Friday, January 30, 2015

My Book, My Baby

I’ve often heard writers refer to their books as their babies. I used to think that was just a wee bit precious, until I had a couple babies…and wrote a couple books.

I wrote “Happy, Indiana” in just over 9 months (Coincidence??? Uh, yeah, actually) but I planned the book, reading background materials and meticulously outlining it, for a year prior. This is how I approach most things in life--researching, studying, thinking, and I do the same with parenting--a stack of books by the bedside before we even conceived. It’s the anxious child in me still wanting to be prepared for any eventuality.

Note to self: I am not, nor will I ever be, prepared for any eventuality, in publishing or parenting.

Nevertheless, here’s some of what I’ve learned:

Writing a Book* is an incredibly emotional process, leaving you physically wrung-out on many days but utterly buoyant on others.

Writing a book is risky. There’s no guaranteed pay-off. You can’t do it because you want to be rich or famous, neither or which is very likely to happen. You can only do it, ultimately, because you love the process. But here’s the thing…how do you know you love the process of writing a novel until you write the novel?

Writing a book is different every day; every chapter, every scene, every page requires something new from me.

Writing a book gets easier…sort of. “Happy, Indiana” is actually my second novel. The first, “Come As You Are,” still awaits a home, and its near misses with publishers is the reason I’ve considered changing my middle name to “Runner-up.” I learned A LOT writing that book. There are mistakes I made writing it that I definitely did not make with the second book. (And yes, I’m now looking at my daughter, eldest child, poor thing…). But I made mistakes with “Happy, Indiana,” too, (and with my second child), entirely new mistakes, because, guess what, it’s an entirely different book!

No matter how long you spend outlining a book, the actual writing of it might take you in a completely different direction. This can be scary. It can also turn out wonderfully.

There are moments when I’ve loved this book so ferociously that I wanted to humble-brag it from the mountaintops of social media, and other times when I’ve said, fuck it, and left my laptop open and in dangerous proximity to a full glass of wine.

I can try and protect my book from the outside world, from comments (from agents, publishers, maybe someday reviewers, readers) that wound my tender sensibilities. I can do all the right things, but sometimes my book is going to be disparaged. And I have to know when to ignore, and when to notice the kernel of truth in that disparagement.

Writing a book is never “finished.” Even when you put down the red pen and say it’s finished, even if you manage to sell it and give readings to standing room-only crowds, you’ll still see things you wish you’d done differently.

*Replace Writing a Book with Being a Parent and see how that works. Non-parents, replace it with Baking a Perfect SoufflĂ© or Learning to Play the Ukulele. Whatever form of creativity you indulge in is bound to be messy.  Learning to embrace that messiness is what makes the process more enjoyable and the completion of it, even though it's never really finished, more satisfying.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Write More, Write Better: The Writing Resolution to End All Writing Resolutions!

My birthday is on New Year’s Eve, and oh boy, there’s a lot of pressure there, double the pressure I might say, to examine a whole year’s worth of accomplishments and shortcomings and look onward with either the rosy glasses of optimism or the very, very dark glasses of pessimism, depending on how many champagne toasts have been had.

Seriously, it’s the worst day ever for a birthday, but this post isn’t about my recently turning a year older, but about growing wiser, at least when it comes to writing resolutions.

I used to resolve to publish things in the coming year: a book, a higher number of short stories than I published the previous year, an essay in The Times (okay, I’ve never actually said that one, out loud).

I published in some nifty journals and magazines in 2014, and also came this close to getting my first novel published. I have considered changing my middle name to “Runner-up.” But I can’t control my competition, and there are a lot of talented writers out there, my friends! Plus, publishing decisions are based on many others things besides the quality of the work. Fun Fact: I once sat in on a judges’ panel (to hear how they determined which applications should receive grants) where a judge exclaimed, “I just really liked this writer's short story because I thought the talking bear was funny!”

I think it’s time to say, finally, in 2015, that I will leave publishing out of my resolutions. I can only resolve to do what is in my control, and that is, very simply, to write more, and write better. The more I write, the better I get. The better I get, the more the publications tend to happen.

All in all, 2014 was a good year. Seven pieces published (three stories, two essays and a humor piece) and a new novel finished! I have ambitious writing goals for 2015 as well, though sadly, they don’t include a talking bear.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Selfie Finishing a Novel

Why don’t more writers take selfies? Ah, because this is what we look like. You’ll only see writer-selfies at awards ceremonies. If I set my computer to take automatic pictures of me while I’m working, you would see a whole bunch of photos of me frowning at the screen. Sometimes, my brow might have a bit more furrow to it, but otherwise, identical pictures.

However, because of all those hours of frowning, I’m going to finish my novel…SOON! I figure I'm down to less than 50 pages. I’ve got an outline, so I know what’s coming, and I’m zeroing in on that ending like Santa on the last brick of peanut brittle at the last house in the world.

I’ve hit that point where everything looks very bad for the protagonist, many things have been tossed at her, and it seems as though there’s no way out. I’m writing the fallout from all those crises and heading toward that sweet denouement.

And this is what it looks like to be completely absorbed at the end of a major writing project. Footie pajamas in the middle of the day, unwashed hair, coffee gone cold, writing in a closet. To me, this is an Inspirational Selfie. I’m giddy at finishing a draft of a novel that was just an idea a little over a year ago. Heck, I’m giddy that I get to wear this to work! Perhaps to you, however, this selfie belongs in the Treasury of Cautionary Tales for Children. (Hey kids, don’t be writers, get your MBA instead, and you’ll always have clean hair and real clothes.)

But whatever you think of this photo, I wish you the most comfortable finish to your own projects.
Footie pajamas rule!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Surviving the Holidays Through Writing

It’s not that I dread the holidays, not completely. I’m fresh off a weekend of merry-making with the hubs and progeny. Cutting down ye olde tree, decorating while Brenda Lee rocks out in the background, baking gingerbread, for Cripes’ sake! Clearly, I am not a person who poo-poos Christmas.

The part of the holidays that make me breathe into a paper bag is the part where I get thrown into a roomful of people so different from me in so many ways that I may as well be speaking Urdu. My family. And I’m not adopted. I once thought, maybe, but we look so darn much alike.

Today, I’m sharing ways to survive these family get-togethers without large quantities of your mom’s secret stash of amaretto. All those angry feelings bubbling up at the dinner table? Those might go into a journal, if you keep that type of thing. I’m not so much a diary-writer anymore, but I am an idea-gatherer. I’m a fan of the freewrite. I do this on my computer (because my handwriting is atrocious, and I sometimes can’t read it). If something happens to me that I can connect to something else, bigger than me, I might have an essay on my hands. And so I write those thoughts down.

The notes might be raw and hurtful and contain multiple expletives. Now, we don’t show these notes to anyone, right my dearies? No, we do not. That would be the equivalent of drunk dialing, and it is bad. We simply sit on the notes until the moment passes, days or weeks, or a decade, later, then we take a look and see if there’s anything worth writing about more formally. If not, there’s a little thing called the “Delete” key.

But, there’s something even better to do with difficult people. Make them into fictional characters. Just be sure they are different enough that no one will recognize them. If you’re writing about a man, take a tip from Anne Lamott in her fabulous book, “Bird by Bird,” and give him a “teenie little penis” so he won’t ever sue you.

I digress. The point I really want to make is that it’s incredibly hard to see things from another person’s point-of-view. For me, this becomes especially obvious this time of year. It’s something I struggle with on a daily basis, as a person. But as a person who is also a writer, I’m not half bad at it, and getting better. The first novel I wrote is about a woman who, when I started the project, seemed to have very little in common with me, but, through the years of crafting her story, I can tell you I understand her. I love her even, though she and I don’t agree on many things.

I’ve lived in her skin. I have found more similarities between us than differences. I have to. For a character to be successful (and not just the stage-hogging protagonists, but every minor character as well), she or he must be well-rounded. That’s a big old writing workshop term, but it’s true. No cardboard characters, please. They must be complicated. My character changes her mind about certain things that she never thought she’d change her mind about. She refuses to budge on others. She is…human.

And in creating her, I’ve found myself opening my mind to opinions like hers. I don’t need to adopt those opinions, but I recognize that characters, as well as flesh-and-blood people, arrive at their personal beliefs through such very twisted paths.

What a gift, writing. Though it hasn’t brought me fame or fortune, what a gift to sit down and create a world and populate it, to live as another person for a portion of the day. Real people will always be harder to understand, but writers are lucky because when things get to be too much to bear at the big family get-together, we can always retreat to the guest room and dive into another universe. The trick is, to not remain a hermit (I know, this from someone who writes in a closet…) but to exit that room more open to understanding the real people around you.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The $10 Dresser DIY

What could you do with a few bucks, a cast-off dresser and a whole lot of swearing?* Why, you could create a fabulous DIY project!
So, a friend of mine took off and moved to Texas, and I’ll never forgive her, but as a lovely parting gift, she gave me her daughter’s dresser because, you know, when you’re moving to fancy-pants Austin, you can’t be bothered with such un-cool things as old orange dressers from Ohio.

Note: When anyone offers me old furniture, I pretty much say “yes.” Friends also call me on trash morning to report various items out by the curbs. Yes, when friends think of trash, they think of me.

But back to the dresser. I had begun a beautiful bedroom renovation (full photos to come, someday, keep your pants on), and knew I needed a dresser, having recently sold our hideous, Tuscan-style bedroom suite on Craigslist for a price I posted with hilarious laughter and then actually received. I knew my dresser had to serve double-duty as both a holder of clothing and a nightstand because I had eaten up a chunk of the room's available floor space by adding a seating area.

I loved the lines of this dresser. And that adorable little drawer on top? People have asked if I added it, but nope, it was there all along. The narrow second drawer would be perfect to hold bedtime reading. There's room for a lamp. Solid wood, dovetailed drawers that still slide without too much difficulty. Loved it all, just not the paint.

Now if you’ve read about any of my other projects, you’ve noticed a theme; I love paint. It’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s entirely transformative. And it really never goes out of style. The techniques do, of course. What I might have sponge-painted in the 90s, I might ombre now (my current powder room re-do will feature this technique), but there is always something amazing you can do with paint to match whatever style you’re going for.

I used the same white paint I used for the trim in the room (Sherwin-Williams Harmony, Extra-White). I didn’t bother priming it, since this paint covers pretty well. But I did scuff up the dresser first with some sandpaper, and I used two coats. Oh, and make sure you remove the hardware first, duh. I spray-painted the hardware with my trusty can of silver spray paint, which is kept in my holster at all times.

Now, I hear you asking, but what is that pattern on the front, without which this is just a painted dresser and I’m moving quickly on to surf cat videos… Ah, that’s the greatest part. That pattern is a $2 roll of contact paper from Big Lots. Now, I won’t kid you. The contact paper thing was a PITA (look it up), but the results are so pretty. The little notches at the two top corners were actually carved into the original dresser. I just went with that and cut the paper to match it.
You have to measure really, really carefully here and cut and stick, and reposition and reposition until you get the piece of contact paper just right on each drawer. This is where the swearing comes in. And because I’m dealing with a continuous pattern (probably not wise, for a first-timer), I didn't have room for much sloppiness. My mistake was thinking that if it was just a little too long, I’d cut the rest off once it was on the drawer. This did not work well. The paper started to tear, leaving some jagged bits that are still there and will haunt me for the rest of my days.

It's not perfect. I found a paint drip on the side. Things like that bother me because I am kind of a freak. But I did not sand it off and repaint, because I am not that kind of a freak. Also, I have to hear the little scratching noise of the paper when I open two of the drawers because it hangs over a half a centimeter. But I suppose I’ll live. And while removing the hardware, one of the handles broke, and so I opted to buy new glass knobs for the top drawer, which I actually really like as it sets that drawer apart. Happy accident. These were $4 each, which brings the total project cost to 10 bucks.
Turns out that little top drawer is perfect for jewelry. And while we’re talking about saving money, there are tons of plastic contraptions you can buy to compartmentalize your jewelry in a drawer. I’ve seen very small dividers on sale for more than $20. But, hey, since no one sees it but you, why not pull out a couple extra ice cube trays? They’re perfect for earrings.

p.s. My friend’s daughter has a very cute new room in Austin. She even let me sleep in it when I visited. And I forgave my friend for moving, sort of.

*swearing optional

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Do You Write for Children?

So I found myself chatting with my neighbor lady the other day, who is a very awesome, nearly 90-year-old (and the only grandma in my little, rural Midwestern town who wears a nose ring) and she asked me a question. First, she asked what I was doing with myself now that my youngest child started kindergarten. Somehow, in all our conversations, it never came up that I’m a writer. So, when I said I was working on a book, she quite innocently followed up with, “Oh, do you write for children?”

And while that blood vessel behind my right eye went all twitchy, I smiled pleasantly and said I did not. “I write for adults.” Blank stare. Then, fearing she might think I write for adults, as in XXXADULTS, I backpedalled. “I write fiction, for grown-ups, you know, novels and also, stories, and also sometimes essays, non-fiction in that case, plus the occasional poem.” She looked unconvinced, and I babbled more incoherently, wondering if I should just go into the house and get my CV. “Did you know I had a poem on all the buses in Cleveland?” (This is true, but is also the equivalent of waving a bright, shiny, distracting object in front of her face. Ohhh, what’s this? Pretty! Pretty! What were we talking about?)

There are so many, many questions you should not ask writers (e.g. What do you do all day? When will you be on the best-seller list? Don’t you agree print is a dying form?) But for the love of Jehovah, do NOT ask a female writer if she writes for children. You know why? Because nobody asks a male writer this. For a male writer to be asked this question, I believe he would have to be strapped, front and back, with a Baby Bjorn and even then, the asker might assume that if he’s a writer, oh he must be a serious journalist covering workplace equality.

Because underlying this question is the assumption that a mother couldn’t possibly know about anything beyond children. The asker forgets that writers, especially the fiction-y kind, make ample use of something called an imagination. The assumption is also that writing for children is easy, so easy that even a woman--even one with other things on her mind like caring for children, or, I don't know,vacuuming the drapes in a dress and high heels and wondering when Ward is going to come home from work, and whether the pot roast is going to be too tough--can do it.

What I should have said to my neighbor, what is the actual truth and something I think most writers understand, but many non-writers, especially non-parents, might not get, is this: I AM NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO WRITE FOR CHILDREN!
I bow down before the masters who are capable of winning over the most discerning of audiences—kids! They are honest little buggers. If they don’t like something, they toss it aside. I’ve tried scratching out a couple picture books, and have put them back in the drawer, returning to my novel-in-progress, which, at a likely 300 pages full of plot twists, is actually easier to write than a 100-word rhyming book. Try it!

It’s one of those things everyone thinks they could do, but it is so very, very hard to do it well. Marketers take advantage of this. There are ads in all the kids’ magazines. Take this writing test! Do you have what it takes to send us $29.95 for our writing course??? On a related note, could your artwork be on display at the Louvre? Draw this turtle to find out! For now, I’m sticking to grown-up fiction, but someday, if I get really, really good, maybe I’ll try and write for kids.

p.s. I know I haven’t blogged in months, so apologize for getting back on the bandwagon by jumping on my soapbox, to mix a few metaphors. Pretty pictures of an awesome DIY coming next.

p.p.s. Check out the Clarice Bean series by Lauren Child. Love, love, love, this author’s voice so much that when my daughter fell asleep, I kept right on reading. And if you have kids and haven’t read every single Magic Tree House, then what the hell is wrong with you?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Writing in a Voice Not My Own (aka I am not a dude)

Someone recently told me she loved the "voice" of my blog. I thanked her, but I'll admit, I was a little taken aback. In the writing textbooks I studied, as both student and teacher, the concept of voice is all mixed up with several other things, like a writer’s unique way of writing (e.g. her syntax, rhythms, word choice) and with the unique voices of each character, which is of course bound tightly to the story’s point-of-view. All of these things become “voice.”

In this blog, and in the personal essays I’ve published, the “voice” is mine, by which I mean it’s the real me, the way I think and the way I talk with friends. So, having a reader say she liked it made me feel a little bit self-conscious, and saying thanks made me feel a little arrogant, as in, why yes, of course, I have a very nice voice, and have you also seen my elbows? (Hint: They are HOT!)

So, yes, dear reader, here on this blog, this is me, take it or leave it. But, fiction is another beast. Fiction gives writers the chance to try on the voice of someone completely different. At first, this can be a bit scary. Whether you’re a professional writer or not, you’ve probably heard the rule, “Write what you know.” This particular rule stifles a lot of student writers, and they end up writing about other writers, who mostly sit at the computer and gaze out the window (Fun Fact: This action encompasses 3/4 of my own writing time!). They also write characters who drink a lot of coffee, usually in coffeehouses, usually while gazing out the window.

Here's a photo of me on Halloween, as the Publishers' Clearinghouse
Prize Patrol, but don't I look a bit like Alex Trebek?
I think the adage would be better changed to: “Write what you want to know.” Good writers tend to have outsized curiosities. We scrape the surface of a lot of topics in our quests for knowledge, gathering an Alex Trebek-ian list of facts that serve our purposes for a particular scene. Then, we impart this knowledge via our characters.

My two most recently published short stories feature first-person narrators. One, titled “The Adjunct Track” (published in The Rumpus), features an adjunct teacher of English composition who is male and about fifteen years younger than me. Now I, too, have taught comp, and I have been fifteen years younger, but I’ve never been a dude. Another story, "Useful Skills," which you can read here in The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, features a man with a marketing business who is trying to patch up relationships with his wife and father. The only similarity there is that I had previous jobs in marketing.

In a lovely rejection letter (the lovely ones sometimes break your heart the most...) that I received from a publisher considering my story collection, the editor was impressed at how well I wrote male voices. My first thought was maybe I should look into boosting my estrogen. But then I took the comment for what it was, a compliment, the highest kind, really because it’s much harder to write about someone who's different from you, to inhabit his or her fictional world so completely that you, as author, disappear. Stories like that transport a reader.

Currently, I’m working on a novel with a biracial protagonist. When I started thinking about the book, I was filled with self-doubts about whether I had the right to speak for this character, but the more I thought about it, the more those fears diminished. Of course, there will always be people who say how dare you. I’m thinking here of some of the flak Kathryn Stockett got for “The Help.” But, the world of books would be very boring if writers only wrote about their own lives. Where would all the mysteries go? Do I have to be a murderer to write about one? An Abraham Lincoln re-enactor? A born-again, pro-life crusader? No. And I’ve written from all of their points of view. Can I tell you a secret? That's what makes this job so goddamn fun.

The most important question is not whether you ought to do it, but did you? Did you pull it off? Did you write a good book, or story, or poem, one that readers want to read? One thing I’ve learned over my years of writing is that no one is going to give me permission to pursue any project, to write in a voice other than my own. You simply follow whatever voice it is that leads you, and you tell that person’s story with as much honesty as you can. And, for those times when you really need to get into character, you keep a spare wig and mustache.