Screen shot 2015-04-15 at 10.43.04 AMSomething happens to me in the springtime. I get giddy; I get dreamy. I read other people’s tweets, their links to their work, their self promotions, and I think about all that’s possible, all that’s ahead. I want to do everything. I can do anything. Can’t you smell it in the wind? This week I burst into tears when I watched a slow-motion video of my baby girl laughing. Throughout the days now my husband, the reluctant texter, sends me photos and gifs and updates on our girl, on their days together. They teach me things. I study my girl's expressions intently when I’m taking a pump break in the basement of my office, in a sterile room that so many other women have used. I bring my laptop with me each time, ostensibly to get some work done, but mostly I find myself swiping my phone back and forth, up and down, staring at her. Thinking, wishing.

There are the dreams you have before you have a baby and the realizations you have after you have a baby and sometimes they don’t match. Sometimes, things you want have to be placed in a temporary hold because other things are more important right now. This spring, I am reading other people’s work and I am thinking, “I should write about this, and that, and pitch it here, and there” but then I remember the reality of my days right now. They are packed. They are rushed. I wake up bone-tired but alert, always alert, always listening for my baby’s cry and her breathing, always reading and intuiting her needs. I play with her and read to her and then I go to work and try to cram everything in. Where I used to have ten hours, I now have eight. Where I used to have unlimited time, I now have limits.

The world feels very much on Pause for me right now in all aspects except one, the most important one, which isn’t on Pause after all but instead is very much on Fast Forward. My girl is sitting up. She is teasing me, playing games with me. She is testing me. She is growing at such an alarming rate that all I can do is watch and marvel, and point out the flowers that are blooming.

Writing in Real Life

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 5.45.54 PMMy husband has been listening to podcasts for years. Since before Serial, which means before they were cool, which I guess means he's ahead of the times, or something. Anyway we always said we'd never collaborate but here we are, collaborating: we've just launched Writing in Real Life, a podcast series about writing, publishing, parenting, and marriage. Heady topics! Our first one is now up.

Fun fact: we recorded it on Monday night. By Tuesday I decided I hated what I said, so we re-recorded it Tuesday night, right after the State of the Union, when my head was spinning from all the live tweeting I was doing. I think this session is perhaps a bit less fun, but hopefully more informative than the original one.

I hope you'll follow along!

The hypocritcal writer explains

Screen shot 2014-06-03 at 10.49.46 AMA gorgeous friend of mine, an incredibly talented writer, just texted me to ask for advice on how to write what she really wants to write. "Should I pretend I'm writing a letter to my niece?" she asked, "What should be my homework? Can you direct me?" This time it's a book about living life while in tremendous pain. I have no doubts that whatever she writes will be lyrical, intense, soul-searching, important. But this is a common occurrence: people ask me for advice on writing. They want to know the tricks, the secret formula. I wish I knew it, if one exists. Perhaps it's something like one part grit, two parts free time (ha), one part outline, 17 parts passion.

I texted her back: "Remember there is no secret formula. Put your ass in a chair and write."

The thing is, I am such a hypocrite.

These past few weeks and months have been hectic; we just moved into a new place, and with it came the requisite stressors, compounded by my being in my fifth month of pregnancy, finishing up two semesters of adjuncting while also working my full-time day job...the list goes on. (Yes, we all suffer from busy syndrome. Sorry.)

I was in Florida in March to visit family, a lovely uncle who is now paralyzed after a stroke and massive heart attack, and while there had my first real writing inspiration in months. I started something new on my Notes app in my hotel room at 5am; I thought I'd come home, invigorated, and burst out a chapter book in a month. Ha, I say again. Instead I scribbled some notes in a blank Scrivener page a couple of times, and then took to the couch, napping before and after work and twice on weekends, bone-tired in a way I didn't realize pregnancy could cause. Grading papers for class took all my strength. Answering simple emails became my Everest. With pregnancy, everything takes twice as much energy, which would be okay if not for the feeling that I had only about half the energy per day that I used to. (I'm no mathematician, but that means I was doing a lot less than I used to.)

So now it's June, and I haven't looked at my work-in-progress in literally nearly two months. And my dear friend is asking me for writing advice, and I'm giving it, like I am some kind of expert.

My lesson here, a tough one, is that taking a break is okay. I am allowed to form a fortress of pillows around my body and lay down for hours at a time when I come home from work; it's okay for me to turn down invitations for Saturday nights because I can't imagine putting on clothes that aren't yoga pants. It's okay, even, to stop writing for a while, to be worried that all my creative energy is now circulating elsewhere and then to let go of that worry, because there is literally nothing I can do about it. This is who I am right now: someone who is tired, who is just trying to get through my days, who is excited and terrified and emotional and snappy and only occasionally able to see through the fog that has fallen over me like a dark curtain.

I've only just now forgiven myself for that.

Someone else I know just wrote about paring back her commitments for the summer to give herself a break; I was doing the same, subconsciously, but now I'm embracing it. Like Ross said: writing and I, WE WERE ON A BREAK. This is a time of transition, of self-care. I'm going to embrace it--or at least, not be angry at myself for it.

And I'm going to get back to writing. I will. It just might not happen this month.

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Maiden, mother, crone

410px-Poisonwood_Bible"But look at old women and bear in mind we are another country."  (The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver) This morning I finished reading The Poisonwood Bible (here's the story behind that). It is stunning; the kind of book that changes you. The kind of book that makes you roar with injustice, with hope. It murmurs sentences like the one above, lines that made me cry, on nearly every page.

It should be required reading. Forget Catcher in the Rye; forget my love for The Great Gatsby, for the Whartons of the world. (Sorry, Edith. Love you always.) Make this the title all seniors in high school have to read before graduating.

It's also the kind of book that makes a writer go, well, fudge. I didn't write that. And how can we all go on breathing when there are people writing things like this among us, and we are not revering them as gods?

I've been on a writing break since I finished revisions to a manuscript and sent them off in December. Now I am waiting. The trick to this long, neverending game is knowing that the waiting will creep in and settle down into your pores if you're not careful, turning you into a bottle of impatience, ready to pop.

The trick, also, is wondering if maybe I will be an old woman, my own country, too, before this, this big goal, happens for me. And maybe that's just the train I'm on, carrying a ticket I can't remember buying, but resigning myself to the ride. And maybe I just have to be okay with that, and keep taking day trips to other cities in the meantime.




Doing it till it's done

3427826247_d02281da2cI am working on revisions for some agents. They are a slog. They are why I am nowhere online this month. That's a lie: they are actually kind of fun, in a way. They are illuminating. They are necessary. They are challenging, but worth it.

This isn't a NaNoWriMo post, but I'm liking the symmetry; I'm finding editing inspiration in all the tweets I see from writers logging their minutes. I have edited before -- top to bottom, heavily and lightly, successfully and less so. But now, for the first time, maybe, I'm editing and rewriting with every word in mind. Literally, every one. With each keystroke I pause and think, "Did I mean that? Is that the best way to phrase it? Would she really react like that?" I'm finally understanding one of my main characters, whose personality has always been a bit fuzzy. Now I hear her. Now I get her. Now I finally like her.

The revisions are taking time. It's all justifiable -- wedding, work, other deadlines -- but it's still hard for me to sit with. New things are landing on the tips of my ears, whispering. Shinier things. Sitting down and starting each day is more than half the battle, especially when your days are (lately) extremely mentally exhausting, and you're feeling the urge to hibernate and string up some Christmas lights.

Part of what I need to do with this revision is change the working title; something I've always known, but all my beta readers seemed to like it so I kept it a secret from myself. The new title is on the tip of my tongue -- so close, I can hear the words ringing in my ear, but not clear enough for me to make them out yet. So I keep brainstorming. I have lists and lists of titles; I have iPhone Notes and emails to myself and scrap post-its that are all tucked into the piles of my desk. At my last writing group (shout-out to the incomparable ladies who comprise it), when I realized I needed to rip up the beginning, I opened up a new Scrivener document and called it BURN DOWN THE HOUSE. I set the first 10 chapters on fire, so I may as well just call it what it is. Arson.

So, yes, this is where I've been. All my writing energy is going to work and to burning down a house that I love so, so much but know it can be better. So I need a name. Names are important.

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I hear the bells

Sri Lanka, 2006 I tried fresh coconut for the first time in Sri Lanka, sipping the warm liquid straight from the shell, and it tasted like the opposite of how it smelled, sweet and dewy and mild. An impromptu game of cricket had started, and I took the opportunity to rest my feet, my back. Six days of labor were behind me, but two remained ahead, stretched out like impossible scenarios.

In 2006 I went to Hikkaduwa, a coastal town in southern Sri Lanka that had been washed away by the 2004 tsunami. When I got off the plane, a 13 hour flight from London, the air was so thick — it was mid-January, their summer — that it lodged itself in my throat and stayed there all eight days, wrestling with my airways. My hair hung in limp ringlets, thin against my head. Everything everywhere around me drooped.

Crossing the street from the hotel to the line of shops, bursting with tarnished jewelry and buddha statues, was a risk. There are no real traffic laws in Sri Lanka. Limbs hung out of buses where windows should be, person on person; stray hands that rested flat against the rusting bus, resigned to the kind of heat that no breeze can shake.

One night we took a canoe through the river, rounding bends over alligators. I had never seen anything so beautiful, so still. I had never felt more different. We ate a meal I can’t remember in a backyard lit up with torches, but I bet the fish was still on the bone; I bet I thought, this fish survived the tsunami only to be eaten by me, a stray American.

Today I am working on some revisions — converting a series of third person chapters into first — and Mike Doughty is playing on my iPod. For some reason I was really into “I Hear the Bells” that winter of 2006, and when I mixed the cement that week, turning heavy piles of stone and paste over and over with impossible shovels, I sang that chorus in my head; the same refrain over and over. Now I can't hear it without feeling that blanket of heat, that angry sun. That last day, the day of coconut drinking and cricket, the day I watched a group of local kids tease the Aussies and Brits about their game play, was the day my arms gave out. Too much cement, too much shoveling. Too much left to do; what was the point when 15 people couldn’t even build a single house that week, when so many people had lost everything.

The moments of kindness still stick out the most. Afternoon tea breaks, steaming hot and sugary, still the best tea I’ve ever experienced, and the best company — a family of seven, living in a house of two rooms, sharing a single bed, and still offering us all they had, all they could think of. A colleague, seeing my collapse, who said, “You’re good, you’re good, here, come sit next to me,” and every year after that we’d still meet up for lunch in London, until one year we didn’t anymore, and now I can’t even remember his name.

But I remember his eyes and the way they helped me that day. I remember the cement, and the shovels; the ladders we stood on to reach the rooftops, the creaking of my hips each night as I stretched out, sore and stiff. The soupy air. The Buddha statue in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The lapping of the water over my ankles, the sunsets, the tourist bars. The knowledge that I would forget most of this soon, that I’d never see these people again.

Dear Diary

5665152268_e538635ce8I don't know how many diaries I bought as a kid. I just know it was a lot, considering I never (ever) filled them up and never had a lot of money to spend. But diaries were my downfall. The key, the lock, the smooth covers, the fresh, blank pages...there was so much potential in them. In the Thrift Drug in the center of town there was a case of them, pale blues and pinks, and I would run my finger over them and think, "I can say so much in here!" I never did, though. After a few half-hearted entries they'd fall to the wayside, one by one; a graveyard of calm colors dumped under my bed.

I had this yearning to be the kind of girl who wrote in diaries back then, similar to my yearning to always be acting out a scene from Teen magazine, like how, the night before the first day of school, I would almost always hot-roll my hair and put on a face mask and call my friends on the phone, even when I didn't have anything to say and besides, I hate talking on phones, because that is what I thought I was supposed to do as a pre-teen girl; that is the story I wanted to convey. (One year, the mask took so long to dry, and my mom was working that night, and my dad got annoyed at me for not being in bed yet, but I couldn't go to bed because I had to let the mask dry. And then it was too late to call my friends, and even my sisters were near-asleep already, and my whole staged scene was ruined that night. I woke up with red eyes and a lingering hiss of betrayal at Teen.)

Back to diaries: sophomore year of high school my friends and I had a little, fat notebook we called Phat. We used it in lieu of passing notes to each other -- instead, we just passed around Phat, which was filled to bursting with secrets and doodles and song lyrics and crushes and recaps of that day's General Hospital episode. A core group of us shared Phat, with occasional guest posts from other friends. (I like to think of it as my very first shared blog.) Sometime in college when K and I found Phat in our bedroom, its green cover tattered, we realized how dangerous it was. All the original writers were off at college, steeped in new lives and new allegiances, and the level of change made Phat risky. So we shredded it. the only real diary I've ever finished. I still regret it.

Today I found this article about a new kind of digital locked diary, and my heart leapt. I found myself thinking, how could I use this? Would people laugh at me? But what if I kept it secret? Then I would have a secret about a secret diary and...maybe that feels a little much. The drive for a locked book where I could dump everything hasn't gone away, it seems. Even though I know better now. I know I would never write in them.

Today, when I hear other writers talking about how they filled diary after diary as a kid, graduating to proper journals as a teenager, I can't help but think, "Liars." But maybe they're not like me, is all. Maybe they haven't saved it all up to parcel it out, piecemeal, into various manuscripts.

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Setting into a coast; a life

2621081911_f0f63ac770An old friend from LA emailed and when I wrote her back, I told her I loved her photos of her city -- burnt and hot-looking on her Instagram account, offering a glimpse of a place I've never visited but have always secretly loved. Los Angeles, or the vision of it I have in my head, is my single instance of coastal regret. Why am I in New York, I sometimes wonder? But here is where I settled. The settling happens, whether it’s into bones or cities or routines, and I always knew New York would be good, it would be how everyone said, and even better, and then some. But there are losses, sacrifices I forgot would revisit when I least expected them.

Last fall, a lovely 23-year-old I worked with jumped ship; a cross-country move, a dream job. I told her then how jealous I was, and I had never been more serious, and it was a thick jealousy, a mournful one. For a while I struggled with the reasons behind my reaction. I moved to New York after college, lured by a communications job for a respected news organization. I spent six years at that job, loving things, but far from settlement. I read books on LA, on how to become a writer, on how to write for TV, on how to work in entertainment. My Amazon bill for those books was more than I could afford and I remember thinking they felt dated even then, in the early '00s, and they felt less than useful. But I read them, and wrote occasional poems, and when I thought ahead I knew I wanted to be a writer, but it was a vague notion, and besides, wasn’t what I was doing already just a type of writing?

It was. One day, years ago, on a train ride from DC to NY, a man next to me, leaking nerves, told me his life story. He waved around photos of the long-lost child he was about to go meet. He asked me what I did, and I said, I’m a writer, and he said he’d never met an actual writer before, and so I felt like a liar.

Today I am 33 and a writer, and it’s definitive, and I adore all of it – my day writing job, coming home to my writer love in the evenings and cooking dinner together and then retreating to our shared office, where I write more, this time for me, this time for ghosts I’m legally unable to name, this time for what I hope is my future life. And the city speaks to me in fits and starts and that’s okay because it’s mine, and if that means I can’t live on a deserted beach, then that means the beach is there for vacations.

But then a twenty-something told me she was leaving New York for LA to write, and I wanted to throw up, because even though I love my life and I’ve chosen this and it thrills me, my making the choices I’ve made means, necessarily, that I’ve opted out of other lives.

The problem is, there are so many lives I’ve always wanted. But I have this one, and it’s not even a “but,” it’s my own type of fantasy, one I never even thought I’d be brave enough for, because I made it here in New York. But it means I didn’t make it in LA, or London, where I was so close, so many times. I chose this place, which means I couldn’t choose any other.

In a few months I'm getting married, and that too is a choice that relegates some other choices unnecessary.  I treasured my single life. I miss aspects of it -- the things I could have hung on the walls, the throw pillows, the night cheese. And marriage is a type of settling, too, an acknowledgement that one more life is closed to me, a burst of magic rendered obsolete. A circus with no more seats.

Both youth and naps are wasted on the young. My bones feel their age now but sometimes I am still the youngest person in the room and therefore the one with the most opportunity to dream and when I dream I dream of flight, escape, but the secure kind, which doesn’t make much sense.

When I told my fiance all those months ago about my coworker, the one leaving, the one I could have been but can no longer be, he told me with wide, serious eyes, Babe, we can move to LA. You can work in TV if you want!

And maybe we will. Even if we don't, though, I like having the option.

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The Next Big Thing: Gemstones edition

Ah, editing. The fun part. (?) Years ago (five, maybe? Who can remember?) I took a day-long writing workshop from MediaBistro. I was toiling with my first YA (now one of those books-in-a-drawer everyone talks about) and just needed some focus, and the class was helpful. But what was greatest about that class was that I met Laura Sibson, who's been a valued critique partner and all-around fun-to-text-with friend ever since.

Yesterday she tagged me in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop, a traveling blog that asks authors to tag "the next big thing" and ask them these questions. Here's her post, in which she talks about her work-in-progress. (Edie sounds awesome, btw.) The idea behind the Blog Hop is to get writers to share pieces of what they're working on.

The thing is, I am kind of weird about blogging about my writing. There are countless blogs out there by writers at all stages of publishing who talk about what they're working on, their processes, their statuses (seeking representation, on submission, etc.) and I almost find it overwhelming. I don't try to be precious about my writing at all -- quite the opposite -- but I think there's a part of me that wants to surprise people, maybe, with it when it's ready?

But! This month I am thisclose to being finished with a brand new book that I'm really excited about. So I'm breaking my don't-talk-about-writing mindset right now, because I want to talk about this book.


What is the working title of your book? I love naming things, but I am struggling with this title. I call it THE GEMSTONE RESURRECTION, but my back brain is still working on something better!

Where did the idea come from for the book? Two places: when my grandmother died I received some of her jewelry, including her old engagement ring. I was wearing it one day, and while waiting in line for lunch I started twirling it on my finger and thinking about her. We had a complicated relationship. (She and my mother didn't get along too well, and I am a mommy's girl.) And that line -- "I have a complicated relationship with my dead grandmother" -- popped into my head. I wrote an entire opening chapter based on that line.

Then, a few weeks later, I was in Charleston, SC (amazing place!) with my sisters and mom for her 60th birthday. (See? Mommy's girl!) We took a ghost tour -- a total tourist trap, but a super fun one. The guide told us a story about a woman who haunted the graveyard, and I found myself disagreeing with his telling of the story. He clearly thought we should all hate the woman for what she did, but I found myself defending this woman -- this supposed ghost -- in my head. So I wrote a chapter, thinking it would be unrelated to the chapter mentioned above, about her story. When I got home and began working on the book, I realized they were actually parts of the same story.

What genre does your book fall under? It's YA, with alternating chapters that are contemporary and supernatural. Which means it'd be shelved in the paranormal section, which is a shocker, because I never, ever thought I'd write paranormal!

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Gemma would be Elle Fanning with dark hair; Pearl would be Troian Bellisario (Spencer from Pretty Little Liars).

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? First, a funny story: I wrote one and sent it to my sister for her thoughts. She wrote, "It's good, but I always think of Pearl as the main character, not Gemma." Readers, she blew my mind. Why was I thinking of Gemma as the main character? (Well, a lot of reasons, but too many for this blog.) So, after multiple drafts and a total shift in thinking, here's my one-sentence synopsis:

Pearl Briar needs an heir – not to her fortune (she’s only 17), but to her secret sorority, the Gemstones, but after a miscast spell throws her plans into disarray, new girl and outsider Gemma Martin becomes an unwitting participant, a powerful competitor, and maybe the most vital Gemstones component of all.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? I'm represented by Amy Tipton of Signature Lit.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? I am a slow writer -- it takes me time to get into a story and figure out what it is. Plus, I have a full-time job (that's often more than full-time). All this is to say, I started writing this in earnest in early spring 2012; it's now nearly early spring 2013, and I'm about 8,000 words away from finishing it. (So, this weekend, maybe? Although I said that last weekend, too.)

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma comes to mind, which is so beautiful -- not because I think my book is technically similar (or anywhere near as great) but because there's a freedom and a magic in that book that I think is also present in mine. You don't know what's real versus what's not; the world of the characters sometimes feels murky.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? I had just recently turned in edits to my agent (for a contemporary YA that hasn't yet sold) and was tossing around a few ideas for what I'd write next, but nothing was sticking. So I decided to not even worry about what to write next. And like I said above, then the line about my grandmother's ring came, and then the ghost story, and I thought, "I'm going to make this book as crazy as I can and see where it takes me."

My friend Sarah MacLean always says, "Ask yourself, what's the worst thing that could happen to your characters? And then do it to them." So I tried!

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? Four words: Secret high school sorority. Oh, and one more word: Witches.

And I'm tagging the lovely Melissa Sarno!

I can't stop singing Tori

A few weeks ago my friend Joe, for whom I was wearing my favorite Tori Amos concert tee back when we first met when I was a mere 18, asked me to contribute an article about my relationship with feminism and Tori's intersections of it for PopMatters.com. (Talk about full circle.) PopMatters has been running a Tori spotlight all week, and today my post, "Reflections on Tori Amos and the Feminist Movement," went live. In the few weeks I spent writing the piece, I've reverted, hearing Tori lyrics whispering to me every part of every day. I've been YouTubing old videos and live performances, hitting repeat on my "best of Tori" playlist, and generally just enjoying my renewed Tori love.

Hope you enjoy, too. And here's a song for today. (It's humid and rainy here in New York, and my body feels gummy, and I'm having hankerings for Londontown, so this felt appropriate.)

Writing utensils

Two or three years ago for Christmas, I asked for a particular kind of pencil. I was writing my first manuscript at the time, and my friend, a writer herself, had gone crazy for this pencil and told everyone she knew that it was the best writer's tool ever.

And I wanted to be like her, so I asked for it, since my family is always asking me what I want for holidays and I never know what to tell them, since I have everything I could ever need. (Except a popcorn popper. But that's on my birthday list this year.)

I am here to announce I barely use this pencil.

Tonight I'm writing a chapter that's due Friday and I'm deep into it, sitting at my desk, the sirens and music of Hoboken leaking through my open window. It is warm out, y'all. Warm and the kind of sticky that makes me kick off the sheets in bed and wake up with a damp hairline. (Or perhaps I am just sensitive to heat, as I've been told.) And I'm alternating between writing in Scrivener and reading this synopsis I have and I went to grab a highlighter and noticed the pencil, the infamous Christmas pencil, instead. And here I am, clicking it to lengthen the lead, and drawing a tentative line with it, and realizing the truth of it all is that I just don't use a lot of writing utenstils of any kind, let alone the lead kind.

The other truth of it all is that I have the most incredible mother, who asks me what I want for Christmas and then listens to my answers, and keeps a meticulous list of what she spends on each of her four children and one son-in-law and evens it all out to the penny because she is so concerned with equal distribution of presents.

I went down to my parents' house this past weekend for Mother's Day, and on Saturday night I finally had dinner with my mom alone, just the two of us, which we never get to do anymore. I admitted to her that I still hadn't gotten her her Mother's Day gift yet. The clock was ticking -- literally, there were mere hours until the day itself, and if you know my hometown, you know there's not much in the way of boutiques there. I hadn't even gotten her a card.

And my mom, the champ she is, pulled into the Walgreens on our way back to her house, laughing the whole time, where I ran in and joined the dozen other slackers in the card aisle, and picked out the best card I could find. It played music and had a fairy with wings that really flapped on the inside, which made it a winner.

She's a winner, too. She's the biggest winner I know.

This pencil, however, is not. (Sorry, Sarah. I know you love it.)

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Pearl Street love

  • This summer I vacationed on Pearl Street in Beach Haven, my hometown, my heart.
  • I have lately taken to wearing my deceased grandmother's ring; it's shiny and antique and makes me think of her, which is a strange, new feeling. We weren't close.
  • One of my other grandmothers (this one) still lives in the Beach Haven house in which I grew up; it's an historic site on the island. (Literally.)
  • In 1960, the Baldwin Hotel in Beach Haven, situated on the very same Pearl Street mentioned above, burned down.

These are swimming in my head today. That's a picture of the Baldwin Hotel. Isn't it just gorgeous?

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Retreat dreams

I read a quote* the other day about how, if you leave someone or a group of people feeling anything less than stellar about yourself, or the world, or the future, or the past, you’re spending time with the wrong people. Tonight is my monthly girls’ dinner, which sounds like some sort of Sex and the City throwback or feminist coven or sorority meeting, and it sort of is all three of those, in a way, but mostly it’s just a set time in the calendar for me to catch up with some of my favorite people; people who leave me feeling like I’ve risen when we part.

I’ve had this overriding need for a “break” lately – from lots of things, but nothing I can really name, so it’s hard to explain – and today, as I crammed myself into a subway car, carrying heavy bags that leave ridges in my shoulders, trying to amp myself up for another long day, because aren’t they all just so long? Is it just me?, I let myself entertain the notion of escaping. And I mean really escaping – like, withdrawing from the known world for a month, retreating to a cabin in Montana with no internet access, and just decompressing and being and thinking and writing.

It’s a lovely daydream, but alas. I can’t. There is too much to do, always, and there is always a fine sheen of guilt for not getting it all done in the time or manner on which I had planned, and I am an adult, despite this hissy fit I seem to be having, who should be willing and able to handle her own baggage, and my problems are first world problems anyway, because as Louis C.K.’s standup goes, I could be someone who hasn’t had a glass of clean water in a decade, or someone whose daughter never came home, but instead I am an American, a thriving one, who has nothing to complain about (other than the crazy Tea Partiers and my eroding reproductive rights). And plus, I just really want to see these friends tonight, and every month, for our dinner, which I would not be able to do from a cabin in Montana.

*Okay, it was someone’s Facebook quote. But it was attributed to a real person. I just can’t remember who.

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How do you work?

This is a week between vacations, so I'm back at work but prepping to leave again -- this weird push/pull between settling back in and jetting off. (Tough life, right? Two vacations within three weeks? Also, my diamond shoes are too tight.) (+1,000 if you get the reference.) (I mean, not like Friends is this underground reference or anything.) (Yes, shuddup, I still love Friends.) I'm still reveling in last week, despite its harried ending. For example, my friend T. is a real treat, and I think last week was the most concentrated amount of time I've spent with her. She comes and goes as she pleases, generally; at the beach, this meant she would be her birdlike little self in the kitchen most mornings, mixing hummus and chopping vegetables and seeping some strange-smelling tea, before disappearing for hours on end. She doesn't text as a general rule, so we just had to trust she (and the second key -- and with a house full of nine people, that second key is critical) would come back before nightfall and join us for dinners. She always did. But that's a different story.

She had work to do on vacation -- a syllabus for a college class she teaches -- and I, needing to get some writing time in (#omgIamsoclosetofinishingthisbookbutnotreally), commiserated. One afternoon we left the beach early, closing the glorious day behind us to retreat into a quiet-for-once house. I made an Arnold Palmer (um, with vodka. It was vacation!) and settled myself into the kitchen table, earphones on, and pumped out 1,200 words. T., meanwhile, did not. As best I can tell, she cleaned (much appreciated), fluttered about, and stared at me a lot.

As it turns out, she is one of those "everything must be perfect and I must have a routine" kinds of workers/writers -- her hot chocolate must be made just so, her desk must be clean, her fingernails filed, and so on. As she put it later, she "must be ready for inspiration." She didn't understand how I, with my sandy feet and a house full of ladies coming and going and talking, Madonna playing in the background, could shut out the world and write for a while, right there in the center of the kitchen.

This is the thing one learns after being paid to write for years on end: you can't be precious about it.

A few years ago, I booked a "writing retreat" for myself. It was the off-season on my beloved island, and I escaped from the city, armed with my laptop and a driving need for solitude, and stayed on the deserted island for three days, intending to finish my first manuscript. It was awesome. It was helpful. It was productive. And I plan on never doing it again.

I love writing, but sitting down to actually do it is the hardest part of the process for me. And I needed to teach myself to be able to write anywhere and everywhere, no matter what's happening around me, whether there's some decaf brewing or not. And this applies to my professional writing as well as my personal. Because there are always deadlines to meet, and there's usually not always a chance to disappear for four days, in a silent hotel on an empty beach, to meet them.

Though, seriously, how incredible would it be if there were?

How do you work -- with a routine, or without?

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Mad Men and the writers who love them (it)

I tend to shy away from making vast statements that involve the word "everyone," because there are always many exceptions to those rules. But in this case, I think I can safely say: everyone who fancies themselves a writer should be watching Mad Men.  


And I don't mean "watching Mad Men" in the sense of having it on in the background while you eat dinner or check your Facebook or chit-chat about your day to your roommate. I mean WATCH watch it -- turn off the lights, light a candle, pour a glass of wine, and focus on that television the whole time, taking note of all the intricacies of the language and dialogue.

There are very few shows which require me to do that. (And in fact as I wrote out that sentence I was desperately trying to think of another show for which I do that, and I failed. Oh wait! Now I have some, though they're oldies. The X Files. Sports Night. Veronica Mars.) One day a while ago, I talked about how watching General Hospital makes me a better writer. And it does, but in a much different way than Mad Men does.

I languish in Mad Men. I take my time with it. Kind of like how I re-read my favorite Edith Whartons each year, slowly and with great care, just enjoying the words -- that's how I am with Mad Men. I let it take up all the space in the room for the hour. I let it entertain me. Every word of dialogue is used to within an inch of its life. It is all necessary. It is what makes the show so smart, so subtle. And while I adore the styling and the politics and the actors, oh my goodness the actors, I stay for the writing.


My love for General Hospital is not really a secret, but it's also not something I bring up in everyday conversation.

That's partly because, let's face it, it's kind of a guilty pleasure. There's a reason I watch soaps (ABC only please, thanks): I have vivid memories of my mom watching them while I'd be playing in the bedroom with my sisters; they would often gang up on me (ah, sisters) so I'd escape to the couch and curl up into my mom for some comfort. Then, in middle school, somehow All My Children became the show to watch (Tad was back, which was a big deal in the early 90s); I got into One Live to Live when Marty's rape trial started in the mid-90s (thanks, mom-mom!); but by my high school  years, it was all GH, all the time. Truly, talking about GH was a bonding routine for me and several of my friends and classmates. There was even some sort of long song/limerick that I *wish* someone had thought to keep.

I lost the thread sometime in college, when classes and clubs and life intervened; and then, working my first "real" job didn't leave any time for soaps. (Also, this was pre-Tivo, so.) But then, magically, I got back into it a few years ago. It still makes up a solid 5% of conversations with my family, since we all watch.

Anyway, for a writer, watching soap operas can be infuriating. The plot meanders--some episodes are tight and enticing, others are redundant and boring, and still others simply make no sense in the context of the show's history--and the dialogue can sometimes be so overbearing and silly. I mean, not on GH, but definitely on those other soaps ;)

But being a close watcher of soaps has helped me with my writing, I would argue. It's shown me that there are protocols any script must follow; that characterization, pacing, and plot are all equally important; and that mostly, the storylines and the sub-storylines need to fit into the larger concept of the show's theme. General Hospital, for example, because of its name, can never get rid of its hospital scenes, which means some portion of the main characters must always be either a. working doctors or nurses or b. continually getting shot, afflicted with amnesia, or undergoing psychiatric evaluations.

Sometimes GH fails, spectacularly. But at least I'm always learning from it, even if it's just what not to do.

What I blog about when I blog about running

One week from today I will be in Myrtle Beach, getting ready to run my first marathon. Or, you know, "run" my first marathon. Running is funny, and oddly tied into writing. Of course, there are books like What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (no, I haven't read it) and blogs like Literary Legs, but mostly, what I mean is, there seem to be a lot of characters whose running is supposed to symbolize something. I'm just not often sure what.

I have done this. In my first real attempt at a manuscript, the main character picked up running when she left her city life (or rather, was forced out) to move back home in a deserted beach resort town. When I wrote those first 20K words (which is all there is), I wasn't a runner. I wanted to be, and I think I thought that I could write my way into the motivation needed. I also think that by making Sydney a runner, and better yet, a new runner, it would tell the reader a lot about her.

In my first completed manuscript, I made one of the main characters an athlete who runs on the beach every morning. But Allie's running isn't meant to signify much, except for her very real need for some breathing room from a suffocating family (and plus, Allie's kind of based on someone anyway, and that someone did run on the beach every day--an act I was always in awe of). So I think it works, but then, I'm a little biased.

I fell in like with running last spring, on a treadmill where I could play Usher's "Yeah!" on repeat and distract myself from the pain. I fell in love with running last fall, when I moved from the gym to the hard, flat path along the Hudson, where the city skyline is just a stone's throw away and the sun glints off the river and temporarily blinds me. I even sometimes run with my eyes closed; it relaxes me. But I don't kid myself; I will barely survive Myrtle Beach, and I probably won't get back to my normal running schedule until the weather warms up some more. That is, if it ever does.