Friday, October 21, 2016

The ghostly reader

Purely as a warmup, throwaway writing exercise, I've been keeping a journal this year. I ask myself to write at least 100 words a day, and they don't have to be good, or tell a story. I just have to put down a few sentences.

This is not a journal ever meant for anyone else's eyes, and I can't imagine why anyone would want to read it, since it's the equivalent of finger exercises for a pianist. And yet, I still find it difficult to write with the assumption that nobody else will ever read it. I'm not revising or polishing what I write, but I often find myself adjusting my words or topic as if to accommodate some nonexistent audience. I was talking with a writer friend about that, and she agreed: she also feels that ghostly imaginary reader hovering over her shoulder when writing a journal. Does every diarist feel it, I wonder? I suppose we're too aware of how many journals have been published, even when their writers never intended it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Trust the story

One of the little scraps of paper I have kept around my writing desk for inspiration says, "Trust the story." That's to remind me where to look when I need the perfect ending, or climax, or when I don't know how to connect a couple of essential scenes, or when I'm floundering. That's to remind me to go back to the story itself, the theme, the characters' goals, the point I'm trying to make, the reason I started writing the story in the first place. Often the key is already there, and I just have to recognize it.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Today I wrote myself a note. When I stumbled across it just a few hours later, I'd forgotten it so totally that it was as if an alien had written it. What note was this? What was it about? What was that word--potato? Why was I writing a note about a potato?

After a minute or so, I not only deciphered it but remembered the context, and had a good laugh. The word I misread as "potato" was "portable," and the note was about an email I had wanted to send someone. I had sent the email, and so my brain apparently decided not to waste any more energy on the note.

When I look over old journal entries, they bring to mind things I would otherwise forget. Writing is, among other things, a way of remembering. We change, we forget, and so much is fleeting. So I pin a moment in place with words, capture a memory, and then I have it for good. As long as I don't make my words too cryptic, or too illegible!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Striving for the better

Life is unfair. Bad things happen to good people; justice is often not served. Hard work doesn't always reap proportionate rewards.

It occurred to me that stories are one way we deal with this. Some of the earliest stories I ever read were fairy tales and Aesop's fables. The good people lived happily ever after, while the ones who were cruel or deceptive suffered. The tortoise won the race by working hard--never mind that the hare was born to be faster. Every event had its lesson to teach.

As I grew older, I encountered stories in which the good weren't always rewarded. Things got more complicated. Yet I still looked to stories for insight and comfort. Even if the scales didn't balance in a story, I looked for the author to signal his or her awareness that the scales didn't balance. Atticus Finch loses the big trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the defendant ends up dead, but every reader knows that the book is, in a larger sense, calling out injustice. This outcome isn't supposed to be a happy ending.

In stories we often strive for our better selves, the best world we can imagine. Even when we show it by using the worst world we can imagine as a counter-example or warning (as in dystopian literature). Characters change and grow, and even the darkest stories usually end with some ray of hope, the hope we all need.

Monday, October 3, 2016


For a week, I've been hiking, and reading, and enjoying scenery. I have written nothing except for brief daily journal entries. I've been completely unplugged from social media, and I barely watched any TV.

It was wonderful.

Before I go away on vacation, I am so deeply immersed in my world that I hate to disconnect. The packing, the air travel, the many arrangements, all seem like too much trouble. Why am I doing this? I ask myself. I could stay home and relax, and that would be vacation enough.

Then I see my first mountain, or giant sequoia, or canyon, or beach, and I remember why.

The world is so large, so beautiful.

I need to slow down, every now and then.

I need to step away from the screen.

I need to reconnect with some part of myself that gets buried in the busyness of work, the daily minutiae.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The in-between time

I've been a little scarce around these parts because I've been pouring my writing energy into a certain writing project. That project has now reached the milestone I was aiming for, so I get to come out of my cave, blinking, and see what's going on in the world. I will be scarce for another week or so while I pursue another, non-writing, interest.

But while I'm here, I'd like to speak about this in-between time, this break in a writer's life. I used to jump almost immediately from one project to another, as if I were trying to outrun ... something. I don't know what. Sometimes that jump can be eager, an excitement to start the new thing, but for me I think it was more about fear, about losing a day or not staying relevant or something. Now I savor a break. I have more trust that the next project will bubble up when it's ready, and in the meantime it's OK to reacquaint myself with the world beyond my keyboard.

Enjoy your time, whether you're inside or outside of the writing cave at the moment!

Thursday, September 15, 2016


It doesn't surprise me that there is such a thing as a "list poem." I'm a big fan of lists--I could hardly navigate my way through a week without them--and there are some lists that do evoke the poetic. I've always loved lists of colors (as in a watercolor paintbox, a box of crayons, a clothing catalog, paint chips). A menu is a mouth-watering list. A trip to the airport offers a horizontal list poem as I walk past other gates to get to mine, reading the destinations off the gate screens and mentally adding an exclamation point to each: Honolulu! Phoenix! San Francisco! Denver! Seattle!

I snuck a list poem of sorts into my third novel, Until It Hurts to Stop, when the main character muses over the names of mushrooms in a field guide. Tree names, bird names, and wildflower names are just as satisfying. (I used to pore over a flower book that included in its offerings "viper's bugloss," "blue vervain," and "butter-and-eggs." What more could a word person ask, than such names?) The challenge in a creative list, such as a list poem, is deciding what to include and what to leave out, and how to arrange the items. But sometimes I just enjoy the lists I stumble across in the world as found poems.