Sunday, November 29, 2020

Grateful for books

I've always been thankful for books, but this year I am especially so, since travel this year has been confined to the imagination. At times I've needed books that reflect what it's like to live through an epidemic (Body Counts, Sean Strub) or cope with grief and loss (When Death Takes Something from You, Give it Back, Naja Marie Aidt) or live in a bitterly divided world (WWI Europe, in the case of Alone Against Gravity, Thomas de Padova; WWII Europe, in the case of Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly). 

At other times, I've needed books that transport me to completely different experiences: good old Emma (Jane Austen) or shiny new fantasy (Star Daughter, Shveta Thakrar) or 1990s radio (Radio On, Sarah Vowell). I've delved into the writerly journals and correspondence of Sylvia Plath and May Sarton, and the poetry of Joy Harjo and Morgan Parker. I "moved" to Bolivia with William Powers and his family (Dispatches from the Sweet Life) and into the American desert with Ben Ehrenreich (Desert Notebooks) and into The House on Mango Street with Sandra Cisneros.

And that's just a sampling. Thanks to curbside library pickup, rereads from my own shelves, and the miracle of mail order, I've been able to keep my pandemic-shrunken world wide and varied, to keep my mind exercised. I hope you have also found books to keep you comforted or challenged--and if you write, to remind you why your work is important.

Monday, October 12, 2020

When the path gets rocky

One thing I like about reading authors' diaries--maybe the main thing--is how they honestly reflect the difficulties, the ups and downs, of the writing life. There are days when everything clicks and the words flow. There are days when acceptances pop into the mailbox. But there are also many days of self-doubt, emptiness, stuck-ness. Days when a good idea just won't come, or an idea that seemed good the day before now looks pitiful. 

It's reassuring to remember that's all part of the process. If it doesn't feel like magic and moonbeams every moment, that doesn't mean we're doing it wrong. Plenty of writers have gone before us, acknowledging that the path can be rocky. If we trip over the occasional rock or wander off into the nettles, at least we're in good company.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Pastimes for the present time

The pandemic has sped up time for some of us, slowed it down for others. I've experienced both. Spring lasted forever, but the summer is passing in an eye-blink.

I'm working more hours, but I have fewer options for my downtime. I still walk and hike, though I have fewer options for where to do it. My library closed for weeks, and the new reservation and curbside pickup process is a bit slower, though I'm profoundly grateful it exists at all. In any case, I did have a great excuse to delve into my TBR pile--the books that I've accumulated but then was never in the right frame of mind to read. 

One of those books is an art book, picked up dirt-cheap secondhand. I had thought, when I got it a few years back, that I might use it for writing prompts. But it was only a couple of weeks ago that I finally opened it.

Each painting in it encourages me to slow down, to study line and form and color, to think about the story it's telling. It encourages mindfulness, this stopping to focus on what's in front of me.

I suspect that gardening, puzzles, and baking may be serving similar function for many: a tangible object or process with which to interact in the moment. Writing can take us deeper into this world, or it can take us deeper into other worlds. Yet sometimes we want to set it aside for paintbrush or rake or dough. Especially when the future looks uncertain, we concentrate on the present moment.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Recording the details

As I look back on old diary entries, I wish I had spent more time recording the mundane details of my daily life and less analyzing every nuance of my angstier moments. I seem to recall the writer David Sedaris saying something similar about the journals he has kept.

One problem is that we're so familiar with life as it is today, we often think of it as boring and not worth recording. And then living through extraordinary times such as this pandemic, we may not want to dwell on the details. We may think we'll never forget them.

But even if COVID-19 permanently changes us, there will be details about this time that will grow hazy. Even if we end up covering our faces forever (and I hope we don't), will we remember what it was like to wear a mask for the first time? Will we recall the scramble to even find a mask, the experiments with old T-shirts and rubber bands? Will we forget the desperation over toilet paper? The evening cheers for frontline workers? The first person we knew with the virus, or the first symptoms in ourselves? Will we remember watching cases spread over maps with growing dread and fear? Will we remember how children played in yards for the first time in years, how they chalked the sidewalks with art? Will we remember the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd and so many others, the jolts of a country's long-delayed reckoning?

We may want to write these things down. Whether for catharsis or for some future researcher, or as a link to our own future selves. I find so much in my earlier writings that I otherwise would have forgotten.

Sunday, May 17, 2020


I never liked using real places or landmarks in my work, because I worried something might happen to them before the book could come out. The World Trade Center, the Old Man of the Mountain, Notre Dame cathedral--all forever changed, in a matter of hours, in ways unforeseen--served as my reminders that we never know. I preferred fictional stand-ins. But now the very atmosphere, the social practices, the ways people spend their days, are all totally changed in ways we couldn't foresee. 

One difficult thing about writing contemporary fiction at this time is that we don't know where this pandemic will go, how things will unfold. It can take a year or two to write a novel; traditional publishing can take a few years beyond that. Even a fast writer, self-publishing, will likely take a few months at least to get from concept to publication.

So, should our characters wear masks? Will there be effective treatments, and if so, when? What activities will still be off limits? Will we return to semi-normal life or need another lockdown?

It's tempting to give up and set a story in the recent past instead. Or even the distant past. Or an alternate reality. And those are certainly options.

Or we can take the leap, and write based on where we are now, ever mindful of the reality of change ... and the ability to edit.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

One big story

What do you do when you are a writer and there only seems to be one story, one story that is the center of everyone's attention, one story that overshadows all others right now?

Maybe you take notes, because you know this time is extraordinary, or because that's just how you deal with the best and worst of life. Writing is the way you make sense of the senseless pain in life. Writing is what reminds you of any small blessings you can find right now. Maybe writing is what brings you determination, or it's the way you process grief, or it's what gives you hope.

Or maybe you don't dive into the one big story at all. You escape into another story altogether, far away from the one you are living on a daily basis. Maybe you find yourself as a reader welcoming stories that transport you, if only temporarily, away from this time and situation. Those other stories give you a perspective on the broad sweep of history, or they just give you the relief of visiting another world for a while. Maybe as a writer you vow to write such stories for the others who need a break from the one big story.

Or maybe you don't write at all for a while. Your time is taken up with other things--illness, caregiving, tending the homefires, volunteering, working the day job at home or out there in a different world. Maybe you have the time, but you can't focus--you can't even write about the one big story, because you're too busy living it.

We all cope the best we can. There's no one right answer--as with so much of writing. There's only what works for you right now.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Floundering and first drafts

In retrospect, a finished story can feel "meant to be." It's been honed and rewritten to the point that it seems as if it always was that way.

When I reread early drafts, though, I'm surprised at how much floundering I did, how many wrong turns I took. Entire scenes, chapters, or subplots ended up on the cutting-room floor. Rounded, complex characters started out as flat cliches. That important plot twist--wasn't even there yet!

A first draft can feel like a journey through unfamiliar territory with only a sketchy map (that would be the outline, which is subject to change or reinterpretation). Sometimes the words come slowly. Sometimes the previous day's work is an obvious derailment, and gets deleted. Sometimes one writes three pages and finds that the final paragraph of those three pages--that's where the real meat is. The rest was just throat-clearing. 

"Holy cow," the writer may say, in the thick of the first draft. "Was first drafting always this inefficient?"


Monday, February 17, 2020

When writers go silent

Ever notice that a favorite author hasn't published in a while? That the wait for the next book in a series is longer than expected? That you have no idea what they're up to, and even checking their social media doesn't give a clue?

It's very common for writers to go through "silent periods" where they're not publishing--or at least not publishing under the same name as previously. Before publication, it's tempting to think of crossing that threshold as entering a club with lifetime membership. And in some ways, it is lifetime membership--the work we've put into the world is out there for good now.

But it can be dismaying to discover that staying published is often harder than getting published in the first place. Markets change; trends come and go; writers' interests change. Sometimes writers switch genres--either because of fiscal realities, new interests, or both. Sometimes they pick a new pen name to go with the switch.

Other times a writer hits a block--burnout or self-doubt, for example. Or life may present situations that leave no time or energy for writing, such as illness, loss, care-giving for others, or the demands of  a day job.

Sometimes a writer just needs time to regroup, a long silent period for rejuvenation. A long silence may be followed by incredible new work, work that took a while to produce.

Some writers turn to other things--different creative pursuits, for example. They find that music or quilting or sculpting or film-making satisfies the need that writing used to satisfy. They may go outside the arts to another field altogether.

Some writers just keep writing, but no longer feel the need to reach a larger audience. They may be writing but not publishing.

Whatever the situation, silences happen more often than I used to realize. In my last post, I said writers aren't machines, capable of ceaseless productivity. Silences, too, are part of life--even part of the writing life.

Sunday, February 2, 2020


I recently read Twelve by Twelve, in which William Powers described his time staying in a 12 x 12-foot cabin, seeking to reconnect with the environment and his neighbors, to live slowly. Among his musings were those gleaned from his international travels about how many other cultures value leisure--and live accordingly. He writes, "This 'leisure ethic,' as I've come to dub it, isn't laziness; it is an intelligent, holistic balance between doing and being."

This is something I've sought and struggled to express for years, as when making New Year's resolution after New Year's resolution to "do less." 

More and more, I believe that much of what we call procrastination or wasting time is simply this badly-needed leisure time. Procrastination can also be simply delaying a task we dread, but that's another matter. I'm speaking here of the goofing off we do, the games we indulge in, the idle chitchat. We need down time--some for fun, some to reconnect with our surroundings and the people we love, some to stare at the world and let our brains rest. 

We're not machines, and we need not be outwardly productive every waking second. The work we produce is fed by our rest and recreation, but rest and recreation are also valuable in themselves. We need to relax; we need some joy. Most of our lives don't afford us enough chances to do this. So it's okay to embrace it wherever we can find it, okay not to apologize or scramble frantically to compensate for it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Opening a time capsule

In 2010, my first novel was published. I made a time capsule that year, to be opened on January 1, 2020. Which is today.

Here are a few highlights from past me musing on the future that has become the present (if you can follow that):

"Will everyone just do everything by computer in 2020? Will cash money disappear?" While the digitization of everything has continued, cash is still around. For now.

"I hope that by 2020, I have several more books published." I don't know if three more, for a total of four, constitutes "several," but I can't complain.

"I worry that bookstores and libraries will disappear, and that everyone will expect to get stories online, for free." Not yet. So far, bookstores and libraries are making the most of the fact that they do more for communities than just supply reading material. (I'm thankful that they still supply reading material, too.) But people read more and more on screens, and writers still have that age-old problem of how to make a living writing.

"I hope to keep hiking and traveling." Check.

"I hope that by 2020, I have been to Japan, and maybe Hawaii, or back to Europe, as well as seeing more of the US." Check to all of that, except Japan.

"I also hope to find more balance in my life." Ha! Dream on.

"I hope environmental problems haven't become too devastating, especially global warming." Again, dream on.

"I hope the world is more peaceful ..." Sigh.

I can't imagine what 2030 will bring. Hey, I can't even imagine what the rest of this year will bring. I do know my interests have shifted farther from my personal ambitions and toward the health and welfare of the world more generally. I know I'm comfortable with a lot more uncertainty than I used to be, although I'm still more into planning than spontaneity.

I wish you all well, whatever this year and this decade bring us.