Monday, April 24, 2017

Ordinary life

Sometimes there is way too much to do, the day crowded with all the little chores like renewing prescriptions and buying a new railpass and packing a lunch and weeding the junk mail. It's amazing how much time we spend doing such things, and generally we don't consider them worth writing about. There are exceptions--Sinclair Lewis, Marilyn French, and Laura Ingalls Wilder all managed to weave ordinary daily chores into compelling narratives--but mostly we think of "living" as the stuff we do in between all the tedious humble tasks. 

Yet mindfulness is about living in every moment, and I keep pausing to savor even the ordinary, the humdrum. To find what's precious here and now, whether it's worth writing about or not.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The daily walk

I may or may not have mentioned my daily walk, and how vital it is to my writing and my life in general.

On days when I go to my day job, I walk to and from the train station. On other days, I can manage a few miles.

I go rain or shine, wind or snow. (About the only weather that keeps me indoors is ice. I won't walk during a thunderstorm either, but those usually pass quickly.) I long ago learned that waiting for the perfect weather means rarely walking, so I take the weather as it comes. 

It's a break in the day. It ensures I get out into the world and get some exercise and remind myself what season it is. It's meditative (if I'm alone) or social (if I'm walking with others). 

Sometimes I consciously work on a story problem, or try to think up a title, or otherwise focus on writing. Sometimes I don't intentionally think about a story, but ideas will pop into my mind as I walk. Often I come home with a new scene or a new understanding of an existing scene.

Writers often sleep on story problems; many times I've heard that they wake up with great ideas. This doesn't really work for me, but walking does. Yet even without the bonus of the occasional story idea, I would still walk daily. It is, simply, nourishing.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


So far, 2017 is proving to be a year of change--in the larger world as well as in my own little world. And it looks as if more changes may lie ahead. (I can't quite tell yet--and uncertainty is another feature of 2017.) 

I've generally not been a fan of change nor uncertainty. I'm still not the most spontaneous, roll-with-it person around, although I'm maybe a bit more flexible than I used to be. 

With change comes new possibilities. In the past, I always had trouble believing that the new ones would be better than the old possibilities. In reality, there's usually a mix of better and worse. Some of the best things in my life came after I'd let go of earlier circumstances.

When I write, I can make things come out the way I want them to, or at least the way I think they should have. Although even there, I find surprises. In life, I just hold my breath and turn the corner and see what's there.

Friday, April 14, 2017

On memoir

I've been reading a lot of memoir lately--in fact, for a while. I love it for its focus on some part of life, its recounting of true stories but through a particular filter, or by focusing on a particular theme or topic. Dani Shapiro's Devotion focuses on spirituality. Pat Conroy's My Losing Season is about teamwork and family and loss. Joan Didion's Blue Nights zeroes in on mortality. And of course I am oversimplifying; these books are about much more. But they don't try to cover every aspect of a life in one volume.

I'm currently reading Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast, which I discovered through an interview of Doty in Creative Nonfiction. I could say this book is about the loss of a lover; I could say it is about terminal illness, it is about AIDS, it is about survival. It is about the homes we make and the friends we make (and lose). It's about recovery, community, dogs, the ocean. Those are some of the topics it covers, but the story is more than that; the spell it casts is indescribable.

I suppose memoir is mostly a gateway for me. A gateway into lives I've never lived and worlds I've never seen--but also into recognition, the sense that some of what we feel and think about the world is shared by others.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Not really rambling

If one doesn't outline, one writes "by the seat of the pants," discovering the story through the first draft rather than through pre-draft planning. I tend to write fiction this way, using outlines more for nonfiction. But I find that even this rambling seat-of-the-pants method is not truly random--not for me, at least. The story I'm building is not really without a blueprint. I don't have the concrete, written blueprint that an outliner has, but as I write I sense myself moving toward something; the story assumes a shape that seems somehow destined. The blueprint exists in my mind, just one level below consciousness, I suppose. I may not see the whole story at once, but I find it one scene at a time.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Letting go

If I could've given advice to my younger self, one thing I would say is, "Don't hang onto so many things; don't acquire so much. It will only weigh you down." 

I've reached a point in my life when I am much more willing to let things go. In the past couple of years, I think I have released more than I've acquired, reversing a lifelong trend of increasing accumulation. But I have more to do.

It isn't just material possessions that I tend to hang onto. I have always found good-byes difficult. Every job, apartment, relationship--even if I really wanted to move on, there was always at least a pang of regret in there somewhere. Heck, when I closed a bank account that I'd had for 25 years (through multiple mergers and name changes on the bank's part), it was bittersweet. That was the first account I'd opened upon moving back to Philadelphia and settling in at my first post-university full-time job.

Maybe it was just that part of my life, my younger self, that I didn't want to abandon. Because in reality, I had no real "relationship" with that bank. They were paying me almost no interest, and they had just instituted new fees that meant I would be losing money by keeping an account there. Despite the commercials they continually run about how they're all about people, I was just a set of numbers to them. 

And I moved on, and I'm fine. But it just shows how far I travel emotionally when I let anything go. Everything in this world is temporary, but that is one of the hardest ideas to accept.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Revisiting novels

Growing up, I read fiction almost exclusively (outside of the textbooks I had to read for school, of course). Over time, more nonfiction crept into my reading pile. The recent popularity of memoir and personal essays--which I already loved--has led to more books available in those genres, enabling me to revel in the abundant choices. So my reading stack tilted even farther away from fiction.

But I've made an effort to read a few more novels lately. And I've been happy to rediscover that special absorption that comes with a wholly imaginary world, with a story that is unconstrained by reality so that every piece of it was deliberately chosen by the author, with a work where the author knows the truth about, and the motivations of, every character. It's a different experience from nonfiction. I won't say one is better or worse, because it depends on my mood. I'm glad to have both.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The mysterious path

Over at YA Outside the Lines, I blogged about the mysterious path of writing, complete with photo. We may not know exactly where we're going or how rough the path will get, but that's part of the adventure.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The core problem

I used to listen to a radio call-in show where the host gave advice to listeners, Dear-Abby style. I think now that what drew me to the show was that each call was the setup for a story, the jumping-off point for novelistic daydreams.

Stories are built around problems and conflicts. A request for advice is a brief statement of a problem or dilemma. A writer can take such situations and, by following branching paths of what-ifs, build a whole world that is very different from that of the person who asked the original question.

I don't recall ever using an actual advice call as the basis for a story I've written, but I learned a lot about succinctly stating problems, about identifying key choices. If your protagonist had to boil down his or her problem into a simple statement seeking advice from a mentor, what would he or she say?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Home base

"'Someday ... there will be a story you want to tell for no better reason than because it matters to you more than any other. You'll give up this business of delivering what everybody tells you to do. You'll stop looking over your shoulder to make sure you're keeping everybody happy, and you'll simply write what's real and true.'"

In her memoir At Home in the World, Joyce Maynard attributes these words to JD Salinger, based on a discussion they had during her year-long involvement with him. The conversation in question was about the direction her writing was taking.

Writing, especially writing for publication, can get all tangled up in shoulds and oughts and approval seeking and market chasing. If we get lost sometimes, it can be good to touch home base by asking what matters to us, what we find to be real and true.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


I don't know what it is about the natural world that works magic for me, but it has always been so. Since human beings are part of nature, there shouldn't really be this distinction, a difference between a factory building and a beaver dam--both built by living beings--but somehow there is, at least for me.

I find beauty in human creations: in art and in crafts, certainly in music. I can find beauty in objects as various as a quilt, tinsel, a microscope, a fireplace.

But there is something essential about the scents of snow and dirt and rain, about the sight of trees and wildflowers and ferns and moss, about the view of rock unsculpted by people. There's something soothing in the sight of a pond that I don't find in a swimming pool.

And so I make sure to get outside regularly, to walk where I can hear birds and see leaves, to visit the ocean and the mountains and the desert from time to time. It's like a tune-up or a replenishment, and I don't know exactly what it does, only that it does something necessary.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Deceptively idle

An important part of the writing process--for me, anyway--is time that may look like goofing off, or idle time, or procrastination. It's simply time during which I presume my brain works on a level beyond my immediate awareness and analytical thinking. Sometimes I'm outwardly busy--vacuuming, showering, what have you--but other times I'm taking a walk, or staring out the window. The important thing is to let the mind wander, not pin it to a new analytical task or busy it with social media. Out of such seemingly fallow ground rise shoots of new stories, new ideas.

Not all writing time is spent typing. Sometimes it feels like the first step in the creative process is just getting out of the way.

Sunday, March 5, 2017


Sometimes you understand the lyric to a song that you've heard thousands of times. This time, you hear the words clearly. You might even discover the song isn't about what you thought it was about.

Sometimes you're walking down a familiar street, and you notice a detail you've never noticed before. It might be an elaborate door knocker or a small stained-glass window or carved detail on a wall or the entrance to an alley.

Sometimes you suddenly recognize a play on words that's gone over your head hundreds of times.

The best writing is like that, for me. It shows me something that's been right in front of my eyes all this time. It makes me notice something new-yet-not-new about the world. It makes me recognize it, understand it with new eyes. It articulates what I've known without realizing it. It makes me look twice.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Taking stock

This month at YA Outside the Lines, I posted about the question, "Why do you write?" It's a good question to reflect upon from time to time, and especially at those times when we don't know where to go next with our writing--or even whether to go.

Along these lines, Nathan Bransford asks, Do you want to win the game you're playing? In other words, is the goal you're chasing worth it? Maybe it was once, but not any longer. Or maybe you found out that the party that looked so great when seen through a window is not so much fun once you're invited inside. Or maybe it's just time to try something else.

As children and teens, we're encouraged to think a lot about goals and possibilities. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" we ask, and are asked. As adults, the question becomes, "What next? Still this, or something else?"

Sometimes the answer is a renewed commitment to, and zeal for, the path we're on. Sometimes the answer is a change in direction.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

You never know where desk-cleaning will lead

My desk was cluttered (with those scraps of paper on which I write countless notes to myself) and dusty, so I decided today was the day: I would clean this space off.

But the clean desk made obvious the dustiness of the file cabinets next to it, so I dusted them, too. Next to them stands a bookcase, which--you guessed it--then needed a dusting. And all those clean surfaces made the carpet (which seemed to have been through a snowstorm) look even more in need of a vacuuming than it had before this chain of events began.

So I sit in my temporarily clean and shiny space, hoping the lack of clutter will free some mental space for creativity. The kind of creativity that makes me so busy I ignore the slow insidious buildup of dust and clutter ...

It's the cycle of creative life. Around here, anyway.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The lingering gaze

The best part of a home-improvement show is, of course, the big reveal, where they take you through the newly built or renovated space and show you how it looks.

On some shows, the film editing is done in an extremely annoying manner. The camera pans slowly over an area, but just before we can absorb what we're looking at, there's a jump cut to some other area. Sometimes the screen will split, showing three or four areas simultaneously. It's all jump cuts and sudden flashes. After five minutes of touring the place, I feel as if I haven't really seen anything, because the eye hasn't been allowed to linger anywhere.

That lingering gaze is one reason I enjoy reading above video or audio of any kind. When I'm reading, I can speed up or slow down at will. I can reread certain lines. We now have the ability to freeze, fast forward, and rewind through other media, but it isn't quite the same. A mumbled or rushed line is still mumbled or rushed in replay. With reading, I decide on the volume and pacing of every line. I build all the scenery, and I may add details that aren't specified in the text but seem to fit. I can stare at everything as long as I want to. I can let a really good line of dialogue hang in the air without abruptly stopping the background music and turning the characters into mannequins.

People do like having control, and maybe this is one reason reading has endured as long as it has. I love the ability to savor.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Hints of change

Thursday's (scant) snowfall is still melting. But today I found a witch hazel bush in full bloom, and spied some shoots of spring bulbs peeking above the soil.

In every season are hints of the season to come. If this were a book, we'd call it "foreshadowing."

In the happiest scenes in books, we often plant a seed of disturbance, a suggestion of trouble to come. In the darkest scenes, we make room for a glimmer of hope. One thing we know: the change will always come.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


I don't know if every writer experiences this phase of writing--maybe some writers jump from project to project with full force and no pauses--but it's typically been part of my process. I'll call it "percolating," for lack of a better word.

It's the phase when I have part of a story--a character, a voice, a basic plot or situation--but not enough to start writing. Something's bubbling away in my brain, but it's at a subconscious level. I get glimmers, slivers of dialogue, flashes of partial scenes. I try sketchy outlines, I do stream-of-consciousness writing exercises. I do a lot of thinking.

During this phase, I often write scenes and openings that don't go anywhere. Starts and stops, trial and error. I am finding my way in to the story. I am waiting, but part of me is working. The progress is invisible. But a change is happening.

Monday, January 30, 2017

When life happens

We make plans and schedules, and then life happens. Illness, an uptick in workload, the need to move, a family crisis, an exciting new adventure--whatever it is, it obliterates the schedule and elbows aside the plans.

For those whose writing thrives in periods of sustained quiet and concentration, writing can take a backseat during such upheavals. If at other times we're able to put writing on the front burner, during times of chaos we just can't.

Sometimes all we can do is take notes until the dust settles. The words will come.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

What matters

A couple of months ago, when I had the chance to mentor other writers and they asked how you find stories and how you know what's worth pursuing, I said, "Write about what matters most to you." That is, write the story that won't leave you alone, the one that's on your bucket list, the one that insists on being told. Write what you care about.

It was a good reminder to myself, too.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Between projects

Between writing projects, one waits. Listens. Reads. Tests ideas. Practices patience. Cleans the bathroom. Trusts. Wonders. Doubts. Keeps the mind open. Takes notes. Makes false starts. Lathers, rinses, repeats.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Connections and disconnections

I just finished Delia Ephron's book of personal essays, Sister Mother Husband Dog. A quote that stood out to me:

"All I want is for someone not to change something I love. All I want is for someone to keep it simple."

She's talking about the relentless march of technological upgrades, about which I agree--I don't see the point of arbitrarily moving buttons from the left side of the screen to the right, or vice versa. Or adding dozens of new features that I didn't want and never use. Or hiding the menu so you can't find what you need. But those sentences, pulled from their context, also can stand on their own in a more general sense. We've all lost what we loved, or seen it change for the worse, at some point in our lives. We've all had a perfect thing or place or situation that deteriorated, or closed down, or moved away. It was going along so well ... and then it wasn't anymore.

But then--if I want to go down that rabbit hole, I can also reread Joan Didion's Blue Nights, an entire book that meditates on loss, and change, and how swiftly it all occurs.

I'm also reading Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby. It's coincidental that I've been reading this at the same time as Ephron's book, but both books deal with losing mothers to chronic, personality-changing illnesses--Alzheimer's in one case, alcoholism in the other. In both books, the mother-daughter relationships were complicated and not warm-and-fuzzy even before the onset of illness.

I like finding multiple books that deal with the same subject. It enables me to consider it from even more angles. It's as if the authors are bouncing ideas off each other through me.

Sunday, January 8, 2017


With the advent of the internet and book blogs, I've changed the way I find and choose books to read. I found myself making so many notes of books I saw mentioned online that I eventually made a consolidated list. I try to get the books from the library when I can; I'll order them or get them at a bookstore otherwise.

The list is long, about 200 books. I've read scores of them, but of course I keep adding to the list. Even when I tell myself firmly that's enough for a while; I won't add more until I get through some of what's already there. But then an irresistible new title comes to my attention--a favorite author's brand-new release, a friend's book, a sequel to something I loved, a memoir that speaks to my current situation--and on the list it goes.

It's fun to have a list of anticipated reads all ready, to never be at loose ends wondering what to read next. I like the process of choosing the next armload from the library, checking them off on the hold list, and picking them up when they're ready. I like having books delivered to my doorstep.

But I do miss the days of wandering through bookstores or libraries, choosing books at random, finding something in front of me that I might not have found otherwise. And in the past month, I treated myself to browsing sessions, one at the library and two at local bookstores. I came home with books that weren't on my list.

I'm not going to live solely by the list. Sometimes it's fun to wander, to say to the bookshelves, "Surprise me."

Thursday, January 5, 2017


I haven't talked about prose rhythm in a while, but it's something I'm very aware of. Poetry isn't the only kind of writing that has a rhythm.

I've noticed that when I scroll up my blog feed page, I can tell who wrote which post even before I read the actual words or see the name at the top of the post. It has to do with the patterns people use when they write. Some write in long, dense blocks of text. Others write long posts built from short paragraphs. Some use short sentences with frequent line breaks. Others use mostly pictures.

I've noticed that many writers who write for Harper's magazine favor very long sentences, and I began to wonder whether that was just the editorial preference, and how much the editors shape the prose that way.

I first noticed prose rhythm in the writing of Jack Kerouac, where it's knock-you-over-the-head obvious, especially in works such as Desolation Angels and Visions of Cody. Similarly, his friend and colleague Allen Ginsberg wrote poetry with long breathless lines, Howl being the prime example (though Ginsberg's work does not sound exactly like Kerouac's). Hemingway is another writer whose rhythm stands out, in his case for shorter, plainer, sentences. Every writer has a distinctive pace and tone and meter, a distinctive way of shaping language as if to a tune that only he or she can hear. Often we start our careers so beguiled by another writer's rhythm and style that we ape it, whether consciously or not, in our early efforts. But we learn to tune in to the inner musician and turn up the volume, to find our own rhythm.

Monday, January 2, 2017

New Year's ideas

I won't call these resolutions. Maybe they're aspirations, or reminders, or ideas. Whatever.

1. Pay attention.
2. Speak up.
3. Know what to take seriously and what not to take seriously.
4. Goof off.
5. Ask why and what if.
6. Say the nice thing you're thinking.
7. Keep in touch with nature.