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December 2016



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Dec. 9th, 2016


Digging through the toolbox

One of the advantages of having been at this writing game for so long is that I have a vast array of tools in my toolbox. Some of them get shoved to the back, covered up, or slide between the cracks. But eventually I remember they're in there.

Today I had a high-level, big-picture writing problem to approach. After staring blankly and apprehensively at the screen for a bit, I decided to brainstorm and plan in longhand. I routinely do my drafting and revising on the computer nowadays, but for some reason this task needed the concreteness and simplicity of pen on paper. Then I sat down to the electronic manuscript with a (handwritten) list of specific edits to make to this draft. For some reason, this worked on this particular day with this particular problem.

Another example of living my motto, "Whatever works." If one approach doesn't work, there are plenty more to try.

Dec. 6th, 2016


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Some light humor at a time of year when the nights are long and the days are cold.

Out-of-office messages:

"I am out of the office for the next week. If you have any questions in my absence, please look deep inside your soul for the answers."

"I am currently on vacation and am not giving this place a thought while I frolic in the sun and surf. I will answer your message when I drag myself, weeping, back to the office in two weeks."

"I am away. Whatever you are contacting me about, no, I didn't get to it before I left. Probably won't get to it when I come back, either."

"I am out searching for the meaning of life. If I don't find it, I'll be back at my desk in a week."

(These were inspired by a humorous out-of-office message I saw recently.)

Dec. 2nd, 2016


The questions we need to answer

"I have never written a book that was not born out of a question I needed to answer for myself. Perhaps it is the need to remake order out of chaos over and over again. For art is order, but it is made out of the chaos of life."
--May Sarton, At Seventy: A Journal

Nov. 28th, 2016


Delayed discoveries

Imagine that some creative work you produced in your late teens--for which you had high hopes, but it never went anywhere then--has been "discovered" decades later. This work that's so far in your past is current and fresh to others. It's what they know you for. Whatever directions you've taken since then, however much you've changed, now you must revisit that old work.

This is the premise of True Story, volume 1, a nonfiction essay called "Fruitland." Two young brothers recorded an album in the late 1970s, which only received wide attention and celebration within the past few years. It makes for an interesting read, but it also made me question how much of my own adolescent writing I would still stand behind. I'm a better writer now, I hope. My perspective on many issues has changed; I'm much more politically aware now. There's little of my unpublished work from back then that I would care to put forward now.

And yet, who would want to turn away new fans, no matter how belated the attention, no matter how far we've come since creating that work? We all know that some artists aren't even discovered until after they're dead.

It just reminds me that fate is quirky, and art is unpredictable, and we never know where the dandelion seeds of our work will drift and take root.

Nov. 25th, 2016


Writing for the family

On this blog, I mostly talk about writing for general audiences and writing for publication, but today I'd like to encourage another kind of writing: writing for one's family.

Take the time, and encourage your relatives to take the time, to jot down some of the following:
--What you know of the family history
--Funny stories and memories (You know, the ones that get told and re-told around holiday tables over the years? Write them down.)
--Your own accounts of big moments in your own life: wedding day, first job, birth of children, etc. Maybe you've climbed a mountain or won a Pulitzer or competed in the Olympics. Tell about it.
--Your personal accounts of historic events: where were you and what were you doing on 9/11, during the moon landing, during any big event for which you were alive? How did you feel? How did the average person experience these?
--How you've experienced life: do you remember what life was like before the internet? What have we lost that you don't want to go unremembered?

People say we will no longer need personal historical documents like letters and diaries because we document everything on social media. If you want to know what Great-Grandma's life was like, you'll be able to look at her Facebook account!

Well, maybe. But maybe not. The fate of our social media accounts is not entirely under our control. And even if all that information is preserved in perpetuity, it still might be nicer to have the information in a more reader-friendly format.

Your kids may not want to read your account right now, but sometime far in the future, they probably will. And even if they never do, someone in your family, somewhere along the line, will get interested in family history and will want to know this stuff. Which reminds me: label your photographs, too. Include first and last names, and dates.

Nov. 23rd, 2016


Happy Thanksgiving

Here's hoping you are surrounded by the people for whom you are the most thankful, and that the blessings you're counting are many.
Here's hoping that you find joy in the day, common ground with family and friends, and renewed energy for the season ahead.

Nov. 19th, 2016



Put butt in chair, fingers on keyboard. Write every day. Stop procrastinating. Pull the plug on the internet. Make time.

There's merit to all these sayings; writing never gets done if we don't sit down and do it. That part of the process is under our control.

But for me, there's a part of the process that can't be forced, that doesn't follow the schedule of my will. Certain writing problems get worked out below my conscious level. I turn them over consciously, and when I start going in circles I let them be. I take a walk or do chores or sleep, and I can feel something percolating at the back of my mind, but I can't articulate it. I don't know the answer yet.

When the solution eventually seeps (or bursts) into my full awareness, it's a relief.

When I took a cognitive psychology course in grad school, one of the things I heard there was that the solution of a stubborn problem was often not so much about attacking the problem to figure out the answer, but stepping away and forgetting the wrong answers so the right solution was no longer blocked.

I haven't yet found a way to rush this process. I recently had a door open in my current project, and although I've been knocking at that door for a while, it seems that what I needed to open the door was simply time.

Nov. 14th, 2016


There comes a time

There comes a time in the life of a manuscript when it is hideous to the eye, when one cannot bear to read it yet again, when entire sentences have been accidentally committed to memory, when one begs for something fresh to work on.

In my experience, that time is usually when there is one more pass to go. The end is in sight, but ... not ... quite ... yet. The finish line is just a crawl away.

Nov. 11th, 2016


Comfort and magic

I'm rereading Patti Smith's M Train this week, which is a comfort read for me. I have many comfort reads: childhood favorites; classics; plot-driven bestsellers of yesteryear; humorous essays; just to name a few. M Train is the quietest of quiet books, but its spell lies in the way Smith finds magic in daily life, in memories, in objects that act as talismans, in habit and in dreaming.

As writers, we are constantly observing the world around us, seeking the magic in the moment. Today I saw golden beech leaves fluttering to the ground, and piled up a satisfying stack of library books, and listened to hopeful music, and signed some petitions, and did some work that needed doing, and revised part of a manuscript. A quiet day--a useful day, I hope, with a few bits of magic. Darkness comes early now, and it suits my mood of settling in with a comfort read to cap off the day. I hope you, too, are finding comfort and magic.

Nov. 6th, 2016


A weekend with librarians

I've been at the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) conference where I was refreshed--as I always am when I attend a librarians' conference--by their enthusiasm and dedication. These are the kinds of questions they are discussing: How can we better serve our communities? How can we reach more people? How can we ensure that our collections and services are diverse? What materials do our communities need? What's next on the horizon?

I was there as an author, but I'm also a library user and a library supporter. A grateful one.

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