Home Sweet Home

When I have a living situation set up to suit me, all of my books are lined up on my old Ikea bookshelves.  There is an entire section dedicated to domestic architecture.  Sears kit homes from the 1940’s.  Victorian mansions.  I use these books as reference when I want to write about a space that feels real.  But that’s just the after-the-fact excuse.  I love domestic architecture.  I think about becoming a Realtor sometimes just so I’d have the excuse to investigate houses.  Something about the funny little details that I can’t get enough of.  The placement of a closet, the arrangement of a kitchen…  Never ending opportunities to wonder what these people were thinking.

So you’d think house hunting would be my idea of a good time, right?  Yeah.  Me too.  That was until I spent the better part of the last three months obsessing about housing.  What’s my credit rating, how much can I afford, how much do I want to put down, can I get everything into 1000 square feet considering that I’ve got a storage pod, and then this thing that happens when I get into a house, which renders every other practical consideration obsolete…  Does this feel like space I could write in?

And, in re-reading that, I’ve realized I’m a whiny bitch with first world problems and I should be damn grateful that I even have the opportunity in the first place…  I’m going to go be ashamed of myself and my myopically privileged perspective now.

Making it Work

Alternately, surrendering to reality.

There’s this fantasy I have.  In it, I’m sitting in a room with an open window.  There’s a cup of tea that just magically appeared.  I’m at my desk.  The antique desk chair that I inherited from my aunt is more comfortable than it really is …  well, since this is fantasy land, let’s make it one of those egg chairs that suspends from the ceiling.  I’ve got my computer in front of me, and page after page of perfectly crafted, engrossing prose is just pouring from my fingers.  There’s good light, too.  Afternoon light, and hardwood floors that glow when sunshine hits them.

Here’s what my writing life actually looks like:  ooh, a few minutes where I don’t have anything to do.  Let me grab a legal pad and go hide in an unused conference room.  No conference room?  Google docs.

The writing happens ad hoc, when I can, in twenty-minute increments, with weeks between putting one word after the last.  It isn’t ideal.

For a second, though, let me praise Google Docs.  My preferred writing program is Scrivener, but it belongs up there with my fantasy.  It assumes I’m at home writing from my own computer.  Too much of my writing happens in ten minute windows of time and I hate being bogged down with a computer when I’m on mass transit.  Never mind that time my laptop got stolen (along with my divorce papers and all of my photographs from 2010).  I’m still traumatized.  MS Word has made great strides in recent iterations.  The navigation pane pretty much solves the earlier nightmare that was dealing with a long document in Word.  It’s now an acceptable alternative to Scrivener for the way I work.

Then there is Google Docs.  Certainly not as powerful as MS Word, but I can have the whole document with me anywhere I go, and I can work in the cloud.  And I can share with my editor and my story consultant from anywhere and get their comments embedded.  It isn’t perfect.  I want the navigation pane, I want it to function more like Word (or even better, Scrivener) but in the realm of making peace with what is currently available and making it work?

Listen, I love the writing advice books as much as the next writer.  It all sounds so doable when someone else is saying it.  Dedicated writing space, dedicated writing time, waking up at three in the morning to get the next words out, making it a priority…  Well, it is a priority.  So is feeding myself reasonably healthy meals, keeping a job, doing laundry, making sure the bathrooms aren’t disgusting, rubbing the dogs ears every once in a while, getting to the dentist, staying connected to friends, swimming (as soon as my tattoo heals)…  Tell me which of those items on the list can be de-prioritized?  I’m not finding anything.  So my writing life doesn’t include a dedicated writing space with egg chair and teapot.  It doesn’t involve waking up at 3 in the morning to write.  It’s a mess, and I use Google Docs to make it work.

And if you’re Google Docs reading this, please make the word processing part of the tool better.  Thanks.

blind spot

Well, one of many.

I don’t get people who can function without music.  My sister is one of those people and it is entirely mysterious to me.  Currently, I’m on Google Play, listening to the “calm before the storm” radio station, sitting in my favorite chair with my be-heeled feet up on my newish gilt buy: a red pouf. (Yes, I wear heels when I write.  I don’t know why, but it helps)  I could be sitting here in silence, but why would anyone do that?  Music helps create a mood, and it keeps the twitchy part of my brain engaged so the flow part of my brain can work without interruption by whatever shiny thing happens to be passing by.

Imagine living in an era where music on-demand was the domain of the super wealthy.  I mean, anyone can sing, so I guess that part’s free.  But the wealth embedded in our cloud access to unlimited music is a wealth we take for granted.  (See Bernhoft – Stay With Me.)  Seriously.  Think about it.  If you’ve got a song to carry with you wherever you go, you’ve got an amazing experience on demand.  Someone to sing exactly the thing you want to hear at the exact time you want to hear it, someone with the words that make the unbearable bearable.

And there are people indifferent to that kind of blessing.

Yeah, I just don’t get it.


In my real life, I find myself taking on various and assorted writing projects.  Some are technical, some are bureaucratic, rarely does something fall into the category of “creative.”  Whatever that is supposed to mean.  To me, it is all creative.  There’s a blank page, you fill it up with words.  If it is editorial work, you take the raw material and you create order.  Legitimately creative, if not sexy.

My most recent project has me writing about Ebola.  The chronically kind project lead took me aside and said, with the deepest of apologies, “I’m afraid this isn’t going to be very creative.  We don’t use a lot of adjectives around here.”

The poor little adjective.  Words or phrases intended to modify or describe a good, solid, unembellished noun; banished from “serious” writing, relegated to the creative, and then decried when over-used.  Why do they get excluded from one kind of writing, only to be worn out in another?

That’s a rhetorical question.  I didn’t promise anyone an answer, did I?

As with most things, moderation makes everything good.  Adjectives are a little like salt: in small doses, salt enhances the flavor that is already present.  Gives the taste of something structure, a little something to push up against, boundaries.  Too much salt, that’s the only thing you notice.

Adjective-heavy writing gets tedious.  She batted her misty blue eyes at him, focusing her heavy gaze on the tip of his pale, roman nose…  I can’t even come up with that much over-burdened writing without rolling my eyes.

This report will not be adjective- (or adverb-) free.

“Impassible roads.”

“Medical practitioners struggled to keep up with the immense case-load.”

“Unprecedented outbreak.”

I just can’t use adjectives or adverbs that are biased or overly emotive.

“Heroic health care practitioners.”

“Desperate orphans.”

Yeah.  It’s that last one that kills me.  Adjectives aside, I kind of want to drop everything, move to West Africa and become a professional child hugger.  An impractical impulse, strong as it is.  Instead, I found Child Fund and sponsored a girl from Sierra Leone.  They seem to be indifferent to religion and blissfully free of theological-strings-attached humanitarian assistance, unlike some of their missionary-on-tv counterparts.

Adjectives.  Go forth and use sparingly.  Children.  Consider sponsoring one.  I’m going to go back to writing about why a hemorrhagic fever doesn’t necessarily cause visible bleeding.

An Anarchist, a Socialist, and a Libertarian All Get on a Train Together…

It’s like the beginning of a bad joke, right?  But there I was, on the train, listening to these three guys get into it.  The Socialist (from Oxford) started in with something about the White House, extremists, racists, and the Tea Party.  The Libertarian interrupted (an old white dude) to explain that Tea Partiers aren’t extremists or racists, they just think they’re being taxed too much and, with much vigor, informed the Socialist that he should get his facts straight before he started talking about American politics.

The Socialist left the train thereafter, and the Libertarian turned around to engage the seat companion of the Socialist, who informed the Libertarian that he was, as it turns out, an Anarchist.  They had a brief cozy about how the Socialist was uninformed, and then the surreal little scene dissolved and all went their merry way.

Being a fly on the wall came with its own satisfaction, but I would have loved to talk to them at greater length, to put the fear of my Father’s favorite question into them…  “What happens if you take that to its full and logical conclusion?”  My dad is a pretty smart guy.  He’s been overdosing on Fox news lately, but he used to say two pretty smart things.

1) Every generation has always felt like they were living at the end of the world.  And yet the world carries on.

2) If the right is pissed off and the left is pissed off, then the government is probably exactly where it needs to be.

And finally, my favorite John Stewart quote…  “Be reasonable!”  But you have to say it with that parental whine of his…

Writing Empire

The Daily Beast recently wrote an article about Empire, with a heavy emphasis on Empire’s co-creator, Danny Strong.  In the interview, he said something really smart about writing:

“Maybe people are surprised,” he concedes, adding that he’s routinely asked how he’s able to write so believably about the world of hip-hop and black culture. “The real question is how can I write in any world?” he says. “Everything I write has nothing to do with me.”

Of course I think it is smart, because I agree completely.  Danny Strong, white guy, writes a convincing girl (he was the screenwriter for the last in the Hunger Games films), and apparently writes relate-able, compelling characters that happen to come from a different racial composition.  (One could also assume he’s not a criminal either.)

I might hurt some feelings here, but I think this is a big discriminator between the pros and those who are writing their way up to pro…  The ability to write a character that isn’t a thinly-disguised version of you going through something that is more-or-less autobiographical with some of the details changed to make you your main character look good.  Hell, even the desire to move beyond the stricture “write what you know” is a great starting point.  Don’t go crazy with it and try to describe the desk job of a nuclear physicist unless you’re willing to do the research to get the details right and can gut-check it with someone who knows better, but beyond that…

No, your writing doesn’t have to be bound by the color of your hair or the limits of your experience.  Here’s another truth that is going to be unpopular: unless you’re a serious exception (and if you were a serious exception, you wouldn’t need me to tell you this) your life isn’t that interesting.  Most tragedies that feel momentous to the person experiencing the tragedy are, in reality, a dime a dozen.  I’m not saying this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know: you should have talked to me when I was going through my divorce.  It was like someone had ripped both arms out, and I was sure that I was the only person in the whole world who hurt quite as much as I was hurting at that point in time.  Grief makes us myopic and self-absorbed.  I’m as guilty of it as anyone.  How could I claim otherwise?  The evidence is all here in this blog.

That being said, I know that my divorce, fictionalized or in a straightforward re-telling doesn’t make for a good novel.  It was just two people doing the best they could and coming to terms with the fact that the best they could do wasn’t good enough.  Sad, for sure, but no different than any other divorce.  People live that shit, they don’t need to do it again in their recreational reading.

So here’s my advice to writers and aspiring writers: Take Mr. Strong’s lead.  Write what you don’t know.  Ground it in what you feel.  The stronger the feeling, the stronger the writing.  Be brave.  Take chances.  And get out of your skin.