Lift

I could hardly sleep last night. I’ve been engaged in a back-and-forth with an old friend who took one look at my book idea and knew immediately how to make it nine thousand times greater than the smallish thing I had in mind. What’s more, he gave me permission to aspire, to write it my way, leaving out the stuff I don’t care about, including only and everything that matters to me–to me, to my aesthetic and sense of story, to my obsessions, fears, and dreams. He says I can write this big book, that I should take the risk, aim for something that feels out of reach but could be wonderful enough to make even failure worth the effort.

I didn’t know I needed permission until I’d received it. Now I feel a set of wings unfurling and it doesn’t even matter that they might be made of wax. Because, after all, first there is the sky.

Are you waiting for permission?

icarus-flying

Elephants

How do you get your shit together and just do it? How do you get over or around or beside yourself and put the words on the page and tell your inner weeble that it truly doesn’t matter whether the words are right or wrong, so long as you manage to toss them outside the swaying bouncy-house of your own imagination? How do you stop the parsing, the self-recrimination. How do you tame this elephant of a story that’s trying to squeeze through the square white doorway of your screen? How do you comfort yourself? Punish yourself. Convince yourself you really have something to say which, in the fullness of time, will matter more than another hour of chasing Donald Trump around the internet? How do you start when it feels okay to stop? When you know the words won’t get you there, because the world is so big and so plastic, elastic, ditzy, divine, and the X on the map is written in water. What’s the point and why do we bother? Somebody’s already written it (better), and the bottom line’s been drawn. All that’s left is to scribble in crayon along the margins.

How do you make it matter?

Marks2

Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark

Dipping

Let’s talk about you:

  1. Where’s the farthest you have been from home?
  2. If you could return to another point in your lifetime and start again from there, where would you go?
  3. Have you ever been skinny-dipping?
  4. When’s the last time you lost your temper, and do you regret it now?
  5. Tell me one secret.
  6. Tell me one lie.

 

Spiral

vintage-woman-reading

Over the weekend I took a look through all the writing projects I’ve started and abandoned over the past couple of years. There are so many. Short stories and first chapters and failed attempts at poetry. Scenes and parts of scenes. Outlines, character sketches, intriguing settings and strange milieus. So many files, so many spiral notebooks. Such a monumental mess.

Part of what’s happened, I think, is that along the way I’ve lost confidence in my own judgment. I’ll get a short way into a new project, then start second-guessing whether the idea is any good, whether it’s worth working on, whether I want to put my back into it or skitter away and try something else. This thought process leads to such a snarl in my head that even glancing at the crap du jour exhausts me and makes me despair of ever finishing anything again. It’s incredibly frustrating, and doesn’t seem to respond to the usual fixes: write something shorter, draft fast and don’t look back, try a different form or genre. I’ve tried all the old strategies yet cannot overcome the hurdle of deciding to write.

Yesterday it occurred to me that it’s been a while since I turned the question around and asked myself what I’d really like to read. I can’t remember the last time I went to a bookstore and found exactly what I was in the mood for, or reached a book’s final chapter with a feeling of unqualified satisfaction. I remember considering such things early on, and approaching the question not as a writer, but as a reader on the hunt for a book that did not exist. It made me feel like a hero, like I was filling a gap on the shelf. And it helped. Those books I wanted to read were the ones that finally got finished and published–though having gone to all the trouble, I can’t say I ever did get around to reading them.

What do you wish you could find at the bookstore?

The Donald Chronicles

A new chapter this week in the Chronicles: people are starting to say out loud that the Republican nominee for President of the United States might actually be crazy. Not crazy as in zany, ha-ha, or crazy like a fox, or politically incorrect or imprudent or what have you, but crazy as in, Holy shit, this country might be about to elect a sociopath.

It’s an opinion that has crept upon us slowly, in part because it sounds so hyperbolic. You tell the other guy his party’s nominee may have some sort of personality disorder, and it’s probably not the nominee whose sanity will be called into question. We’ve tiptoed around the accusation for the past few weeks by calling Trump “temperamentally unsuitable,” by dissembling, by gnawing on his rhetoric without admitting that there might be some pathology behind it, because to do so would be to consign as moot all further opinions on the topic; after all, we believe ourselves to be the temperate ones, the wonks, the kind of people who’d prefer to take some time before reaching conclusions as far-fetched and startling as this. We Dems are supposed to be more careful in our language, more considered. More. . .well, sane.

But fear of overstating the point is not the only reason we’ve all been so quiet on the topic. The silence also represents a real fear of this man and the rabid throngs of followers he gathers around him, people who believe he has seen them, and understands them, people who are gorging on the delicious feast of bigotry and isolationism he has laid upon the table. People whose opinions are immovable, whose loathing for Hillary Clinton knows no beginning or end but simply exists as part of the Republican anatomy, ingrown, a tumor of antipathy so big and so entwined that its removal would surely kill the patient.

Yet this week the news feeds are full of speculation, as if we’ve all at once locked elbows and waded in, daring to say publicly what many of us have been saying privately for some time: This guy might be straight-up crazy. The sense of alarm is being fueled by Trump’s appalling comments toward the Khan family, and the sense that he literally cannot stop himself from saying and doing the things he does. We all know he’s a bully, a misogynist, and a thin-skinned spoiled brat, but lately the conversation has become increasingly uneasy, and the questions around his character less modulated.

So now I’m asking you, the smartest people I know: What the fuck is up with Donald Trump?

French Vegetable Soup

Soup therapy. Is that a thing? Can we agree that it should be? If so, may I suggest this recipe, with the idea that lots of therapeutic chopping followed by a long, slow cooking process is a pretty good cure for whatever ails you–unless you’re trying to make this on a Monday night after work, in which case these qualities will have the exact opposite effect.

Anyway, if the soup doesn’t work, you can always watch a Trump stump speech and play a drinking game around the number of times he says, “Believe me.” You’ll be smashed in two minutes flat.

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 4 carrots, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • small head green cabbage, chopped
  • splash of white wine
  • 1 large tomato, seeded and chopped
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • 1 tablespoon herbs de Provence
  • 2 myrtle or bay leaves
  • olive oil
  • 1 14-oz. can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
  • 4-6 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 14-oz. cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice
  • handful of chopped kale or spinach, fresh or frozen
  • Other things that would be good, if you had them around: green beans, diced fennel (I’d add it early and let it caramelize with the onions), Italian parsley, or diced waxy potatoes. You could also stir in some stale bread cubes or crumbs to make this a ribollita, or make some croutons with olive oil and sea salt, and throw those on top.

Heat some olive oil in a pot over medium-low heat. Add onion and a couple pinches of salt and saute for at least 30-40 minutes until well caramelized. Don’t rush it. A lot of the flavor comes from the onion, which adds an earthy sweetness to the broth.

Add garlic and chopped cabbage, another pinch of salt. Let the cabbage wilt down and begin to caramelize. Turn up the heat and deglaze the pan with a splash of white wine, then cook until the liquid is gone. Add the fennel seeds, herbs de Provence, and myrtle leaves, with a generous amount of freshly cracked pepper, followed by the carrots, canned tomatoes and enough broth to cover the vegetables.

Simmer covered for 40 minutes, add beans, cover and cook 20 minutes more. When the carrots are tender, add the kale and let it wilt down. Finish with a good splash of lemon juice or vinegar and adjust the seasonings.

Make sure you have some crusty bread to dunk in it.

Daddy Issues

Holy moly, what a show we’re having in the U.S. We’ve got idiots left and (mostly) right, with a racist, know-nothing carnival barker playing to the rubes and a know-all history maker with decades of both service and scandal behind her, and millions of Americans suddenly acting like our once beloved country is some third-world hellhole that can’t be improved except by installing this sociopathic blowhard who bellows from the podium, “I alone can fix this,” who invites a foreign government to commit espionage against us, whose every inane utterance is tweeted and retweeted by the silliest and most uninformed electorate this country has ever seen.

Here’s the thing: I fully believe we are going to elect Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Just let that sink in. The man has run SIX (count ’em) companies into bankruptcy. After eight years of screaming for Obama’s birth certificate, he refuses to disclose his tax returns. He’s called for deporting 11 million immigrants, for building a wall on our southern border (and not just any wall, but the biggest and baddest wall EVER—in your face, China), for banning Muslims, dissing NATO, and committing war crimes, because he’s the “law and order” candidate. Don’t ask for specifics about how this is to be accomplished. He can’t be bothered. The details are beneath him. The party of small government is willing to make a big exception for their own special sugar daddy. Apparently it’s an impertinence to ask how we’re going to pay for all this, though it seems like a valid question since Daddy says he’s going to institute further tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy and place our muscle-bound military on steroids, among other things. In other words, he’s going to follow the well-established pattern of his career, which is to spend a bunch of money on the wrong things and leave the country as he’s left those six failed businesses: busted and bankrupt, looking as foolish as an orangutan with a combover.

I suppose it’s what we deserve. We’ve allowed the media to segregate us, to push us to the extremes of our viewpoints rather than encouraging a coalescence in the middle. We barely have time to form a question before the answer is shoved down our throats by the gaggle of talking heads who have to fill the air time somehow and whose goal is keep us pissed off enough to come back later for more. And we do. They are feeding our frustration and our fear. We’ve stopped looking at our beautiful country and seeing all that’s right with it. We’ve stopped assessing our politicians fairly, in order to decide whose ideology jibes most closely with ours and who would be good at the job for which we are hiring. That wonky shit is boring and doesn’t sell product. We want a show, goddamn it. We want to be part of that show and scoop up the prize at the end. Most of all we want Daddy to solve our problems for us, so we can go back to our TV dinners and Carrie Underwood videos on YouTube. Right fucking now.

I know this is a rant and I apologize. It seems I am a product of my culture, as self-righteous and petulant as the people I’ve spent 500 words complaining about.

Can’t anybody talk me down?

Camo

tumblr_mv2pv3zcml1r60h5mo1_500Saturday night, my husband and I went out for dinner and ended up afterward at a dive bar about half a mile from home. It was karaoke night (actually, every night is karaoke night according to the misspelled sign out front), and there was no shortage of performers. One chick got up and muttered the lyrics to some Taylor Swift revenge song; a balding hipster tried on Wonderwall. The woman operating the computer filled the gaps with standard drinking songs (Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Buffett), and she did have a terrific voice but sat on her corner stool with the benevolent immobility of a brass Buddha. I don’t think she even got up to pee.

At the other end of the bar, a guy in a Duck Dynasty beard and camo pants was playing pool. I think he might have been a bit of a shark, because I saw him sink a lot of late-game 8-balls, and I may have witnessed some money changing hands. Four people were playing darts, eating onion rings and fries. A pair of 40-something women plowed, as in duty bound, through their lava lamp cocktails, the green and blue lights pulsing feebly, tinting their cheeks and hair. Next to me, a gray-haired guy nursed his whiskey, chewed a red straw, eyed the women at the end of the bar and the singers and the pretty bartender with her slick black hair and lip piercing and the long, long line of her cleavage.

Good times.

Where do you go when you don’t go home?

Cowboy

Last month I took a new job managing a start-up physical therapy clinic. I’ll admit the word “manage” is a little bit tongue-in-cheek at this point, since I’m the only employee for the only provider and a busy day would have us seeing about five patients. I’m sure it won’t take us long to build a full schedule, but for now I often have the place to myself and spend a good bit of time writing, when I’m not gazing out the window at the playground across the parking lot, sucking on dum-dums from the candy bowl I keep at the front desk.

The guy I work for is kind of a trip. He looks like Henry Cavill and is living every frat boy’s dream, burning up the Tinder account, tooling around the Pacific Northwest in his motor home in order not to have to pay for a hotel room when he invariably lures the hottie du jour into his tattooed embrace. Even mid-week he can’t be counted on to have gotten more than a couple hours of sleep, and often crashes in the exam room for a nap between patients. There are three mason jars of his special recipe moonshine on the bookshelf. He has a farm with an actual cow (so he can call himself a cowboy), and a barn fitted with lights where he grows massive amounts of marijuana (so he can provide his office manager the kind of bonus that really matters).

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Ride ’em.

In spite or because of all this, I like the guy. He knows he’s ridiculous but couldn’t care less. He makes me laugh—out loud when he’s trying, and quietly, to myself, when he goes so completely hyperbolic that he talks himself into a corner without realizing it. I think he’s beginning to sense what it means to work in close proximity to a writer: you can’t get away with much, because we’re watching closely and remember details you might rather we forget. We write shit down. We’re crafty, by which I mean that all life is fodder and every living character is apt to be morphed into a fictional one. For me, the boss is offering up a rich vein of material, what with all the alpha-male posturing and the pathos of his horrifying childhood. I’d be an idiot not to see the writerly advantages in a job like this one.

Who do you work with, and what is that like?

Kittens

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Derring-do. Photo by Vivian Maier.

Well, hello. I’m very glad you’re here. It’s been nineteen months since I’ve posted (shades of AA), and it saddens me to report that I’ve accomplished fuck-all in the interim. I’ve completed nothing new, have made no breakthroughs, performed no feats of derring-do. No tightropes walked, no kittens rescued from the elms. I’m boring as hell, as you may or may not remember.

Yes, I hear you saying. I remember.

I’ve been trying to think of an appropriate explanation for why I’m back here, compelled to write, interested again in my own thoughts and in trying to express them after months of what I can only describe as disdain for my self-identity as a writer. I suppose there are circumstances I could dredge up and assemble into some kind of narrative, though the reasons hardly matter and are far more trouble than they’re worth. In any case, no act of writing needs to be anything more than what it is: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.*

What’s the latest thing you wrote and then abandoned?

*Jesus. One post in and I’ve already jettisoned my own words for Macbeth’s.

 

 

 

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:

97803162219009781583335277

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

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