Goodbye, February

It’s twelve degrees warmer this morning in mid-Michigan than it is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In fact, we’ve had a string of unseasonably warm days. Last week we had a rapid melt of over a foot of snow, plus two days of steady rain, causing the Grand and Red Cedar Rivers to flood. There were small-scale evacuations in neighborhoods near the rivers. And then we had three days in a row that felt like early May.

We’ll be back down in the 40s for the first couple weeks of March, which is more appropriate for this time of year, and there are still some snow showers in the forecast, but not much. I understand that groundhog saw his shadow way back at the beginning of the month, but I guess marmots are not the best prognosticators of global weather patterns.

I’m always happy to see February drift away in the rear view mirror. This year I have spent most of the month on moving rooms around in my house. A small, enclosed staircase with a right angle is part of the reason it took so long. The crazy weather is another. The stairs mean large items must go in/out an exterior door on the second floor that leads out to the roof of the smoke room, and up and down a ladder propped against it. Which, of course, you can’t safely do in a foot of snow and ice, nor in a deluge.

Everything big is safe and sound in its new room. Finally. After all, I’ve been planning for this move since July of last year, drawing schematics and making lists of the order in which things would have to be moved.

Now we’re down to the little stuff:

  • our son’s old karate belts, which we’ve been meaning to get into a display case
  • a small file cabinet that is mostly filled with things that could be stored in the attic or tossed
  • the light we removed from the old office/new bedroom that we’re going to put up in the living room
  • a random assortment of items that belong somewhere in my son’s new room, but we’re not just sure where yet

I could probably get it all done in a day, but since every spare moment of February has been spent on this project, I actually need to pause and spend some concentrated time on my other big project: first edits on my debut novel, which are due to my editor in twelve days. (Psst, if you missed it because you’re not on my newsletter mailing list, the new title is We Hope for Better Things.)

Hopefully soon we’ll have the last bits of our lives put back together and I can take some pictures to share with you. I’m happy with how well it’s turning out.

And I’m thrilled that, like February, it’s almost done.


These Changeable Days

It is a cloudy morning, but a springish light is in the air. Despite it being January. We’re all discombobulated by the weather, bouncing between thaw and freeze, rain and snow, sun and clouds. In the words of They Might Be Giants, “Everyone’s excited and confused.”

Lonely piles of snow still linger in the cold and sheltered places, but much of my world is a dull wash of brown and faded green. One day I walk our little chihuahua mix with her plaid coat on and worry about her little paws and ears freezing. The next she goes out naked, splashing through puddles of meltwater, going ballistic when she sees a squirrel.

This is January?

There is a tall and slender dead ash tree in the back yard that is listing northwest, aiming for the garage. It looks like a rope and a couple of determined guys could pull it the rest of the way down. Part of me worries about it and part of me is rooting for it. But it’s not big enough to do enough damage so that we’d have to replace the garage and might be able to claim some insurance money to get the job done. 

I worry about the fence as well. Katy is small enough to fit through the spaces between pickets. The fence needs to be replaced — it is rotting in spots, pulling away from the posts. But on one side the neighbors have a new metal fence Katy can get under and through with little effort. A tie-out is one solution, though it’s apt to get tangled up in bushes. A mostly invisible wire fence along the neighbor’s metal fence is another. For now, we take her out on a leash.

There’s a strange, unsettledness to life right now. We have more orphaned socks in our sock bag than ever before. I’ve been washing dishes by hand every day as we figure out a solution to a dishwasher problem. The workroom is clean, yet there’s sawdust being tracked through the house. The outdoor Christmas lights lie in a pile by the door, drying out before we can put them away in the attic. The far end of the dining room table is gathering an assortment of papers and Legos and headphones and items with no home. Desks are almost clean. Laundry is mostly done. Books are all half read.

And I have started writing a new novel. A story about sisters and identity and a hiking trip that will go very bad, but ultimately be good.

I don’t know yet how 2018 feels to me. I do know that eventually the seasons will figure themselves out. Eventually that dead tree will come down, one way or another. Eventually the fencing issue will be resolved.

Ultimately, it will be good.

The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Received…and More

I’m over on the Capital City Writers blog today talking about what I’m working on right now, the worst writing advice I ever received, and more. Here’s a taste…

1. What is your favorite part about writing? The most challenging part?


It’s hard to say what I enjoy most because I do enjoy all the different parts of the process for different reasons. I love the idea phase when anything is possible, the drafting phase when I am speaking worlds into existence, the revising phase when I am making this lump of words more closely resemble the perfect vision in my head. There are two contexts in which I feel more elementally me than any other: when I am silently and deliberately exploring the natural world and when I am writing.


The most challenging part is …


Click here to read the rest of the interview.

And tomorrow night I’ll be at Schuler Books & Music in the Eastwood Towne Center leading a free workshop called Empathy over Experience: Writing Convincingly from Someone Else’s Shoes.

The fun starts at 7pm. If you’re a relatively local writer, I hope to see you there!

Big News on the Publishing Front!

For those of you who have been around this blog for a while, watching my slow journey toward publication, I am so pleased to share that the following announcement in Publisher’s Marketplace hit subscribers’ inboxes this morning:

I started my research and development for this novel in 2013. I wrote the first draft in early 2014. I finally found my lovely agent in 2015. It went out on submission in 2016. And now, finally, it is being contracted in 2017. And it is currently slated to hit shelves in a bookstore near you in January 2019.

You can be sure to hear much more about it as the next seventeen months progress. In the meantime, enjoy this series of GIFs that encapsulate how I feel right now.

Imagining a Room of One’s Own

We interrupt these UP road trip pictures (yes, there’s more…I just haven’t had time to edit them yet!) to bring you this special announcement.

I’m scheming and measuring and graphing and starting a new Pinterest board…


…because I’m hoping to move my office to another room in the house (which will be ALL MINE…muahahahaha!!!) sometime in the next, oh, let’s say six months.

There are walls to paint, additional outlets to install, shelves to build, and some of the most cumbersome furniture we own to move in order to make it happen.

But it will happen.

And I’m so excited.

Writing a Novel Longhand

Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oates. Neil Gaiman. Amy Tan. Jhumpa Lahiri. J. K. Rowling. Truman Capote. Vladimir Nabakov.

What do all of these people have in common? They write/wrote their works longhand, with paper and pen or pencil, before typing them up on either typewriter or computer.

There are several reasons to eschew the computer when writing a novel. There are no online distractions or rabbit trails. It is easier to write forward rather than getting stuck in an endless and premature editing cycle. You don’t have to make sure you’re seated by an outlet. Paper and pen are more portable and are not a pain in the TSA screening line. It’s far easier to write outside where the sun might completely obscure a laptop screen. And we know that looking at a screen all day is not good for our eyesight or our sleep cycles.

Recently I read an article about how taking notes longhand improves recall in students (this despite the push to get laptops in schools). I had a laptop in college and I never brought it to class. I didn’t need a study to tell me that physically writing notes on paper helped me remember what I was learning. If I don’t write it down, it’s gone, baby.

I enjoy writing on paper. I have been journaling for about a year and a half in an unlined notebook. I always write my poetry longhand, scratching out verses and changing words and drawing lines on the page before typing them up. But when it comes to fiction, I really haven’t tried it.

Some people can’t imagine writing a novel that way because they write scenes out of order and it is easier to manipulate the document on the screen than it would be on paper. I always write chronologically, starting at the beginning and writing straight through to the end, though I do sometimes go back while drafting and edit what I’ve already written. In revision, I often add entire new scenes earlier in the story, but that could easily be done in the first typewritten draft.

Anyway, this past weekend I got it in my head to try it with whatever I’m writing next. It will mean I won’t be watching word counts rack up (at least, not until I type the second draft) but I have to wonder if I might benefit from it.

Sunday evening I bought a pack of four .8 mm black uni-ball pens and a pack of three narrow-ruled moleskin journals, 120 pages each, for a total of 360 pages, pre-divided into a three act structure. The pens are pink on the outside, distinguishing them from all my other many pens, and will be used solely for writing in these notebooks.

Now, I do have terrible handwriting, especially when my mind is on a roll. And there may be times when my handwriting cannot keep up with my thoughts like my typing fingers would. But I imagine there will be fewer typos (fast typing means fumble fingers sometimes for me) and I won’t feel the need to go back and correct the ones that do occur because I know I will get them in the second, typed draft.

One benefit I can count on is this — because I won’t want to “mess up” these notebooks, I won’t actually start writing the next story until I’ve done a lot of preliminary work with character arcs and plotting and feel fairly confident that I know the story I’m telling before I put pen to paper.

I’ll be sure to let you know how the experiment pans out.

Writing Romance as Wish Fulfillment?

My most consistently popular post on this blog is 7 Favorite Movies about Writers and Writing (and Reading). Last night I finally watched Becoming Jane (2007) starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy and now I find I must add it to my list.

To me, a movie makes the cut in the same way a book does — if when it ends there’s a little ache in my heart, a little place inside that now feels empty and full at the same time. This was such a film. When I turned off the TV at midnight last night, I found that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes even though the room was dark, I was in bed, and it was certainly time to retire for the night.

If you’re a fan of Jane Austen’s novels or of their film adaptations, you should pop over to Netflix and watch Becoming Jane, either alone or with a sympathetic companion.

I don’t read genre romance and I don’t write genre romance, nor do I aspire to. But I do like romantic elements in book or a film. I have, in the past, viewed the writing of romantic plots or characters as perhaps too common, not quite literary enough. I don’t know why — perhaps simply because the books one reads as an English major (other than Austen and Shakespeare) don’t tend to be terribly romantic.

Perhaps it is also because a lot of category romance in our day is overtly sexual. I’m not interested in stories like that. I am of the mind that sexual tension is far more interesting to read about than sex, and once characters get together, whether by marrying or sleeping with each other, the story is done in my mind. Think about it. Wasn’t The Office far more fun to watch before Jim and Pam got together?

There’s also a stereotype that women who write romantic stories are trying to fill some void in their own lives. But why should that have to be so? Doesn’t everyone want romance? Doesn’t everyone enjoy that lovely, terrible, desperate feeling of being utterly at the mercy of another person’s glances and smiles? Why do otherwise sensible people jump out of perfectly good airplanes? Because we like the feeling of falling. And that’s why we like romantic stories — we get to fall along with the characters.

There is some truth to the notion that writing romance can be wish fulfillment for an author. It was for Jane. And that’s what makes her story so beautifully sad. But it isn’t in every case.

When my husband first read the manuscript for I Hold the Wind he commented that it was a far more romantic story than I’d written before. I hadn’t thought about it, but I had to admit he was right. My initial reaction to this comment was to be a bit defensive. I didn’t write a romance! And then it was to worry that he might be a bit offended, that he might think I’d written something romantic because I was lacking romance. After all, we had been married for more than fifteen years at that point.

Of course both reactions were wrong. I didn’t need to be defensive. I should rather be glad that he thought it was romantic. That means it made the reader have a bit of that feeling, that feeling of falling. Zach likes romantic stories, especially when people get back together after a falling out.

And I didn’t need to worry about the writing being some unconscious wish fulfillment. I was simply following the story and the characters as they developed. I didn’t set out to write a romance — I set out to write a story about the books that stick with us. It became a romantic story naturally, because a guy and a girl were sharing and discussing books, which can be an intimate exercise.

It also became a romantic story because our relationship to the books we love can be like a romance. We fall for books like we fall for people. There are books we will never fully get off our minds, just as there are crushes in our youth (whether on a person we actually knew or a popular musician or actor whose poster we had on our wall) that we’ll always remember, no matter how many years we’ve been happily married. I know I have nothing to fear over Rebecca St. James and Zach knows he has nothing to fear over Donny Wahlberg (Mark Wahlberg, maybe). We don’t love those old crushes, forsaking all others. But we’ll never completely shake them. They are part of what makes us us.

Same thing happens with movies and actors. Zach and I have discovered recently that we have some mutual celebrity crushes (Jake Johnson, Chris Pratt, Zooey Deschanel). And because we’ve been watching movies with each other for 22 years, we love many of the same films and TV shows. Sure, we have our own separate flings — I will never understand his attraction to Burn Notice and he will never understand my attraction to Under the Tuscan Sun or The Last Unicorn — but by and large, we fall for the same shows: Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey, Gosford Park and The Boondock Saints.

I doubt he would fall for Becoming Jane, though I won’t tell you why. Maybe that film is just my little affair. But I do know this: I shan’t shy away from the romantic in my writing if that is where a story wants to go. Because we all like the feeling of falling, our characters included.

Bringing Back the Morning Room and the Drawing Room

A couple new pieces were added to the Cigar Room over the long weekend. While the menfolk were out geocaching and shooting off rockets on Black Friday, my mother-in-law and I went antiquing. I had two very specific items on my list — a small, round drink table and a vintage lamp for right next to the Eames style chair. I found the lamp right when I walked in the door of the first shop. The table was discovered in the back of the second. It’s the perfect size for the lamp, a drink, and a little candle.

We do still need to put a few more things on the wall, but the room is nearing completion. Both my husband and I find ourselves there at some point almost every day. Sometimes all day when we are writing or editing. It is perfect for sunny morning coffee and reading, afternoon tea or cigars and writing, and evening wine or decaf paired with pleasant adult conversation.

Though it’s far more masculine than the traditional morning room that a large estate may have had in the 18th or 19th century, I find that it is a nice substitute in our neighborhood of small homes built in the 1930s and 1940s.

A morning room, if you’re unaware, is just what it sounds like. A room used in the morning. Traditionally it would have been used by the lady of the house to receive visitors, plan meals, make shopping lists, and work on correspondence (I do have all my stationary there now). Lots of windows and strategic placement on the morning side of the house meant lots of natural light by which to read and write. The term is used more in Britain than the US, by why not borrow it to add a touch of formality to our stubbornly casual lives?

The morning room’s cousin is the more commonly encountered drawing room. Contrary to my childhood misunderstanding, it is not a room reserved for drawing (a fact which deeply disappointed me when I discovered it). The term is short for withdrawing room. It’s a room to which you and your guests might withdraw after a meal for conversation and drinks. Alternatively, it might be a room to which one would withdraw alone in order to escape one’s guests.

We use it to escape the messy kitchen and dining room after dinner, or the toy-strewn living room at almost any time during the day. We also use it to withdraw from noise when we are trying to read or write with other people in the house. It is mostly separated by the brick wall that used to be the outside of the house, so with the door shut it is quite insulated from the sounds of video games in the basement or music in the living room. It is an absolutely adult room — no toys allowed — and the only part of it that can get messy is the table, which is easily tidied by emptying the ash tray and putting coffee mugs into the dishwasher.

This uncluttered space has helped my state of mind immensely. It is a room in which it is equally easy to concentrate and to let the mind wander and dream. I don’t know when I’ve ever been so pleased with how a sudden redecorating whim has turned out.

Rediscovering the Power of Idleness

In the second episode of Mad Men, Roger Sterling walks into Don Draper’s office and says, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”

As both a professional copywriter and a novelist, I knew exactly what that meant. Creative work, whether you’re coming up with sales angles and headlines or plot twists and character arcs, requires marination — periods of time in which the writer looks like they are doing nothing at all when in reality there is a whole hell of a lot going on behind the scenes, as it were.

Whether lying on the fabulous mid-century modern couch in your swank NYC office, taking long walks in the woods, or just staring into space at your desk, “doing nothing” is important. It looks to all the world like idleness — laziness, even — especially to those with more visibly active jobs. But it isn’t.

I was recently talking with a friend whose kids are intensely scheduled — school, music lessons, sports, and other extracurricular activities, one right after another, nearly every day of the week. I felt exhausted just listening to her list them all out. When I commented on how that seemed like a lot for a kid to do, she responded that otherwise her son got bored. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that her son will do something amazing with his life (and knowing his parents, I’m sure of it) but that thing will not be becoming a writer.

From my earliest days, I was a “lazy” child. After having had an extremely active (maybe even hyperactive) first baby who climbed and ran and tumbled all over the place, my worried mother actually asked the pediatrician if there was something wrong with little Erin, who spent most of her time sitting and staring off into space.

“She’s just thinking,” was his wonderful reply. And I guess I was.

As a kid I spent a lot of time drawing and reading and sitting in trees, all activities that allowed me to do a lot of thinking. Sure, I played sports and acted in plays and played an instrument as I got older, but most of the time, I preferred to just observe and think. I was never bored. I was never looking for more to do. In fact, I was really good at doing nothing at all, which, as I grew up, I realized not everyone can do.

My childhood talent for idleness came from my father, who loved nothing more after a long day at work than to turn the stereo up loud, sit down, and listen with eyes closed, drink in hand. He wasn’t someone who always had a bunch of projects going. He wasn’t going off to parties or performances. He liked being home and relaxing by himself. I can’t imagine him ever feeling lonely or bored during these times.

I certainly didn’t get my talent for doing nothing from my mother, who couldn’t sit down to watch a movie without also ironing or folding towels or cleaning out her purse. She was the list-maker, the errand-runner, the shopper, the one making dinner and cleaning the house. She was always productive in a way my father and I were not. Nowadays she’s learning to enjoy relaxing with a book (though I suspect she still can’t watch a movie without a sewing project in hand).

As a teenager, my sister jumped at the chance to get a job and earn money that she could spend while out with her friends. I resisted getting a job for as long as I could. I didn’t care about earning money because I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t care about having a car, going to movies at the theater, going to the mall. Everything I liked to do, I did by myself and none of it cost more than I could earn doing chores around the house (which I would always put off until the last possible moment).

I was lazy and content.

Then at some point, perhaps once I was done with college, I turned into my mother.

With just a job and no school, I suddenly had a bunch of empty time to fill and a bit more money to spend. I began making lists and thinking up little projects and shopping for stuff I didn’t need. I started hobbies — scores of them — and filled my time with stuff to do. I still didn’t care to do the stuff that actually needed doing — like cleaning and laundry and grocery shopping — but by golly I made a lot of cards and jewelry and quilts.

I kept busy and I somehow got the notion into my head that any recreational time I had should be productive. That there should be some visible result or product of anything I did. Something to show for my time. I have no earthly idea where this notion came from. It certainly wasn’t a concept I was raised with. My parents never told me that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Maybe it was just the natural result of reading DIY magazines. Maybe I spent too much time at Michael’s and Jo-Ann’s. Maybe it was just living long enough in a frenetic, get-ahead-or-get-left-behind culture. I have no clue. But somehow I had lost the white space in my life. And while my twenties may have been extremely productive years in terms of things created, they were barren years in terms of creative thinking. They were years I thought about how I’d like to write . . . and yet didn’t write a word worth reading.

Lately I’ve been reclaiming my down time, from both responsibilities to others by quitting a few activities and from the arbitrary busyness I have tended to create for myself. I’ve spent entire afternoons reading and not felt guilty about wasting time. I’ve spent entire days closing myself off in a room to write. I’ve spent entire weeks off work without checking my email. I decided that it’s okay for my garden to just be pretty and not productive. It’s okay to binge-watch The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. It’s okay to amble through a park and watch ducks and collect pretty leaves.

Nothing has to come of it all. It’s just pleasant idleness. It’s just enjoying myself, my family, and my world.

And in rediscovering the idleness I was so good at as a child, I find that I am recovering the “empty” time I need in order to write.

“I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing,” Roger Sterling said to Don Draper. But he wasn’t doing nothing. He was doing his job, and doing it in such a way that he made his company quite successful.

At the end of our super busy months of September and October, I told my husband that I was not going to say yes to any invitation to go somewhere and do something on any Saturday in November. And except for one Saturday in December, the same conviction holds true. I don’t need the time to do anything specific at home beyond rake the leaves and do the laundry. I need that time to just do nothing. 

I know that to a lot of people this seems kind of rude and selfish and antisocial and lazy. But it really isn’t. My 9-5 job is writing. My avocation is writing. And my writing well is not filled by engaging in activity for activity’s sake. It’s filled by reading, walking, observing, thinking. It’s filled by things that look like nothing.

Writers like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Wordsworth, Henry Miller, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and many others understood the importance of giving the mind room to work by simply taking a walk, and this article has a lot to say about why that is. I heard a speaker at a recent conference relay some advice she had drawn from another writer (whose name escapes me) that “If you aren’t reading so much that you feel guilty about it, you aren’t reading enough.”

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams,” said Virginia Woolf, “that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” And if I, as a writer, intend to be about the business of discerning and presenting truth, I need the time that I need in order to discern it and present it in such a way that the reader experiences it in the most fulsome and lasting way possible.

If you are a writer or a painter or a poet or some other kind of artist who has been feeling guilty about the time required to do your art well, I invite you to join me in recovering and relishing your “idle” times — which of course we know are anything but. Others may not understand, but what they don’t realize is that every time they read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song that speaks to them, they’re enjoying the result of someone else’s strategic idleness.