Category: | The Writing Life

I Want to Be A Badass

I married into soccer the way other people marry into Catholicism. World Cup is like Lent – we don’t mess around. But in all seriousness, I’ve really come to appreciate the sport. It is a beautiful game, and I enjoy watching, but the thing I love most of all, the reason I keep coming back to sit next to my husband on the couch is this moment:

The moment right after a hard-won goal is scored and the striker loses his damn mind is absolutely captivating to me. I can almost feel that adrenaline pumping in my own veins, feel the exaltation so good it hurts. Almost.

As writers, we don’t really get that moment. When things are going really well we can slip into that magical zone where it doesn’t feel like work, but never have I ever been so overcome with my prose that I’ve slid across the floor on my knees, fists balled, screaming to the heavens.

Writing is like a sloth playing soccer. Though I’ve never actually played a game, and I’ve never (literally) been a sloth, it seems to me an apt metaphor. It’s not that we don’t struggle, or get tired, or sometimes put the ball right where we want it, it’s just that all the emotions of a ninety minute game are stretched out over years (sometimes a lot of years).

I crave that feeling. I wish I could cram the experience of writing a book into ninety minutes. I want to be a fucking badass, sliding across the grass knowing that, hell yes, that just happened. But it’s never going to happen at my laptop, and I don’t know how to manage my disappointment at that.

Am I alone in this? Any other writers out there get that craving for adrenaline and pressure and putting it all on the line? If so, how do you blow off steam? Have you found a way to bring that intensity to your writing? How can we balance the fact that our job is to sit quietly, alone, at a screen all day, when sometimes we want to run and yell and be a total badass? I’m not being rhetorical here, I really want to know…

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Taking a Vacation From Writing

Happy 4th of July everyone! My family and I are celebrating the country by being back in it. Yep, home sweet home. We just spent two weeks on vacation in South America doing a 10-day guided tour of Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas, and then a stopover in Quito, Ecuador to visit my husband’s family for a few days.

It was an epic trip. We’ve been planning it for months. And one of the things I always wrestle with when we go on vacation is whether or not to bring my writing. The decision was made harder this year by the fact that the deadline to submit my pages for the Squaw Valley Community of Writers was about a week after we were scheduled to leave. So my choices were to bust my ass and get the work done before we left, or bring my lap top and work up until the last possible minute.

Well, there was no way I was going to be sitting in the hotel room in Cusco working while the family went exploring. I busted my ass. I carved out as much time as I could to polish up those pages and put as bright a shine on them as I could. Then, the day before we left, I sent the pages in, closed my laptop, and got to packing.

Then the anxiety set it. Partly it was anxiety about the pages I submitted. Imposter Syndrome is real, people. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I could have made those pages better. But there was nothing to be done at that point. Except stress about it. Because, you know, that’s fun.

Also, I’ve realized over the years that I get anxious when I don’t write for more than a day or two. In the past I’ve devised little writing exercises to take on vacation and keep my writer brain engaged while I’m away from a story, but this time I didn’t want to bring busy work. I wanted to relax and enjoy my vacation. I wanted to not work.

I compromised by journaling. I brought the notebook I use for morning pages and took the time to write about our experiences. Decidedly NOT work, but it was enough writing to keep the anxiety at bay. (Some day I’ll reflect on why I’m a mess when I don’t write, but for now, I’ll embrace it as motivation.)

Here are a few more photos from the trip.

How do you manage writing on vacation? Do you bring the laptop? Always or just sometimes? Do you enjoy stepping away from your work, or does it make you nervous like me? Do you have any advice for dealing with the nervous rash I get when I don’t write (wait, let me guess – therapy)?

 

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First Idea, Best Idea?

Back when I was in grad school studying all things writing, I had a professor who insisted that when you’re writing you should trust your instincts and always go with your first idea. He was really emphatic about it.

Well, I thought about that long and hard. Then I dropped his class.

Back then I couldn’t really articulate why I thought this was such bad advice. I only knew that my first ideas are, more often than not, my worst ideas. Cliché, predictable, boring.

But since then, I’ve had some time to think about it. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Instincts Have Their Place

As humans, we are pattern seeking animals. We are quick to categorize. This has served us well over the course of our evolution. For instance, if you see a red glob of color with little black dots all over it and a green leafy top, you think “strawberry” and eat it. If you see a bug buzzing around in black and yellow, you think “bee” and leave it alone.

But as writers, we have to dig deeper than those first instincts, those base impulses that have kept our species alive for so long.

As an example, lets say I want to show that my character is happy at receiving some very good news. I could show him smiling. Yes. Smiling. Everyone knows that smiling means happy. But it’s boring.

Dig Deeper

To create a more interesting character, and tell a more interesting story, I need to explore what happy is to this particular character. Does he sing when he’s happy? Whistle? Does he tuck his chin, like he’s afraid to show his happiness? Is he more likely to buy something or give money to a homeless person on the streets? That’s five more ideas.

Five isn’t a bad start, but really I’m just sorting through more of the placeholder images in my head for “happy.” The reason people usually stop there is that it’s a lot of work to come up with unique ideas.

If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do It

Another teacher I had in grad school (one whose class I didn’t drop) suggested making a list of at least thirty possibilities. You’ll find your best (most literary) options at the end of the list.

So here goes… Things my character might do after receiving good news:
6. push his hair back from his head
7. go outside
8. jump up and down
9. call a family member
10. run
11. write a note
12. drink alcohol
13. drink something else
14. smoke pot
15. dance around the room
16. lay down on his back and lace his fingers over his chest
17. jump up and dangle from a tree branch
18. cinnamon toast
19. make his bed
20. clap
21. talk to his cat
22. throw a rock
23. tell a stranger on the street the news
24. post it to social media
25. make a sign for the window of the house
26. sit back in his chair and just soak it up
27. polish his shoes
28. play an old favorite song
29. kiss his wife
30. handstand

You can probably tell I got a little stuck there around 19. Who makes their bed when they get good news? Nobody I know. And actually, it’s hard to say which of these is the right choice, since this is not a character I actually know, but I do think those last three are interesting. In fact, I really like 28. In my mind he’s putting on an old record of some Ramones song and rocking out, letting the excited energy fly. That could be a fun scene.

What do you think? Do you usually go with your first idea? If so, do you find it changes as you write it? Or do you, like me, have to dig to find the little gems that make a story fun?

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Arriving At The Truth with Salman Rushdie

I’m fascinated by the intersection of truth and fiction. It’s something I became interested in after seeing Reza Aslan talk about his book Zealot back in 2014. He talked about the difference between truth and fact. As Americans we tend to lump the two together, but when you tease them apart you find a really interesting place where some of the best stories are born.

So when I came across this video of Salman Rushdie talking about this very thing, I knew I had to share it. I haven’t read his new book yet, but apparently it has a flying carpet, so you know I’m going to have to check that out…

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Put Your Writing on the Calendar First


Some big news this week. I was accepted to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers! It was not the first time I applied, and so I’m feeling particularly proud of myself for persevering through past rejections.

Now the Work Begins (eek!)

As part of the program, I am supposed to submit 5000 words for workshopping, and another 5000 words for an individual conference with one of the mentors there.

For my application I used the first chapter of my novel (the one currently being shopped to editors in New York). And I’m certainly not looking to workshop those pages.

And yet, what I’ve written so far on my second novel is so rough I would never show it to anyone. What’s more, I don’t have a ton of time to work on it. Though the pages aren’t due until the end of June, I’m shooting to have the work done by June 15th so that family obligations in the second half of the month don’t derail me.

Then I had to account for the fact that the kids are out of school on May 31st, and that the last week of school is a joke anyway with wall-to-wall school parties and early dismissals. Life is getting hectic, and I really want to put my best work forward on this thing.

Prioritize the Writing

As I was thinking about all of this, I was reminded of something I learned a while back but have since forgotten: you have to put your writing on the calendar first.

So I pulled out my bullet journal and looked at the coming weeks. I looked at every day and blocked out at LEAST one hour a day to work on my writing. Most days I was able to block out two hours, though some of those “two hour” blocks will probably be as long as whatever movie I put on for the kids. A quick google search tells me Pirate of the Caribbean is 2 hours and 20 minutes, and so is Mary Poppins, and every one of those Marvel movies is super long…

Then Honor It

The task now is to honor those blocks of time. No laundry, no dishes, no cooking dinner. If the calendar says I’m writing from 8-10, then damn it, come 8, I put aside everything else, load up an Avengers movie, and get to writing. I will order pizza – again. The kids can get dressed from the pile of laundry that still needs to be folded. Dishes can go ahead and pile up.

It can be challenging to not let things get it the way, but you know what? If you don’t block out writing time on your calendar you’re setting yourself up for defeat. Time will slip away, day by day, week by week, and another year will tick past without you “finding” the time to write. Don’t find time. Make it.

Put your writing on the calendar first, then work everything else around it.

Because you’re a writer.

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Switching Mediums for a Day t Work in Clay

clay Michele CollierMonday was my birthday. It’s funny how they keep rolling around. I’m 41. I didn’t plan anything, because 41 is one of those kind of nothing birthdays, but as it turned out, my mom was in town this weekend to teach a sculpture seminar at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona.

She works in clay (check out her online gallery) and she often travels to teach courses, but I’ve never taken one. Not until this weekend. I’m not sure what moved me to join her this time, when so many times before I’ve hugged her and sent her off to teach without me. Maybe it was the fact that it was my birthday. Or maybe it was that I’m in a strange place with my writing.

Writing Projects

If you follow along at all, you know my debut novel is in the hands of my agent, being shopped around to editors in New York. While that is a really fun sentence to write, it’s also a surprisingly difficult period of waiting.

So I’ve been writing on novel number two. After some (okay, much) focused work I hit 80,000 words. It is officially a respectable length for a first draft, but the project is a bit of a mess. I needed to put it in a drawer for a month and let it simmer. I needed a bit of distance from it.

While I have ideas for novel three, I’m not ready to jump into it yet, so I’ve been passing the time doing research, but it’s just making me anxious. I’m so freaking tied in knots about all things work related lately, and I’m finding it hard to manage.

The Solution

As it turns out, taking a day to be creative in a way that is completely unrelated to my writing was the perfect remedy for my anxiety. I was about ten minutes into the eight-hour class when I had the thought: I need to buy some clay to keep at home. This is awesome. I had no concern for the finished product and it was liberating.

We threw the clay against the table to create long slabs, then wrapped and layered the pieces. We explored texture and form, and just got messy. Then we got down to work creating a piece.

It was also fun to see my mom in teacher mode. She’s such a pro. She does figurative sculpture, which is really hard, but she walked us all through the steps, showing us how to build the base, work up from there, shape a convincing face, and build hands that are proportionate. The time flew by.

This is what I ended up with. My very first figurative sculpture.

It’s imperfect, but you know what, when I was half way through it I knew what I wanted it to look like and a little voice in my head said: that’ll never work, but I kept going and I got there. I’m really proud of this piece, even though no one will ever see it but you guys.

Get Creative

The experience reminded me that we are, as writers, creative people. And that creativity can come in many forms if we let it.

If you’re feeling anxious, or stuck with your writing, I highly recommend taking an art class. Just a one day thing, or maybe more if you’re feeling it. (If you’re near Healdsburg, CA or Sedona, AZ check out my mom’s upcoming workshops.)

It’s really remarkable how removing any concern for finished product really allowed me to play around. It was nourishing and just plain fun.

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Some Serious Wisdom From Author Hannah Tinti

Pasadena Festival of Women Authors Hannah TintiA couple weeks ago I had the honor of attending the Pasadena Festival of Women Authors. If you follow along at all with my blog, you know I’m a big fan. This was my third year and each time I’m just aglow with bookish goodness for days afterwards.

If you’re anywhere near Pasadena, you should get on their mailing list so you hear when tickets go on sale – then you have to move fast because the event sells out in, like, a day. But it’s so worth the effort.

As always, every women who spoke had my full attention. There were so many little puffs of knowledge and insight that floated out into the air over the course of the day. But the author who really floored me, and I mean left me stunned, was Hannah Tinti.

Hannah Tinti

Hannah TintiHannah Tinti is the author of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, a story about a father who protects his daughter from the legacy of his violent past and the truth about her mother’s death. She also wrote The Good Thief.

She started off her time at the podium talking about some of the trials and tribulations she has faced as a writer. In the three years I’ve been going to the festival, this kind of don’t-lose-hope-even-when-things-are-bad narrative is pretty par for the course, but then… oh but then.

Facing Our Fears

She talked about the importance of facing our fears. She gave a point-by-point strategy for dealing with fears, which, as I look at my notes now, I realize I can’t do justice. In a nutshell she said we should name our fears, declare a place of sanctuary that we can retreat to, grab a broom and chase those fears, and sometimes just pretend we’re not afraid until the truth catches up.

But talk is cheap. It was what she did then that floored me.

She had the audience snap with her, in a rhythm. Once the whole room, hundreds of (mostly) women, were snapping in time she shook her head and smiled. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she said. Then, after one more deep breath, she sang.

She sang as beautifully as any jazz singer I’ve ever heard. It was like she’d been doing it all her life. It was a mournful song, full of longing. I looked it up later that afternoon. It’s called My Love Is by Diana Krall. It’s a beautiful song, but really, the recording I found didn’t have anything on Tinti.

That took some serious bravery. I was so impressed.

Find a Place for our Pain

Should COULD have dropped the mic at that point, but she went on. She told a story about a man who had once suffered from phantom limb syndrome. He had lost a hand in an accident and even though it was gone he could still feel it. It felt like it was clenched in an excruciatingly tight fist and he couldn’t let go.

Long story short, a doctor discovered that by using a mirrored box, he could make it look like the missing hand was there. The one-handed man clenched his remaining hand, put it in front of the mirror and then opened it. His brain saw two hands relax and suddenly, the missing hand didn’t hurt anymore.

Said Tinti: the only way to cure our pain, is to create a reflection of it in the world. That’s what our writing is, she said, a way of creating a reflection of our pain in the world. By doing so, we let it go. It’s cathartic for writer and reader alike.

Me: Floored.

In truth, before the festival, Hannah Tinit wasn’t really on my radar. But if her writing has a fraction of the bravery and truth that her thirty-minute talk contained, it’s gotta be good. I can’t wait to read her books.

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Independent Bookstores – Where the Booklovers Go

independent bookstore day 2018Writers read. It is one of the defining characteristics of writers that we love books. Love ’em. Can’t get enough. And those of us over a certain age have, in our lifetimes, witnessed a  total transformation of how books arrive in the hands of happy readers. It looked bad there for a while (for those of us who love bookstores), but it turns out independent bookstores are on the uptick.

The First Hit

In case you weren’t paying attention, neighborhood bookstores were hit pretty hard when big box stores (Barnes & Nobles, Borders) came onto the scene in the  early ’90s. Then they suffered again when (in the late ’90s) when Amazon exploded onto the scene. Between 1995 and 2000 our country lost 40% of its indie bookstores. Dang.

Paper is Dead (or Maybe Not)

But then Kindle came along (in 2007) and crushed the big box stores. Just left them in tatters. Everyone said “paper is dead.” But they were wrong. What happened was a bifurcation of book sales.

On the one hand you have Amazon, where you go if you just want something fast and cheap.

On the other hand, you have your local bookstore, where you go if you want to immerse yourself in books and book culture.

What a Bookstore Is

It turns out that there is a market for the experience of a bookstore (those of us who love books aren’t surprised) and the demise of the big box stores left a hole for the indies to grow into.

Since 2009, there’s been a 40% uptick in the number of indie bookstores. This guy from Harvard, Ryan Raffaelli, recently did a study of how that was possible and what he outlines in his project summary are three things: community, curation, and convening. In short, indie bookstores know their communities, they work hard to offer the kinds of books their customers want, and they host book signings and book clubs to bring people together around books.

Indie Bookstore Day

This Saturday is Indie Bookstore Day, and indie bookstores across the country are hosting events to celebrate the fact that a bookstore is more than just a place to get a book.

To join the celebration, find the store nearest to you and make a date to go wander the isles just for the fun of it. Buy a book, or three (or, you know, more). Check out their calendar of upcoming events. Seriously, indie bookstores are the best. If you haven’t been to one in a while. It’s time you did. Have fun.

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Stop Being an Aspiring Writer

For some reason, I love reading self-help books when I travel. Whenever one of these get-your-shit-together kind of titles pops up I always hesitate to buy them because I don’t want anyone to see me carrying it around (because – embarassing). But there’s something about being in an airport, among the crowds of anonymous faces, that seems to open up space and compel me toward their bright covers.

aspiring writerSuch was the case this last weekend in the Portland airport. The kids and I were coming home from a spring break vacation at my sister’s place and I was drawn to the bright yellow cover of “You Are A Badass.”

Apparently, I AM a Badass

I’ve been curious about the book, but every time I come across it I read the blurb on the back: “…the self-help book for people who desperately want to improve their lives…” and I put it down. I’m not desperate to improve my life. My life is pretty good, actually. So I don’t know what compelled me to buy it this time, but I’m glad I did. The plane sat on the tarmac for three hours before it took off – something about engine trouble – and I finished the whole book in one very long day of travel.

The general theme of the book is that you can change the things in your life that aren’t working like you want them to. You do it by looking really closely at your own relationship to those things.

The Scripts that Play

For instance, the author, Jen Sincero, points out that most of us have really conflicted feelings about money. We hate it, but we want it. We love having it, but it is the root of all evil. She encourages us to look at why we have all these conflicted emotions, and then change the script that runs in our heads. And thus… the affirmations.

Affirmations

The author proposes, and I agree, that the stories we run in our heads influence everything we do. And so, we need to be more intentional about the scripts we let play out. She suggested writing down affirmations, putting them somewhere you see them all day, repeating them in your head all day long as you go about your business.

As I read what she wrote, I was reminded of the time that I decided to take the word “aspiring” out of my description of myself. For years I had been writing, every day, on all kinds of projects, but still when people asked I would say I was an “aspiring” writer. What a bunch of BS. As writers, we know better than anyone how much words matter. So I stopped using that word.

I choked on it the first few times, saying “I’m a writer.” It was hard. But the more I did it, the more people saw me as a writer. The more people saw me as a writer the more I felt like a writer. It was just this wonderful positive feedback cycle.

Get Uncomfortable

That, Sincero says, is one of the most important features of a good affirmation. It needs to make you uncomfortable at first. It needs to feel almost like you’re lying to yourself. Or, if it’s easier, start with the word aspiring, then remove it. For example:

I’m an aspiring writer.
Make it: I’m a writer.

or

I’m an aspiring best-selling author.
Make it: I’m a best-selling author.

This second one is where I’m at now. That’s the actual affirmation I’m using. Of course, I’m not going to walk around telling people I’m a best-selling author. That would be lying (and frankly delusional), but I AM going to put it on a post-it in my bullet journal, where only I see it, and read it multiple times a day. What harm can it do, really? None. And there’s a chance that, as I reaffirm that idea over and over, I will be motivated to do the work that a best-selling author does, busting my ass every day to make my reality match up with the affirmation.

Wherever you are in your journey as a writer, I would highly recommend taking a look at the stories you tell yourself. For a more guidance, check out Sincero’s book. It’s a quick read, and totally worth the time, even if you’re not stuck on a plane for hours and hours going nowhere.

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An Atlas, Not An Outline

an atlas not an outlineI recently had the pleasure of hearing the author Percival Everett talk about his work. The man has written 30 novels over the course of his career and he’s still going strong. Anyway, one of the audience members asked him if he outlines. He responded that he uses an atlas, not an outline.

What’s An Atlas

For those of you who have never experienced navigating a long trip without a GPS, an atlas is a book of maps. We used to take these books with us when we drove somewhere far away.

Every night of the journey, you would sit in your cheap hotel room or your tent and trace the road you had traveled that day. Then you would look at all the possible routes that lay ahead, turning to the appropriate pages to see more map when you got to the edge of the page. You would consider detours if you saw something cool nearby and debate the value of the scenic route vs the freeway.

Writing From an Outline

Writing from a strict outline is kind of like using a GPS to travel. TURN RIGHT, TURN LEFT, KILL YOUR MENTOR CHARACTER HERE.

But treating your outline like an atlas is really appealing to me. When I think in these terms, I see my outline as a map of the world I’m creating. I know I’m starting in one place, and I need to get to this other place, but everything else gets flattened out in front of me and I start to see things in a much more appealing, much more creative way.

My Story Atlas

The metaphor of the atlas is most apt when I’m actually writing. Because I do write with an outline (always will from now on), I start with a bullet point, something like “Tanya discovers her husband is cheating on her.”

I set out in my writing, heading toward that place, knowing that I will get there, but also open to possibility, and my route almost always changes as soon as words hit the screen. I find myself in that wonderfully weird place where your story almost seems to dictate itself. When I’m really focused, I discover story elements I never expected to find. It’s magical really. And somehow I do always end up where I intended, it’s just that the journey never looks like I thought it would.

It’s everything I always loved about road trips with my BFF, without my legs sticking to the seat of the car.

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