Monday, March 31, 2014

What I Would Have Written if I Could Have

Last week I spent an unexpected 8 days sailing the Caribbean on a catamaran. With barely time enough to get flights and pack, my husband and I left our kids and the winter that would not end for a week in the sun with friends. It was crazy, spontaneous, glorious... and a world away.

With no phone, no internet, no connection to anything on land, I discovered that the constant buzzing in my head began to still, and for the first time in a very, very long time, I found quiet.

Still - 8 days without social media left a few things unsaid, so here they are - the statuses I would have put on facebook had I had facebook on the boat... my vacation in a nutshell.


Thursday 3:30am: Momentarily I wonder, as my alarm goes off, if anywhere is worth going at this time of morning.

Thursday 7:30am: In Miami. I'm down to short sleeves. I decide getting up in the middle of the night was totally worth it.

Thursday Noon:  We literally walk out of the Charlotte Amalie airport, across the street, onto a beach, and into a boat. Best commute ever.

No Internet. Don't send help.

Dolphins off the bow! I'm told this is a good omen. As if the 84 degree weather, turquoise water, Asian shrimp, fresh mangoes, and rum punch waiting upon arrival weren't enough.

First Sunset. Not too shabby.

Daily routine established: Wake up. Snorkel. Breakfast. Snorkel. Sail. Snorkel. Lunch. Sail. Anchor. Sunset cocktails. Dinner.

It's been three days since I've had a pair of shoes on my feet or seen a clock. I'm strangely okay with this.

First time setting foot on land. Off to see the petraglyphs, which, as it turns out, are writings on stone. Who coulda guessed? Also, this stone wall reminds me of Robert Frost... good fences make good neighbors. Wondering who, two hundred years ago, needed a wall between them and a neighbor.

As seen on a school near the dock. Obviously schools in the Caribbean keep their standards reasonable.

Holy Mother of Honey!! That is a bee's nest!!

My favorite fish so far is a Sergeant Major, but I can never remember the name so I just call him Captain Morgan.

Hunting for shells in the Conch Graveyard.

Not a surprising discovery: I am as ungraceful on water as I am on land.

Serenity Now!!

Whales!!! We've gone all Ahab on them and are on the chase!

Drinking mojitos, watching the sunset, dancing around the deck to "Happy."

Dock Rock: Looking drunk without the alcohol.

Dingy Damp... this is a thing.

I've decided I could live in an aquarium. Not the building. The actual aquarium.

Bay-to-bay in a dingy in the black of night - never have there been so many stars!

Pelicans off the starboard side! If you want to live, jump in my mouth...

Turns out I can't read my Nook with sunglasses, and I can't see without sunglasses. Good thing the boat is FULL of hardback books!! I've been buried for two days in The Climb... a book about Everest. Because nothing says enjoying the Caribbean like people dying of frostbite.

I never ever ever get tired of this.

 Or this:

Our last day.. .we've anchored for the night.  I've finished The Climb and traded it for Lost at Sea by Patrick Dillon. It's a book about two boats that went missing in the 80s when they sunk. I've been told now is a safe time to read it.

Sitting in the bay with the chatter of the radio like white noise and suddenly we hear an SOS. A literal SOS. And a Coast Guard report that a sailboat is sinking not far from us, and help is needed. Must be time to head home.

Heading home. Goodbye beautiful water.

Monday, March 17, 2014


A little over three years ago, I finished writing what we'll call my second novel. We'll call it that because I've written other novels, but I don't care to number them because they were not that good. They were my practice novels.

Anyhoo, I finished this one that I thought was pretty okay. And I queried it, fell flat, went to grad school, and now am rewriting it.

It's been a long time since I first finished it... a lot has happened since then. I mean, I still have the same husband and the same three kids, and I still live in the same house, so maybe nothing quite life-altering, but I did go to grad school, and that was pretty significant. And my kids turned into teenagers, which is a little like not having the same three kids. Also, I got a job that didn't involve my own children, laundry, or making up scenarios in which I need to google things like interrogation techniques and the genetic susceptibility of certain diseases. And I've written about 800 other pages. It seems like a long three years, anyway.

Last year, I started this novel from scratch, a new blank document, new plot twists, new scene development. I've pecked on it for the last eight months or so, going full-throttle at times but mostly fitting it in between my other obligations. There has been this sense of failure hanging over it, I think, that's made it feel like I am more finishing it for myself, to say I've done it well, than with the thought that anyone would want it. After all, I did query it once.

But today I was wondering about all those queries. I couldn't really remember anything about the responses except for two of them, and one of those I remember specifically responding to the material. So I went back to find that email, to find out what she didn't like about it, wondering, I suppose, whether or not I'd fixed that element.

The folder contains all the lit mag submissions from last year, so I was flying past them, and suddenly I was back in 2009 and my Some Kind of Normal queries, and I though, Wait a minute! Where are all the queries for this book?? It turns out there were only six. SIX! I only queried six agents. And then... I gave up?

It's funny how time has changed my memory of all that. I remember the querying as a colossal failure, when in reality, I knew the book wasn't as good as I wanted it to be, and I took the six rejections to be confirmation of that.

But as I look back - three years past - I'm encouraged. Three of the six said outright they were very impressed by my writing... writing which I hope is so, so much stronger now. One gave a very detailed explanation of why she was passing, which mostly went to the motivation of the main character coming back to her hometown, ending with this: "You really write so well, and I hope you will revise."

This is all good news on several fronts. First, it means possibly I don't stink as a writer. Secondly, it means possibly this book doesn't stink. Thirdly, it means I have not already saturated the agency world with a past manuscript of this same basic story.

Which over all adds up to the fact that it might be worth finishing this, not just for me, but to see if there is hope out there for it. And there is the tiniest part of that makes me feel like a writer again, and not just a person who writes.

I know a lot of you are in this same boat... wrangling a book that feels like it will not come under submission - is either not finished or you feel is just "pretty okay" but not great - or fighting your way out from under "submission/query hell."

Do not let doubt steal your motivation.

Do not let the lack of time dictate whether or not you will finish.

Do not let the rejections of part of the world keep you from stampeding the other part of the world.

Do not let yourself be your own worst enemy to success.

And when you feel like giving up, remind yourself that there is someone out there saying, "You really write so well..." Let that be the voice you listen to.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"Touch It Every Day"

If there's anything an MFA student likes more than a glass full of alcohol, it's a lecture full of double entendres. This little gem was doled out in my second year, when I was in the throws of learning short stories and panicking over my thesis. The admonition, of course, was that we needed to be in our work at least a little every day. But this was school; there wasn't a minute I didn't feel like I wasn't "touching it."

Fast forward to this past year, when I've taken on a new job, gone full-throttle into a new direction that has left much less time for writing than my glorious past years. I plow through the novel; I put it down. I tinker with some shorts; I put them down. I go through long droughts where I am tutoring long hours of the day and running my kids around the other waking hours, and I never even open my word processor.

The problem with this is more insidious than just not getting words on the page every day. The problem is I lose interest in my story. I feel far away from it, and the farther I feel, the harder it is to pick it up. I stop thinking about it when I'm not working on it, which means that when I do pick it up, I don't know where I'm going and I spend more time staring at the computer rather than actually writing.

Characters in a book are not that different than real people in your life. The less time you spend with them, the less you know them.

So the past few weeks I've made a vow to "touch it every day." Even if that means just opening it to see what I did yesterday. To read one section that's been bugging me. To add a scene, or just a few words of description. To change a line of dialogue. To cut a few words out.

When I'm tired and worn out and brain dead, I remind myself I don't have to engage in a full-on relationship with the manuscript. I just have to touch it.

And it works.

Now, when I'm not writing, I'm thinking more about it. I'm finding that when I open the manuscript up, I have more to say. I know the characters a little more intimately. I know what is missing, what they'd say in a situation. I've been thinking about the scenes, about what is missing, about where to go.

I know some of you are writing machines, but others are in the same boat as I am... floating a little between the full-on writer life and writing as we can between the other pressing things in life.

Here's my encouragement to you who are floating... touch it. Just a little. Every day. It works.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Today begins the Olympics. I am the only one in my family who really cares about this, especially in winter, so I began my campaign for their enthusiasm (or, frankly, just a bit of tolerance for my own enthusiasm) by using our family movie night to introduce the kids to the movie Cool Runnings. They didn't remember what a bobled race was, or know who the Jamaican bobsled team was, and with both in the news recently, I figured it would be a fun and sneaky way to get them interested.

It worked. At least a little. They laughed. They oohed and ahh-ed and asked a lot of questions as they watched the real footage of the bobsleds hurtling down the tube of ice. We went on the internet and found out more about the original team, and about the team going this year. We looked up the bobsled schedule. They are intrigued.

But while the movie is funny and informative and inspiring, my favorite scene is a quiet one, the night before the big race, where the main character, a young man desperate for a win, confronts his coach who he just discovered had once been disgraced by cheating. "Why?" he asks. "You already had two gold medals." And the coach answers:

"I had to win. You see, I'd made winning my whole life. And when you make winning your whole life, you have to keep on winning... A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without one, you'll never be enough with one."

That's resonated with me since the first time I watched the movie so many year ago. Not because I've been after gold medals or hoped for the Olympics or anything quite so literal, but because it's really a message for life - for anything we strive for.

Lately I've had a lot of people asking me what I'm working on now or when I'm going to be done with my current novel. A couple of times, when I've answered that I'm working on the same novel I went into my MFA with three years ago, they say, gaped mouth, "Still?" Yes. Still.

Let me be clear: I love these people. I absolutely love that they are asking. I know they are asking because they want to read my next book, because they liked my last one, because they want me to be successful. All of these things in their heart are good.

But I... I can't help but cringe when I hear them, when I have to say, "Yes, I am still writing the same book I was writing three years ago." Because saying that makes me feel like I've failed along the way. I can't deny it. I am a slow writer. I have rewritten this book over nine times because I want to get it just right, and I haven't felt good about that until now. I am distracted by my family, who will always take first place in my time. I have less time now that I am tutoring most days, all day. Even with my best intentions, sometimes at night when I carve a bit of time to work on it, my brain is mush and I just want to watch 30 minutes of TV and go to bed.

And in that late hour, when I stare at the screen, either pouring words onto it or struggling to find the words, I wonder, "Am I enough without this?"

Do I have to keep publishing, keep finishing books, win awards, to be enough?

And while there are times, especially when I am having to say, "Yes, the same book..." that I feel like I am not, most of the time, I am. Because being a writer doesn't make me worthwhile. Having a publishing credit, heck, even having a Pushcart Prize, wouldn't make me more than what I am right now. They are wonderful things, to be sure, but they are not my worth. I don't want to someday say:

"You see, I'd made publishing my whole life. And when you make publishing your whole life, you have to keep on publishing... Having your book published is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."

Fill that in with whatever it is that drives you each day.

I'll finish this book. I'll probably write another. And another, I hope. I don't know if anything I write will ever be published, but I'll keep writing, because I love it, because I want to, but not because it gives me any worth.
When I watch the Olympics, it is not the gold medals that most draw me. It's the stories. It's the people, their lives, what they've overcome to get there that grab my heart. It is often the underdogs I root for. And sometimes, the fact that the competitors even make it down the track or the hill in one piece, manage to finish a routine even if they fall, makes me tear up. I want each one of them to feel in awe that they are even there.

Sometimes when I'm writing, I feel like that. Without the publishing, without the awards, I'm just writing, and I feel pretty lucky to be doing it.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Things That Matter

It's been over a year since I turned in my thesis and unofficially finished grad school. I'm not sure what I thought would happen after that, but this year was not it. I barely had time to breathe after my advisor signed off on my stories before I ended up in a flurry of medical worries. Last December I spent running from doctor to doctor, ultra-sound to MRI to biopsies and, in January, just days after returning from my thesis presentation, surgery.

I might have harbored dreams of surgery recovery that involved the required off-my-feet recoup time being blissful non-stop writing time, but that didn't happen. Instead, I slept. And watched bad TV. I researched some literary magazine and submitted my short stories to a few, and played with a few beginnings of new novels that didn't go anywhere. I job hunted for a job that wasn't there.

I thought I'd have time. I thought all this time I'd spent writing and reading for school would suddenly be open time I could do amazing things with. Turns out, time is like a hole in the sand near the ocean. You can scoop out the water that's in it, but more water will keep pouring in and filling it. 

Finding the time to write became harder the harder writing became. I second guessed everything I wrote. Instead of hearing my own voice, I could only hear the voice of my advisors, whispers that kept my fingers hovering over the keys rather than pummeling out words. With all the demands of the day, was it worth it to stare at a screen for hours on end, only knowing I'd end up deleting it all anyway?

I wrestled a lot with the purpose of writing. Why was I doing it, anyway? While the piles of ideas stacked up in a folder, scraps of characters and plots and themes, none of the stories really mattered in the scheme of life. They were just stories. And I wanted what I wrote to matter.

After graduation ceremonies in June, I returned to a tutoring job with an online tutoring company working with college and grad students on their essays. I love it - best job I've ever had - but it doesn't pay much more than working at fast food and I don't see the same students over and over, necessarily, and I wondered a lot: Am I making any kind of real difference?

I suspect most people at some point ask themselves, Am I doing something that matters?

Stories themselves matter, I know. They matter because they help people see from another point of view. They help people empathize and broaden the scope of their thinking. They provide escape and enjoyment in what might otherwise be a life burdened with demands and worries. Stories let people know they are not alone.

I know all this, and yet, every time I sit to write, I wonder, "Is this worth it? Am I writing something that matters?"

I don't know the answer to that. But I keep writing. I keep at it because I love it. Because I am compelled to. Because I think I have a story to tell, if only to myself.

And when I get frustrated that I have no time to write because I am running my kids to band concerts and helping them with homework and cooking dinner and answering a million questions that fly at me every time I sit to write and cleaning clothes and tutoring some panicky college student through a med school application essay, I think, "This matters. All of this. Investing in people always matters."

The truth is that no matter what we do for a living, what fills the hours of our days, what really matters is how we do what we do, and how that impacts people. People matter.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Freedom to Read: A year in review

It seems like most of the posts I've written over the past year have been about recovering from the MFA program in some way or another, like going through grad school was some concussive whack to my head and ever since, I'm just trying to figure out how to live a normal life again. It probably sounds that way because, to a great extent, it felt that way. Everything went back to normal, but I was not the same. It wasn't getting the degree so much as just the overwhelming experience of it, the constant "on" of reading and writing that both energized and depleted me. Grad school was like meth: while on it I felt this incredible sense of ability to do huge amounts of things. After it, I crashed.

After turning in my last bibliography, I felt a sense of freedom I hadn't in a long time. I could read anything. Anything I wanted. Good stuff, bad stuff, YA, non-fiction. I found myself not reading books solely because I knew I should read them. I should read this because the author is a friend of a friend? Not reading that! I should read this because all good writers read this? Nope. Not reading that either.

I also had the freedom to not finish whatever I didn't like. Isn't it funny how you never care about a freedom until you don't have it? Before this year, I rarely started a book and didn't finish it. If I started something, I always felt obligated to finish, and always hopeful it would turn out to be better than the first 100 pages. At the very least, I'd be able to say I'd finished it. This year I probably stopped reading more books than I have in the rest of my life combined. I'd read three pages and think, "This is not that good. I'll try something else." I'd read 100 pages and think, "This is not getting any better. I have 25 other books I'm interested in." I have left a slew of discarded stories in my wake this year, and I don't even feel badly about it. 

But the ones I did read and finish... Wow. They are not the kind I'll read and forget. They are the kind that keep popping up in my head, stories and ideas and visuals and feelings they left me with that have become part of me. They are the ones I talk about, even a year later.

Here are some of my faves from this year:

Devil in the White City (Erik Larson). I think about this book all the time. I think about the history of the World Fair, the science of electricity, the horror of a serial killer. The details of it, the imagery it evoked, creep up on me in the weirdest of times. It's the kind of non-fiction that rearranges your brain, changes the way you see the world and think of history.

Flawless (Scott Andrew Selby). I listened to this one on tape as I walked last spring, so I don't know if reading would have the same power, but this one, like Devil in the White City, changed my brain, the way I see the world and history. It is a crime caper, a heist worthy of a movie crammed with stars, but it is real. It happened. And I think about it all the time, even nearly a year later.

Tenth of December (George Saunders). It's hard to believe I'd written off short stories as boring before last year. This is the most unique collection of stories I've ever read, and several of them still haunt me.

The Divergent Series (Veronica Roth). I didn't like it. I couldn't put it down. I thought it was derivative. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I decided if you can't stop thinking about something and can visualize it so completely when you close your eyes, it must be pretty good after all.

Spook (Mary Roach). I read several of her books, but this was my favorite. I can't imagine how I could have laughed more in a book about death. Every high schooler should be required to read her writing. She makes science fascinating and interesting and funny and relevant. I don't love biology, but I couldn't wait to read her book about the digestive system. You can't ask more of an author than that!

The best book I read, though, is one that isn't due to come out until later this year. I've read that one three or four times. It is the kind of fiction I wish I could write.

I don't know what this year will bring. I have about 100 books on my Nook and to-read shelf. I'm trying to be better now about finishing ones I start, mostly because I'm reading my son's AP English reading list with him, and I know he doesn't have the option of putting them down if he doesn't like them. In the last month we've read 1984 and Brave New World together. I love reading the same thing as him so we can talk about them. I've missed the talking-about-books aspect of grad school. :)

So tell me about what you've read this year that sticks out, or what you plan to read in 2014. Anything I should add to my list?