Fearless Friday: Beginnings

I started this post series “Fearless Friday” several months ago as a way of sharing other bloggers’ and writers’ work, as I felt the need to be more generous with this space. I’d had the good fortune of a good-sized readership and wanted to spread the wealth. It landed with a thud in terms of contribution and required a great deal of work to put together. However, I can be a stubborn cuss and I think anything worth doing is not only worth doing well, but worth doing long term and with patience. So I start afresh…

It seems fitting to talk about beginnings. We often sabotage ourselves by measuring the present moment through the lens of the past or expectations of the future. Unwritten novels, blank canvases, and tunes only heard in one’s head – this is the outcome of not starting where you are and an inability to shut out the noise of a society that only recognizes endeavors in statistical outcomes. I’ve been thinking a lot more about beginnings and middles – which is essentially process, because that is where any creative person spends most of their time. It is that magical, invisible time when it’s just you and what you’re doing in the moment.

Welcome to Fearless Friday.

Feacanstockphoto13410470rless Fridays are about lives lived in spite of our fears, living a life that is about curiosity, compassion, and courage. If you just got published, something wonderful happened to you, you witnessed an act of kindness or bravery, or you have someone in your life who amazes you, drop your story into my contact page or email it to TheGreenStudy (at) comcast (dot) net and I’ll run it on a Fearless Friday. If you’re a blogger, it’s an opportunity to advertise your blog, but this is open to anyone who would like to share.  These will be 100-300 word stories, subject to editing for clarity and space.

Debut Novels

Over the last few years, my reading has taken on a particular intention – to teach myself how to be a better writer. At first, I delved into the “classics”, never wandering too far afield for fear that my literary education would have gaps. I’m over that. After Joyce and Faulkner and Hemingway, I’m so over that. While my reading has always been eclectic and organic (one book referencing another and another until I’m reading about hissing cockroaches in Madagascar), it is now done with notebook and pen in hand. No matter what I’m reading, I learn something new about writing.

44011737Last week, I finished reading Clifford Garstang’s The Shaman of Turtle Valley, a debut novel that explores cultural and family conflicts (and similarities) when a soldier brings his Korean wife home to Appalachia. What I enjoyed, and learned from most, was the author’s use of first person POV from each of the main character’s perspectives. This can sometimes go awry in a novel, but Mr. Garstang did a good job of writing characters with distinct voices.

This is the second debut novel I’ve read over the last few months, the first being The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette. Both Garstang’s and Dragonette’s novels are by older authors with unique backgrounds – a fact that speaks to me for obvious reasons. The stories they wrote were engaging and kept me reading faster and faster in my anxiety to find out what happens.

Full disclosure: I was sent these books to read by publicists at JKS Communications who represented and were recommended by one of my favorite bloggers, Donna Cameron, with her book, A Year of Living Kindly. Also full disclosure – I’m a very critical reader and a working writer, so I do not write book reviews as a matter of practice. That people still send me books after I tell them this, just delights the hell out of me. I get to read books and talk about them and don’t feel compelled to pander. Yay me.

As a writer, debut novels are also wonderful learning tools. Most people don’t write a seamless novel out of the gate – it’s the nature of writing experience. The architecture of a debut novel tends to be more obvious than in a second or third novel. As a writer, I can nod my head knowingly when I see what the author was trying to do. I can see the inner workings of structure, the strengths and weaknesses, and discover solutions to problems in my own work.

Before the Debut Novel: Shitty First Drafts

First novels also make me think about courage and perseverance. The end piece of a creative work – the marketing and publicity, is the smallest sliver of the whole process. A novel that has been fomenting for decades, worked at for years, edited for months, is the crux of the writer’s life. That’s where the time is spent and the only way to spend that much time and love is to be invested in the process, not the outcome.

The surest route to halting all creative thought is to think about results – the one piece in the process over which a creator has very little control. When my head is full of those thoughts, it seems like a lot is riding on the opening sentence – a sentence that will now not be written because there’s too much pressure. I shut down. The birthplace of a writer’s block.

12543While I hope someday to have my own debut novel, I will forever reference Anne Lamott’s assertion in Bird by Bird that “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” I am learning to love my terrible first efforts – being in that space where I just sound stupid, like I’m writing a fifth grade essay about the Tower of London (it was dreadful and accompanied by even worse drawings). The willingness to be awful, in addition to reading with intent, has changed my writing for the better.

If you’re a creator, what thoughts stop you from beginning?

How do you counter that?

Any favorite debut novels?

Good-Bye, First Novel

The beginning and ends of my nights are spent in a semi-conscious dream state where I solve major issues like where my daughter’s spring jacket is and what I’m going to plant in the garden. I have to admit to being slightly bitter about the domestic nature of my mental wanderings. Sometimes, though, I solve a major problem – the kind of problem that had me on the fence for five plus years and had kept me awake for many nights.

It started quite ignominiously right here on this blog, during my first year of blogging. In October 2012, I started to hear murmurings about NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month in November of each year. Writer friends kept asking if I were going to do it.

canstockphoto19927024I was 45 years old. My daughter was 8 and my mother-in-law was needing more help as her Alzheimer’s progressed. I was working from home part-time doing bookkeeping. That was the year I went out of character and got a tattoo. I’d been training in Taekwondo the last year and tried to learn Japanese ink painting. It was easy enough to see I was in the grip of middle-aged curiosity, trying to define myself beyond employee and parent and wife. And I was definitely game to write a novel in a month.

The funny thing is, while I always wanted to be a writer, I hadn’t really thought of myself as being a writer. When I was in 5th grade, horribly shy and out of step, I had a kind teacher named Mr. Dunn. He encouraged me to write and helped me to publish bad poetry in the local paper. I was thrilled when he had my classmates debut my epic play Snow White and the Five Dorks. Spoiler alert: the wicked stepmother gets eaten by toxic Odor Eaters. I had an undeveloped sense of humor at 10. That really hasn’t changed.

I did not take my creative endeavors seriously, always feeling like a jack of many trades, master of none. The dilettante. The hobbyist.

canstockphoto16261737November 2012 would change that. Despite being toasted on Nyquil most of the month as my family enjoyed a round robin flu season, I managed to write a skeletal novel of 50,000 words. It had all the earmarks of a first-time novelist – sketchily autobiographical, great gaping chasms in the plot, characters who had all the charisma of cardboard cutouts. But I had done it and I began to see myself as a writer.

As I struggled through the second and third and fourth revisions, I hemmed and hawed, putting the novel aside for weeks at a time in the hopes I could come at the thing with a new perspective. I finish things, dammit. I don’t give up. I persist. This has been something I’ve prided myself on, something I saw as the only alternative to failure. I am now entering year six. My characters are fully developed, I know every intricacy of the plot by heart, every theme and idea has been unwound and rewoven into the fabric of my story.

And now I’m saying good-bye.

It happened at 3am on Monday morning. The tightness in my chest turned out to be a very fat cat staring me down for breakfast. With a rude shove, I rolled over intending to go back to sleep. My mind drifted. I’d put together my work plan for the week, just as I’ve done every Sunday for months now. Work plans that never quite came to fruition, although I’d made incremental progress. I’d been working on issues of procrastination and perfectionism that I thought were the hurdles. And then it came to me, floating in and settling on my brain. I am done. It’s time to move on.

canstockphoto2884614I spent Monday backing up files and looking at all the versions I’d saved. All that work. All that time. But I’d spent more energy and time avoiding it than writing it. I hadn’t really enjoyed it after that initial buzz of completion. I wasn’t passionate about it and it no longer interested me. Would I truly mourn the fact that it would never be published?

This was a novel I’d pitched to agents and gotten positive responses, so I had learned to talk about my work. I’d learned four or five different ways to come at a novel, from mind mapping to index cards to plotting or letting the story go where it wanted to go. I’d become better at dialogue and characterization. I learned that plot cannot be everything.

I became adept at using Scrivener, which was not intuitive for me, but has become profoundly useful in reorganizing scenes. Because of my hunger to get better at writing, to fix the damned albatross of a novel that I’d been lugging about, I began to read with intent. My writing has improved exponentially because I now read more challenging work.

One of the biggest lessons I learned, in the words of Lorrie Moore, is that writing is more important for me than being a writer; it is very easy to conflate social media platforms and blogging and getting a business card and going to conferences with being productive, when productivity lies in the doing, not the being. Everything else can happen after the doing and it won’t feel like playing dress-up.

The struggle made me look for ways over and around my personal obstacles and bad canstockphoto29382733work habits and distractions. I am learning to write without judging or editing, which has made me more productive many times over. My to-do lists these days no longer start with dishes or laundry. I write before I do anything else. So instead of feeling shame at the failure, I feel gratitude for all the lessons that will eventually get me where I’m going.

I drifted back to sleep on Monday, feeling happier than I have in a long time. I get to write a new story.

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?

Getting Lost on Purpose

Yesterday I got lost driving in St. Paul. My husband swears we should never cross the river that divides the Twin Cities. He’s gotten lost as well. Jesse Ventura, the former infamous governor of Minnesota, once insulted the city on national television by suggesting it was designed by Irish drunks (I imagine the Irish were insulted as well!).

canstockphoto9422901Getting lost has never caused me undue anxiety, especially since we bought a car with navigation – except it will fritz out at critical junctures in the journey. I have learned to just work on getting back to where I came from, doing u-turns in cul-de-sacs and slowing down to squint at street signs. It’s how I learn to find my way around.

When we traveled the west coast this year, I realized that having access to internet reviews, maps, pictures, and descriptions of every locale and hotel changed the nature of travel. I was rarely lost, surprised or delighted by the planned stops. I had to look for those moments.

In everyday life, the thrum-thrum of routine and picayune worries means that I have to look for those moments daily. Sometimes I think it will be this way until I’m found lifeless, slumped in my wheelchair at a nursing home. Sometimes I think any tragedy and ten years down the road, I’d be living a completely different life – that thinking awful thoughts will prick my appreciation for the sameness of this moment.

Moments are found in the knocking of a woodpecker, who is grocery shopping in the wood of our grayed deck railing. Or in an autumn memory flash of crunching through the leaves, while walking my chatty, happy 4-year-old to preschool years ago. Or hearing a piece of music that reminds me of new love and mix tapes.

canstockphoto4603487Sometimes though, we have to deliberately create those moments. We have to snatch up the defribrillator paddles and apply them in earnest. Wake up. Do something. Bring on the discomfort. I’ve done this over the years – trying improv comedy in my 30s, taking up martial arts in my 40s, public speaking, swimsuits and often saying no. I’ve been getting lost, been foolish, tried things not recommended at home, gone without a net, safety glasses, an umbrella or warm socks.

There is something I have not done. I have not dared to do anything beyond blogging with my writing.  I have a novel that I wrote the first draft of 4 years ago, that I’ve rewritten twice, renamed thrice and shredded in fits of pique. Then I decided to sign up canstockphoto14879538for a writers’ pitch conference taking place next spring. At this conference, I am supposed to pitch a polished novel manuscript to agents from three literary agencies.

Five months. I have five months to finish the cursed manuscript, fly it past beta-readers, get it to an editor and then hand over what remains to complete strangers. I want to throw up just a bit. But there it is – I’m awake and can no longer hit the snooze button.


It hung precariously to the tile. Only I didn’t see it until I was washing my hair. With no glasses on, it was something that didn’t match the pattern on the wall. And it moved. I shifted the shower head so I could stand facing the spider, further away. We eyed each other with dismay.

canstockphoto6967523There is always a moment, facing the creepy crawlies that invade our house, of decision. Their benign attempts to coexist are met with shrieks by the large, destructive predatory inhabitants. We are the elephants and they are the mice, and we shrink away.

I remembered many years ago, reading about Buddhist monks who tread paths carefully, lest they step on an ant. I began to walk more carefully.

When my daughter was younger, we’d pantomime saving the spider. We’d use an index card and a cup, removing the arachnid from its ancestral home, depositing it gently outside to roam free. The reality is that most house spiders die shortly after being deposited into the elements.

Then came the shrieking phase and all she wanted was the monster dead, which had always been my gut instinct anyway. It seemed more humane, casting a dark human shadow, a quick crushing end to its life. I am the monster.


I went to a poetry reading by Billy Collins a week ago and left feeling that I could write poetry. Until I tried to and was reminded that I was wrong. Over the years, I’ve read more poetry. I keep imagining that my ever-shrinking attention span would be a benefit, but it’s not. Poetry is an economy of language and done well, requires one’s full attention.

canstockphoto15817518Serving as US Poet Laureate for several years, Billy Collins writes what is often called “accessible poetry”. He describes it as unashamedly suburban, middle class,  and domestic. One of my fears is that I, and by extension my writing, am suburban, middle class and domestic. My childhood working class prejudices make me shrink from that description. Who we are now, though, informs our writing as much as who we were. It’s a good lesson to remember – creativity on a continuum.

One of the things I love most about living in a metropolitan area is the ability to attend a wide range of authors’ lectures. I enjoy hearing about their writing processes and experiences. Sometimes, though, they mostly let their work stand on its own. Mr. Collins read his poetry with only slight interjections in between each work. This seems novel in an age where self profession has become a genre all its own.


canstockphoto14284461Thank you to Kiri, Ross, and Cezanne for your winning entries in The Green Study’s “Positively Happy Nice Story” Contest. Nothing like some positive vibes to stave off this depressing political season! Stay tuned next week for the Honorable Mention entries from Catherine, Bill, and Alison.

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.

A Cast of Androids

canstockphoto4462100For the first time in nearly a year and a half, I sat down and read, from start to finish, the draft of my first novel, written in November 2012 for NaNoWriMo. I was laid out by the flu that month, but determined to meet the goal of 50,000 words. I did it and then I put the damned thing away. I’ve returned many times, flipping disinterestedly through printed pages, redlining here and there, but found it incredibly difficult to commit to serious rewriting.

The obvious joy of reading something written so long ago and in such a mucous-fueled state, is that you are a reader, not a critical mean-spirited writer who is chagrined at every page turn. Let me leap off the self-deprecating train and say, it is a really good story. I was a little surprised. I was anxious to see what would happen. I teared up at all the appropriate moments. I hated all the right characters and feared for the ones I liked. It read like a real book.

Two seconds later, I was a writer again. It got preachy in parts – more telling than showing. There is not a single physical description of any character. There were leaps in time that could only be described as paranormal (and it’s not that kind of book). The points of view switch so rapidly that it’s like being at a tennis match on acid. It is a stinky mess of an amateur attempt, but I’m taking ownership and bringing it back under my wing.

The very first problem I need to tackle is that I either need to turn it into a picture book or I need to learn how to write the physical descriptions of characters. It puzzled me why I had such a strong sense of the characters – their personalities, quirks, weaknesses, mannerisms and no idea how they looked.

Perhaps it is because appearance doesn’t register with me as much as all of those other qualities. When I look at people, it’s a slow view. I am accustomed to reading emotions, mannerisms, watching expressions, hearing language patterns. I am not blind to appearance but it registers only briefly on my radar. It is also the understanding that appearance really doesn’t say much about what is going on inside. Humans are quite adept at being posers.

Still, the physical appearance of a character serves the purpose of first impressions, enough to interest the reader, without being so in-depth that they could be correctly identified in a police lineup. I have to get beyond my personal inclinations and develop real skills. Thank goodness this road has been plowed before (as a resident of Minnesota, plowing is critical).

I will spend the next week re-reading parts of some of my favorite books. How are the character descriptions handled? I will also stare at people in my daily life until they are uncomfortable, while I mentally catalog their appearance. And lastly, I’ll be writing full descriptions of all my novel’s characters and deciding what features say something about them as a person (unkempt hair, shifty eyes, callused hands). Then I will challenge myself to not use stereotypical phrases.

Here are some resources on writing characters that have all been mentioned elsewhere by many other people, but are tagged, dog-eared and actually on my bookshelf:

And for no reason at all, new reading acquisitions that have delighted me:

The Outlaw Bible of American Essays edited by Alan Kaufman

Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English: A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists by Robert Hartwell Fiske

If you’re a writer, how do you approach writing about your characters’ physical appearance?

If you’re a reader, how big a role does a physical description of a character play for you?