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Sometimes I just get stuck. Dead in the water. Any creativity I might have had has vamoosed. Many things help, but the one thing I can count on never to fail is a change of scene. And I don’t mean moseying from the den to the kitchen. So I took the opportunity of Bouchercon being held in Florida to combine it with a trip to my sister’s farm in North Florida. It’s a whole different lifestyle, an entirely different atmosphere. My sister and brother-in-law and their family raise goats, miniature donkeys and miniature horses. The sounds, the smells, the rhythms of the farm are primordially soothing. But also, since I live in Southern California, the rain, the lush greenery, the rivers and ponds were extremely refreshing. With that and with what I learned and who I met at Bouchercon, I came home with new ideas, more energy and renewed enthusiasm for my work. Let’s hope it lasts.

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The Only Fix

girl writingI’ve been wanting to bring out a second edition of my book of poetry, Fault Lines. I needed to correct some typos, update the bio, and add some credits to the “Acknowledgements.” Most importantly, the first edition, brought out by a local micro press which has since closed up shop, was not available online. That just won’t do these days. My friend Jo recommended a formatter, as I’m not quite up to doing it myself. All I had to do was send her the manuscript and cover art. But when I opened the Word document, I was dismayed to find that somehow all the front matter had disappeared. So, now, in addition to correcting the issues I was aware of, I will have to recreate both the table of contents and the information on the verso of the title page. It could have been much worse, of course. The entire manuscript lost or garbled. I got off easy

When I was in college, one of our dormmates came to the room I shared with Hannah. She had a five-page paper due the next day, and only had three pages written. She was stuck, couldn’t think of anything else to add. Meeting the page minimums was a problem for a lot of us. We commiserated with her for a while and then she meandered off. Once the door closed behind her, Hannah, a very astute woman, even at 18, turned to me and said, “There’s only one answer. Go back and grind out another two pages.” Gosh, that applies to so many things in life. So, I’ll just open the Word file and, step by step, (or Bird by Bird, as Anne Lamott would say) recreate the lost material. No short cuts, no tricks. Just one more example of “butt-in-chair.”

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Neither a Borrower . . .

borrowI’ve never confessed this to anyone–until now. Decades ago, I borrowed a book from a friend. She was adamant that she wanted it back. She even wrote her name, address and phone number inside the front cover. Yet, I never returned it. Never. I’ve been wracked with guilt ever since. Why didn’t I return it? I never got around to reading it. As more and more time went by, I got more and more embarrassed about how much time had gone by. We lost touch. Then I moved away, packing the book up with all my other stuff. Wanting to avoid any recurrence of that guilt is one of the reasons I rarely borrow books from other people. Only from libraries. Another reason is the sense of obligation I feel as soon as the book is in my hands, the sense that I must read this book and no other, just so I can hurry it back to its owner. I’m not comfortable with the weight of that burden. I’m also afraid I’ll damage it. Once I borrowed a mystery from a friend. Brand new hardback with a dust jacket. I read it right away without any mishaps. But, just as I was putting it in the car to return to her, I accidentally put the tiniest tear in the dust jacket. I felt awful. She, of course, was forgiving. But I was full of chagrin. She had entrusted me with this possession, and here’s how I treated it. Yes, I know I’m a bit extreme about this, but because I am, it’s safer for me not to take the chance.

On the other hand, if I lend a book, it’s never really a lend. Since I know there’s a good chance I won’t get it back, I let it go.  Even if I haven’t read it yet, I say, “oh, just take it. Don’t worry about giving it back.” I don’t want that burden myself, so I won’t obligate anyone else. If it’s something I must keep, I won’t lend it in the first place. And when I do borrow, I try to be very clear. “Do you want this back?” I give myself a two-week time limit. Read or return. No exceptions. No guilt. And no more packing up and leaving town with other people’s books.

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Rediscovering the Joy

joySometimes I just get burnt out. Or stuck. Or bored. With my writing, I mean. My projects are bogged down, I don’t know how to fix problems, the original idea seems lame. Writing is not fun. Well, of course not. Writing is hard. So you have to have some spark of interest if you’re gonna keep doing it. How do you get that? Or how do you get it back, since we’ve all had it at one time, else we wouldn’t be doing this at all.

I thought back to when I wrote my first poem when I was 9 years old. An idea came to me. I rushed to my room and scratched down several verses of doggerel. I’ve never been so excited. Here was something I created that had never existed before. I think until that moment, I didn’t realize people actually wrote things, like the books  and magazines I read. The grownups were talking around the kitchen table, and every time I added another verse, I raced into the kitchen and read it to them. They could barely control their enthusiasm. I’M KIDDING. My mother alone paused in the conversation long enough to give a distracted nod and a “that’s nice, honey.” The others barely noticed the interruption, if at all. Upon which I ran back to my room to continue my masterpiece. Anybody else’s disinterest simply didn’t register. I was on fire with the pure joy of creation. I wasn’t thinking about “audience.” I had never heard the work “market.” I didn’t know that editors even existed. I was alive with the pure energy creation. I needed to recapture that.

I bought a new spiral bound notebook, just for this. Here, I write whatever I want, solely for myself. Whatever incident, memory, character or puzzlement I’ve encountered that day gets recorded while it’s still fresh and interesting. I don’t care if anything comes of it (although I’ve already roughed out a story based on my notations). I’m just writing for me, for pure pleasure. For the sheer energy of creation. No aim, no judgement. All joy.

Let me do this for a while. Soon, the other urges will return. The need to polish, shape, sharpen and share. There’s plenty of pleasure to be had in those activities, too. But the joy of creation must come first. Seems to me.

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No Telling

don't sayjWe writers know all about keeping quiet about our work, or at least our works in progress. We know that talking about them too soon discharges the energy and excitement we need to keep pressing on till we at least finish the first draft. But lately, I’ve come to realize there other reasons for shutting up, even when, or especially when, non-writers ask us how our work is going. These people mean well, of course. And at least they ask, which often is not the case. Still, it can be a disheartening experience. A few of the most egregious responses go like this:

Them: What are you working on? Me: I’m writing about how my cat would. . .  Them: Oh, I used to love having cats. I can’t now in my apartment, but talking to you brings back so many wonderful memories, like when . . . .

Them: What are you working on? Me: I’m writing about how I know when my cat is about to throw up and how I rush over there with a newspaper, hoping to . . . Them: You want to know the best way to get up pet stains? I can tell you if you want. Here’s watcha do. . .

Them: What are you working on? Me: I’m working on a piece about a cat who . . . Them: Ha! You should write about my cat. I tell you it would be a best seller. Maybe I can tell you the stories and you can write them up and we’ll both get rich.

Them: What are you working on? Me: I’m writing about my cat who. . . Them: Forget it. Cats are all over YouTube. The market is saturated.

Them: What are you working on? Me. I’m writing a story about a cat who. . . Them: Yeah, I know somebody else who’s doing that. Maybe you two should get together. I’ll bet you could get lots of tips.

Solution: Them: What are you working on? Me: Oh, I have a few things in the hopper. I’ll let you know if anything pans out. And what have you been up to?

This almost always works. If you’re skillful, they won’t even realize you never answered their question. You’re safe. Until next time.


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Harder Than I Thought

hard workI mentioned a while back that I had a story accepted for an upcoming anthology. So far, so good. Then the editor sent to all the contributors her comments and suggestions for improvements, fixes and edits. I was pleased that she only had three minor issues with my manuscript. It should have been simple and quick to address them. But it wasn’t. What should have taken a few days, even hours, took weeks. Why was it so hard? When the coordinator sent around reminders for the deadline for the edits, some of the other contributors sent group emails saying things like “oh, I did them right away and sent them right back.” What did they know that I didn’t? Okay, a couple of them were far more accomplished writers than I am, so maybe because of their greater experience it was easier for them. But, still, it seemed like I was having more trouble than I should have. I finally got them done, and several days before the deadline. But what could I learn to make it smoother next time? One thing I realized was that I had worked long and hard on this story. I had worked so hard, made everything as perfect as I could. I had had critiques and beta readers. Had done revision after revision. I had gotten the story as perfect as I could make it. Therefore, when I saw the editors suggestions, it was hard for me to see how the story could possibly be made better. It was already as perfect as I was capable of making it. So, for the first few days, I gave up. But of course, I couldn’t let that situation stand. Another thing: I had lived with the story for so long, every word seemed firmly stuck in place. I had a hard time seeing the words any other way. They were frozen in my consciousness just the way they were. It was like they existed already in some eternal universe of fiction, never to be changed. The third issue, and by far the hardest to conquer, was that once given the chance, the temptation to make a boatload of other changes–meaning what I thought were “improvements,” was hard to resist. This sounds like it contradicts what I said earlier about the story seeming perfect. But what I was now looking at were changes that I wanted, not ones the editor had requested. However, I feared that in making those changes, I would only open myself up to more negative feedback from the editor. So I resisted the urge.

hard work 2Finally I was able to buckle down. I picked what I thought was the easiest thing to fix. Turned out it wasn’t, but I had to start somewhere. One item turned out to be easier than I thought. I realized I could just delete the offending sentence, without any loss of meaning. After the three changes were made, naturally, I re-read the whole piece obsessively, before sending it off. It was a relief. Also, I do believe that the exercise will help me become a better editor, whether on my own, or in response to change requests from other editors in the future. I read a quote recently that applies. “Progress is in the pursuit.” Yep.

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Why Read? II

book club 2In my last post, I argued one of the reasons for reading was for companionship. I meant in the sense that when you are engrossed in a good book, it’s almost impossible to feel lonely. But there is another sense in which we read for companionship. While at first glance reading looks like a solitary pursuit, it actually isn’t. Reading is one of most common and delightful methods of forming connections with other people. It’s like the old cliché about “water cooler conversations” the morning after a big sporting or other event on TV. People everywhere bond over books.

book club drinksAnd it’s not just book clubs, although those are many and active. (Turns out some are just excuses to get together, have dinner and drink wine. Nothing wrong with that, either!) One of the first things people often do when visiting someone else’s home for the first time is scan their bookshelves to see what they read. Then you say, “oh, hey, I read that. What did you think?” Or, “I was thinking about reading this. Is it worth it?” Most people liked to be asked their opinions. A conversation blooms. We bond over the contents, but also the activity itself. I’ve been known to interrupt people reading alone in a restaurant to ask how they liked that particular book. I try to be selective, but most people I’ve approached have been pleased to have a short chat and share their responses, to add other titles and to ask me for ideas.  Then we both go our own ways, after having those few moments of human connection. When meeting someone new, if you have nothing else in common, you can almost always find some book to mention.

The people in my Trivia group are heavily into sharing books and suggestions. Okay, we meet in a bookstore, so maybe that’s no surprise. While not all of the players are readers, the ones who are find each other. And to me, when I have house guests and we are all sitting around the living room, each quietly reading after a hard day of sightseeing, it creates a deep feeling of peaceful togetherness. Solitary? Not in the least.


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Why Read?

bookMore specifically, why read books? Why do I even ask this? If you follow this blog, you’re likely an avid reader, of darn near everything. I still want to offer some reasons. For information, of course. For entertainment, naturally. But also:

For history. Authors such as Alison Weir, Bernard Cornwell and Tracy Chevalier are committed to accuracy in their historical novels. One favorite of mine is The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks.

For therapy. A friend of mine was anxiously awaiting the results of a biopsy. She discovered Whitethorn Woods, by Maeve Binchy. This tale of basically decent people, being there for each other and facing life’s difficulties, gave her hope and emotional soothing during the dark hours of night. (The biopsy showed only benignity.)

For healing. This is especially true of memoir, especially if you are recovering from similar experiences to what the writer has endured and survived. But when my wonderful husband died, I found great comfort in Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. While not a memoir, it related the stories of many other people facing end of life issues. It was comforting to me to feel that connection to every other human being, as we all do, or will, face this inevitable end.

For company: There’s that saying, “Book lovers never go to bed alone.” I can honestly say, I never have.


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Wait, What?

reading glassesI had some minor eye surgery a few weeks ago. Pre-op and post-op instructions were clear, manageable and complete. No driving, bending. lifting anything over 20 pounds, all the usual stuff. But there was one HUUUGE exception. They didn’t tell me I wouldn’t be allowed to read for 24 hours. Or work on the computer. They told me this only AFTERWARDS. Why on earth would they not mention something so crucial? At least crucial to me. They probably had no idea they were dealing with someone who has a reading addiction. There was nothing like that on the pre-op questionnaire. Some of my friends didn’t get why I was so devastated. I could still watch TV, right? And it’s only for 24 hours. Easy for them to say. Look, if I’m alone and unoccupied, it’s hard for me to go 24 minutes without access to something to read. I’m the kind of person who ALWAYS has something to read. You know, just in case. Just in case the doctor is running late. Just in case traffic is light and I get where I’m going way early. Just in case I have, for whatever reason, a few minutes to kill. If I don’t need it, so what? Carrying a small book, magazine, or an e-book is a minor extra in my tote bag. If I forget to bring something, I start to fret. I read while waiting for the previews to start at the movies. I read during commercial breaks on TV. (Okay, maybe I’m a little cuckoo.)

I got through it, of course. My wonderful friends called me so I could pass the time in long telephone conversations. But here’s the thing: if I had known ahead of time, I could have prepared. With an audio book or podcast ready to go at the push of a button, or rather a tap on the screen. Well, I won’t be caught short again. And I now have a set of quality earbuds to prove it.

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New On The Blog

new skills2On someone else’s blog a few days ago, a commenter said he wanted to re-blog the post, but didn’t know how. He went on to say that that would be his new goal, to learn how to do that–in effect, to learn a new skill. That’s so often one of my goals also, to learn how to do something new or different, with my blog, but also in other areas of life. Could be on the piano, in word processing, or house-keeping. Life hacks really do make a difference.

While my latest update to the blog is not really a new skill, it’s something I’ve needed to do for a long time. I’ve added a poetry page where you can read a few of my published poems. Most of my poetry is in print-only journals and not easily available. But as new ones come in that are accessible online, I can add them to the page. I hope you give it a look. You can see it here. And as always, thanks for reading.

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