Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Art of Letting Go

This year I let go of a lot of things.

My dining room table, for example. Also, I gave away the things that I recorded here, dutifully, for tax purposes. I just now read over the list and realize that I don't miss any of these items...except maybe the glass cheese plate?

A few weeks ago we hosted a party and it would've been nice to have that cheese plate. But oh well. We made do with another serving dish.

Shedding stuff from my house had a weird ripple effect. Once you shine a spotlight on things you've had for years and ask yourself: Do I need this? Do I want it? Really?

You might find that everything, potentially, is a candidate for the recycle bin.

For most of the year I was working on a stubbornly resistant revision. This was a book I had completely revised at least four times and for whatever reason couldn't walk away from and move on to other projects and so decided to tackle it again. There was a certain moment in the process where I broke through, a weird combination of pushing and letting go in which I shed all of my old versions, literally shoving the printed off manuscripts aside and starting on a blank sheet from page one.

But the real breakthrough was letting go of the weight of expectations, the perfectionism to "get it right" this time. I stopped caring about publication. I stopped caring if another human would ever read the story. The book became, instead, my own quest to figure out a puzzle:

What was this story about at the core of it? What was its hold on me in the first place? Why was it so important that I had to keep returning to it over and over again for the past thirteen years?

To answer these questions I had to tunnel into the past, face crap I thought I'd shed years ago, examine it again, and finally finally

cart it off to the metaphorical Goodwill in my brain and let it go.

I wrote the book but haven't found a publishing home for it, which in the past, would've made me frustrated and depressed. But here's a funny thing: I've let go of those feelings and the anxious manic pressure to achieve goals that are beyond my control.

My house is a radically different house from the one I lived in a year ago. I have books on my shelves that I love, pictures on the walls that my husband and I took ourselves. Furniture that he made (Did I ever tell you, faithful blog readers, that my husband is an artist too?)

I've started working on a new novel.

It's a messy draft, with numerous plot holes and inconsistent characters. I haven't been able to figure it out yet. There are no guarantees that when I do, I will be able to sell it. Each morning I head upstairs to my newly arranged office, surrounded by things that I love, and get to work.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"Trapped in a Room with a Zombie without My Reading Glasses." A Comedy-Drama in Three Parts.

Because my husband and I wanted to buy a gift for my notoriously hard-to-buy-a-gift-for brother, and because we know he likes games and activities like laser tag, and because I'd heard a story on NPR about something called Room Adventures where participants are trapped in a room and must solve a bunch of clues to break out, and because it seemed like just the kind of thing my brother might like and our kids were home from college and we were looking for activities we could do together as a family, we bought tickets and presented them to my brother on Christmas Day. 

Further bit of back story: I suddenly--and I mean suddenly--like, one day I could see small print and literally the next I could not--found myself the owner of reading glasses. Which I do not like. And resist wearing. Even though, apparently, I need to wear them. 


Five other participants that we did not know until we showed up at the Room Adventures place and now I don't remember any of their names except one, Marianne, who asked a lot of good questions which were not answered by our guide, the Doctor.
The Doctor
The Zombie 
A guy with a weird, I guess it was supposed to be a Transylvanian? accent


We arrive at a desolate warehouse in the rain and spill out of the car making jokes about the zombie apocalypse and how if it happened, it would happen here. A guy with a weird Transylvanian accent greets us and has everyone sign a disclaimer that we won't sue them if we get hurt, trampled, and/or eaten by a zombie. We all mull around uncomfortably, eyeing the other family.

Doctor (also speaking with a weird Transylvanian accent.)  Come closer. Something something about the rules. Something something backstory about a virus and zombies. You're going to have one hour to solve the clues and break out of the room. Also, there's a chained up zombie in the room who will try to eat you. Every ten minutes his chain will release another foot.

Marianne: How long is the chain? How many clues are there? What if I have to go to the bathroom?

Doctor: (Ignoring the first two questions and reminding all of us to go the bathroom now) Is anyone here psychic?

Daughter: (pointing at me) Mom.

Me: What? No. (Doctor places a headset on my head and my daughter cracks up and the Doctor says I look adorable and my husband asks if he can take a picture of me and the Doctor says no.

The Doctor opens the door and we all walk into the room.


There's no zombie in the room but there's a table in the center and the walls are lined with cabinets and drawers. Everyone spreads out and looks for clues, realizing fairly quickly that we have no idea what the hell we're doing. Daughter and I solve an easy puzzle and unlock a drawer and find a bunch of random items.

A cabinet opens and a zombie rolls out.

Zombie: (growling)

Everyone: (screaming and running to the other side of the room where we all stand against the wall, embarrassed.)

Son: If this was real life I'd use all of my energy to figure out a way to kill the zombie instead of solving clues.

Everyone: Yes.

Daughter and I work on another puzzle in the corner that has a lot of letters and codes and involves me adding up a bunch of numbers and making an addition mistake but somehow we manage to unlock a drawer and find more random things.

A timer buzzes and the zombie lunges closer.

My brother discovers that if you clap, the zombie will be distracted and other people can sneak over to the side of the room.

Everyone: (clapping)

Everyone: (not sneaking over to the other side of the room)

Everyone: (realizing that we can't stand on one side of the room clapping for an hour)

The timer buzzes and the zombie rolls closer.

My brother gets the idea that if we all run from one side of the room to the other, the zombie will chase us around the table and wind his chain up and get stuck against the table.

Everyone: (running around the table)

Everyone: (Clapping and lamely trying to solve clues and collect more random items)

The Doctor: (making eye contact with me and using hand signals to indicate that I've got to do something important because I am wearing the headset.)

Me: Damn it.

Turns out, I have to solve a clue on top of the table. Which means I have to get past the zombie and squat on the table and use my headset to do some intricate activity that the doctor tries to help me with (without talking) while everyone claps and screams and runs around the table.

The timer buzzes.


I find the clue after much struggle.

Daughter: Open the lock, Mom, with the number!

Me: What lock?

Daughter: The one on the side of the table!

Everyone: (clapping and looking at me expectantly)

Me: (Leaning over the side of the table where the lock hangs. Unfortunately the zombie's bloody mouth is less than a foot away from the lock.) Damn it!

Daughter: He can't reach you!

Me: (leaning closer) (And taking the lock in my hand) (And trying to ignore the zombie mouth)

Daughter: Come on, Mom. Do it!

Me: Okay okay.

And this is where I realize, from my perch on the table, with the zombie mere inches away and the others in the room clapping and screaming and running around the table and still trying to figure out clues and the timer buzzing and the clock running out and the Transylvanian doctor tsking at our group's ineptitude, that this whole ridiculous thing may come down to me unlocking this lock...

and I can't see the numbers

because I am not wearing my reading glasses.

Skip to: We lost. It didn't really come down to me, I am happy to report. There were a ton of other clues that we never found and items we never figured out how to use.

The number I was trying to use in my lock weren't even the right numbers. So, Ha Ha.

But we had fun and the doctor dropped her Transylvanian accent and the zombie stood up and was suddenly an ordinary nice guy and the two of them explained all of the things we did wrong but gave our group points for effort and asked us to like them on Facebook and had us all take a group photo, and then our sweaty, stressed out group filed out into the dark rainy night, knowing, without a doubt, that if there truly was a zombie apocalypse, we would all perish.

The End
From left to right: Zombie Son, Me, Husband, Zombie Daughter
Possibly my greatest fear
Brother is a good sport 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

On Reading Harder Better Smarter Wider Gentler

Many of my friends are competitive readers.

I'm not sure if this is actually a Thing, but let's just say if there was an Olympic sport category for number of books read/time spent reading, these people would be on the team.

A writer/blogger friend recently posted about having read 300 books this year. Another friend is painstakingly reading his way through a Top 100 Book list. (Side note: he quickly realized that there are many Top 100 lists--ranging from the Goodreads Top 100 Books You Must Read Before You Die to the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels and many other lists in between. So, he is doing what any competitive reader would do: he is reading the books on ALL of the lists.)

There was a time in my life when I would've wanted to be on this team. When I was a kid, I read constantly, checking as many books out of the library as was allowed in one checkout. I didn't own many books but the ones I did own, I read and reread. In college I was an English major and loved the idea that reading books was my homework.

Maybe ten years ago, I began keeping a notebook of books I'd read, and when I started this blog, I recorded the yearly lists here and here and here and analyzed the ones that stuck with me.

I dutifully recorded titles on Goodreads (until I learned that being on Goodreads, as a writer, doesn't feel so great) and then I moved my book list over to Booklikes where I have no friends and there's no judgment but there's a lovely bookshelf feature where you can display your titles.

Something I noticed this year is that I didn't read as many books as I usually do. For the first time in my life, I put books down that I didn't connect with (my rule was: give it five chapters and then quit). I quit on a lot and I am happy to say that I felt only small twinges of guilt.  For maybe four or five months when I was writing like a maniac, I barely read at all. A chapter, at most, a night, of the same book, until I nodded off to sleep.

Still, I kept buying books and checking them out of the library. Books sat on my bedside table and piled up in my office. (Side note #2. I did, however, create a lovely Book Tree out of some:

This year-- I just counted-- I read 38 books, the smallest number I've recorded since I began keeping stats.

Ah well. It's not as if it is a competition.

And yet, I do love the idea of challenging myself to read more, to read better. I can't imagine reading 300 books though (I mean, WHAT??? HOW???) And my new-found Put-a-Book-Down-When-I-Don't-Connect-With-It rule would make a Top 100 List quest impossible.

Which brings me to what just may be the perfect challenge for me: the Book Riot blog's 2016 Read Harder. 

Basically, it's a list of 24 categories. (24! Not so many!) And the titles are left up to you, which means lots of choice and wiggle room and the ability to set a book (or many) down if you don't connect. BUT, and here's the challenge part-- there is enough specificity in the categories (Read a food memoir. Read a play. Read a collection of essays.) to make you feel like you're on a competitive reading team.

Anyone want to join me?

Monday, December 7, 2015

On Meeting Your Goals (or NOT meeting your goals)

Soooooo, last month, like a lot of writers --specifically the 325,000 NaNoWriMo writers who signed up to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November -- I set a goal for myself, and, um, didn't reach it.

The truth is I didn't even come close.

And it seemed like such a low-bar of a goal: write a half scene per day during the half of the days in November when I wasn't scheduled to do an event. I was confident that I'd be halfway through with my revision by now.

Ah, the me of a month ago was so adorably optimistic.

What I hadn't figured on was that each of my nine events would require preparation and each bit of preparation took exponentially more time that I'd projected. And then Thanksgiving suddenly sprang up out of nowhere, and both of my kids flew home from college, and my husband's family came from out of town to stay with us over the holiday, and I had to clean the house and go grocery shopping and make large meals, and unbeknownst to me, my husband and daughter signed us all up to walk five miles in our town's Turkey Trot Race on Thanksgiving morning, and it all turned out to be very fun and busy and lovely, but who are we kidding here?

There wasn't going to be much writing going on.

I used to beat myself up over "failures" like this. I knew the value of setting strong, specific, measurable goals (this, after spending many years setting ridiculous, vague, immeasurable goals and immediately breaking them) and I became a stickler for following the rules, harder on myself than anyone else could ever be.

If I said I would write X number of words in a particular day, then damn it, I was going to write X number of words if I had to stay up until midnight to do it.

But sometimes even staying up until midnight won't cut it, and anyway, how are you going to baste the turkey and walk five miles and make up the sheets on the kids' beds and take your son out to lunch and sit up late one night and watch a Disney cartoon with your daughter?

Somehow I still managed to write seven decent chapters and I broke through in a few sticky places and reworked the synopsis and discovered and ruminated over and solved, I think, several plot holes, and I am feeling pretty happy overall about my progress.

Soooooo yeah. Whatever. It's cool.