Category Seventeen: (Not Writer’s Block)

The Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Poets & Writers contains an excellent essay by playwright and poet Sarah Ruhl on many of the reasons why writers aren’t writing when they could or should be. In Writer’s Block: Variations on a Superstition, Ruhl describes sixteen categories of writer’s avoidance. Instances from the basic general sloth and distracted by the modern world to the searing abandoning a piece of writing that is not meant to be written. I saw myself in nearly every one of Ruhl’s categories, taking comfort in the universality of my reasons excuses.

After finishing the first complete draft in THE DEEP COIL just before Thanksgiving, I’d intended to let it sit for a few weeks before digging into revisions. I almost couldn’t wait. In early December I had two brainpicking sessions that made my fingers twitch with excitement to return to the page. Over beers at the Pourhouse, I talked big league crime in small town America with a writing buddy and a former county sheriff. Then came a long phone conversation with a former Seattle homicide detective. This retired detective volunteers to solve local cold cases along with a few other former law enforcement officials who just can’t let the job go. I shared my premise with these good men, and they shared many of their experiences with me, steered me toward some agencies I needed to research, suggested awesome plot points, and generally made me feel my crime story, protagonist, and sub-plots were not only plausible, they were authentic and full of potential. Writer’s Gold.

And then stuff happened.

My sweetie’s back-of-envelope landscaping plans.

Of course, stuff is always happening to distract us from our work. Some writers fear the blank page; others, like me, stand at the bottom of the Mountain of Revision, dreading the Sisyphean task ahead. At the end of my walking away from the canvas — as Sarah Ruhl terms the period when we break from a work that we are too close to — I made an offer on a house. This is a joyful thing, as I was certain that being a single woman in her 50s, broke in that postmodern feminist way of being broke after an amicable divorce, working at an arts non-profit in a community where the median home price is well north of $400k, home ownership was right up there with new car smell: things I would never experience again. Joyful, but terribly distracting, as it suddenly introduced concepts of permanence and commitment to community, job, relationship. It meant stability but also responsibility. 

Just as that process entered the phase where nothing can be done but wait (for the holidays to be over so everyone is available to sign endless documents, for agreed-upon repairs to be completed, for the appraisal, for the lender to put urgency behind the oars as it navigates the shipping lanes of bureaucracy), the pain started. 

January saw me in Urgent Care twice, visits with specialists and twice to my PCP.  Multiple prescriptions and lab tests, an ultrasound, and painful examinations, but very few answers. One of the specialists sat across from me, after mansplaining my reproductive system, and asked, “What is it you want me to do for you?” To which I can reply in all certainty, “Absolutely nothing” as I will not be darkening his door again.

The weeks passed, the pain eased, the fog of worry lifted, and I decided to change THE DEEP COIL from past to present tense. This became my way into revisions, as every single sentence needs to be touched, examined, possibly changed. And yet the humming anxiety remained. I managed only coffee-fueled bursts of editing here and there in the wee hours.

A CT-scan the day before Valentine’s brought only more questions. Wide awake at 3 a.m. questions. I picked out paint colors for my new writing studio. Tried to steer my racing brain from thoughts of “unspecified masses” on my liver and spleen and kidneys to the flower beds I would plant and the pantry I would organize. 

Last Monday, I signed a ream of papers and picked up the key. I walked through the empty bowels of a house, my house, my and my sweet man’s home, feeling the same sense of possibility and impossibility as I do when I open a blank page to begin a new story. 

The next morning I took a deep breath and squeezed my eyes shut as the technician tucked a blanket around me and slid my prone body into tube of an MRI. I inhaled and exhaled when the disembodied voice told me to and tried to compose a symphony from the mechanical beeps and clangs, whirrs and groans. I tried to love my body even as it seemed to be failing me. 

Two days later the test results landed in my in-box with a message from my physician, “Hi Julie, I’m happy to report…”

This morning I am sore and exhausted. My lower back feels like hardened, cracked rubber. My fingers are stiff, my hamstrings ping, even my toes feel used. A weekend of scrubbing, wiping, wringing, bending, stretching, my nose stuffed with odors of fresh paint and Lysol, white vinegar and black coffee. And we haven’t even started packing. 

Yesterday I stood in the empty shell of what will be the Room of My Own, arranging in my mind’s eye my desk, sofa, bookshelves, imagining how the view out the window will change as trees are planted and flowers bloom, and I knew that even as my writing sits in Category Seventeen- (i.e. too much life happening- did I mention the promotion/new job?), it won’t stay there forever. It’s okay to let hope and joy blossom of their own accord, and trust the words will follow. 

If we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention. – Ben Marcus

Desiderata: The Best Reads of January

Desiderata (things desired): A monthly review of books recently read

January brought me a handful of critically-acclaimed and/or commercially successful 2019 books. This is what happens when you wait not just weeks, but months, for hot titles to wend their way through the library queue to land on the holds shelf, your name printed in bold font on a scrap of paper tucked inside.

January’s biggest news in publishing was the controversy surrounding the debut of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. I have not read the book (see: library request list), but I weighed in on the controversy all the same. The notion who has permission to tell which stories, the flinging around of the word censorship, the state of the publishing, and a myriad other issues moved me, as a writer and reader, deeply. My post on Goodreads led to some interesting discussion.

As always, clicking on the book cover will take you to my full Goodreads review…

The Dutch House

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Danny Conroy and his older sister, Maeve, sit in Maeve’s car across the street from their childhood home, watching, waiting, reviving the ghosts of their memories. They catch an occasional glimpse of their stepmother, Andrea, who turned them out of the house soon after their father died, when Danny was in high school and Maeve was in college, but they leave her be. There are deeper wounds than an evil stepmother to contend with, and even though the mansion they spy upon has enormous windows that provide views from front to back, the source of their pain — and their healing — is not visible.

 

Disappearing Earth

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

In Russia’s Far East, the Kamchatka Peninsula knifes between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. It is a 1250km-long blade serrated by volcanic mountains, honed razor-sharp by unrelenting cold, empty tundras, bears, wolves, and a history of violent encounters between Kamchatka’s indigenous people and mainland white Russians eager to plunder its vast natural resources.

Julia Phillips chooses this perilous landscape as the setting for her mesmerizing, fierce debut, Disappearing Earth. The story opens benignly enough, on a warm summer day at the edge of a bay in the territory’s only metropolis, Petropavlovsk. Sisters Alyona and Sophia Golosovskaya, eleven and eight, are left alone to play while their mother writes feel-good propaganda for a post-Soviet state newspaper.

Then a man arrives in an improbably polished black sedan and the little girls are vanished.

What follows is a kaleidoscopic literary thriller that tracks the year following the Golosovskaya sisters’ disappearance, each chapter a shift of perspective of a Kamchatkan woman, reflecting the cultural complexities in this strange and treacherous place.

Girl

Girl by Edna O'Brien

Girl by Edna O’Brien

This is as harrowing and haunting a book I have read since 2009 and Uwem Akpan’s short story collection Say You’re One of Them, set throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Edna O’Brien’s Girl is the nominally fictional horror story of young girls enslaved by Boko Haram, the Islamic terrorist group that still holds sway in northeastern Nigeria.

Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Vivid and heartbreaking, Between Shades of Gray tells the story of a Lithuanian family disappeared into Siberia in 1941, as Stalin demolished the independent states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Although slotted into the YA genre, this is engrossing reading for adults. Ruth Sepetys combines meticulous research with excellent storytelling to bring history’s forgotten episodes to life. Outstanding historical fiction and a must-read for those with a particular interest in WWII. Highly recommended.

This Is Happiness

This Is Happiness by Niall Williams
The perfect antidote for the rush and anxiety of modern life and the superficiality of our connectedness, This Is Happiness reminds us of what it means to live fully, deeply, in the present, to experience our environment on its terms, without distraction. Narrated by Noe (short for Noel) Crowe as an old man looking back nearly sixty year to the summer his grandparent’s village of Faha, in Co. Clare, was hooked up to the electrical grid, This Is Happiness is a sumptuous, sublime and softly rendered tale of love, memory, grief and family.

 

American Dirt

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins 

I wrote this in response to another reader’s statement that the criticism of American Dirt amounts to censorship. I find this notion so appalling that I responded with the following, but realized I didn’t need to bomb her feed with my opinion. I could bomb my own 🙂

Oh, as an author, it makes me so sad to see anyone conflate accountability with censorship. This author received a seven-figure advance, a massive marketing campaign, (bolstered ironically by the controversy); this book will be, is, widely read; it’s currently topping a number of best-selling lists, including The New York Times’s. No publishing runs were cancelled, this book is featured prominently in bookstores across the country. Please, please reconsider your take on “censorship”…. Read more….

Desiderata: The Best Reads of 2019

Desiderata (things desired): A monthly review of books recently read.

As a new year turns over, here’s a look back at what I read in 2019 that stirred my soul.

100 books read in 2019. Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, Essays, not enough poetry. Many in the crime/mystery/thriller category as I continued to study the genre for inspiration for my own work. I hadn’t intended to read so much, prioritizing my limited time to finish the first draft of THE DEEP COIL. Which I did. It seems to naturally follow that the more I write, the more I read, the more room I must make in my life for words.

These are the books that wowed me, that I longed to press into every reader’s hands. Two categories, Fiction and Non-Fiction, no particular order. Clicking on the book will take you to my full review on Goodreads.

FICTION

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Somewhere around page 230 of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine I began to ugly cry. Deep, shattering, heaving, snotty sobs. 5-star weeping. Eleanor Oliphant is definitely not fine. She’s a train wreck from which I couldn’t look away, until it became clear that I was looking at the mirror image of my most dreaded self. Alone Me. Lonely Me.

In a perfect balance between self-effacing humor and tender self-awareness, the author touches the live wire of our greatest and most private vulnerability: loneliness. Eleanor is a heroine of our times- the consummate misfit who makes us cringe —those of us who see our own misfit reflected in her.

I'll Never Play The Hammered Dulcimer by Jan Hanson

I’ll Never Play The Hammered Dulcimer by Jan Hanson

The poems I love, that launch tiny tremors in my belly, close a warm hand around my heart, make my throat ache with unshed tears, my eyes sting with those about to fall, are made up of life’s small moments. A poet who captures the seemingly mundane and makes it shimmer with meaning is one who captures my attention.

At my grandmother’s house in Texas,
I wear an organdy pinafore and eat Sunday ham
and Kentucky Wonders off a pink-flowered plate,
swinging my legs under the ladder-back chair.

From IN TEXAS

Jan Hanson is just such a poet. In her debut collection, she captures the small moments of beauty and disappointment within the breathless steamroll of life — raising children, falling out of love, and stumbling into new passion, the grind of work when the call to create is so strong — with a voice that is as gentle and fierce as a hummingbird.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

On a quiet winter’s solstice night deep in the 1880’s, regulars huddle in the Swan — an inn tucked in the bend of the river Thames, not far from Oxford— swapping tales and sipping pints. The door slams open and into the shadowy room stumbles a man, his face battered, holding the lifeless body of a little girl. He is shown into a room where his wounds are tended by the local nurse, Rita. The little girl, drowned by the river that gives and takes according to its whim, is laid to rest in a cold storeroom until her body is claimed and her soul blessed into the afterlife.

And then a miracle occurs. The child takes a breath. She lives! But who she is and how she cheated death become the mysteries around which this rich, meandering, immersive story are wound.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

In classic hero’s journey structure, Madhuri Vijay creates a deeply intimate story of a woman searching for personal identity in a place caught in political turmoil. As a child, Shalini has only a tacit understanding of the deep rift in the mountainous state of Jammu & Kashmir between the Hindu and Muslim populations. As a young adult, living so far away and so deeply in her own head, she pays little attention to the continued conflict. But once in Kashmir, she becomes embroiled in the turmoil, to catastrophic effect.

This is an astonishing debut. Vijay’s prose is gorgeous and evocative, poetic in its spareness, immersive in detail and content. Her themes and settings are epic and majestic, and yet this is a deeply intimate portrayal of friendship, betrayal, grief and remorse. The characters are rich with complicated histories and behaviors; the reader’s heart is broken open time and again by the people who guide Shalini into a better understanding of herself and the world.

The River by Peter Heller

The River by Peter Heller

First comes the scent of smoke. More than a campfire, it’s persistent, pervasive. It travels with Jack and Wynn as they canoe along the Miskwa river toward Hudson Bay. Jack climbs a tree and is horrified by what he espies across the vast Canadian forest: a massive fire consuming the forest with tsunami-like force, bearing down on them. Paddling tandem, even as skilled and in prime physical condition as they are, they can’t hope to outrun the fire, but they are determined to try.

The River is a brilliant tour-de-force thriller. Heller moves across the stunning landscape, at times brutal with careless treachery, at times heavenly with bounty and gentle ease, with breathless tension.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope meet as rookie cops in New York City and end up as next door neighbors in a small town just north of the city, raising their families and rising in their careers. Lena Gleeson is the perfect suburban mom, giving birth in rapid and delighted succession to three daughters. Anne Stanhope, however, is distant and cold, rebuffing all attempts at friendship and support as she recovers from a stillbirth, and when she becomes pregnant again with her son, Peter.

Told from the viewpoints of several characters over multiple decades, Ask Again, Yes examines mental illness, addiction, childhood trauma, family loyalty, and enduring love with grace and wisdom. Mary Beth Keane brings us into the hearts and minds of her characters and leaves us there, allowing us time to know them deeply, to develop the real ambivalence of empathy and fury, frustration and love.One of the most deeply moving novels I have read in a long time. Immersive, thoughtful, poignant and profound, Ask Again, Yes asks the reader to breathe with its characters, even through the worst of the pain, and not to look away at what we see reflected in their faces, even if it frightens us.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Big Sky (Jackson Brodie #5)by Kate Atkinson

We Jackson Brodie fans have waited what felt like an interminably long spell for our favorite private eye, in all his glib and glum glory, to return to the scene. But author Kate Atkinson has been rather busy in the interim, penning literary gorgeousness into Life After LifeA God in Ruins and Transcription. We’ll forgive her.

Our patience is richly rewarded with Big Sky, the fifth entry in the Jackson Brodie series. Although the novel could stand alone, fans of Jackson Brodie will shiver in recognition at the return of Reggie Chase, and nod heads with comforting familiarity at Julia’s throwaway affections (and affectations) and Jackson’s photographic recall of country and western lyrics.

The plot of Big Sky is a Venn Diagram of stories that contract until they become one, and Jackson is, of course, at the center of it all. “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen” is one of Jackson’s favorite maxims, borrowed from some long ago episode of Law and Order. Kate Atkinson’s astonishing skill is not only to wink and nod at crime fiction tropes, but to render the plot so that coincidence feels utterly inevitable.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

This novel slipped quietly on and off my radar more than two years ago when it debuted. I think I had it on my TBR list and removed it when I couldn’t get a copy from the library and Goodreads feedback proved greatly ambivalent.

A few weeks ago, the 2019 Dublin Literary Award was announced and Emily Ruskovich’s 2017 novel was the winner. This award made me sit up and take notice because the books are nominated for the Award by invited public libraries throughout the world. I love libraries and hold librarians in the highest esteem. The great percentage of short-list titles that are books I have loved makes this an award I pay attention to. So I thought I’d give Idaho another go.

And I’m so very glad I did (and thank you to my local public library for ordering in a copy at my request).

What begins as a literary thriller transforms into a quiet litany of grief, redemption, and the shifting nature of memory. The brutality of the narrative contrasts with the beauty of the language to create a captivating, unforgettable story.

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

Brilliant. Just brilliant. Everything about this novel, from its premise — a fictionalized account of the true plot by the CIA to thwart communism through “cultural diplomacy”— to its the multiplicity of perspectives, including the Greek chorus CIA typing pool, the haunted Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya, imprisoned in a Gulag for her involvement with famed writer Boris Pasternak, the “Mad Men”-esque characters of Cold War Washington D.C., and their fashions, passions, parties — to the women who became spies, their stories all but forgotten by modern readers until Lara Prescott breathed life into their legacies — just sings and sparkles with verve and vibrancy.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

It is the early 1960’s and Jim Crow still holds sway in the South, even as monumental civil rights changes are sweeping across the land. Reform is slow to reach the Florida Panhandle and yet Elwood Curtis, a bright, shy, studious young black man raised by his officious grandmother, is determined to rise and shine, despite the heavy hands of racism holding him down. Even after he is sent away to the Nickel School for Boys for the non-crime of DWB- Driving While Black (in this case, Elwood is a passenger, blithely hitchhiking on his first day of college), he focuses his energy on achieving early release for exemplary behavior.

But the Nickel School for Boys, which houses white and black young men — separately of course — is not so easily endured. Punishment for any real or perceived infraction is torture and abuse, including solitary confinement, and even death.

Colson Whitehead based his fictional Nickel School on the Dozier School for Boys, a real house of horrors whose past was exposed in an investigative series in the Tampa Bay Times in 2014. For 111 years, from its opening in 1900 until the Dozier School for Boys was finally closed in 2011, boys as young as five years old were brutalized and dozens were murdered.

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick(Goodreads Author)

It’s not lost on me that I consumed most of this book in the lonely clutches of insomnia, my internal lights on deep into the night. Sometimes I think I embrace this torture, for it offers the opportunity to do the thing I most love in life besides writing: reading.

And this was one worth having insomnia for. One of the year’s most moving (trembling, shaking) reads for me. I gasp in wonder and humbleness that Lights All Night Long is Lydia Fitzpatrick’s debut. Lights All Night Long is beautifully written, with characters cast in tenderness and compassion, landscapes that crackle with ice and throb with humidity, and an intricate, carefully woven plot that will leave you gasping at the end. But it is the relationship between the brothers Ilya and Vlad that will burrow into your heart, and break it, over and over. One of the year’s best. Now, let’s all get some sleep.

As a River by Sion Dayson

As a River by Sion Dayson

Debut novelist Sion Dayson has created a novel like blown glass- somehow beautifully fragile yet impossibly strong- a work of art that changes shape and color and texture depending on the angle and the light. I loved it. I loved it. I slipped so easily into Greer, Caroline, Esse- everyone- the characters have textures and depth that took such skill to layer in. As A River is not to be missed.

NONFICTION

What You Have Heard Is True by Carolyn Forché

What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

Carolyn Forché was twenty-seven when she traveled to El Salvador for the first time in 1978. Her searing, remarkable memoir is both a reportage of the brutal recent history of El Salvador, and the recounting of how an activist is created. During the twelve-year war, largely funded by American money and American military training, in this tiny, beautiful country, 75,000 were killed, more than 550,000 Salvadorans were internally displaced with 500,000 becoming refugees. The reverberations of the conflict are felt today, in the refugees who continue to flee poverty and political terror in Central America.

Dopesick by Beth Macy

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy

Dopesick, centered in Appalachia where the opioid crisis began in the late 1990s with the release of OxyContin and where it remains the most virulent, delves deep into the circumstances of opioid abuse and addiction through intimate portraits of the victims, their families, the dealers, cops, and health care providers and activists. She explores every angle, revealing the blatant corruption of Big Pharma and the sickening failure of U.S. regulatory bodies to recognize and respond to criminal behaviors. Even the public shaming of the Sackler family and the lawsuits against pharmaceutical manufacturers, which roll through every day in the headlines now, don’t seem to sway average America from reconsidering what’s in their medicine cabinet. From Adderall to Ambien, we are hooked.

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Right now, the only visible sign that you’ve crossed the border between the United Kingdom and Ireland is the change on road signs from miles to kilometers. In the twenty-one years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast, signaling an end to the decades-long conflict known as the ‘Troubles’, the checkpoints have come down, the armed border patrols have been decommissioned, the observation towers are nowhere to be seen.

With Brexit looming, however, the visible division between the two countries may return, and with it, renewed calls to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and reunite it with the Republic. The prospect of reopening old wounds that are still so very close to the surface is so very real for communities on both sides of the border. Patrick Radden Keefe’s incendiary modern history of the bloody sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland could not be more perfectly timed. Say Nothing is part murder mystery, part political thriller, and all true. It reveals not just the cost of war, but the costs of peace.

No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder

No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder

“Fifty women a month are shot and killed by their partners. Domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness. And 80 percent of hostage situations involve an abusive partner. Nor is it only a question of physical harm: In some 20 percent of abusive relationships a perpetrator has total control of his victim’s life.” From An Epidemic of Violence We Never Discuss by Alisa Roth, New York Time Book Review, June 7, 2019.

If you want to understand the horrific hold violence has on this country, this book will show the links domestic violence, or the more accurately-termed “intimate partner terrorism”, has to mass shootings, homelessness, substance abuse; why the #MeToo movement resonated so deeply; why it is so hard to generate commitment to laws and regulations that honor the safety of women in their own homes (yes, not all victims of domestic violence are women. Transgender and gay and lesbian partners are particularly vulnerable. Heterosexual men can certainly be terrorized by female partners in their own homes, as well. But 85 percent of intimate partner violence is perpetrated by men against women, so I, and the author, opt for the dominant model pronouns here).

This book is not just for those interested in the causes of and solutions to domestic violence. It is for anyone wishing to deepen their understanding of and compassion for the most vulnerable in this culture.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

With her memoir and meditation on lesbian domestic abuse, In The Dream House, Machado reconstructs the rooms of her experience and memory to create a narrative filled with complexity and nuance.

Using vignettes that range from a chronological walk down the hallway of her recent relationship, to academic discourse on domestic violence between queer women, to a tapestry of self and sexuality woven from childhood memories, Machado experiments with form and tilts the function of memoir on its head. Each chapter offers a different narrative trope, a shift of the kaleidoscope through which to view her relationship and her responses to the growing doom she feels, recognizing the abuse even as she still loves the abuser.

She Said by Jodi Kantor
I devoured this in a day. No matter how familiar the headlines, the journey of a news story from idea, rumor, tip, to the front page is fascinating, particularly when that headline launches one of the biggest sociopolitical movements of the decade. My race to the finish of She Saidmade me think of how much I love watching All The President’s Men. I never tire of that movie. It doesn’t matter that you know the ending— not just to the movie, but all these years later, the political legacy left by Nixon’s impeachment — it’s the chase for the truth these reporters undertake when they aren’t certain what that truth is, how big, who else is involved. A deep bow and grateful embrace to Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey for their tireless work, and to The New York Times for continuing to support their reporters.

Tender Is The First Draft

Tender Is The First Draft

Eighty-four thousand six-hundred and fifty-seven words. A premise that came fully-formed during a walk through the forest on a late afternoon in May of 2018. It seemed so simple, that bright and shiny idea, just a filling in of details and I’d have it. Nearly eighteen months later, after those stolen pre-dawn moments and weekend afternoons in a café, the Julys and Augusts where I didn’t write at all, a new writer’s group that filled me with inspiration before it fizzled out from life’s demands, a five-day DIY writer’s retreat that likely saved this entire endeavor from the DELETE key, and at last, there is a first draft. 

I typed THE END late Sunday afternoon, the sun falling down behind the bony, stripped trees in our backyard, distant sounds of a football game in the living room breaking through when the classical music on the bedroom Bose paused for a breath. My goal had been to finish this draft by Christmas but as the words began to flow this autumn — I wrote nearly forty percent of the draft in the two months between late September and Sunday — I closed in on Thanksgiving as a target date. And here I am with .pdfs of Thanksgiving dinner recipes and 303 pages of THE DEEP COIL to send to the unsuspecting printer.

During the journey of this draft I spent a lot of time trying to escape from writing, until at last it became something I was able to emerge into. This was the second “from-scratch” novel I’d attempted since my marriage fell apart in the spring of 2016 when I was promoting the debut of IN ANOTHER LIFE, editing THE CROWS OF BEARA to prep for its fall 2017 publication, and revising UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL. From November of 2017 to May of 2018 I worked half-heartedly on a YA fantasy novel inspired by the research on the Cathars I’d done for IAL (I love it, actually; just not the right work at the right time). I’d underestimated the time and space I needed to do all heavy lifting of my messy life – new jobs, new relationships, moving, grieving, celebrating, gathering all the pieces and reassembling them into something that resembled a fresh start. I was hard, so very hard, on myself youshouldbewritingyourenotawriterwhyarentyouwriting until I finally gave in and accepted that when it was time, when I at last felt safe,  I would write.

This draft is, well, it’s a Shitty First Draft, as first drafts tend to be. I got it in my head that because this is a genre novel — crime fiction — not to mention the start of a series, I ought to come up with a solid outline. That never happened- it’s not the writer I am. I write by feel. I write to find out where I’m going.

“Stories are agile things. So the containers they go in should be pliable. You should have a grand vision, of course, an eventual endpoint, or at least the dreams of an endpoint, but you must be prepared to swerve, chop and change direction at the same time. The best journeys are those where we don’t exactly know what road we will take: we have a destination in mind, but the manner of getting there should be open to flux. … the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.”                                                                                                                                                             — Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer

Last spring I realized that this first draft would be my outline. So here it is, an 84,657 word outline. There’s a beginning, a couple of them, really. A bunch of words stuffed in the middle, and some possible endings. There are subplots and backstory, landscapes and dialogues. There are great characters whom I can’t wait for you to meet, shadows of beings who may stay or may go, others I’ve lost track of along the way. There are scenes that even now I know I need to write. I have a number of law enforcement officials to interview regarding who does what in a territory that covers two small cities, two large counties, and a vast national park in between. Several hikes to take, a shooting range to step into, and a gun expert friend to run key scenes by. 

Revision. Where all that gorgeous raw material is shaped into a story. 

But today I hold the story that will be in tender respect. The magical first draft, with all its promise and potential, is complete. 

“How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?”
― Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

Joining the Attention Resistance

Every rare once in awhile a Facebook friend announces their imminent departure from Facebook. Or simply quietly slips away, leaving behind a shadow profile in my friends list. I send up a silent cheer when I realize they have deactivated their account, knowing in my belly they are better off without this ubiquitous social media overlord.

For a long time, I’ve felt a sense of disquiet about social media (here’s a post from 2011: The In-Between Times), but the disturbance has become a growing alarm and a deep sadness in recent months, feeling like we, all of us who are connected, have just lost our way.

Then two things occurred almost simultaneously, one horrific, one glorious. First, The New York Times ran a feature on child pornography, a hideous crime that’s exploded in volume because of social media. The wretched creeps who exploit and abuse children have multiple platforms that make it harder to track their behavior and make it all the easier for children to be preyed upon. The social media companies, like Facebook with its Messenger platform, are complicit in these crimes, just as they were in the travesty that was the 2016 election. They want users, regardless of the consequences.

Second, a friend fulfilled a lifelong dream, which also happens to be one of mine: hiking the Camino de Santiago. She chronicled every day of her trek via photos and anecdotes posted on Insta and Facebook. As much as I treasured joining her journey from afar, I also wanted to plead with her to put down the phone, forget all of us, and be there, in her head and body and heart, and just walk. Walk for the sake of it, not for the Instagrammable moments. Being disconnected from the world is natural, healthy, necessary. I imagine my own Camino and know that I want it to be private, meditative, transformative. Not shared, liked or retweeted. Pure.

Into all this walked Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, giving me yet more reasons, and now a strategy, to reframe and redo my relationship with social media.

Cal Newport isn’t a Luddite. He’s not against social medial or digital technology. He does throw down the gauntlet, however; challenging his readers to look their use and habits squarely in the screen, to recognize and deeply register the power Silicon Valley has in nearly every aspect of our lives, our time, our children’s brains, our attention, our pocketbooks.

Few want to spend so much time online, but these tools have a way of cultivating behavioral addiction.

Newport demonstrates throughout Digital Minimalism that, while some of these addictive qualities are accidental, many have been exploited by tech and social media companies whose driving purpose is to keep us online as often, and for as long, as possible. Through intermittent, unpredictable social approval (likes, loves, retweets), we become dependent on the feedback that shows someone, somewhere, has noticed us.

I’ve moved around so much as an adult; social media has offered an easy way to keep in touch with friends from whom I’m separated by oceans and lifetimes. Facebook and Twitter brought me into communities of writers crucial to the development of my career. I might never have started writing if it weren’t for Goodreads. Writing thoughtfully about the books I read became a DIY MFA. I learned story structure, narrative depth, character development, and how to construct a beautiful sentence not only by reading great (and not so great) books, but by being a part of a community that discusses them. Instagram brought visual arts into my life. I know nothing about the technology of photography, but I’ve got a great eye, I love taking and sharing my photographs, and being inspired by others.

It’s not that any of these tools is bad. To be fair, they can bring pleasure and satisfaction. It’s just that they are too much. And we, no matter how professional, intelligent, disciplined, have been manipulated to respond like rats to a sugar drip. Our brains are tired. We’re overstimulated, over-connected, over-info’ed. It’s not natural to have hundreds of “friends,” to share not only the minutiae of our daily lives, but its most intimate details, with people we wouldn’t recognize if we passed them on the street, to constantly seek social approval, not to spend time in solitude, not to look up and observe the world around us.

Newport, and his co-frères/sœurs James Clear, Atomic Habits, Jenny Odell How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, among others, are part of the emerging Attention Resistance, a loosely-knit group of educators, researchers, artists, and business professionals who are decrying the outsize role digital technology and social media play in our lives.

‘Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, has called the platform a “social-validation feedback loop” built around “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Tristan Harris, who worked as a “design ethicist” at Google, has said that smartphones are engineered to be addictive.’

“What It Takes to Put Your Phone Away,” by Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker April 22, 2019.

This just isn’t right. I don’t want to play the game anymore. Or more accurately, I don’t want to be played anymore.

I am accepting, moving toward embracing, that time spent on social media is “low quality” time. No matter how much I appreciate the connections, the sharing of fun moments or commiseration over the bad, I am coming to accept that I will be happier, more focused, productive, and peaceful the less time I spend on social media. I already take periodic breaks, employing various tips and technologies to reclaim my time and attention, but as Newport states, “willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.”

Social media isn’t that big a part of my life. I have a full-time + day job and rarely check social media during the day, even though my actual job requires that I post on both Facebook and Instagram. I am finishing the first draft of my fourth novel; I am in the yoga studio, the city pool, the gym, on forest trails; I read copiously. I’m busy, engaged in the real world. But still. I think social media is compromising my—and our society’s at large—mental, intellectual, physical, and communal health. It’s time to start doing things differently. Hey, there’s an app for that! (actually, quite a few: Moment, Forest, Freedom, Focus, and one new to this Mac user: Ulysses, which looks an awful lot like Scrivener).

Seriously, Cal Newport has a plan. Detox for thirty days, And then, once your 30-day detox is over, rebuild your relationship with digital technology from the ground up, with intentionality and minimalism, where technology serves you and what you deeply value.

“The goal is not simply to give yourself a break from technology, but to instead spark a permanent transformation of your digital life.”

Newport recommends that you spend your time away from optional technology by discovering, or rediscovering, what you enjoy. It’s the Marie Kondo approach to a digital life: if it’s not useful or doesn’t bring you joy, it needs to go, as much as is reasonable. Most of us have aspects to our jobs that make some of these technologies, including emails or texting, inevitable.

There are engrossing sections of this book that discuss the beauty of solitude- a beauty we’ve all but lost with the constant presence of our phones in our pockets, by sharing the carefully curated moments of our lives or reading about others’. He argues that we are suffering from Solitude Deprivation – A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds. There are also alarming looks at younger generations who’ve never known life without iPads or smartphones: the stunted growth of empathy, focus, motivation, and observation. It’s not just terribly sad and weird, I believe it’s a public health crisis.

So in a couple of weeks, beginning November 1, I will be starting my 30-day digital declutter. For me, that will be Facebook, including Messenger, Twitter, and Instagram.

I’ll journal my detox. I won’t force myself to finish this first draft of my novel by the end of November, but at the rate I’m going even before I begin my detox, I just might! I look forward to all that I will add to my life as I let go of the ubiquity, the artificiality, of “connection.” I want to learn to be better connected to and more present in my real world life.

The Lesson of the Falling Leaves

“the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith

such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves”

Lucille Clifton

I celebrated my 50th birthday two weeks ago. Well, celebration is a stretch. It happened, I was in attendance by default, but I spent the day and several that followed otherwise occupied in the cardiac unit of a regional hospital. My heart was safe, at least physically, but entwined with that of another’s whose own was at risk of failure.

I’d made vague plans to do something epic to greet this milestone birthday: a hike in Ireland or a week in Paris went as far as bookmarking airlines and clearing my work calendar. But my sweetheart, who paints houses during the spring and summer and canvases during the autumn and winter, was still in full work mode in early September. So we tried on plans for Hawai’i, New York or a Highway 1 road trip in October, instead.

September is a crazy quilt of changes that elicits such emotion. It is the calendrical beginning of so many seasons that ruled my life, from the schoolgirl years through professional careers in higher education and the wine industry, where September is the busiest of times. The month of my birth. Once the month of my marriage. A month of renewal, transformation, anticipation. It’s long felt like the year’s beginning, with such a palpable change in activity and air, temperature and energy, rather than January, winter’s dark, secretive core.

Yet for the past several years, since returning to the Northwest — where summer is a shimmering, spinning carnival of gold and blue, forever days, and dusks that burn out long after I’m in in bed — I’ve mourned the end of sundresses and freckles, resented the sudden descent of dark mornings and the melancholic echo of foghorns, warning of the thick, wet blanket wrapped around the bay. I dread the cold and rain, such a shock after months of dry and gentle warmth. It takes me a few weeks to grieve, accept, and at last embrace the gorgeousness of wood fires and close-toed shoes, of frost and wool.

 

This year, however, as suddenly as the transition from summer to autumn rumbled in on a Saturday night, bundled into a rare thunderstorm, I welcomed the blustery days that followed. My nesting instinct pinged loudly, my internal gears shifted down. Bring On The Night, I thought. I’m ready. 

The eve of my birthday, my sweetheart and I bought a washing machine, and then I drove him to the ER (not related, although I get how purchasing a major appliance could be a trigger for some men). A few hours later, I followed an ambulance through the warm summer’s night an hour south, where a larger hospital had a heart and vascular unit that could provide the acute care he needed.

We checked him out five days later, on his birthday. The next day the skies opened, washing away summer’s dust and lazy heat.

He’s resting, healing, getting his head and soul around all the many changes required to restore his heart. There will be no epic getaway to fete my fiftieth; there is another surgery in the weeks to come. Instead, we settle into a season of rest. Of books and writing, naps and painting, bare feet entwined under quilts as we lounge on opposite ends of the sofa, reading.

A truck just rolled into our driveway, bringing two cords of maple and fir. I can’t wait until it’s chilly enough for the first woodstove fire of the season.

I agree with the leaves.

No Longer Knocking from the Inside: A Writer on Retreat

September 2016. The last time I spent time alone, and away. My divorce would be final in a few weeks, I was starting a new job in early October, my first since becoming full-time writer three years earlier. I was moving forward, on my own, accepting that I could not sustain myself as a writer without the financial support of a steadfast and generous partner.

But first came a long-planned writer’s retreat in the south of France. I knew then how precious the opportunity was, how very long it would be until my situation — financial, emotional, logistical — could support another stretch of time to devote to my work.

Earlier this year I could at last begin thinking about traveling again. I had built up so much vacation (two jobs removed from the one I began in October 2016) that I was in danger of losing the chunk I couldn’t rollover to the next year. I renewed my passport and determined I would be lacing up my hiking boots to tramp on foreign soil while my 50th birthday raced along above me, dissolving like a cirrus cloud high in a late summer sky.

But I just couldn’t seem to hit confirm on the reservations.

At first, the excuses were circumstantial. I perform myriad roles at my job, a non-profit with two and half employees: the thought of two or three weeks away was crushing. My partner and I are saving to buy a house: an extended overseas vacation felt indulgent and short-lived when we are planning a future. And we’d had that month apart last fall, which was so hard. Time apart is vital, and healthy, but weeks simply didn’t feel good to my heart.

 

Yet, I was craving a change of scene. Craving to go for days without talking to anyone more than shop clerk. And when I listened, deeply, to what I really wanted, it was simple: time alone to write.

I booked a week at an AirBnB not all that far as the crow flies from where I live, but a world apart. Immediately, my ambivalence about when and where and how to go disappeared. This. This was the thing.

On Father’s Day I shoved random clothes into a duffel bag, packed my laptop, iPod and a bag of coffee, filled the gas tank, and on a bright, warm Sunday after yoga, soon after his daughters arrived to fête his Hallmark holiday, I kissed my sweetheart farewell and set forth.

And I wrote. After months of dipping in and out of this story, feeling the frustration of moments stolen to devote to its unfolding, I had hours, days, to focus. After five days, I emerged with half again as many words as it had taken me thirteen months to write. I discovered new characters, wrote new opening, jotted down threads of ideas for the next installment, filled a crucial plot hole I’d been circling for months, and regained the momentum I’d given over to mourning the endings of an old life and falling in love with a new present.

Of course, in the weeks since my return, life has pressed in again, with its urgencies: weekends away, or filled with events, houseguests and family dramas, insomnia and fatigue. The new possibilities of my narrative threaten to overwhelm me, but I manage words here and there, a slow moving along.

My new passport is locked away, cover stiff and shiny, pages smooth and blank. It’s there and I’ll come back to it. In the meantime, I look ahead to September, to another week of writing on my own-not far, mind you-just far enough for the words to flow, unencumbered, in the blissful silence of away...

“I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking from the inside.”

― RUMI