How Harper Lee Ruined My Life and Other Stories We Tell Ourselves

I don’t usually play favorites (being a person of wide and varied tastes and rather little patience for picking and choosing one over another). But when I do, I pick To Kill a Mockingbird. Sorry, All-The-Rest-Of-The-Books-In-The-World.

In the year 2000, a Charlotte bookstore down the street from where we were living displayed a signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird priced at $160. I went back to the store three or four times and stared at that volume, in its glass case by the check-out counter. At that time, it was a choice between groceries for a month and that book. Alas, I chose food. I think that you will agree, my priorities were very, very wrong. Eating is highly overrated.

But this isn’t a blog about reading. It’s about writing. Which is why I’m going to talk about how Harper Lee’s personal story ruined twenty years of my life as a writer.

You see, Lee wrote a few things before To Kill a Mockingbird, and a few things after, but never anything of its size nor significance. Why? Because who has time? But in 1956, she received a gift from her agent. It was an envelope containing an entire year’s salary and a note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.” She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.

For years I have wondered whether, if someone gave me a year’s salary, I could write something like that. Surely, with a whole year to dedicate to it, I could finish a novel, something marketable. Maybe the next great piece of American fiction, sure, why not? But seeing as how the Year’s-Salary-Fairy seems to have neglected my house as of late, I am stuck writing little things–magazine articles and blog entries and so on–in between making money and tending children and trying to keep groceries in the house. Groceries have so often gotten between me and what I really want in life.

So anyway, THAT was the story I told myself to explain why I have never written anything great, anything truly noteworthy. Poor, poor me. And THAT is how I whittled away my twenties, my thirties, without ever writing even one significant, sustained work of fiction or nonfiction. Because nobody ever gave me a year off from work.

I’ll be turning 40 in October and I FINALLY figured out, despite Lee’s misleading and thoroughly discouraging life story, that my full time job and kids are not what has been holding me back. It’s been me all along. Well, me and Harper Lee, of course.

Did you know that if you wake up an hour early every single morning and dedicate that hour to writing, that you will end up writing for 7 full hours per week? Yes, that’s right, I did math. Don’t stop me now, I’m on a roll.

Seven hours per week comes out to 364 hours in a year.

If you ask the experts on Google and Yahoo! answers, you find out that it takes anywhere from 80-250 hours to write the first draft of a novel. Numbers confuse me, but I’m pretty sure even 250 is smaller than 364.

So it turns out I didn’t need the Year’s-Salary-Fairy after all. I may not be writing a masterpiece, but I’m writing, and that’s enough. I’m approximately 60 hours into my novel, and about 2/3 of the way through the plot at 75,000 words.

(Not that I’d turn the fairy away if she showed up. In case you’re reading this, Fairy. I love you. Do you like cookies?)

Just for fun, check this synopsis & analysis of my favorite book. As a rather thoroughly rule-abiding English major, I can’t strictly approve anything that has the flavor of Cliff Notes. This has nothing the flavor of Cliff Notes.

“Only a jive-ass fool would bother capping a mockingbird, because all them bitches do is just drop next level beats for your enjoyment. So all my girl Harper trying to say is that rattin on Boo Radley wouldn’t do no good. It’ll only rid the hood of one more true blue playa.”

Maybe I won’t sue Lee after all. Because, obviously, capping that mockingbird would … you know. Not be cool. Aww yea foo.

P.S. What stories have you told yourself to keep from pursuing your dreams? When did you realize you didn’t have to listen to those stories any more? Tell me in the comments!

Writing While Parenting: Part Two

Several years ago, when my oldest was a toddler, we would go to gatherings at a friend’s house once a month. It was all these earth-loving, attachment-parenting, lovely people, and we’d sing and eat home baked bread and vegan casserole and let our kids run naked and wild in the backyard.

The house was this giant Victorian with a big privacy-fenced yard backed right up to the railroad. When a train went by, its ear-splitting whistle sudden and piercing, the rattle of its passing like an earthquake, the children would all run helter-skelter, hands over ears, screaming and crying and diving for their mother’s long flowered skirts and encircling arms. Only the little girl who lived there wouldn’t react, except to put her hands calmly over her ears and watch the train impassively, wait for it to finish its roaring, so she could return to what she was doing.

The hosts had renovated the downstairs of the house room by room, and in the dining room they had sanded away a section of the wall paint in layers, so you could see every coat that had ever been applied, a swirling history of color fashion tracing back to the Victorian era. The stairs were sectioned off with plastic sheeting: Do not enter. The upstairs was a mystery.

The host was this bearded guy, my friend’s husband at that time, who got up at 5 every morning to work on renovations, then went to his work as a carpenter all day. He’d come home at night, clean the kitchen and cook the meal (my friend, after all, had been wrangling a toddler all day, and did not have energy left for this work), play a little guitar with his daughter, and then head outside to build a patio or a play set or a greenhouse. He’d do that until around 2 in the morning and then, presumably, sleep for a few hours before getting up to start all over.

He was a machine. A weed-smoking machine. Self-medicating, obviously.

The mother was this funny, outspoken, bold woman who would, about a year later, give birth to twins and spend most days for the year after that sprawled on the couch with a giant glass of water and both breasts hanging out with an infant clamped to each. At this time, however, she had only the one toddler girl, a little older than my son. There was a newspaper clipping in the hall about the mama and the daughter, from the local paper. I don’t remember what they had done, just that it seemed so amazing to me that she could have a toddler and still do things worthy of news coverage.

On the refrigerator was a slip of paper, with one of those inspirational sayings on it, only what it said was:

“Children NEED interesting parents.” Certainly, hers had them.

For some reason, that quote has stayed with me all these years. Through the gradual drifting apart, and the squabbles, and the death of a friend that more or less ended that community, or at least ended my involvement with it, I guess. Through the years of losing touch with that dear, funny, bold friend whose stories made me laugh more than anything else in those early, hair-pulling, militant breastfeeding, sleepless, crazy, early toddler years.

I can still see that little scrap of paper, stuck to the refrigerator in that bright sunny yellow kitchen.

I don’t know whether it’s true, that children need interesting parents. I like to think so, though. It takes the edge off some of the mommy guilt. The “I’m leaving the house because I have a meeting and I’m going now even though you’re screaming how much you love me and tears are flowing down your face and I’m prying you off my leg and handing you to the babysitter” guilt. The “Go away go away go away I’m writing leave me alone” guilt. After all, I have interesting things to do, and that is important to their development.

Anyway. I don’t know whether it’s true. I don’t. But I do think it’s true that if you want interesting children, it’s probably a good idea to be interesting. Whatever that means to you.

To me, it means following my calling. It means getting up before they do so I can write, so they can see that their mama believes enough in her dreams to pursue them. I think it means letting them  follow their dreams too. Monty likes to make video games, so we buy him video making software. Eli likes to make mythical worlds, so we listen to him talk about them. Everett likes to destroy things by burning them, flooding them, and kicking them in, so we try not to strangle him. I said interesting, not well adjusted.

When I caught up with that other interesting mama again, years later, the little girl who calmly watched the trains was a growing young lady who raised chickens and won school awards. A recent Facebook update from the mama read:

“can i get a hell yeah people? daughter won her class spelling bee & the honesty award & just last month son 1 won the award for responsibility. son 2 can read now. and son 3 has made it over 2 months in kindergarten without beating someone up or saying fuck at school (woot).”

Like I said. Interesting. Not necessarily well-adjusted.

What do you think? Does being a writer (or a painter or a chicken raiser) make you a better parent?

P.S. Part One is here. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with Part Two except that they’re both about parenting. And writing. But you can have a look anyway if you like.

Writing the Ocean

I finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel last night, in my second sitting with it. It was that kind of book, right from the start. Grabbed me, pulled me in, wrung me out, and didn’t let me go until it was done with me. I fell asleep afterward, my head filled with rags and worms and an endless tugging ocean.

He wrote it for his wife, and it feels like he wrote it for writers, for all of us, and with so much love.

I want to write like that, of course. I woke up this morning and wrote another 1300 words in my novel and they were nothing like that.

I read today that the Ocean’s signing tour is Gaiman’s last.

I am unspeakably sad about it. Right now, with the Ocean still flowing through me its current tugging longing to dissolve me… I’m ready to drop everything and head to California, just so I can meet him before he turns recluse. Alas, odds are that I never will have that honor. I’ll have to settle for video:

It’s good video. Good advice. Go do things. Read a lot. Lose your heart. Write. Write. Write.

“All writers have this vague hope that the elves will come in the night and finish things for you… They never do… You put one word after another like putting bricks in the wall…” or drops in an ocean…



In Praise of Idleness

Here are some things I don’t do when I write: I don’t lie down (because it makes my tummy feel funny). I don’t go to dirty hotels (because that’s gross). I don’t fondle myself (because…just because).

However, some famous creatives rely on exactly these things to get their muses singing. The most interesting thing to me about the list of “Daily Routines of Famous Creatives” (from Farnam Street Blog, in a review of Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals), is the lack of any central theme, any unifying idea around what it takes to get the creative juices flowing. Apparently, it takes all kinds.

Here’s what I do:

I set the alarm on my phone for 5:30am, or two hours earlier than I otherwise would have in order to get to work on time. When it goes off, I dim the screen so it doesn’t burn my eyes, and I check my email. I play a phone game until my brain is working. Bathroom, then head to the home office to write.

I stretch a little if I remember to, because it’s supposed to be good for your circulation and your brain. But who can remember details like that when there’s writing to be done? Mostly I just check my blogs and my social networks, and head straight into my story for an hour. Sometimes I spend the whole time tapping away at the keys, and sometimes I spend half of it with my head on the desk or staring out the window as I try to untangle the next scene. I track my time and my word count in an Excel spreadsheet. It’s gratifying to watch those numbers rise.

After I write, I walk the dog. A nice brisk walk, around the lake three or four times, and I think about my characters, and the next scene, and how the plot is doing (sometimes it’s better than others). Then I come back and write in this blog, and then it’s time to dress for work. I’m pretty productive: I hit 70,000 words today, not quite two months in to the work. I think this story will top out around 120k before revisions.

But would I be even more productive with a new routine? Maybe I’ll try Rene Descartes’:

“Idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself. After an early lunch, he would take a walk or meet friends for conversation; after supper, he dealt with his correspondence.”

Sounds nice. “Honey, I have to work tonight, so I won’t be able to cook dinner or clean the kitchen. Wouldn’t want to overexert myself. I have essential walks to take and friends to meet. See you later.”

What’s your daily routine? How do you make time for your creative pursuits, and what are the essential things you must do to get your creative juices flowing?

Find the right routine, and you could be this happy too

Merely Super Talented

It started with the usual nightly request: Will you read to us? But then it got ugly. I asked them whether they wanted me to continue reading Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire… or treat them to an excerpt from a new section of my WIP! (WIP means work-in-progress and refers to the novel I’m in the middle of writing. Using the acronym helps me feel like an insider to the world of novelists.)

Those ungrateful little brats chose Harry Potter.

Because apparently, J.K. Rowling’s record-breaking bestseller is more fun to listen to than the first draft of the first novel I’ve ever written.

Obviously, my novel sucks.

Luckily, it doesn’t matter. Watch this. It’s worth it AND it’s funny. And he’s wearing the most awesome indoor sunglasses and mustache ever, which goes to show that if you are funny and smart (and perseverant, apparently), it really doesn’t matter what you wear. Whew.

“Lots of people want to do it. The odds are against you. But luckily, very few of them are sane. Then there’s a subset who are medium to low talented… but perseverant (even WordPress doesn’t think that’s a real word but it doesn’t matter because we all know what he means)… and they are much more likely to be successful than those who are merely super talented.”

Oh, thank God.

She’s Baaack!

It’s an interesting phenomenon, the fictional character. It’s not exactly that they become real, but they do. It’s not exactly that they decide for themselves what they will do, but they do.

There’s this little girl in my book, and I put her there because I felt a need to have a girl talk to a girl. Then that flopped, so I took her out. Then I put her back in. And took her out. She was like a florescent bulb that can’t decide whether it wants to turn on or off. Then a couple mornings ago on my way in to work, I thought, well, why not just ask her whether she wants to be in the story or not?

So I did.

And she did.

So I put her back in.

I told Monty (age 12) about this, and he said, “Wait, who are you talking about?”

“My character.”

“The one you wrote? Your made-up character?”


“You asked her what she wanted?”


“And she answered you?”


“Oh. That’s weird.”

Yes, that’s true.

So there was that, and then I got to thinking about this scene I was struggling over, the one where a couple characters who’ve been looking for each other finally find each other, and I had to imagine it now with this extra character in there and… I started to cry. That’s when I knew for sure she had to stay in. It wasn’t any of the main characters, for all their poignancy, who made me feel the pain and the sorrow and the bittersweetness (I always think of Across Five Aprils and 8th grade English, with the teacher who bullied me, whenever I say “bittersweet”) of it all. It was this little girl, slight and quiet and a little shy, standing on the sidelines watching and yearning… who made me weep. So she’s in to stay.

She seems happy about it, even if she is rather sad right now. Bittersweet.

Stick me in the insane asylum. There’s no hope for me.

True Happiness

(From So You Write by Swankivy. Click to see more.)

I cried today. A lot. Something heart-wrenching happened to several of my characters. I cried so hard I thought Carey was going to wake up and ask me what was wrong, but he didn’t. Ah, yeah. It’s shaping up to be a really good day.

(When you read that link–it’s from Scientific American–substitute “writing” for “cutting your arm with a knife,” because it’s essentially the same thing).

P.S. If you’re a writer, visit So You Write. Right now. You will laugh and then you will click “subscribe” and you can thank me later.

That Magic Moment When You Say, “Well, This Sucks”

I had it all figured out yesterday. I was just going to follow them around with a pen, right? Oh. My gosh. No. Worst writing session ever.

I kept jumping from one person’s head to another, listening to them think and talk, then adding a character back in that  I had taken out, and then taking her out again, and ending up with a jumbled mess of 610 paltry words that don’t even make sense. And all through it, trying desperately not to be maudlin. Maudlin!

Cut that scene. Here’s a video of Stephen King talking to writers.

Highlight: “There’s a magic moment, where you put down some book and you say, this really sucks. I can do better than this.” That book, the one that sucks? Will probably be mine.

Pain and Passion and Blocking

Pain. Passion. Blocking.

I’ve written lots of pain and passion into this little story of mine. But this morning I didn’t really want to write. The characters are moving inexorably toward the climax, but I still don’t see a clear path there, and there is so much exposition necessary. We have recently moved into a new environment, a cave city, which requires describing, and the characters must learn about it before they can do anything in it. And I have to learn about it, too, before I can tell what they do in it. One of the characters elsewhere has entered a long, lonely phase of inventing something. How do you write interestingly about inventing something? I don’t know. It’s not really my job to know that, is it? I mean, maybe it is, but maybe it’s just my job to know when something isn’t interesting and take that part out and skip ahead to the good bits. Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

Still have to write something, though. So this morning, thinking these thoughts, I dutifully arose and headed to the computer. Ignored the distractions of a thousand blinking notifications. Recorded my time and word count (62,743, 6:30 am), opened my Word document, stared at my screen. The usual.

Remember how I said I ignored the notifications? I didn’t actually ignore them. I read them all first, because, well, that’s why I have to get up at 5am in order to get an hour’s worth of writing in before my first appointment at 9 (that, and this blog). Anyway. One of the things in my notifications was this:

Nabokov on Inspiration

Read it and come back. It’s worth it. I’ll wait.

Okay, so I read that, and I thought, “Gee-eez. No pressure or anything.” It’s so much clearer when it’s just “sit down and write at the same time every day, butt to chair, butt to chair.” THAT I can do, you know, it’s not easy but you just do it.

But now I have to do that AND get inspired, have aura-things happen to me, and be ready to grab them at the exact moment they occur. How, exactly, am I supposed to do that? What if the inspiration comes–as it often does–when I’m in the middle of a deadline at work? Or in a meeting? Or in the car? Then it is lost forever. Like I need one more thing to worry about.

Poor, poor Samuel. How I ache for him, in losing the rest of Kubla Khan. Just a knock at the door and POOF.

(Note to Carey: Please don’t even kiss me goodbye in the middle of my flow/inspiration, please, and don’t leave without kissing me either. You just have to know when I’m in flow and when I’m not, and kiss me when I’m not, okay? Is that so much to ask?)

Not that I would necessarily know anything about inspiration, because according to Nabokov, I’ve never actually been inspired. Ever. I have never in my life felt this “aura-thingy,” which apparently all true writers learn to distinguish as children. I’m almost 40. So. You know. Maybe I shouldn’t bother?

So I’m sitting in front of my screen, resisting the temptation to spend the entire hour re-reading my whole story so far (could it even all be read in an hour at this point?), to decide if it’s worth continuing, and convincing myself that it’s not, because one of my characters is recognizably similar to a famous character from a famous novel (my KIDS pointed this out to me). I am obviously a shitty writer and should really just stop before wasting any more time.

But I remember Anne’s advice, and I say, “Okay. What do I have to do to make this story interesting to ME?” And it doesn’t take long for me to know what has to happen. And then I get excited. And then I get frustrated. Because, you know, now I have to figure out where they each are when this thing happens, how it happens. I have to STAGE it, like a director arranging actors on the stage, I have to know which direction they’re each facing when it happens, how they’re standing in relation to one another so it all comes out looking natural while still showing you what you want to see. In theater, they call it blocking.

And I have to decide whose point of view it will be told in this time. It’s such a critical scene, and I really MUST get it right. Will it be from her point of view, watching from the sidelines? His, from the center of the action? The other hers, seeing everything anew at once, the sights and emotions jumbled and overwhelming?

And how desperately I want someone to tell me. And why shouldn’t they? There are hours of video, thousands of pages, millions of words, of writers giving advice to writers. How to start, how to overcome writer’s block, how to get published, how to write dialog, how to use the active voice, how to do everything under the sun and not one of those pieces of advice tells me which character should tell this part of the story. Seriously, authors. Get it together.

So I just had to go it alone. And it turned out, I never even wrote the scene I wanted so desperately to write. I spent my entire hour setting it up, placing the characters just so (oh, I know, I should say, “waiting until my characters reached the scene,” or “watching my characters move toward this climax,” because we all know the characters have lives of their own and we writers are not really puppet masters so much as bystanders with a pen, but the truth is, sometimes the characters tell you WHAT will happen, but then leave you to figure out exactly HOW it will happen, and then you have to tell them where to be and when, so they can do the things they know they must do).

And so I trudged. I didn’t quite get to that scene of my pain and passion. Just the set-up. I know where they’re each standing when it happens, and how they got there, what direction each is looking. Each of them has told their own little snippet of the set-up scene, each one ending with a cliff-hanger: “Then something extraordinary happened that drove all those thoughts out of her head…”

And, having brought all three to this point and set them up around the stage, the moment itself, of course, will be his. Because he is the one who will be most caught off-guard, most astonished, most set off balance by it. He also has the best view of the action. Blocking.

And tomorrow, I will write that scene. I can hardly wait. The anticipation is delicious. Tomorrow, the characters will do what they will do, and all I have to do is write it down: Bystander with a pen.

And isn’t this moment, this precise moment, exactly parallel to our own lives as writers? We bring our characters to the right place at the right time, and then let them do what they will do, and, eventually, after many tears and tearings of hair, it happens. Likewise, we bring ourselves to the right place, this chair, this keyboard, at the right time (for me it’s at least an hour before the kids arise), and do what we must do… we set the stage, as many times as we must, through as many tears and tearings of hair as necessary, and then: It happens.

And how I want to share IT with you! I want to tell you their names, their precious, beautiful names. The names I repeat to myself throughout the day, saying each one over again, rolling them around inside my head, smiling because I love them so. much. But I can’t, not yet. It’s a rule. They’re mine right now, and I will gift them to you when they are ready for you. We’re still getting the blocking right.

P.S. Listen to J.K. Rowling talk about staging McGonagall–and about writing a scene wrong the first time (really, watch it, please, it’s less than two minutes. I’m sorry you have to click through, darn WordPress for not displaying embed code properly, for websites insisting on exclusive content–haven’t they heard intellectual property is dead in the age of the Internet?–Anyway, you won’t be sorry, it’s beautiful).