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May 2015



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Apr. 20th, 2015


Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

One of the best reads I've had in recent weeks was Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

This memoir is told in graphic form (that is, heavily illustrated). It's a true story about parents and adult children (or in this case, one adult child), about aging and the end of life, about caregiving and obligations. It's about family: the ways in which our relatives amuse and exasperate us, the ways in which we care for one another. This book is hard hitting. While there's some humor here, the ending is inevitable and Chast doesn't flinch from it (at least, not on the page, whatever emotions she had to cope with in real life at the time). We know exactly where this story is going. There are readers who will find this book to be too close to home, those who find the reality of their own caregiving obligations or mortality to be quite enough already; this book isn't for them. There are readers who will prefer to "talk about something more pleasant," and who can blame them? But there will also be readers who need this book for its bracing realism, for the relief that raw honesty often brings. I'm in the latter category. A week after finishing this book and going on to read others, I'm still thinking about this memoir.

Apr. 17th, 2015


Open Book

Today I had the pleasure of visiting a new local independent bookstore, Open Book in Elkins Park, PA. Open Book is a cozy nook, sharing space with a frame store. It's across the street from the Creekside Co-op Market, and just steps from the Elkins Park train station.

As with many indie stores, the books are carefully selected, and the owners are familiar with everything on the shelves. Therefore, they're happy to make recommendations, discuss the stories, and match books with customers. But of course, if the book you want isn't on the shelves, they'll happily order it. The most popular genres in the neighborhood are literary fiction, young adult, memoir, cookbooks, and poetry. In fact, due to popular demand, they're planning to increase their poetry section. There's also a low-shelved, cheerful space for children's books. The store also sponsors literary events, such as "Dinner with a book" and a writers' retreat.

I was glad to welcome them to the area, because IMHO, every neighborhood needs a bookstore. Do you have a favorite bookstore near you?

Apr. 15th, 2015


Loner in the Garret

I've linked to this and made a reference or two, but it's time I formally introduced you to my latest book:

Loner in the Garret: A Writer's Companion, is my first nonfiction book. I started it as a break between novels, and I kept on with it because it expressed so much of what I've been saying and thinking about writing over the past few years. Most of the writers I know, especially those who are navigating the publishing world, find this journey to be a rather wild ride. Sometimes it's the best job ever, and sometimes we wonder what was wrong with us when we came up with the idea to start a book/story/poem/song/screenplay.

The official description is, "Inspiration and encouragement for writers. Covering topics as varied as procrastination, the inner critic, fear, distractions, envy, rejection, joy, and playfulness, it charts the ups and downs of the writing life with honesty, gentle suggestions, and a dash of humor."

It's obviously inspired by the blogging I do here, and the tone and philosophy will be familiar to my readers, but it is not a set of repackaged blog posts. Loner is new writing; it stands on its own.

If you'd care to check it out, the buy links are here:
Barnes & Noble

I want to give a shout out to Littera Designs, who came up with that beautiful cover. And most of all I want to give a shout out to you, the readers of this blog, who have been letting me ramble on about various aspects of the writing life for more than seven years now. Your thoughtful comments and your own blog posts have helped keep me going!

Apr. 12th, 2015


Work in progress

As I've written before, the writer's toolbox contains a variety of tools for different jobs.

At the moment, the one I need is a sort of confident focus. Listening to this story, trusting that it knows what it needs to be.

Apr. 9th, 2015


"'The time has come,' the walrus said, 'to talk of many things ...'"

I've been visiting--visiting other people's blogs, that is.

When Kurtis Scaletta announced his intention to run a series of blog posts on the topic of failure, I volunteered because it's a subject I've spent a fair amount of time pondering. (To find out more about why he chose that topic, and to see the call for guest bloggers, follow that link.) Here's a sample from my own guest post: "... we love the narrative of failure as a precursor to success; we love an earned happy ending. We love when the earlier pain proves to have purpose and meaning. But we don’t think of success as temporary. Once we’ve arrived, we don’t expect to get kicked out of the party. ..."

I also stopped by Jon Gibbs's blog to discuss my new book, Loner in the Garret: A Writer's Companion. (Which discusses failure, and success, and every other topic I could think of that relates to the crazy business of writing.)

Incidentally, if you don't already know Jon's blog, it's a good one to check out. He puts together a weekly roundup of posts about writing and publishing, and he's the force behind the New Jersey Authors Network and Find a Writing Group, in addition to being an author of middle-grade novels.

Happy reading!

Apr. 5th, 2015


Home base

My favorite writing form, for a long time, was the short story. I wrote them for years before attempting a novel. I also wrote poetry, but not as much.

I've been working more on book-length manuscripts in the past ten years or so, but I still write short stories from time to time. Especially when I have just finished a novel that has taken a lot out of me, or when a book hasn't turned out the way I'd hoped, or when I don't know what to write next. In a way, short stories are a sort of home base for me. I keep returning to them.

What is your writing "home base?"

Apr. 2nd, 2015


Early drafts

I'm in a listening phase, a reading phase, a figuring-things-out phase. Trying to figure out what's beneath the surface. Trying to discern a story in the scenes that are suggesting themselves. Trying to hear a character's voice.

In hindsight, the story that emerges looks inevitable. But on the front end, it's a mysterious dark forest, and all I have is a penlight.

Mar. 30th, 2015


Going to the dogs

If you follow my blog, you may know that I have a cat. (And if you follow me on Twitter, you've probably heard plenty about him.) But I'm happy to give dogs some airtime here, especially when they're the topic of a guest post by Holly Schindler. Her new book features a couple who meet through a canine connection. But more about that later ...


1. You always have company. Even when you’re being excessively boring. Which, let’s face it, is the life of a writer. To me (and to anyone else drafting their Great American Novel), there’s nothing more exciting than eight solid hours plunking away on a keyboard. But to the outside observer? (Enter loud snoring sounds.) It is, however, scientifically impossible to bore an animal. Even when I was in college, I used to put a chair beside my computer, and my Maltese, Winnie, would sit next to me while I wrote my term papers. You’re never truly alone in your office when your four-legged writing partner is curled up beside you…or at your feet.

2. You push yourself away from the desk. Conversely, you’ve got to thank your four-legged writing partner for accompanying you on long writing binges by taking them outside every once in a while. Jake, my Pekingese, is always makes sure that I get out in the sun—even if it’s just for a short walk around the block. In the summer, we’re both on the back deck. I’ve developed a serious love for writing outside.

3. Rejection never stings as bad. Oh, we all get it. Whether it’s a “No” from a publisher or a crummy review or a less-than-what-we’d-hoped-for anything from the pub world, all you have to do is let out a frustrated growl, and you’re instantly getting a kiss from your four-legged writing pal.

4. You never get a big head. Conversely (again), when things are going your way in the pub world—the reviews are starred, the in-need-of-your-signature contracts are piling up in your inbox—you inevitably wind up reaching for your latest printed masterpiece and find the pages have been chewed up or peed on, putting you right back in your place.

5. You laugh every single day. There is nothing funnier than a dog. Absolutely nothing. Which is probably why the first book I would ever even think about calling “comedic” is about a dog.

(Dogs play a big part in Holly's new book:)

Mable Barker, always the pal but never the girlfriend, bounces between lackluster jobs in Manhattan (and suffering unrequited love) in her unsuccessful attempt to find her one true talent. So when she meets Innis, the ill-tempered Fifth Avenue Pekingese, she assumes her dog-walking days are numbered, too. But Innis belongs to the adorable yet painfully shy young veterinarian, Jason Mead, a man whose awkward ways around women have him dreaming not of finding love for himself but of playing canine matchmaker—-breeding Westminster champions.

When Mable and Jason meet, romance is officially unleashed: they find an instant connection and shared goal, as Mable could have what it takes to be a professional handler, soon to hold Innis under a banner labeled, “Best in Show.” As Jason and Mable get closer to putting a new twist on the term “dog lovers,” outside forces—-Mable’s overprotective brothers, a successful wedding planner with her eye on Jason, even the theft of purebred pups from Jason’s Fifth Avenue apartment building—-all threaten to come between them. Will Mable and Jason simply let their burgeoning love roll over and play dead? Or will they rally to make sure Innis emerges as the leader of the pack?

Holly Schindler is the author of four traditionally published books; her work has received starred reviews in Booklist and Publishers Weekly, among other honors. Fifth Avenue Fidos is her first independently published book. She is owned by a Pekingese named Jake and can be found working on her next book in her hometown of Springfield, Missouri. She can also be found at

Mar. 28th, 2015


A spring day

I spent part of the day at a wildlife refuge, where it was my privilege to see the head of one bald eagle peeking out over the edge of a nest, and the other eagle flying around hunting and delivering food.

I've also been watching the nest of red-tailed hawks at Cornell, via webcam: the first egg of the season was laid today. (The webcam is great to watch, especially once the eggs hatch. But be warned, if you're sensitive about "Nature, red in tooth and claw," that if you watch live streaming footage of birds of prey, you will eventually see them eating.)

I've also enjoyed Melodye Shore's account of a hummingbird nest that this year produced two new offspring.

This elemental activity--the nesting and the raising of young birds--is keeping me grounded this spring. These birds are going about their business, tending to the very basics of life. It's been a comfort, especially at a time when the human race just can't seem to get its act together, when we resort to the tired old weapons of violence and discrimination. You would think that with disease, poverty, aging, and resource scarcity to deal with, we would have enough problems without creating new ones to inflict upon ourselves. I am weary of reading about all the ways in which people punish one another, the ways in which we try to control one another, the ways in which we refuse to live and let live. (If you are weary, too, Beth Kephart has some thoughts on kindness you might want to read.)

Nature has long been the thing that brings me back in touch with myself. Nature is not always kind, either, but there is a refreshing lack of malice in it. And the scent of the earth thawing is sweet.

Mar. 26th, 2015


A unique view

"'There's some funny thing that makes me want to paint something. It's a terrible kind of insolence, this delusion that I am recording something nobody's looked at before, a unique view. That's why I paint.'"
--Jamie Wyeth, quoted in Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, by Richard Meryman

I could say something similar about writing.

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