Tuesday, May 25, 2010


When I have a good writing day, I’m left completely drained. It’s like running a marathon, which I’ve done. (Okay, it was actually a 5K, but quite draining for someone as sedentary as myself.) There are some physical aches, like the tension in my neck and wrists, but mainly I’m just mentally drained. After a day of writing, I can barely read a sentence, even a very good sentence in a very good book, like The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle. Forget completing the capitals of the world quiz on Sporcle. Instead, I’m down for the count.

I’ve been trying to balance out these hours of mental strain with some good physical labor. It’s either that or a four-hour nap, which is my sort of marathon.

Hence, my unusual spurt of home renovation.

In the last few weeks, while I’m winding down the final thirty, twenty, ten pages of my novel, I’ve spread four yards of humus in the back yard, painted in the kitchen, made new curtains, reupholstered the dining room chairs, and freecycled eight bags of clothes, shoes and purses. Today I painted the French doors leading onto our patio – something I’ve been meaning to do since the day we moved in, more than seven years ago. It was blissfully cathartic – a cool-down from the intensity of tying together all the loose ends of my book. Baxter was whining through the fence at dog next door and someone in the neighborhood was playing a saxophone, quite well.

All in all, it was a great day – one of those rare times where mind and body came together in perfect balance.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Occupational Hazards

1) I now need to wear glasses at the computer.

This may be more or less related to my job as an online essay rater for ETS, in which I assign scores to around 140 essays in a typical eight-hour workday. And then, in my off-duty hours, I have a hard time focusing on the cursor in my Word document.

“You have 20/20 vision,” says my eye doctor. “There’s really no need to prescribe you anything.”

I protest: But the screen! The glare!

“Hmm.” He considers this for a long moment, his thumbs and index fingers carefully pressed together. “Have you tried looking away from the screen for a while?”

2) Somehow sitting at my computer is connected in my mind with snacking – raising small handfuls of food to my mouth, chewing, chewing, and reaching for another helping. This is because writing makes me nervous. Thus, the expanded waistline, the widening hips. I find myself eating things I don’t even particularly like – chips, crackers, pieces of melty chocolate intended for pastries.

“Try snacking on sunflower seeds,” my trainer says, tsk-tsking.

And so I do – one tiny crunch at a time.

3) After a steady routine of writing followed by yard work, my fingernails are shot – cuticles chewed to ragged pieces, dirt deep in the nail beds. A manicure is clearly in order. I relax and put myself in the hands of a professional – a tiny Vietnamese woman who alternates between comments in English to me and rapid-fire Vietnamese to her co-workers. It takes me a few seconds to realize when her words are directed at me. She douses my skin with oil and begins a massage, my hands huge and ungainly in her petite grasp.

“Relax,” she orders. “You’re holding too much tension in your hands.” Or maybe that’s not what she says at all, but somehow that’s what I hear.

“Well, that makes sense,” I explain. “I’m a writer.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

Horse Before the Cart

So, a few weeks ago, I reached the point where my thesis was basically done – which means that I’ve met the page requirement for prose. My mentor suggested a few small tweaks, and that was it.

At the exact moment I hit “send,” I felt my lungs filling with air like they hadn’t in months. I’m not being metaphorical – I really hadn’t been able to take a deep breath.

Now I can focus on a few other things, like a dress for graduation, heels that will look just right walking across the stage, the guest list for my graduation party. Maybe the house could be spruced up just a bit – we had talked about a flagstone barbeque area in the backyard, and I’ve never been a fan of my lime green-and-red kitchen tile. You know – the important stuff.

Of course, there’s still the wee matter of finishing the book.


Monday, April 26, 2010

10,001 Names for Baby

I’m really bad at titles.

Last week, I lamented to my mentor that although my novel is really coming along, I still didn’t have a title in mind. It was starting to feel like a character flaw.

One title had been rattling around in my mind for a while: The Face of the Earth. It spoke to the central mystery of the story – the missing girl – and also the narrator’s longing for the physical landscape of her childhood. Or maybe it just plain sucked. It was hard to tell.

I queried some friends and the response was lukewarm at best. “Ehh,” Will said, his face twisted in an unpleasant grimace. It wasn’t the most positive sign.

I sat down with an open Word document and typed out thirty different titles, all variations on the original. After an hour I was coming up with such gems as Place Title Here! and Don’t Look at My Title.

Choosing a title for a book is probably as difficult as choosing a name for a child, something I also know nothing about. (Baxter’s name came to me organically. It was somewhat close to Bailey, the beagle of my childhood, and also the last name of a student I had at the time. It fit his squirmy puppiness perfectly. But I digress…) Some of my pregnant friends have announced the baby’s name months in advance of the actual birth. Last year I attended a pre-baby shower and was a little surprised to hear everyone calling the baby-to-be by name already, even delivering monogrammed gifts. What if the name didn’t fit her? What if the ultrasound had missed a certain tiny something, tucked between his legs? My sister and brother-in-law, parents to the lovely Sabine, resisted telling anyone the name they’d picked out. “I didn’t want anyone to talk us out of it,” my sister explained. Wise – something I should have learned from.

Recently I tuned in late to a discussion on NPR about band names – the basic thrust of which is that pretty much everything that could be a band name is already taken. A few bizarre names were suggested as proof that not everything was already used, to which the subject of the interview replied, “They’ll be taken by tomorrow.” He was half joking, half bitter. I remember often thinking the same thing of movie titles – the good ones are already gone.

I talked to my mentor again, lost in my greedy-neediness. Maybe The Face of the Earth is the one, I mused. But it feels too wordy. Too many single syllables. Maybe I needed something like Facing the Earth. No. Face in the Earth. Or maybe what I needed was my head, buried in the sand.

In the meantime, the ever-astute Paige observed, “It doesn’t really matter what you call it now. That’s something the publisher will decide.”

Okay. True. But there’s still the matter of the thesis binding, the title page, the signature page that has to be mailed by… tomorrow.

My mentor wrote back. What about Face of the Earth?

I held the words in my mouth, chewed on them, expelled them to the admiring silence of the room. Face of the Earth. I liked it. How was it possible that one single syllable could make such a difference? And that in my tortured hours of brainstorming I hadn’t come up with this myself?

So. Face of the Earth it is.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Almost, Not Yet

I hate libraries. I'm guessing my dislike stems from all of the late fees I had to pay in my youth. On Saturday my dad gave me my allowance and on Tuesday I passed it off to the white haired woman behind the circulation desk at the library. I'm not sure of the total amount I paid over time. But my mother jokes I single handedly funded the Elkins Park Free Library renovation of 1982.

For as much as I detest libraries, the awkward silence and musty smell, I adore bookstores. When I'm traveling, I love to wander around local shops. Tall wooden shelves display pressed spines. The shopkeeper readily offers intelligent suggestions. His excitement makes my mouth water, as if I'm watching a movie preview. From Mitchell's in Nantucket to Foyles in London, independent bookstores always make it onto my to-do list.

Here in Philadelphia, I couldn't even name one local bookshop. This leaves me no choice to visit Barnes & Noble and Borders. And truth be told, I like these places too. Meandering through the aisles, an iced skim latte in one hand an my wallet in the other, I pluck interesting books from the shelves, I skim the first page to see if it grabs me.

Many people are claiming the debut of the iPad, following the relative success of other e-readers like the Kindle, will save the publishing industry. From chatter on Morning Joe to articles in Wired and The New Yorker, people question if the introduction of e-readers just might be the boost books have long needed.

I've pondered buying a Kindle. Or at the very least, I strongly hinted to my previous beau, a man who owned not one but two Kindles, that it would be a divine gift for yours truly. Seeing he forgot my last birthday, it's fair to assume he won't be getting me one. Which has led me to strongly consider buying one for myself.

You know what holds me back? Not the cost. The Kindle seems to be priced quite nicely considering it saves me from lugging ten books on my random adventures. Not the lack of paper. And I'm fine reading online. After testing out a friend's Kindle, I'm more than comfortable with the layout and lighting. But if I buy books online, what will happen to bookstores? Right. That's when I close the Amazon website and put it off for another day.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Who Do You Write For?

When my college alumni magazine arrives, I flip quickly through the articles about new construction and advancing technology on campus and head straight for the alumni notes. You know, the good stuff – who’s married who and who’s had kids and who has what degree. I’ve never contributed anyway myself – mainly since I don’t have much to report, and those things I do share go in my snarky status updates on Facebook.

But after three emails and two postcards entreating me to update my information for a new alumni publication, I finally caved and called the 800 number to reach the private company handling the printing.

The woman who answered had a slight Southern drawl and somehow managed to sound homey and robotic at once. “Spell your name for me, honey?”

I complied.

“Can you confirm this is your address?”

I confirmed.

“And what is your occupation?”

I hesitated. I could picture her on the other end of the phone, a headset growing out of one ear, her fingers poised above the keyboard. (But what to say? I’m a former teacher… I substitute teach when there are bills to pay… right now I’m rating written exams for California State University… this summer I’m doing my last [I hope] stint as a summer school teacher… No. I am none of those things.)

I took a deep breath. “I’m a writer.”

“You’re a writer?”

“Yes. I’m a writer.”

I was expecting a follow-up question, something along the lines of what do you write? Fiction? Memoir? Poetry? Textbooks? News articles? Film scripts? Ad copy? Little notes to yourself in the margin? Postcards to your grandparents?

Instead she asked, “Who do you write for?”

“Um, what? I don’t really…” Well. Now this was an interesting question. Who do I write for – other than myself and the handful of family members who more or less have to read my musings? Who exactly is my reading public? Who is my target audience? I would love to say “Everyone!” but of course that isn’t true. Not everyone reads. Some people read only biographies, others only vampire romances. My students, I often suspected, only read the books being shoved down their throats.

This is not, of course, what the woman on the other end of the phone meant. She was asking, do you write for a company? Do you have an employer? Do you get paid? Do you want your fellow alumni to think you have achieved any sort of legitimacy? I tried again. “I’m a fiction writer, actually. Short stories, novels.” (I was crossing my fingers behind my back on this one – being ¾ of the way through one novel certainly does not mean I’ve written novels.)

“Okay,” the woman said, with a forced cheerfulness. This is probably when she realized I wouldn’t be forking over $110 for the alumni publication. “Should I say novelist, then? For your occupation?”

No. Not yet. One day.

“No, I think just writer,” I said. After all, I could always call back with another update.

Friday, April 16, 2010


A few weeks ago, after roasting fourteen pounds of potatoes, I sat down to a Passover seder. In usual tradition, we went around the table reading from the haggadah. The leader explained the meaning of the items on the seder plate. The youngest, an eighteen year old, sang the four questions. People of all ages munched on olives and celery sticks, carrots and pickles, as we waded through the holiday rituals.

Somewhere along the way I stopped paying attention to Moses and Pharoh. You see, I was too busy line editing the haggadah. The story of the four sons? Yeah, this could be tightened and shortened. A little less forced drama might also help pull the reader in when discussing the plagues. Show, don’t tell. I knew I was in a bad place when I felt the urge to reach for a pen and jot notes in the margins.

“Paige, how about your recite the motzi?” the leader asked.

“Oh, sure,” I answered as I glanced at my neighbor’s book to confirm the page number, ten higher than where I was editing.

When I was in law school, my newfound knowledge of torts and evidence completely ruined my enjoyment of shows like The Practice and Law and Order. Oh please, no judge would ever permit that kind of rambling rant while interrogating a witness. And that attorney’s whore length skirt? Yeah, nice try counselor. Well, it seems pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing has momentarily ruined the joy of reading. Or at least reading subpar writing.

This might not sound like much of an issue. I mean, who wants to read subpar writing anyway? Except when my brain hurts from working on my thesis, struggling to properly develop a character or generate a worthwhile plot, the last thing I want to read is Faulkner or The New Yorker. What I really need is something mindless.

“Read Twilight,” a friend suggested.

“I really liked The Girl with the Tattoo Dragon,” another noted.

The other night, unwilling to accept my current state, I went to Barnes & Noble and roamed the aisles. I plucked books off the shelves, leaned against the wall as I scanned the first few paragraphs. Some choices were definitely better than others. But in the end I walked out empty handed, feeling the same sense of disappointment as when I eat an apple instead of diving into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

When I got home, I poured a glass of wine and settled in on my sofa. There were plenty of magazines piled up in my basket, a collection of unread books stacked on my shelves. Instead, I reached for my latest knitting project. And when I tired of the yarn and needles, I worked on that day’s New York Times Crossword. Just before crawling into bed, I considered breaking back the spine on White Tiger, I wondered if now might be the time to start Divisadero. Instead, I turned off the light, pulled up the covers, and drifted off to sleep.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Back to the Books

Understand this – I’m a bookworm. When I worked at a conference center in the Santa Cruz Mountains, my teambuilding name was “RIF” – Reading is Fun. I was twenty years old. Now every six months or so Will and I marvel at our bookshelves, which despite our efforts to “pare down, buy less, borrow more” sag under the weight of our new acquisitions. I will admit here that I have been a two-books-a-week reader for most of my adult life. I say this not to gain your admiration – I’m often not proud of the fact that I’ve neglected people, pets, house and lawn to cuddle up with a good book. More than once I’ve suspected an intervention is on my way – “Put down the IndieBound pick of the month, Paula!”

And then there’s lately.

Okay, I have been busy (thesis yada yada), mainly with my own writing. The books I do read are thesis- and graduating-presentation-related. I’ve begun the terrifying process of thinking through what’s next -- pursue writing with passion or get a job that pays some of the bills? I’ve finally awoken to the fact that my house, under a façade of surface cleanliness, is really quite a mess. And then there’s the allure of Sporcle, which feeds my alt-obsession, geography. When I do end up sitting down with a book, it’s in the last minutes of my day, tucked beneath the comforter, backlit by a bedside lamp. I might make it through a few pages or only a few paragraphs. Sometime during the night I realize that my cheek has been indented – perhaps permanently – by the edge of the book. It makes for slow-going, to say the least, which is why I can’t entirely blame the book. Or the author.

Then last week, I spent three days in the company of my niece, the charming eighteen-month-old Sabine. Other than digging through kitchen cabinets for Tupperware containers and her all-time favorite, the strainer, her chief form of pleasure comes from books. My sister – an English major and teacher – keeps Sabine supplied with books from steady trips to the library. (Last week’s haul? The Very Busy Spider and Time to Pee!) Sabine could, quite literally, spend hours dragging books from her bookshelves to a waiting lap, listening intently and carefully turning the pages. Her favorite, dramatically intoned by my sister or her husband, is Drummer Hoff by Barbara and Ed Emberley. The story is a rhyming build-up to Drummer Hoff’s firing of the canon, which goes off with a big “KABABABOOM!” Sabine knows every moment of the story; she can even point a chubby finger to the tiny little “click” right before the canon is fired – that “click”, she knows, is imperative to the outcome.

I took my turn, too, sitting on the floor next to the couch and accumulating quite the stack of books, including some of her outgrown “baby” books – with ducks and geese and 1, 2, 3s.

“Why are you reading those, Sabine?” her dad laughed. “You haven’t looked at those in months.”

I knew the answer, even if Sabine didn’t. It was for nostalgia, for the peaceful, all-is-right-with-the-world feeling you get when you slip back into a favorite book. You already know the outcome, so for once you can just relax and enjoy the story. It’s like meeting up with old friends – the quiet, non-judgmental kind. And right about then I started missing my bookshelves, the long rows of books with cracked spines and worn corners and dogeared pages. I wanted to rediscover what I had once known, and what Sabine has already discovered – that reading is fun.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Mystery in Middle America

Given my recent lack of blog inspiration and my current attendance at the AWP conference in Denver, I think what we need here is a writing prompt. So you here you go.

One of my oldest friends, a single woman who loves her dogs, Gilmore Girls reruns, the Indianapolis Colts, books on tape, and cooking, has recently discovered men’s underpants on her property. Not just one pair.

The first pair of tighty-whities appeared in the dog pen. It was odd, yes, but there was the possibility that one of her crafty dogs had discovered them and pulled them through the fence. Also, where we live, underpants sometimes go missing on the side of the road, over a light wire, and in other extraordinary places.

But then there was another pair in the pen. Then a pair by her mailbox. Then a pair under her car. Yesterday, a second pair appeared under her car. She called the police, who were largely uninterested, though one officer did concede that it sounded like someone was "messing with" her.

She has no enemies that she knows of. No one has expressed an obsession with her. No old lovers are the sort inclined to try to woo her back with their bedraggled underpants. She’s perplexed. Her friends and family are perplexed. Even her small dogs are perplexed.

Only a writer could solve this mystery. So get to work.

Monday, April 5, 2010

(Insert small sigh of relief here.)

Last week, I mailed off 177 pages of my novel to my mentor and five other unsuspecting people who had offered to read the manuscript at one point or another and had no idea that I would send them 177 pages in one fell swoop. The book is actually 230 pages at this point – although it’s accurate to say the last 53 pages are a muddled mess and it didn’t seem fair to subject anyone to that stream-of-consciousness madness. And I know there’s more to the story, too, sandwiched in little files here and there on my hard drive (and backed up on my Passport, too, don’t you worry), waiting for the day the story will magically be ready for them.

So, officially, I’ve met the page count for my thesis. With a few days of revision, it will be done. (Insert happy graduation dance here.)

But I’m not done with the book – and it’s my desperate personal goal to be done with the book.

I’ve heard back, thus far, from two people. My mentor, who is paid to read my work, analyze it, take it apart, make suggestions, tell me what works and doesn’t, what I need more of and what I need less of, etc., responded in two days with, essentially, a thumbs up. My husband, who is technically paying for me to write this book, responded in three days. His suggestions (other than a well-meant comment I am trying to ignore, that the story reads a bit like “an R-rated Judy Blume”) were surprisingly helpful. I don’t mean to imply that his comments usually are not helpful, just that with this read he saw things in the story that I hadn’t seen, and his offhand comments have suddenly refocused my vision of the story. (Insert happy dance of marital bliss here.)

There is, of course, a significant distinction between being a book being completed and a book being finished. A few months ago, Delusional Me thought I would have the book finished. Done. Printed on half a tree worth of paper and happily on its way to an agent. Now Realistic Me says, wouldn’t it be great if I could just get a draft of the book completed, bound in my thesis, and then I could sit down at the end of the summer and begin a thorough revision? And there’s Still-Hopeful Me, who thinks that maybe I’ll fall somewhere in the middle.

As it stands, here are the stats courtesy of Microsoft Word:

Pages: 230
Words: 51,532
Characters (no spaces): 278,204
Characters (with spaces): 339,931
Paragraphs: 1,331
Lines: 4,823

I realize it’s not about the numbers, but when I look at it like that, it feels pretty good.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Think, Dammit!

At around two o’clock on Sunday, shortly after turning on my television and flopping backwards onto my sofa, my phone rang.

“Happy Birthday!” my cousin Erika sang.

“Aw thanks.”

“Come over!”

“Oh, I can’t. I’m writing,” I said as I watched Tool Academy on mute.

“Cool, have you written a lot?”

“Well, technically I’m thinking about writing.”

Before starting graduate school, I only wrote when I felt inspired. Thought was obviously part of the process but I had always already gotten to a place where I could write without hesitation. Even with my other blog, a site where I once forced myself to post twice a week, I didn’t think all that hard about what I was writing. When you grow up in my mildly dysfunctional family, there’s plenty of material to pull from. But now I am penning a novel I plan to pitch to agents and editors. And just thinking about it makes my armpits get a little damp.

An hour before I needed to leave for my birthday dinner, I wandered to the kitchen to get some water. Standing at the sink, I could hear the hum of my laptop’s fan. I hesitantly sat down at my desk and lowered my hands like a classical pianist preparing to play for a sold out crowd. Then I started. The blank page filled quickly with letters, words, paragraphs. After an hour, I had four pages, perhaps even four pages I might keep!

I saved my draft but left my laptop on. It would be a gentle reminder to write some more when I got home. And exactly three hours later, with my belly full from eating a ridiculous amount of cake in the span of one day, I stumbled through my front door. I kicked off my shoes, threw my hair up in a clip, glanced at my computer. Then I let out a sigh and plopped down on my sofa with a ball of yarn and needles. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write. Instead, I needed to do some more thinking.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Solitary, Solitude

Writing for me is mainly a solitary activity. I do my best thinking when I’m alone, music and TV off or at the least turned to something I can ignore. Baxter – long-suffering beagle – can be by my side, but only if he promises to keep his snoring to a minimum. Will – long-suffering husband – generally keeps to another room when I’m writing, lest he be subjected to my nasty-but-well-meant (“Can’t you see I’m working?”) comments. There are only two humans in my house and three bedrooms, but sometimes I long for a little cabin or shack or shed or teepee out back, where I can seriously retreat from the rest of life.

Failing that, I go to the Queen Bean, a little coffeehouse on 14th. It’s not solitude, but since the music stays in the background and the people basically keep to themselves, it’s the next best thing. It’s solitude’s slightly more populous cousin with endless access to caffeine.

I have a favorite spot: an interior table with a lamp and access to a power strip. I have a favorite drink: a non-fat chai latte (writing is not only solitary, but sedentary, after all). If I do hit it big someday, the ‘Bean gets a mention in the acknowledgements (the way it has in my other blog), because in this funky little converted house, I’ve done some of my best writing. At least half of my novel was written here, in between spurts of checking my email (free wi-fi has become quite a problem, really) and staring out the window at a tree I keep meaning to classify. When I’m brushing up against a deadline, I head right for the ‘Bean and order myself not to move from my seat, the way I can’t seem to do at home, where laundry lurks in unsightly piles and there is always a dish waiting to be washed or gunk in the corners of the sink begging for close attention with a toothpick.

Somehow sitting in the ‘Bean gives me this romantic feeling, like I’m an ex-pat at a Paris café, two tables down from Jake Barnes. Everyone here seems artsy in one way or another, committed to their craft. Even the guy next to me, studying 3 x 5 cards printed with the tiny, precise lettering of an engineer, is poised for greatness. The woman who needs to be reminded to take her cell phone outside is some sort of editor, complete with thick-framed glasses and a sweet little iMac. On weekends, I bump into the graphic novelist who knows my husband but can never seem to remember my name. That’s fine; judging by his portfolio, he’s a talented artist. Judging by his conversation, he’s a bit of a pig. If I get stuck in my writing, I can always eavesdrop and transcribe a conversation from a nearby table. I’m still waiting to find a place in my writing for the guy who says to the girl, quite earnestly, “So, what’s your backstory?” How true! I remember thinking. We all have a backstory…

Today, I type this while waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s an exercise more than anything else, a few dry brush strokes that will give way to the bigger picture. In a minute I might give in and check my email or bring my cup to the counter for a re-chai. But for now I sit back and breathe it in, this almost-solitary solitude.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Word To Your Mother

My mom, a special ed teacher, rode my academic ass for the better part of my life. While the rest of you did your homework, she layered additional learning tasks. Every week I was required to take three reading comprehension tests. No, I’m not kidding. When I passed, I got a point and when I earned enough points, she would take me over to the toy store to pick out a prize.

Like other parents, my mother also pushed me to read, regularly taking me to the local library and bookstore. This backfired when, for my twelfth birthday, she gave me a dictionary.

“I didn’t ask for this,” I said with a huff.

“No, you didn’t. But you should have.”

I peeled back the cover.

“I already wrote your name in it so, no, you can’t return it,” my mom said as she collected the discarded wrapping paper.

To show my dissatisfaction, I refused to use it.

“What does discursive mean?” I asked.

“Go look it up,” my mom instructed as she rinsed some potatoes.


To this day, the spine and pages of that dictionary remain pristine. You see, I hated learning vocabulary. Remembering origins and roots made my brain hurt. And even when I finally learned what a word meant, I rarely understood how to use it in a sentence. Or at least in a sentence more complex than ‘this is [insert adjective here]’.

A few years ago, as my writing habit became more of a passion, I vowed to grow my vocabulary. I signed up for Word of the Day. I even started a blog where I posted a word’s definition, tried using it in three different sentences, and then invited my readers to participate. Things were going well until I visited my then boyfriend in Alaska. Standing alongside a stream, glacier melt running through the wilderness, I turned to this one-time NASA astronaut candidate and tried to show off.

“The turgid waters rush over the slippery rocks and down toward the forest,” I said with a proud smile.

“Turbid,” he said with a chuckle.


Not having a large vocabulary is like trying to paint only with primary colors. After a while, you get pretty tired of blue. But I haven’t given up yet. One trick I recently learned was to print out what I’ve written and then go through and circle any word I think can be improved. Then I scour the thesaurus and dictionary for ideas. It’s actually done wonders for my writing. Especially my novel. I mean, in the span of 40,000 words, variety is crucial.

Even with this trick under my belt, I still know I can do more. But what? No, I am serious. How do you guys build your vocabulary? And if any of you suggest vocab cards, I will cut you.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What fresh hell is this?

Z is trying to get me healthy. I’m not unhealthy in the sense of having a cold or rheumatism, but since I started Z and since I started the MFA program, I haven’t been living “a healthy lifestyle.”

Oh, who am I kidding. I’ve never seriously had one. I don’t eat green vegetables and for five of the seven years I belonged to my gym I was mostly paying fat tax. One day a month I would sheepishly hand my payment to the ex-Marine in sweatpants, climb onto the treadmill, and vow to do better in the coming weeks. But then I’d forget to go. Eventually, I started mailing my payments in, which is so much easier.

Z, on the other hand, eats like a sensible person and knows himself well enough that he recognizes that daily exercise keeps him balanced and happy. I often suspect that if our paths had crossed in high school we never would have noticed each other. A girl with her nose in a book has little time for boys shoulder deep in rugby scrums. Thank goodness he came to Indiana for two years and learned how to be sedentary or I never would have met him.

Where I am from, the land is mostly flat, so Seattle was a surprise to me. We live on First Hill. When I am at the bottom sucking down a chocolate shake at Red Robin and looking out at the beauty of Elliott Bay, the horizon—if you ignore the Olympic Mountain Range in the distance--is horizantalish like home. But then we start to climb up to the peak where we live, and the huffing and palpitating and cursing begin. By the time we reach the front door (at the top of an additional 22 steps), I’m thinking of it as Fresh Hell instead of First Hill.

The first two weeks I was here, the hills and living with no car was completely kicking my backside. Even now, when we walk the five blocks to downtown, I navigate our journey home completely based on which streets have the lowest inclines and if we can time our outings so we could get into the convention center before 10 p.m. when the doors lock, because there in the heart of the building, is a giant, glorious series of escalators that will carry us up half of the hill we would otherwise have to climb. Z doesn’t understand. He does no huffing and puffing. And lately, he’s been tricking me into more walks that are purposeless, save for the health benefit.

Since the weather has been good, he sometimes lures me out with the promise of some treat at the end: a movie, supper, a neighborhood we haven’t yet been in that I’d like to see. When we get back—after the agonizing climb up First Hill—he asks expectantly if I feel better. Of course I don’t feel better. I’m sweaty and out of breath and my muscles are twitching. Maybe LATER I’ll feel the benefits. I might sleep better. My pants might eventually be less tight. But during or right after the walk? When I get back from a walk I start seriously considering the benefits of an adjustable bed and a motorized scooter.

When I give my students writing exercise, they react like I do to the walks. They do it only because there is a space in the gradebook that needs filling. You’d think when I say, “We’re going to do a fastwrite” that I’ve said, “Drop and give me twenty.” And even though I love writing in ways most of my students cannot fathom, I am sometimes the same way. If I’ve been away from the keyboard for a while, when I come back to it, my brain aches and looks for every excuse there is to escape the torture (i.e. I’ve got an infected hangnail that hurts when I depress the keys, the mail is bound to be here soon and I should just wait to start then, that laundry isn’t going to wash itself!).

But the thing about sitting down and doing the writing is I never feel worse once I’m done. My joints don’t creak. My brain doesn’t immediately try to think up excuses for getting out of it the next day. I feel a little bouncy and invigorated. It really isn’t fresh hell at all. Maybe after a few more walks I’ll feel the same way about exercise too. I have my doubts.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Before Literary Success...

William Shakespeare was an actor and theatre manager.

Charlotte Bronte was an underpaid and overworked governess.

Charles Dickens, as a child laborer, pasted labels on bottles of shoe polish. Later he clerked in a law office.

James Joyce, an accomplished tenor, paid the bills by singing.

Mark Twain was a typesetter and steamboat captain.

T.S. Eliot worked for Lloyd’s Bank of London.

William Faulkner delivered mail for the University of Mississippi.

William Carlos Williams was a doctor who made house calls.

Wallace Stevens sold insurance, eventually becoming a company vice president.

Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance in World War I.

John Steinbeck was a tour guide and caretaker at a fish hatchery.

Raymond Carver worked as a janitor and delivery man.

Paula Treick DeBoard worked as a babysitter, clothes ironer, donut maker, fry girl, switchboard operator, banquet server, typist, in-home caregiver, donut wrapper, transcriptionist, paginator, pitter, ad copy editor, public relations flack, quasi marketing expert, teacher (substitute, summer school, night school, Saturday school, English), yearbook advisor, department chair, donut eater, ticket taker, essay rater, and well… the list will no doubt continue.

Right now it’s good for me to remember that everyone starts somewhere.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Edit. Delete. Retry.

It’s mid-term and there are papers to grade, I have to figure out the 25 words that will be read as I walk across the stage to collect my degree in July, there’s a presentation draft and essay due in a week, and I’m trying to figure out how a person is supposed juggle husband and family/friends when she returns home for her first post-wedding visit. (Both sides would insist they don’t need juggling, but I’m a child of divorce and my brain insists otherwise.) So what have I been thinking about for the last few days?

Well, frankly, Sandra Bullock and her disappointing husband.

As a newlywed and a person roughly the same age as Bullock (and as the above-mentioned child of divorce), a person might assume that one or all of these are the reasons I keep pouring over photos of the tattooed webcam porno queen/other woman or thinking about—whether the timing was intentional or not—how mean it was that she barely got any time at all to enjoy that Oscar statuette before her life got all crumbly and ugly.

But no, the real reason is that I keep thinking how writing is better than real life, primarily because in writing, you can revise. You can, for instance, get to the end of your story and realize that a character doesn’t belong and should have never been included in the main character’s trajectory and backspace him right out of existence. Or, if you see real value in the growth for the main character caused by the inclusion of the badly behaved secondary character, you can make sure she has an air-tight pre-nup and a nightstand full of condoms that she has insisted he use since they got together. You can also make sure that there is a Justin Matissee on her horizon that will make all the recent yuck of her life suddenly worth it. At the very least, you can make sure that her acceptance speech for a major award does not include a teary, heart-felt reference to the man about to harsh her Oscar high.

If only we were allowed to edit all the scripts.

Friday, March 19, 2010

You've Got a Friend

I know I’m stating the obvious here but writing is a very solitary process. You sit alone at your desk. You quietly create characters in your head. Sometimes you hit your stride, whipping out ten pages in two hours. Other times you belabor an idea for a month and still can’t get your footing. Either way, you go at it alone.

“I’m stuck,” I complained to a coworker.

“I’ve got nothing left,” I whined to my sister.

No matter how hard I thought, no matter how much I read, I couldn’t find inspiration for the next story of my collection. Horizontal on my sofa, watching the cast of The Real Housewives of New York bicker, I tried to conjure up a plot. I knew I had come to a really bad place when I seriously considered writing a story about a guy who, while driving home from banging a hooker, accidentally hits a runner on the side of the road and leaves him for dead. All I was missing was an alien.

At the end of my rope, I stepped out of my one-woman writing cave and reached out to friends. I sent one email to Paula because she has read my entire collection so far and another email to Ryane because she’s politely listened to me yap about it. In both, I summarized what I had to date, noting the chapter number, main character and plot. Then I pleaded for suggestions. “What’s missing?” I asked.

Both ladies wrote back within a few hours and both provided incredible feedback. “Write about a slumber party,” Paula excitedly suggested, pointing out that this will fill the gap where my main character leaps in age and develop her in a new way. “Write a story from the birth father’s POV,” Ryane proposed, explaining how cool it would be for the reader to have his perspective. I was suddenly fidgety with excitement.

It’s been a few days since those seeds were planted. Nothing has been written but that’s because I’m too busy thinking things through. Saturday I’ll meet my friend Allison in Princeton for a day of spring shopping. Later that night, I might try to catch American Buffalo at the McCarter. And then Sunday? Sunday I will return to my writing cave. I will ignore incoming calls and refuse to check Facebook. I will disappear to the deep darkness that is the writing life, toting nothing more than my laptop and a nice chilled bottle of Sokol Blosser’s Evolution. But the entire time, I’ll know I have my friends within reach in case I hit another wall.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


On Saturday, I drove 360 miles from my house in California to Ashland, Oregon, and then on Sunday, I drove 360 miles back. It wasn’t a life-threatening situation or a quick trip home – it was purely for pleasure. Ashland is the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and it’s one of my favorite places to visit. Not just for Shakespeare (and the host of other plays), but for the sweet small town, the literate population, the cozy pubs, the meandering paths through Lithia Park. And then to see a world-class production of Hamlet to boot? Bliss.

Alisha, my fellow English teacher and partner-in-crime was up for the ride – miles of tedious I-5, then breathtaking Shasta and towering redwood forests at the border. There wasn’t a chance of being bored or sleepy – we talked for five-and-a-half hours each way, pausing only for caffeine and potty breaks.

That evening we saw a modern production of Hamlet, and even if there was a brief period during Act IV where my eyelids slid closed, it was fantastic. Hamlet himself looked like a cross between Conan O’Brien and Beavis; Rosencrantz and Gildenstern were two lovely women – it was tragic indeed when they were pronounced dead; four “Playas” came onstage to rap the play-within-a-play; Ophelia went delightfully mad.

Maybe it was kind of a crazy idea, especially with daylight savings cutting our trip a valuable hour shorter, but for about thirty-six hours I didn’t think at all about my novel. I browsed a bookstore, enjoyed a masterpiece of world literature, and talked about books and the teaching of books – and I got out of my own head. I was able to forget, completely, the problems of how to work in a certain scene, of which “darlings” still needed to be killed, of how in the heck I was going to wrap this thing up in time.

Today, only slightly sleepy, I was back on task. I plowed through about twelve pages which tomorrow will need an editing eye. I was able to climb right back inside Kirsten’s head, following my writer’s instinct.

720 miles in two days? As it turned out, not a bad idea at all. I guess I’m thinking of it now as a sort of recharging, a realignment of purpose. My own world had been feeling claustrophobic – it was nice to breathe someone else’s air, even if it was only for a few hours.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Will Write For Food (or Free)

Through various avenues, I’ve been introduced to people who make a living from writing. I witness their successes with envy and awe. And while I know I’m a capable writer, my coworkers turning to me for advice when they craft a letter or prepare a document, I’m admittedly paralyzed when it comes to exchanging my talent for dollars.

In the last few years, I’ve had a few pieces published. Southern Women’s Review included one of my stories in their Summer 2009 issue and Indie Ink has used two of my essays. All of these are worthwhile accomplishments in my book. None of them, however, have resulted in payment.

Having worked in the business world for over a decade, I’m the first one to admit you sometimes have to spend money to make money. And this is exactly how I’ve approached publishing. Donating my work means I get a publishing credit to note on my resume. The more publishing credits I can list, the more seriously editors and agents will consider me. But a mere four months shy of receiving my MFA in Creative Writing, I’ve officially tired of writing pro bono.

“Check Craigslist,” Ryane suggested a few months ago.

“Use this list-serve,” a classmate urged.

Everyone has good suggestions. And just like dieting and exercising, at the onset I commit a 100%. I send writing samples, complete applications and attach resumes. But after a few rejections, or in some cases no response whatsoever, it’s hard to keep your chin up. I’m only able to smack my head against a wall so many times. Which explains why, since the start of the year, I took a break from the publishing world.

Then, last week, while reading a review for a friend’s restaurant Delicatessen, a review rife with poorly structured sentences, I came out of retirement. Pens blazing, I perused Craigslist. I came across a few part-time listings for writing positions and decided to submit my personal information to two. And within three days, personalized responses appeared in my inbox.

One place already filled the opening, but the email was friendly and supportive, thereby softening the rejection blow. The other place? They want me. This afternoon I’ll complete a phone interview which appears to be nothing more than an informational session where I’ll be given the specifics of my role as a culinary writer for Joonbug.

It still isn’t paid. I’ll still continue to peddle my words for free. But this marks my first foray into journalism since my publishing debut in 1990 when I co-authored the editor’s note for an issue of Sassy magazine. And if anything, it should help with my resume (sigh).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bang a Gong; Cheer Me On

This past weekend my husband and I were in Anchorage for a conference where he was presenting and where I was contemplating the Last Frontier and how I wish I were made of the stuff that would make a life there a possibility. As it is, I had to return the F 150 Truck we were given at the rent-a-car counter for something smaller because I wasn’t woman enough for that much machine. (Since Z is from Zimbabwe he has no ‘driving on snow’ privileges when I’m in the car.)

When he wasn’t conferencing and I wasn’t contemplating, we spent time with two of his friends from Minnesota, one of whom now lives in Alaska and has her very own Alaska-born toddler, who came down from Seward with his momma to see the ceremonial start to the over 1,150 mile Iditarod. The last great race.

To say I was excited about getting to see the beginning of this race with my own eyes would be an understatement. It’s one of those things like Burning Man that for about thirty seconds before I remember who I am, I actually think I might be capable of participating. But I like amenities. I complain loudly if the temperature veers beneath 40 or above 75. My idea of roughing it is staying in a hotel with Flex shampoo and a bedspread instead of a down comforter in a white duvet. When I hear the word “camp” I think of John Waters, not sleeping outdoors with no porcelain in sight. So seeing the start of the Iditarod gave me a few moments of feeling like I was at one with the participants, both human and dog, before recalling that really I'm a girl who wears UGG boots because someone told her she should, not because they keep her warm.

We lined the street and waited for individual musher’s names to be announced. The dogs would bound down Fourth Street amid cheers and waves, and then we’d stamp our feet, blow on our hands, and wait for the next announcement. It was a happy day. I didn't see a single miserable person the whole time we were cheering.

In case you were wondering, this is where I tie the Iditarod to writing. Ready? Okay.

If every time I sat down at the keyboard, a crowd of people were standing around me happily clapping and cheering for what I was about to do (note, not what I had accomplished—these mushers could have steered their dog sleds into the nearest McDonald’s and called it a day for all we know--the cheers were all about anticipation), well, then, I suspect I might produce more. Or at least have better self-esteem.

I know, I know, the mushers care passionately about their dogs and make them wear little booties and the dog’s comfort comes before their own and yadda yadda yadda, but I do the same for my words. I make little nests for them in which to rest on the page. I arrange them carefully in order of cleverness and strength to make sure they can pull the sled of my essay from start to finish. I check on them regularly for physical problems that may impede our chances of making it to the finish. (All dangling modifiers and split infinitives beware.) I'll stop the metaphor there, but here's what I want to know: where’s my triumphal launch every time I hunker down in my Writing Chair?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Re: Your Submission

When I get home from work and log on to my email, there’s a message waiting from me. From Ploughshares. Re: Your submission.

I let it sit. There are twenty or so other messages to read. Witty comments from friends, “We have received your resume” form messages from CareerBuilder, reminders of upcoming deadlines in the MFA program. News from my dad, who keeps me posted on family matters – changes of address, hospital stays, birth announcements and funerals.

And then – well. The dog needs to be loved (I have become adept at typing with one hand, petting with the other), the cats bookend me, reminding me that they need to be fed. Dishes from last night are still soaking in the sink, and laundry is piling up.

Look, I tell myself -- if I open the message, it’s either going to be a congratulations, and I’ll spend the next week too giddy with excitement to do anything as mundane as dog petting/cat feeding/dish washing/laundry folding. Or, which is much more likely, it’s a thanks-but-no-thanks, your work is lovely but not right for this magazine. And then I’ll have to go through my chores with a sense of bitterness rather than anticipation. So the message can wait.

Once upon a time, I updated my Facebook status with “Paula --- --- is officially a writer! She received her first rejection slip!” I do remember that even though it was a “no” – a typewritten “no,” as if it had traveled not only from Nebraska but also through a few decades – it was exciting because I had now joined the ranks of presumably every other modern writer. A quick surf of the Internet and you can find rejection letters to Sylvia Plath, Norman Mailer, Stephen King. Even The Diary of Anne Frank wasn’t immediately snatched up. Lord of the Flies, I remind myself, was ignored by something like eighteen publishers. So I laughed it off. I started keeping a stack of rejection letters – not enough to wallpaper a room, but enough of a motivation to keep me going.

Then a friend told me, meaning well, that there was a website that had published some of her work and would definitely love mine. Well, what the heck – I mailed a few pieces to the editor, who wrote back: “Our readers would not appreciate your work.” Ouch. I stewed about that one for a while, writing and rewriting snappy comebacks in my mind.

I moved on, had a few things published here and there. I got used to the roller coaster ride that is the literary market.

Then, from Redivider, a personal rejection note. One that told me the editors had debated my piece for some time before ultimately deciding against it. I was weirdly thrilled. It was an odd feeling, to think that perfect strangers – educated, literary, powerful strangers – had sat around a table discussing my short story. It would have been better, but maybe only slightly, if they had said yes.

Being published is important – I do recognize that. But I’ve also come to the place where I understand that a rejection letter is either an opportunity for me to reconsider the story (wow – this really does suck) or renew my faith in it (wow – do these editors do nothing but sit around and smoke crack all day?). A story that’s been rejected isn’t dead. I don’t feed the fireplace with the shredded manuscript, and that’s not only because I don’t have a fireplace. Rejection, acceptance… it’s part of the process. It just means I’m a writer.

Which is why, when I finally sit at my laptop again and open the email, I don’t curl into a little ball on the floor and cry. A credit in Ploughshares would be fantastic – and it will be, some day, when it happens.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Bang the Drum

At work, I listen to a Martha’s Vineyard radio station. I spent childhood summers vacationing on Nantucket and WMVY takes me back to drippy ice-cream cones from the Juice Bar and shoes filled with sand from Surfside beach.

If I forget to start the feed when I first sit down, I eventually notice an eerie silence. It’s the kind of quiet that sound editors include just before something scary is about to happen in a movie. I immediately stop what I’m doing and start the music, letting out an audible exhale when Jay Farrar, in the middle of a song, starts drifting from the speakers.

At home, I can’t have music playing when I’m writing. My brain can’t tune it out. I get distracted by the lyrics and find myself fighting the urge to sing along. Instead, music is an escape from the creative process.

The other day, sitting at my dining table with papers strewn everywhere and a blank page on my monitor, I loaded iTunes and started one of my playlists. I was stuck, struggling, and was hopeful I’d find inspiration from Jamie Cullum or Jonatha Brooke. Maybe David Gray’s Kathleen or The Heavy’s How You Like Me Now would help me figure out a character.

When Citizen Cope’s song Sideways started, I fell back into my chair. I closed my eyes and slowly swayed to the sultry rhythm of the song. When it finished, I played it again. The gentle slope of the music, starting soft and building to a stronger version of the same refrain, carried me along. I could feel the music in my belly, sense it in my bones.

After listening to Sideways four times in a row, I closed iTunes and started writing. Slowly things came together, started making sense. I remained at my desk until a little after midnight. Total page count? Six. Total needed? More than six. Except I no longer felt overwhelmed. I saved the file and then re-opened iTunes and played Sideways one more time. This time I sang along.

What songs inspire you?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Best for Last

When I was a kid, I had a bed full of stuffed animals of every shape and size. My favorites were a sock monkey with rhinestone eyes and checked dress named Monkey, and a pink, beanbag rabbit called Pinky. Every night I would pick one stuffed animal to sleep with. Almost every night, I would pick any animal but my two favorites. I was worried that the other animals would get their feelings hurt if I overlooked them. Instead of cuddling up with Monkey or Pinky, I’d share my bed with animals I neither loved nor liked to cuddle just to demonstrate my lack of favoritism.

Perhaps all the patterns of our lives are set at a young age because this week it has come to my attention that I’m still doing the same thing. (For the record, I do not mean I am still sleeping with stuffed animals or inviting men into my bed in an attempt to keep them from the knowledge that I prefer my husband’s company.)

The semester has taken off like a runaway train, and not in the good way, but in the “careening towards derailment and certain death” kind of way. I’m teaching four online classes, and while I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew, I have a mouthful that requires two fingers pressed to my lips to keep the Fritos from spilling out. This week, one of my best and favorite creative writing students sent me an email pointing out that she hasn’t gotten a grade on a single assignment. Neither have several of her classmates. After spending the entire weekend critiquing, grading, and sending out regular mea culpas, I thought I should figure out how I had let this happen.

1. I am a procrastinator. If there is something I don’t want to do, I will do virtually anything to avoid it.

2. I just moved to Seattle and just got married and I’m learning how to be a city dweller and wife. Some days I’m distracted.

3. Hello. Four online classes are equal to six regular classes because I can’t make up lectures on the fly and I grade more slowly when I’m not using a pen.

The problem with these reasons is that I’m not behind in the other three classes, one first year composition class and two research writing classes. The workload for these classes is just as heavy. Heavier, really, because the subject matter is often tedious. (See how many papers you can read on cloning or the health care debate before you’re ready to tear your hair out.)

4. The creative writing class is the last tab on the interface I’m using and some days when the clock is edging towards 6 p.m., I see that final tab of the day, turn into Scarlett O’Hara, and say, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” The next day, I start again with the composition classes and end up in exactly the same spot. At some point, perhaps, it should have dawned on me that insanity is continuing to do the same thing yet expecting different results.

5. The most likely reason, I’m convinced, is that while I am a procrastinator when it comes to doing things I have no interest in, I’m a much worse procrastinator when it is comes something I really want to do. I teach composition so once or twice a year I can teach a single creative writing class. The intro class is my favorite because I love watching students move from “easy A” mentality to “this is hard, good work.” Getting to witness that and help them tease out their inner, better writer, is a real joy. So I save that class until last, and sometimes last is too late.

It shouldn’t have taken me so long to figure out what I was doing because this is the same behavior I demonstrate towards the other thing I most want to do: write. While I’m not afraid the laundry, dishes, correspondence or sit-coms will get their feelings hurt if I put writing above them, it is disturbing to see how often I dally with these activities to postpone the gratification I feel when I do the thing I love. Maybe instead of a procrastinator it’s time to admit that what I really am is a masochist.

My long weekend of catching up is already paying off. I’ve gotten revisions back that are much improved and my inbox has been full of enthusiastic emails from students who now don’t feel like they are alone in the void. They’ve forgiven me, the way Monkey and Pinky regularly did when I would finally spend quality time with them. I don’t like to disappoint people, so I’m not worried about falling into old patterns and forsaking these students since I’ve realized my error. It won’t happen.

Now, if I could be just as certain that I would do the same for myself: show the favoritism, do the writing

Monday, March 1, 2010


The culminating experience of my college American literature course was a trip to Willa Cather’s hometown – Red Cloud, Nebraska. I went to school in Iowa, and despite the states’ proximity in my mind and on any Rand McNally road map, it was quite a haul. Iowa is a big place. Nebraska (as anyone who drove back and forth across I-80 a dozen times in her life should know) is one long haul – 455 miles across from end to end. I went because I loved American literature, loved my professor, loved my companions, and when I was 20 years old I was hungry for experience. Any new experience, even one that required a seven-hour drive in each direction, in a van loaded with English majors, pillows, blankets and a steady supply of sugar.

If I’ve forgotten many details of the trip, it’s either because I slept through them or because I’ve had to let go – time and intervening years have clogged my mind with other, perhaps lesser, things. But I do remember the prairie – miles and miles of it, and the way my eye felt restless, unable to settle on any fixed landmark. And there were landmarks – farmhouses, barns, silos, the odd cluster of trees and then in a blink tiny towns with a single flickering yellow light on the main drag. I also remember seeing dogs – lots and lots of dogs, wandering collar-less along leafy main streets. We were seeing Red Cloud in the spring, after all – the snow and slush had disappeared, and the hardy people and animals and vegetation had dug themselves out once more.

Three things, especially, stand out in my mind about Red Cloud. One was a docent at the Willa Cather House revealing, sotto voce, that Cather was a hermaphrodite. Well. It certainly explained her cross-dressing “Just call me Billy” phase, the fact that she never married and her long and happy stretches with female companions. But somehow, in the fifteen or so years since of reading, studying and teaching, I’ve never heard that theory from another scholar.

At the diner where we stopped for lunch, a Muppet-faced waitress (I wish I could take credit for that term; someone, another of my classmate companions, coined it first) pulled together three tables for us in the middle of the restaurant and took our order. It was your basic sandwich and soup and fries fare, with a distinct Midwestern twang. Everything was quaint – the wallpaper, the kitsch, the accent of the seed-capped man who leaned over to ask where we were from, where we were going.

-- We’re American literature students…

-- We’re here to visit the Willa Cather House.

-- We’re on a pilgrimage.

We were pretty pleased with ourselves, the privileged college students who had made such a sacrifice of our Saturday. We were fairly bursting at the seams with knowledge and conjectures.

“Ah… who?” the man asked.

-- Willa Cather!

-- My Antonia? O Pioneers!?

-- The patron saint of your town!

We laughed about this for the next seven hours. Imagine living in Red Cloud, Nebraska and not knowing who Willa Cather was. Imagine living on the prairie and being completely unexposed to “prairie lit.” How did it happen? (I can tell you now, living in the Central Valley, where my students haven’t the slightest clue to who John Steinbeck was – I can tell you how it happens.)

Maybe my best memory, though, was that our professor dropped us off in a prairie outside of town and told us, simply, to wander. It was one of life’s good moments: we wandered, picking prairie grass and twisting it into braids, feeling the chaff rub against our jeans. At one point I had gone so far from the van that when I looked back, the van was positioned against the sky, larger than life, with the sun dropping behind it like an orange rubber ball. That felt just about right – a new symbol for a new era.

* * *

I hadn’t thought about that day for a long time, and then last week, in American Literature 3430, the class I’m assisting to get some college-level teaching experience, it all came back. We were discussing My Antonia – Cather’s treatment of foreigners, gender issues, nature imagery. What we were doing, of course, was seeing what Cather’s work meant for today, for us. How could we, through the lens of 2010, interpret this work?

Somewhere in the midst of these weighty issues, my mind began to drift. It may be quite possible that I am not cut out for such serious thought. Instead, I was back in Red Cloud, running my hand over the split ends of prairie grass. I was seeing the world as Cather saw it, with her writer’s eye.

In a now-famous letter, Sarah Orne Jewett wrote to Cather, encouraging Cather to leave behind her editorial position at McClure’s in order to take up the more important work of writing. Jewett said, among other things – “to work in silence and with all one’s heart, that is the writers’ lot; (s)he is the only artist who must be a solitary, and yet needs the widest outlook upon the world.”

I’m not a die-hard Cather fan and yet – of course this must be true. How could she conjure up the prairie when her head was full of manuscripts to be edited? How could she delve into the lives of her characters when the demands of her own life were so pressing? I realize that I’m making an argument for my own under/unemployment, but right now writing seems to demand so much from me that I can’t possibly have time for anything else. There’s barely time to walk the dog and iron a shirt in the morning…

I’m at a different place in my life than I was as a college student. Now the idea of a pilgrimage for literature’s sake feels quaint. Back then, a day away from my life meant that I had to catch up on reading or laundry some other time. Now a day off feels huge, consequential. The manuscript must be dealt with now – as if either it or my impulse to write will disappear after a few hours. But if a prairie were suddenly to appear outside my front door – replacing the lawn that needs to be mowed, the vacant house across the street – I wouldn’t need much convincing to drop everything, at least for a few minutes.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Tools of the Trade

As a kid, I loved sharpening pencils. I adored the feel of the wood being chipped away by the grinding cogs. I couldn’t get enough of the smell that lifted from the pencil as it shaped to a point. Sometimes, when using a small sharpener, I kept the resulting curl of wood. There was something beautiful about the silhouette, the way it resembled a rosette trimmed in yellow paint.

All through high school, I was required to write in cursive with an ink pen. It was considered proper etiquette. And if I didn’t have horrendous cursive, I would have embraced this notion. But as it was, my writing was jerky and I oftentimes forgot a loop, thereby omitting an N or R. Cursive required way too much thought for this kid.

By the time I got to college, computers were more commonplace. I still took class notes with a pen, all caps scrawled across wide-ruled paper, but essays were written directly on the computer. Gone were the days of handwriting a paper and typing it up as if using a typewriter.

For various reasons, many professionals claim writing by hand is best. Every few years I momentarily accept this theory and I start carrying a journal with me. It’s always a beautifully bound book, often a thoughtful gift from a loving friend. Clipped to the cover is a roller ball pen. If I have to write by hand, it needs to be a pen and it needs to be a roller ball. For the last year, my nib of choice has been the bold point Vision Elite, preferably blue.

At first, I embrace the journal like a new love. I want to have it near me at all times. I want to be able to revisit what I’ve jotted down. A week later, I’m tired of the extra weight in my purse. By the end of the month, I’ve stashed it on the shelf and have returned to my preferred method of writing, a computer. It is at a keyboard where my thoughts and fingers move in tandem.

Curiously, while I write best at a computer, I edit best with paper and pen. Maybe it has to do with holding the product in my hands. Or perhaps I dislike reading things on screens, which would possibly explain why I have yet to bite the Kindle bullet. Anyway, once I have a draft on paper, I grab a pen and start making notes, crossing out useless phrases and circling words I believe can be improved upon. Not until I get to the end do I sit down at my computer and make the desired changes.

The other day I bought some pencils for Anders and Olivia, my niece and nephew. Target had them on sale and I couldn’t resist the metallic paint and pictures of basketballs and ballet slippers. For a second, I thought about buying a set for myself. I could sharpen the nubs just like I did as a kid, a bouquet of rosettes sitting to the side of my computer. Plus, I could revisit the notion that writing by hand triggers unique creativity.

Instead, I tossed the extra package back on the shelf and wandered off in search of laundry detergent. I was certain the romantic return to pencils would likely turn out the same as my collection of journals. Lead tips would break at the worst time and erasers would get hard and tear holes in the paper. A few weeks in I would curse the idea. And anyway, for now I’m happy with the tools I have.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Mile in Another Woman's Shoes

By the second day of the conference my new Dansko Professional clogs are scuffed beyond recognition and I’m annoyed. I should be grateful that I found a conference geographically close to Z that work would pay for, but all I can focus on are the angry-looking scuffs across both toes and the fact that I do not want to be listening to anymore motivational speaking about writing, but would rather be back at the gorgeous little almost-beach-front carriage house that Z and I have rented for three nights while I’m at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference. He is back there in relaxi-pants, sitting on the balcony, watching the revelry of Coupeland’s Penn Cove Mussel Festival, and I am stuck with a chirpy woman who pulls plastic swords and giant eyeglasses from a bag and commands me to be a brave and observant conference goer.

I attend conferences alone. I like this. Not being there with friends and colleagues gives me the freedom to be the bad student I am at heart. For instance, on the first day of the conference, I answered work emails while editors and agents talked about what they do and don’t like. I listened to them, but some I had already rejected as having pinched faces or liking only cookbooks, which meant during their talks I was free to do work I should have done before I ever got on the plane headed for the Pacific Northwest. I realize this is the faulty logic my students use when they text during lectures they’ve already decided are beneath them, and it’s probably going to bring a heap of bad karma on my head.

The conference is nice. I’ve been to Aspen’s Summer Words a few times, and since that is the Sundance Film Festival of writing conferences, I am perhaps a bit too judgmental of this one. For instance, I feel mildly annoyed that day one is in a church and that the pastor speaks and that his music minister comes out with a guitar to lead a sing. I’m not anti-church, but I do have a tendency to get mentally oppositional when I’m inside of one. Also, I’m put off by one of two featured speakers, a story teller in a long, multi-colored coat and white gloves, who tells a long story about a grandfather and a grandson and fishing net and I’m bored and lost and feel cynical because I’m a writer but storytellers always seem like they need way more attention than any human person should need.

I’m also critical of the motivational speaker they’ve brought in who is the one with the big bag of props to encourage us to be better conference attendees. Also, the older man with braids all over his head. And the woman in the strange teapot-shaped hat. Who ARE these people? Also, what am I supposed to do with the very thin directions I’ve received to the afternoon “chat house,” which is in someone’s actual home—and I imagine it will be a small home with lots of cats and soup-whiff. Would it be wrong to escape so early into a conference that my university has paid for me to attend? Could I maybe justify the positive spin my writing and teaching will take if I get to spend more time with Z? I think about how he stood on the balcony, waving me off this morning, and I just want to be with him. This is not a professional attitude.

I find it mysterious and comforting that despite my aloneness at any conference, I am never alone for long. Somebody, usually someone who is more socially gregarious than I am, finds me after the first session—almost as if we already had an arranged appointment—and then I spend the rest of the day with them, hearing their stories. Frequently, they are people who need an empty vessel to pour their own stories into. Other times, they end up being friends. On the first day when I sit down alone in the cafeteria, I think, “Well, I wonder when she’ll be here.” She has no first name, but I know she’ll come. Sure enough, within two minutes a woman in her thirties and what can only be described as pirate boots, sits down and starts talking. I like her instantly and am happy later when she acts as my navigator to the “chat house” where various writers visit us. And chat.

I need a navigator. The house is located in the back of beyond. Pirate Girl and I drive and drive and drive, and as we drive we speculate about what kind of house we’ve been sent to. At first, we think a bungalow near town, but then the further out we go into the pines, we assume a cabin. And then we turn into a subdivision reminiscent of The Brady Bunch and our romantic hopes are dashed. Between direction announcements, Pirate Girl tells me the story of her life. It’s an interesting one and actually does involve life on sea-going vessels as a ship’s cook. I have no doubt that the book she was pitching at the conference will get picked up and we’ll all be talking about it next year. She and I drive some more and see tsunami warning signs and finally, our destination: a gorgeous, expensive-looking house with two walls of windows overlooking Puget Sound, a mere three feet away from the house. The waves crash.

We kick off our shoes at the door, and settle in to listen. Erik Larson, the author of one of my favorite non-fiction, non-memoir books—Devil in the White City--is the keynote speaker at this chat house. He is funny and humble and inspiring. He has a house on Whidbey Island, and I like the way his jeans and cotton shirt make it seem like he’s just popped in to hang out with us and be friends.

The authors who follow him are fine—one offers depressing information about our prospects of being able to make a living from writing, and another is a resident hippy who has gorgeous illustrated journals and who is living out of the back of her truck. I’m sure they are both lovely people, but the views compete for my attention, the sofa I am sitting on is that kind you get enveloped in, and I’m beginning to champ at the bit to get back to Z. When we are released, Pirate Girl and I cram our feet into our footwear, hop into the car, and follow the Tsunami Escape Route signs to higher ground. We say goodbye when I drop her at her car and promise to meet up the next day, though I’m fairly certain we’ll never see each other again. She is newly pregnant and tired and the temptations of Z coupled with my own rebellious streak will likely mean the few sessions we do attend the next day will not be at the same time. We don’t exchange last names or email, so unless Oprah picks her book and it does become a bestseller, I have no hope of ever talking to Pirate Girl again.

I return to Z and we stroll around the town, have a drink in a bar that promises a clientele of crusty fishermen, and then we go back to our carriage house and play a card game. Z is used to living without electricity and the distractions of the internet or television. I, on the other hand, have to warm to our low-tech evening. I’ve been plugged in too long.

At some point between the chat house and going to bed, I come to a horrible realization: the shoes on my feet do not belong to me. They are black. They are Danskos. They are the correct size. But they wobble the wrong way. My feet slip in them more than they should. Also, there is no way my new pair of shoes could be so scuffed and worn.

I’m horrified. There is something so inherently personal about shoes that I am as icked out as if I’d accidentally come home in someone else’s underpants. I begin to obsess about how I can get my pristine new shoes back and then my thoughts turn dark and I harbor paranoid thoughts about the person who stole my shoes. My money is on the woman living in the truck. Clearly her shoes have been on her feet for a decade. I even, momentarily, blame Pirate Girl for distracting me at a crucial shoe-collecting moment from my own footwear because of my fascination with hers. This is irrational. I was likely the culprit. I live in a land where no one wears comfortable Danish shoes, and I have probably jammed my feet into the first pair of Danskos available. Z tries to console me. They are just shoes. Nobody is going to keep a pair of shoes that are not their own, he says. I can collect mine the next day. Somehow, his words soothe me.

Only the next day, no one has returned my shoes. Because Z had me convinced, I’ve worn the offending clogs so sure am I that I can make an easy trade at the reception desk. I have even imagined the laughter I will share with the other person as we slip out of each other’s shoes and into our own. I sit dejectedly thru Christopher Vogler’s talk on the writer and the hero’s journey, and I wonder what journey my shoes are now on. Somehow, it is this idea—my shoes not as things but as entities with a their own lives to lead—that suddenly makes this mishap okay. In fact, I start to suspect the shoes are going to be living a more interesting life than I could ever have given them. I even kind of hope they are living with the woman in the truck.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Hearing Voices

I’m kind of a quiet person – at least in most situations. Get me around my sisters, the English girls, or the people who know me best and it’s a different story. But most of the time I like to hang back, observe and make mental notes (not necessarily judgments, just observations). Somewhere in these years of watching and listening, I became good at imitating voices. While some people make a living at imitating celebrities, my skills are much less marketable – I can do relatives, colleagues and superiors. I’ve been known to carry tales of student folly into the teachers' lounge, getting the particular blend of ennui and ignorance just right.

This dubious talent has proved useful in writing. When I understand a character, I can speak in her (or less often, his) voice. That’s usually how my stories start – I hear or invent a line of dialogue and I imagine the life of its speaker. I hear the story in my head. For a short while – ten or twenty pages, maybe – I speak in her voice.

About ten months ago I heard the voice of a little girl. I was sitting at my laptop –not at a Ouija board, not around a table at a séance, but it was a surreal experience nevertheless. I was a sort of medium – but isn’t the writer or artist always a medium to inspiration? Before I knew it, I was writing in the voice of a nine-year-old girl living in Wisconsin in 1971.

This made me a little anxious.

I can’t write from a child’s perspective, I fretted to my writing mentor. I don’t have kids. I don’t spend a lot of time with kids. I’m not even completely sure I like kids. What am I supposed to do, stalk some fourth grader on the playground?

Well – he chuckled back over email – you once were a nine-year-old girl.

True enough. I do remember being that age – mainly because that year we packed up our lives and moved from Ohio to California, and in California I was the weird kid with homemade dresses and a bowl cut, when every other kid in my class wore jeans and a ponytail. But that was twenty years ago. Er – more than twenty.

Don’t panic, he advised me. Just see what she has to say.

And so, like a medium pleading with a spirit, I sat at my laptop and let the story come. And I realized somewhere around page 50 that I like this girl. By page 100 I could see that she isn’t at all me as a nine-year-old; she loves different things, makes different mistakes. By page 150, I was excited to see what spunky, nervy thing she was going to say next. And even if I stall now and then (especially now, on the cusp of page 200), I just have to remember her voice. I have to listen in closely, get her breathing patterns and inflections just right. Then I can step back and let her tell the story.

Friday, February 19, 2010


For four weeks I worked on a particular story. I knew who would be the main character but I didn’t know anything about her. Was she young or old? Did she have some money or no money? And then I still had to come up with a worthwhile plot. I spent one Saturday morning thinking so hard that I took a three-hour nap to recover.

When I awoke, I sat down to write. My fingers repeatedly struck the wrong keys. I stumbled over sentences when I read them aloud. For every three paragraphs I wrote, one was deleted. Simply put, my rhythm was totally off. I was writing the same way I drive a stick-shift, jolting and lurching forward without any sense of control.

After writing nineteen pages, after devoting an entire month to this particular story, I clicked save and turned my computer off. I couldn't keep working on it. I needed time away to gain perspective. Plus, I was spent. And so I told myself I could take a week off to recharge my creative juices. I could make mix-tapes, get a pedicure, build a snowman. No matter what, I was under no obligation to write.

A few days later, fearful of black ice and pending snow, I canceled my evening plans and went home. I dropped my purse on my dining room table, kicked off my shoes and plopped down on my sofa. Yarn and needles sat on my coffee table right next to a pile of newly received magazines. The Olympics played on the television. Except for all of the glorious distractions before me, the only thing I wanted to do was write.

I sat down at my desk and loaded a blank page. Barely aware of what I was doing, where I was going, my fingers danced across the keyboard. I wrote and wrote and wrote. A little shy of midnight, five hours after I started, I was done. There before me was a fourteen-page story that I absolutely adored. The main character had depth, lifting off the page. The plot was subtle but interesting, pulling the reader along without challenge. Sure, there were things to fix but in the current state the story was quite successful.

Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time in awe of how varied the writing process can be. Driving to work, on the machines at the gym, I couldn’t help but ponder this. Maybe it’s similar to finding a mate. You can’t explain chemistry but you know when it’s there. Or perhaps it’s like an Olympic athlete who’s trained her entire life. During practice she is divine but on race day she catches the edge of her ski or bobbles the landing. I stopped analyzing the writing process when I found myself comparing it to pooping, and how one day you’re constipated and the next - well, you know where I’m going.

In the end, I decided the writing process is really no different from life in general. One day the sun casts a warm yellow glow across the landscape, the sweet scent of honeysuckle fills the air. The next day you step in doggy-doo, get a flat tire and pull five gray hairs from your head as you idle at a red light. You can’t always predict what you’ll get when. But you put your head down keep on going. Because when it’s wrong, you feel like a marionette with tangled up strings. But when it’s right, when everything goes better than you could have ever imagined, it’s magical.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


The Seattle Public Library’s insides match its outsides. It’s a freaky, asymmetrical creation by architect Frank Gehry, and inside you are treated to an entire floor of red lacquer (walls, floors, ceilings) so you feel like you are in the womb. Bright yellow escalators take you from one floor to another, one of which includes TVs along the side with blinking eyes, that bring to mind Space Mountain at Disney World. The top floor, my favorite, is an insane, slanty space that includes an aluminum floor, a geodesic ceiling through which you can see out onto the city and Elliott Bay, and a quiet reading/computing area with desks and power strips. It isn’t a space that inspires reading. In fact, there isn’t a place in the entire library where I want to curl up with a book on a rainy day. Instead, it makes me think back on a short-lived TV series from my youth called Space: 1999, in which the very near (then) future, was all white and involved mylar blankets and ski boots.

The tenth floor is one of the few places in the library that is quiet, the way libraries used to be when librarians still shushed. Most people under twenty-five probably don’t even know that about libraries: that back before more videos than books got checked out you’d get shushed if you so much as cleared your throat.

Of course this is not why I am here. I don’t come for the books or views or atmosphere or quiet. I come for the free internet. Z and I don’t have a connection at home yet and spending time at his university stealing their wireless makes me homesick for my own university, so there is a certain nothingness I enjoy while sitting in this lopsided building full of strangers.

There are a lot of men hanging around the Seattle Public Library, and not so many women. As in there is probably a 4:1 ratio if I don’t count the women downstairs who are here with their children in tow to pick up Captain Underpants books. Women alone don’t hang out at the public library. In fact, I’m only one of two women in the reading room, and she and I are surrounded by men in various stages of unraveling. I guess at what goes on in their lives when I look at their shoes for telltale signs of duct tape or holes. Half the shoes today are in good shape, and so I can only assume that the men around me are here to do research or download music or avoid their homes.

A group of pre-schoolers edges up the escalator. They are chattering and are more interested in the moving stairs than they are the library tour that they are on. Their shrieks pierce the silence and all of us look up from our computers and books. The guy behind me sushes them. They don’t even look over. More and more little heads pop up as the escalator drops them onto the aluminum floor, which creaks under their light-up sneakers and tiny Crocs. Some of them shout and chase each other in a small circle. I hear the guy behind me slam his book, exasperated, and he says, “Didn’t your teacher tell you to be quiet in a library? You’re supposed to be qui…” Suddenly, he realizes that he is not being quiet and so swallows his words. I hear him re-open his book. Just then, the children’s teacher appears. I expect him to tell them to be quiet. He is talking more loudly than the children to his helper. They are both about twenty-three.

Here, inside this weird, work of modern art, I think back to the library I went to as a child. It was a turreted, Victorian monstrosity with terrifying glass floors and narrow spiral staircases. It was dark and smelled of books and history, and yes, the silence made you itch to giggle, but you didn’t. It wasn’t a friendly place. The librarians never cracked a smile. Instead, they guarded the books and looked at you suspiciously and shushed. Still, you wanted to stay and sit in the presence of all those written voices.

When I was ten, the city tore that old library down, turned the glass floors into coffee tables, and replaced the building with a modern one, replete with friendly, open spaces and bad acoustics. I worked there for three years after college and we got in trouble if we shushed even the loudest of patrons. We were there in service to the people, not the books. And the people paid the taxes that kept the library running, so maybe that’s the way it was supposed to be. But it never felt right to me, so I quit.

Oh, how I loved that former reverence to the written word. The way the books were protected. That acknowledgement that someone with a book in her hand deserved a cocoon of quiet around her so she could absorb the words and get lost in another world.

I’d give up the free internet in a heart beat in order to go back to that less visually and aurally stimulating space.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Killing My Darlings

The time has come, and some of it has to go.

At my first MFA residency, I attended a panel discussion on revision. One of the writer/mentors I’ve been privileged to work with said it best: “When you revise your writing, what you’re really doing is killing your darlings.”

Those “darlings” are the well-turned phrases that do nothing to enhance character or plot; they are the things the writer loves and the reader doesn’t need.

“Of course,” she continued, “It’s easier when you have an editor to do it for you. Then it’s like hiring an assassin.”

Everyone in the audience laughed. I wrote it down in my notebook, and I’ve come back to it again and again.

No writer wants to toss something s/he has written, even if the act isn’t as physical as it once was – a balled-up piece of paper in the trash can is now a simple backspace on the keyboard. Still, it’s cutting, excising, deleting, destroying – killing.

In the past, when someone said a story wasn’t working, I shrugged it off, waited a few days, and then went back to it with a critical eye. I refused to let myself see these lost words, deleted scenes, diminished character or two as my “darlings”. It was about getting it right, making it better, holding out for the best possible version of the story. It required me to put the writing ego aside, the part of myself that knows I can come up with a pretty phrase or two or twenty.

So I’ve never really been afraid of revision – until now.

These days, I’m taking the first 80 pages of my novel and more or less rearranging them – introducing the “stakes” for the characters earlier in the story, and finding moments to slow down the pace, to fold in the backstory.

I’ve rewritten the first 20 pages a dozen times, and it’s not there yet. I know what’s standing in my way – it’s my darlings. There they are, all lined up in front of the firing squad, pleading their own cases in a last-ditch attempt at survival. But this sentence makes me laugh! I need this section to establish setting! How else will I work in the story of their ancestors?

It’s true – they do feel like darlings, like my sweet, loyal offspring. But the time has come – and some of them definitely have to go.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Splashing About

My father was an avid swimmer when he was younger, competing at the college level and running the waterfront of an overnight camp. So it should come as no surprise that I spent most of my childhood at a swim club.

“What are you doing?” he asked as I splashed around in the pool, my pink ruffled bathing suit bottom halfway up my ass.

“Sidestroke,” I said as I gurgled some water and glided diagonally.

“That isn’t a stroke. Do the Breast Stroke or Crawl. And why don’t you get in a lane?”

“The rope is itchy. Plus it’s no fun going straight,” I argued before swirling my legs beneath me and spitting a stream of water like an Italian fountain.

After treading water for a second I started flipping somersaults, never popping up in a way that indicated a straight rotation. My father threw his arms up in the air and walked away.

I write the same way I swim. I guess most writers are like this. You can’t be very creative if you’re required to stay within the lines. You can’t reach your maximum potential if you’re following a uniform format or style. Beautiful prose comes from pushing the limits, doing the unexpected. Just read something by Lydia Davis and you will know what I mean.

Yesterday afternoon, with the office quiet thanks to the forty-two inches of snow piled up on the sidewalks and streets, I sat down and wrote a snippet from the point of view of a dog. Yes, a dog.

It was slow going at first. I mean, I sometimes struggle to tell an entertaining story from a human’s point of view, forget a canine’s perspective. But I kept at it, typing and deleting and typing some more. When I had three pages, I fell back into my desk chair and read it all the way through. I was pleasantly surprised by what I had created. In fact, I liked it enough to cut and paste the pages into my thesis, though I’m still uncertain if it will make the final cut.

Rereading that dog snippet, I do get a little hesitant. I’m not sure how well a story written from the point of view of a Golden Retriever tripping on discarded human medication fits into the rest of the collection. Is it brilliant or silly? Does it work with everything else or stand out, and not in a good way? I spent a moment or two considering the possible answers. Then I gave up. I know I need to figure it all out. I realize that at a certain point, I need to play by the rules. But for now? Yeah, I’d rather get back to splashing about and flipping sideways somersaults.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bowl of Cherries

I’m reading and doing the exercises in Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. By “reading,” I mean I picked up the book yesterday. By “doing the exercises,” I mean I’m thinking about the first prompt. The prompt is uninspiring: “I am looking at…”

I’m looking at the three-room apartment that Z and I are renting in Seattle. More specifically, I’m looking at kitchen cupboards that are open and in disarray, after last night’s attempt to cram the two sets of dishes I registered for into their recesses.

The dishes are beautiful: a set of dark blue ones from France via Crate & Barrel that look like they just emerged from a potter’s wheel, and a partial set of Fiestaware (turquoise and lemon grass) that will eventually be united with other pieces in a variety of hues that are currently residing in Indiana. They’re all pristine and unused, and though I suspect the hodge-podge of Goodwill dinnerware we had been using was better suited to the dorm-style living we’ll be doing in this small space, I’m happy to finally see it out of the box and stacked together.

While we were registering for wedding gifts, Z kept wondering why I had such strong opinions about dishes and kitchen utensils when I intend to spend as little time in service to food preparation as possible. He is the cook in our little family, and if it were up to me, we’d be eating off of Swanson’s TV dinner trays every night. Or better yet, eating out.

I could come up with a reason for my proclivities. It’s a chick thing, maybe. Or maybe I’m a sucker for the marketing campaigns in various decorating magazines. Or I could even offer up an extended metaphor about the kitchen being the heart of the home. But like most things in my life, it’s really all about the story. Dishes have better stories than towels and throw pillows. The trajectory of bath mat’s life really isn’t one worth charting.

But a bowl’s life story? As long as it is one at the top of the stack, it’s probably going to see the light of day a few times a week. There’s the food that goes into it. The public conversation over it while soup gets ladled out one spoonful at a time. The private conversation about the now-departed guests as it gets bathed and placed back on the shelf. It’s day-to-day presence.

While I took the plates, bowls, and saucers out of their boxes last night and washed them gingerly, trying not to clank them against each other, I wondered what their stories would be. At home, when my mother and I would do the dishes, I’d often get tales about who this bowl used to belong to or where that serving dish came from or which color of plate was her preference when she was growing up and eating off of my grandmother’s original set of Fiestaware.

Will Z and my dishes stay shiny and unpitted since hand washing is the only option in this 1920s apartment building, or is there a dishwasher in our future (please God) that will leave the dishes lusterless and me happier? Would it just be Z and me eating off of them on into infinity, or would we have a lot of houseguests and dinner parties? Which of the dishes will be the first to chip, crack, or break into a hundred pieces and what will the circumstances of that be? (I can’t imagine a scenario in which I will be winging a saucer at Z’s head, but we’ve only been married two months—anything could happen.) Will I turn the shards into one of my misguided art projects or just sweep them into the dustbin?

What I see is the beginning of that story. Anything is possible.