Tag Archives: The Writing Life

This Old House

Fixer Upper
Today we are having some work done on the house.

If you own a home, you know what a scary sentence this is. Strangers invade, banging, sawing, talking in code about things you know will cost more money. Things start, then stop and you’re not sure why. Music you would never listen to is turned up to cover the sarcasm and  pissing contests that ensue. And you have to ride it out. You are at their mercy. You hold your breath, pray to the gods of renovation that in the end it turns out alright. That your bank account is not completely empty and your house settles back to its old self after all the upheaval and violation.

Today I’m surrounded by all the crap in my coat closet so a construction guy can climb into my attic and put in a vent. It’s amazing how much there is in the coat closet besides coats. That’s the other thing that happens when you start these kind of projects. You uncover more. You find something else you’ve been ignoring that really needs attention. Like the hoarding problem you’ve been hiding in the closet. The stockpile of grocery bags you buy so you don’t use plastic but then forget to bring to the store, so you buy more and forget those. The binoculars you thought you would use to look at birds in your yard. The cans of Spray Starch without their tops next to an underutilized iron. And all the board games from the ghost of Christmas Past.

When you write, it’s like this. You are working on something. You bang and saw and go at it. But it just uncovers something else that’s weak or broken or needs attention. And you don’t want to go there. It’s overwhelming. Why can’t you just put the vent in? Why do you need to clean out the closet too? And then fix the leaky faucets and nail in the step into your TV room so no one breaks their neck and figure out why the light over the basement stairs is flickering on and off like Gus the firefly?

Because it’s never finished. Never, ever.

You just keep at it, until, well I don’t know exactly until when. Because I’ve never finished anything. Nothing’s ready to send out. Nothing’s done, or good enough, or safe. I just keep trying to fix the leaky faucet, or more accurately, stick a bucket underneath and leave it for awhile.

OK, enough of this metaphor. But seriously, what do you do when your writing is an endless fixer upper?

 

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Back In My Younger Days

images-3Almost 30 years ago I had a bumper sticker that I pinned on the bulletin board over my desk. It said, “I’d rather be writing my novel.” I never put it on my car, of course, because that would be admitting publicly that I wanted to write a novel. I am still a pretty closeted writer. But today I would pin up a different bumper sticker. It would say, “I’d rather be finished writing my novel.”

That desk was tiny and white and adorned with three periwinkle shells lined up smaller to larger, a Mont Blanc pen given to me by an ex-girlfriend, a black leather journal, a bottle of sparkly fairy dust with a handmade tag that said. “Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.”

I was in love with the idea of being a writer. I was clueless.

Today I have a baby MacBook Air. My desk is the dining room table surrounded by bills, papers, chargers, coffee cups, books, and backpacks. Or it’s in the basement in a semi-finished room that holds more books, boxes of stuff that came off of the dining room table, Aunt Lottie’s cedar chest, a mountain of wrapping paper and gift bags, an ancient filing cabinet, an overwhelmed shredder, and spider webs. Or it’s at Panera Bread or Starbucks. Sometimes it’s even my bed, pillows holding me and the Mac in a precarious balance.

It takes me an hour to write five sentences and I then I hate them. Or I finish a chapter and feel like I’ve won the lottery. Or I set aside time to write and clean out the fridge instead. Or I search and search for the right word and finally find it. Or I don’t.

The bloom is off the rose.

But still, what a rose.

Maybe my bumper sticker should read, “I’d rather be writing my novel because what choice do I have?”

What about you? Is writing a choice or were you born this way?

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Let the Wild Rumpus Start

IMG_7044Post-Halloween post. Photo courtesy of my friend Kathy who, yes, made the costumes herself, and brought a gorgeous veggie lasagne with béchamel sauce for dinner. She is a wonder. Feel free to hate her. The holiday was the usual. There was back story, gluttony, foot pain, a pink foam wig and clip-on earrings, Obama eating at Gregg’s Restaurant (our Gregg’s Restaurant, OMG, he should have got an eclair they’re to die for), ridiculously tiny princesses from Frozen, craft beer in red solo cups, teenagers with no costumes, a ghostbuster stealing cheesecake, cat hair everywhere (and we don’t have a cat) and even some knitting.

How was your night?

But the real story, the wild rumpus this title promised, is taking place today. Right now, right here in Panera Bread as I think about whether or not I can bear to open up my novel and start writing. Or whether I can face the short story I’ve revised a billion times and begin all over. Can I really break myself in half – leave the person that worked all day and Halloweened all night and is facing a weekend of errands and obligations before another work week begins – and get my head in the game? Find the right voice, fix the transition, figure out where I screwed up the point of view, raise the stakes, create tension, use beautiful language and original metaphor, get you to love my characters and follow them to the ends of the earth or at the very least get you to turn the damn page? And can I do all that in the hour and a half I have in this Panera Bread before I have to pick my daughter up from her Tai Chi class?

Believe me, while these people are eating their Asiago bagels the Wild Things are howling all around me. I have always wanted an office. A beautiful room I could write in with floor to ceiling bookshelves, great art, stained glass, colorful pottery, warm braided rugs, a rocking chair, a lovely desk. In fanciful moments I see the ocean outside my windows. But lately when I conjure up this room I put a seatbelt on the chair. I know I’ll have to buckle myself in for the turbulence.

Years ago I took a writing workshop with Randall Kenan, an amazing man and writer. I probably have mentioned him here before. He told me then that if I wanted to be a writer, nothing could stop me. But there’s a caveat; you have to do the work. You have to strap on that belt and put in the time. You have to learn the craft. And most times I feel like a total fake. I’m just swinging that bat around getting a lucky hit now and then. I haven’t given craft the time and attention that it needs. I have only half-assed studied this thing I am trying to do. I know just enough to be dangerously ignorant.

If you sit in a Panera Bread and lament such things you know you are doomed to try anyway. You know the struggle will rage on as it has over the years. The good news is there are others out there, raging on along with you, strapped in their chairs, howling and gnashing their teeth. They know what it’s like to be caught between two worlds, trying so hard to write stories that, like the boy King, will be loved best of all.

It’s an act of faith really, the closest thing to religion I have these days. To open the laptop and hit the keys, put words down and tell stories. I feel blind, tired, sick, weary. But I can’t stop. I am a Wild Thing, after all.

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Ashes to Ashes

dusty houseWow. Look at this shabby old blog. I haven’t been here since December last year. When I tried to get on I got kicked off for using the wrong password. It is dusty and rusty around here, let me tell you. How do you add an image? Why is this font so small?

But the hell with it. Today the spirit moved me. In part because Betsy Lerner published her 1,000th blog post today and is writing a new book. I’m a shameless fan. Would bring her bagels every morning and dust the books in her library and walk her cat for her, but not in a creepy way.

And, I have plunged into a new writing program at Grub Street in Boston called The Novel Generator. I meet weekly with fourteen other lost souls to learn craft, to agonize, to workshop pages, and at the end of a nine month gestation period, to pop out a 360 page draft of a novel.

The instructor, Lisa Borders, must have a tool bag of superpowers (or a thermos of dry martinis) to get her through this undertaking. We are like a box of eager, hungry puppies vying for affection and food. Take me, adopt, me, listen to me, read me, love me. And yet we are warm and affable and so damn sincere and cute. We want to please and do this writing thing and be good at it. We can barely contain ourselves with nerves and insecurity and happiness. Thank God I have landed there because I have been in the desert for ages. Believe me, I am choking on sand trying to write around here. Even the computer is like, girl, you think you can just come back and type up on me?

I have no idea if anyone will read this thing – if it will show up again in your email or RSS feed or on Instagram or in some X-ray. But I think it is time. Writing winds are blowing. Shit is stirring up. Just a quick warning. Some of it may land on you.

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Sometimes a Cigar

warhol20freud1Last night I had a dream that Betsy Lerner recruited me to join a baseball team of wannabe writers she was putting together. The team was called Midlife Crisis. A few of us were huddled around a small student desk in a ratty classroom trying to decide what position we should play and tossing around ideas for uniform colors. That’s it. I woke up feeling anxious and needing to pee.

Pretty weird, right? In my defense, the heat here on the East Coast is disintegrating my brain cells and to counteract I had a big bowl of Rhode Island Lighthouse Coffee Ice Cream smothered in butterscotch sauce before going to bed. So bad for me on so many levels but again in my defense I do live in Rhode Island and I am a big fan of lighthouses.

But back to the dream. Of course, who wouldn’t want to be recruited by Betsy Lerner to do something – to do anything? I don’t stalk her but that’s just because I’m lazy. As for baseball, I would suck at this, which is (duh) my fear about writing. Don’t get me wrong, I know all the rules – my father was a Little League coach throughout my entire childhood and while girls couldn’t play at the time (dating myself here) I attended almost every game dragging along a cooler full of sodas for the boys, memorizing my father’s bizarre hand signals, and keeping up a steady banter of He’s a wiffer, Good hustle, and Battabattabatta. Then I went to college and lived in Red Sox Nation for years and now I’m married to a Yankees fan. And while watching baseball on TV makes fuzz grow on my teeth, I love the sound of a game as background noise on a hot summer’s day while I’m reading a book and drinking mint infused iced tea. So I know baseball. But could I actually play baseball? Never. Just like I know writing, but can I actually write? How obvious can this dream get?!

As for the name of our team, that’s another big duh. Might as well stamp that on my forehead. I think the fact that we were in a classroom and not at a ball field is pretty telling – I often think I should have gone for that ubiquitous MFA but I was always too chicken shit. And my dream job, my dream life actually, would be to write and to teach writing. As for the discussion about uniform colors, well, I guess a girl has to look good no matter what she does.

So there it is, my writing dream. Not exactly earth shattering but at least it got me up an writing this morning. How about you? Had any writing dreams lately?

 

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The Truth Is, I Never Left You

girl with bookWhy do you write?

Have you heard this questions asked of authors in Paris Review or Huffington Post interviews, on reruns of Oprah when she gushed over writers, at readings in bookstores with creaky wooden floors, in a go around at a writing workshop where everyone is sharing stories of their writing like they were talking about their exes? Have you watched Stephen King, Alice Walker, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, or some other living legend wax poetic about it on You Tube? Have you asked yourself this in the light of a blank computer screen washing over your oily skin and bloodshot eyes at 3 AM on a weeknight when you have to be out the door for work in another 4 hours? Or at a writing conference with a throng of eager, caffeine-hyped, buzzing, hungry wannabes moving through a hotel hallway to the next session like a swarm of locusts? Or when you reread your journal from 9th grade and realize you’ve been writing about the same issues in the same crapy handwriting for 20, 30 , 40 years? Or at the end (middle, beginning) of a book that makes you salivate and ignore your children and takes your ever loving breath away?

I have tried to answer this question for myself many times but find it nearly impossible to come up with something that doesn’t sound self-indulgent, idiotic or plagiarized. So I’ve started asking myself another question:

Who are you writing for?

Sometimes, like that little boy in The Sixth Sense, I write for dead people. For my mother who was already seeping into my stories before she died and now shows up all the time. For relatives I hardly knew whose lives I have to reconstruct from scattered memories, old photos, overheard gossip. For a few whose suicides have left a hole in the world I would like to fill.

Sometimes I write for my high school classmates so I can attend a reunion with my Pulitzer Prize and my Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. By then most of them will be dead so they will fit into the first category as well.

Sometimes I write for other writers I adore so they will move their collective butts over and say, let this one sit at our table.

But mostly, I write for this girl I know. She is 11, maybe 12. Her hair is straight and cut poorly, bangs falling over the top of thick tortoise shell glasses like a curtain. She wears an oversized sweatshirt – crewneck collar, gunmetal green – it looks like something a janitor would wear. Her body is big, awkward, slumped over in her chair. Her eyebrows are thick, knitting together in a look of confusion, alarm, angst. She is holding a book, and it is the place she goes to be free of everything – her body, her family, her small unremarkable circumstances. This girl is trapped. Paralyzed in a photograph. Voiceless. One of these days, I am going to get her out of there. I am going to find her another way to be free. But meantime, I keep writing. Waiting. Hoping.

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Some Nights I Wish That My Lips Could Build A Castle

Velveteen RabbitIt’s time for me to grow up and become a real writer. This, as you all know, is easier said than done. I’ve been acting a bit little like the Velveteen Rabbit, waiting around for the Nursery Fairy to make me real. But over the past two months I’ve felt a shift inside. I’ve been reading differently. I’ve been watching authors on YouTube talk about their writing. I’ve been taking notes and underlining sentences. I’ve been reading blogs and on-line journals. I’ve been paying attention.

It’s not that I haven’t done all this before, but I am absorbing things in a different way. I am committing myself to the experience. And I am taking complete responsibility for being a nobody. I have never sent anything out for publication and I am never going to unless I become deliberate. Unless I make a plan.

Because what will I do when the day comes and some publishing mogul says, I love your novel and will publish it right away – send us your bio.

My bio?

Uhm…well. OK. My bio.

Let’s see.

M.E. works at a day job to pay the mortgage, chauffeurs her kids around to school activities and events, blogs about random crap once in a blue moon, and sometimes writes in the doctor’s waiting room when the magazines suck.

So I’ve been looking at bios. People who publish seem to have lists of places they’ve published, degrees that actually have to do with writing, jobs teaching writing, and a whole lot of stuff that relates to, you guessed it, writing. It ranges from MFAs to Community College creative writing gigs, to first place in a Glimmer Train contest, to a Flash Fiction piece in a two-day old e-zine, to studying with Robert McKee for 10 years, to starting their own lit mag, to winning awards like a PEN or 5 under 75 (wait, that’s my fantasy, I think it’s really 5 under 35. Rats.), to making a grilled cheese sandwich for Joyce Carol Oates. These people have bios, people! Real bios.

So I’m going to build a bio. This means setting the novel aside for awhile and pummeling, I mean editing a few short stories and sending them out somewhere. It’s time to take the plunge. It’s time to toughen up, do the work, or as Seth Godin says, ship the damn thing. My goal – three publications somewhere. Two can be anywhere and one should be somewhere I might have heard of.

I think it’s a solid goal. I think it’s worth shooting for. I think, maybe I think this, I think I can do it. Progress, yes?

How’s your bio?

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