I am tired this morning. It’s Friday, bright and sunny. I’ve had a good week–lots of productive work, a couple of good walks, a swim, some tai chi. I’m watching my diet, trying to eat super healthy food, and making very nutritious dishes to support Christopher Robin in his quest to compete well in the upcoming World Masters.
And yet, I’m tired. Most writers are deeply empathic creatures, and I am, too. All the energy swirling around is intense and exhausting, and it is not helped my own journalistic need to observe and record everything I see. Somehow, I have to learn to be modest in how much I indulge in events on the world stage, notice where I can act and where I cannot. For example, I cannot create refuge for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees whose homes have been bombed and have nowhere to go. I worry about them. My mother’s heart, my Nana heart, goes out to mothers who have children and no homes and no food and no….anything…though absolutely no fault of their own. I can probably find action committees and send money to them or volunteer my time, but just angsting over their fate is Not Helpful.
I was raised to pay attention, to notice world events and stay cognizant. This need was reinforced by my university training in journalism, and my young years as a cub reporter.
It is not helpful in an environment of such upheaval. The entire western world is in a state of transition on many, many levels, and there is not much I can personally do to influence it, so spinning my wheels reading editorials and news reports all day long is not helpful.
What I am is a writer. A writer of escapist things, a writer who offers weary women (like me) a chance to escape all that. My main job at this point of pivot is to take care of myself very well in order to show up in the world and first, write my novels, do my job, and second, add my hands and voice to whatever causes I think most need me.
To that end, I’m going to start fasting from the Internet more. All my digital publications and Facebook feeds and emails will survive without me for 24 hours. I’m starting on Friday nights, going through Saturday night, and spend the time I’d usually spend refreshing my feed on other things. Like reading, say. Or painting. Or cooking. Or singing. Or even just watching movies On Demand, on the actual television, not my iPad.
Today, I’m also just going to read and rest. I have a big pile of RITA books and three cats to keep me company. Maybe I’ll make something sinful for lunch.
How are you holding up out there? Am I alone in feeling overwhelmed?
Last night, as I unloaded the dishwasher, I realized I’ve had my blue glass dishes for quite awhile now, since the Christmas of 2002, when
I was broken-hearted and exhausted and shakily making my way through my divorce. That year, both my mother and my sister-in-law gave me dishes. Without consulting each other, they both chose blue glass, and chose to give me new dinnerware. Isn’t that amazing?
Although neither of them would have articulated it exactly, they knew I needed a fresh start, a marker of my new life,
an un-wedding present. Food and cooking had marked my life with my ex. He had (has) a big personality and liked entertaining, and most of our family gatherings centered either on his Sunday breakfasts or summer Sunday barbecues. We had a set of white dishes, ordinary, but specific to that time–the china with silver around the edges, and a faint pattern of leaves. I got rid of them and installed my new blue dishes with the most enormous sense of relief. Even as I’ve gone through my most foodie period ever, I’ve kept them. (Blue does not display food well.) It’s probably a great gift for any woman–or man–getting divorced.
As I took the blue plates, given with such intuitive intelligence all those years ago, I flashed on the antique saucers and bowls, all edged with roses and gold, that I used to collect from thrift shops when I was a starving college student. And then backward to my mother’s Currier and Ives set, the ubiquitous dinner plates of the 60s. She may still have a few remnants, but her dishes are bold and colorful now.
A couple of years ago. I happened upon an old set of china, much like the old saucers I loved. They lacked dinner plates, but everything else was there–small dessert bowls, delicate cups, saucers, serving dishes, and the lot was only $25. I now use them for tea parties and special occasions, supplementing my blue glass plates with the brightness of the antique china, and I feel like the whole me, young woman and older one melded together.
The dishes we use are charged with powerful memories and emotions, a thousand meals and conversations, love and conflict, laughter and tears. I’ve been thinking about getting a new set of china lately, and that must be because I’m entering a new stage of my life. It will be fun to celebrate that with new dishes.
What do you currently use? And do you have memories of other sets of dishes? Did you ever give away a set, like I did?
I am a fan of Gretchen Rubin, whose books on happiness and habits offer a lot of insight into how we can live the best life for ourselves. (She doesn’t get the Rebel personality, but I forgive her for that.) This morning, her Facebook post let me to this blog:
As most of you know, I made a choice a couple of years ago to explore the world of New Adult romance. I had written straight romances, contemporary and historical, in the past, but hadn’t done if for nearly ten years when I was mobbed by a new idea. By a character, Jess Donovan, age 19, poor and struggling and trying to make her way. She awakened me one morning in mud season in Breckenridge and by the end of the day, I had mapped out the entire book. In my world, we call that a “gift book” and foolish indeed is the writer who ignores such an offering from the gods.
However, It was a risky choice, and I knew it–women’s fiction readers don’t like to be lumped with romance readers (although many are both) and my romance readers might not want to go with me into this much younger world. To keep things branded cleanly, I knew I would have to take a pen name, and that meant starting from ground zero–not always the easiest thing for a writer with an audience gained over ten years.
I promised blogs every week, but must say the Internet access was not great in many of our stops the past ten days. Here are a couple of photos to keep you company for a few days. We are on our way home and I’ll post later this week about foggy weather, venison stew, windows as studies, and my weird conversation with the universe about the English painter Turner.
Meanwhile, enjoy one of the windows, from a rambling country house in Devon on a cold winter morning.
I’m in the midst of an enormously fertile period. I’m writing in several genres, including a non-fiction project. This morning I awakened to write the next scene in a book that will eventually become a Barbara O’Neal book. There is soup and a lost child and dogs, but the underpinnings of this work have been very dark and hard to digest. It suddenly seems ready, however, so that was where I poured my energies this morning.
I’m also working on a non-fiction book for a British publisher (to be distributed through MacMillan in the US) on writing romantic fiction. The offer came out of the blue, but as I’d been in teaching mode through the spring, it was exactly the right project for me to write on the side, coalescing some of my ideas into a form that can be digested more easily than my exuberant but scattered blogs here.
There is also the matter of Lark, who keeps coming up with new ideas and concepts for her ongoing work in two arenas, The Otherlands and Going the Distance. Look for more on both of those series in the near future (the 1st installment of The Otherlands will be published sometime in January, an exact date to be determined when I clear the decks and finally finish the line edits.)
All this work! You would think I’d be going crazy, feeling overworked and overwhelmed, but quite the opposite is true. I have not been so in love with work in many years, and as I was sitting in my chair yesterday, watching it snow and doing some research reading into foster children, I did pause for a moment to realize I feel like I moved to a new land. I’d been chiseling work out of the hard granite, chipping away a nugget at a time, and it took a lot of hard work and time to do it.
Suddenly, and I do mean suddenly—at the very end of May—I have moved to a completely different place. This is delta bottom farmland, rich with silt and sunlight and the perfect conditions for growing hearty fields of crops. My mind feels utterly engaged, my heart excited. I get up and go to work every morning at 4:30 without complaint, even with eager intention. My daily production rates have tripled and show signs of quadrupling. I’m back to the younger me who wanted the world to go away and leave her alone so she could write more, more, more.
And I don’t really know why it happened. Was it the switch to getting up early? I think that has helped. I am enormously productive during that 90-120 minute block. It’s as if I’m giving myself an extra work day, every work day. My evenings were never, are never particularly productive. I watch television. I might read, but am often too tired to do any serious reading. I putter around after dinner, and for ages I’ve been ready to go to bed around 8, but would hang on for whatever reason. For about a year, I’ve been practicing the early work, but it really took root when CR decided he wanted to try swimming in the early morning. Now we both want to be asleep early and get up early together, and on days we decide not to get up so early, we get those extra zzz’s. Healthy.
The other thing that I’ve done is give myself permission to totally play in my work, take chances, see what happens. I’ve done some novellas, purely for me, playing with the form, seeing what I like. I’ve made a big return to romance in the new adult and young adult series, but the books are very different from each other. The young adult is soft science fiction, highly romantic and with epic adventure undertones. The new adult is very sexy and lots of fun, but has a serious undertone, too: Jess has to find out who she is—and that means making mistakes, discovering her history and deciding what things matter most to her. It’s also set in part in New Zealand, which you all know I’ve fallen in love with. The Otherlands is deeply rooted in my love for the sff genre and I carried it around with me for ages before I realized that I could just….go ahead and write it. I also have an entire 5 (6?) book series planned as a tie-in/continuation of the St. Ives historicals, all growing out of our travels to England and New Zealand.
And don’t forget the women’s fiction. I love it a lot. My new book, The All You Can Dream Buffet, is one of my favorites so far. I love the characters and the setting of a lavender farm, and these women who have all had life challenges. It was engrossing and required a huge amount of research and recipe testing, and it went back and for the between my editor and I several times, but the end result is one I am very pleased with. I hope you will be, too.
I believe this fertile, wild productivity is the result of me giving myself permission to do that play. I can do it because of indie publishing, and I don’t have to worry that I’ll starve or that I’ll flop at a new publishing house. I can take big chances, play in a lot of different arenas. Because I’m the one taking the risks, and I don’t need to sell 50,000 books to break even. Because I am more in charge of everything, I don’t feel that creeping anxiety that plagues all working writers over how many books are selling here and there and everywhere. I am much freer to write the books arriving today. I am very deeply enjoying the balance between my work for traditional publishing and my own publishing, a luxury that I couldn’t have imagined even five years ago.
This is not everyone’s ideal scene, I get that. I have friends who need and like to focus on one book for a couple of years at a time. I also have others who like writing lots of books, but mostly in the same arena. That’s fine. My brain has always loved variety and mix-ups and new challenges. Sometimes I’ll fall on my face, but that’s fine, too. So far, the fields are growing very well, producing a good many crops. I hope I will be wise enough to recognize when/if winter arrives and asks me to rest.
Do you like to write in many arenas or focus on one? Do you find there are wildly productive periods in your life, and less productive ones?
PS I’m pulling away from blogging so much elsewhere and will be spending more time here. Hope you’ll join in the conversation.
Before I forget: Amazon included In the Midnight Rain in an October special, so it’s .99 for the whole month. If you haven’t read it, now is a good time to grab it.
Now…on to the blog….
It’s a slightly overcast morning, and promises to be truly cold and blustery and maybe even snowy tomorrow. I had the house cleaned thoroughly yesterday—it feels so good to have the house all in order, and the floors cleaned and the bathrooms sparkling. I love, love, love that. Once, it would have made me feel guilty. Now I think about how the young woman who cleans my house has a job and I get a clean house. Good trade.
We had our first freeze on Wednesday night, and all the tomato plants fell over, despite my (half-hearted) attempts to save them with tarps. I had to collect them all, about 20-25 pounds of green beefsteak and roma tomatoes of many sizes. I took bags of them to each of my neighbors, and this morning put the rest on the top shelf of the greenhouse window. They looked so beautiful that I had to run and get my camera to shoot them, finding in me that quiet, that peacefulness that comes to me through the lens of a camera for no reason I can pinpoint. Maybe it’s the focus, the wordlessness of letting everything go to be in the moment, here, right now. Maybe it’s the sweetness of beauty, because I do tend to shoot things I think are beautiful. Some photographers collect gritty or grim or ugly things, but I’ve never been that person. I love beauty, and flowers and fruits and vegetables, and looking at things closely.
I love the corn in the background, the way the light spills over the silken curves of the tomatoes, the way their shapes are repeated over and over, and the stems add prickliness.
I also like this one:
Garden/kitchen tip: green tomatoes will keep for a long time this way. Spread a paper towel over a flat window sill and put the tomatoes on top. The last time I did this, I had tomatoes through Christmas.
Now I’ve played long enough and need to turn my focus to writing. Last night, on the way home from a book club meeting in Woodland Park, I was tangling myself up over the story I’m writing, thinking how to do this and how to do that, and the Girls in the Basement said, “Oh, just stop it! Just write. Have some fun, will you?”
So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to stop burdening this poor book with more and more and more expectations and weighing it down with lead bricks of time pressure and twisting and turning and all that other business- and expectation-crap and just let the story emerge as it wishes. I like these characters! I love them, honestly. Lavender and Ruby and Ginny and Noah and the little barn cat and the lavender fields and the chickens. It’s lovely and sweet and I’m just going to go write now.
What are you up to this weekend? Is it freezing where you are? Do you know any recipes for green tomatoes?
This morning I awakened feeling crazy hunger to create, which often happens to me on days like this. It’s cool, with a sweet little breeze carrying autumn. It’s overcast, which is the most important thing. In a place with so much sunlight, cloudy days are a blessing, quieter somehow, thoughtful. I walked the dog and found words rolling up, and a dozen plot tangles suddenly and easily resolving themselves. When I got home, I had to check the corn and beans in the garden. It has not been a great vegetable year, but the flowers are lovely. In one patch, the lavender is in wild bloom (and I neglected to label which lavender plants I have out there, so I have to remember that the border group blooms late, while the others bloom earlier).
Anyway, somewhere in early summer I saw a tiny patch of lavender and small shell-pink roses growing together, so I copied it, as all gardeners do. All summer, I probably had this moment in mind, this bottle and the minute bouquet of lavender and the fairy pink rose, sitting in a window with quiet light behind. To get this particular shot, the very one, the only one, I had to shoot 66 photos. The light is so low the flash kept going off, and at one point, I pulled a chair over to shoot it from above. The bottle was sitting next to an empty blue wine bottle from a local winery, which I thought I would love and didn’t.
But finally, I headed up stairs to edit the shoot. Over and over, I tried adjusting light, crops, tones, details. Some of them are lovely, and I might print a trio to put side by side in a frame. This one, however, didn’t need anything much. I tweaked the light the teeniest bit, but that’s it. Just as it was, it was fine.
As I printed it, I realized that Ruby–one of the main characters in the MIP– who is mourning a lost love and wishing for something else, heads out to the lavender fields and finds the little roses. She cuts them and arranges them in tiny bottles for her friends.
All the details we write come from within us somewhere, memories and images, colors and scents and conversational tics. It’s also true that we weave the everyday into the pages, so much so that when I go back to read my earlier books, I’m overwhelmed by the taste of those particular months I was writing. Some are impossible to read for this reason, but maybe when I’m very old, I’ll like going back and living in them, thinking and remembering.
A good lesson for me this morning. I’ve been so rigidly on producing pages, producing pages, that I forgot this is how I work. I walk around. I take a picture. I write a blog, and the book blooms behind me, full and heavily scented.
Do you ever find problems solve themselves when you look away? Or a worry dissolves if you stop twisting it and twisting it?
As I write this, it is the last morning of summer. My yearling kittens are crouched in the garden, watching a squirrel on the fence make his way through the face of a sunflower, methodically plucking out striped seeds with his tiny hands, cracking their shells, devouring the kernels. There are piles of hulls, here and there, through the garden, where I have tied the flower heads to the fence or a branch or a gate. Light angles at a long angle, illuminating the withering squash, the tired corn. As I drink my tea, I’m a little melancholy, knowing that this season is turning. It is such a particular summer.
They all are.
One of the things that has come up in formatting my old books for publication in e-format is the recognition that they are fruits of the years in which they were born. This might seem a simple, clean observation—well, of course they are, you might say. In 1993, the peaches were good and there was a lot of rain, and there were certain political events that influenced my views and ideas. Music always shapes and influences my work, so the popular tunes of the time will add spice and flavor.
When I began the work of going through these books, written from about 1990 through 2000 or so, I never planned to rewrite them in any meaningful way. I have so much work flowing through me currently that that spending time on finished, whole work seemed a bad use of time. It is important to me to update glaring tech issues that date the material in negative ways—changing Walkmans to Ipods, for example, and updating language to reflect the moment.
But even reading to do that much is almost impossible, I find, because they hold too much of me, of my life. It is as if the fruit of those months or years of writing has been bottled and turned to wine that now carries the most powerful notes of that period in a way that I almost cannot bear. READ MORE>>>>>>
“Life can’t ever really defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death – fascinating, cruel, lavish, warm, cold, treacherous, constant.” — Edna Ferber
For three years, I wrote a column called The Care and Feeding of the Girls in the Basement. It was a chronicle of my day to day struggles and rewards with the writing life. Much of it was written during an enormous transition in my life. The column was written for a group of professional, commercial fiction writers. (NINK, for those who might know it.) To my surprise, the columns were quite popular, and I really enjoyed writing it, but after three years, I’d written plenty and gave it up.
The story might have ended there. Except that people kept telling me that they had kept the columns to re-read. They gave them to friends who were feeling discouraged. And because the newsletters are private to the organization, they did not have a wide circulation. Aspiring writers never saw them.
So I decided to collect them for writers–aspiring and published alike–who might find a laugh or inspiration or encouragement in them. There are two volumes of columns, but my ebook genius and I are collecting three books of the most popular class materials for release in the fall. (First, the contemporaries to which I’ve regained the rights–stay tuned).
Without further ado, an excerpt from Book #1
Beginner’s Mind: Keeping the Faith
from The Girls in the Basement
Talk on one of my email loops has been exploring the changes and ups and downs we all experience after five or ten or thirty years in this business. Several writers are discouraged by crushing career news and financial setbacks and the challenges of living as a writer.
The discussion led to questions of faith. How do we keep going? How do we recover that fire? Where did it come from in the first place? And how did it get lost?
Writer Raphael Cushnir says the dark night of the soul comes to all of us in different ways, but the emotions we experience during that dark night are all the same. A long-time writer who is struggling with reinvention or renewal is struggling with a disturbing set of questions. Was she wrong, all this time, about her vision? Is he, after all, a fool for loving this work, just as cousin Harry and his mother and Aunt Jane have said? Should any of us try to make this our life?
While this discussion was going on, I was also talking with a friend who is beginning to sell to non-fiction markets. He’s been in the music business a long time and wants to write for a living so he can stay home with his wife and daughter. He’s a pretty talented guy. He’ll probably make it, and the writing life can’t be any worse than the music life. We had lost touch years ago, long before he actually made it into the music world and I made it into the writing world, and through the delights of the Internet, we have been spending many happy hours talking about old times and new.
And writing. He always understood creativity. Writing now burns in him the way songs once did.
He sent an email (from Ireland. I love writing that: my friend in Ireland. Very nice of him to end up there) that poured out his desires, his path thus far, what he thinks he might be understanding, what he has yet to figure out.
His longing filled me with a bitter-sweetness, a swift wish to return to the beginning, to the magic. I find myself feeling cautious in my replies, as if he’s just fallen in love and I’m an old married hag, reluctant to douse his fever.
“So, tell me,” he emailed. “How did it happen? How did you sell your first book?”
My flood of memories may be not unlike yours. I was twenty-nine. It was November 22 (never mind the year), just before Thanksgiving. It was a category romance I had called The Phantoms of Autumn, about a classical guitarist and a writer who met on a train journey. My advance was four thousand dollars, which was almost precisely double my annual income as a bowling alley cook and attendant—a job I’d taken to help make sure I stayed focused on writing work—and more than enough to get my phone turned back on.
Beyond the simple facts, of course, are a host of emotions and memories. The late nights with my headphones on while my very young sons and husband slept in their beds. The jumble of undone housework that meant I never, ever allowed anyone to “drop by”. The cloistered life I led during that passionate period when I had no time for anything but the books, the boys, the family.
I remembered, too, how I’d stood in my kitchen a few weeks before that magic phone call, weeping bitterly over a rejection that dashed a very real hope I’d had of making a sale to a literary magazine where the editor liked me. I didn’t know how much longer I could stand to see yet another SASE with my handwriting on the outside, knowing it meant a rejection. My fire, my belief in myself, was dwindling, and I didn’t know how I could keep going on like that, believing when no one else did. When I look back, I’m not sure how I discovered the chutzpah to believe so absolutely that I would sell a book eventually. But I did believe, with a depth of faith that—
Last week over dinner one night, Christopher Robin said, “I think you need to take me out to get bacon for breakfast on Saturday morning.” I said, “Sure, okay. Why?” He said, “No reason,” in that sing-songy little voice that says there is a reason. But I’m patient.
Well. Turned out that he landed a bonus and knew I’d been wanting a little camera to stick in my pocket because my cell phone camera is so bad. We picked out the most adorable little Nikon CoolPix, which ends up being about twice the camera we now have for 1/4 the size and 1/4 the price we paid three years ago. So goes technology.
There is a LOT to learn, so I’m going to shoot something new every day until Ifigure out all the features. This is one from yesterday. Jack was making snow angels. (And remember, he wants you to know he has a STARRING role in Lost Recipe. Not that he’s vain or anything. Just beautiful.)
Really, if you had a dog that looked like this, wouldn’t you make him the star, too? 🙂
Anyone asking for a camera for Christmas? Buying one for someone else?