Friday, November 03, 2006

A Writer's Guide to Inventory

from Jacqueline

I’ve always loved the personal essay, the reflection upon life, insights into the small things that connect us to a bigger world. Years ago, before I embarked upon my first foray into fiction (MAISIE DOBBS), I put most of my writing energy into the personal essay, and attended all sorts of workshops on creative non-fiction. I just loved the classes taught by Adair Lara, who was then a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle as well as a best-selling author. Adair is a great believer in building inventory – 500 words each day on anything (and that is in addition to the book you’re writing, or your day job, or whatever). 500 new words – and if you’re stuck, copy from a book until your own words come. That’s how you build up inventory, a deposit box of ideas and opinions, of thoughts and feelings that at any point could be reconsidered and worked into something bigger, better, perhaps readable, and even ... marketable.

When I was at school our music teacher loved to tell us the story of the composer, Schubert, who would write the musical equivalent of 500 words each day. In fact, he would write the most amazing works then stash them in a cupboard and forget about them. Apparently, when he died the cupboards were opened and sheets upon sheets of music just fell out all over the place. It makes me wonder what will happen to my “inventory” when I kick the bucket.

So, while looking for a particular piece I knew I’d written a couple of years ago (which I still can’t find), I came across inventory that I had forgotten all about, including a series of observations about life immediately following a serious riding accident five years ago. The whole experience of being in the hospital, of having major surgery and terrible post-operative sickness was so dire that I decided I would try to see the lighthearted side of things. Allowing for current events in the spring of 2001 that date this piece immediately, here’s what I wrote – all in lower case because I only had one hand on the keyboard, so couldn’t capitalize my words. Also, I had just been told that I sounded like Bridget Jones (I ask you!).

“…truth is that most british women sound like bridget jones - have emails from friends "over there" to prove it. having said that, h. fielding really cornered the market with the singleton thing. perhaps i could represent mature women who do dangerous things. as one person said upon hearing about injury, "at least you didn't slip on the kitchen floor while loading the dishwasher!"

have discovered latent tendency to want to know how people survived terrible accidents. john found me by checkstand at longs reading previously untold story in people magazine, of supermodel struggling at death's door after car accident. interestingly enough, in same issue read about matthew perry and melanie griffith and fight against vicodin addiction. v. worried as john appeared with refills of clearly dangerous narcotics while self reading article. in fact, my friend c. called the other night to commiserate and slyly asked what painkillers i was on, and that she would buy my leftovers.
shocked at possibly addicted friend, but said that funnily enough do not seem to be using many vicodin...
c. got touchy and said had hoped i was on perkoset (?). replied that you never know what i might be given after surgery next week.
c. perked up, wished me well and said that they can do so much with bones nowadays, esp. as they can limit chance of infection.

what infection?

am thinking it would be good idea to read stephen king's story of comeback from terrible accident. feel it might inspire latent literary genius in self.

john bearing up well in role of tea wallah. friend kas visited and was greeted by john as if babysitter for recalcitrant toddler. he immediately rushed into bathroom for long shower etc. in manner of harried mother. came out new man, asking kas if i had been ok. obviously am becoming invisible invalid. have, however, noticed discipline tendency taking over with comments like, "you'll have to be able to do this when i'm at work." end of tea in bed clearly in sight.

current inability has also caused move away from previous energy-saving. in midst of rolling blackouts have bought electric toothbrush and also "lady's" electric shaver. clean teeth and smooth legs essential to self esteem, esp. with looming shared vicodin rehab with matthew perry. am also worried about under arms. necessity being mother of invention, am wondering why they do not make deodorant-impregnated cleansing cloths for people with broken arms. much easier to slide in thin cloth with arm hanging there, than weilding "lady smell good" or whatever. have visions of surgical team taking off current splint thing and drawing back with collective 'yewwwww ....... grossss."

videos also becoming v. important to sanity, although john has requested that i try to avoid limitation of selection criteria to films with john cusack. last night both could hardly sleep after "pushing tin" and lingering vision of billy bob thornton as air traffic controller. talking of airports, one of my friends, on being told of impending bone reconstruction with various tools previously unseen outside of blacksmithing industry, said, 'ooh, you'll be one of those people who sets off alarms in airports!" horrified at thought of mandatory strip searches and being bomb suspect. make note to ensure that brand new underwear is worn near airports at all times.

as you can see am trying to bring british aplomb to current situation, and am reminded that it has got us through everything from the boer war to the blitz. have to tell you one funny thing tho' - in second emergency room, in morphine fog, was asked if nurse could cut off t-shirt. said that was ok, only gap sale thing. he cut off the t-shirt, went to throw it away, to which i yelled, "no, don't throw it - give it to my husband, it'll make a good dusting cloth." was it at that point that john asked about how much morphine was too much?

anyway, ramblings of an invalid who is getting v. good at picking things up with feet and thanking lucky stars profusely that it wasn't worse. poor john has said he feels like anthony hopkins in remains of day - running back and forth with tea!

After return from the hospital …

Finally out of the hospital and am now bionic woman. Expect Maisie Dobbs book to be completed in speed of newly fired bullet. Or whatever it is that people with ironmongery in them are able to do. V. difficult time in the hospital. Reportedly v.successful major surgery (mind you, doctor with yours truly blood on hands would say that wouldn't he?) followed by gut-wrenchingly awful post-operative reaction to anesthesia, morphine, antibiotics and medical system in general. Did, however, have startling opportunity to make observations as languished in drug-induced hell:

Watched t.v. to take mind off thought of self dying in the hospital, along with propensity to imagine body being flown to England in flag-covered casket. Stunned first by number of food ads, and this in time of weight-challenged children dragging burger-filled bodies around softball fields, malls etc. All foods take only seconds to grill/nuke/wave blow torch over, then eat. All include cheese and sizzling. Had to look other way as felt fairly ill. Also stunned by number of ads saying no to drugs, instructing parents/teachers/teens to be open, clean and generally upstanding. Then they go into the hospital with a broken arm. Begged nursing staff to take self off morphine as tried vainly to control hallucinations (flag-covered casket) and strange jittering in legs and arms. Finally got own way in manner of (yet again) stubborn child. Pout and just said no to the ******** drugs. Subsequent comings and goings of nurses reminiscent of Pythonesque stage farce complete with opening/closing doors.

Door opens, nurse rushes in, bears down on green self
Nurse: "What's your pain level on a scale of 1 to 10
Self: "Zero"
Nurse: "Oh"
Scene repeated every 20 minutes.

Felt bit better but now suspected bad reaction to antibiotics. John (known as primary caregiver - PCG) asked nurse. Nurse replied "Oh no, not possible." Felt convinced self was right and became strident upchucking patient, instead of just upchucking patient.. Three more nurses also waved aside inner body wisdom (IBW) Considered placing call to Chopra or Llama in face of negative response to own IBW. Friday nurse entered complete with fuschia-colored hair and nose-ring. Convinced self would be covered with flag by end of day. Clearly case of deceiving appearances. PCG shot same question about antibiotics over her bows (being a Patrick O'Brian man) and Fuschia said she would look into it. Blessed be the fuschia-haired. Came back to room with news that 3% of patients are allergic and show symptoms such as extreme nausea. Thank God. Was beginning to feel like little dead girl in Sixth Sense. IBW obviously working well. Became v. disturbed about drug-pushing generally by medical establishment. Feel called to explore possibility of becoming crack investigative journalist in mode of Sebastian Junger. Will write shockingly insightful expose based on observations: "Melted Cheese to Morphine - The Unfeeling of America's Pain." Will interview Matthew Perry in Vicodin rehab, discuss obvious food issues with Oprah, and gain audience with Bush and ask pointed insightful questions about alchohol-related driving incidents. Envision 60 Minutes intervew and own story of morphine-induced flag-covered casket hallucination for audience empathy.

During drug-induced hell also became aware that people do not understand self. Possible language/accent issue, however, think misunderstandings due to use of words on the endangered list:

Nurse, as leaving room: "How do you want your door?"
Self (tempted to say "Oh, well done please, and crispy around the edges."): "Could you leave it slightly ajar?"
Nurse: "What?"
Self(waving arm attached to I.V.): Slightly … ajar."
Nurse: (waving door back and forth): "What?"
Self (while alarm goes off as have caused block in I.V.) "Slightly open"
Nurse (having corrected I.V. and now waving door again) "What?"
Self: "Just leave it open a bit."
Nurse nods head and leaves room with door wide open. All patients walking by now peer into room to see if self looks as sick as them. Relatives of other patients also look in to see if self is as sick as loved ones. Look v. much like little dead girl in Sixth Sense. Will open up Matthew Perry in interview by inspiring compassion for self with pale wan look. Will also be all skin and bone. Jeans will fall off self.

Another conversation

Nurse (finally answering call button, pressed as alarm on I.V. is beeping like demented banshee): "How do you keep doing this?"
Self: (Looking pale, wan): "Oh, I can't help it. Every time I move my arm, it shuts off. The needle is in an awkward place, in the crook of my elbow." (use head to point to I.V. needle)

One final, and have to say amusing incident: The hospital Admission Form requiring agreement and signature.

Item 9 pointed out that if stay in the hospital resulted in a newborn, patient would be liable for said newborn. PCG and self discussed, decided that if major bone reconstruction (MBR) resulted in newborn, would do best to offer good home.

Item 12 asked self to specify whether celebrity or V.I.P. Again, considered question against looming MBR and checked VIP. Thought "You bet I am." And in space provided to give further details wrote: "I'll have my people call your people." Thought self terribly funny, and nurse obviously thought same, as rolled eyes in mirth.

Good news is that hospital experience now behind self. Can now move ahead with rehab per IBW. Told C. about book idea, and personal experience gained to write best-selling expose (Melted Cheese etc …). C. was v. impressed. Asked about Vicodin again …

Have had fun seeing silly side of all this. Strange that broken arm and need for brevity has proved to be so theraputic. Possible IBW at work again!”

Well, back in the November 2006, for better or worse, that’s inventory. And you know the thing I really like about this little piece here – it’s where I actually put it in writing that I would use my convalescence to work on my novel. Just one year later I had a publisher for that novel. See, building inventory is a good thing.


  1. Holy Cow, Our Jacqueline! Sounds like you had quite a time of it. Thank goodness you're okay. And now I see why you and Sara found each other. How is she, BTW?

    I love the idea of inventory. That's why I love writing for this blog and reading the posts of my fellow NakedAuthors and our tribe of commenters. What a bunch of intelligent, witty people. Go Team!

  2. from Jacqueline

    Yes, I guess Sara and I are made for each other. She is not out of the woods yet - after leaving the hospital on October 7 she spiked a horrible secondary infection within three days. The poor girl looked like she'd gone 20 rounds with Joe Louis. We brought it under control with antibiotics and some homeopathic healing, but the test will come next week when the antibiotic treatment ends - will she be able to continue without help? In all other ways, that horse is in great condition, which is why this is so frustrating, as a chronic sinus infection is so very serious. Anyway, as I knew from my experience in the hospital five years ago - one step at a time, one day at a time.

  3. Excellent idea, "inventory," and so much more appealing, less imposing, and more encompassing than "journal." Thanks for passing it along. (Oh! And I have a couple of Vicodin left over from....)
    You and Lee Goldberg should swap stories--he broke both his arms.

    Tom, T.O.

  4. Oh, Jacqueline! So witty! This made me smile all morning.
    And I love the 'inventory' thing. Maybe I will try and write 500 words a day: it might get me back on track with my writing. I do enjoy going back over notes I wrote ages ago - they can sometimes result in satisfactory articles or stories, if not wild flights of inspiration.
    Oh, by the way, I usually need subtitles when speaking to the locals, and I do feel that my vocabulary has been degraded somewhat after years spent on the east coast of America. :-D
    Lee Goldberg broke both of his arms? Dang, if he was desperate, I suppose he could try and type very carefully with his nose.
    Have fun in the UK!
    PS: I've sent you the odd email in the last three months or so: I don't suppose they turned up in your inbox along with all the other Spam did they?

  5. from Jacqueline

    Both arms broken? Oh, my Lord! How did the man bear it - I will have to read up about Lee's travails.

    Yes, the inventory idea is a good one, and I have amassed all sorts of scribblings over the past few years.

    Marianne, I have had the spam blocker on my website email upgraded, however, I do owe you an email - forgive me, it's this travel thing, I don't know where I am half the time.

    I won't be checking in again today, or much in the coming week, as I am traveling without my laptop (couldn't face lugging the thing to the UK), so I will next be accessing email and via that internet cafe with 52 types of vodka on the menu where Bealtes music is blasted out all day.

  6. This was amazing to read--I'm so glad you pulled through, but am sorry to hear Sara is still having such a rough time of it. I hope the Beatles and the 52 kinds of vodka treat you well, and that you have a wonderful trip to the UK.