Small Talk and Slightly Bigger Ideas

canstockphoto3538551.jpgSpring is a dangerous time for writing in my world. It’s the time I’m most likely to quit blogging. It’s the time when every new novel idea looks better than the one I’m working on. It’s the time when dust collects in the study.

It was a tepid winter this year in Minnesota. I might need to move further north at this rate. Ride a melting glacier, run a homeless polar bear shelter. I’d like to see some studies on the impact of hot flashes on climate change. All I know is that wherever I am, it’s too damned hot.


It was two weeks ago last when I was inspired about my writing. It got kicked off by an extended family get-together.

So, are you working now? Oh, still writing? How’s that going? What’s it about?

I have a script I now use for these occasions. Little jokes. Self-deprecating nonsense that flies out of my mouth automatically. Well, my book is about my husband wanting to retire eventually, so I’d better sell something. Har, har, har.

My spirits sunk a bit. I’d had this same conversation for years.

canstockphoto0970790.jpgThe following day, I pulled out all my notecards, the rough first/second/third draft and I starting writing page after page of notes. I reviewed old notes. I rewrote the first chapter and last chapters for the sixth time. I scrawled deliriously across blank paper. Lines connecting words, concepts, timelines. It was heady. It felt productive, but I was suspicious. I’m the queen of busywork when it comes to writing.

Then I started to see motifs and themes and realized that there was a reason I was writing this particular story over and over again. A flash of understanding, a moment when the entire novel coalesced inside my head. It’s these damned moments that keep bringing me back. Progress? I don’t know. Just when I think it’s time to move on, I get hooked again.


Summer vacations have already been planned and scrapped and planned again. A family road trip through southern states was vetoed by moi. The heat was a determinant, but throw in bugs that don’t get controlled by an annual killing frost and a little regressive anti-LGBT legislation and it got crossed off the list.

A friend said “Why do you care about the legislation? It doesn’t affect you.” That’s what these times do to us – they surprise us with bigotry in our familiars. People who have never seemed particularly unkind take on a malevolent glint and you step back a bit.

canstockphoto14554749My first impulse is a rage that I have to rein in. Then I go to reason, which usually involves these questions “How are these laws going to be enforced? Are they going to be doing crotch checks?” My rage is not reined in well enough.

I’ve written several draft posts about the laws in Missouri and North Carolina (and southern states are not on the hook for this – many states are taking a trip in the way back time machine), but they always end in spluttering anger.

And if you’re not in fear of your life in public restrooms before these laws, you should have been- it’s a public restroom. They’ve never been high security against people intent on nefarious actions or drunk couples who can’t wait until closing. Do your business and get the hell out. Stop worrying about other people’s genitals. I’d back a law for mandatory soap and water hand washing before exiting, though. Seriously, that’s just gross.


canstockphoto17007161.jpgMy daughter wanted a musical weekend for her birthday present. We were fortunate to catch a Jeremy Messersmith performance on Friday and then on Saturday, the Minnesota Orchestra. I’d never seen a professional full orchestra before, except on TV. We went whole hog and bought box balcony seats, another first. We are the plebes, the unwashed masses (well, we did shower) and usually sit in the cheaper seats.

It was a lovely experience not being shoved ass to elbows for a performance. My daughter is a viola player and we were able to see Roberto Diaz play the Viola Concerto composed by Jennifer Higdon. The piece had been commissioned by the Library of Congress not for an event, but for an instrument – a Stradivarius viola. I felt pretty posh about it all, but seeing my daughter’s wide eyes and having her say “this is awesome” a hundred times made it worth it.


A melancholy settled over me these last few weeks. It surprised me. Spring seems a time when the world blooms with possibility. I was moody and my need for quiet became its own sort of clamoring. I walked through the woods a lot last week and listened to the birds. I saw a group of wild turkeys – the males in full regalia strutting their stuff. A fat muskrat puttered its way along the water’s edge. Bluebirds and woodpeckers and ducks, all plotting and courting.

canstockphoto4786661.jpgI saw a man with a large camera on the path coming towards me. My body tensed. I smiled a tight smile and he smiled back. I immediately thought thank you. It was the fear that I’d have to talk, when I was in a place both physically and mentally that needed no words. Maybe that’s where he was too.

Sometimes it’s good to hear life firsthand.

Stories from the Road: Chasing Barges and Otherness


For a brief respite between drab winter and frenzied garden preparations, my family and I headed up to the North Shore on Lake Superior. We visited the local high points: Split Rock Lighthouse, Glensheen Mansion, an aquarium, a maritime museum. It was relaxing and enjoyable when we were together. Alone, I found moments to do what I do best. I recognized my Otherness.

It’s hard not to feel apart and isolated these days. My disconnect from the political those who scramble to represent us, overpower us, quiet us, is becoming palpable. I am scared of many of my fellow voters. I don’t understand your placards or your mindless hooting. These politicians are not your friends. They want power. Stop throwing them parties.

Culturally, all the latest stars look like kids. The celebrities I grew up with are beginning to die, one by one. I have a low tolerance for television shows or commercials these days. It all seems like extraneous noise. Most nights on vacation, I’m down in the lobby reading while my family unwinds to reality TV involving children crying during junior chef competitions or grown men finding out what happens when they crush things.

Hidden behind a column, I sat in a comfortable chair looking out onto the lake. To the right and back of me, a group of young lawyers discussed witness prep for an upcoming trial. Gaiman lost me at that point and the words of my book blurred as I listened with fascination. Everything becomes material. Part of me feels a predatory thrill. To observe without being observed. I am voyeur.

canstockphoto2064089I wake up at 4am every morning, vacation or not. Sometimes I lie there, listening to the soft snuffling of my family. We paid for a view on the lake. I bundled up and sat on the balcony, listening to the waves crash on the shore. When the sun came up, I saw a large ship on the horizon. It was coming towards the aerial lift bridge. I dashed out of the room, down several flights of stairs and out onto the lake boardwalk, walking quickly towards the monolithic barge. It slid into the harbor and out of sight. And then I was alone, feeling slightly foolish.

Otherness came over me. It happens to me more and more frequently, as I get older and slip out of synch with the rushing, constantly updating world. I’m becoming invisible. My otherness is no longer quirky or weird or even interesting. It’s unseen.

canstockphoto0033418Sitting on a bench, I watched the ring-billed gulls doing their acrobatic swoops. A cold wind blew off the lake. Sporadic joggers passed by. I remembered other park benches and rocks and stone walls where my legs dangled. Listening to the bark of sea lions on Monterey Bay, drinking beer on a grassy hill at the Festung Marienberg, sitting on a Mediterranean beach as fishermen gathered up lines and nets, in a park next to a group of WWI German soldiers memorialized in stone, carrying a fallen comrade.

As a child, I spent a lot of time in my head, escaping less than edifying circumstances. I found secret places to be alone – in the back corner of a library, in a tree, on a rock by the lake. I became a watcher. Distance became necessary armor against assaults on hypersensitivity. It was a way to be safe. To heal quickly from the bruising nature of life.

Whether I was already a writer or laying fertile ground for becoming one, I think this is a thing that happens. While life is happening all around me, sentences are being formed, dulling the intensity of the moment. A story emerges. What ifs override what is. Curiosity drives an overwhelming need to chase barges, to see what happens next, to find oneself in the middle of a deserted boardwalk, feeling all at once foolish and delighted.


A Mind of One’s Own, Minimal Square Footage Required


I’ve been riding along the last couple of weeks as if someone else were at the wheel. I stare out the window as the landscape speeds by, lost in thought, lost in ideas, but not really lost at all. It’s the kind of drifting that loosens the nerves, unclenches the fists, allows the mind to be frivolous or deep, shifting from moment to moment.

Books are in stacks about the study. I’ve meandered from one to the next, from Virginia Woolf’s loosely compiled speeches in A Room of One’s Own to Tim O’Brien’s exhausting Tomcat in Love (it’s hard work wanting to like a book and being quite unable to). Frigid temperatures kept me pacing relentlessly, doing housework, muttering to myself and occasionally putting on 45 layers to venture outdoors, until I fog-freeze my glasses and stumble back inside.

This is what it always is – the malaise of being at the halfway point of a six month Minnesota winter. Seed catalogs have started arriving. My blog reader piles up as relentlessly as the gardening chore list. I cannot keep up. It would require that I shove my fuzzy, drifting thoughts back into a box and bring a level of focus and commitment to the moment.

My mind drifts to friends, on and offline. I think of Ruth, fighting to manage and beat back her cancer and of Sandy, pondering the idea of home. I think of Kiri fending off anxiety each time she looks for a home to buy and of Bill, unraveling after years of employment. And there’s Amy and Jen, dealing with the challenge of jobs that shift and change from day-to-day. I think of my grandmother, whose faithful canine companion went to sleep on Monday and never woke up. I think of my husband, who just moved offices for the zillionth time, new cube, new building, same relentless job. And of my daughter who is home with the flu. Again.

They’re all in my constant peripheral vision. But at this moment, life stands still. I pretend I’m isolated and that John Donne was wrong. I’m an island – staying quiet, introspective, self-reliant. I’m composting, letting thoughts and ideas sink in until something meaningful emerges and I have the energy and optimism to share again. With about 15 minutes of decent sunshine, humidifiers sputtering and tons of mental manure to shovel through, it takes longer for something worthwhile to grow.

canstockphoto22778900Overhearing my husband, on the phone with a cousin talking about family history, prompts me to Google my relatives. I read news clippings about the murder of my maternal grandfather, a man I met once in 1974. He gave me molasses cookies from Alaska and a 1950s children’s book about an agreement between the Alaskan Eskimos and the Laplanders called Reindeer Trail. It takes me a few more family name searches to remember I’ve done it all before, this grasping for roots, for connection. They’re all stories to me, not memories.

It’s an aimless sort of thrashing about, trying to shake off stagnation, to raise a hint of a ghost of a whisper of motivation. Phhhtt. Writing becomes an aimless exercise in creating things that I edit until I hate them. I begin to mock writing advice in my head, ending each conversation with an erudite just shut it!

I forccanstockphoto12183645ed the study window open, slivers of ice falling from around the frame. The sun gives the illusion of warmth, but the air is sharp. I can hear cardinals singing, sighting a flit of brilliant red before the glass fogs over. I stand a moment longer, breathing icy air, before closing the window and sealing myself in again.

A little music for the rambling mind:

Creating Space: A Writer’s Quest

canstockphoto18728910After many years of constant motion, I set out over the last year to make deliberate changes to my life. I stepped down, resigned, said no, cancelled activities and walked away. When all the excuses were gone, I was left facing the most formidable obstacle ever to being the writer I want to be – myself.

There’s a lot of talk about the corrosive effect of our distracted lives and it hasn’t been until I tried to sit still that it became truly apparent. I feel a little lost, a little uncertain about what I’m supposed to be doing. I have to look at the calendar to see what day it is and remind myself to shower. I have done every imaginable household task – my home has never been cleaner. I’ve spent countless hours doing internet research on any random question that has popped into my head. I have done, you see, everything but write.

I had a problem to solve and I’ve been working to come up with solutions. How do I create the space and time to write?

Where? Writers are presumed to be able to work anywhere. I have not found this to be the case. Sensory-wise, I can be pretty easily overwhelmed. My husband has told me for years that I need better “filters”. I told him that he needs a different wife. Defensiveness rules after being told for so many years that I’m too sensitive to sounds and smells. Maybe the world just needs to shut the hell up for a moment and back off the cologne.

I constantly hear about the coffee shop writers. I mean, J.K. Rowling, right? Sound impacts my ability to concentrate. Everyone tells me “headphones”, but I find that not being able to hear what’s happening in a public space to be unsettling, much the same way that mafioso like their backs to the wall in a restaurant.

I do a lot of writing at home when I’m in a productive phase. Those are joyful times for me, when I believe in my own potential as a writer. Still, emails pop up, the phone rings, texts ding and Skype beckons me. Hunger is never unabated, since I’m about 20 feet from the kitchen. If I’m really desperate to avoid the page, there is always housework to be done, rooms to be painted, yellow wallpaper to be stared at until I’m completely bonkers. Potential wanes in the face of interruption.

Random questions never go unanswered, even in the midst of writing. Is ragweed in season when I have my character having an allergic reaction? Google, oh wise one, tell me. An hour later, ragweed has linked me to the genus name ambrosia has linked me to the wine god Dionysus has linked me to numerous nude statues and a staff of fennel. And no, I still don’t know if ragweed is in season when my character’s nose is running nonstop.

This week, I’ve started using a new tech tool called Freedom. It blocks all internet connection for a timed period. You’d think with a little self control, I could do this without paying the $10 for the download. It was eye-opening to realize how often I attempted to access the internet reflexively. It was such a habit interruptus to check email, look something up, to even look at my weather app (seriously, I sit in front of a big damn window – weather is self-evident). I think it’s a brilliant little tool that, at bare minimum, made me realize what poor habits of concentration I have in front of the computer.

With the running “to do” list for household work, I decided that I needed to scout out a secondary location for some writing sessions. I visit our local library branch a couple of miles away at least once a week. I “discovered” that there is a quiet room with strict protocols and just tables and chairs. I’d never noticed it before – it was full of natural light, with huge windows that face a wooded area. How had I missed this gem?

Today is my first two hour writing session in The Quiet Room. I’m going in cold turkey, armed only with paper and pens. I used to write like that, with a lefty’s ink smear across every page. I think of it as an exploratory time – to figure out my whens and wheres of writing. I’ve been a hit-and-run writer for years. Now it’s time to park it and focus.

If you’re a writer or artist, how do you create space and time to work?

Administrative Note: The Green Study “What’s on the B Side of that 45?” Contest is revving up with some very thoughtful entries! You have until Sunday, December 7th, 2014, 12:00 pm (US Standard Central Time) to get your entry submitted.