Monday, December 31, 2018

The present moment

"We balance the risks of the physical world ... with the risks of an insular life, lived underground, in fear. Too much safety creates its own dangers."
--Anne P. Beatty, "You Don't Have to Be Here," Creative Nonfiction Issue 68, Risk: Embracing Uncertainty

That quote struck me, since I'm one of those cautious people who try to plan for every eventuality. Risk-averse, to boot. But the older I get, the more I'm aware of just how much of life is beyond our control.

As we flip the calendar to the new year, we think about what we want the year ahead to be. I have many sources of uncertainty in many areas of my life right now, and rather than deal with all of 2019 I am going to continue focusing on the present moment. The now. 

"'The present moment is a teacher that will always be with you, a teacher that will never fail you.'"--Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted in "Learning to Trust the Present Moment" by Mitchell S. Ratner, The Mindfulness Bell, Issue 31

 On New Year's we think a lot about past and future. We count off the final seconds of a year, letting it go, watching it become the past right before our eyes. We look ahead to the unknown, the fresh start, the clean new calendar. I have lived through the turning of a year, a decade, a century, a millennium. But I keep settling in to the present moment.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Now that's what I call guidance counseling

"When my ninth-grade guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I told him I wanted to be a writer. Mr. Stone, in his brown corduroy suit and tinted aviator glasses, shook his head sadly. 'Ann,' he said, 'people don't do that.'"
--Ann Hood, Morningstar: Growing Up with Books

I'm enjoying Hood's book about reading, and writing, and coming of age, and the importance of stories. I thought this quote might amuse the writers out there--and the readers, too, for that matter. Thank goodness people do do that writer thing.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The first rewards

"...I am solidly, realistically joyous; I like living in hope of publication; I can live without the actual publication. I write, however poorly, or superficially, for fun, for aesthetic order, and I am not poor or superficial, no matter what I turn out."
--Sylvia Plath, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956, ed. by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil

Sylvia Plath wrote those words after her first flush of writing success, and after the breakdown that culminated in a suicide attempt, and before she knew she would have another, bigger wave of writing success--indeed, before she had even written the works for which she is now most famous. She's identifying the separation between the joy of publishing, which is unpredictable, and the joy of creation, which is always within reach. 

Artists know, or soon learn, that the degree of effort is not always proportional to the degree of (outward) success, and nothing is guaranteed. The inevitable questions are: Why am I creating this? Who is it for?

Saturday, November 24, 2018

That would make a great story ...

I can't help it. Let me overhear an intriguing scrap of conversation, or read a bizarre headline, or learn about some new-to-me quirky historical fact, and my brain will start constructing a story around it.

It doesn't matter if I ever write the story; I just seem to have an automatic reflex to outline the possible story in my head, maybe come up with an opening line. 

It's like a marathon runner doing a little jog-in-place. It keeps me in shape, preps me for the big race. Only in the case of writing, I never know which little jog is going to turn into the marathon until I'm well into the race!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

On lifework and dandelion seeds

"I only managed today to write six thank-you notes. This is the kind of day which utterly depresses me because I cannot see it as a lifework, only an existence to thank people ..."
--May Sarton, At Eighty-Two: A Journal

I know what Sarton means here; we often think of our notes, emails, blog posts, etc., as not "real writing," or what she refers to as "lifework." The lifework consists of the carefully crafted stories and articles and books that we deliberately put out for the world's notice ... right?

Well, yes and no. It occurs to me that when I correspond with someone, I'm establishing the very kind of connection that I want my published writing to achieve. I'm just doing it one-to-one instead of one-to-many. At this point in my life I've seen how rare and fleeting and unpredictable the one-to-many connections can be. 

And so I have a new regard for the less formal daily communications we practice. For some writers, letters and journals and other documents have become part of their lifework, even if they didn't plan it that way.

We don't always know what our lifework is, or what it will turn out to be. We blow dandelion seeds into the wind, and who can say which ones will sprout and flower?

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The uncertainty of the first draft

Starting a new book is all steam and excitement, an idea pulsing with life. But I'm never sure, until I've written my way into it, whether it will really work. I have abandoned first drafts after a thousand words, two thousand, ten thousand. 

Usually by the time I hit ten thousand, I have a sense of whether this is going anywhere. If the story's getting deeper and more complex, if new subplots are opening up, if the characters are revealing more with every scene, then I may have something. But if the initial impulse has burned out, its promise dwindled, the characters never growing, no new conflicts arising naturally, then it's another scrap for the scrap box. Part of it may be quilted into another story eventually.

When a story does go, when it grows legs--or better yet, wings--there's a feeling of inevitability. Yet the first shovelful into the ground (to mix metaphors here) rarely tells me how rich the pocket of ore will be. I have to dig a while to test it.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Writing in disguise

This month at YA Outside the Lines, the topic was writing and disguises. My contribution is here. A sample: "The best writing I have done is when I’m honest."

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Walls Between Us

Beth Kephart and William Sulit at Juncture Workshops have put together an anthology called The Walls Between Us, an exploration of how we live with walls of all sorts. I'm happy to have an essay called "The Wall of Fear" in it. I wrote it by asking: Why do we have walls in the first place? What do we like about them? What do we expect of them, and do they do what we expect? What problems have they brought that we didn't foresee?

I've read essays for years, but my first attempts at writing them came off preachy and stiff. Recently I've begun to treat them more as an opportunity to explore questions, and especially to use my own reading habits as jumping-off places to new territory. I've been happy to see the personal-essay form flourishing, since as a reader I can't get enough of them. My reading has shifted to a heavy emphasis on memoirs and personal essays, but I'm still reading widely: novels, history, books on spirituality.

I've long thought of reading and writing as ways to bridge the distance between people. I hope that's still true.

Monday, October 1, 2018

October musings

Some random thoughts for the day: 

I got behind in moderating comments on this blog, but I'm caught up now. Thanks for your patience!

I noticed that many of my recent posts have been about not being perfect and not pursuing perfection. This was something I worked on a lot in my 20s and now that I'm a few years older, I'm still working on it. I suppose it will be a lifelong project.

I've had another short piece accepted to an upcoming anthology. More on that in the near future.

Many people like to spend more time outdoors in the coolness of autumn, but I find myself retreating, cocooning, as the days shorten. Yet I still manage to get in some hikes. 

Overall, I'm craving slowness, meditation, time for thought. I have pared my schedule way back and wish I could pare it back even more, but there is that necessity to earn a living. 

2018 has been a challenging year, but it's drawing to a close. I find that at this time of year, each month passes more quickly than the last, and December is typically a blur.

May you spend this autumn doing things you love and find meaningful.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Embrace the imperfection

We've been sharing our most embarrassing childhood/teen moments all month at YA Outside the Lines. My contribution, which you can find here, relates a story from a middle-school award ceremony where I stepped on my own glory. A sample: "Sometimes you are going to be the one with the toilet paper on your shoe, or the button that pops open at the wrong moment, or the inconvenient fit of coughing. ... It’s really okay. Embrace the imperfection."

Sunday, September 23, 2018

On pressure, perfection, and the sharing of stories

I've been reading lots of nonfiction, and after a run of memoirs about giving birth, my main reaction is: Holy cow, are women staggering under the burden of high expectations in that department.

Society has always loved to judge mothers--for being too strict or not strict enough, for working outside the home or inside it, for holding their babies too much or not enough. But I have found expectations building up around pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding, have read heartbreaking stories of women turning themselves inside out to try to have the perfect pregnancy, the perfect natural birth, the perfect breastfeeding experience. And then to try to recover their pre-pregnancy bodies as quickly as possible.

Giving birth is a huge, life-changing experience. As with any other experience so profound (in both the physical and emotional sense), I would say: It's okay to get through it however you can. To accept help, support, medication, technology. To acknowledge that impossible standards are bad for us. I'm glad women are talking and thinking and writing about these issues.One of the biggest reasons I read memoir is for that sense of connection with people, that commentary on the world we all share.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Some positive thing

I had lunch with a friend earlier this week, and we talked about how difficult it is to make a difference in the world, how easy it is to give up in frustration. And yet we agreed we'd rather do something than nothing, even if it's only to be one small drop in an ocean.

Today I came across this passage:

"... we must simply do something ourselves, whatever we can, instead of being so overwhelmed by the bad news everywhere that we become passive. Act now to wrest some positive thing out of the chaos."
--May Sarton, At Eighty-Two

Sarton's words were written in 1993, but they seem evergreen.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Because sometimes you just need a chuckle

Reporter, by Seymour Hersh, is a mostly serious look at the role of journalists, the years when Vietnam and Watergate dominated the news, the tension that has always existed between the powerful and those who write about them, the importance of questioning authority, and the fact that cover-ups and lies by the powerful have been around for decades. 

But there are humorous moments:
"As we got settled [around the pool], I saw a young woman reading my book [about Henry Kissinger] while sunbathing. Thirty minutes later she was fast asleep, with the opened book shielding her face from the sun."

Ah, the glamorous life of a writer!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

False starts, detours, and the projects that wait

Some stories don't work on the first attempt to write them, or the second, or the fifth, or the twentieth. I've had stories that came out in one draft, with only minor polishing required. More often, they come out in fits and starts, take a few dozen revision passes, and are settled and done. 

Other stories take much longer. They yield failed draft after failed draft, false start after false start. When they finally come out right, they grow from old stories, or beginnings, or characters, that originated years (even decades) earlier. Apparently there's a certain amount of living I need to do before I know where to take them, how to end them.The book I wrote in 2012 was a relief in that it completed a story I'd been trying to tell for years. I'm happy now with that story. The way it turned out was much better than the way I originally conceived it; it needed that time and those changes in me to ripen.

I have another such a story still in me, a story I've been trying to tell in various formats, with various characters and plot twists, for longer than I care to remember. I produced a version several months ago that I had high hopes for, and received some feedback on it, and what I've since concluded is that I'm still stuck. That version has good things in it, but I still haven't found the right way to tell that story.

Maybe I never will, but as long as I'm around, I'll keep trying. Maybe it needs some life experience or inspirational spark that I haven't had yet. It might need some puzzle piece to fall into place. In the meantime, I've gone on to other things, but I can feel it in the background, biding its time.

Friday, August 3, 2018

I will perfect my life and then ...

I will get my life in order, and then I will know what to do next. 

I've probably been saying and thinking this all my life. Luckily it hasn't paralyzed me. I have managed to write and publish, to get a graduate degree, to marry, to buy a house, to travel--all of which were decisions I could have put off indefinitely, waiting for everything to fall into place and life to be perfect.

But though I've acted despite imperfection, I still find some part of myself waiting for life to settle down. To have enough time to get organized, enough energy to plow through backlogs, enough insight to know instinctively the next right step. There's value in waiting and listening, value in mindful attention. And yet, I have to remind myself that my proverbial ducks are never going to be in a row. (They like to wander, those ducks, and who can blame them?) I will never achieve perfection.

Well, duh, you might say. Whatever gave me the idea I could reach some moment of perfect readiness? I have no idea. Maybe it's useful simply as a goal to keep forward momentum, without the expectation of arrival. Or maybe it can be dropped altogether, replaced by living in the moment.

I don't know, but maybe it will be fun to find out.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Back to basics

Not long ago, I read Judy Melinek's Working Stiff, the true story of her time as a medical examiner in New York City. In 2001.

As you can imagine, the book is full of the kind of not-for-the-squeamish gritty realism you'd expect from any pathologist's memoirs, with the added horrors of handling the victims of 9/11. But the story in the book that shocked me the most, the one that has haunted me ever since, was not particularly graphic or gruesome, and had nothing to do with 9/11.

In investigating the death of a surgical patient, Melinek and the others on the investigating committee discovered that the surgeon--a highly placed and well-respected doctor from a sterling institution--had never learned to tie a proper surgical knot. How had he advanced so far in his career without learning this most elementary of surgical skills? Inside how many other patients had he left what Melinek called "granny knots?"

Fortunately, most writers can't cause such dire consequences by failing to master the basics of our own craft. (Unless we're writing certain kinds of instruction manuals, I suppose.) But "back to basics" is a great motto generally, I find. For meditation: back to the basics of breathing in and out. For writing: find a character and a conflict. For a to-do list that's too long: pick the first thing, and do one at a time. 

In writing and life, it's easy to get lost in the weeds, to try to bluff our way through what we don't know, to take on more and more before we're ready. It's okay--sometimes necessary--to return to Step 1, to focus on a solid foundation, to keep it simple.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Idle moments

People check phones all the time now: At red lights. On commuter-train platforms. In the elevator. While walking down the street.

And all these little stray bits of time are when we used to zone out, stare at what was around us, check our mental to-do lists, mull over what happened at work, or count the days until vacation. Sometimes we daydreamed, and sometimes we eavesdropped on conversations around us.

I wonder if we've lost anything valuable in filling those idle random moments. I've long been a big proponent of the idea that daydreaming, rest, and zoning out are a neecessary part of a creative life, and a healthy life in general. I believe the mind needs time to wander. I've also long been resistant to the notion that we have to be outwardly productive every second.

Maybe I'm wrong, and these idle moments serve no real purpose. But I've been making a conscious effort to go with them when they crop up. To look around me, rather than constantly busying myself. I can't point to a quantifiable output resulting from these moments, but I feel the need to just let them happen.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Trying something new

My second novel grew out of an attempt I made at writing a verse novel. I had never written a verse novel before, but I thought it would be interesting and challenging and fun. The book ended up morphing into prose--and fairly quickly--but I found my way into the opening scenes through poetry.

Last year I went to a live performance that included a piece I had written. I'd never seen my work acted by professionals before, and it was a thrill. The whole thing happened because when I saw the call for submissions, instead of saying, "I've never written a performance piece for dual voices before; I can't do that," I told myself, "I want to try that."

Whenever I teach writing workshops, I talk about the great luxury we have as writers--a luxury not shared by, say, brain surgeons--of being able to start over whenever we want. We can delete, copy, produce multiple versions. We can switch a piece from first to third person, try something as a memoir or a novel (as long as we don't call fiction nonfiction), rewrite a poem as prose or vice versa, change the age of the audience we're aiming for, take a stab at a genre or form we've never worked in before. Most of my early publications were short stories. For the better part of a decade I wrote books almost exclusively. Lately I've been writing more essays.

Experimenting is always an option.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

History and the illusion of inevitability

I've been thinking about historical fiction and nonfiction. From a plotting perspective, they're unusual in that we usually know how the story ends. We know how World War II came out, what happened to the Hindenburg, and when Vesuvius erupted. The writer's challenge is to create tension in the face of a known ending. Sometimes writers choose historical mysteries for that reason, or historical figures about whom very little is known, so they can create a world from plausible conjecture. Sometimes they create tension around the fate of individual fictional characters--for example, we may know how and when a war ended, but we don't know whether the characters we've been following will survive it.

The inevitability of known outcomes is also tough to keep out of the characters' minds. When we readers and writers know how things come out, it's tempting to think the characters should know it, too. But when I look at the world today, I have no idea how things will go. Many historical events only look inevitable in hindsight, and I think that sense of uncertainty, that sense that anything could happen, is crucial if difficult to capture.

Friday, June 8, 2018

After dreams come true

"I had imagined my dreams coming true, but not what happened after that."--Melissa Febos, "Home," in Good-bye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York

This sentence really jumped out at me, because I've spent the past couple of years in the "after that." I think most writers expect that once we publish books, we will keep on and on. Even if we've said, pre-publication, that we would be thrilled just to publish once, just this one book, we know deep down that every step we climb shows us more steps ahead, new floors we want to reach. We reach one goal only to set another.

And sometimes we find that the new goal isn't attainable. Or isn't what we want anymore. Life is full of curveballs, diversions, setbacks. 

It's also full of new opportunities. 

We need not follow every single road to the end. Even if we once saw that highway stretching out clear and straight before us. There may be a side road beckoning, a twisty road that's hard to see the end of, but the sunlight and the flowers lining it are tempting.

We don't always know what's coming, but that may be part of the fun.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Word choice and world building

I blogged about word choice and world building over at YA Outside the Lines. Feel free to check it out. A sample: "We don’t just build stage sets; we show how our characters respond to their surroundings." 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Procrastination has its place

"I have got to learn not to believe I have to do everything immediately." 
--May Sarton, Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year

I've often quoted Sarton's journals, which are all about the day-to-day life of a writer. She was writing decades ago and in a time before the internet took over our lives, but so many of the issues she discusses are evergreen. She talks about professional disappointments and envy. She talks about what she enjoys in other writers' work, and how much she appreciates the support of friends. She discusses money, and fear, and uncertainty, and anger, and the hunger for solitude. She recounts the difficulty of finding time and energy to work, of the times when inspiration won't strike, of the times when a poem gets stuck coming out, or falls flat, or gets overworked. She reports the satisfaction of words falling into place.

One constant in the journals is the feeling of pressure, of too much to do, of not enough time. Writers' lives have only gotten busier. I derive great satisfaction from my to-do lists, and they help keep me on track. But sometimes I find myself adding more and more items, feeling more and more as if life is an endless round of chores. And then I remind myself, as Sarton says above, that it's okay to let some things wait. Or even drop altogether.

Or, as Nora Ephron says in I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman
"We can't do everything.
I have been given the secret of life."

Friday, May 11, 2018


Lately, I've been reading more and hiking more. People-watching. Birdcam-watching. Exercising more. Reading on the porch. Keeping up with my civic responsibilities (aka, calling my legislators, going to public meetings, and remembering to vote in the upcoming primary). 

As for writing ... I'm refilling the well, no longer feeling the need to write constantly just to be writing. This is my third consecutive year of keeping a daily journal (something I did only intermittently in the past), and I participate weekly in the micro-nonfiction exercise known as #cnftweet (Creative Nonfiction's challenge to tell a true story in a single tweet, including the hashtag #cnftweet). So I am writing regularly. But I am trying new things.

I love YA literature, and once I began to publish in that field, I thought I'd come home, that that was where I would stay. And I wouldn't say I've turned my back on it. But I'm being called in new directions at the moment, so I'm exploring. A writer's life is ever unpredictable.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Writing's silver linings

I have a new post up at YA Outside the Lines. All month we've been blogging about rejection, and mine is about "good" rejections.

In other news, today I was thinking how one of the best things about writing is how many times we can start over, and change things, and choose our own endings, and try alternate scenes. We can bring characters back to life, undo any crisis, stop time while we perfect a line in a scene. In these ways, the page is more forgiving than real life. It's not like brain surgery, I always say--if we totally screw up a story, we can put it aside and start over.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

On exercise and assumptions

Some of us who were bookish kids, who didn't play organized team sports at a young age, believed that we just weren't athletic. If we didn't care much about the most popular sports, if we didn't understand the rules of whatever game we were playing in gym class that day, if we were afraid of being awkward or missing the ball, we bought into the idea that physical activity just wasn't for us. I bought into that myth for years, until well into high school.

At some point, though, I noticed that I liked to dance, and while that wasn't a sport, it was certainly a physical activity. And I liked volleyball, and was lucky to go to a college where the athletic director had made it a sort of mission to get as many students as possible involved in intramural sports, especially volleyball, by emphasizing fun. No longer was exercise something I "couldn't do" or "wasn't good at." I also started to realize that I'd played outdoors in the woods as a kid, and I liked to walk everywhere--and when you put those two things together, you get hiking. After college, I joined hiking clubs, and I still make walks and hikes a part of my daily life.

So I suppose there are two conclusions here. First, writing is a sedentary activity, and it's important to balance it out with physical activity. It doesn't matter what--yoga, martial arts, walking, running, tennis, dance, swimming, bicycling--anything that seems fun. And second, sometimes it's good to question our assumptions about ourselves, especially our perceived limitations.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

After a rest

Winter is slowly loosening its grip. The hardiest flowers are coming up, shaking off the last of the snow. Birds are nesting.

The trees are still bare of leaves. But inside them, we know the sap will soon rise. The earth wakes up after its rest. I've always believed that the sleep of winter is essential to the beauty of spring, just as I often have a burst of creativity after a fallow period.

Sunday, March 18, 2018


Most of yesterday I spent away from gadgets, outdoors in nature. As a friend and I were discussing today (during more time spent in nature), there's something about nature, about greenery and living things, that is profoundly nourishing. 

This has always been an essential part of my life, and I want to make a more conscious effort to remember that, to make time for this even more often. There are fragrant carpets of pine needles and secret woodland pools waiting out there.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Good enough

"The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it."
--Samuel Johnson*

I like this statement from Johnson--it's so concise, punchy even. It's such a nice answer to the question of why people should ever bother with a task as uncertain as writing.

On this topic, I'm also partial to a line from Sylvia Plath. The poet narrator of Plath's The Bell Jar defends her avocation (in her mind, in response to a condescending remark from her med-student boyfriend) as "writing poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick and couldn't sleep." It struck me the first time I read it, and has remained, one of my favorite explanations for what writers give the world.

Opening doors. Providing illumination, or comfort, or knowledge, or recognition. It's a good enough way to spend a life.

*from Johnson's review of Soame Jenyns' "Free Enquiry into the Nature of the Origin of Good and Evil," per Apocrypha, the Samuel Johnson Sound Bite page

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Spring cycles

We have been out greeting the spring this weekend.

Despite the fact that the weekend began with a blustery dose of snow, spring is definitely creeping  up on us. The snowdrops are up; the witch hazel is blooming; the crocuses and early cherry trees are starting. I've even seen daffodils and one brave, early dandelion.

We heard young frogs croaking, and birds are pairing up and working on nests. The sun is warmer, even if the wind is cold. You can smell the earth again, as the slushy snow melts into the mud.

We visited an eagle's nest today, because at this time of year we usually see them tending to eggs or nestlings. But half the nest was wrecked by winter weather, and the birds weren't there. According to the park ranger, the eagles are hanging around and have done some repairs, but they may not produce young this year, an eagle's nest being a major construction project.

On the other hand, there's hope for the red-tail hawks at Cornell this year. After years of successful nests, last year brought tragedy: the sudden death of the male right at the start of mating season. The female found a new mate, with whom she is working on one of her old nests, and maybe we will see more young this year.

The rituals of nature are comforting. Plants and animals face change, adversity and loss; they don't always have happy endings. But they keep blooming, nesting, feeding. They live out their own stories, of which we catch occasional glimpses.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Dangerous Creations

I'm pleased to have an essay in the upcoming issue of the Creative Nonfiction journal. The issue's theme is "Dangerous Creations," exploring "the intersections of technological innovation and the human condition," and my essay delves into the thoughts of many recent authors on this issue. Information about the issue is  here, and there's also a link to my article (titled "What's This Doing to My Brain?").

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Olympic stories

I've always loved the Olympics. When I was little, they seemed to take forever to come around--four years being a much bigger chunk of my life back then, and the winter and summer games not being biennially staggered yet, the way they are now.

Every time the athletes march in for the opening ceremony, full of hope and expectations, I think how there will be the same stories we've seen before: the coronation of an expected gold medalist. The surprise winner, who medals though he or she wasn't supposed to. The scrappy heart-stealing competitor bouncing back from some personal tragedy. The winner who nearly loses but comes through at the last moment, unbelievable grace under unbelievable pressure. And always, there's at least one star who was expected to win, but lost because of one moment's lapse in concentration, one slip, one stumble. There's the one who comes achingly close, losing by a millimeter, or by one one-hundredth of a second. There may be a fall from grace, a disqualification due to some form of doping, or unsportsmanlike boorishness.

There are also the stories we don't see--the athletes worked tremendously hard but will lose in the qualifying rounds, the ones with no medal hopes. I remember one year the broadcasters showed us such a skier, just so we could appreciate the flashy downhill winners all the more. And truly, this skier seemed to be moving in slow motion by comparison. But I have never forgotten him, that skier determinedly taking his downhill run on Olympic snow. 

In just two weeks' time, there are so many stories, so much tension and heartbreak and triumph. We've seen the stories before, but they remain compelling, because we can never be sure which players will get the happy ending, which the near miss, which the tragic fall, until the flame is extinguished.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Online mindfully

My latest post at YA Outside the Lines addressed being online in a mindful way. A sample:

"It’s easy to get swept up in technology, but we can make conscious choices about where and how we want to be present."

Feel free to hop on over there and check it out.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Waiting and letting go

"Because of the enormous wind and rain we have had, a lot of the daffodils have blown down, though not as many as I had feared. But the truth is that their peak is past. We shall have them for another week and then they will be gone. It seems quite unbearable but that is what spring is--the letting go. The waiting and waiting and waiting, and then the letting go."
--May Sarton, Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year

This passage leaped out at me because it is also how I experience spring: the waiting and waiting for those first spears of crocus leaf, the white blossoms of snowdrop, the electric blue of glory-of-the-snow. The first subtle stars of witch hazel in an otherwise bleak landscape. At the beginning, it's easy to keep an inventory of everything as it blooms, because the flowers are so few and so long anticipated. And then the waves start--daffodils, hyacinths, forsythia, lesser celandine, the earliest cherries, redbuds, weeping cherries, dogwoods, bluebells and wood poppies, violets, azaleas, lilacs, the late cherries--all of them brilliant for such a short time, often peaking within a week. I welcome each wave and let it go, reluctantly. And then the trees leaf out and the longer-lived, less showy flowers such as dandelions and clover bloom, and we settle into summer. 

In the coming weeks, in my part of the country, the spring watch will start. There is always some adventurous early flower that comes out during a winter thaw and gets frozen in the bud (usually forsythia and cherries, but once I saw daffodils blooming on New Year's Eve). Otherwise we will wait and wait and wait for the waves of spring, and then we will let each one go in turn.

My writer friends may also recognize a pattern in that: waiting and waiting and waiting--for ideas, for feedback, for publication, for responses. Letting go--of expectations, of ideas that didn't work, of manuscripts that didn't find readers, of successful stories that nonetheless cannot be dwelt in forever. Turning to the next wave, for its unique beauty, for however long it may last.

Sunday, January 21, 2018


I don't have a digital assistant.

Actually, I find robotic voices a little creepy. It's especially startling to answer your phone and find someone who sounds like a person asking how you are and laughing about their kids, and you realize it's just a scripted bot, not a person, on the other end.

The simulation of the human voice is what creeps me out, I think. Similarly, I can't stand the kind of animation that you now see in video games and lots of movies, with people who look close to real but just have that tiny bit of "offness" that completely repels me.

Anyway, this is my own quirk, and to each their own. But I think about this every time I hear a commercial in which an actress is impersonating a digital assistant. Why have the advertisers decided that the digital assistant is the perfect pitchwoman? Are we that dependent on our own flawed creations? 

Maybe this is a silly question to ask about advertising--which after all, has used cartoon bears, dancing raisins, and a man sailing a tiny boat in your toilet tank as "trusted authorities" for the sake of selling us stuff. In light of that, why not use the digital assistant?

There's just something wild to me about an actress impersonating a digital assistant, given that the digital assistant impersonates human assistants. More and more, we are living in a world of such circularity, of illusion. There could be a story here. Right now what I have is just a sense of unease, but unease leads to plenty of stories. Unease is the scratch of a match against the striking pad.

Monday, January 15, 2018


I've been reading (transcribed) oral histories, memoirs, personal essays, and letters. On deck I have a biography and a novel. I'm loving all these different formats and voices and time periods (which range from the 1800s to the present). Sitting down with a book or a magazine is still my favorite way to spend an afternoon hour, as well as being my favorite way to begin and end the day.

It's a good counterpoint to all the news I'm reading and watching--and sometimes it enhances my understanding. Because over and over again, the issues we battle out in the news are issues that people have dealt with in previous eras. So many times, I find lines or quotes from 200 years ago that could be written today, could apply to present situations.

I'm not sure whether it's comforting or exasperating that we argue the same points over and over. Maybe both.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Sources of conflict

"For generation upon generation we humans have continued to try to heal our pain by inflicting more pain on others. And so it continues ..."
--Anne Speiser, in The Mindfulness Bell, Winter/Spring 2007

I zeroed in on this quote because it captures the way I approach characters, particularly "villains." I put "villains" in quotes because I think most people are not villains in their own minds, even if they're viewed that way by others. And all of us have the capability to do villainous things, at least sometimes. Most of us think we are more good than bad, that we are trying our best in a difficult world.

I try not to have my characters' bad acts reduced to a simple this-trauma-caused-that-transgression formula; it's too simplistic. I leave it to the reader to decide whether a rationale is an excuse, whether an act is forgivable. I don't usually have good characters vs. evil characters, but rather the positive and negative within each person churning and roiling, testing each character. To me, these are the most interesting conflicts, the most interesting sources of growth. 

To go back to the quote, of course we shouldn't pass along our pain. But we often do. So my stories ask, what then? What next, and can we ever break this cycle?