Friday, November 1, 2019

Jigsaw puzzles and writing

One of the many cool features of my local library is that they now always have a jigsaw puzzle going, and they have puzzles you can borrow (and you can donate your own old puzzles if you're looking to declutter). 

Whenever I do a jigsaw, I always think of this passage from Louise Fitzhugh's The Long Secret: "She found a piece of the puzzle that fitted and felt a resounding satisfaction. How silly, she thought, that that should make me feel so good; that a piece of cardboard cut out of another piece of cardboard and then fitted back in should make a person feel so good."

There are plenty of theories about why it feels so good: that human beings like accomplishing things, solving problems, unraveling mysteries, finding patterns. Mostly what I like about jigsaws is the meditative quality of sorting the pieces and trying to fit them together. It's a very peaceful, calming thing to do, and the bigger the puzzle, the more patience it requires.

Jigsaw puzzles have that in common with writing. In fact, I was thinking that writing a book is like putting together a huge puzzle, which has some pieces from other puzzles mixed in. You hunt out the edge pieces first (the outline, if you will) and you have a sense of what the final product is supposed to look like, but in the beginning it's daunting and can be hard to know where to start. Where do all these pink pieces go? Should I work on the water or the sky? Does this blue piece belong to the water or the sky? What are these cream-colored squiggles? Is this piece ever going to fit anywhere? Oops--this section I've been working on doesn't even belong here; it's part of another puzzle!

As more and more of it comes together, it gets easier to know what goes where. The picture gets clearer and clearer. We fit it together piece by piece, the way we build a story word by word. What started out as chaos has become an organized, cohesive whole.

With puzzles, we're just reassembling what was originally whole--while theoretically, stories are new creations. But I swear that for me, stories feel more like puzzles. Writing feels more as if I'm discovering something--something that exists already in some shadowy depths of my mind, which must be fished out piece by piece and assembled in the light.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Joining the conversation

One of the best things about publishing is what I think of as "joining the conversation." So many times, as a young reader, I would converse with a book's characters, or with my conception of the writer, in my mind. So many times I wanted to ask, "Why did the story go there?" or "What's that based on?" or say, "Here's what I took from that," or, "Here's where I wished that would go."

Writing can bring us in touch with ourselves, and often that's enough. But when we share our poetry at the local open mic, or carry on a correspondence, or publish something that finds a wider audience, the resulting dialogues are special too. As readers and as writers, we talk about themes and trends, about language, about history and politics, creativity and imagination, hopes and dreams, voice and point of view, fears and power, memory and uncertainty. Writing reflects what matters to people, and our discussions inform our writing just as writing informs our discussions. There's always "the book everyone's talking about," but there's also, "the book I'll never forget," "the first book I loved," "the book that changed my mind," "the book about which I've changed my mind," "the book everyone else loves but I just didn't get," "the book I wish everyone would read," and of course, always, "the next book I want to read." May the circle keep widening.

Sunday, September 8, 2019


"Solitude itself is a way of waiting for the inaudible and the invisible to make itself felt."
--May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep

Solitude is breathing room. It's being alone, yet not feeling lonely or empty. It's finding the richness of one's own thoughts or imagination. It's the white space around words, the room for a story to grow.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Why we like them

At YA Outside the Lines, we were talking about favorite characters. My spin on the topic was to explore some of the factors that make certain characters our favorites. As I said, "We like to be dazzled." The full entry is here.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

After the debut

Five years after my debut as a novelist, I contacted other writers who'd debuted the same year to find out where they were in their journey, how publication had and had not changed their lives, and so forth. I wrote an article about my findings, which I pitched to several writers' publications ... but I found no takers.

It surprised me, because once I had my first book deal, my main questions were about what might happen next, what would happen next, and how one might go about building on that first book. What were the odds and what were the options? I think writers' resources (magazines, conferences, etc.) are great in helping writers to first publication, and they provide ongoing support for career writers. But I'm not so sure about the bridge from the first phase to the second phase.

In any case, now it's been closer to ten years, and I've seen stories unfold even more. Back when I got my first book contract, Borders and Barnes & Noble were the big chain bookstores, Penguin and Random House were two separate publishers, ebooks were so new that contracts didn't always cover them, and self-publishing through Amazon was not a phenomenon yet. So much has happened--including the recession of 2008, which dealt blows to the industry that I think are still underestimated.

In ten years I've seen many writers go on to publish multiple books--some in the same genre in which they started out, some in different genres. People have tried out or wholeheartedly embraced self-publishing; they've found careers in editing, agenting, ghostwriting. Some are writing under pen names, some under multiple pen names.

But there are those who didn't publish again, as far as I can tell, or who didn't continue publishing. On the cusp of my debut, I used to think of this as a horrible fate, to be dreaded and avoided at all costs. What I didn't realize then was that disappearing from bookshelves doesn't mean disappearing from life. Many writers turn to other art forms, or they delve into new careers, or devote more time to family. And the thing about publishing is that you never know when a new project will strike--so much is possible. The track is not as narrow as I used to fear.

So for the debut authors out there who might worry about what happens next, I would say: A variety of things can happen, and there is no one thing that must happen in order for this to be a success. There are many, many paths.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Second chances

Sometimes I buy a piece of clothing that doesn't work out the way I'd hoped. I have nothing to wear with it, or I have no place suitable to wear it, or it has an itchy tag, or something. I am slow to discard such things--well, anything, really--so they lurk in the back of my closet, waiting for another chance.

And it thrills me when I find a purpose for them, when they get that second chance. A maxi dress I bought years ago never made my office-clothes rotation, the way I thought it would, but at some point I discovered it made the perfect beach dress. A short-sleeved sweater I couldn't find a use for has jumped into the lineup during this hot summer when I need a light coverup for the cold commuter train. 

I have pieces of writing like that, too. A character, a name, a setting, a scene, a first line, sparks my interest, and I try unsuccessfully to make it work in story after story. But it doesn't fit; it's like the beautiful bronze skirt I once bought that paired badly with shirt after shirt. Often those writing fragments lurk in files for years, like the misfit clothing lurking in the closet. And what a joy when they find their proper place, when they lock seamlessly into the jigsaw puzzle of a story. 

In hindsight, it seems that piece was always meant for that story. It's one reason I don't consider a failed story to be a wasted effort. The truth is that I may not know what will be useful for years to come.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Book to movie

It was my turn to blog at YA Outside the Lines, and this month I wrote about how films can extend the lives of books. As I say there, "Largely, the books we remember for more than a generation are those that were made into movies."

Saturday, May 4, 2019


The rhythm of the writing life is not always smooth and steady. There are bursts of productivity; there are lulls. There are times of research, revision, backtracking. There are times when an entire project gets shelved. And sometimes the words just won't flow at all.

What's more constant is my reading habit. No matter what's happening with the writing, I can always engage with stories as a reader. Sometimes I'm studying the craft by reading; other times I'm just immersing myself in the world that made me want to be a writer in the first place. 

I read widely, passing from poetry to long-form nonfiction to magazines to novels and back again. Woe to the people who ask what I am reading, because I will tell them. Do they want to hear about the memoir, the novel, the oral history, the biography, the book of poems, or the essay collection? I'm not even mentioning the news articles or blog posts!

I'm grateful such a feast is available to me. Anywhere from half to three-quarters of the books I read in a given year come from my local library; the books I buy are a mix of new and used. I also reread what's already on my shelves.

The first tip I give in any writing workshop I teach is this: read. But to me, reading is less the writer's obligation than it is the writer's great benefit, and joy.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

That special story

Over at YA Outside the Lines, we were asked to contemplate the question: How do you know if an idea is the one? Worth writing about? Worth making your next project?

I answered with a question that has helped me in the past: If you could only write one more story, what would it be? You can read more here.

Friday, March 8, 2019

For the record

I've been consolidating some old journals and for the past three years have been keeping a recent one, and what strikes me is how often a journal entry will cover something I've totally forgotten. Sometimes the entry sparks a memory--it is still there, though I haven't thought about it in years. Other times the memory stays lost. I might discover I went to a party on a certain night when I was 22, but still remember nothing about that party.

Writing captures so much that we might otherwise forget. I make a note today that the snowdrops are blooming now, a harbinger of spring--a small detail I'm sure I would never be able to date in the future without my journal. It's a choice, of course, what to record and what to leave out. Of all the moments I lived through today, I will capture only a few of them. I polished an essay, took a walk with a friend, noticed the snowdrops, ate a turkey sandwich. I don't know which of these details might matter to me in years to come, and we can't live entirely for the future anyway, can't preserve everything. 

So I write down the first things that come to mind--sometimes from world news, usually from my personal life. Sometimes major, sometimes trivial. I strew bread crumbs for my future self to follow. But it isn't only about the future. The act of jotting a few notes each day makes me pay closer attention to the present. It requires me to stop and observe, at least for a few minutes.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

A bend in the road

I was struck by the section in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea where she talks about midlife--with its changes, emptying nest, closing of some avenues--as a time less of decline than of potential. The time we often call a crisis is one she likens to adolescence, another time of change and often turbulence. She speaks of midlife as a "second flowering" whose changes may be "signs of growth" rather than decline. We may grow into "a new stage in living when, having shed many of the physical struggles, the worldly ambitions, the material encumbrances ... one might be free to fulfill the neglected side of one's self. One might be free for growth of mind, heart, and talent, free at last for spiritual growth ..."

I certainly have felt this shedding and these changes as a time of preparation, of making room for some new phase. L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables always spoke of a "bend in the road" when faced with uncertainty in the future (as opposed to those times when our next steps lie straight ahead, clearly foreseeable). I identify with that, too: midlife can bring a bend in the road, and it's possible to approach it with enthusiasm as well as trepidation.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Are you having any fun?

If you're like me, the responsibilities and the to-do lists never end. Even when I reach the end of one list, there's always something else I could be doing. Like getting a jump on the next to-do list.

But the chores will never end. So it's important to throw the list out the window every now and then. Or add to it something fun. Something that has no purpose other than pure amusement or relaxation. A day at the beach, or a museum, or a talk with a friend. Skiing, or playing that video game, or just curling up with a book you want to but don't have to read. A movie, a walk in nature--whatever it is, it's time.

I've never believed that life must be all drudgery and work. Even the proverbial ant should get to be a grasshopper now and then.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The journey and the destination

"... I was sure my big break had arrived.  ... but again, it wasn't exactly the launch into stardom that I thought it would be. That's the thing about turning points: Facing a new direction doesn't mean there's not another long road in front of you."
--Franchesca Ramsey, Well, That Escalated Quickly

So many times we think we've "arrived." Now the magic begins! Now we'll be reaping the rewards of all that hard work! 

And often we find ... there's another whole patch of hard work. The "arrival" wasn't all we hoped it would be. But it's a sign of progress, at least. It's hard to know where we are on the journey while we're still in the middle of it. So we enjoy the milestones, and keep moving ahead.

(And if you're looking for a fun, thoughtful read on activism and social media, I recommend the book I've quoted here, which I obtained via library.)

Monday, January 14, 2019

Making room

We had snow over the weekend ... only about an inch, but it's been cold enough since that it has lingered many places.

So we walked through the woods, enjoying the light of sun through pine branches, the blue shadows of tree trunks striping the snow, the quiet. Winter is a great hiking season if you like peace and solitude.

It's a fitting season for weeding out old files, which is what I've been doing. So many decisions--do I need this? Where should I keep it? And to my delight, so many papers I can get rid of. Papers I once needed, or thought I needed. It's slow going, but I've set a goal to go through a few files each day. (I get through fewer when I hike, but then hiking's worth it.)

I want to make room. Room for what, I don't know yet, and that's partly the point. Room for the new and unexpected.