Less Than I Thought

What do you need to write? Ideas? A certain space? A block of time? Quiet? Solitude? Physical comfort? An Internet connection? A writing group? An MFA? What if you don’t have what you think is essential? Are you dead in the water?

I used to think I needed some of these things. Now I know there is only one requirement: the decision to write. If I have that, everything else follows. I can write in the middle of a crowded room, with a bad pen on stray pieces of scrap paper, wearing a scratchy shirt. When the commitment is made, there’s some switch in my brain that takes it to a whole other place, separate from whatever else is calling to me. Sure, there is a minimal level of comfort or peace of mind required. I doubt I’d be able to write if my house were on fire, or while having my cat put to sleep. But, for me, it turns out that, 99 percent of the time, what I need is pretty minimal. Decision. Commitment. Action. Not even faith is needed. Because the end result, whether publication, recognition, or improved skill, doesn’t matter at this point. Those goals may come later. But they won’t be possible if I don’t, or can’t, initiate that first act. My job as a writer is to make that decision frequently. Maybe every day. Maybe even several times a day. If I make that one simple decision, I have a chance for all the rest. If I don’t, then, that’s when I’m dead in the water. If I have not made that decision, I can sit in the best writing space in the world, with all the solitude and tools I want, and still, nothing will happen. What those other conditions can do, at least a little, is to help make the fundamental decision automatic.  A particular space or time or writer’s group meeting can be a trigger. But in the end, the decision comes from some hidden, mysterious place inside of myself. And in the end, that’s all I need.

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Oh, Really?

I can’t work at a messy desk. I need to relax with a few games of FreeCell before I get started. This email is way overdue. Just let me throw in a load of laundry. Need to make that dentist appointment. If I don’t get this birthday card in the mail, it won’t get there in time. It will only take a minute.

My mind is very creative when it comes to making excuses, finding distractions, justifying work delays. It’s a daily battle, between my writing goals and my reluctance to start typing.

And yet–sometimes it’s not that hard. When I forget myself, my ego, the possible outcomes. When I can see large projects in the tiniest of segments. One segment that I did two days ago was simply to photocopy a quote I want to use in my latest work-in-progress. Maybe that was all I could get done that day, but it moved the work forward, however incrementally. Greg Louganis said, “Focus on skills, not results.” Whatever it takes to trick my mind into taking action, I’m all for. Good habits help. Opening up a blank document and writing even one word helps. Sometimes writing something else helps. But I’m pretty sure all those other things in that first paragraph above don’t help. They drain my mental and physical energy, and all of a sudden, whoops, it’s time to make lunch. So, I’ve learned to do it first, “it” being the writing, or at least some tiny smidge of writing. Like Mark Twain said, “The secret to getting ahead is to get started.”

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The First Obstacle

My handwriting is terrible. Even when I try. Even when I slow down. Even on a good surface. It’s one of the reasons I did not want to write directly in the oral history book my niece sent me. Now that I’m back to working on a major project, it’s the cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth. That’s because back when I started this project, I wrote down all the initial drafts and notes on legal pads or in notebooks or on other oddments of paper. Now I’m confronted with the necessity of transcribing them all into Word. I puzzle over unidentifiable scrawls. I try to capture my thoughts by the context of the surrounding words, or by remembering what mood I was in when I wrote them several years ago. I try out different possibilities. What could this word conceivably have been? Point? Print? Pout? I get up and walk around, hoping the break will be enough of a refreshment to bring it all back. Sometimes that even works.

Here’s the thing. This bad habit has created problems for me my whole life. I jot things down in the most haphazard way, because I overestimate my ability to interpret them later. I’m glib about my brain’s talent for recall. I’m quite sure “I’ll remember what I mean.” Or, “a key work or two is all I need.” Worst of all, “I’ll be typing this up shortly, while it’s still fresh in my mind.” No, no and no. Stray words that at one time encapsulated the next brilliant story, essay or poem, somehow show up later, lacking all memory of what triggered them. What on earth did I mean by “ballpoint” or “fitted sheet” or “pigeonhole.”

Every time I’m faced with this pattern and the distress it causes, I vow to change. To take more care to flesh out thoughts when I have them. To glance back at what words I’ve dashed down and quickly re-write any that are already illegible two seconds after I’ve written them. So far, I’ve never learned. So, back to my tedious, frustrating, and perhaps inaccurate transcription. I can only have faith that in the end, the effort will be worth it.

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Before You Know It

I’m not the only one. I’m not the only writer who is struggling to write during these unusual times. I see the posts on the various writer forums I belong to. Of course, some of those folks don’t have that problem. They keep chugging right along, or even find the current conditions in the world an actual nourishing environment for their work. And if I’m honest, I was already in a bit of a slump. That happens from time to time and I’ve always pulled out of it. But this was going on longer than normal. And I didn’t know what to do. All my old tricks weren’t working.

My niece had sent me one of those do it yourself memoir books. They contain questions about your past, experiences, relationships, possessions. They are intended to record your life history for your grandkids or other family. There are a bunch of these on the market, but this is the one she chose. I had been dragging my feet getting started. My handwriting is terrible. I hated to mess up such pristine pages. But the biggest obstacle was that the answer to so many questions simply would not fit in the space allowed and something in me balked at simplifying them to the point of what I thought was shallowness or meaninglessness.

So, I decided to ignore the book itself and use the questions to create long personal essays and accounts in response to the queries. The queries were in fact engaging writing prompts. I began spending a few minutes each morning creating, fleshing out and editing these little pieces. As I did so, something happened. The words flowed. With no editorial judgement, no deadlines, no comparison with other writers, I once again was awash in the pure joy of writing. Constructing sentences and paragraphs. Choosing the perfect detail. Expressing myself on the page.

And then the next thing happened. I began to remember snippets of my other work. Ideas I had wanted to develop. Projects half finished. Works in inventory that I might take another look at. I began to long to get back to my own work. Work I cared about and still had faith in. I picked one, a major project that I had barely started, but wanted to get back to. At first, I would do a little of each. A bit of an essay for the personal history, then a page or two of my project. However, I was drawn more and more by an urge to make headway on that long-neglected piece, and work on that project has now supplanted the personal history book. (I promise, I’ll get back to it.)

This is inarguable proof that the process works. If you’re stuck, write. Just write anything. Anything that you care about, or that amuses you, or that you feel needs saying. Write for the love of writing. Write without self-judgement, without thinking of the end result or where this is going. Writing begets writing. Any writing exercises the writing muscles, builds the writing habit, develops the writing skills, and reminds and reassures yourself that you are a writer, no matter what doubts you may have or how far from that self you have drifted. Before you know it, you’re baaaack. I’m back, too.

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Neighbor to Neighbor

I’ve written more than once about Little Free Libraries. My neighborhood is in a warm, dry climate, with an engaged community, so we have dozens of these free standing tiny display boxes with books and magazines to share and exchange. But lately, there’s been a new trend. The owners are often sharing additional items as well, perhaps, or perhaps not,  inspired by the current health crisis. Some examples:

chef boyardee

A can of cooked pasta and sauce


A selection of yarmulkes


A Darth Vader piggy bank

Of course, since these little “homes” are so small, you won’t find anything like a lawn chair or child’s bike. But, in addition to the intended use of sharing literary finds, it’s fun to see what else these installations might offer. The next time I visited these particular ones, the non-book items had all been claimed. By someone. Not me, but someone. Have I myself benefited from any non-book finds? Well, there was that package of whole wheat linguini. . .







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Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

abacuSometimes I wish I were an accountant. I’m actually good with numbers. So, I could have been, back when I was supposedly “choosing” a career. But nooooo, I had to do something with more romance, more cachet. Like being a writer. But man, I sometimes envy accountants, bookkeepers, actuaries and the like. After all, the numbers either add up, or they don’t. If they don’t, there are various tricks and techniques to help you figure out the glitch. Then, AHA, problem solved. Numbers are not subjective. There’s no judgement from them or from an unseen “editor.” You never have a bunch of fellow accountants sitting around a table, making suggestions on how they would add up the numbers if it was their balance sheet. There’s never a need to stare at figures and wonder, is there a more accurate, more descriptive number, the way I sometimes agonize over word choice. It’s either the correct number or not. And numbers, too, can tell a story. The dwindling totals in a bank account. The set number of days between exposure and symptoms. The timelines that don’t add up, revealing gaps in an alibi. And bankers can be detectives. See Emma Lathen‘s John Putman Thatcher novels.

But I didn’t. I coulda, and maybe I shoulda. But bottom line, there is no woulda. I would never have given up my writing for another career. Not that any of us really has to choose. Lots of writers have, or had other careers. Cops, lawyers, university faculty, news reporters, social workers, longshoremen. Mine was community college librarian, a path that suited me, in which I made a contribution, and which served me well. But still. The clarity, the simplicity, the transparency of numbers will never lose their appeal for me. But then, neither will words.

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new floor and catI recently had new flooring installed in the upper level of my townhouse. This involved moving everything out of every room including the closets. I mean everything. Clothes, books, papers, small furnishings, the entire office setup. I was able to leave a few major pieces of furniture in place, namely the beds and one empty bookcase, which the installers were willing to maneuver around. As always, even though I had been on a weeding binge for several months leading up to the project, there was still a ton of stuff to deal with. The installers took two days for the job, but the staircase and landing were being recarpeted in a different material, which was backordered. They had to return the following week to finish the job. I couldn’t have been luckier, as they finished, literally, the day before the “stay-at-home” orders were broadcast. Now I have all the time in the world to put everything back in place. I can do it in a thoughtful, mindful way.

Having all the leisure to reassemble the rooms is like a reboot for my upstairs life. Not as much an upheaval as actually moving, it’s still an opportunity not ot be wasted. I have the time to reconsider each item. Do I really want this? Would this be better relocated to another part of the house? Can I arrange the furniture some other way? Does anything need to be mended before being put away? It was a chance to see everything in a new way.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, there was a pause in some of the mental aspects of my life as well. Having new flooring and the new “look” it created also caused a sort of reboot in my emotional life. And consequently, I felt an accompanying “reboot” of my writing life. Packing up all my chaotic “notes,” clearing off the bulletin board, seeing a completely clear desk for the first time since I brought it into the house, made me take a fresh look at my writing practice. Are these the projects I really want to pursue? Is this an opportunity to change up my writing routine–for the better? Have there been distractions in my writing space that I can now see for what they are and move to another space? Are there resources and knowledge I’ve been putting off pursuing? Is it time to ease into that super challenging major work I’ve been putting off?

It seems that a fresh look, or fresh start in one area leads to a fresh look at related or even completely unrelated areas. Like when you get a new haircut, you have the urge to buy new clothes. Or maybe it’s just all part of the same process or mindset.  I think it’s always healthy to take a break now and then. These days, we can’t do it with a vacation, even a day trip. But I stumbled into this option. Maybe there’s one for you, too, during this time of “pause” in the rest of life.



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Spring Cleaning

spring cleaningI’m lucky. I’ve always been a bit of a homebody, so extra time at home during these highly unusual circumstances doesn’t weigh on me as much as I know it does on others.  Besides, there are all those sometimes boring, sometimes just challenging, chores that I never get around to because it’s hard to fit them in during the normal course of life and work. Sometimes, in order to do certain things, I feel like I need a substantial block of time without interruptions, which I rarely get–until now. Maybe you’re in the same boat. One way to use the time effectively ( other than plugging away on that WIP) is to refurbish your website or blog. Here’s what I’m doing:

  1.  learning new features, functionalities, skills, techniques.
  2.  checking links to make sure they’re still active and accurate
  3.  previewing new color schemes and themes that might punch up my blog.
  4.  uploading pictures that I took years ago, intending them for possible new headers, but never actually trying them out.
  5. revisiting older (I mean old) blog posts to see if I can update, or rewrite them to create new posts.
  6.  re-writing my bio page, since it was never very good to begin with and I’ve accomplished a ton of stuff since then.

These are all tasks that I tend to put off because they’re tedious, not urgent, or I just plain forget about them most of the time. Of course, there’s always more to do, both with writing and with the household. But for me, this is an opportunity too good to waste. So, be safe, my friends, fellow readers and writers. I’m wishing the best for all of you.


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We, Readers

blitzI love this picture of London during the Blitz. These diehard readers didn’t have to cope with “safer at home.” But they still were under grave stress and the chance of very real physical attack from the German Luftwaffe. Yet, they couldn’t, or wouldn’t stay away from their favorite bookstore. These days, we readers are luckier than those were. We can order books through mail order, get ebooks from paid sources or through our libraries, and listen to audio books. Of course, if you’re like me, you had a ton of books piled up anyway. In fact, since all the libraries hereabouts have suspended operations, they have also stopped all returning of library materials, and extended the due dates uniformly till some future date. Right now, it’s June 1, but it could go longer. This is a real boon to me, since I had, at the time of the freeze, way more books checked out than I could possibly have finished in the normal time allowed, even with renewals. This is on top of the hundreds of currently unread books on my shelves and several audio books queued up. But if you’re still in need, here’s my new favorite mail order bookseller: https://bookshop.org. And over at the Writers Who Kill blog, there is an entire post that lists non-Amazon booksellers. I’m only passing on this information, as I heard somewhere that Amazon was giving priority to essential products during this time of crisis, as well they should, causing some delays in orders for books and the like. So, whether you’re reading something light, to ease your mind, or something harrowing, to distract you from the present situation, you have plenty of choices and plenty of company. I wish you all safe and healthy reading.

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I’m Not Sure I Can Do This

theatreI don’t think I can go negative in public. In these posts, I always want to be positive, encouraging and supportive of my fellow writers. So, I hate to be critical. I know how hard writing is. Plus, in this case, no one is asking for my feedback. But here it is, anyway.

I saw a one-woman show a few days ago. I’ve seen many one-women or one-man shows over the years and most of them were outstanding. Even those slightly less stellar still left me envious of the quality of writing and the courage to perform them. But this last one, well . . .

Basically the show was a series of events and incidents from the author’s life strung together. Other than chronology, there was no organizing principle. There was no overall theme tying them together. She made a stab at presenting a thesis at the beginning and the end, but the part in between didn’t flow organically from the ostensible motif she attempted to develop. They were just, you know, anecdotes. I won’t give specifics. I would never in a million years hurt this woman’s feelings. She performed well, the accompanying graphics and music were spot on. But, let’s say you and your friends and family are all sitting around after a nice meal. One person tells a story about how a few days ago he lost his keys! But, guess what, after some searching, his found them. Then everybody else chimes in with stories about things they lost and found. It’s a fun way to bond over shared glitches in life. You care because you already care about these people. But in the end, the response is “so what?’ Is there a point? No. Do the stories have impact? are they memorable? do we learn anything? No. My first writing teacher, in fact, called these “so what? stories.”

The entire one-woman show was a string of these “so what?” anecdotes. Amusing, self-deprecating, with lots of concrete details, but there was no insight, no growth of character, no struggle, and thus no chance of a satisfying resolution. This woman put a lot of work into this performance. But it fell flat. Sad. Here’s the thing, though. It was a clear demonstration of what I must guard against in my own work.  There has to be a reason for the reader to care, to keep reading, to stay engaged, to care about the characters and what happens to them. I learn about my craft in many ways. I’m grateful for all of them, even this one. It’s a reminder of what I must not do. A reminder to dig deeper, to take risks, to put it out there. It was an object lesson in one of the reasons a piece of written work might fail.

Usually we don’t get to see the failures in the work of others. Editors and other gate-keepers stop them from being published. We might see them in a critique group or workshop. But my task is to spot them in my own work. Then, fix ’em or toss ’em.

Okay. I went negative. I hope I don’t have to do it again.

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