This Month at The Green Study

The last couple of months have found me desperately trying to keep my introverted self from going off the deep end. I made my local cable TV debut. I talked to a zillion people about voting rights, attended candidate forums, and wrote a lot of semi-political posts. But November is here and with it, some changes to help me regain my center.

Writing to My Heart’s Content

After convincing quite a few other people to do it, I felt compelled to join in with the NaNoWriMo crew and knock out 50K words this month. I’m writing a second novel – this time I’m going all in on a sociopolitical novel about immigrants in the Midwest.

canstockphoto15046720The joy of this is that I’m trying some things I haven’t tried. I was inspired after reading Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (thanks Ross for the recommendation) as well as Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing to think about the use of magical realism. Fiction is one of these amazingly bendy things that can have the most fantastical elements while still retaining the elements and core of truth. I feel compelled to experiment, to dispel the myth in my head that I can only write straightforward, rather plain narrative. You know –  actual creativity. But also because I just need to have some fun.

I was fortunate to attend lectures by writers Amor Towles (A Gentleman in Moscow) and Min Jin Lee (Pachinko) last month. The critical things I learned are the things I always learn. That good writing takes time, there is guarantee of rejection and not of success, and that you do something because you love it, no matter what the outcome. Very few writers are overnight sensations. Behind all the interviews and awards, there are always years of work and persistence.

So I persist in writing, because there’s nothing else I’d rather do.

Leaving Politics to the Pundits

With midterm elections less than a week away, I have decided, that whatever the outcome, to take a break. Let the pundits and chowderheads of cable television and Twitter begin prognosticating about 2020 two seconds after the results are in for the midterms. I’ll leave them to their graphs and charts and post-election quarterbacking.

canstockphoto36285409Politics have, over the last year, infected practically every venue of discourse. I’ve engaged in local activism over the last couple of years and I’ll vote next Tuesday. The next couple of years are going to be worse. It’s going to require more work, more attention to the details of government and more effort to stop human and civil rights abuses. It will require the ability to research news stories and suss out the truth. It will require more tests of character and personal integrity. There are no laurels, regardless of the midterm outcomes, to rest on.

And so, I will take a brief reprieve. The month ahead is for reading, writing, and a lot of walking so that I can get characters and plot points sorted out in my head. Politics will still be chugging along without me, in all its vainglorious ineptitude.

An Atheist Goes to a Prayer Breakfast

My daughter’s chamber orchestra group played at a city prayer breakfast and as a dutiful parent, I bought tickets. I focused on keeping an open mind, to hear any messages worth pondering, and to be respectful. The prayer breakfast included speakers from numerous religions: a Rabbi, Father, Imam, Pastor, and some preachers from churches with innocuous names.

My husband, a Lutheran and better-than-average human did not once chide me, so I’m assuming I kept my whispered asides and eye rolls to a minimum, even as I began to twitch inside with all the mentioning of the Wondrous Him in every religious tongue. Despite my fundamentalist upbringing, this has always been a sticking point with me – that in practically every religion, the deity is Big Daddy. Only humans would assume that a spiritual being would be a reflection of sociopolitical and cultural power. We do tend to have limited, narcissistic imaginations at times.

canstockphoto29686331Still, the first surprise to me was how many people I knew at that breakfast. Despite my antisocial inclinations, I’m also a huge believer in community and civic duty, so I knew a lot of people from various volunteer gigs I’d done over the last twenty years. In these contexts, many people assume I’m a person of faith. It’s only in the last few years I’ve been more upfront about being a nonbeliever of religious dogma. People are sometimes taken aback, but part of me hopes that it broadens their perspective. Religion does not confer inherent goodness and eschewing religion doesn’t mean that one is without a moral compass.

The second much-needed surprise were the topics by the speakers. Kindness, compassion, unity, diversity, connection, community. You see, I’ve been on Twitter for about a month now and going by the conversation and profiles there, it would be easy to assume that self-identifying religious followers were complete and utter assholes. The same goes for Libertarians, Crypto currency fans, Constitutionalists, Bernie followers, and loving mothers of six who hate other people’s children, but apparently adore emoticons. The sheer numbers of people who willingly out themselves as unkind, uninformed, paranoid, and unpleasant humans can really twist one’s perspective.

That’s not to say that people can’t mouth one thing in person and then turn around to sound like unhinged bigots online, but in the interest of this cluttered, chaotic mess we call humanity, it’s good to seek out examples of our better selves. What I liked most was how much work people were actually doing in the community. To me, this is putting your faith in action. Forget all the piety, the genuflecting, the calls to prayer – none of it means anything if you are not generous of spirit and compassionately engaged with other humans.

canstockphoto3881163Perhaps it was a reminder to someone like me who is constantly in critical thinking mode. I can easily suss out problems with the intent of finding solutions. But it’s important to teach the brain to see the good as well, to acknowledge that we humans are capable of great love and kindness and that we need to pay attention more to those who model decency, rather than to those who don’t, regardless of political or religious beliefs.

The Month in Blogging

Despite feverishly typing away on the next novel, I will still write here as well. My hope is to bring a little more focus to the topics of writing, kindness, and general well-being. It’s not to say that there aren’t big problems in the world and that I don’t recognize the privilege of being able to retreat from them, but the reservoir needs to be refilled before jumping back into the fray.

To my fellow NaNoWriMos, happy writing! To those of you who choose to remain coherent, showered, and not compulsively checking word counters, I hope you find a respite of your own design.

Marlon James and Notes in the Dark

canstockphoto15617395A good story makes you ask better questions. It’s scrawled twice in the margins of my notebook. I took notes last week in a darkened audience, attending a lecture by the 2015 Man Booker Prize winner, Marlon James. He received the award in October for his sprawling, intense novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings.

One of things on my writing hit list this year was to seek out better writers and better writing. I am fortunate to live in a metro area for some of the big name writers who give lectures, but I’ve also watched a lot of videos, listened to audio books and stepped up my reading habits. It isn’t that I’m seeking some sort of osmotic reaction. It’s that I want to live in that world where writing matters, where people value telling really good stories.

While whinging on about this novel I’ve been treading in for the last three years, a writer friend responded with silence. What? She hesitated. “Maybe you should write something else.” As I have done with numerous people, I adamantly held on to the premise that this must be done. This was the novel that was going to teach me how to be a proper novelist. I needed to just work through it. My argument has come to sound hollow and unenthusiastic.

After another mucky, miserable writing session yesterday, I flopped down on the couch. It was time to quit trying to ram through the novel – this door that would magically unlock the novelist within. I’m on a third rewrite and feel like my compulsion to finish and do it right will eventually stop me from writing it at all.

Marlon James shared advice he’d gotten early on: “Write about only three things: what you love, what you hate, and what you’re deeply conflicted about.” 

canstockphoto7418437That quote has been playing in my head repeatedly. The novel I’ve been working on is rooted in the past, in things I once hated and loved and things I’m no longer conflicted about. I wasn’t asking better questions. I was asking questions for which I’d already found answers. It makes sense that I’d be sick of the whole damned thing and unless I could bring something new to the story, it wasn’t worth writing.

Today I pulled down the story board cards, packed up the notepads, filed the drafts in a binder and backed up all my digital records. I’m taking the month off from working on it and diving into another story. Since it’s November and I have some writer friends who have been hemming and hawing about participating in National Novel Writing Month, I’ve had a change of heart and will give in to this particular, peculiar compulsion. A little free range writing might be fun. Or not.


This post by The Bloggess made me laugh so loudly this morning that I woke up my family.

And then that one time on twitter we all just became human and I laughed until I gave myself a headache.

It reminded me of volunteering on kindergarten registration night, when I had to request documentation for enrollment, to include birth certificates. An acquaintance arrived with her kindergartner, older son and a newborn. I smiled and proceeded to ask her for a copy of her birth control. I morphed into the worst volunteer ever, as I had to keep leaving the table to stop laughing and/or dying from embarrassment.

If you wonder how artists spent their days, I just finished a fun read in which I learned that having a wife, servants, a drinking problem and Benzedrine are really the tricks of the creative trade. Having none of those, I did also find that on average, many creative talents worked a solid 3-4 hours a day and spent a lot of time going on walks. I can do that.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, Editor

For those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, best wishes!

For those of you not participating, keep your eye roll at the ready, as writers lose their minds but always, always know their word count!

Unraveling: Fiction as Life and No, No NaNoNette

canstockphoto4401375I put my 5th grader on a school bus this week for the first time. It’s not much to parents who have been doing this since day one, but I worked from home for many years. I felt like taking her to school was an opportunity. I got to know other parents and the school environment. Some of our best mother-daughter talks happened in the car and I was loathe to give it up. But for the sake of her growing independence, give it up I did.

Six months ago, I quit working for the company I’d worked for off and on for 13 years and I stopped training in Taekwondo. A stress fracture ended running workouts four months ago. Two weeks ago, I stepped down as the president of the parent-teacher organization. This week I stopped driving my daughter to school. Today I’m stepping off the National Novel Writing Month ride.

A friend likened my experience to diagnosing food allergies. You delete all possible offending foods from your diet and slowly add them back in, one at a time, to see what causes a reaction. I’ve removed many defining features of my daily life. The parameters have expanded and the responsibility lies with me to shape my days.

All this effort to change my life is an effort to sit with emptiness. And there’s an echo now. Busy is no longer an adjective I can use. I believe living slowly is important. Sitting still has value. But I’m fighting years of indoctrination. You must be busy. You must be useful. You must not be seen to be a layabout. If you do something, go all the way. Work is purpose.

I’ve worked hard at everything my whole life. I never sat still for long. I am nothing without my effort, my discipline, my drive to do my best at anything. This is a blessing and a curse. It has made me a responsible, conscientious and reliable parent, employee, wife, daughter-in-law, volunteer and friend. It has also made me impatient, irritable, moody and fatigued.

My friends and family keep making sly asides. “You’ll fill up the time with something else.” I started NaNoWriMo thinking that, since I’d quit everything else, time was my oyster. It took me about a week to start resenting the pressure. I’ve hated every sentence and I am not enjoying this process. It became that something else to fill my time.

I’ve gone through my life to this point, like most people, rather haphazardly. I survived a rough and tumble childhood, joined the Army, went to college, got a degree and worked, worked, worked. Most big decisions got made with a youthful shoulder shrug. What have I got to lose? I moved, quit jobs, took up a variety of ill-thought out relationships, ran up bills, dug myself out of debt, married, had a child, tried new hobbies and interests.

It seems different now. I’m irrelevant to the young, a caregiver to the old. I’m wiser, but not inherently smarter. Life is swirling and changing around me, but I feel frozen to this moment, disconnected from the lives around me. As an older parent than most of my peers, my fears for my child are darker. I don’t care about what school she gets into, I just want her to live long enough to experience it. I want to live long enough to experience it.

I’ve been immersed in senior care issues all week and my shoulders and neck tighten at the thought that, if I am lucky, I will be there in the next few decades, hoping that my caregivers are kind and patient and that I won’t have to be afraid.

I am still working. My sandwich generation schtick puts me hollering at my daughter to get ready for school in the morning and helping my mother-in-law dress for her day after the bus leaves. Walking the line between burgeoning independence and regretful dependence, I feel like I’m in a canyon where my needs seem murky at best. Food and water and maybe a walk in the park is the best I can manage until I can get my head sorted.

As an adolescent, I lived in a gutted school bus for six months. You can imagine how very wealthy I feel now, living in my little suburban ranch house with a yard and a lovely family. This is how I feel about time, as I watch my daughter and mother-in-law grow older in tandem. I have the good fortune of being done with the awkward, sometimes painful lessons of youth and am healthy enough to still move on my own steam.

The fears I have now are the ones with which I sit in an increasingly empty room. I smile wryly at the thought that I’ve come round to full navel-gazing when that seems to be the cultural trend. Perhaps I’m more hip than I think. The recurring thought is washing over me: Don’t mess this up. Freedom of choice means the freedom to write a better story. Word count is irrelevant.

Slippery Pistons and Fiery Cupcakes of Love: Writing Sex Scenes

canstockphoto1808539As I continue to write my second novel, I’ve stumbled into a patch of writing ground that makes me giggle like a 10-year-old or mutter “that’s just gross” under my breath to no one in particular. It is never my intent to write about love or sex, here, there or anywhere, but human relationships apparently involve a lot of both ingredients. And unfortunately, both my novels seem to include humans.

If writing what I know is key to authenticity, I am, to use an obvious pun, totally screwed. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I tend to skip the pageantry and focus on the execution. I’ve read a lot of erotica (that’s what they call lady porn) and there are some writers who do it exceedingly well. And inevitably, I look at the writer’s picture and think “that is one adventurous gal”. So wrong, I know. I mean, the point of being a fiction writer is that you get to make up all kinds of shit. On paper, you should be able to write out every debauched, non-normative thought you’ve ever had and not have to go to confession or blush while writing it.

I’m Reality Writer. While I can read a good sex scene until my knuckles turn white gripping my Kindle, in the back of my mind, I usually think: Please, for the love of all that is hygienic, take a shower now. There’s no way, after all that grinding and slobbering and flopping about, that those people don’t reek to high heaven. But no, they’re back at it first thing in the morning with nary a toothbrush in sight. Some things are not, like fine wine, improved with time. So on top of all my sophomoric giggles, sensory issues really impact my ability to have my characters get it on.

It might say something about me that the last really good erotica I read was because of the realistic dialogue. The characters were genuine and funny, so it was easy to overlook that there might have been toenail clippings in the bed or she was going through skipping-a-shave Movember month. It was easy to ignore that he only had a two and a half pack and everything rippled when they were going at it. Or that the dog stared at them the whole time. From the end of the bed.

My novel is not a romance or erotic novel. At least it wasn’t until I tried to explain why my main characters were married to each other. Even if it’s unlikely that sex scenes will make the final cut, I feel compelled to work through their relationship and sex is a part of that. My inclination to cut the scene made me think about what including sex scenes in a novel does to it. Writers I like, outside of the romance/erotica genre, rarely have sex scenes and if they do, it’s because some sort of crime is being committed. Does having a sex scene immediately change the genre of a novel? What are examples of literary fiction where sex is included but not the focal point?

This is how I manage not to write more. I start wanting to puzzle out what kind of writing I’m doing and get completely distracted from actually doing it. She said doing it. Snort.

The Writer’s Life Day #1: Everything is Awesome

canstockphoto15442915I quit my job. I quit volunteering. I am well-rested. My office is clean. My desk a clutter-free, pristine horizontal landscape. My magnetic storyboard is up. Chapters laid out. Characters listed. My family ignores me. My cell phone is on silent. My email is shut down.

Gentle music plays in the background, massaging my brain. My humidifier is ejecting the perfect puffs of mist to prevent my eyes from drying out. The sun is streaming through the study window. Cats doze with tiny snores on the reading chair. My hot cup of tea is at the ready. My chair is at the perfect height. The blank screen beckons me.

And beckons me…

Oh, shit.

Is there a writer in the house?

The Siren Call of National Novel Writing Month


Fall brings the melancholy whisper from writers everywhere: Should I do NaNoWriMo? For those who are unaware of this event, National Novel Writing Month is in November. The Office of Letters and Light, a nonprofit organization, sponsors various events online and around the country to get writers writing. The goal in November is to write 50,000 words, an average of 1,667 words per day. A double-spaced page, average font, has approximately 250-275 words per page. This means 6-7 typewritten pages per day.

Two years ago, I met the 50K goal and finished a rough draft of a first novel. And I’ve been asking myself the same question this year and these are the pros and cons I’ve come up with:


  • I learned that I can write 50,000 words in a month.
  • It brought a goal-oriented level of focus that I seem to be failing at in my daily life.
  • I got a lot of silly blog material from it.
  • I learned about my weaknesses as a writer (although this was mostly in the aftermath of editing).
  • I learned more about novel construction – story arcs, conflict resolution, foreshadowing, etc.
  • I got to whinge on interminably with fellow writers about flattened butts, hand cramps and dry eyeballs.


  • That’s a lot of words for one month and if you are a procrastinator who gets hit with a flu bug, you’ll be writing your last 5,000 words in a couple of days and wishing you were not.
  • Cut to two years later and I have still not finished editing my first draft. It is the dark shadow in the study – that thing I feel compelled to finish, which has led to loathing, denial and self-mocking.

 NaNoWriMo is a go for me this year. I’m struggling to find my way back to writing, but seem unable to set a clear goal and follow through on it. 50,000 words, 30 days – that’s pretty straightforward. And I can devolve into a writer sapien once again. Showers will be optional, as will other forms of communication beyond grunting and wild gestures. I’m looking forward to it.