The End

Here we are again. Only a few squares left on the calendar, a couple of pots of coffee, two more rounds of ‘good morning’ at the office and this year will belong to the past. I was thinking of where we were last year. Knocking back shots of tequila, if memory serves, to celebrate the release of my first (well, first bookstore) novel. We were playing Truth or Dare, remember? Me asking inappropriate questions, you trying to get out of answering them. Good times. The year before, I spent New Year’s Eve in the bedroom of our Tigard house, listening to the hoots and firecrackers on the street outside our window. Before that it was Vegas and all the bitter brightness of the city. Remember how badly I wanted out of there? How I whined and snivelled and gnashed my teeth? (And saved and scraped and waited, waited, waited…) Now I’ve escaped for good, have lost myself in the pine trees and fog, found a home and a job I like. Life is looking fine at the moment.

So here we are at the end the year and the end of this blog. I’ve come to realize that what I have to say about writing is what I’ve already said a hundred times: Writing is hard. Really fucking hard. This is not a new piece of information to any of us, and my struggles no longer seem to me worth describing. What I want to do now is write the best books I can. I want to read, and be inspired, and try to produce work that matters to me and is going to last. For that I need all the space between two covers and all the fluff between my ears, and I need to shut the fuck up and start listening.

It’s hard to let go of this space. I mean, I love you guys. You’re the people who started me writing and who’ve encouraged me to keep at it, and it scares me more than a little to think about doing this alone. No more study hall, no communal angst. It’ll be just me and my pages. I don’t know how to feel about that.

My hope is that you’ll keep my email address handy (it’s over there ==>>>) so we can carry on with the conversation we’ve started. I’ll be right here. Still writing, still struggling, still trying every day to understand myself and the world well enough that I might write something worth reading.

I hope you’ll be doing the same. As my friend Tetman says, “We are the bearers of the chalice.”

Let’s fill it up.

Love. Kisses. Bear hugs.

Averil

Gingerbread

Can I just say how much fun I’m having at our new address? I am like a little girl playing houses. I’ve alphabetized my library, rearranged the furniture, brought in houseplants and candles and squashy pillows for the couch. In contrast to our last rental, where everything seemed to be in the wrong place, this house is laid out exactly right. I have an armchair in the bedroom. A light in the hallway. And closets, dear god, closets for days. The kitchen is Formica-clad and fitted with old appliances but they work like a dream—particularly the dishwasher, which has those concave ’70s push-buttons on the front but produces squeaky clean dishes every time. There’s a huge pantry, two (count ‘em!) pull-out cutting boards, plus a lazy susan in the corner cupboard where I can finally organize my ridiculous collection of spices. It’s not a huge kitchen but it’s perfect for a single cook, which is how it breaks down at our house anyway.

Yesterday I veganized Nigella’s sticky gingerbread recipe (two chia-seed eggs, a little added baking powder, almond milk to replace the whole milk and Earth Balance in place of the butter). It came out great, and filled the house with a scrumptious Christmassy aroma. Tonight it’s butternut bisque, plus a lovely green salad and crusty rolls for dinner.

I wish you all could come.

What are your plans for the holidays?

Butterflies

Still here, still stuck. I’ve turned this story every which way and I can see, I think, how to write it. The question now becomes, Do I want to?

The problem with writing is that it takes so long. By the time you’ve worked out all the details of voice and story and structure, you may find yourself bled dry of all your creative energy and the inquisitive spirit that makes a story come alive. You get bogged down, sluggish; having paved your road, you are now too exhausted to walk it. You look at all the pages you wrote in vain, which aren’t usable except as kindling (and even then, you suspect they’d fail to ignite), and you look at the story and think, Oh, fuck it all, I’m sick of this, let me go write a story about butterflies.

This is where I am. I’ve been approaching my writing time as if it’s a trip to the dentist, something to get through instead of the head-trip party time that it should be. In the past two hours I have written three paragraphs, two of which I’ve deleted.

I just don’t know. Maybe this isn’t the one.

How do you tell the difference between laziness and writerly apathy? How do you know whether to finish what you started, or let it go?

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Life Drawing

My book and I are at an impasse. I have it in mind to write this fucker from a first person POV, as a retrospective account of a childhood tragedy and the effect it has on the character’s life. The fucker insists that certain events and perspectives be included, some of which couldn’t have been witnessed by the narrator. Not an impossible thing—I could use the sort of structure Gillian Flynn used in Dark Places, in which the first and third person accounts are given in alternating chapters, building to a twin then-and-now climax. But for me, this is not a particularly immersive reading experience. I find the swaps a little jarring, no matter how engaging each narrative is on its own. For this book, I want to get into one character’s head and stay there.

This seems like an easy issue to resolve. I have a dozen beautiful examples of the sort of structure that might work: The Sense of an Ending, The Woman Upstairs, Life Drawing, etc. But I can’t quite figure out how to pull it off. Moving forward and back in time is a difficult thing to do gracefully, especially when you are trying to build suspense; the distance seems to diffuse it, and there is a tendency to wander from the point. One minute the character is facing down a schoolyard bully, the next she’s a thirty-year-old junkie just released from prison. Cue the whiplash sound effect.

Maybe I’m trying to do too much, casting too wide a net. I haven’t stopped to ask myself, What’s the story? What belongs, what’s extraneous, how do I pry my preconceived ideas off this work and make it something new?

How do you decide on a point of view? Does it bother you when the narrative switches from first to third throughout?

Peer

This morning I looked at my manuscript for the first time in almost a week. It’s still there, still sucks, and no one has finished it for me while I wasn’t looking. The doubts I had about structure are bubbling to the surface and I think I hate the sound of my voice. Also, I interrupt my sentences constantly and have developed a love affair with the word “peer.” Everybody’s peering at this or that. God forbid they should simply look. Other pet peeves include overuse of the colon, semicolon, and em dash, oddly placed dialogue tags, and awkward segueways from one section to the next, as if I’m certain the reader will understand exactly what I mean when I leap from the mother’s death scene to the scratchy B side of a Fleetwood Mac 45.

What a fucking mess.

What annoys you about your writing or the latest WIP?

Keys

Yesterday after work I went to our new house. A key had been left under the mat, so I let myself in and spent a good hour poking around, opening drawers, giving little Izzy a chance to sniff the corners and get her bearings. The homeowner had left a lovely, warm welcome letter and all sorts of tidbits about how to work the alarm system, water heater, furnace, and sprinklers. She gave us a primer on the neighbors, who all sound wonderful, and said that the fellow who built the house in 1971 knew where every nail was. She suggested that we air-fluff the valances, keep the pine needles out of the gutters, and open the flue before starting a fire—very good advice, and gratefully received. I also found a photograph of the first female physician in the state of Kansas, who once owned the partners’ desk we bought and is pictured seated at the very desk, corseted and upright and surrounded by reference books. A tough act to follow, but I’ll do my very best.

Because of the move, there won’t be a big, fancy meal on our table today. My dishes are going into boxes and we’ll be eating out. But I can’t remember ever feeling as thankful as I do this morning, or as optimistic for the future.

Have a happy day, my friends. Enjoy a drumstick for me.

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The backyard, soon to be home to my herb garden and some flowering ivy.

The backyard, soon to be home to my herb garden and some flowering ivy.

The Undoing

Hello? Are you still there? I’ve been trying hard this past month to get some pages under my pen, and I think I’m doing okay. I sure as shit can’t write at the speed of NaNo, but I’ve settled into a groove and am pointed in more or less the right direction. The characters are taking their first full breaths. The story has a shape. All that’s left now is to keep putting in the hours.

My previous book, Blackbird, is undergoing a transformation. MIRA has moved back the pub date a whole year to January 2016. I don’t pretend to understand the reasons for such a dramatic reassignment and of course it’s hard to be patient with the iceberg speed of publishing, but there are plenty of great things happening to mitigate the angst. First, a new title: The Undoing. We all agree it does a much better job of describing the backward-moving timeline and the characters’ collective self-destruction. It’s dark, doomed, a little creepy. And I think it’s got sexy kind of vibe, a hint of, Let me help you with those laces, darling… With the right cover (a new one is currently in the works), it could be pretty wonderful. More wonderful still are the blurbs, which have galvanized this whole repackaging and the renewed enthusiasm from MIRA. Bless you, blurbers, one and all. I wish I could buy you a drink.

So that’s the skinny. We sign for the new house next week and are moving over Thanksgiving weekend. (Yesss!!!)

What’s new with you? Are you writing? Coming up with titles? Too busy to respond? I get it. But I’ve missed you. 

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Bricks and Mortar

I thought I’d have time for some preamble here, to explain that my mom is in town to start the house hunt. For years we’ve been talking about buying a property for all of us, with everyone kicking in something for a big family place we can share. My mom loves it here as much as we do, but because my sister is still in Vegas, she’s not ready to sell her house and make this a permanent move. So she came to stay and scout the territory, maybe meet with a realtor and get the lay of the land. However, true to form when my mom and I are involved, things happened fast. We spent a couple of days pretty far afield last weekend, then gradually narrowed our search until we hit upon a house not five minutes from where we are now, the kind of place that feels like home the second you walk through the door. We looked at each other and knew: this is the one.

So just like that, we have a house. The deal hasn’t closed yet so I hope this isn’t jinxy, but we’ve put our signatures on every highlighted line and we’ve nodded and inspected and promised to sell our third-born if necessary in order to pay for it. (Sorry, Ash. We’ll do great things with your bedroom…) It was custom built in 1971 and still has that vibe about it: three fireplaces, a step-down den with a wet bar in orange laminate, fat beams and low ceilings but a circular layout like it’s just waiting for a party to break out. It’s bright and warm and there’s plenty of room—which is important, since we’ll have six people living together for the foreseeable future: all three kids are back in the nest, and of course my mom will be with us a lot of the time as well, in her little Granny quarters downstairs. The house is clean and it’s solid, from the immaculate crawlspace to the rough-hewn beams in the attic. Every joint, every brick, every surface is exactly as it’s supposed to be. We couldn’t ask for more.

If all goes as planned, we should be moving for what I hope is the final time—ever, in our lives—at the end of November.

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

In other news, I am going to take a blog break and spend the next month cranking hard on my rough draft for this novel. I suppose it’s a rebellious form of NaNoWriMo participation, except that I’ve already started and don’t plan to register, post my results, offer encouragement, or collect a badge at the end of it. I just want to get some scenes sketched out so I can spend the rest of the winter on revision and new-house fluffery. (Did I mention that my writing room has a set of built-in bookcases and its very own red brick fireplace?)

You might question my timing and possibly my sanity in trying to focus on writing during such a busy month. But this book represents a long-standing commitment from me to myself and the story is ripe for the telling. If I don’t get after it now, the fucker may turn mushy and unworkable. You know how it is.

What are you trying to get done?

The Bird

Yesterday I got a tattoo. It’s bright and elaborate and it’s right there on my forearm: a bird stringing beads as I do with words, beads escaping the ends of the string but ready to be picked back up and eventually restrung. The bird is masked, and there are three rhododendron blossoms, which, according to the farmers almanac, indicate a warning. One which that fierce little bird is clearly disregarding.

It’s hard to explain why this tattoo was important to me. Maybe it’s part of an ongoing search for identity. Maybe it was just for fun, or an indication of a midlife crisis. Maybe I wanted something to regret, or brag about, or hide. It’s not an accident that I’m keeping it up my sleeve.

After I got home late last night, my arm sore and beginning to swell, I lay in bed a long time thinking about what it felt like to cross this arbitrary divide. I felt unfamiliar to myself. I mourned my virgin skin. I wondered what it will be like to talk about my tattoo while it’s new, and what it will look like later when my skin begins to loosen, how the beautiful colors will fade and crease like fabric—and how that will be okay, because I have decided to make this artwork a part of my life experience and that includes the mixed emotions art tends to generate. I want to accept other people’s opinions on my appearance the way I’m learning to accept them on the stuff I write and publish. I like the complication, the mixed emotions. I think it’s healthy to continue to surprise yourself as time goes by.

The tattooer, who played a raunchy podcast for almost the entire four hours I spent with him, said we all should die at forty. But I am forty-five. And by god, I want to live.

How do you surprise yourself?

Plenty

My husband and I took a drive along the Sound this weekend. Today is our 13th anniversary, so to celebrate we got a room in Silverdale and spent a couple of days together, exploring the area and getting silly. It always feels festive to me when the leaves brighten and explode all over the sidewalks, when the tea roses surprise us with a final bloom and the geese start in with the party horns from far overhead. Everywhere we went this weekend felt like exactly where I wanted to be.

Now, home again, I’m in a nest-fluffing mood. I’ve got plans to reorganize my office, corral my wayward shoes, dig out the pantry and see what the hell is actually in there. I went vegan over four months ago, so my staple items tend toward dried chickpeas and farro and French lentils, with a small metropolis of canned tomatoes, beans, and coconut milk jammed together on the shelves. I’ve also been gathering recipe books:

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97815692426439781607746478Those first three are the most splattered and annotated in my kitchen. It seems like I’ve always got one spread open on the counter, ready to guide me dinnerward. The holiday book arrived recently and hasn’t gotten the full-on drippy spoon treatment, but judging by the contents I’d say it’ll be a little worse for wear by the time January rolls around.

Actually, I have more cookbooks in my collection than novels. I like the kind with pictures: the artfully arranged crumbscape, the cutlery placed just so. (Veganomicon, sadly, has only a few photos wedged into the middle, and these are poorly lit and unappetizing; it’s a testament to the authors that I can overlook this fatal flaw and love the cookbook anyway.) It’s wonderful to look through a new collection of recipes and be so eager to try them that you don’t know where to start, or to happen upon a stew or curry recipe that will use up both the leftover butternut squash and those four enormous leaves of kale abandoned at the bottom of the produce drawer. I like the homeyness of cooking and the generosity; I like placing a bowl of something yummy in front of someone I love. Cooking makes me feel connected, nourished, creative, alive. And grateful, at the end of the day when gratitude tends to elude, for having plenty.

What was on the table at your last meal?

Traffic Jam

I’ve been thinking a lot about social media these days. All the different avenues we take to reach one another, all the winding, twittery roads. The pins and pages and blogs and links. We’re all looking for ways to connect—and for people with something to sell, I suppose we’re looking for buyers. Isn’t that the point, underneath it all? We’re supposed to build a platform that will raise us above the crowd and the noise of all that traffic, and to do that we need to have something to say as well as the charm and wit to deliver a nonstop patter of observance and self-deprecation, with just enough bitchiness to endear us to the crowd. That’s how you get it done. That’s the golden ticket.

What’s harder to accept is the fact that social media requires a particular skill-set (mindset?) that few writers possess. It’s not a matter of willingness. God knows, if I were as charming as Chuck Wendig, I’d never stop talking. I’d be here, there, and everywhere, thrilled with my own ability to inspire the emoticon. I really would. But what I am is a surly, darkish chick who spends five days out of seven in an office, who has three kids in the house and a hell of a lot of shit to get done in a limited amount of time. Writing books takes up most of it. And writing for me is such a solitary, untweetable occupation that it seems to eat up both the desire to communicate and the raw material that would give me anything interesting to say.

Maybe we writers need to give ourselves a break. I realize the current wisdom holds that you must engage with social media if you’ve got a book to sell. But does a lackluster presence really help? Can internet adorability be taught? Or could it be that the noise is too loud, the avenues too crowded, that if you lack navigation skills it might be better to park the car and just go to work? Is it a cop-out to suggest that the best way to sell a book is to get your ass in the chair and write another one? That social media is just something to do, to look like we’re doing something? Could it be that selling is not the end-all, be-all in the first place, that we might not all be traveling to the same destination.

Do we really have to put it all out there, all the time?

I’m just asking.

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Twenty More

  1. Who’s the last person you spoke to?
  2. What’s the farthest you’ve ever walked in a day?
  3. What color are your eyes?
  4. Favorite breakfast food.
  5. Labels you assign to yourself.
  6. The name of the first album/tape/CD you remember buying?
  7. Ever been to a doctor or hospital in a foreign country?
  8. Do you like piña coladas?
  9. Getting caught in the rain?
  10. Pocket inventory.
  11. Can you whistle?
  12. Where do you go when you want to be alone?
  13. Other than whatever you’re typing on, what’s the nearest object to your hand? (Note to boys: not that one.)
  14. Who’s your favorite superhero?
  15. What would the 8-ball say to you right now?
  16. Have you ever swallowed the worm at the bottom of the tequila?
  17. Your favorite name for a girl.
  18. If you could punch one person in the face, who would it be?
  19. Is there something you want to get rid of?
  20. Why don’t you do it?

Peas and Chocolate

When I started writing, I marveled at the words. I’d jot down a few paragraphs, go back and play with them, write a few more and so on. I was having fun with it, just messing around. There were no word counts or fast drafts. There was no pressure. I loved writing a page and then immediately rewriting it, over and over sometimes, with the whole story still in the background waiting to be discovered. I’d go for long walks when I got stuck and I’d think about what might happen next, imagining the possibilities and inventing the story as I went along. It was a nice way to work because it kept the tasks fresh and intertwined: a little writing, a little revising, some plotting thrown in for good measure. But because this process felt like a jumble and also like fun, I convinced myself that you really couldn’t do it that way. The instruction manuals are against it. I suppose the thinking is that you might be wasting time by revising scenes that won’t make it to the final draft, or that you run the risk of meandering off-topic somewhere along the way. It’s good advice for a novice writer and I was grateful to receive it.

But I’m not a novice anymore, and I feel more confident reverting to my original muddly methods. It’s wonderfully freeing to jot a few pages in my notebook on Monday and spend the rest of the week playing with them, figuring out what I’m trying to say and making it happen on the page. And if Saturday morning I decide to spend some time shuffling my index cards, that feels pretty okay as well. Actually it feels like fun. And what’s wrong with having a little fucking joie in my vivre along the way, right?

How do you keep it fun—or is that just crazy-talk anyway?

Photo via MANYA

Photo via MANYA

Frailty

A woman came into the clinic yesterday. She was beautiful once; I scanned her driver’s license and saw the photo. Though she’s still very young, her teeth have gone pewter and she fills the room with the chemically scent of a new sofa. She’s cut off her hair, scraped at her skin, she’s lost inside her clothing: she’s breaking my fucking heart. Tweaker, someone says of her, and this is undeniably true. Daughter, also. Sweet, frail human being whose mind must surely have been wrecked somewhere along the way and taken her poor body with it. What horrible event or series of events or sheer unbearable uneventfulness has caused this? I want to rail against it. I want to mother her. Buy her clothes, mend her teeth. Repair her somehow and return her to the girl she used to be.

What I do instead is take her twelve dollars, keep my eyes off her terrible mouth, and ask her to have a seat. And I pray—though there’s no Being in my mind to address and if there were I’d be cursing Him instead, hating Him as much as I hate myself for wishing I hadn’t seen this girl, for doing nothing to help her and knowing that I never will: Please, not my child.

Canyon

ambition |amˈbiSHən|
noun
a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work: her ambition was to become a model | he achieved his ambition of making a fortune.
• desire and determination to achieve success: life offered few opportunities for young people with ambition.
ORIGIN Middle English: via Old French from Latin ambitio(n-), from ambire ‘go around (canvassing for votes).’

I’ve been thinking about ambition. What it means, how its presence or the lack thereof defines us. I have always rejected the notion of myself as an ambitious person, since I have taken no interest in formal education or moving up the ladder at work. I don’t fight for the boss’s recognition, ask for extra tasks to prove my team-worthiness, demand raises or upgrades in title. Truly, I don’t give a shit. I have a job because I need the money, and because I believe in work as a core element to feelings of self-worth and sufficiency. I work because the act of working nourishes me. It’s not ambition; it’s survival.

But creatively? Is it possible to be a creative person without ambition? Maybe, if you don’t care about coming up with a finished piece of work, if you’re in it to plug a smallish hole in your psyche. But a writer who wants to be published is likely to find a canyon-sized void in her life, the kind that might not seem so big until you find yourself at the bottom of it, looking for a foothold. And I’m not talking here about publishing ambition. I’m talking about ambition for the project itself. At the moment I am overwhelmed by the thought of what this next book could be, how much the idea has going for it, how small I am in relation to the story. I keep thinking, Who am I to write this? then, Who’s to stop me writing it, if I want to? It feels big and scary. And exhausting, already.

It also feels like something I have to give myself permission to write. Three hundred pages of thickly curtained opinion. ALICE was that way for me as well, and the only way I could get through it was by believing the book would never see the light of day. So it goes with this one. Every day is a simultaneous damping and exalting of ambition: do this, say this, there is no consequence unless and until I decide to accept one.

It’s gonna be a long year.

What role does ambition play in your creative life?

Unfurl

I am writing to you from the lap of luxury—aka, a brand new bed. Two burly men delivered this baby yesterday morning and hauled off our old two-trough backbreaker, which often left me so twisted after a night’s “sleep” that it would take me an hour or more just to unfurl. Not so this morning. The new bed has a movable platform underneath to raise and lower the head and feet. It’s made of firm but smooshy foam. It’s guaranteed to last twenty years, starting now. It’s making me so fucking happy.

Also new? This laptop. Not as exciting as the bed, except if you’ve been without one for a while and have been stuck behind a desk—not an ideal place to perch during the writing hours, though I didn’t realize how much the desk was damping my mojo until last weekend when I brought the laptop home and transferred my writing files over. Hot damn! I’m on fire! I may never leave my bedroom.

What’s good with you?

The Empress Chronicles

Congratulations to my dear friend Suzy Vitello. She’s written a fantastic new YA novel called The Empress Chronicles (and by YA, I mean that it’s the sort of book you buy for a young friend, then fall in love with yourself so that you have to purchase a second copy just to keep around the house for moments when you need a dose of writerly inspiration). Suzy has a wonderful knack for voices, and in this story she really gets to let it rip. I loved both halves of the alternating narrative but was particularly charmed by the voice of Sisi, who sounds like a character Judy Blume would have written if she’d rolled back the setting 150 years and moved her story to Austria.

But the thing that’s so smart about the novel is the subtext as we move back and forth between the narratives. Each girl is trying to get control of her life. Not an easy thing then or now.

Here’s the back cover copy:

When city girl Liz is banished to a rural goat farm on the outskirts of Portland, the 15-year-old feels her life spiraling out of control. She can’t connect to her father or his young girlfriend, and past trauma adds to her sense of upheaval. The only person who seems to keep her sane is a troubled boy who is fighting his own demons. But all of this changes in one historical instant.

One-hundred fifty years earlier, Elisabeth of Bavaria has troubles of her own. Her childhood is coming to a crashing end, and her destiny is written in the form of a soothsaying locket that has the ability to predict true love. But evil is afoot in the form of a wicked enchantress who connives to wield the power of the locket for her own destructive ends.

When Liz finds a timeworn diary, and within it a locket, she discovers the secrets and desires of the young Bavarian princess who will one day grow up to be the legendary Empress of Austria. It is in the pages of the diary that these two heroines will meet, and it is through their interwoven story that Liz will discover she has the power to rewrite history-including her own…

 

Huge hugs and high fives to you, Suzy! And thank you for this beautiful book.

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Needle (Needful)

Do you laugh when someone asks if you’re enjoying all this? Do you offer the weary smile of the knowing? Do you become earnest, try to explain that it’s work. Mime the act of hair pulling, zombie typing, an invisible noose jerking at your neck? Oh, the agony of seeing your characters float above the landscape because you don’t know where to set them, or how to introduce them to each other (Gwyn, meet Dermot, he’s going to fuck you over in chapter 33), and can’t seem to winkle out their opinions or focus your inner lens on the parts of them that matter. You immediately sound unhinged. You become the lunatic stuttering about her own particular form of madness. I opened my mouth yesterday to try to explain that I know how this story should feel but not how it should look, that the distance between one and the other is a field of mental sludge, and it’s not fun, and it isn’t easy, and no one who writes can deny the exhaustion that ensues when nothing is going right. This is what the block is. Not laziness or apathy or purism but haze, indecision. An imperfect understanding coupled with the desperate and stultifying need to put black on white. It’s incapacity. Fatigue. You are an addict without a needle, the drugs piling up on the coffee table beside you and no way to get them into your system.

Any other shitty analogies we can toss at this one?

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Broomstick and Buckets

I used to hide my work. All my notebooks, my pink and yellow post-its, the cryptic phrases I’d jotted on the back of receipts or torn envelopes. It all was so precious to me and so imperfect, which shamed me in some way, as though I could only call myself a writer if the words sprung brilliant and fully formed from my head, as if grappling were not part of writing except as an exercise for the poorest members of the tribe. I had this notion that writing involved leather-bound journals and fountain pens and page after page of gorgeous script, the chapters later typed and stacked face down beside a neatly docked keyboard, ready to submit.

The reality, four years later, is unromantic and noticeably less contained. On my desk now are twenty pages of printout, heavily marked. Four scribbly spiral notebooks. Pens and totems and dozens of index cards scattered face-up on every available surface. I’ve got three pages of outline ripped out and taped to the bookshelf—and not neatly torn, either, but with the bits of paper still clinging to the edges like so much construction debris. And everywhere, all over the house, are books. Stacks of them, seriously. Under, over, behind. It feels like an infestation.

At some point it seems that I stopped giving a shit or simply lost control. Sometimes I worry that this messiness is part of a general decline that includes the fact that I no longer like to shop, hang pictures on the wall, or straighten my hair. As my desk goes, so go I, or something. I am Lucy in the chocolate factory, Mickey with the wand and buckets. Writing feels unstoppable, unbounded. I am holding back the tide with a broom.

How do you keep a lid on it?

Fancy

Here’s what happens: I have a good idea for a book and start to write it. Then I read someone else’s (better) book and think, Hmm… This story has some interesting elements, maybe something similar could work for mine. And so like a magpie I add this or that idea to the scrapalanche, this or that type of character or voice or structure or tense, and I put them all in an enormous idea-pile until whatever nugget I began with is buried in miscellany.

Steampunk art by Santiago Caruso

Steampunk art by Santiago Caruso

Which is where I am now. (*shoves hand up through the scrapalanche, waves furiously*) I have the germ of an idea for the kind of suspense novel I tend to write, with a small personal crime at its center and a lot of psychological shenanigans between the characters, but it’s buried under so many other (better) ideas that I’ve almost lost sight of it altogether. This is the time when a story can really go sideways, because to mask your insecurities you try to get fancy. You try to use all your tricks instead of only one or two, and at that point your pretty-good story turns into an irredeemable fucking mess.

So I’m adding only one more item to disaster zone that is my desk: an old index card with my friend CJ’s advice on it, now clipped to my lamp like the white flag of surrender that it is: Don’t be afraid to tell the story.

That’s one piece of advice that never gets old.

Are you telling the story or hiding it under a collection of great ideas?

Stew

It’s time, I think, to go back to my previously sporadic posting schedule. The danger of not-writing has passed. True, I had planned to blog every day for a year, but what are goals anyway except as a means to an end? The end in this case being books, of course.

So here we are on a Thursday morning, and even with a few days between the last post and this one, I don’t have much to report. I’ve been writing, working, eating peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwiches. The other day I made pasta with an avocado-basil sauce, and before that was a revisiting of the fruit-and-lentil salad. We are very strange in our eating habits—and by that I mean I am strange and drag the rest of the family along with me. But at the moment I am experiencing creativity overflow so it’s either going to be sweet potato stew or I’ll start knitting sweaters for the dog.

What have you been up to?

No Mas

At the office last Friday, I was talking to a patient about our artwork: her painting, my writing. She used to paint tote bags and sell them at the farmers market. It was hard work, she said, because so many people would walk past, shaking their heads, saying they have plenty of tote bags and don’t need another. Other times she’d sell one and realize afterward that it had been her favorite; it saddened her to lose the art she had made. That’s interesting to me, because as writers we don’t ever lose access to our work, though our relationship to it may change according to public perception. I told her about Alice Close Your Eyes, and admitted how difficult it is to see a stack of one- and two-star reviews on GoodReads, or uncover some bitter diatribe on Amazon, or hear your husband explain how his friend’s wife threw the book across the room in a fury. You feel your pride at the accomplishment eroding, and in its place…regret? Apology? Shame?

The conversation brought to mind a scene from Chef—a terrific movie, by the way—in which the title character reacts to a scathing review of his cooking by going on a rant, yelling, “It hurts when you say those things, because we’re trying to do something good. We’re trying…”

I remember being sort of shocked by the character’s outburst. That he would admit to being hurt, out loud, right in the critic’s face and with a crowd of people to witness it. That isn’t done! If you make something, whether it’s food or tote bags or a book, and that thing requires a creative effort, then you’ve got to take the criticism and shut up and deal with it. You don’t talk back. You don’t admit to hurt feelings. Your vulnerability is irrelevant, and if you want to play the game then you have to rub the mud out of your eye and get on with it. He wasn’t doing that. He was saying no mas!

To be fair, the harsh criticism did spur the character on to bigger and better things, so clearly it has its place. He found a way to use the pain—first by acknowledging it, then by reassessing his creative process. In the end, he emerges triumphant, reborn and revitalized. Of course he does; this is the movies. But the lingering question for me concerns the culture that’s evolved around art and critique:

Why is criticism always one-sided? Why are we not allowed to defend ourselves, or even admit when it hurts?

Small Death

It’s been an odd week and I’m in an odd mood, with too many things going on to get anything done at all. I’m going to try to pull myself together this weekend and at least make some progress on my endorsement request letters. (So, SO awkward to ask a stranger to read your book—can I get a hell yeah?)

I have managed to make some decisions about the new project and I’m plunging ahead. I’ve been back at the café and the Tofu Hut before work, carving out a quiet hour or two every day to slam down a draft. Yesterday I wrote three quick pages in my slouchy notebook, brought them home after work and cried a little while typing them up. Surely that’s a good sign.

How do you know you’re on the right track?

(The WIP playlist is growing.)

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