A good retreat is better than a bad stand

Posted on April 26th, 2010

I’ve never applied to any writer’s retreat of any kind. I’m not taking a stand against them, of course, but I’ve always assumed that going on retreat to write implies that there’s something impossible or at least very challenging about writing within the confines of one’s domestic situation, something that one needs to escape. For many people, I think this is true (I’m imagining unruly children pulling the ink tape from their mother’s typewriter, scribbling on her blank paper and throwing whole reams into the toilet). But for me, not so much.

This past weekend I taught two classes at the Writers’ Institute‘s annual conference here in Madison, and it started me thinking about retreat and creative energy, about being stuck and getting unstuck. There’s no question that after being surrounded by the mania and hopefulness of writers and someday-writers that I feel a greater urge to create than I do on your average Monday, with laundry that needs to be folded and coffee percolating too slowly and a list of errands that need running, and so on. Maybe this is the lure of the writing retreat.

I am sitting now in my domestic writing retreat: my home office. When my husband and I moved into this house — more than twice the size of our old one, which isn’t saying all that much — we divided the four small bedrooms thusly: master for us, smallest for guests, and the other two for our offices. (Since that time, the guests have been moved to the newly refinished basement, and the former guest room has become the kid’s room.) We’ve tried sharing offices, and I’ve tried going without and writing at the dining room table, and neither option works. For us, sharing an office is like sharing a car or a cell phone — both of which, I realize, many couples do successfully. But that kind of sharing is pretty unimaginable for us. For one thing, his office is his man-den. This is a place of comic books, a yo-yo collection, many sci-fi paperbacks, and video games. Most often, since he works full time, this room is used in the dark. When he leaves the room, on comes his screensaver on two LCD screens: a psychedelic laser show, which our 18-months old finds riveting and I find almost scary, as if it’s alive and reaching for me. As if it’s going to worm its way out and inhabit the house.

When we moved into this house, there was floral wallpaper in every room (and in the master, matching drapes), and deep-pile light blue carpeting over the wood floors. In the kitchen were forty-year-old appliances and in the garage was a container of asbestos and a survival kit in case of a nuclear event. We removed the drapery and carpeting and wallpaper before we moved in, and we hired a color consultant to choose a palette of paint colors. We painted every room, thirteen colors total and twenty-six cans of paint.

For the small room that would become my office, the colorist chose pumpkin and radish She determined, in her wisdom and experience, that these colors would inspire me to create, would be bold without being distracting.

It’s three years later. This is the room in which I (finally) finished my novel, and it’s the room in which I started another. On the wall in front of me are three framed pictures (two photos and a print of a painting) of Stiltsville. Beneath the framed pictures are several pieces of paper Scotch-taped to the wall: a group exercise schedule for my gym, with a few classes highlighted in yellow (no doubt this schedule is out of date by this time, but it stays); a chicken-scrawled scrap containing the first words I wrote of my new novel (I was on an airplane at the time, a baby in my lap); a business envelope covered with the names of South Floridian plants, written by my stepmother and sent to me via snail mail; a printout of Stiltsville’s cover, in black-and-white; several torn pieces of palm-tree patterned stationary, on which I wrote a blurb request to Carl Hiaasen (and messed up, and started again; he passed). And another scrap with E.L. Doctorow’s words: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

My desk is a large, thick piece of black-painted wood fitted onto two black file drawers; I had it made ten years ago, in grad school. There are two large windows overlooking my street and the lake beyond it, but I can’t see out them from where I sit. I’ve considered asking my husband to build a stage beneath my desk and chair, so I might see out — because I have good memories of sitting at my desk during grad school and looking out the window while writing and seeing people I knew, or birds, or cars, or stroller-pushing mamas, or hollering frat boys. There’s a bookshelf, with books on Florida and books on writing (and a small gag-gift sex book that my son often pulls from the shelf and takes with him on journeys around the house — it finds its way back, and for some reason I have neither moved it to a high shelf or thrown it away). An antique secretary desk that used to be my mother’s, used for storage. Photos on a third desk (also antique, also from my mother), including one of me and my two best friends from our MFA years — one of whom is now a bestselling author and a mother, one of whom is a writing teacher and a mother, yet to publish her own stellar writing). On another wall: two Masai necklaces I bought in 2000, while spending a month in Tanzania. And a Kodak ad from the 1980s, in which my younger self stands in a line of anxious miniature ballet dancers. And a print of my great-grandmother’s home (a chandelier from that home hangs in my foyer).

Which is all to say: I don’t claim to feel braced and energized and creative as soon as I cross the threshold of my home office. I don’t claim to be always productive here, or to feel moved by the spirit of great writing as soon as I sit down. I get achy and hungry and distracted here much more often than I get focused. I feel frustrated here far more often than I feel satisfied. But it’s mine, it’s filled with my things, and it’s very clearly the office of a person who believes herself to be a writer.

So the thing is: I know I have the retreat I need, even if sometimes (often), I don’t respect it. And sometimes I get all-out inspiration, from an overheard conversation or a great line of poetry — or from spending a few hours in the buzzing, manic, hopeful presence of people who care desperately about writing (and publishing) fiction. And sometimes in my little pumpkin-and-radish room, surrounded by the symbolic scraps of inspiration, I surprise myself by writing something I like, something I will keep. Which I guess is the whole point, after all.


Interview with One Story

Posted on April 6th, 2010

Just a brief little update for now, while I continue toiling away on the messy middle section of Number Two:

Ahead of the excerpt that will be published next month, One Story has published an interview about Stiltsville online.

Significant Objects, etc.

Posted on March 31st, 2010

Ahoy, friends!

As Stiltsville makes its way through the publishing pipeline, honestly very little happens — but I have a few bits of news I wanted to share with my mailing list and visitors.

I have a piece of flash fiction (a one-page story) up now on is a very cool organization — they have curators who purchase thrift-store and garage-sale finds, then get writers (beaucoup biggies included) to imbue the stories with significance. Then they auction object and story on EBay. Proceeds go to Girls Write Now, which supports creative, at-risk teens.

My story is about a couple of cute novelty pens. You can read it here on the site.

And you can bid on the pens — for a good cause, remember! — here on eBay.


So far, I have a few readings scheduled for the late summer/fall — mark your calendars if you’re in the area, because I’d love to see you there! You can get more info about events on the site’s Events page. Also, if you or your book club would like me to visit, please let me know, and I’ll rally HarperCollins to get me there.

Milwaukee, WI / August 10, 2010 / Next Chapter Bookshop
Madison, WI / August 12, 2010 / Borders Books
Chicago, IL / August 18, 2010 / Book Cellar
Iowa City, IA / September 13, 2010 / Prairie Lights
Miami, FL / September 16, 2010 / Books & Books

Coming Soon!

An excerpt from the novel will be published in One Story in May. If you’re not familiar with this great lit mag, check it out. You can subscribe to the print edition, which guarantees a great short story in your inbox every three weeks, or get individual stories on the Kindle edition, which you can download from


Am I qualified for this?

Posted on March 30th, 2010

Now that I’ve sold a novel, I’m fortunate enough to spend the bulk of each day at the desk in my home office — applying the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair, as the saying goes.

In the past weeks, I’ve written a bit of flash fiction for (link to come once the piece is published); a proposal for an essay for the New York Times Book Review (link to come if ever this thing is accepted and written and published); and a lengthy letter to my son’s babysitter about how to hurdle theoretical obstacles while my husband and I are out for the night.

I’ve also written another 15 or so pages of my new novel (total count so far: 150 pages, give or take a few dozen pages of garbage — or maybe the whole thing is garbage — one can only wait and see!) and about 300 emails to my friends and editor and agent and father and playgroup.

And now, I’m working on flap copy for my novel. Also known as jacket copy. Also known as the succinct, seductive summary of one’s novel, designed to lure the potential reader into purchasing or renting or borrowing a copy of the novel itself.

I’m more or less qualified to perform most of the aforementioned writing tasks. I’m a crackerjack emailer (shout out to my email buddies, without whom my inbox would be empty!) and I like to think my Babysitter Notes are witty and readable (with a little mother-bear-growling between the lines). I don’t often write flash fiction — truth be told, I don’t often write regular-lengthed stories — but I think the piece turned out OK. As for the new novel (Number Two, as I think of it privately, though I hope the double meaning hasn’t been earned), I haven’t yet faced a crisis of confidence, and so I soldier on.

So yes, I’m more or less qualified to complete the above tasks — except for one.

People often ask — all the time, they ask — what my book is about. You’d think by this time I’d have an answer.

And what is flap copy except a lengthy answer to that question? I’ve never been good at marketing. I always thought I should be good at it — but the few times I’ve tried my hand at it, I’ve ended up feeling awkward and self-conscious and smarmy. I don’t like shmoozing or selling myself, and I’m not good at it.

Working on this flap copy, I feel like I’m interviewing, but not for a job — for a friend. It’s like I’m saying, Here’s me. Here’s my bloody, beating heart and my scratched and sullied soul. Here’s the cluttered inside of my brain. Would you like to see more?

“Am I qualified for this?” I asked my friends via email. I could feel the roll of their eyes even as they emailed back that yes, they believe I am. Since, you know, I wrote the book and all.

And what’s happening now is that I’m circumventing the “applying seat of pants” rule by staying put but still avoiding the writing I have to do. “Take your time,” said my editor. “We have until the end of the week.” Ha, I wanted to reply. You’re serious? A week? This isn’t a babysitter note or an email about toddler shoes and eating habits; this isn’t a 500-word story or a pitch to the New York Times. This is a mountain.

I’m suspecting it’s going to be a long week. If anyone’s reading this blog, I’ll give you ten bucks to write it for me. I can give you the &^$% I’ve written so far. OK, make it twenty bucks. OK, name your price.


The calm before the calm

Posted on November 20th, 2009

There’s this long period between selling your book and finally seeing it in print — a close friend told me that she’s heard it described as “the calm before the calm.” She told me to buy a bottle of  good champagne to open on my pub date. She told me to have a dinner party. She told me to make a celebration for myself. Because, she implied, no one else is going to do it for me. Which of course I don’t expect, but when I think about the actual day my book arrives in stores (which, to complicate matters, is not the pub date — it’s some date prior to the pub date so the publisher can be reasonably certain the book will be unpacked and on the shelves on or before the official pub date), I don’t feel much of anything. Instead, I’m enjoying the small steps toward publication as they happen.

With the actual date of publication of the novel comes, I’ve been told over and over, a good deal of disappointment. Mixed reviews, bad reviews. Disheartening sales.

In the meantime, we’re in the thick of things. A couple of months ago I sent out the manuscript with the goal of getting some nice blurbs to send out with the galleys — so far I’ve received some very flattering words from Dani Shapiro and Margot Livesey, both of whom are novelists I admire. I’m very grateful to both of them, and will be plastering their blurbs all over this site as soon as I can figure out how to do so.

The next step was, I believe, the copyediting. This was a difficult step for me, but I mentioned to my writers’ group that it made me feel like a diva whining about her rider or something. And they pretty much all had similar stories. Even as I looked at my [bloody bloody] pages, I recognized that copyediting a novel has got to be a tough job. I was impressed at the number of mistakes my copyeditor found in the manuscript — and it’s not like I’m a messy writer, and it’s not like a dozen smart and helpful readers hadn’t read this manuscript before it hit copyediting. Inarguably, the manuscript is in better shape post-copyediting than it was before.

The next step, following blurbs and copyediting, was the interior design. They sent it to me; I liked it. I have no design experience and pretty much no design vocabulary with which to discuss things like font selections and use of white space — so I felt a little silly, but I just told my editor I liked it. You like it? she emailed back. Yes, I like it. I don’t really have anything else to say.

Then, one of the more exciting milestones — the book jacket! I probably shouldn’t post until I know it’s finalized, but it is basically how I imagined it looking. There’s a photo (because honestly, it’s pretty tough to describe Stiltsville without a photo, even though I do realize that’s exactly the job of the writer), and it’s in color, and that’s about it. The sky isn’t blue and clear with puffy white clouds — it’s a medium day, eggshell, soft, average.

Photographer: Mindy Stricke

Photographer: Mindy Stricke

There’s also been the trial of the author photo, which I will post below. My husband and his fancy camera gave it a shot, but nothing stuck. Then while camping (unshowered, uncombed, and unmade-up), I took my own photo, then brightened up the face and sent it off to HarperCollins. I liked it, but you could pretty much tell I took it myself, and it was a little fuzzy. So finally, two weeks ago (and three or four months past the soft deadline), I hired a professional, had my hair and makeup done, and sat still, trying not to squinch up my face or tighten up my lips, trying to smile with my eyes but not open my mouth, trying to present my best face without looking like I was trying to present my best face. The photographer, Mindy Stricke, did a terrific job making me feel relaxed — though of course this wasn’t really possible for me — and out of dozens of shots, there were a couple that I liked well enough to make them my public face in hundreds of bookstores (crossed fingers) across the country. In the end, the makeup gave me hives for the better part of a week, and my bank account took a little hit, but I think it was worth it, because it’s done, and it’s good enough. (As a side note, my close friend Jen told me that she likes the photo but perhaps my smile looks a little smug. “Perfect!” I said. I gather that smug is very writerly. Real writers, they’re smug. I don’t think I’ll ever realistically add smug to my list of negative qualities, but a girl can dream.)

Next week I’ll receive first pass pages, which will take a bit of work to get through. These are the pages type-set, as they will look when bound. I believe the next little step in this journey is the bound galleys, which will look approximately like the book itself. It’s almost a little anti-climactic, all these previews — I almost (almost) wish I could have just retired to a den somewhere for the long winter, and emerged to see my book on the shelves. But this is kind of like not finding out the sex of the baby while it gestates in your own body — and I don’t like secrets. I like preparing for the big day. Even if, in the end, that big day won’t really be so big after all.