Monday, November 10, 2014

Time Machine

My mother fell today. She got hurt but not badly, and it got me thinking. She’s seventy-two now.

It wasn’t a doddering-old-lady accident. She just tripped. I do that all the time. We Lawrences are a graceful bunch. All the same, I couldn’t quite put it out of my head. This is where we are now. As an only child, I have always known that the day would come when the balance of our relationship would shift and I would become the caregiver. There is still a bit of a shock when you find that long-anticipated day has arrived. My mind went automatically to whether she needed a doctor, how to get the kids home from school, whether my father needed me to be there, and on and on. This is a woman who used to run a department of a major corporation with such laser focus that I swear she only came home to sleep. She got a PhD at fifty because she just wanted to. She learned Italian in her sixties. She knows exactly which lines were cut from that Shakespearean production and can recite them on demand.

My father, whose mind has always been brilliant and whose composure has always been coma-like, is seventy-six. He’s started to forget things. He’s started to make mistakes. It’s disorienting to see such a razor-sharp intellect lose the edge my mother and I always relied upon. It’s a bit sad it happened gradually enough for me to become accustomed to having to double-check with him. I couldn’t even tell you when “reminding Dad” became standard operating procedure. The change snuck up on me like a ninja. We’re talking about a man who wrote out the grocery list in order of where the items were located in the aisles. From memory. In pen.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. I’m forty-two. But frankly, it’s still way too early to start talking about my parents’ twilight years. People in my family tend to hang around quite awhile. It may be another twenty years before we’re really talking about “The End.” However, my parents are no longer comfortably nestled in that catchall period known as middle age. The scares will become more frequent, the list of doctors and specialists will become longer, and my separateness from them will shrink.

Shorty is turning eleven this week. Seven more years until society labels him a legal adult. My time as the parent of actual children is coming to an end, but I will continue to be a caretaker. If family patterns hold, I will only stop when my parents have gone, and it becomes my boys’ turn to worry about my aging body and how much longer they can cling to their independence before the separateness from me is no longer possible. I’d hoped that by having two children, neither would have to shoulder that alone. It may not work out that way, but at least I gave it a shot.

My teen is fast approaching his seventeenth birthday, and our recent conversations have revolved around driver’s ed, college searches, and potential careers. Never have the sands fallen so quickly through the hourglass. I’m nearly out of time, I think. Now I frantically bombard him with all the life lessons and tools I hadn’t gotten around to yet. I’m cramming for the exam, although he will be the one tested. I hope that if I forgot an assignment, he will call me and ask for my notes. I try to trust that he’s ready, and I remind myself to let him fail.

My husband and I have begun to realize we need things to talk about outside the kids and our careers. We need to remember how to hang out. How to just sit and shoot the shit for hours about all sorts of nonsense, like we used to back when we were young and had all the time in the world.

This is why people have mid-life crises, I think. I’ve always been aware that time was passing, but never before has such a sense of urgency been tied to it. The next steps along the path are all big ones, but none of them are mine. This gives me a sense of powerlessness that I am having trouble adjusting to, even though I know that control has always been an illusion. My life now has a different flavor, and my mind is reacting the same way the world did when New Coke was introduced in the 1980s, with a loud cry of “What the hell is this nonsense?”

Time is passing, and there are no guarantees. So I sit and wonder, in the midst of scheduling SAT prep classes and learning about end-of-life care options, what about me? Am I content to just bounce back and forth from daughter to mother to daughter to mother to (perhaps) grandmother? What about my writing? You can prepare for some eventualities. Get life insurance so your family can pay your final expenses. Get health insurance so the life insurance won’t be needed prematurely. Get auto and home insurance so your assets stay around as long as you do. But there isn’t an insurance company out there than can protect against untapped potential.

I’m weirdly comforted by that. It doesn’t give me the sense of anxiety that other things do. It’s nice to know that there are some things that will only exist if I create them. There’s a footprint only I can leave behind. This is an excellent reminder to me that the things I love best, beyond the family and friends I cherish, need me to give them life. My writing is mine, and it is me—independent of my health, my appearance, my social skills, my number of friends, even my self-esteem. It is mine in the purest sense possible.

Somewhere in between being a daughter and a mother, a wife and a friend, I am a writer. I will be a writer the next time my mother falls and the next time my father forgets. I will be a writer while my children take their first steps into their own slice of the world to learn who they will become. I will be a writer when my husband and I are left to our own devices, when we suddenly notice that we’re still seeing each other as twenty-three and so clueless, even though the world around us calls us “Ma’am” and “Sir” and our children have started worrying about our falls and forgetfulness. I am so, so fortunate to have this gift I can carry with me always, and now I am taking the time to remember that what I have to share with the world is just as important as my other roles.

November is National Novel Writing Month, and (shocking, I know) many of my friends are writers. I have heard nearly every one of them in the past ten days question their abilities. The words won’t come, the story is stupid, the characters are jerks, the world will laugh (or worse, ignore) their paltry offerings. Each of these friends has real talent. No one of them could write the story any other has written. Their uniqueness is remarkable. The qualities I see in each of them, the reasons I call these people friends, come across on the page. I know they can’t see it. I know they are frustrated, maybe a little scared, feeling foolish for even trying. But they are so, so brilliant. They have so much wonder and truth and heart that I want to scream at them, “Can’t you see how totally remarkable you are?” So this is me, yelling at each of you. Use your time. Create something new. No one else can tell your story.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Secret Handshake

It is the late 1970s. We have just moved to Cleveland, and my parents have started taking me to church every Sunday. In our new home, my father is suddenly no longer an atheist, and he follows my mother back to the religion of her childhood. I’ve been in the choir of the Methodist church, and I’m confused about why we can’t join that one instead. They are nice to me there. The rituals of this new church make no sense to me, and I observe the routine with a mixture of skepticism and bewilderment.

“What are they doing?” I’m whispering, because that’s what you do when you’re a child in a big room.

“They’re making the sign of the cross.”

“Little tiny ones?” I’m really confused now.


They want me to be quiet. They want me to fit in and play along, but I don’t understand. “Why?”

A suppressed sigh. Everything is like that now. Muted, so the world won’t hear and judge. “So that God is in their thoughts, on their lips, and in their hearts.”

I want to ask what it means, but I don’t. We’re right under the priest’s nose, and I don’t want to upset him. He’s wearing a wide robe that shines with crimson and gold. I want to ask about that, too, but I don’t.

My mother has dressed me up, and the pleats of my skirt are gauzy and sharp. I gather them with my fingers, a slippery pink accordion. My mother puts a book under my nose, and the fabric falls away.

“Follow along.”

It’s a small book, white plastic and inexplicably puffy. Jesus is inside. He has children on his lap, and he’s laughing. Everyone looks relaxed and happy. I want to find the right words in the book. I want to understand what is going on up on the massive table. If I can find the words, God will put me on his lap, and we can laugh together.

I don’t find the words. I’ve kept quiet, because all of this is new. This city speaks differently. The children don’t want to play with me. My accent is weird, and they don’t like the things I imagine. “Idea” has no R at the end. I can’t have a frappe. I can’t ride the swan boats.

We played in Boston. Back in Boston, I was the Queen of All Seasons and the Captain of the Kissing Girl Team. Here, I am not. Not heard. Not seen.

It’s hard for me to understand why suddenly it is a sin to sleep in on a lazy Sunday morning. The priest tells me that I can go to hell if I don’t go to church on Sunday. No, the Sundays before don’t count. Starting now, though. My concepts of right and wrong are absolute at this age, and I can’t understand what has changed.

I’m going to be Catholic now. Hell is something I need to worry about now. I ask the priest why people believe, if they can avoid hell just by not knowing any better. He sighs.

When I’m sad, I tell my father I want to go home. All the way back, to before church, before Ohio, and even before Boston. My family is in Kansas. I want to go home. I want to understand the words and the gestures and the rules. Nothing here makes sense. I want to pet my grandfather’s dog, play with my cousins, and be far away from these mystifying people and their strange words and gestures that no one ever explains.

My father tells me that Kansas isn’t home. He tells me that if we went back, the place I want still wouldn’t be there. He tells me home doesn’t exist, so I need to be happy here.

I want to be where I belong, but I’m out of sync here. I don’t know what to say while the rosary beads slip through my fingers. I don’t understand what the other kids seem to. I stay silent.

When we all go to high school seven years later, one of the girls speaks to me. She hasn’t before, except to tease on the playground, but now she is new. I am familiar.

“Aren’t you nervous?”


“How do we figure out where to go?”

“Just follow everyone else. It’ll be fine.”

“How can you be so calm?” She’s demanding now, unsettled that the misfit is now stronger than her.

I shrug and move away. This is nothing. I can do this. It’s an even playing field because we’re all new. We’re beginning at the very start of the process rather than being thrown into the middle of the machinery like a wayward screwdriver. This time, we all have to learn these new rules.

How hard could it be? The skirts are polyester, and the pleats are sewn in like the Will of God. My imagination slips out in my words now and then, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not confused, so they like me here. I’m not the awkward girl who doesn’t understand.

I still want to go home.

College comes, and I go. It’s Pennsylvania this time, but by now, I am used to this. The school is a microcosm that I soon carve into, making my place. I have friends, and a boy who says he loves me even though my words aren’t what he wants to hear. I let my imagination out of its box a bit more, I experiment with words, and I say goodbye to the boy. Another boy loves me, and I let him.

I don’t want to go home.

I come back to Cleveland, bringing my boy with me. At first, there is the dream of the next adventure. We can go anywhere, be anything. I consider Alabama. England. Boston. Kansas. And then I look around at where I am.

I may not have understood the motions in church, the unwritten rules of Catholic school, or the ordered suburban lives of my peers back then. But now I find myself in Cleveland, and I understand. There is Playhouse Square, where I saw Yule Brenner and Beverly Sills. I learned to change the theater lights and lace up toe shoes at the Beck Center. The Cleveland Institute of Art showed me that hair is more than just one color, and Severance Hall showed me how music feels when it reverberates off your heart and into your bones. I’ve learned to sing, to paint, to dance, and to write here.

(The violin was a disaster, and I never learned to cook.)

A lot of the old places are gone, but the old places are being made new. The people here shine, and they open themselves to the idea of what a city, a neighborhood, or one old building could be. There is life here, and instead of a secret handshake, a hand is thrust out to pull you into the chaos and wonder of it all. You can be one hundred people here and live every life imaginable.

So this is home now. I came home, but I’m not in Kansas anymore.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Conversations in my Life

I recently came across a little log I was keeping of strange little exchanges I had (or overheard) throughout the course of my days. It's a couple years old, but some of them made me laugh, so I thought I'd share.

May 7, 2012

Shorty: "What does the S in 'socks' stand for?"
Me: *guzzles more coffee*

May 13, 2012

Teenager: "Mom, Shorty is messing with my room's protons."
Me: "Shorty, no messing with other people's protons without permission."

May 15, 2012

My mother: "You can't be a maverick when you're married with kids."
Me: "Watch me."

May 17, 2012

Board of Education employee (all excited): "Do you write children's books?"
Me (choking slightly): "Um... no."
Awkward pause.
Board of Education employee: "Oh."

May 27, 2012

92-year-old great aunt (and Joplin, MO, resident): "I haven't been going to church since it blew away."
Me:  "Way to get off on a technicality!"

May 29, 2012

92-year-old Great-Aunt: "I go to the beauty shop, and all the magazines have articles on how to lose weight. It makes me mad. Where are the articles on how to GAIN weight? I don't even have anything to sit on anymore!"
Me: ---

Mother's Cousin: "He got up from the dinner table to go to the bathroom, and he showed up a week later in Mexico."
Me: ---

Mother: "I miss Daddy. There's no one to say 'There's where the poop goes' when we drive past the water treatment plant."
Uncle: "I don't think Dad ever said 'poop'. He wasn't a 'poop' kind of guy."
Me: ---

Driving through area of Joplin destroyed one year ago by a tornado:
Mother: "If you think it looks bad now, you should have seen it a year ago!"
Me: *biting tongue*

June 10, 2012

Teen's friend: "I got $120 bucks for graduation!"
Teen: "So? I got a sonic screwdriver, a TARDIS USB hub, and a Minecraft t-shirt. That's WAY better."

June 14, 2012

Shorty: “Can I go to Grandma & Grandpa's?”
Me: “No, they're meeting with the President today.”
Shorty: “The President of what?”
Me: “The United States.”
Shorty: “Okay. How about tomorrow, then?”
Me: “You are a hard kid to impress, you know.”

July 2, 2012

Shorty: "What are dogs' armpits for?"
Me: ----

July 5, 2012

Me (to cat): "Aw, who's my precious girl?"
Hubs (raises hand): "ME!"
Me: ---

July 12, 2012

My Teenager: "The worst part about being in the Legions of the Undead is that you get killed quickly."
Me: "Okay, but did you do the laundry?"

July 14, 2012

Me: "I really don't want you playing violent games."
Shorty: "It's not violent. It's just guns."
Me: "Wow. I really am a crap parent."

July 15, 2012

My Mother: "We have a present for you. Your father and I had a portrait done, and we got you a framed print."
Me: "Um... okay..."
My Mother: "It's too late to bring it over tonight, but we'll get it to you as soon as we can, okay?"
Me: "No rush, really."

July 18, 2012

Teenager: "Mom, your accent is slipping again."
Me: "Damn."
Teenager: "You have a real problem with that."
Me: "Oh, shut up."

July 30, 2012

Me: "Hey, I need you to watch Shorty tomorrow for a bit. I'm going with Aunt Sydney to get a tattoo."
Teenager, without even blinking: "Okay."

August 8, 2012

Me: "Okay, quiet please, because I'm working."
Shorty: "Okay."
Shorty: "Hey, Mom - guess who the king of the beavers is!"
Me: *sigh*

August 18, 2012

Shorty: "Mom, where's my Doctor Who backpack?"
Me: "I ordered it, but it's not here yet."
Shorty: "When's it gonna get here?"
Me: "In about a month."
Shorty: "?!?!? Whyyyyyyy? That's no fair!"
Me: " 'Gee, I sure am lucky my mom will get me cool stuff from halfway across the world. I'll have to wait patiently to show my gratitude.' You are really spoiled, you know that?"
Shorty: "But Moooooom..."
Me: "Oh, go blow something up and leave me alone. Brat."

Me (to Husband): "You're such a jerk."
Hubs: "Thanks. I practice in the mirror."
Me: --- (Can't speak because I'm laughing too hard.)

August 22, 2012

Shorty: "Look what I found in my pocket today! A missile!"
Me: .......

August 27, 2012

Shorty (to his father): "Dad, do me a solid."

Hubs: "Hey, get Shorty some orange juice."
Me: "I gave him life - can't YOU give him orange juice?"

September 6, 2012

Shorty watching the last episode of Doctor Who 2005 season: "He just left Jack behind?"
Me: "Yes."
Shorty: "That was rude!"

Shorty: "Is the sun ever going to expand?"
Me: "Sure, eventually."
Shorty: "What day?"
Me: "How should I know? We'll be long gone, so it's not like it matters."
Me: ----

September 8, 2012

Teenager: "But, Mom, I can't go to bed yet! Somewhere out there, someone is being wrong on the Internet!"
Me: "Fine. Two more hours."

September 25, 2012

                Me: “No one takes themselves as seriously as the young and the rich.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Flirting with Poetry

In recent months, I've written a handful of poems. While they may not have much merit, they're mine, so I thought I'd share them here.

We Were Green

It was green.
We were flying and the sun-dappled wonder
Became our hearts while our minds
Clasped hands to burn sunlight
The wonder so hard to reach and the blue
So far away.
But the wisps of dream colors would stay
Until the breeze carried thickening down
To the sparkling dark-diamonds of farewell.
We were young.
The warmth kept us safe
So that hearts could pound
Arms could reach
Feet could dance
Songs could soar
Until the day when they couldn’t anymore.
But I recall how it felt back then
When it was green.


I loved you so much more
When you were waxy and gray
And the whole world stood on you
While I whistled
Now you are golden and untouched
And it’s all very sad to me
The only thing that I like
Is your plinth
And only because of the word
Rolls off the tongue
And if you rolled
Your perch would be precarious
And you might say
No more rolling for you because
Even if you fell
I don’t think I’d love you anymore
But I would still enjoy saying it
Won’t you miss it, though
The bombastic abuse
And the unicorn-fiction
Of your hopes that someday
I’d stop whistling
And they’d see you
Waxy and gray and so lovely
The way you were to me
When I whistled

Boarding House Requiem

When open, the eyes do sing aloud and long and shimmer
But closing, bend the weight of care along forgetful paths
So, too, must I go before you to open, close, and fade
The garment worn when open still is shed and shreds and shatters
Your persistent face I think will stay upon my path the longest
Though mine was a shadow to you even before we met
And my garments now bear the print of your eyes
Can I walk this way without your hands having laid the very stones
Or do my works mark the measure of the steps of your own
Sight unwavering though I fail to blink and blush and stammer and hold
Because if I were to lose myself now…
Where would you go?
There is a requiem that has played since that birth
We together constructed these worlds, these hearts, these pains
The children of our hearts did sing so loudly for a time
Until clasped hands unclenched and the clock advanced
Eyes close even as the cloth wraps more tightly
My lips form the truths that I cannot speak aloud
I know you; I know you; I know you—
And that truest heart for which we both mourn is the one we created together.


I am selfish and childish
Out-of-turn, wildish
And still, here I stay at your feet

Your vanity is apparent
But my devotion is inherent
The balance clings you to me

Cruel and so brittle
Bitter and uncivil
Cold was the day we did meet

Trapped and constrained
In love have I changed
There is no will in me to be free

If you were kinder
Or if I were blinder
Two different people we’d be

So I worship your claws
You adore all my flaws
And in mutual pain we do cleave

Parisian Mime's Lament

I could hold you close, but you’re gone
I’ve lost any hope of you, and you’re gone
And I’m miles away from who you are today
I could have held you once, but you’re gone.

I could face your fears, but you’re gone
Those battles you lost, and you’re gone
And my arms reach out to soothe your doubt
I could have helped you once, but you’re gone.

I could kiss your lips, but you’re gone
I tried but missed, and you’re gone
And though I ache for you like I expected to
I could have loved you more, but you’re gone.

Regrets are like Roses

Regrets are like roses,
Their tender thorns
Do prick and wound
With beautiful scorn
And e'er the soul know discontent
The flower blooms and soon is spent.


If I asked
Would you even
Try to find
A lie
That might quiet me
Make my question
As my words so often
To you are
Refracting off
Diamond-hard conviction
That your reasons are
So much better than mine
But you still
Will not even say

My Love is Like

My love is like a red, red rose
My hate is like a garden hose
And all the spaces in between
Fertile with words I didn't mean

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Setting: Selection and Significance

By definition, every novel must have at least one setting. Even if a science fiction author were to write about a character floating around in a great abyss of nothingness, that abyss is still the place where things happen (or don’t happen, as the case may be). So how do writers choose the location for their story? How much does that choice matter to the story?

In my first novella, My Apple Tree, the setting was never specified for the reader. It could have been any town, really. The reality was that in my own mind the story was set in Joplin, Missouri, my mother’s hometown. The setting in this case was more important to me than the reader, and it definitely influenced the way I felt about the story and the choices I made concerning the plot and characters. After a devastating tornado leveled a third of the city, I went to visit my family there. What I saw had a profound impact on me, and that overwhelming mix of grief and rebirth was transferred to the story and my characters. So in that instance, the setting was very significant, but not in a way that the audience would necessarily be aware of. Normally, I would post pictures to illustrate my point. Although I do have pictures of the affected area, the devastation and loss these people faced is too personal to broadcast. However, the cover photo was taken at a nearby cemetery where much of my family is buried, and so that, too, has deep personal significance for me.

The significance of setting was flipped around for Wishing Cotton. For this story, the setting I envisioned was entirely fictional. I just needed a summer resort on a beach, with isolated cabins and a nearby funfair to suit the needs of my story. In other words, the setting was determined by the demands of the plot rather than the other way around. Beyond its function to support the story I wanted to tell, the setting has no further significance to me as a writer. Because of this, the only details I provide are ones that are necessary in order to present each scene clearly. Otherwise, the characters could be anywhere else and the plot could remain largely unaffected.

Setting again became important when I wrote my historical romance, The Truth Seekers. For this novel, I used a real-life location as the foundation for the story. Although I employ a great deal of artistic license, my protagonists Geoffrey Hawes and Miranda Claridge meet for the first time in an unnamed fictional community that is based on the very real Chautauqua Institution in New York State. 

Athenaeum Hotel

The grounds of this historic community preserve a great deal of the world that Geoffrey and Miranda would have inhabited, and the focus on philosophy, art, music, and learning lends itself to a novel of this type. It was simple to imagine two Victorian lovers debating the merits of different social and philosophical principles in such a setting. While I did change a number of minor details, such as turning the very real Packard Manor into the governor’s mansion, the architecture, landscape, and pace of the location are kept very true to life.

Geoffrey first encounters Miranda in the Hall of Philosophy, which not only is a real building on the grounds at Chautauqua, but also is the source of the book’s title. 


The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle is the longest continuously running book club in the United States, and for many years, each year’s theme was preserved in mosaics running along the floor of the Hall. Visitors to the Hall of Philosophy can easily find The Truth Seekers mosaic.

In many ways, my love of Chautauqua influenced my handling of Geoffrey and Miranda’s story, but at the same time, it would not have been possible to envision their story in the first place without having experienced the setting beforehand. This is a place where it is easy to picture what life must have been like one hundred years ago, and it is also a place where one can feel the passage of time and the natural continuity of life and love and time. A great deal of the grounds have remained largely unchanged and are teeming with artists, authors, poets, dancers, musicians, theologians, and thinkers. It would be near impossible for a creative person to be in such an environment and not be inspired. Because of this, The Truth Seekers became not only a love story between two people, but it is also the story of an author’s love for a place. I hope that by bringing Geoffrey and Miranda’s world to life, I have also captured in some small way the magic of this small, precious community.
Miller Bell Tower on Lake Chautauqua

In these three examples, you see how differently setting can be used to shape and influence a story and its characters. For writers, it is important to consider the role setting plays in a piece so that the handling of locations and environments complements the tale you are trying to tell. For readers, it is often a subtle influence that can color your perception of the world each new character inhabits. Either way, settings are something to enjoy and explore, even if only in one’s imagination.

Friday, February 28, 2014

On Failure

I am a failure.

(Stick with me. My story gets better.)

February has always been a miserable month for me, and this one was especially so. Now that it’s (thankfully) the final day of that month, I’ve been thinking about all the ways I’ve fallen short over the course of my life.

In grade school, I stopped doing my homework because it was uninteresting, unchallenging, and silly, and I’d figured out that my grades at that level weren’t really going to impact my future enough to worry over. In high school, I did do my work, but I didn’t actually try. I made no effort to excel or distinguish myself. The after-school clubs were left unjoined, and papers and projects alike were completed like a recipe in the kitchen—one cup of hypothesis, three tablespoons of salient points, a dash of reference material, and bake. I was not engaged; I was a mass-production line.

It had always been assumed that college would be my time to shine. While the classes were far more interesting, I still did not put anything close to my best effort into my work. I dated a thoroughly unsuitable boy, bringing him home to meet my parents and ensuring many sleepless nights for them while they worried I’d keep him (I didn’t). My performance at school was perfectly adequate, but that was all. There was nothing on paper to show that I was intelligent, unique, and had something to offer the world. I did not go on to graduate school as I’d wanted, and I did not land a decent job when I graduated. It was several years before I had anything even remotely resembling a career, and I was only brought to it out of necessity rather than ambition.

While the official reason for my departure from that career was my children’s special needs, there will forever be a voice in the back of my head adding that another reason was that I sucked at it. It never felt real to me, and I was incredibly unhappy. I couldn’t be one of those moms who juggle everything, keep lists, vacuum more than once a year, and get up at 5 a.m. to do Pilates. In a lot of ways, when I quit my job to stay home, I felt like I was bailing on adulthood.

Since then, I’ve edited a pile of novels and published my own work. My royalties are abysmal. I do nothing to change that, make no effort to really market and promote. I even am seized with the impulse to apologize to those who have spent money on my books.

Sorry I suck. Better luck next time.

However. If I hadn’t lived the life I’ve led, so many things would have been lost. I never would have dated my husband if I hadn’t been so determined to date my ex’s opposite. I never would have been a parent who could respond to her children’s social and academic anxiety with compassion and understanding. I never would have been able to support my friends without judgment when their lives fell apart. I never would have learned how to engage and really try when the object is genuinely important to me.

I have unpaid bills, holes in my carpets, and missing plaster on my walls. My house will never be on the historical register. I may never be a successful author. My kids will definitely never be entirely “normal.” My middle-age spread has evolved into what might be called a hostile takeover of neighboring space. I frequently forget to floss. In the eyes of the world around me, I am a failure.

When I’m with my husband, it still feels like we’re dating. I still get butterflies in my stomach when he smiles at me. When I talk to my children, I see whole worlds in their eyes that no one else can access but them. When I help an author understand how to tap into a manuscript’s full potential, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment, as well as gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of that process. When I write, I am happy and focused and learn to know myself better. I stretch and challenge and grow.

Being a failure is pretty damn fantastic.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why is Writing so Hard?

My husband, bless him, believes that I’m talented. This means that he has trouble understanding why I haven’t written ten best-sellers already. “Just write it,” he says, blissfully unaware of the challenges that he’s waving aside so dismissively.

He’s not entirely wrong, of course. To write a book, there is a critical requirement that at some point your butt hits a chair and you write it. No matter what your “process” is, at the end of the day you must translate your ideas and imaginings to paper. However, there is a lot more that goes into the creation of a novel than that, and it is often these invisible considerations that make the task so daunting.

1. First, the writer must overcome “I-Suck-itis.” 

The split second that you start listening to that voice in your head that tells you all your ideas are rubbish and your writing is crap, you are done. While an inflated ego is not required, you do have to have at least a whisper of belief that what you write has merit and will appeal to someone out there. Because we all have good days and bad days, a lot of writing time is lost to those moments when we are grappling with self-doubt. Even disciplined writers with daily quotas have been known to meet those quotas by writing about how badly they suck. Often after a bad review or critique.

2. Next, the writer must address the limitations of an idea. 

You want to write a story about the caretaker of a creepy old house who must fight off four trespassing teenagers and a large talking dog? Great. What happens? How does the tension build? How will each character develop? What is the climax? In other words, just coming up with an exciting premise for a book is not the same thing as figuring out the complexities of plot and character that come together to bring that premise to life.

3. The characters. 

Non-writers do not understand that once a character is given life, its creator has about as much control over it as a parent does over a teen-aged daughter’s moods. Frequently, characters wander off in unplottable directions, and the author is left scrambling to catch up. These little surprises can often turn the story outline on its ear, stretching and challenging the writer to come up with new ideas and solutions. This requires a lot of thinking, pacing, and muttering to oneself. Hair-pulling and inarticulate growls can also manifest themselves.

4. Then there’s real life. 

Spouses and children expect to be interacted with on a semi-regular basis. Some attention to hygiene must be paid as well. Phones must be answered, taxes must be filed, and food must be purchased and consumed. Even if a writer were to be able to neglect all these things indefinitely, it would still be a problem, since we must experience these human interactions and activities in order to write realistically. So much inspiration comes from the small moments in our days that becoming a hermit to write a book is a self-defeating tactic.

I would love to be a full-time novelist, but it’s not feasible. Bills must be paid, and working as an editor makes that more likely to happen. When I’m not editing, I still have two special-needs children to tend to (sometimes three, if my husband is having a rough day). I do have a work in progress currently that I’d like to take a determined stab at finishing, so I plan to blog about that process periodically in the hopes that this may give me further insight into my own writing process. Also, I think some readers might find it interesting. Let's see how far my husband's "just write it" approach can get me!