Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Cost of Sacrifice

The other day, my daughter was talking enviably about a girl who'd made it big as a performer. She's been on TV, in music videos, commercials. We've had these conversations before - nearly every time she watches the Olympics or sees someone break big on America's Got Talent, or hears a story of a teen who publishes a book. It is always the sort of wistful, why-can't-that-happen-to-me kind of talk that leads to me talking about discipline and hard work and commitment.

This time, though, the conversation was ripe to talk about sacrifice. This kid who is now famous, I told her, gave up pretty much everything in her normal life years ago. She stopped going to school and having friends so she could spend all of her time in a studio and at lessons and traveling. She gave up free time on weekends to work. She gave up eating whatever she wanted. She gave up privacy. Just a few years ago, her parents divorced because one supported (pushed?) this fame agenda and the other just wanted her to grow up a bit more like other kids.

Would you be willing to give up all of that to be in her place, I asked. Would you give up your friends, your swim team, your band, your sleepovers with friends and Pinterest cooking parties and vacations? Would you give up Dad or me?

It's a discussion we've had in our house a lot lately, this cost of achieving a dream. How much are we willing to give up to get what we really want?

Going after what I want is something I've been wrestling with in particular over the past year. This week's question - how much are we willing to give up - has put a good perspective on it for me.

I want to write. I want to be able to do that much more than I've been doing it lately, which is not enough. It always seems that life is crowding in on me, and in the back of my head, I've thought, if I really wanted this, wouldn't I make it happen?

But the fact is, there are only so many hours in a day, and there is a lot that fills those hours.

What would I be willing to give up to get what I want?

I know a writer who realized she couldn't be a full-time writer if she had a mortgage hanging over her head. So she doesn't have a big house with modern luxuries. She lives a very minimalistic life so that she doesn't need another job. I know a writer who knew if she had kids, she would never have time to write, so she chose not to marry and have kids. I know people who have married and had kids, and still walked away from them to pursue their own dreams.

Am I willing to give up my family and house? Absolutely not.

When I think about what takes up my time, it is this. My kids. My husband. My home.

I am forever doing dishes, doing laundry, cleaning floors, cooking and packing meals, running errands so there is food in the fridge, clothes that fit, band instruments that work. I carpool kids. Endlessly carpooling kids.

I do a Bible study. I pray. That gets me through each day like breathing.

I work. I work now because my oldest is looking at colleges and we need to pay those looming bills so that he has the opportunity to live out his dreams.

What is there in my day that I could trade for a few hours of writing?

Not even sleep. There's not enough of that as it is.

It was good this week to look at what fills my hours and realize that there is hardly anything there I can sacrifice. Would want to sacrifice.

For now, what steals the hours from writing are those things even more valuable to me than writing. My kids. My husband. My home.

That realization gave me a few moments of peace. And then, I wrote a few lines in my novel, and went to bed.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Long Road

This summer my family took a vacation much different than our others. Rather than spending a week in a specific place, we drove. We put 3,600 miles on our car, 4,800 in an airplane, seeing parts of the country my kids have never seen. We wanted to see Yellowstone, we wanted to hit Mount Rushmore, but more than anything, we just wanted to see the west. With the wide skies, the red rocks, the gentle hills, the open roads with no one on them for miles -- this is all so different than where we live with our forests and traffic jams and slivers of sky.

"Look at that!" we had to keep saying, nudging our kids out of their books and games. We had to constantly remind them, this isn't a destination vacation: the journey's the thing.

It's something I am realizing is true of my novel, as well. I harbor a sense of shame that it's been in the works so long. Three of the last four years have been wrapped up in this book. I should be done. Those are the words that whisper in my ear constantly. Why so long?

It's so easy to think that writing THE END, the destination of every novel, is the point.

And then I wonder, why am I so desperate to get to the end? I have no deadline. I have no agent tapping her toe, no publisher checking the mail.

I've done this before. I know what is at the end.

The end.

That's what's at the end. No more characters. No more chasing them through dark pages. No more laying at night wondering how they are going to survive, if they'll be okay. No more living in their world.

Right now, I'm on their journey with them. I have one chance to do this. One chance to travel this road, have my heart break with theirs, feel joy with them, wonder what is at the end. Not just the end of the writing, but the end of them. One chance to have them to myself before sending them out.

I know what it feels like to have the characters who have become like family to me arrive at their happy place, to be done with me, maybe before I am done with them. It's a moment filled with pride, and then days on end of missing them.

I am on the journey. And if that takes a little longer than I thought it would, a little longer than anyone else thinks it should, I'm going to savor every minute.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Memory

In 1993, my husband worked for Dean Witter and spent time in the New York offices in the World Trade Center. He was there when the terrorists set off a bomb in the basement, sitting in the restaurant on the 107th floor, the building swaying with the impact.

The power went out, and it took him hours to walk down the dark 107 flights of stairs, coming out into daylight with a thick layer of ash blackening him except for the small circle around his mouth where he'd held his handkerchief.

 It was serious, of course. It shook things up a bit. But the terrorist act was, on the whole, a colossal failure, and people seemed to move on without thinking too much about it. The ability for someone to hurt us, to really terrorize us, seemed remote.

Maybe that is why, in 2001, it both shocked us, and at the same time seemed like an inevitability we'd somehow missed.

We weren't in NY during the attacks on 9/11, and we are back in DC now, where I grew up, back where my father sat in his office overlooking the Pentagon and watched the plane barrel into the sides of it, into friends we hadn't yet made but soon would.

Not much is said outside DC about the Pentagon these days. There were not as many lives lost, of course, but also it seems there's a sense that it is less egregious to target the headquarters of national defense than it is to target a symbol of financial strength. Maybe that's not true, but it feels that way sometimes.

For a long time, there was a huge, gaping hole in New York City. We saw it once, on a trip with our kids. We stood at the chain link fence, peering through cracks in the plastic at that hole - how wide, how deep, how empty it was.

The Pentagon cleaned itself up. It patched the gaping black wound with marble white as a scar. There's now a memorial there, but it is as understated as it is solemn.

Everyone moves on.

There used to be a big memorial march. There were prayers held on the mall. There were walks that led from the Washington Memorial to the place of impact at the Pentagon. Each year, the things we do to memorialize have gotten smaller. This year, in DC, there was a moment of silence.

All we get now is a moment. And life moves on.

We can't keep ripping the wound open. I know this. We can't spend this day each year tearing at the rawness of that day.

But we should spend a little time remembering, and feeling a little less safe, each day a little less a given. Hug our kids. Call our friends. Say I love you. Say I missed you. Remember to laugh. Remember to pray. Remember to be a little more thankful for the little things that, were they to disappear, we'd realize are really the big things.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


 (I wrote this blog post sitting in the car waiting for my daughter just a little over a week ago. It seems fitting that I couldn't post it here until now... because things have been so chaotic.)

Sometimes I feel like life is blowing up around me. I wake to the house rocking and shaking, the toiletry items falling off shelves. I walk through a maze of bricks and upheaved trees and mounds of red clay, the driveway under rubble. Our kitchen and stairs are tracked with a thick white layer of dust that won't go away, no matter how often I vacuum and mop.

I don't even live in California anymore. I live in a home being renovated. And while I knew it would be difficult, while I know what it will be is worth the what it is now, I can feel my heart clenching, my blood pounding under the stress of the chaos.

Everything is chaos now. Not just the house, which has parts of the roof ripped clean off so that you can stand in a room and stare up at the stars at night, but life in general is void of the order and routine I thrive on.

Summer is usually a bit lacking in constants, but this year has been worse. Three kids, three different schedules, three different sets of activities, and I find myself most often in the car, a hundred miles a day under my belt going no further than twelve miles from my house. Back and forth, pick one up, drop one off, trying to figure out where to fit buying more milk and eggs into the equation, nearly running out of gas because the gas station is not on the way to anywhere my kids go. And other people love this kind of craziness, but my stress levels are going up and the sight of more white cement dust and red mud tracked through the foyer is about to send my blood busting out the ends of my fingertips and tips of my hair, my face in a perpetual frozen state of The Scream.

I think part of my less-than-loving attitude about all of this is that I'm not involved anymore. Summers are usually are time to reconnect as a family. During the school year, the kids are out all day, home only long enough to do homework and drop into bed, exhausted. But the summer is OUR time. Time when we get to go hang out at the pool together, do crafts together, obsess over tv shows together, go explore DC and the zoo and museums, have picnics, go to restaurants and laze over milk shakes and burgers.

But now, I'm just the chauffeur and cheerleader. I'm the alarm clock in the morning, the laundrymat for their muddy, stinky, sunblock-smelling clothes. I buy the cases of water on one end of town and drop it off at camp at the other end. I fix breakfast and pack lunches and somehow try to squeeze in a homemade dinner that is well-balanced enough to replenish the kids' energy before they drop into bed.

I am with my kids in some form all day, but I miss them. I miss when summer meant you got to kick off the high-stress, packed days of the school year and sleep in, hike along the creek, lay in the sun reading books, stay up late and watch movies together and build forts in their rooms and watch the glow in the dark stars on the ceiling until they went dim.

I miss writing. I've hardly written at all this summer. This summer, when my novel was absolutely, positively, without excuses going to be finished. I haven't even read much. No time during the day, too tired at night, a few books started but not that made me want to finish them.

All the magic has leaked out.

And yet...

I watch my daughter from the car where I am waiting for her. Her head is thrown back in laughter, surrounded by a group of equally giggling girls she hadn't known three weeks ago. She's found her place in the high school before the year has even started, happier than she's been in ages.

My son bounds to the car, asking if he can go with the guys to buy balloons and back to a friend's to spend the next hour filling them because his drumline is totally going to demolish the brass section tomorrow at the afternoon battle. I agree, because percussion rules, and I know this.

Parents stop to ask if I'll be there for the football game, if my youngest is going to help this year, too. Yes, I say, pointing to my youngest in the back seat, already decked out in her band helper t-shirt, a week early. We wouldn't miss it for the world.

Summer will end and routine will come back. The house will eventually be finished, the dust settled, the multitude of cars cramming our drive gone on to another project. I'll find time to write again. I'll probably still be in the car too much. But that's okay. My kids are there with me - most of the time my oldest now driving. And we'll crank up the radio and we'll sing along, and we'll talk about books and kids at school and band and art and politics, and everyone will be talking all at the same time, and it will be chaotic, but I will love it. This is the kind of chaos I can love.

We will eat on the run again, but together, and we'll go separate ways one last time before the summer ends and school begins. But there's one weekend left - one glorious weekend where we all will be home, after the crazy summer schedules and before the still-crazy school schedules. Maybe we'll fire up the fire pit. Maybe we'll roast some s'mores. And as long as the garage has no roof, we might as well just lay out there and watch the stars. The real ones. And maybe, if we can find a sliver of time, we might just build a fort under them.

Monday, August 4, 2014

In which I drone on about my own writing... but by special request

Quite a while ago, my friend Leigh Rourks, a fabulous writer I met at Pacific, asked me to participate in a blog tour: a fun and easy way to share your work and the work of others. The idea is to ‘hop on,’ answer some questions about your current projects, and then ‘hop off,’ passing the torch to a couple of new writers the next week.

Of course, I went dark on the blog for a while, a mix of kids-home-for-summer, a new job at work, and using every scrap of free time to try to finish my novel. Also, vacation. The blog suffered. This is not unusual these days.

Also, the questions are so short and simple in appearance, but are deceptively difficult for me to answer well.

But a promise is a promise, so here I am finally.

1) What am I working on?

A novel called LIES WE'VE TOLD. I began this under a different name several years ago, finished it up, put it away after I began school, and have come back to rewrite it the past two years.

It began as a story I needed to tell, but every draft felt flat and lifeless, and while I was compelled to write and finish it (several times), I didn't love the book. Now, in this almost completely new form, with new plots and new characters and an entirely new beginning and end, I am in love with it. Passionately, unfathomably in love with it.  

The story is told from the point of view of Kat, an abused girl who shoots her father and then flees the state, and Jackson, a teen whose parents die in a car crash and who is taken in by Kat's family. When Kat learns her mother is sick, she returns home to mend broken bonds. Before she can do that, her mother is killed, leaving Kat the main suspect in the murder and the only guardian of a brother she barely knows. It is up to Kat to find out what secrets her mom had been keeping that led to her death, even as she is falling in love with Jackson, who might hold the key to what she really doesn't want to know.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Although there is a murder and an investigation, this book is not primarily a mystery. I'd shelve it with literary fiction, the emphasis really on the internal journey of the two main narrators, the crime and its fallout merely a way to propel that journey. In that way, I suppose, it is the crime and mystery that sets this book in particular apart from other literary fiction. 

This was true of my previous novel as well. Some Kind of Normal was not a medical or science fiction, but it involved a lot of science and medicine. I like this blending of genres, this incorporating elements of other genres into what essentially is still just the journey of a character trying to figure out life. It also allows me to indulge in great amounts of research, which I find entirely fun.

3) Why do I write what I do?

 One of the things I learned at school that has really stuck with me is that we write to tell what it means to be human. I think this really is behind everything I write.I definitely don't write escapist fiction, or stories you wish you could be in the middle of. They aren't full of romance, and they don't often have happily-ever-after endings. But they are about about people I hope you can relate to on some level, people who are in situations you might never be in, but who still feel real.

There is a piece of me in everything I write. It isn't always the most obvious thing in a story, but it's a thought, an emotion, something that gnawed at me, a seed of something in my own life that grew into something entirely different but whose heart is still there.

4) How does my writing process work?   

Messily. And slowly.

Everything I've every written has had its own unique process of developing. I've tried fitting it all into some neat process, but my stories don't work that way. 

Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I start with a character that I have no idea what he's going to do. Sometimes I start with a plot idea. Sometimes I write to discover what the story is, and then have to do a million revisions to hone it to what I finally figure out it is about. 

I always write, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. 

I write when I can. Most often late at night, but sometimes in the morning, if I don't have students to tutor. Sometimes in the afternoon when my kids are doing homework. Sometimes at the counter as I'm making dinner, lysoling the laptop as needed, just because the words are there, dinnertime or no. 

Sometimes, I have to stop writing and just mull it all over. The middle of a scene will grind to a halt, or be heading in the wrong direction, and I'll just shut the computer for a few days and turn the ideas around in my head, trying things out until eventually (and usually around 1am), it all clicks. Then it becomes a race to get it all down.  

I am passing this blog tour on specifically to Hannah Bissell, another great writer (and poet extraordinaire) . BUT... if YOU want to do it, consider yourself tagged and please blog hop!! I'd love to see what you have to say, too! Let us know in the comments you're going to do it so I can make sure I swing by and read it. :)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Last Three or Four Pieces

Anyone that's been following this blog (or knows me) knows that I've been working on a single novel for a long while. Oh - I've done other things in between, of course. Went back to school, wrote short stories, wrote some flash and some memoir, even published it. I'm currently working on another article requested by an online magazine. But the novel.... it is the novel that will not end.

I've lost count how many revisions I've done on this story. Nine total and complete rewrites, beginning to end, I think, besides the smaller chapter revision. I've changed characters, I've changed plots, I've changed the title. I thought I was finished two years ago and then decided I wasn't really happy with it. It was okay. But it was not great. I started over, from scratch.

It got messy. Not in a bad way. Maybe not messy so much as complicated. I tend to be a simple writer. Tell a story beginning to end, one narrator. This story is different. I have two narrators who each know a separate set of truths and facts. There is a gun that gets lost, then found, then stolen, then used, and someone knows why and by whom, but not the narrators. There is a key to a bank box, but no one knows what is in it except the woman who is killed. There is a cryptic letter. There's an alibi that makes no sense. There are lots of people who know things they aren't telling.

There are, in short, pieces of puzzle that look nothing like a complete picture. I've spent the better part of a year spreading out these pieces, like clues that don't seem to have an answer.

But I've now gotten to the end of the book, and I'm putting those pieces together.

It is glorious.

I admit I was a bit panicky for a while, not sure how it would all fit together.  But now I can see the entire picture, and it's that same feeling you get putting together one of those 5,000 piece puzzles and seeing what it looks like and having in your hands just the last three or four pieces that will make it whole. That. 

I'm still not done, but I'm closer than I've ever been. Closer than I was when I had it "finished" the eight times before, because this time I know it's right. This time, I let it get messy and complicated and it is so, so much better for it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Life is Not a Sticker Chart

A week ago I found this quote. I'm not sure it resonated with me so much as it hung around, clanking about in my head. It seemed right, mostly, I think, because it confirmed what I've most feared: I am no longer a writer.

From 2007 until 2010, I wrote nearly every day. I didn't make much money on it, and working strictly as a novelist, I spent far more time writing than I did submitting my writing. But I viewed it as my job, to work each day creating stories I'd hoped would one day launch a career. I called myself a writer.

For two years after that, I was a student, but still, writing every day. It felt more like work than writing ever had before. I had deadlines and revisions and people to please.

In the year since, life's been more a roller coaster, as I've added a "real" job - one with scheduled hours and a regular paycheck. I poked around a couple different projects, trying my hand at some non-fiction and flash between the novel I was working on. I submitted a few stories. But it's been sporadic... weeks of obsessive writing, then days, even weeks, without.

I felt guilty about this. The mantra among published writers is that you find time to write, no matter what. If you have a job, you get up a 4am to write. If you have kids, you stay up until 1am to write. You find time. And for years, this is what I've done. (Well, not the getting up at 4am. That is just crazy talk.)

The past few weeks have been exhausting, though, and not just work-wise and family-wise, but just emotionally. By the time I shut the work computer, carted my kids around, cheered them on, cooked dinner, tucked them into bed, I sat with my novel open and stared at it, then chose instead to read. Or watch TV. For years I barely watched any TV, but these days, the hours between 9:30 and 11:00, it's about all I can manage. And then, I've actually be going to bed rather than stay up another two hours to write.

The last few weeks, as I've struggled through a single chapter that has proved to be a bit difficult to wrangle, I've not been writing much.

The words of my husband last year kept reverberating in my brain: If you don't get paid for it, isn't it really more a hobby than a job?

Then I read this: "You are not a writer anymore, just someone who dreams about being a writer."

I let that sludge around my heart, every time I turned on the TV, every time I chose to read rather than write. I knew every time that I was making a conscious choice not to write, making a conscious choice to be a person who dreamed about being a writer but not really being one. This is, after all, the thing that is what writers pride themselves on - sacrificing personal time to persevere as though this were a second job.

Then I thought of my friends who love to scrapbook. They don't do it every day. Sometimes not at all for a month or two at a time. But they are scrapbookers. And my friends who knit, even if they only do it for stretches at a time, they are knitters. And the bikers, even if they only ride in warm months, are bikers.

Who is to tell us how to label ourselves, or tell us what name we are worthy of?  Is there some star chart I don't know of where we get to put stickers on each day we write, and you only get to be a writer if there are a certain number of stickers per week? Seriously, peeps, is this the kind of regulation and guilt we need heaped into our lives?

So while I might not answer the question, "What do you do for a living?" with the answer, "I'm a writer," I am most definitely a writer. Even if tonight I choose to turn on the TV.

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?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Little Grain of Sand Things

There was a time when New Year's meant a flood of glamorous invitations for my husband and I. You know the kind - the swanky hotels with the pricey dinner and dancing and midnight toasts; the black tie parties, the high-above-the-city or floating-on-the-ocean kind that made my heart yearn for just one night without changing diapers or wearing sweats.

We never went, the cost seeming a bit extravagant or the idea of a babysitter too scary. There was always time for that when the kids were older, I told myself. I shelved the idea with all its glitter and promise onto the same bucket-list-shelf as going to Time's Square to see the ball drop. One day....

What no one says is that the bucket-list is not written in stone. It is as changeable as we are, and while I might feel a twinge of regret for never having seen Times Square on a New Year's Eve, I don't wish to do that now. After an exhausting fall of keeping up with my hectic teens, starting a new job, and escorting my husband to a dozen embassy and business events, I desperately wanted some down time. The idea of standing in the freezing cold for hours on hours crammed like sardines, no bathroom in sight, sounds horrible. By New Year's Eve, I just wanted to stay home next to a fire and spend time with my kids. Honestly, I had no energy for getting all dolled up and dancing and being perky.

But I did want time with my family. Time that wasn't running around, in the car, in a stadium, in an auditorium, in a waiting room. Just time to reconnect and have fun without the pressure of homework and time constraints.

Instead, I got a night of total tech obsessions.

My mother-in-law had gotten a tablet for Christmas, so she enlisted my son to help her set it up and install apps and figure out how to use it. From about seven in the evening to nearly eleven at night, I don't think they looked up once. My father-in-law enlisted my husband to help him with something on his iPad, and they never looked up. My eldest daughter, who'd gone out babysitting earlier, came home around 9:30 and upon seeing the lack of interaction, took out her phone and began to text and search Pinterest. I had a puzzle out and tried to enlist the help of my youngest, but in her excitement and determination to stay up until midnight, she wanted to watch the countdowns. It didn't take much TV hunting to realize New Year's celebrations are not G-rated TV anymore. She settled on a movie.

And I... I worked my puzzle, gave up trying to have conversations, and realized that this would never be one of those nights everyone looked back on and said, "That was a New Year's Eve to remember!"

The thing is, it doesn't take a black-tie affair or a pricey dinner with confetti or - as it seemed on TV, a ton of alcohol - to make a memorable night, but it does take interaction. We could have played some crazy board games, made a huge tent in the living room, built a fire in the pit in our backyard and told ghost stories under the stars. We could have made the sugar cookies we'd planned all month to make, turned our fingers blue and red and green with the icing and sung loudly and off-key to the radio. We could have written down our favorite memory of the year and talked about it. We could have written our biggest failures and fears and tossed them ceremoniously into the fire. Instead, everyone buried their heads in a screen.

I've become more sensitive these days about technology. When I take time off of work and writing to have coffee with a friend and she checks her phone every time it dings and tweets, I feel slighted. When I am in the middle of a conversation with my husband and he picks up his Blackberry to answer an email, I feel devalued. When my kids come home and immediately attach themselves to their technology rather than talk to me, I feel like the housekeeper and cook rather than a mom.

My husband reminds me this goes both ways. That I have, for many years, buried myself in my computer. This is the trap of being a writer and working from home. I have ill-defined work hours and a difficulty in breaking away from a chapter when the writing is going well.

But I'm trying. I've curtailed my facebook use significantly. I rarely blog. I close my computer from the time the kids get home until homework is well underway and we can work together in quiet. I'm not perfect. I still can't just sit and watch a movie with the family without doing something else, but I've begun to substitute crocheting for surfing the web. I'm working on it, anyway.

Our family does a lot of things together. We love being together. We eat dinner most nights all together, and those dinners are full of talking and laughing. We take day trips often, vacation occasionally. We build memories all the time. But in the day-to-day, it is harder to make those memories and easier to get sucked into technology. So this year, I'm making a plan to get myself out from under that, with hopes that my family will want to follow.

I want to sit and listen to my daughter practice guitar. Not just half-listen as I do dishes or work on writing, the way I usually do, but really sit and give her my undivided attention. Sing with her as she plays.  Create a project with my youngest; paint with her or teach her something new. Cook dinner with my kids rather than just for them. I want to build a sand castle with my kids like I did when they were too little to do it themselves. To get out of the beach chair and out from behind my book and get sandy and wet and create a masterpiece. Instead of wasting the day at home, I want to use the kids' teacher workdays to go to a museum in DC we haven't been to before. Replace a few of our Saturday movie nights at home with a game. Turn off my phone when I'm out with the kids, and when they come home. Ask them to turn off theirs in the car. Treat my family's updates on their day with the same interest as I do near-strangers on facebook. Ask more questions. Look at them when they answer. Pray for them. Pray with them.

I don't really have a bucket list. We will probably do enough grand things this year to fill a scrapbook. But what I need to mind is those little grain-of-sand things that fill our hours that either say, "You don't matter much to me," or "You are the most interesting thing in life right now." I love my computer. I love my phone. But in the scheme of things, the people standing in front of me are the ones I value the most. Maybe it's time I showed that.