Saturday, December 30, 2017

Happy Today

I've always been reluctant to let go of December, month of colorful lights and tinsel and feasting and family and days off, to enter cold stark January, whose main claim to fame is that it's the month in which I start preparing for tax season.

But as I write this, we still have a bit of celebration and holiday ahead; it's not yet New Year's Eve. And maybe the resolution I ought to make is to stay in the present more. Or, as Marlo Berliner put it in an incredible post at YA Outside the Lines: "The greatest gift? Being able to enjoy the moment you're in and being grateful for it. For it is a gift, not a given."

As far as my writing life goes, much of 2017 has been about accepting, and even enjoying, where I am. I don't know what's next. I've had some glimmers of what it might be, but I don't know yet. Right now I'm in an in-between time, an uncertain time. The blessings of being in such a time include: Rest. Variety. Possibility. 

Happy New Year, but most of all, Happy Today.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


"It allows that greatest consolation of literature, which is to pierce our separateness, to show us that, in this business of being human, we are not alone."
--Dani Shapiro, Still Writing

In this sentence, Dani Shapiro captures perfectly the essence of why I read--and why I write, too. Sure, I read to be entertained, informed, transported--but most fundamentally it is for that piercing of separateness, for that connection. I get it sometimes from music and occasionally from movies or TV, but most consistently from reading.

Still Writing is a book that's been recommended to me many times, but I was never in the right frame of mind to read it before. And it's really speaking to me now. There's nothing like the right book at the right time. May you find your book for this moment!

On a separate note, if you'd like to do something easy and positive this holiday season, click on over to Nathan Bransford's annual blog fundraiser for Heifer Intl. Just a comment or retweet means an increase in Nathan's donation, and there's a link for you to donate yourself if you like.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

New interests

I'm still here. I've been writing less and doing more reading, thinking, listening, reflecting. I've been taking time to watch news (a lot of news) and taking time to turn off the news. I've been recharging with a sudoku puzzle or a library book or a walk.

My writing has changed. Since completing my most recent novel manuscript (unpublished) about a year ago, I've been writing mostly nonfiction. I've been reading a lot more nonfiction--and yet I've developed new appreciation for novels when I dip back into them. Nonfiction is beholden to the literal facts, which are not always neat or satisfying. But we can engineer fiction so that the story reads economically--no using five different characters where one will do, for example--and we can make sure every detail has meaning and significance. We can answer the major questions, never needing to leave holes in the story as we sometimes must do in nonfiction.

So I still like reading novels, but I'm embracing both short and long nonfiction with increasing interest. I don't know where this will take me. Part of the joy in artistic pursuits is just this sort of exploration, this finding out.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The luxury of Pause

"Yes, writing can be complicated, exhausting, isolating, abstracting, boring, dulling, briefly exhilarating; it can be made to be grueling and demoralizing. And occasionally it can produce rewards. But it's never as hard as, say, piloting an L-1011 into O'Hare on a snowy night in January or doing brain surgery when you have to stand up for ten hours straight, and once you start you can't just stop. If you're a writer, you can stop anywhere, any time, and no one will care or ever kow. Plus, the results might be better if you do."
--Richard Ford, "Goofing Off While the Muse Recharges," in Writers [on Writing]: Collected Essays from The New York Times

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Time for change

Creativity loves routine--that is, the Muse shows up when she knows where to find us. A regular writing habit often spurs productivity.

And creativity loves change, newness, variety, the things that let fresh air and new subjects and new styles into our work. Lately I've been trying some new things, not only for the sake of creativity, but to keep my life from getting stale. I've said yes to a few opportunities that edge me out of my comfort zone. 

This year I've cleared some things out of my life, and now there is room. I don't know yet exactly what will fill that room. I'm just getting ready.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Same song, different day

Just now, I heard a song that I've heard hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. And for the first time I understood that a word I've always heard as "pain" is almost certainly "paying."

Either word works in the context of the song, and we've long been accustomed to not catching mumbled or slurred lyrics, or not understanding them even if we do (such as the neologism "pompitous" in Steve Miller's "The Joker," or the entire song "Whiter Shade of Pale"). But it still makes me marvel whenever I discover something new in something old, when I finally get a reference that always floated over my head before, or when I see the familiar in a whole new light.

One reason I like to reread is that I like to see how works change as I understand them better, and as I grow and change myself. Some works lose their luster over time; others gain. Nothing is static, even when the words themselves don't change. Society changes; we change; our tastes change. One work of art can bring multiple experiences.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The reader-writer conversation

I read for the moments when I can say, "Yes, that's exactly how the world is, but I never thought about it before!" And for the moments when I say, "Yes, that's what I've always said to myself, but didn't know if anyone else felt the same way!" And for the moments when I say, "I had no idea what that experience was like, but now I'm glad I have seen into someone else's world." And for the times when I say, "No, the world isn't like that!" and mentally argue with the author.

All of it lifts me. Which experience I go for depends on what mood I'm in, what I need at the moment: education, comfort, escape, reassurance, stretching, challenge. In this season of thankfulness, I'm thankful there are so many books, and I'm grateful I've been able to contribute to the conversation in whatever small way.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Going there

The story wasn't working, and I couldn't figure out why. And then I realized: the two members of this broken relationship had to confront each other. All the main character's internal musings about the conflict would never be as productive, or as interesting, as her facing the other person and letting us see the conflict play out. Asking the questions she needed to ask; saying the things she needed to say. 

Backing away from conflict is one of my weaknesses as a writer, and I continually have to push myself to go there. Because that's where the story is.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Musings on a quiet day

Here are a couple of quotes I've found thought-provoking, both from Alexandra Fuller's Leaving Before the Rains Come:

"'But we cannot live in the afternoon of life according to the program of life's morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.'"

"'Although it's worth remembering it isn't supposed to be easy ... Easy is just another way of knowing you aren't doing much in the way of your life.'"

In the first case, Fuller's quoting Jung; in the second, she's quoting her father. For me, they are reminders that things change, and we change. We should keep questioning our settled notions, even our notions about ourselves and what we want and where we are going. And if things are tough, it doesn't necessarily mean we're doing it wrong.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Starting over

This was my day to post at YA Outside the Lines, this time on the topic of "starting over." My take is here. A sample:

"Sometimes it seems as if we’re in a rut, doing the same thing, seeing the same people, going to the same places. Yet if we pay attention, we see that nothing is exactly the same ..."

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Lessons from paint-by-numbers

When I was little, I loved paint-by-numbers sets. If you don't know, they were a template with numbered shapes marked on them, accompanied by numbered paints. Match the numbered paint with the numbered shapes on the template, and you would essentially be "coloring in" a painting, ending with a beautiful oil masterpiece!

It sounds simple, but the more complicated versions used very small shapes to get a finer gradation of shading and a picture with more depth. With such small shapes, the printer often couldn't fit the shape's paint number inside the shape, so s/he would put it in an adjacent, larger shape, with an arrow pointing to the shape in question. The problem was, if you painted the colors in the wrong order, you could paint over a number and arrow before getting to use it as an indicator for its neighboring shape.*

I got very frustrated with one such project while staying at my grandmother's. I was very much a perfectionist who couldn't stand when things weren't working the way I thought they should, and when I couldn't do something I thought I should be able to do. I may even have thrown a bit of a tantrum.

After calming me down, my grandmother suggested a solution: use a pencil to write in, myself, the color numbers inside each shape, making all those infernal arrows unnecessary. (I could write smaller than the printer could print.) Then I could paint in any order, not worrying about painting over a necessary number. Thank God for Grandma.

It was my Bird by Bird moment (if you know the allusion to the Anne Lamott book in which her father told her overwhelmed brother to write his big school report on birds by taking it "bird by bird"). So many times, a task that seems impossible can be broken down into simpler steps. We can find workarounds, solutions that fit our own way of working. These skills come in handy in writing, because there are so many different ways to write, and not every way works every time. And in the end, no matter how big or complicated the project, we can only write it one word at a time.

*It is possible that if you painted the colors starting with #1 and proceeding from there, the arrow problem didn't crop up. Believe it or not, it never occurred to me to paint the colors in numbered order--not until years later did this possible solution come to me. At the time, I chose to use the colors in the order that made sense to me then, and for simpler pictures it didn't matter what order you used. Only the complicated pictures used those arrows. But I'm glad my grandmother came up with this more innovative solution, because I think I learned more from it.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Revealing just enough

One of my favorite parts of revision is balancing what I want to spell out explicitly with what I want the reader to figure out. How big are the bread crumbs I should leave, and how far apart can they be, for the reader to still be able to follow the trail?

Some things I only want to suggest, to hint at, to foreshadow. Some things I want the reader to have the thrill of discovering--or even of deciding. Yet I can't be too vague.

I'm doing such a revision now, deleting repetitions, trimming where I've over-explained, cutting back to make room for the reader. I'm also adding a few words where I realize I haven't been clear, have assumed too much. Seeking, the whole time, a perfect balance.

Friday, October 6, 2017

For love of reading

We've seen great upheavals in the world of publishing and bookselling in my lifetime, and especially in the last ten years. Reading has changed fundamentally, with so many of us doing so much of it on screens--reading texts, tweets and other social media posts, snippets of articles, all of it mixed with photos and videos. 

For me, there is still a fundamental pleasure in unplugging. In taking a print book on a train or plane, or in settling on my back porch with a magazine or a paperback. I do spend hours each day reading on screens. And then I indulge in my not-at-all-guilty pleasure: grabbing a book and sitting for an hour on the porch, stopping now and then to smell the pine needles, watch the play of light on leaves, listen to the birds or the cicadas. Then I plunge back into the book (its pages so blissfully free of pop-up ads and autoplay videos) and re-engage with the story. 

The ways in which we produce and transmit stories and compensate their authors have changed through the centuries. There may come a day when all my reading is done on the screen or by audio. And still at the heart of the experience will be the best part, the part that hasn't changed for most of human history, even as technology has changed: our love of story, our need to communicate.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The journey of a book

I just finished reading a nonfiction book by an author and naturalist who had once worked for an encyclopedia, answering research questions that readers sent in. Apparently this was an actual service encyclopedias provided once upon a time! It boggles my mind that they would have bothered. Now such things have all been swept away by the internet. 

Anyway, I enjoyed the book (Elephant Bones and Lonelyhearts, by Ronald Rood), which I'd acquired secondhand. And I enjoyed wondering about one of the book's previous owners, who had written her name on the flyleaf along with her town and the date November 16, 1977. I wondered whether the Vermont publisher that published the book is still in business (probably not, as far as I can tell).

With a little internet searching, I discovered that the author wrote many other books, appeared on PBS and NPR, and passed away in 2001. I was sad to hear that he's gone, but I marveled once more at how books bring us into contact with other lives, other worlds. This book published 40 years ago made its way to me, and opened a window onto some parts of the past I might not have known about otherwise. The author's words are still alive. We never know where our books may go.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Pieces of the writing life

The popular conception of an author's life comprises two aspects, I think: pounding away at the keyboard creating, and making the bookstore/talk-show circuit to sell the book. Those are two parts to the writing life (although the latter is not likely to include talk shows for most authors, but may include visits to schools, libraries, book festivals, conferences, conventions, and so on). But there are many more. These are some of the hats writers wear:

Creative: the actual writing part; daydreaming and peripheral creative acts (such as drawing a map of your fictional world, or designing your cover if you self-publish, etc.); revising; attending classes and workshops focused on craft

Administrative/Professional: researching the business; querying agents and editors; tracking submissions; filing; writing correspondence; managing schedules; booking travel; maintaining supplies and equipment

Financial: tracking grants, royalties, expenses, taxes, and other monies

Marketing and Publicity: arranging and conducting author visits, interviews, etc.; ordering swag; maintaining an online presence

Social: maintaining ties with readers and other writers, live and/or online

Service: donating books or services; teaching; mentoring; using one's platform for outreach on good causes

Not every writer does every one of these things. But most writers find themselves spending much less time on writing and much more time on other activities than they ever would have believed when they scribbled their first stories, poems, essays. 

The upside to having so many pieces to this pie is that if one task seems like a nuisance, there are plenty of other tasks to look forward to--or procrastinate with. 

And at the center of it is the writing. It's home base, the core that's essential to all the rest.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The story that won't die

Sometimes you have to give up on a project completely before the way to write it becomes clear. Sometimes it takes giving up on it repeatedly over a period of years. Sometimes after you've buried it for what you swear is the final time and gone skipping on your merry way, you are startled to find it dancing in your path, waving its zombie arms, crumbs of dirt falling from it. "Hey just had a GREAT idea for how you can tackle me from a different point of view / rewrite the ending / turn a subplot into the main plot!" it will say. And you sigh and follow it off to the keyboard, because what else do you have to do with the rest of your life?

Monday, September 11, 2017

Blog salad

This post is going to be a sort of blog salad, a mix of interesting items picked up here and there:

Jen Doktorski writes of risk-taking, in water-skiing and the rest of life, at YA Outside the Lines. A sample: "The potential for disaster loomed as I sat on the edge of the dock and watched as my fellow water skiing neophytes toppled over while attempting to stand on their skis." Good for some laughs--and of course, a writing-related lesson!

Thanks to a tweet from @NathanBransford, I saw this article by Anjali Enjeti on pursuing book publication for more than a decade. I certainly agree with her on this: "... in the years I’ve tried to sell a manuscript, things seem to have gotten tougher." And this: "... I’m happy with the career I’ve built. Rejections still flood my inbox, but my smaller successes go a long way toward offsetting the disappointment. ... I decided to shift my priorities, to spend more time volunteering for social causes and political campaigns and less pursuing traditional book publishing. ... By recalibrating, I’ve regained a small amount of control in a process that has very little predictability." For those of us in this tough field, there's a lot to ponder in this article, about goals and dreams and reality and priorities. 

Many of us have struggled with clutter in our lives, with clearing out junk (physical, mental, and emotional) to make room for what's most important. But what is clutter, anyway? I like this phrase from Eve O. Schaub (from Year of No Clutter): "Things I neither want nor can part with." 

Finally, Melodye Shore writes of hope as an antidote for suffering. A sample: "Helen Keller once said, 'Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.'"

Monday, September 4, 2017

September Grace

It's been a time of well refilling, of silence, of listening and reading. Of following the news, of using my writing skills mainly to craft heartfelt messages for my elected representatives. Of taking walks and seeing old friends.

There's a snap to the air, and the mornings are dark again. I used to despair at this time of year, sensing the long cold tunnel of winter ahead. I've despaired less in recent years--but mostly because time passes so quickly now, and every autumn is shorter than the one before it. 

I never say good-bye to mellow August without regret--golden August, the most leisurely, reflective time of the year. But for now, the crickets are still singing, and the leaves haven't turned yet. September is a foreshadowing, a farewell, but also a grace period.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Using what we have

My husband and I are getting more accustomed to this aspect of our CSA subscription (community-supported agriculture, where we get regular food deliveries from a local farm): using what we have on hand. Every week, we get whatever is in season, whatever crop successfully made it to ripeness. And that dictates what's on our menu for the week. It's made us try all sorts of foods we wouldn't have otherwise. Because of the CSA, I've eaten kohlrabi, and salads with turnip, and chard omelets, and salmon with fennel, and zucchini bread, and rhubarb cobbler, and spaghetti squash, and a host of other foods. 

The other day, we got a lot of peppers, so we had chili. And it's this "what can I do with what I have" approach that's different from how I cooked for most of my life. For most of human history, people had to eat whatever was available, but nowadays, in my location and at my income level, it's possible to go to the store and get almost any food I want--whether or not it's in season, whether or not it grows anywhere near me. It's a luxury, one I used to take for granted but don't anymore.

The writing connection (you knew I'd get to the writing connection eventually!) is that there, too, it took me a while to get the concept of using what I have. For a while I tried to write like writers I admired but whose voices and subject matter were very different from mine. I tried to write what would be easier to sell. I tried to write what seemed like good stories--but turned out to be good stories for someone else to tell. And eventually I started using what I had. I started basing my writing on what I had to say, and on my own voice--which proved to be a much more natural wellspring.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Saving yesterdays

I haven't been a steady journal-keeper; I've tended to write more at stressful times in my life, or during events that I suspected would be historic, or when traveling. Consequently, I have many notebooks and pieces of notebooks and stray pages from various times. One of my part-time projects--on which I spend an hour here, an hour there--is consolidating those journals into one coherent whole. 

As I go, I discover records of events I'd forgotten but can recall when prompted by the journals, as well as events I've wholly forgotten. There are a few people referred to by first name only whom I can no longer identify.

There are so many days we live through and then utterly forget. A journal can save a few of them for us. Some of these days, honestly, I am happy to let go of; others I'm happy to retrieve. Maybe it's good to forget so much. Everything is impermanent; carpe diem; live for today. I'm not sure how much yesterday matters. I'm saving some yesterdays just in case.

Friday, August 11, 2017


I haven't posted as frequently lately, and it's because I'm in a listening/reading phase. I go through times like this, when I am writing less and absorbing more. Reading a lot, thinking, preferring silence to speech. Feeling as if my ideas are half-formed, not ready for expression. I can feel them taking shape, but they're still lumps of raw dough rather than cookies. 

(I do love cooking/food metaphors for writing!)

August has always struck me as a meditative month, a good time to be in this frame of mind. The weather is warm and mellow, the days are still long, and the cicadas and crickets issue their endless waves of music.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Creative stretch

I used to do all sorts of creative-stretch projects, dipping my toe into forms and genres I wasn't trying to master just for the experience, for the fun of it, to try something new. At writers' conferences, I would take workshops that directly related to my immediate career goals, but I would also typically squeeze in a session on something farther afield : op-eds, poetry, screenplays. My second published novel grew out of an attempt at writing a verse novel. It was a form I knew I would be unlikely to excel at (and indeed, the book quickly morphed into prose), but just trying it may have freed up some extra wellsprings of creativity.

For the past year and a half, I've been keeping a journal as such an exercise. It's been working, mostly because I only ask 100 words of myself per day, and because I don't strive to write for anyone else's approval. This enabled me to play a bit with writing, in a way that I haven't in a long while.

Freedom, play, experimentation are key components of creative stretches. And I think it may be time for another stretch. For me at least, it's important to keep the creative fires stoked, to feed my long-term growth as a writer in addition to making progress on short-term practical goals. I'm kicking around some ideas.

Do you ever need a creative detour?

Saturday, July 29, 2017

In the spirit of community

The other day, Victoria Marie Lees at the "Adventures in Writing: One Woman’s Journey" blog kindly recognized my blog and ten others. I so appreciate her nice words. Victoria blogs about the challenges of the writing life, especially those of writing a memoir.

Although I don’t generally participate in blog awards circuit, in the spirit of community I wanted to take this opportunity to answer a couple of the questions Victoria posed—the ones to which I thought I could give answers that might be of interest—and to recommend a few other blogs.

Q: What is the hardest part of writing for you? Why?

A: I think that for most people, the answer to this question changes over time--it certainly does for me. For a while it might be getting started. Then it might be revision. Then it might be dealing with feedback. For me right now, it’s simply finding ideas that I feel are worth committing to. I’ve written some of the books that I had carried around in my head for years; they’re out there in the world. I’ve said what I wanted to say on those topics. The ideas that are on my mind now—will anyone care? And is writing them more important than other ways I could spend my time?

Q: How do you push forward when the inner critic won’t shut up?

A: This can take a variety of strategies. One is to visualize the inner critic lying down and going to sleep, or walking out the door, or whatever is necessary to quiet that voice. Another is to thwart self-consciousness by saying, “I only have to write this now. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Nobody else may ever see it. I just have to get it down—I’ll worry later about how to edit it, or whether anyone else should see it, or what they might think.” The worries about quality and what other people think can be put off until later. Procrastination pays off for once!

Q: How do you keep the wolves…ahem…I mean convince your children or other people to leave you alone to write? Does it work? Provide tips—please!

A: I don’t have young children at home, and my husband respects my writing time. (My cat, on the other hand, has been known to meow incessantly, claw at my chair, and walk across my keyboard.) But even if live distractions can’t be minimized, one can log off email, turn off alerts. Turn off the phone or designate one person in the house to answer any phone calls and only interrupt the writing if there’s an actual emergency.

And here, as promised, are some other writers’ blogs you may enjoy, all of which feature thoughtful posts on the writing (and reading) life (a small sample of the blogs I follow):

Jody Casella's "On the Verge" 
Beth Kephart Books 
Laurel Garver's "Laurel's Leaves"
Kelly Ramsdell Fineman's "Writing and Ruminating"
Cynthia's "Read is the New Black" 
Natalie Whipple's "Between Fact and Fiction"

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Flawed futures

One thing that bothers me (or makes me laugh, depending on mood) is when all the technology in a futuristic story works perfectly. Our past technology didn't work perfectly; our present technology doesn't work perfectly; surely our future technology won't!

One reason I don't rush to completely computerize my life is the plethora of error messages, freezes, crashes, power failures, etc., that have been a regular feature of digital life. We've probably all found ourselves hollering at imperfect voice-recognition bots on the phone, trying to make them understand what we want, giving up and hitting zero in the hope of getting a live human being. I've been thwarted by voice-mail menus that told me which number to press for which problem--and found that my problem didn't fit into any of their categories.

Cars break down. Batteries die. Repair people fail to show up. Heck, even our older inventions let us down: zippers jam, radio stations get staticky, shoe heels snap.

These problems can not only lend authenticity to our stories, but they can become plot elements. I always liked the way the electric fence in The Hunger Games was usually turned off, and had a hole in it. That situation was realistic, and it gave room for the government to tighten the reins in the future. 

The world is a flawed place; even our dystopias will probably be flawed.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Rethinking The Secret Year

The political situation the past year or two has me thinking about my first novel in a new light.

I wrote The Secret Year during the mid-to-late 2000s; it sold in 2008 but didn't appear on shelves until 2010. At the time I wrote it, I thought of the events in the story as occurring at any time from 1996 to 2006. It was just before the internet and smartphones became ubiquitous, when a family landline was not as endangered a thing as it has become today. Were I to rewrite it for a 2017 setting, I would probably tweak the technology a bit.

But if I were to write it today, I think I would probably have to address politics, even if only briefly. The fictional town where my characters lived was based on real towns I saw in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, and other states. It was a town where blue-collar work had once brought in a good enough living for people to buy their own houses, but where the old industries had since collapsed. Where the American dream had come true, but then vanished. I wrote of the abandoned houses, the unemployment, the money squeezes. And I wrote of the wealthier people who had moved into the town and built their fancy houses on the highest ground with the best views. I wrote of the clash between these two groups of residents.

I didn't imagine the kinds of clashes that would play out in national elections. And I find myself thinking back on that book now, asking myself who my characters' parents would vote for, and why, and what new divisions might appear in the community. Sometimes I wish I could rewrite the book now to explore some of those questions, and sometimes I'm glad my story appeared before it could be viewed through the lens of current politics. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

On stubbornness and faith

"At its best, my business is the business of failure. You fail every single day. I don't know of another business that grinds your nose into the dirt quite so often. You have to be stubborn. You have to have faith in yourself. You have to be egocentric, and stupid about hanging in there." 
--Janis Ian, Society's Child: My Autobiography

She's speaking of "the entertainment business," largely of the music business, though her words  certainly cover most artistic endeavors. It's not a new idea that artistic fields are full of rejection, and projects that don't work out, and goals that aren't reached. The advice to persevere is not new, either. But I've never heard it expressed in quite these terms: failure as a daily occurrence, and "egocentric" and "stupid" as virtues. It's wry, of course; I laughed. But it's partly the laugh of recognition.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Change of scene

I stepped outside of regular life for a bit--physically (that is, geographically) but also mentally, unplugging from the internet and most news. I was out of the country, away from work and routine and social media.

Before every such trip, when I am busy with preparations and nervous about the unknowns that lie ahead and the hassle of traveling, I question whether it's worth it. I am reluctant to leave my cozy nest. And then on the trip and for a while afterward, I savor the change, and confirm that it's exactly what I need from time to time.

I now return to my regularly scheduled life, better for the time away.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The simple life

"It is clear that life does not get simpler. I learn it over and over, always with the same reluctance and regret. The notion that life could somehow be simplified has been powerful with me. I still yearn toward it."
--Wendell Berry, in Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, ed. by Chad Wriglesworth

Me, too, Mr. Berry. I have been trying to simplify my life for a decade.

I suppose I have made progress. I have cut back on my commitments, decluttered a couple of rooms in my living space. But I still yearn toward it.

So do a lot of other people. There are entire books and magazines devoted to the idea of simplicity.

A certain amount of complication is necessary, even fun. Trying new things and going new places means uncertainty and adventure, and in my experience, that's not simple. Those are the welcome complications. My biggest difficulty is embracing, or even just tolerating, the dreaded complications: the delays, breakages, failures, etc.

Maybe I wouldn't even want a truly simple life if I had it. But I keep reaching for it anyway.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Rolling with the unexpected

I had a day stretching in front of me, and a nice list of projects to fill it with. Not too many, not too few. I looked forward to working through my list, getting things done, humming along on a predictable path.

And my day got derailed during project #1. Computer issues interfered with my ability to do #1, affected many of the other items on my list, and took time away from the whole list as my resident computer guru and I tried various things to diagnose the problem. 

I'm not a big fan of such derailments. I like things to proceed as planned. That's why I make lists in the first place. 

But I ended up spending a good chunk of the day totally unplugged. Reading. Grooming the cat. Sitting on the porch. Writing in (gasp) longhand. Tending to some household chores. I enjoyed the quiet, the time away from the screen. The little voice in my head that nagged at me about the things I wasn't getting done got answered with: "Well, I can't do anything about that right now. It's beyond my control."

And the sky didn't fall. Which was a good reminder that a little spontaneity doesn't have to hurt.

Obviously, since I'm writing this now I once again have access to the digital world. But I don't think of this as a day lost. It was a full and happy day--just different from what I'd planned.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The third book

The second book is supposed to be the tough one. Fraught with pressure and uncertainty, with the glow of first publication wearing off, it’s a notoriously difficult hurdle ... and yet it wasn’t that way for me. My second novel (Try Not to Breathe) was, and still is, one of the pieces of writing I’m proudest of. And it was, if not easy, less difficult to write than most of my other work.

For me, the third book carried all the baggage and trouble that the sophomore effort usually does. I despaired over every editorial letter. Many nights I left the computer thinking, “I quit; it’s over,” only to try again the next day. For that reason, for a long time I saw a shadow over that book. Remembering the struggle, I thought of it as lesser than its siblings. 

And then, at some point, I reread Until It Hurts to Stop. And I loved it. I reconnected with the characters, with the theme that had driven me to write it in the first place. My behind-the-scenes anguish was not on the page. The pages reflected only the outcome of the editorial decisions, not the doubts and debates that happened before those choices were made.

It reminded me that people don’t see what you leave on the cutting-room floor. They don’t see the endless drafts, the revision letters, the raw notes. A scene that took you a month to write may be gulped down by the reader in a few minutes. Its smoothness is possible only because of the trouble you took; it’s the product that counts. The reader doesn’t know that your dog died during the writing of Chapter Five, or that your kid had the flu and you wrote Chapter Eleven on no sleep, or that you rewrote Chapter Three seventeen times. The reader never saw the two characters you deleted and the twenty pages you lopped off at the end. 

The story—thank goodness—has a life apart from all that, a self-contained existence between its covers. It has been polished to its best form.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Cats' Pledge

Cats belonging to writers everywhere have taken this vow:

Where there is a keyboard, I will lie upon it.
Where there is a screen, I will stand in front of it.
Where there is a stack of papers, I will sprawl on them.
Where there is an envelope, I will dig my claws into it.
Where there is a door, I will demand to go through it.
When a writer has toiled mightily and well, s/he will be rewarded with the present of a dead rodent.
Where there is rejection, I will purr and head-bonk the troubles away.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Taking home the best part

I've gotten many things from writers' conferences: writing tips, feedback, prompts, professional contacts, books, prizes, and even friendships. And, of course, a fine collection of tote bags!

But probably the best thing I bring home is inspiration. It's not just insightful keynotes or pithy quotes or useful lessons. It's the dedication people bring to this craft. It's the feeling of sharing space with dozens of other people who choose to spend a weekend in a hotel conference room tending this essential part of themselves. It's the collective enthusiasm, the collective belief that words matter, that stories matter. 

Conferences rekindle my excitement for writing. They remind us that although writing is a solitary profession, we're not really alone.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

On suffering for art

In Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth Hardwick writes, "Tell me, is it true that a bad artist suffers as greatly as a good one?"

I marked the page because that line made me think quite a bit. We hear the advice to dig deep, to open a vein, and one thing we can always tell ourselves if we're not succeeding is that we haven't dug deeply enough, we haven't cut close enough to the bone. Maybe more hours of work will do the trick. Maybe we just haven't invested enough yet.

But that's not necessarily it. There are artists who sweat and scrimp for years, who put in the effort and the time, but never quite find an audience for what they're doing. Is it a lack of originality then, a lack of some spark that holds them back, or is it just bad luck? What is a "bad artist," anyway? 

This is the point where I sense that I am asking unanswerable questions, and I turn to the next page. The one thing I know is that effort matters, but only to a point, and suffering is no guarantee of eventual payoff. Which is why the best part of making art is often in the creation itself.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

For the record

This month at YA Outside the Lines, our topic was music, and I waxed nostalgic about good old record albums. A sample: "There was a ceremony, a specialness, around playing a record. An album was more than just the music: it was the cover art, the liner notes and lyric sheets, the order of the songs." 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Happy places

Most of us have refuges, the locational equivalent of comfort foods. They are the places to which we return when we need to think, relax, hide, gather ourselves, daydream, grieve, celebrate, figure out what to do next. They are the places where we feel wholly ourselves.

I have a few: my porch, my writing office, the beach, certain patches of woods. Libraries and bookstores and some parks. Where are yours?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Developing change

Sometimes change happens suddenly, but often we see that a supposedly sudden change has actually been building for a while. The dominos fall at once, but they've been set up over a long period of time.

Such changes build beneath the surface, and when they pop up, it is not a complete surprise. We recognize the source of the restless stirrings we couldn't name before. And then we know what we've been suspecting: we want to leave that job, or sell that house, or have that baby, or write that book.

As writers, we create something similar in our books, building the changes in characters so that they evolve naturally but satisfy dramatically. Readers want to see the dominos fall, the bonfire lit, the race run. We want to see everything in the book serve its purpose, fall into place or zoom into the air. This is what it all meant. This is where it was leading, we think, and for a moment, everything makes sense.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Daydream day

Today's to-do list is shorter than it's been in a good long while. Part of me thinks this would be a good day to grab a bunch of long-term goals, things that have been hanging around on the back burner, and pile them onto today's list.

Part of me thinks, The heck with that. Daydream, goof off. Daydreaming is an essential part of life; we don't give it enough respect or make time for it often enough. 

I'll plunge back into the world of schedules and commitments tomorrow. Today is for rest and contemplation.

Friday, May 12, 2017

38 good books (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

A few days ago, Nathan Bransford issued a challenge to name the 100 best novels. His own list is at the link, and others who have participated are linked there, too.

I'm always intrigued by such lists, but hesitant to make my own. I have opinions, yes, but I get bogged down in questions such as: What does "best" even mean? And who am I to pick the best when there are major classics I've never even read? And won't my personal tastes and nostalgia skew the list? And wow, 100 books is a lot to come up with, and there is no way I could rank them within such a list.

So I have come up with a list that I call "38 good books." These are books I like, that I would recommend, that I think have merit. This list is affected by all the issues I raised in the preceding paragraph. All that said, here are some good novels, in alphabetical order because I can't rank them:

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (Lewis Carroll) 
The Associates (John Jay Osborn, Jr.) 
The Bears' House (Marilyn Sachs) 
The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) 
Catch-22 (Joseph Heller) 
The Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger) 
The Centaur (John Updike) 
Charlotte's Web (EB White) 
A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess) 
David Copperfield (Charles Dickens) 
The Dharma Bums (Jack Kerouac) 
East of Eden (John Steinbeck) 
The Fog Comes on Little Pig Feet (Rosemary Wells) 
Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh) 
Heartburn (Nora Ephron) 
How to Eat Fried Worms (Thomas Rockwell) 
Invitation to a Beheading (Vladimir Nabokov) 
Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) 
Lord of the Flies (William Golding) 
The Lover's Dictionary (David Levithan) 
Main Street (Sinclair Lewis) 
The Member of the Wedding (Carson McCullers) 
National Velvet (Enid Bagnold) 
The Outsiders (SE Hinton) 
A Pocket Full of Seeds (Marilyn Sachs) 
Persuasion (Jane Austen) 
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) 
See You at Harry's (Jo Knowles) 
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (Peter Cameron) 
Some Girls Are (Courtney Summers) 
Sophie's Choice (William Styron) 
Sweethearts (Sara Zarr) 
This Song Will Save Your Life (Leila Sales) 
The Truth About Mary Rose (Marilyn Sachs) 
The Unchosen (Nan Gilbert) 
Unwind (Neal Shusterman) 
Up the Down Staircase (Bel Kaufman) 
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson) 

I'd actually be shocked if anyone else has read all 38, but I suppose it's a glimpse into my reading tastes. I also allow for the possibility of change; some of these books have been on every list of favorites I've ever made and I expect they always will; others might fall out of favor over time, and new books can always join the list. It's a snapshot.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Writers aren't always solitary

On Friday I had the pleasure of seeing something I'd written interpreted and performed live by professional actors at the Rhythm and Verse Salon. It reminded me of the occasions on which something I've published has been accompanied by an illustration--getting to see the visual artist's play on my ideas, including the new and unexpected elements that another artist brings, always excited me. And so it was at the salon, where I got to see my words interpreted and presented in a new context, as one piece among many on the same theme ("Inclusion/Exclusion"). The evening also featured music and conversation.

While there, I met the founder of The Unexpected Poetry Project, who handed me a poem--one of the more than 12,000 she hands out each year, at random. Imagine bringing art so simply and directly to so many!

Yesterday I went to a reading by Martha Cooley at the Open Book bookstore, and heard a chapter of her new memoir, Guesswork: A Reckoning with Loss.

If art feeds our souls, then I am well fed. A nice respite, as I turn to another week of keeping up with the news and speaking out where I can.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Writing weekend

I just had the good fortune of spending a weekend devoted totally to writing--and to walks on the beach during writing breaks. With such a sustained period of time, I was able to knock out a couple of short projects and wrestle with a longer project that has been bothering me for a while. I had hoped to open the draft of that latter project, which had been sitting untouched for a while, and find it ready for line editing. Instead, my first reaction was dismay. It still needs deep revision, fundamental construction, if it is going to work at all. I put it aside for an hour, in frustration. But then I turned back to it, and began marking the parts that I like, the sparks of life glowing here and there. I hope to use them to build a new version of--whatever this is. It's one of those story ideas that nags at me, that I try one way and another, that I pick up and put down in between other projects, that I hope to get right someday. It's the idea that won't go away but won't fully reveal itself either--so far.

I also had some good talks with the friend with whom I shared the weekend. It was wonderful to immerse myself completely in a writerly world. Now I'm back to the daily routine, with computer files and notebooks full of new words.

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.