This photo was taken in June, 2018, in a little town on California’s Central Coast. At least that’s how I remember it. Today Portland is gray and bedraggled, and I needed a bit of color.
This photo reminds me that at one point, I had a whole secret theme going on my Instagram. I never told anyone (except Scott, of course) what I was going for, but I kept the project going for months. It wasn’t every photo, just one or two a week, and the theme would have been hard to guess at. It was a look at juxtapositions of color: manmade structures and objects behind or next to objects from nature. Flowers against walls, brilliant red poppies in front of a bright blue recycling bin, lime-green moss next to yellow rain boots, that sort of thing. I remember one of my favorites was a scatter of autumn leaves in a leaf-shaped pothole.
It was fun, having a secret art project. I tend to spill all my artistic secrets out of enthusiasm—sometimes to their detriment. It’s easy to lose steam on a project after I’ve had the fun of telling about it.
Back when I was writing Little House prequels, I used to have to turn in outlines for approval by the Laura Ingalls Wilder estate. Outlines are deadly to my writing process; once I’ve mapped a book out in that level of detail, the energy fizzles. It’s like I’ve had the fun of telling the story and now what’s left is the hard part, the actual writing.
So every time one of these outlines was approved, I’d sit down and write a totally different book. I never meant to; I would just start writing in the middle somewhere, searching for life, and suddenly the story would grow legs and skitter off in a different direction than the map I’d submitted.
And you know what? No one ever seemed to notice. When I turned in a manuscript, my editor edited the book she got, not the one she didn’t. I’m proud of those books and I’m happy they wouldn’t stay in their boxes. Some of the broad strokes do parallel the original outlines; there were parts of each story that I knew from the beginning I wanted to tell—the Roxbury hurricane; the story of Charlotte’s baby brother—but most of the everyday happenings in those stories grew as I wrote, not before.
I’ve been treading cautiously with my current novel-in-progress. With this one, I could see the broad outline very clearly from the first—danger! But as soon as I started writing, new developments elbowed in, pushing the early conception to the far corners of the page.
Which was a huge relief. I have to do this dance with any written work: know enough, but not too much. I remember once complaining to Scott that I had a paper due, and it seemed like a pointless exercise: “I know I can write it, and the professor knows I can write it, so why can’t we just leave it at that?” Heh. That was toward the end of a rigorous two years in graduate school and I was tired. Grinding out that paper felt rather, shall we say, academic.
Anyway, that’s where my thoughts have wandered on this cloudy afternoon. I didn’t plan this post in advance; I just searched “color” in my photo library and let my thoughts roam where they pleased.
September 19, 2021 @ 11:36 am | Filed under: Books
This is maybe half of my stitching projects currently-in-progress. Plus a pair of middle-grade novels, a picture book, a blog/essay collectionish thing, a nonfiction project, and Brave Writer Dart #5 of the 10 I’m writing this year. (Yep, that’s the whole year’s Dart lineup. The books are SO GOOD, y’all. A joy to write about.) This is why I’m not very good at promoting the books I’ve already published—the ones I really really hope people will keep buying because I love them and want them to stay in print—and I’m low-level worried all the time about neglecting them, but I would always, always rather be working on the next thing than promoting the finished ones.
And buried in this pile are two hoops from a project I am truly over-the-moon excited about, a set of original designs, and it would be awfully nice if someone could rustle up a way to fit about six extra hours into the day. I’m not greedy—five or six will do!
And the whole time I’m stitching, I’m thinking about the books, the middle-grades* mostly. Or, well, that isn’t quite accurate, because at night I listen to audiobooks while I stitch. But reading is a big part of writing, too. So in a way it’s all in service of the work.
*(I can’t decide which to focus on so I’m mapping out two at once, set in the same world. I told a friend on Friday that I’d like to have proposals ready to send to my agent by mid-October. Which is maybe a reasonable goal if I kick the clean-out-the-garage project down the road until, like, spring??)
I love Charlie Gilkey’s book Start Finishing, and I’ve truly taken his advice to heart this past year, but BOY do I have a hard time with the crucial first step in his road map, which is recognizing that most of the time we can’t be actively moving forward on more than five projects at once.
And that’s if all systems are go, no health issues, etc. (In this house, there are always health issues. I’ve had a miserable time with asthma this past month. Which is partly why I’ve managed to do so much stitching: too fatigued for all the household projects I’d envisioned barreling through this fall. Silver linings.)
Anyway, five projects. Words that send me into helpless laughter petering out with a rueful groan. When I try to narrow down All the Things, I cheat a lot.
1. Homeschooling (an ongoing project, decades deep now)
2. Client work. Lots of it. Counts as one big ongoing project with many, many subtasks.
3. Books in progress. A major cheat to count them as one project. At a certain point, I have to tuck a bunch of ideas away and focus on just one manuscript. But this is not that point.
4. A wild card spot. Any kind of household project bigger than basic daily chores. OR: the ongoing project of navigating Wonderboy’s medical appts and services. There are periods where this becomes intense, with several appointments in a short span of time, and that’s for sure when other things on this list have to be back-burnered. OR: a biggish reading project; research; study.
5. Book outreach — the one I’m forever neglecting — my newsletter and blog posts and reaching out to podcasters & teachers. I mean, this is really a whole job by itself! There are, like, professionals who make their entire living out of it! But the vast majority of published authors can’t afford that kind of help. We’ve got to champion our books ourselves. Which is…kind of excruciating? I would rather champion OTHER PEOPLE’S books. (Like Tanita Davis’s new one. You should buy it!)
But what about…?
Stitching, you’ll notice, doesn’t land a spot on my Five Projects lists. Which may seem a bit bananas, since I’m obsessed with it and pretty much want to stitch all the time. But there’s a reason for it—a mini-revelation that gave me a lot of peace.
The thing about Projects is they require focus. Charlie Gilkey defines a project as activities that require time, energy, and attention. (TEA.) Most projects have some kind of Admin component, but to really move the work forward, the critical need is for Focus blocks. (What Cal Newport calls Deep Work.) Good-sized chunks of time—90 minutes to 2 hours is a good target, although for writing or, say, garage-cleaning, I prefer a 3-hour Focus block.
Most of us can only manage one, maaaaybe two Focus blocks in a given day. In Start Finishing, Gilkey notes that the rest of our time goes to routines, and admin, and social blocks (meetings, outings, phone calls), and…if we’re being good to ourselves, if we’re being wise: recovery blocks. Down time. Rest. Fun.
It was this Recovery part of Charlie’s road map that helped me make peace with the Five Projects (at most!) reality-check. Yes, I think of my stitching projects as projects. And they do take time and attention. But—here’s the glorious part—they don’t drain my energy. They restore it. They exhilarate me, thrill me—and they provide me with something I rarely experience otherwise.
I’m sitting still, stitching. My mind is still. I mean, it may be roaming, exploring the valley where my little book people live, or chewing on a post I mean to write—but it’s a contented, calm state. Not agitated. Not hyper. Not stressed or worried. Not holding mental arguments with That One Friend on Facebook. Not tacking items onto an endless to-do list. For me, stitching is a meditative activity; a vital part of my writing process; a means of rest and, yes, recovery.
A few years back when I was feeling a bit desperate over a too-intense workload, my brilliant coach friend Helen McLaughlin suggested I make a list of activities that drain my energy, and activities that give me energy, to make sure my days had a reasonable balance of both.
Tops on the refueling list were: reading to my kids, singing with Low Bar Chorale, and making art. At the time, I was only just beginning to venture into embroidery. I was filling a lot of sketchbooks, trying to learn to draw and paint. Sketching stills my mind in much the same way stitching does. But the stitching high lasts longer: I like the way my embroidery projects come out more than I like my drawings. Gradually handstitching took precedence.
Interestingly, I find there’s an admin component to a stitching project, too. Cutting fabric, transferring a design (my own original one or a purchased pattern, depending), choosing colors, assembling supplies—this is the busywork part of the process that I usually save for weekends. That leaves me ready to sink into the bliss of a recovery state after a workday’s Focus session. If I time it right, my background mind can go on untangling whatever knotty problem may have popped up during the work, without me really noticing it. I think I’m puzzling out which stitches to use, and all of a sudden I discover I’ve written the next paragraph, the one I was sure I’d never get right.
Writing this post (which believe it or not, started out as a simple Instagram Story caption—hahaha) has untangled its own kind of problem. The garage is going to have to wait. My much-avoided Project #5 needs some time in the spotlight. I’ve got to put my needle down and spend a little time joining the chorus of authors and booksellers who are encouraging readers to place holiday book orders as soon as possible. Worldwide shipping delays have the publishing world in a tizzy: everything (not just books) is taking a much longer time than usual to get from Point A to Point B, as I’m sure you’ve heard.
Independent bookstores are begging customers to order holiday gifts early—like, NOW, no time to lose!—to ensure deliveries by December. Which means we authors need to make that plea, too. If you’d like to give one of my books (or Scott’s! They’re awesome) to the kids and teachers on your gift list, now is a perfect time. Same goes for any other books. Especially backlist titles that may already be in stock on the shelves at your favorite indie bookstore. Snap those up and everybody wins!
Prairie Thief and Nerviest Girl are middle-grade novels, great for kids 8-12. Fox and Crow is a Level 3 beginning reader (also a fun readaloud for younger kids) and the Inch & Roly series is Level 1, for kids just beginning to read on their own (and good read-alouds for toddlers and preschoolers, because: roly polies! Inchworms! And of course all children’s books make excellent gifts for the teachers in your lives.
If you order online from Annie Bloom’s Books here in Portland, they’ll ring me up and I’ll zip over to sign your copies before they ship.
Always leave thread in the needle and the sentence half-written.
The plunge into chill water is the hardest part, so leave the burner on, the hot tap running.
Don’t let ink sit in the pen for too long — it clogs the nib. You’ll lose time momentum interest scraping a dry point across your skin until the clot dissolves.
Always leave the iron on. You may return to find useful scorch marks, or with luck ashes you can read like tea leaves.
Fail to secure the lids of your garbage bins. While cleaning up the raccoon rummagings, you may happen upon lost notions or revelatory peelings. Sweep up the spilt verbs and reassemble them into cracked sentences. Smells are the best glue.
I’ve reached the stage of writing in which I hate writing, I wonder why I ever thought writing was a good idea, I don’t ever want to write anything again, and I have an overwhelming urge to write about it.
What I look like while writing, according to Rilla some time back. Not sure I’m buying it. 😉
And now I’ll be joining the roster of Brave Writer teachers myself! After that incredible experience at the BW Retreat in July, Julie talked me into joining her team as an instructor. I’ll be taking on some of my favorite topics: comics and historical fiction. The new course line-up was announced this morning, abundant as always with enticing classes I know my own kids would enjoy.
Downton Abbey (which I’m discussing elsewhere so as not to put spoilers in Jane’s path) got me thinking about the man behind the curtain (or the woman, as the case may be)—the writer. My frustrations with that show have to do mostly with the way the writing is sometimes so very visible. Much of the conversation I’ve seen around the web today, including in my own post, is questioning decisions made by Julian Fellowes. In a way, he’s as much a character in the series as anyone on camera. We’re always aware of his fingers on the keys—this well-turned quip, that infuriating plot twist, this theme stated baldly and repeatedly by numerous characters until we feel bludgeoned by it.
It’s unusual, and therefore interesting, to see a show of this calibre (clearly there is something above-the-pack about Downton that keeps us all panting for the next episode, and has so many of us talking talking talking week after week) fail on a suspension-of-disbelief level with such regularity. We’re constantly thinking about the writing, and therefore the writer. This is seldom the case with other really fine shows I’ve been hooked on. Mad Men, for example—I hardly ever think about the writing while I’m watching it. Afterward, yes, generally with admiration, always with fascination.
The Wire: I don’t believe I ever once considered the people behind the curtain during the entire run of that show. I was pulled so thoroughly into the world that it became absolutely real. Sometimes I’ll see one of the actors in another role and get a jolt: but I thought you were still walking a beat in Baltimore!
LOST is an example of an excellent show which nevertheless featured The Writing as a supporting character. Indeed, there were entire seasons when I was pretty sure the writers had no idea where certain strands were going, and sometimes The Writing seemed to wander off into the jungle and be eaten by a polar bear. (I mean, that whole thing with ghostly Walt popping up now and then, after he’d been returned to the mainland—did they ever explain that? I have the feeling the young actor grew up too much over a hiatus and they had to just let the plotline fizzle away—which would be an event outside the story affecting the storyline.)
And yet I loved LOST (and still miss it), just as I have loved Downton, despite the enormous footprints The Writing leaves all over the house. (The poor housemaids, always having to clean up after it—and then it repays them by giving them the sack, or throwing their husbands in jail.)
The Downton incident that so many of us are bemoaning today is a particularly egregious case of The Writing leaping in front of the camera and announcing that it’s ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille. An off-camera, real-world decision by an actor seems to have annoyed The Writing, possibly outraged it, and it rummaged through the cupboard until it found a rusty old overused implement and flung it through the fourth wall.
As a writer myself, I like to ponder the people behind the curtain—after the fact. When the show’s over and I’ve emerged from its world, that’s when I like to imagine the discussions in the writers’ room or trace the artful seed-planting that bears delicious fruit somewhere down the line. Arrested Development is one of the best examples ever of a show whose writers are so perfectly invisible that I never think of them at all during an episode—and then afterwards, or four episodes later, or on the seventh viewing, I’ll find myself marveling at their skill, their cleverness, their patience (allowing a joke to bide its time and blossom half a season later). That’s a show in which the writers are never onstage, but upon recollection I’ll wish I could have been a fly on the wall when they came up with some of their bits. What I wouldn’t give for a YouTube clip of the day they came up with Bob Loblaw! Who thought up that name? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click the link; you have to hear it spoken aloud.) Did the rest of the team all fall out of their chairs laughing when one of them uttered it for the first time? Were they able to get any work done for the rest of the day or was it overthrown by helpless giggles?
The internet, of course, puts us all in closer contact with the creators of our books, television shows, films, and music. Many of you probably know me better than you know my books. And if you’ve read my blog for a while, it may be hard to approach my books without thinking of me, the writer, on the other side of the page. At least, that’s how it is for me when I open books written by people I know, either in person or online.
Sometimes this familiarity works in the writer’s favor, and sometimes it hinders full enjoyment of the work. Returning to LOST, for example: much as I loved that show, much as I hung on every next episode, I had an uneasiness in the back of my mind the whole time, because early on I’d seen a TED talk by J.J. Abrams, in which he told a story about buying a mystery box at a magic store as a kid—a box marked only with a question mark, so that you didn’t know what was inside until you took it home and opened it. He never opened his. He displayed it right there during his talk, still sealed up decades later. It held more meaning for him as a possibility, a mystery; he’d kept it as a talisman all those years, a symbol of the joy of the unknown. I listened to him describe this—it was early in Season 2, I think—and I thought, Ohhhh NO, he likes unanswered riddles. LOST had us up to our ears in unanswered riddles, and by golly I wanted answers; but knowing what I knew about one of the most powerful people behind that particular curtain, I no longer had confidence answers would be provided.
(And yet I dove eagerly into that quicksand pit of riddles week after week.)
With novels, it seems generally easier to tuck the writer back behind the curtain and forget about him or her. Not always, but usually, if the story is well told. This is probably because there are fewer variables; your novel’s characters can’t quit on you, or send unfortunate tweets, or be arrested for drunk driving. It’s only when a book has plot holes or something clunks that I’m back to thinking about the person behind the page. Sometimes it’ll even be the editor who draws my focus; I’m thinking: Why didn’t you catch that? This story didn’t start until chapter three, and it’s your job to break that news to the writer.
(Perhaps I think this because I’ve had the good fortune of working with truly excellent editors who perceive all things visible and invisible.)
It’s a strange age we live in. What I want as a writer is to be invisible on the page; I don’t want the reader thinking about me at all. I believe that if I’m doing my job right, you’ll have forgotten about me within a few paragraphs—or perhaps a few pages, if you know me with some degree of familiarity. And yet, as an author (i.e. writer of published books), I’m aware that my publishers expect, and my books’ survival may in part depend on, various kinds of visibility. And then I’m also a blogger, eight years in love with the form—a medium which is all about person-to-person sharing, and which sometimes brings me more direct satisfaction than my books.
(Am I allowed to admit that? It’s true, though. Most writers I know go on being critical of their own work long after it’s been published. Not to mention the blunt reality of things sometimes going out of print.)
So our various selves are all intertwined, these days: the reader, the writer, the viewer, the performer. I’m reading your novel on one screen and chatting about your hellish commute on another. I’m watching your movie and thinking about that perplexing remark you made in a blog post. I’m head over heels in love with your television show—and desperately wishing you’d written yourself out of this particular script.
Which I suppose is where my point is. I don’t mind the intertwined identities; in fact, I rather enjoy them, as long as they don’t affect the work. The more I respect your talent and skill, the less I want to think about you while I’m enjoying your art. I’ll eagerly go and hear you speak about it later—that’s a joy, hearing creative people discuss their work. But I don’t want to be in a writing workshop with every single creator I encounter. I don’t want to think about your writerly choices, and what drives them, not in the moment, not while I’m immersed in your work. Give me invisible craft. Let me believe, just for this hour, that there are no puppet strings, no hands pulling them. Let me believe there’s no one there behind that curtain—let me forget the curtain exists at all.
I’m a longtime fan of the Brave Writer writing program for homeschoolers—as this gushing review from (gasp) 2005 will attest. I’ve borrowed many an idea from Julie Bogart’s The Writer’s Jungle and I’ve ordered a number of issues of The Arrow and The Boomerang over the years. These monthly newsletters, which you can purchase individually or by subscription, are focused around a particular novel that you read aloud to your kids. For each book, there are copywork and dictation passages, a discussion of a literary element that appears in the reading, and writing prompts for your students. For my kids, I’ve found these downloads to be great discussion starters—and for me, they’ve been an easy way to introduce my kids to the tools of literary analysis.
So it’s a tremendous honor to see one of my own books on the list of Arrow titles for 2012-2013. The Prairie Thief, which comes out in late August, will be the October selection. Thanks, Brave Writer!
Julie Bogart has some fun plans in mind for October, such as a podcast interview with me…I’ll keep you posted!
P.S. Here’s next year’s Boomerang list (aimed at ages 12-15), if you’re interested. The Arrow is for kids ages 8-12. And this year Brave Writer is adding a new tool for early readers: The Wand.