Saturday, April 24, 2010


So what do these lovely bleeding hearts in my garden have to do with writing?

Answer: absolutely nothing. That's the problem.

Spring has sprung in Maine and the siren song of birds, peepers, and yes, the very sound of crocuses hoisting themselves from the earth is calling me outside, away from my office. My writing "breaks" (usually nothing more than a stretch every thirty minutes or so) have turned into quick forays into the garden to see what's blooming. Which turns into yanking a weed or two. Which feels so incredibly good. Especially when one prolongs the weed pulling and focuses on the wild strawberries encroaching on the front beds. Unlike so much of what I do, I see immediate, remarkable results of my labor.

Oh, sure, writing is immediate. Drag a pen across a blank page or tap out a little staccato on the keyboard and words appear. But most days it isn't very good and there's a pretty good chance I won't keep it. Some days, the story doesn't draw me in the way I need it to, and distractions take hold.

Springtime in the garden is a pretty good one. So's Twitter. Facebook. Checking email. Reading the NY Times online, scanning my favorite author blogs, and logging onto the announcements page at my kids' school to make sure there isn't something vitally important to their educations which they have failed to share with me. The Information Superhighway draws me in ... no, sucks me in ... and overwhelms, and I'm down to a productivity level of about 25-percent. Damn you, Al Gore, for inventing the Internet.

Of all the distractions in my life, surfing the net is the biggest black hole. It eats up so much precious writing time that I think I would accomplish much more if I hurled my laptop out the window and wrote longhand, or even resorted to a quill and parchment. It's not that I don't want to work on my book: I love to write. It's never difficult to sit down in the morning and settle into work. But I'm weak. I'm no better than other people who can't stop checking their "Crackberries." Thank goodness I don't text, because I'd definitely be one of those hapless souls tripping over sidewalks or rearending other drivers.

This past February I noticed (yes, via the Internet) that several writers I admire had taken a month long No Technology pledge of sorts. Several stopped blogging and tweeting while others just reduced the amount of time they spent blogging and tweeting and social-networking in general. At the time, I didn't give their experiment much thought, and I don't really know how it turned out for them, although I do notice they've all "returned" online. Still, I'm wondering if I could use a dose of that discipline. Especially since the bleeding hearts have been piling on lately.

So, here it is, my personal No Distractions goal for at least one week: only 30 minutes, in total, devoted each day to Social Networking, ie. Facebook and Twitter and Blog Following. Answering emails won't have a time limit, but I will only check at set times each day: say morning, midday and evening. Then let's see, after one week, how much actual writing I'll get done.

Oh, and as for weeding: no limits there. Dandelions beware.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Librarians Rock

Without question, my mother is responsible for my love of reading. She was one of those moms who was pretty strict about not over-indulging us with material things, like useless plastic toys, but when it came to books there were no limits.

This could have gotten out of hand, especially because I was a book junkie. The sort of kid who would disappear so deeply into a story that people would stand right in front of me and speak, loudly, and I wouldn’t hear them. I would come home from school with the Scholastic and Arrow book order sheets, and just check off one after another after another, and mom would let me buy them all. When the orders arrived, she’d have to pick me up after school that day to help me carry the stack home.

Then of course, there was the library. Free books. Imagine! We spent countless days in our town library; lost, lovely afternoons curled up in comfy chairs with a smorgasbord of books at our disposal. Imagine a chocoholic let loose in the Ghirardelli factory: that was me in the library.

By middle school I was a confirmed Bookworm, and opted to spend recess volunteering in the library instead of enduring the adolescent tortures of the playground. There, I met the second person most responsible for my passion for reading: Miss Fiore.

I never knew her first name. I never knew anything about her, except that she was one of those anomalies of the suburbs: an unmarried woman. All the women I knew … literally, all of them … were either married or too-young-to-be-married. The latter, we all assumed, certainly wanted to be married, and eventually would be.

Not Miss Fiore. To my adolescent eyes, she was too busy reading. I would sit behind the checkout desk, meticulously stamping return dates inside covers and filing cards scrawled with the names of the kids who had borrowed the books, when Miss Fiore would burst from her narrow, glass-enclosed office, a volume clutched to her chest.

“Oh my goodness! I was up all night with this one. I couldn’t put it down. It’s about a swan! Named Louis! Who plays the trumpet!” She looked a little wild-eyed as she held the just-arrived copy of E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan out to me … yes, that was one of the perks of working with Miss Fiore: first dibs on the new books … and how could I refuse? I took it, and stayed up most of the night reading, in order to enthuse with her about it the next day.

I met Anne Frank that way. Edgar Allen Poe. Johnny Tremain. She shared them with me as if she were introducing members of her own family, and I suppose, in a way, they were. Most importantly, she showed me how reading wasn’t a solitary occupation at all. It was a way into a new world, a way out of yourself, and, when shared, a unique connection with others.

To this day, librarians are among my favorite people. Granted, I’m the type who thinks “Read any good books lately?” is a gripping question and I truly want to know the answer. But have you ever partied with librarians? Try it; they are a hoot. Attend a “literary” gathering of any sort and the writers will inevitably talk about themselves and their “works,” while the librarians will talk about … well, the whole wide world. Just about anything that can be contained within the covers of a book. And not only is that fascinating and entertaining but it is incredibly generous.

I was a fortunate child to have crossed paths with such a generous soul. She influenced the direction my life would take.

I’m half tempted here to do a call-out to all the amazing librarians I see today, inspiring our children and sharing their passion for reading, but the list would be too long. Anyhow, you know who you are, Kelley, and Melissa, and Peg, and Merry … you rock.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Having Fun With Writers

Writers spend so much time alone that any opportunity to reach out and connect with other writers is a welcome treat! This past Saturday, April 10, I joined authors, poets and illustrators from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance for a book signing event at the University of Southern Maine. It was all part of the Maine Festival of the Book, an annual event that celebrates books as well as readers and writers.

I was signing copies of my novel, "Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress," and was lucky enough to be assigned a seat next to author Cindy Lord, from Brunswick, who was signing copies of her Newbery-award-winning novel, "Rules," as well as her brand new picture book, "Hot Rod Hamster." It was a great opportunity to catch up as well as snag a Cindy autograph on a copy of "Hamster" for my goddaughter. BTW, "Hamster" comes with some really cool stickers ... kids will love it! In August Cindy's next novel, "Touch Blue," will be released and I'll just say here that I'm very jealous of anyone who already has an advanced copy. I hear it's wonderful!

A little further down the long table was a quartet of fab Maine authors. From left to right: Susan Shetterly ("Settled in the Wild: Notes From the Edge of Town") Hannah Holmes ("The Well-Dressed Ape") Monica Wood ("Any Bitter Thing" to name one of my faves) and Amy Macdonald ("Rachel Fister's Blister" is my favorite.)

I've been laughing out loud at Elizabeth Peavey's essays for years now, so I was thrilled to finally meet her! Among her essay collections she had copies of "Outta My Way: An Odd Life Lived Loudly." To Elizabeth's right in this picture is my dear friend, Charlotte Agell, who was signing copies of her picture books as well as her young adult novel "Shift." But Charlotte's most exciting ... and most "handled" book that day ... was the not-for-sale-advanced-reader-copy of her new book "The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister." This middle grade novel will launch this summer and it's filled with Charlotte's wonderful, whimsical illustrations and features a very special new character: India. Who, incidently, has her own blog, which is up and running and quite delightful. Check it out:

Signing books and chatting with the other writers is fun, but the best part of an event like this is meeting READERS! You can tell Cindy enjoys it ...

I loved these great smiles from Charlotte and Cindy ... plus I couldn't help but give you a peek of "India McAllister's" cover!

Days like this one made me feel so lucky to be a MAINE writer!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Writing ... Or Not ... With Children

Warning: This is a longer-than-usual post. Busy readers with limited time beware.

I recently read a blog post by Marie Mutsuki Mockett about writing with a new baby, and it reminded me of my own days struggling to carve out a little creative time while nursing, changing diapers, etc. Today, that baby of mine is getting ready to head to college, and I have enough time to write novels!

The following post is something I wrote when I was in the "thick" of it:

I had an idea for an essay the other day. It came to me in the usual way: while I was vacuuming.

In the vacuum world mine would be an “antique” Hoover. It first belonged to Lucile Cade Watterson, went to graduate school with her son (my then-boyfriend-future-spouse), assumed a position of prominence in our newlywed apartment, and currently skirts Legos, marbles and pennies in our childrens’ bedrooms. When my mother-in-law bought the Hoover it was the latest thing: one of those circular models, yellow-ochre-hued, requiring size H replacement bags which nowadays are difficult to find. It scarcely works anymore: you have to go over a scrap of yarn or pencil shaving several times before the vacuum eats it. But for invoking the muse, there’s nothing like it.

Because this baby can roar. It transcends mere “white noise,” creating a din which blocks out any competing sound, from the telephone, to a crying child to an air raid siren. It belches burnt dust mites as its aluminum maw sucks viciously at pine needles, playmobiles, and curtains. My children run when I wheel it from the hallway closet; my husband leaves the house. And as long as I vacuum, no one, absolutely no one, disturbs my train of thought.

Uninterrupted, logically sequenced thought has been, for me, a casualty of parenthood. As a writer I absolutely require, even crave, retreat to that quiet place in my head where I record and reexperience the world in words. As a parent, finding that space has proved a creative challenge in itself. My children have a way of insinuating their needs and their presence into my quiet thoughts. Never mind the requests for snacks, the shrieks and wails and the bathroom debacles when we’re together; even in their absence I fall prey to interruption, as I suddenly remember the overdue library book, the holiday cookie party, the field trip permission slip.

This dilemma - of how to balance real life with The Writing Life - is not uniquely mine, or unique to writers. I see parents all around me struggling to balance the demands of their jobs with the needs of their children, their professional ambitions with their relationships. But for a writer the challenge gets to something fundamental, and a little scary. Writing isn't simply what I do: it's who I am.

When my children were babies, those dark days of sleep deprivation and diapers, I looked to other mother-writers for inspiration and advice, with mixed results. Louise Erdrich, who managed mothering five as well as composing wonderful novels, was nonetheless a true friend. I thought she was reading my mind when she wrote in The Blue Jay’s Dance, “Until I’ve satisfied our baby’s need, my brain is a white blur, I lose track of what I’ve been doing, who I am.” And later: “Our baby hates the playpen. She hates her car seat. Help. Help. Help.”

Toni Morrison, on the other hand, was no friend. I’ve heard it said that the meanest thing mothers do is clean up before other mothers arrive, and I suspect that a visit to Morrison’s kitchen would reveal sparkling counters and a freshly scoured sink. When she described in an interview how she composed Nobel-prize winning novels while her children played at her feet, I was sick at heart. How could anyone create the language of Beloved and Sula amidst appeals for juice and the insistent demands of a ripe diaper? It also begged a larger question: who would want to?

Three months into my first pregnancy I was waiting tables as part of a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. The writer Nancy Willard had been assigned to review my manuscript, and I was thrilled. Not only was she one of my favorite essayists, but she was a mother. Her accomplishments included a faculty position teaching creative writing, a host of childrens’ books, novels, essays, and a grown son. I was dying to ask her how she pulled it off. As I refilled her coffee cup at breakfast one morning I slid into the chair next to hers and asked, point blank, how she balanced the demands of writing with parenting. I cozily shared with her my own impending motherhood, then settled back for some heartfelt advice.

She stared at me, aghast. Whether it was the question itself, or my bumptious interruption of her breakfast, clearly she was at a loss for words. Finally, she replied.

“In life, you make time for what’s important to you.” That was it. She bent her head over the bowl and tucked into her oatmeal, ending the audience.

It took me a few years to get over being dissed and dismissed by Nancy Willard, but following the births of my two children I realized that her advice, albeit abrupt, was right on. The trick has been forgiving myself for the long periods I go without writing.

Because life happens. Friends get sick and need casseroles, brothers become new fathers and hold christenings in Connecticut, Halloween costumes must be sewn and two-year-olds must spend every possible moment of their summers combing the beaches for sandollars. Children, if nothing else, are life at its most insistent and ephemeral. And I find that time and again it's more important for me to roll in the autumn leaves with them, than pay a babysitter so I can spend hours at my computer reworking the syntax of falling leaves for a magazine article.

Parenting young children has forced me to make cuts, to decide what's important right now and what can wait. And while writing is very important to me, my children can't wait. My creative time is brief, compartmentalized literally and imaginatively from the daily hurricane. When I do write I have to be efficient and the finished products are short: essays for radio, bits and pieces for the paper, pithy journal entries. For now, this is o.k.

I figure I play tennis and I play the piano: but never simultaneously. I'm a mother and a writer but I don't -- and I can't -- parent and write at the same time. One occupation has to yield to the other, each alternately insistent and "important." Depending on who's sick, or breastfeeding, or occupied elsewhere for a few hours, each day offers up a different range of the possible. And I simply take what's given, no angst allowed.

For the present, however, we're still Hoovering.