Epiphanies at The Green Study

It’s been a productive week at The Green Study. Every surface is covered with books, files, and random Post-It notes. The white boards have hastily-scrawled notes and lists. After weeks of struggling with insomnia, I stopped struggling and sometimes I was up at 2:30 a.m. writing. It reset my brain to be up at odd times and ideas started pouring out. This post is a reflection of that – a little bit of everything.

It’s the Spirit of Intent

I spent a lot of time doing work for the League of Women Voters this week. Things are stepping up as we get closer to the midterms. I felt a strong desire to focus on these nonpartisan issues, even as I felt the dark cloud of partisan hackery above, preparing to rain down on all our heads.

canstockphoto13457331Some days it seems like too many ethically-challenged, bad people are gaining power and steam. I was lucky enough to come across the feed of writer, A.R. Moxon, who also has a blog. It was this thread that made me think about the spirit of each of the various tribes of people – what direction were they moving in? What future did they think awaited them? Who did they choose to follow? What was the intent, the outcome, the process? Who were they becoming in that process?

And what about the idea of bad people? Is it helpful? Politics is not a useful framework for defining our spirit. It is not Survivor or a team sport – there are no true winners if we cannot find common ground and serve the common good. And this is evident from all tribes – the fierceness, the words and memes meant to cut someone down to size. We are responsible for who we become as individuals. This week, I want to be like the women in my LWV chapter who have served the cause of voting rights for decades – dedicated, steadfast, deliberate, singular in purpose and thoughtful in words.

We get to choose which spirit we follow and embody.


Book Talk

canstockphoto13243997I was contacted by JKS Communications, publicists who work with a writer I admire. They’d seen the blog and wondered if they could send me some of the books they were representing, in case I’d like to talk about them here.  This never happened to me before, but let’s just say I did a giddy little dance around the house. I believe at one point I picked up a book, stared at it lovingly, and whirled about belting out “the hills are alive…with books”. When I babbled excitedly to my husband and daughter, they both glanced warily about the study, as precarious stacks of lit magazines and books were everywhere.

I told the representative that I don’t write reviews. I just write about what I read. I waited for a response. And she was perfectly lovely about it. This is all to say that I’m going to read a couple of books and likely will tell you about them, but for the sake of integrity, felt compelled to be up front about it. Plus, I’m still a little giddy.

34462968One book that I didn’t get gratis, was by a blogger who I have been following for a couple of years. Dave Astor blogs at Dave Astor on Literature and I’ve enjoyed his wonderful posts, rambling through literary connections and themes. He has a nifty little tome called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia. My only complaint was that each chapter left me wanting more. Maybe next volume, Dave.

My One Thing

There was a Billy Crystal movie in 1991 called City Slickers. In a scene between Curly, a crusty old cowboy and Crystal’s character, Mitch, he talks about the meaning of life.

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: That’s what you have to find out.

I was 24 at the time so I sort of, kind of, understood, but not really. The characters in the movie were on the cusp of being middle-aged. As I move from the middle to just straight-up aged, I’ve been struggling with a sense of purpose. It feels like it’s been this way always – likely an innate part of the human condition. The challenge is getting out of my own way, cutting through the imperfect perfectionism and procrastination. I have awkwardly begun to do what I want to do.

canstockphoto43567403Dirty dishes sat on the counter, my daughter ran out of jeans, my family foraged for their own meals, and the cats scratched their own bellies. I was writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote, consequences be damned. I submitted a short story to a lit mag and didn’t throw up from anxiety. I came up with a plan for November’s National Novel Writing Month. This time I’m writing a big sociopolitical novel that I’m very excited about. The world did not stop spinning on its axis because I ignored my chores. My child did not need bail money. My husband was able to find things. Nothing happened except for one thing.

Life got easier. All the things that I’d been wrestling with, from feeling sort of useless as a human to getting enough exercise to my exhaustion from heavy social interaction. It all faded away to the background. I had finally brought the right thing into focus. My one thing. I brushed away the fleeting thought that I’d wasted a lot of time getting here. If you’re a writer, I rationalized, it’s all research and material, no matter what you’ve been doing.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo next month and want a writing buddy, you can find me on the site at MMJayne.


Thank you to the Writers’ Studio, a group of lovely and talented people I joined in September. Having that space to read, write, listen, and talk about writing has encouraged me to embrace my one thing.

Thanks also to Amy, who has bravely embarked on a nonfiction collaboration with me. I love that our connection has found new ways to expand and grow.

And last, but definitely not least, thank you for reading, subscribing, or commenting. As I canstockphoto31378283close in on this blog’s seventh anniversary, I marvel at how much the online world has changed since I began, but that I still enjoy writing here. With so many things grabbing our attention, it becomes harder to find community and connections. Anything we do to improve that, from connecting with bloggers on the other side of the planet to giving each other an encouraging Like or Hell, Yeah in the comments – these things do make a difference.

The Bibliophile Safari

My teenager rolled her eyes at me. You have a problem. I was leaving the bookstore with seven new books. Piles teeter haphazardly in my study. I read a lot and I read weirdly. I visit the library once a week and I can’t leave a bookstore without new books, even more so when it’s an independent bookseller. It might be a problem, but I don’t care. Today, apparently, is designated Book Lovers’ Day. Uh, isn’t that every single minute of every single day?


This morning my husband asked me why I was reading a university-bound paper on the inventor of the Hmong written language. I shrugged. I was just interested in it. It was too early in the morning to explain the journey. I’d read Mai Der Vang’s collection of poetry, Afterland, which made several references to the Hmong language. I started to look up translations, when I discovered that Hmong written language hadn’t even been invented until 1959 – by a self-proclaimed messiah named Shong Lue Yang, nicknamed “The Mother of Writing”.

What was the point of tracking down any book I could find on the guy through inter-library loans? Curiosity. I’ve written that I’ve begun to see reading as part of my job as a writer. But this was reading without purpose – my absolute favorite kind. I just unraveled a story, sought out the threads, and now will know something I didn’t. It doesn’t end there, though. Like getting caught in endless link-hopping through Wikipedia, I now have more books I want to read. The Shong Lue biography weaves mythology into historical events, so I’ve requested books on Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

At some point, I’ll be done following the threads and pick up entirely different ones. This organic reading process gives me great joy. It combines my love of research and reading and surrounds me with a kaleidoscope of ideas.

So in honor of yet another made-up holiday, here’s a list of some of my all-time favorites:



I have eschewed all social media except for this blog, but have decided to become more active on Goodreads, because reading is so much my happy place. I’m trying to update my lists and will write only nice things about books I like, so I intend on being completely useless as a critic. That being said, I’m not sure how it all works, but if you send me a friend request, I’ll be happy to connect.

What are some of your all-time faves?


Mammas, Don’t Let Your Novel Writers Grow Up to Be Bloggers

canstockphoto16357376.jpgI just finished reading a collection of essays by a much-loved and well-respected novelist. And it just made me sigh. All writing is not equal. It’s a new thing, taking a disparate group of blog posts, slapping them together, and calling it a book. Rarely has this been done well.

The struggling writer could only wish for a day when they are so honored and revered as a writer, as a name, that someone would be happy to compile their scraps of writing, make a pretty book cover, and sell them to a large base of established fans, ready to eat them up. The reality seems to me, to be just a little sadder, like the honoring of a formerly beautiful building, just before it’s torn down.

canstockphoto20266965So often these collections are a hodgepodge of journal entries, ordered in such a way that it is like binge-reading a blog. That seems like a fairly unedifying way to spend one’s time and it doesn’t get any better in hard copy. It is not just the ordering or grouping of blog posts that can be jarring in a book format, it is the quality and nature of the writing.

As I write more and more offline, I’m finding out something about myself as a writer. I don’t do the long game well. I write in short, disconnected spurts, even over the course of several hours. This is what blogging has trained me to do. And it’s not good for the purposes I intend.

It’s an indicator of what I’ve spent more time doing over the last five years. There are writers who write books who do not blog, or do so sparingly. Their writing skills are already strongly established. But if you’re coming at it the other way round, your struggles may just be beginning. Mine are.

canstockphoto9394573Writing has changed so much over the last century. I think about the impact of cameras and televisions – the communal knowledge of images. No longer needed were the lengthy descriptions of a sycamore tree or satin dresses propped up by crinoline or Times Square. Scenery is not painted for the reader, but merely referenced. Everything is written in technological shorthand.

This is not to say that change is bad or that we should stay rooted in nostalgia, but it does speak to our attention span and how we process what we read. The trend towards more information and fewer curators, means that our writing is vying for attention in an increasingly scattered collective.

With the advent of social media, or writing in an endless array of formats, it’s a necessary thing to think about what kind of writer you wish to be. It is important in the sense that who you are is what you do and read. Or at least what you spend the majority of your time doing and reading.

canstockphoto6307881Some would say, “Well, hell, I’ll do any kind of writing that makes me money, or gets me published.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of honesty that keeps you from frittering your time away trying to be literary or artistic. To say that I want to produce good, solid work offline that has a few readers, doesn’t make me anymore highbrow or respectable, but it is a reminder about how I need to balance my time.

It’s been too easy for me to feel like I’m getting somewhere, when the kind of writing I’ve been doing is not what I intend. The kind of writing I do on a blog is not the same needed for a novel. I am learning this the hard way and the dissonance can, on occasion, be disheartening.

There are writers who switch easily between mediums and their blog compilations aren’t herky-jerky. I’ve read John Scalzi’s Whatever blog for many years and am amazed how quickly he can go from writing a novel, to blogging, to Tweeting and back again. But he has worked for years, established his credentials and skills, as well as having an understanding how to integrate all his platforms. Shit. I have to learn how to work on one scene without creating 25 subplots.

canstockphoto3436262As I put more and more time in on fixing my train wreck of a novel (that’s some good publicity, isn’t it?), I have become more cognizant of what I am accustomed to doing versus what I need to do. There is, despite the struggle, a spark of happiness in my brain about this. It means I have so much more to learn and explore.

I’ve started late. I will not have a lifetime career in which I am honored and lauded because of a large body of work. The opportunity to be blog-compiled will likely never be presented to me, but I’m okay with that, because I have to believe that my best work is still ahead of me.

Are You Doing the Kind of Writing

You Intend to Do?

Committing to the Mistake and Writing in the Age of That Guy

canstockphoto15407070The hunger divide between writing meaningful stories and writing what I am capable of feels like a gaping maw now. A novel draft I wrote in 2012 seems limp and unedifying. Great novels come out of periods of strife and war and social upheaval. My little domestic drama on paper seems out of step.

I lay in bed last night rewriting my entire novel. It had power and endurance and spoke to the demographics and polarity in our nation – the great canyon between urban and rural, educated and uneducated. It could not be read without raising one’s fist and yelling, “Hell yeah!” It was deep, with a whiff of posterity and the flavor of critical acclaim.

Then I pulled up to my keyboard this morning. The Post-It on my monitor yelled at me: Tell the @#$! Story. I need that reminder these days when my ambition gets ahead of my skill set. Every other day, there’s some new thing I think I should be doing with my novel. I nearly rewrote the entire thing in first person, partly because of this blog. Over the last five years, readers have consistently told me they like my voice or my authenticity and I wondered if my novel would be more readable with that voice.

canstockphoto12329206Except that it’s not my story. The words and pages belong to Madelyn and Jamie and a rural town in Iowa. They could give a rat’s ass about politics, so mired in their own personal shit, up to their ears in self-destruction and self-loathing. Their story is how they find their way out. It’s a story of redemption and the murky waters of forgiveness. Our story, the one in which a personality disordered person turns the national dialogue into bickering and toxicity, has no exit strategy. And happy endings take on quite a different meaning.

I’m a nobody blog writer, an amateur novelist, one of a million dotting the literary landscape. A shrub in a forest of Redwoods. Why do I have an ego that says I should be writing bigger? And do readers always need to read bigger? I have no doubt that some startling, long-lasting work will come out of this period in history. And when colleges get around to updating their classics list, books written during the Trump era will be on it.

I’ve been reading Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel, edited by William Zinsser. My writing tip #234: Don’t read books on writing while trying to write a novel. First of all, it usually sheds bad light on whatever you are writing and secondly, it can make you overly ambitious. The novel I am writing was never meant to be bigger than it is. While there may be unintended insight or themes that emerge, it is not going to be the muckraking sociopolitical novel of which I daydream. Maybe next time.

Perhaps this will all be a mistake. I’m an imperfect perfectionist, the covert kind who looks careless on the outside, but demands creases and no slouching on the inside. The kind of perfectionist whose whispers gnaw away and slyly suggest that perhaps my mother was right. It feels like I’m making an intentional mistake – knowing that there are more important things to write, knowing that there is more at stake in the world than ever before.

canstockphoto25064666In a moment of clarity, as I wandered about the gardens this morning, I thought about how the real trick to anything is to fully commit to it. Ten years ago we started ripping up our lawn bit-by-bit, replacing grass with perennials. There were many times when I doubted it would ever look like the English garden I fantasized about, but each year, I took up more lawn, tried different plants, and dug in with all the enthusiasm of a novice. I hit a point of no return and for many years, our yard looked like a bad idea.

It doesn’t look like an English garden now. Not enough sun, too many tree roots and the grass is still determined to retake its ground. But I love it. Plants are maturing and things that I’ve moved and divided and tried again and again are finally filling in space. It’s pretty and colorful, and it gives me pleasure. Even though I’ve done my best, it doesn’t match my fantasy and won’t make a magazine cover, but it has become something unto itself. A labor of love and persistence.

I learned in improv comedy workshops that if you commit to the sound, the word, the actions of your partners, it becomes real to the audience. They are in the moment with you and nothing outside of that matters. If I write the story as well as I can write it, maybe I will have the good fortune of a shared moment.

canstockphoto4158276Perhaps, in the scheme of things, sharing moments with others is pretty damned important. If we can imagine solidarity and connection, there’s a possibility we can bring that into the world. Isabel Allende wrote, “I think I write so that people will love each other more.” Who needs to write any bigger than that?

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Things that Stick

canstockphoto8541895I woke up this morning thinking of Delmore Schwartz.  I had been dreaming that I was starting college again, right after the Army. I was still in uniform, but I couldn’t find my duffle bag in the dorm. I wandered around a lot, met someone at a bar and spent a good portion of my dream signing random forms for people. The words that occurred to me when I woke up were In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, the title of a short story written by the aforementioned Mr. Schwartz.

Delmore Schwartz died a year before I was born. He had a heart attack on a stranger’s doorstep at the age of 52. It took several days before someone claimed the body. Having suffered from a mental illness for a couple of decades, this shining, intellectual poet and short story writer faded to relative obscurity. Lou Reed was a student, Robert Lowell a friend, Saul Bellow a protégé – all of whom wrote in tribute to him.

That particular phrase, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, so imprecise, but weighty with meaning, will stay in my head for as long as I have cognitive abilities. It joins a collection of stories, phrases and poems that have resonated with me throughout the years. But I am a tad indiscriminate about what sinks in and stays. Let’s take a little tour through the archives.

  • There is a poem by William Wordsworth, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming“.
  • A quote about opera from the movie Pretty Woman (Cinderella as prostitute): “People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.”
  • A bumper sticker:  “Jesus loves you, but I think you’re an asshole”
  • There’s all the lyrics to “At the Zoo” by Simon and Garfunkel, as well as “The MTA” by The Kingston Trio.
  • A quote by Chinua Achebe: “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”
  • Most of the obscure references from anything written by Douglas Adams,  from the BBC series Red Dwarf and a good chunk of the dialogue from “Shirley Valentine”.

I sometimes wish I were more high minded. I wish I could retain literature and quotes that could be whipped out at an Algonquin Table gathering. When I’ve read accounts from POWs and concentration camp prisoners, they seem to be able to recollect poetry and literature and music while imprisoned.

One of my Russian professors was able to talk for hours about every aspect of Russian culture – there was a sense of reverence for literature and music. When I was stationed in Germany, many of the Europeans I met were also this way.

canstockphoto3711301If I were ever a prisoner, would I be humming a Verizon commercial jingle, instead of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition? I suspect that I’ve not been a good curator for my brain and that is something that seems less tolerable as I get older.

What has stuck with you over the years? Are you ever baffled as to why one thing stays and other more literate, profound things drift away?

50 Shades of Blue: The Use of Profanity at The Green Study

canstockphoto8636729A friend of a friend was directed to my blog. Her first comment, after reading one of my posts, was, “she uses a lot of foul language”.  All that writing, all that effort and her takeaway was the occasional swear word?

I’ve wrestled for years with my propensity towards the profane. As a parent, I managed to go the first 7 or 8 years of my daughter’s life without swearing in front of her. Lately, that’s been slipping, as I’ve struggled with health issues and exhaustion – just too tired of trying to do everything “right”. So a damn or shit or hell slips out. Then she and I have a discussion about language and I do penance by wondering how much her therapy bill will be in the future.

It’s not as if I don’t understand some people’s reactions. As a teenager, I was prim and proper and pious. I did everything I could to seem different from the Dukes of Haphazard with whom I lived. I didn’t swear, I didn’t go all the way and I believed that there was one way to be right – and a hundred ways to be wrong.

But I’m a grownup now and I see the hypocrisy of sounding perfect while behaving like a complete shitbag. It rankles me that some people get hung up on a word or 10, but are selfish, arrogant and unkind in all other nonverbal ways. I’ll be the first to admit that constant streams of profanity are tiresome, but they are tiresome in the way that overused words, phrases and acronyms are – grow the economy, stay on message, zombie apocalypse, LOL, OMG and most recently, twerking.

I love language. I love its nuances – the rhythm, the power, the melody. Sometimes the staccato of the profane livens things up, makes a point in a way that all niceties fail to accomplish. As a child, using naughty words was a way of rebelling against authority and there are still vestiges of that kid in me today. Although, to be honest, I wouldn’t find calling my friends bitches (as in “Hey bitches, how ’bout we meet at Applebee’s?”) particularly empowering or rebellious.

And there are limitations to meanings when swear words get overused. If what I read and hear is any indication, the world is peopled by assholes. Every other person is such an asshole. My first thought is “In what way? Can we be a little more specific?” Media, both entertainment and social, has made profanity run-of-the-mill, overused and unrecognizable in the steady stream of swear words that flows from every avenue.

On vacation, where I was overrun by fellow tourists, blue language startled me. It wasn’t the words, it was the context. In a public space, with children and grandparents, people were letting loose left and right, with little regard to the audience around them. I wondered at my prudish reaction. Why was I appalled – a person who could put sailors and truckers to shame (those stereotyped doyens of profanity)? Like spouting off about religion in a mixed crowd, a captive audience – there’s an issue of respect for the beliefs and sensibilities of others.

Context is important, but also subjective. There are no hard and fast rules. What is cringe-worthy for one person is everyday chitchat for another. I believe in boundaries, but it takes diligence and awareness to know time and place. The oft-repeated idea that the use of profanity shows a lack of education or is merely laziness, bothers me. I’m an irreverent person, so profanity, when used sparsely and concisely, amuses me. When used in everyday conversation, with no real point or emphasis, it seems a waste. And swearing at someone is inherently different than swearing about someone or something.

As to anyone taking offense to this blog, I am reminded of a quote by one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut: “profanity and obscenity entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you.” It reminds me to always listen for the message under the method of communication. Is what is being said more important than how it is being said? As a writer, this is a constant battle I have with myself when reading others’ work. Do I let myself get hung up on typos or grammar or cursing or are they saying something worth paying attention to?

The brilliance of blogging is that if you offend, you only have to do it once and the reader is gone. Your audience is one of choice. My takeaway is that if you only get to offend once, best to go balls to the wall, whether it be with words or ideas. And so, The Green Study will continue with its usual tinge of blue. I hear the writer is a complete asshole.


Some Blogs to Be Offended By:

The Outlier Collective   I absolutely love this relatively new collaborative blog (and wrote for it).  I disagree frequently with the opinions expressed, but these bloggers are passionate and fearless when it comes to taking on the issues. And I always come away with so much to think about – the comments are just a bonus. Stellar idea, well-executed.

Melanie Lynn Griffin   She’s a writer, an activist and has strong spiritual beliefs. She, too, is a passionate person and involved. I don’t always agree, but I do admire her willingness to participate in the political process, to express her opinions loudly and to be optimistic for our future in this world.

Forming the Thread   This has been a longtime favorite eclectic blog of mine – strong opinions, travel, fiction. Talented writers, easily digestible posts. I love reading blogs that make me scrutinize my own beliefs.

Views from the Couch   This irreverent blogger makes me laugh out loud. If language offends, this won’t be your cup of tea. And no topic seems to be off-limits.