Tuesday, December 31, 2013

year end review

I wrote a lot!

At the start of the year, I took two online workshops and learned more about the craft of fiction and essay. I wrote more words each week than I had in years and finished the two months feeling a little lost, like what next? Hungry for more.

I tried new assignments and prompts. I'll post a couple of favorites soon.

I wrote through the summer - always a challenge with our yearly travel.

I transferred my honest journaling into honest essays. Lately I've been thinking about Oversharing versus Transparency. I want my essay pieces to be plain: this is me, this is what I think, this is what I don't know. I like writing essay pieces.


Which brings me to revision, which I've decided I love. I think through revision before going to the page. So before I open a file, I have ideas. And as mentioned in the last post, I'm learning to be vicious. Right now, I prefer revising fiction over essay. It's like it's more okay to be vicious with a character than with my own wobbly ideas.

I read a lot too. I'll post a few favorites soon. But what I've learned through years of this practice is that reading widely feeds my writing.

And this year I recommitted to writing a book. Thinking about finishing a book length collection makes me want to hide. Just saying I'll do that, especially after futzing around with writing for years and never submitting to any recognizable publication or carving out an online audience or even managing regular emails to friends and family - the Book Project seems like a reach. It is a reach.

I'll write more about humility and realistic expectations later. Just know I'm not dumb about how this might turn out.

Also know I'm having a great time meeting new characters. This year I drafted several new fiction pieces and returned to years-old stories. I love when an idea comes.

I also let a few ideas go before I got to the page, thinking: I'll remember that line. Then I didn't.

Maybe those lines will show up next year.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

vicious editor

A month ago I decided I need an editor. If I am going to play serious about completing this Book Project, I need earnest, paid help.* After reading her latest comments on pieces I sent her, one phrase stayed: her suggestion that I play the vicious editor.

I did that yesterday. I opened a fiction draft set in Kuwait, reread my editor's comments, took a breath, ate some panic chocolate, ordered a mocha for delivery, checked the news, opened my email, stared at the ceiling, rolled my neck, and got to it. Cut cut cut. I cut three characters at her suggestion. I swapped a page of backstory for a few sentences. I puzzled show versus tell.

Always a puzzle for me, that sweet little writing workshop phrase.

I realized two things:

I don't trust the reader very much. That's why I want to saddle you with five paragraphs about why Jeff took a job with a contracting company in Kuwait. I need to learn that those five paragraphs about the ex-girlfriend and parents and brother and forklift job in Milwaukee - those paragraphs are for me. I need to know Jeff first. But you don't need his elementary school report card. You need me to trust you to see what I show, to build a Jeff in your reader mind without me telling you.

Second, from reading loads of short fiction: most really great short fiction pieces are tight on two or three characters. That's it. When I draft I spin a dozen characters that all seem Very Important, even in minor roles. But when I cut three characters from yesterday's draft, the piece was better. Now the reader can follow Jeff without the distraction of George and Honeybee.

Okay, a third thing:

Revision is where the risk is for me. I can wander through a short fiction piece until it's forty pages long. I want to give every character a backstory. I want the reader to know exactly how these characters are knitted together. But I don't know how to knit. What the reader gets is a mess of yarn snaking from one minor character to another to another so that halfway through a piece, the narrative is lost. When I revise, I must be willing to risk cuts that hurt a little, to keep the whole narrative.

*And paying someone to read and comment on my work makes this process seem startlingly legitimate. Like, maybe I should get classy black and white headshots for the book jacket. Maybe. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

wish me good work

This afternoon I was at a coffee shop, drinking mocha and writing filler in my notebook. I have this fantasy of filling a notebook a month and rarely hit the mark. I make the excuse that my writing is small or the pages are many or the lines are narrow. When I think I have a chance at filling a notebook in a month, the entries take a slide. I'll write short-lined poetry with loads of stanza breaks. I'll make lists. I'll make fancy thought clusters. I'll do anything but dense prose.

So I was doing that mess when a woman came in carrying grocery bags, a newspaper tucked under her arms. She was only in the shop to throw away her cup and leave the paper. I asked for the paper and she saw my notebook and asked about that and then we had a nice conversation about living abroad and kids and weather. Her daughter's friend is in an undergrad writing program, has always wanted to be a writer. She asked me what I was writing and I said a collection of short fiction.

Then she asked my name. She asked me to spell my last name. She looked up and nodded, maybe filing it away. She wanted to know if I'd publish here in Kuwait. This woman stepped into my afternoon, interrupting a notebook page full of

I can't see as far as I'd like.


God, I don't know what I'm doing.


A minor panic at the thought of this process.


I am in the middle and not ready at all.


But I will make it work - God help me.

And this woman stands at my table and asks my last name so she can remember me when she sees that mouthful of a surname on a book. Bless her. Her husband was waiting, she had to go. "I wish your luck," she said, and then, "Not luck. I don't wish luck. I wish you -" she looked at the ceiling and I said, "Work. Wish me good work."

She laughed and wished me good work.

Monday, November 18, 2013

late in the day

Only to tell you I am still writing, fiction and essay, and that both come to me unformed and begging for good endings. I take my own therapy to the page in most essays: let's work out all the residual garbage of college regret, ego and marriage/parenting issues. This means most of my essays read as pathetic and groping as I am re: said issues.

I think there is a reason so many writers just got drunk and scribbled pages half in the bag. And that would be because it hurts to look at the junk in our lives. My life isn't all junk. I just wrote an essay about contentment. But even that dredged up the times and reasons for discontent and I acknowledged the work of contentment. I pray for it.

As for fiction, I found a story set in Kuwait. About time. Kuwait is many things and I wasn't sure how to write about it without me getting in the way. Like Colombia was to me, it's beautiful ugly or ugly beautiful. Slap that on a bumper sticker for anywhere in the world. But writing fiction set in Kuwait is allowing me space to talk about the country I consider home, without getting to sappy or judge-y. Or covering either by calling it fiction.

Monday, September 23, 2013


I may title my book that. Piecemeal. First Google definition to pop says: Characterized by unsystematic partial measures taken over a period of time.

That is my book exactly. I have twenty minutes of naptime quiet so I open one of my stories "Melanie Revised" - its working title to signal the character and that this file is the one I'm supposed to be revising - and make it a few paragraphs before my daughter asks for paper. She knows where the paper is and I launch into a The Necessity of Quiet Time tirade that ends with her drawing princesses quietly and me crying because I'll never finish this book.

I've read Stephen King's book On Writing a few times and right now I am trying to remember that he wrote stories in his laundry room, a typewriter balanced on his knees. I'm at a desk, standing on a doubled yoga mat, two  kids in the rooms behind me.

I'm trying to remember all the writing book gurus who say: Go to the page, Show up, Write. So I do. And eventually it will result in a book that might look like the sediment lines in a rock. I'll know this story was drafted spring and summer of 2012, with my creative writing students sitting around my classroom table and, later, at my in-laws' kitchen table after the kids were in bed. I'll know this story came from a dream four years ago and I wrote it with anger I didn't understand. I'll know this story started five years ago and took new shapes when I revisited the characters a yearly intervals. This book, whenever it finally shows up, might not have solid color or texture. I worry about that.

But look at my haphazard approach: it yields scattered work. This January I want to lay out my stories and essays - promising drafts and finished revisions - and see the sediment lines. See how the pieces group. Right now, I can't see that. I'll keep writing piecemeal.

Monday, August 26, 2013

where I write

Most of my writing begins in my notebooks. I am a huge fan of writing by hand. I like to write my way through a notebook and then see my notebooks physically stack up. For nearly a decade I've been writing in Moleskine cashier journals with Pentel's RSVP fine-point black pens.

I am more a creature of habit than I thought. This summer when I bought a pack of blue pens too, my husband asked if I was okay.

I also write on my laptop. I often take story or essay starts from my notebooks and move them to a file, then continue on. Sometimes I write a complete piece in my notebook - or a piece I come back to over a couple of notebooks - and the typing serves as a second draft.

While I have a piece in progress, I work between the computer and my notebook. For example, I have a short fiction start on my laptop but wrote a chunk of dialogue for the next scene in my notebook yesterday. This afternoon, I opened my notebook and added that to my file, editing a little as I typed.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


Clearly did not make weekly posting a priority over the last two years.

And likely will not make it a priority this year.

Except that I do want a space to talk specifically about writing and my writing again. A lot of my thoughts (nearly all of my thoughts) land in my notebooks or float in the air of conversation, dropping to the ground when I get up to go to the other room.

I have decided to compile my essays. And my fiction. I can almost see the way the two pair: my personal essays are a window to the fiction I write, because most of my fiction is a play off what I am living or thinking about. (I don't always like that).

I started a list of essays that are done, essays that need further revision, essays in early early drafts, and essays I've yet to write. I did the same for my fiction pieces. I keep circling back to my work, making minor edits. I highlight what I might change and then let it sit for a later view.

A few years ago when I decided to Write A Book, I thought I'd hammer out an awful novel or slurry short fiction and say: did it. And then immediately do better. And better yet. I didn't write an awful book, but I did keep writing and that's the point; that is what brings me here, to this day when I can sort through my writing files and see that I have a good chunk of words on paper.

Part of me would like to keep filling my notebooks and taking pecks at revision because that is safer than asking for an audience. But I do want an audience. I want my writing to land.

I know nothing about finding and keeping a good editor, or sending pieces out, or seeking an agent, or actually publishing a book. But I do know about keeping a writing practice and generating new pieces. I like the work of it. And I'll learn the work of the rest too.