. the kids view alison 28 23 because i like pink 8 yes eating a sandwich as acceptable responses, and never ask any depressing follow-up questions about how my employers feel about piercings and pink hair. they’re more likely to laugh at my jokes, too.

3. while in st. louis i went to the same bar i visited on thanksgiving. the same band was playing again, and once again people asked me what i was working on. this time it was my father’s writing instead of my own; he’d written a piece on which he wanted my feedback, and at the bar i was making notes on the printout he’d given me. i had a nice conversation with two local girls; they asked where my parents lived (i don’t know the city that well, but i was able to give them some nearby streets), and we talked about st. louis and austin and such. “my boss thinks st. louis is the ass of the nation,” i said, “but i totally disagree. i really like a lot of the places i’ve seen, and i think i’d enjoy living here.”

“we love it here,” one of the girls said.

“yeah,” the other one said. “and at least your parents don’t live in the counties.”

(the counties vs. the cities in st. louis is similar to inner loop vs. outer loop in houston, though i imagine this sort of geographical coolness can be applied to any large city.)

4. as i was reading at a bar by myself on a saturday night, i kept glancing up and seeing people i thought i knew. this was impossible, of course, since the only st. louis resident i know that i’m not related to wasn’t there (and the ones i’m related to were definitely not there). but it kept happening anyway, and i started to think about how there are probably more people in the world than there are unique faces. after all, eyes and a nose and mouth and cheeks and skin, etc., can’t possibly exist in infinite permutations on a human head, can they? if this is true, then at any given time in history there are fewer potential faces than there are people to wear them, which is why we often think we see someone we know. but it’s not someone we know. it’s just a duplicate.

i swear i only had two drinks.

5. i make fun of my mother and her doll collection a lot, but i do love seeing how happy she is when she talks about her dolls with other people. as i said to her this weekend, “i wouldn’t let anyone else make fun of you the way i do.”

(if that isn’t part of the definition of the word family, it should be.)

6. on the way back to the airport, my dad and i discussed his writing. i liked his piece quite a bit more than i thought i would, which had less to do with my expectations about his skill than it did with the myriad undergraduate writing classes i’ve taken in which everyone sucked. when i find a stapled sheaf of 8½x11s in front of me, my experience asks me how much is this going to suck?

(my sister and i are both good writers; i don’t know why i worried for even a second that my father wouldn’t be.)

but it didn’t suck at all — in fact, i thought it was really good. so mostly we talked about nerdy language things like when to put a dash between words that are adjectives modifying a noun (“middle-class homes” vs. “we are middle class,” for example), and the various ways one can approach dialogue modifiers: the simple, hemingway-esque “she said” ones i favor, and the more descriptive “she remarked dryly” ones that i think tend to get in the way of a smooth read. as i said to my dad, if the dialogue itself is written well enough and the characters are well-drawn, the “remarked dryly” is superfluous, because then the reader already knows she’s being dry.

we also talked about the process of writing itself. he mentioned my post in which i’d quoted ken levine who was paraphrasing kurt vonnegut, and i told him about ariel’s response to my post in which i’d quoted ken levine who was paraphrasing kurt vonnegut. “she said that she disagrees, because when she writes and it doesn’t flow, it feels like she’s trying too hard and it will come out sounding forced.”

i don’t think my dad and i talked about this in depth (after all, it’s only a twenty-minute drive to the airport), but i think i understand the flow vs. forced concept. if my understanding is correct, then flow vs. forced exists outside of the “writing isn’t easy” concept. because no matter what your process entails, the thing about writing that isn’t easy is recognizing when it’s working and when it isn’t. i think that what vonnegut’s “every day it just flows” writer lacks is the ability to distinguish quality from quantity. it doesn’t matter if you’re like me and your struggling means you should skip to another paragraph and come back to the problem one later, or if you’re like ariel and your struggling means that you’re trying too hard. what makes either process successful is the ability to know when the writing isn’t working.

i told my dad that sometimes i don’t know how i feel about a particular situation until i sit down to write about it. he said that that was his reason for writing his piece in the first place.

dress your family in embarrassment and awkwardness

something that happened to me this weekend made me think of a story i read in a david sedaris book. here are the two relevant parts of the story:

She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it. In my mind, I’m like a friendly junkman, building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there, but my family’s started to see things differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they’re sick of it. More and more often their stories begin with the line “You have to swear you will never repeat this.” I always promise, but it’s generally understood that my word means nothing.[…]

After finishing our coffees, Lisa and I drove to Greensboro, where I delivered my scheduled lecture. That is to say, I read stories about my family. After the reading, I answered questions about them, thinking all the while how odd it was that these strangers seemed to know so much about my brother and sisters. In order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation, pretending that the people I love expressly choose to expose themselves.

this feeling isn’t new to me. the candor in my writing may make it hard to believe that i hold things back, but i do. the writing i hold back almost always involves weird things about other people; things they wouldn’t want the internet to know. sometimes i can get away with changing names and places and other small details, but if the person in question reads this site, they’ll know who i’m referring to no matter what i do.

when it comes right down to it, i can write whatever i want about myself and my feelings, because this website is mine. publishing and updating it is my choice, and that doesn’t mean that my friends and family have chosen to expose themselves by proxy. i wish i could have all these unpublished thoughts stored up somewhere, to bring out later when circumstances have changed and things are more likely to be funny than sad. but i don’t know if they’ll ever be funny.

if i can, i like to take these things i can’t write about and frame them in such a way that they’re only about me, so that they are about my feelings and reactions to events rather than the events themselves. sometimes this means that an entire evening can be expressed in a single sentence:

when revisiting something from your past makes you feel as though you’ve been punched in the stomach, it’s time to move on.

sometimes i forget to clean my glasses for days. when i finally realize that my glasses might be dirty, i wipe the lenses with my shirt and put them back on my face, and it’s like i’m seeing things clearly for the first time. how did i ever stand them like that for so long?


7. a weird feeling about blogging lately.

i’ve been a blogger for six and a half years, which is long enough for the word “blog” to have left a sour taste in my mouth for two-thirds of those years.  i’ve seen trends come and go, i’ve seen people come and go, and somehow i’ve managed to outlast most of the coming and going.  i don’t regret any time i’ve spent on this site at all, though i do wish i could stop beginning so many sentences with I.

when i started bluishorange i did so for three reasons:

a.  at the time i was a web designer.  i’d kept sites on geocities and xoom before, which was where i’d developed an interest in the web in the first place, but i didn’t have a personal site then.  as a professional web designer who loved what i did for a living, i felt i should have my own website.  in fact, i had (and still have) a healthy suspicion of any web designer who didn’t have their own website.

b.  blogging seemed to me to be as good a way as any to get myself to write on a regular basis.  i’ve loved writing for as long as i can remember; in elementary school i vacillated between wanting to be a nurse like my mom and wanting to be a poet.  my elementary-school poetry was, of course, terrible.  i have a vivid memory of a particularly boring sunday church service during which i worked very hard to come up with a way to rhyme “steak” and “snake.”  one of my childhood poems still pops into my head from time to time:

i know a little old lady
her glue she doesn’t waste
for all she wants to do with it
is make it into paste

apparently i had a gift for meter if not content.  senior year of high school, my english teacher had us write a ten-minute journal entry once a week.  every monday she would time us while we tried to put our angst down on paper in a teacher-friendly format.  after five minutes had passed, i could feel my other classmates growing restless and bored, but when the ten minutes were up, i was always still writing.  the teacher graded our journals on participation and effort, but mine always came back with “what an interesting life!” written in the margins.

(that english teacher was at my ten-year high school reunion last month.  i sincerely regret not thanking her for the ten-minute journals.)

after high school i didn’t lose my love for writing, but outside of the odd journal entry or occasional poem, i didn’t really do it much.  when i heard about blogging, i though it as good an opportunity as any to hone my writing skills.

c.  i read weblogs for about four months before starting my own.  i knew all about blogger and pyra and the people who worked there, i read metafilter religiously, and i was constantly checking my favorite blogs for updates.  everyone was smart and funny and real, and i wanted to do what they were doing.  they seemed so much like me.  they were my people.

so in february 2000 i started bluishorange, with a design that prominently featured a photo of a fish in a blender.  all the reasons i started in the first place still apply to some degree: i still think web designers should have their own websites, i’m a better writer than i was before i started, and to say that i’ve met some wonderful people is an understatement.

but it’s different now, isn’t it?  i’m not going to be one of those people who talks about how much better blogging was before we let the riff-raff in.  it’s an antiquated debate, and anyway one of the things i’ve always loved about blogging is that the tools one uses for it tear down barriers to entry by design.  there are, however, a lot of weblogs out there now, so many that it’s become harder to find good new ones to read, and harder still to build one’s own readership.

the weird feeling i’ve been having about blogging lately is jealousy.  there are so many sites out there that are more popular, more successful than my own, so much so that they support their owners financially.  are those people better writers, better marketers than i am?  are they more diligent? (yes.)  or are they just flat-out better?

jealousy is always an embarrassing emotion to admit to, but there it is.  and it’s definitely jealousy.  but i’m more jealous of the attention than anything else, because whenever i ask myself if i want to be a blogger for a living, the answer is always no.  i started this site to hone my writing skills not for blogging but for something else.  my goal in life is not to have some post from 2003 in a web-writing anthology, and it’s definitely not to make my readers’ eyes bleed with flashy banner ads.  there’s not anything inherently wrong with those things (except maybe the latter), but they’re not my ultimate goal.

no, what i want is something more tangible.  as i once said to andy, “the best things are held together with toothpicks and tape.”  i want my name on the spine of an actual book, one that’s written by alison headley, not one that’s written by the author of bluishorange.  i want to hold my book in my hands; i want to open it and smell that book smell, the smell of ink and paper and glue.