My Bookshelf: The Bride and Doom by Erin Scoggins

The leaves and the temperatures are finally falling here in North Carolina making it the perfect time to snuggle up with a good book. Okay, I’ll read any time anywhere, but fall provides the perfect excuse for grabbing a blanket and losing myself in a story while the boys in my house watch hours of football analyzing their fantasy teams and throwing names around the dinner table as if I know these people.

This past weekend, I dove into Erin Scoggins first book in her Wedding Crashers mystery series The Bride and Doom. First of all, let’s talk about the perfection of that title. So fun! Second, I have to take a step back and disclose that I know Erin through the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the first time she described the series to a group of us here in central NC, everyone in the room was hooked! I was very excited to finally get my hands on this one.

This cozy mystery did not disappoint. From the recently disgraced protagonist forced to return to the small town she had hoped to leave in the rearview, to the quirky cast of characters (please tell me Scoots gets more page time in the next one because that woman has some (probably not PG) stories to tell!), to the dead body on the boat her aunt was supposed to get married on, to the chicken in the bridal party, this story had me hooked, chuckling, and guessing at the true murderer from the beginning.

Glory is an event planner in Raleigh struggling to keep a roof over her head after the charity event that should have propelled her career to the next level instead ends it when her con-artist husband steals the pot and skips town. Wallowing in her misery and a pint of ice cream, her Aunt Beverlee lures her back home with an emergency that ends up being her fourth trip down the aisle. When the prickly wedding planner ends up strung up from the mast of the ship Beverlee plans to use for her pirate themed wedding, she becomes the prime suspect. Glory is determined to keep her aunt out of prison and finds that a small town can still have big secrets.

If you love a cozy mystery and binge watching Say Yes to the Dress, then this book is for you! It was the perfect escape this weekend when I normally would be agonizing over my Thanksgiving day menu and planning out the week’s worth of cooking but instead found myself with time on my hands as we scale back this year’s gathering to just our family of four.

I can’t wait to see what new adventures are in store for Glory and the Flat Falls gang next!

Thoughts on Grief

My father died two years ago today.

I look back and those first months are hazy. Heavy. I feel them pressing down on me again if I dip my toe into that memory. My family in shock. The trauma deep. My grief absolute.

I used to think grief was a tunnel. A period of darkness with the promise of light and fresh air on the other side. A wide expanse. Freedom from the pain and the anxiety that lived in the tunnel.

I know better now.

Grief is a forest.

There is no end, no beginning. The forest extends in every direction. Sometimes it is dark, the canopy gathered overhead, thick with towering pines and twisted branches, their leafy fingers interlaced against the sky, blocking out the sun. The forest can be hard to navigate. The way bumpy. The path unclear if there at all. There are animal calls you can’t identify. Twigs snap and fear hums in your blood. Your body prepares for survival in a constant way that leads to exhaustion.

But then. A moment. A light through the trees. Sunshine on your face. Warmth. Pretty wildflowers push up through fields, their heads bent towards sunrise. The forest becomes a protector. Rain filters through the leaves and softly baptizes you. The crunch of your footsteps echoes familiarity. The call of birdsong lifts your gaze to the sky.

The pain lessens, the anxiety breathes, but you will always be in the forest. The darkness returns or the light is dappled and it is both light and dark at the same time. You make peace with the shade because the shadows of grief will remain. You don’t come out the other side. You simply press on. One foot in front of the other. Resting on the soft moss when needed. Trailing your hands along the soft blossoms when you can.

Grief is a new home. A place that can be full of gratitude for the love you felt, the memories you made together. A place of growth and pain and tears and laughter. It is all those things. Grief is a forest of many trees. An organism with deep roots.

It is not a tunnel.

It doesn’t end or expire.

It hurts like hell.

But it can still be beautiful.

My Book Shelf: A Good Neighborhood, Therese Anne Fowler

I read “A Good Neighborhood” by Therese Anne Fowler over the weekend. I am a big fan of Fowler’s “Z” about Zelda Fitzgerald and enjoyed “A Well Behaved Woman” about Ava Vanderbilt and her place in one of America’s wealthiest families. This book is a departure from not only the historical fiction genre she typically writes in, but the traditional story telling techniques we’ve seen in her previous books.

Told with an omnipotent and anonymous narrator that appears to represent “the neighborhood,” we are introduced to Oak Knoll, a middle class, mixed race neighborhood in a generic, central North Carolina city. The Whitmans, and their new money, have torn down an existing home, clear-cut the lot, and built their dream McMansion. Abutting their yard to the back is Valerie Alston-Holt and her biracial son Xavier, a passionate young classical guitarist with dreams and a single-focused dedication to achieve them. Until he meets young Juniper Whitman, a 17 year old girl who has endured bullying at her own school as a result of the purity pledge she took with her step-father, Brad, at their church.

Valerie, a dedicated gardener and professor bent on saving the environment, is outraged when the repercussions of the builder’s tree razing and lot usage have damaged her beloved water oak tree. She sues intent on teaching entitled Brad Whitman and his corporate builder a lesson, which enrages Brad. Meanwhile, Xavier and Juniper have started seeing each in secret.

Without giving anything away, this star-crossed lovers story is so much more than denied teenaged love. It is a story tackling race, gentrification, class, entitlement, and women’s agency. While tragic (seriously, please have tissues handy), the story is beautifully told. These characters are rich on the page and multi-faceted. The neighborhood, as a character, harkens back to the traditional Greek chorus and while they warn the reader tragedy is ahead, I kept reading full of hope that these characters would find a way out.

This book was a tour de force for me. I sat in silence for quite some time after finishing reflecting on many things this book addresses, not the least of which was the brilliant writing for me. Be sure to also spend time with Fowler’s acknowledgements and her honest admission to her own limitations and responsibility in writing characters of color — there are ways to handle writing outside our own cultures, but it must be handled appropriately. As another white woman, I am not an appropriate judge as to whether she succeeds, but I did feel she handled these characters with the utmost respect and care.

I would give this book five out of five stars.

The Light at the End of the Rough Draft Tunnel

This morning I reached the end of the verbal vomit brain dump that is this current work in progress rough draft. There is light at the end of this very long, often uphill, tunnel.

The light at the end of the tunnel is just the light of an oncoming train.

Robert Lowell

Yes. The light is an illusion. The end I reached this morning isn’t the finish line. Revisions and edits await here on the other side of my tunnel. I can feel the rumble of that oncoming train in my bones. The baggage that needs to be packed for these characters to become fully fleshed humans with their own motives and agency and mistake-making potential. The track to be laid to pull the tension throughout each scene. The stakes that need to be shoveled into the belly of the beast to power the story forward.

That train is coming. And right soon. But it will wait. For a moment so I can bask in the bright light of the other side. What, just a few short weeks ago even, was a faraway pin prick of light has grown into a widening circle. I have completed a huge task. Nearly 100,000 words of text that will split and divide and eventually become the story.

The tunnel is all part of the process. Writing a rough draft, with or without (points at self) an outline, is exhilarating and scary all at once. You trust the tracks you’re on as long as you can, but it’s dark and dank and sometimes the train stops for no apparent reason and the claustrophobia of writer’s block settles around you. At this point, you look around for an emergency hatch, a secret passage to crawl up and reach daylight again. But in our rough draft tunnels, there is no hatch. There is only the writing. Writing is your only way out. So you keep writing, pushing the little story that could out into the daylight.

And then, one day, there it is. The other side. The journey isn’t over, but perhaps it will be a little easier in the light of day.

Reconnecting With Your Writer’s Muse During a Global Pandemic

Back in January, I started work on a brand new manuscript. I took out my calendar and counted the available days between January and May, excluding weekends and my kids’ school breaks (they attend year round school so every nine weeks they have a three week break – there would be one in late February/early March and another in mid-May). I then divided my available days by 100,000 to set a daily writing goal.

After setting my daily writing goal, I dove deeper: Was this a realistic goal, why or why not? What possible barriers were there to meeting that goal (these included things like upcoming school breaks and trips, a possible loved one’s elective surgery that would require caregiving, uncertainty in where the manuscript was headed (I am, for better or worse, a pantser), and emotional barriers like fear and anxiety)? I then wrote suggestions to address each of those possible barriers.

I used that information to formulate a plan with concrete goals and tactics for achieving them (a set schedule plan for the boys during their break, non-negotiable time for writing that came before any possible caregiving tasks, brainstorming sessions, positive reinforcement, buy-in from my family, etc…). I also scheduled a monthly check-in meeting on my calendar to evaluate what worked and what didn’t. I created a self-interview for those meetings that included questions like: How many days did I write? How many words completed? What was my average words per day? How many words and days remained and what average word count would I need to meet to make my proposed deadline? What new barriers had I encountered? What possible solutions would address these barriers?

And I was kicking butt!

I started in late January and knocked out 12,000+ words before the end of that month. I smashed February and wrote 30,000+ before the kids’ school break. Then, all coronavirus hell broke loose.

The kids had only been back in school for four days before they cancelled it again. I was concerned and confused by the fire hose of information coming at us at that time. I was managing a slew of cancelled appointments and navigating a brand new emotional world for our family. As a result, I wrote only 10,000 words in all of March.

April and May were worse. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. The work in progress stalled.

I found myself stuck. With good reason. My creative well was empty. I decided that was okay. There were real, concrete reasons for my inability to write. I firmly repeated the words grace and gentleness to myself like a mantra. I gave myself permission to not write. I mourned my lost deadline, but I accepted it. This was beyond my control, beyond my planning, beyond comprehension in many ways.

But then the boys settled into a school routine. They needed me less and I found myself with a little available time, but still no motivation. I signed up for a workshop that allowed me to work up scenes from my work in progress which flexed my creative muscles and gave me a touch point to my manuscript, but I still was not writing completely new material for the draft yet. It started to pain me. I wanted to get back to it but was afraid I didn’t know how.

Finally, I got a kick in the pants by way of feedback on a different manuscript I was querying. The feedback wasn’t bad, but it was thought provoking. If I followed this person’s advice, it would mean more work. Work I had to admit it probably needed and I felt capable of, but work that would take longer than a day or even a week. Work that would bump me from my new manuscript while I tackled the old one.

I went to a trusted group of writers I know and cried out for help – not something I am typically comfortable with, but I am so glad I did. They all offered excellent advice and posed questions I had to dig deep for the answers. I spent a weekend in deep thought and really listened to myself, my muse, my creative self, whatever that piece of me is that typically compels me to the page. I did a gut check and I knew, in my heart, that I didn’t want to lose the thread of this new manuscript. I could revise the older one later, after I completed the rough draft when I needed space and perspective anyway.

Back to the planning pages I went. I set a new deadline. I calculated days and a conservative average word count/day to get me there. I committed to a seven day a week writing plan and an early morning alarm clock on all seven of those days to ensure the quiet space I need to write. Every morning, before I put fingers to keys on my manuscript, I turn off my wifi and put pen to paper to brain dump all the hang-ups I have that morning. The key, however, is that I have to offer a solution to every problem. Yes, I can vent about being tired or not knowing what in the world these two characters are up to, but I have to keep writing until I can fix it or let it go. It doesn’t mean I solve every possible problem on that journal page, but it does mean I don’t come to the keys afraid or frustrated or thinking only of how I shouldn’t have stayed up so late the night before binge watching Schitt’s Creek. Finally, I picked a scene that may not have been chronologically next, but knew needed to be in the book and was excited to tackle.

I started writing.

And I kept writing. I should easily complete this rough draft by the end of this month.

I was terrified that this plan was a recipe for failure. I had spent so many months without trailing words behind my cursor that I was convinced it wouldn’t happen again. Not only has the well opened again for this draft (don’t get me wrong, there are still some murky middle moments and revisions are going to be hell as a result), but I’m thinking about the story in a whole new way. I realized I may need to add a second point-of-view. I see where motivations changed for someone halfway through the story and are better for it, meaning big changes to the first half. Like I said, revisions are going to be hell, but what this time of fallow writing really showed me is that being honest with myself and by giving voice to what’s stopping me – both physical and emotional barriers – I can more effectively deal with them.

So, if you are stuck, here are my quick tips for getting restarted:

  • What is your writing goal? This could be as simple as rekindling a daily habit or as big as writing a novel. Figure out what that goal is and be specific.
  • Does your goal have a deadline? I love a deadline for accountability. Write it down. Circle it on your calendar. Even if it’s arbitrary, treat it seriously.
  • Write down any possible barriers to reaching your goal. This might sound silly, but this was huge for me. I wrote down everything I could think of then took a look at my list and realized they fell into three major categories: Murky Middle (writing challenges), Mental Health (fear, anxiety) and the Outside World (e.g., kid demands, self-isolation challenges). This really helped me to recognize what was really keeping me from my goal.
  • Brainstorm solutions to those barriers. Here is what my list looked like:
    • Murky Middle Solutions: Keep moving the story forward. Start with a scene I KNOW needs to be there. Don’t forget my subplots.
    • Mental Health Solutions: Opt outside (go for a walk every day, pick a hike each week to do with the kids). Ask for support. Tell a friend about my deadline (accountability partners can really be helpful). Check in with my therapist as needed (Therapy has been a huge help in my life and if you think it might help you, I encourage you to try it!).
    • Outside World: Create sacred early morning writing time. Turn off wifi. Journal before starting. Schedule time for other creative pursuits (photography, interior home projects). Limit time on social media.
  • Check in. Schedule a date to check in with yourself and see what’s working. Run through the questions again and analyze what’s working and what’s not. Things change. Before we were all self-isolated at home, I wrote at a completely different time of day that’s definitely not feasible any more. These check-ins provide an opportunity to adjust course before you go too far down the wrong path, get frustrated, and give up. I have been known to grab a journal page and do an emergency check-in meeting when I think something’s not working. I highly recommend writing down your questions and answers (I use different color ink for the answers) like I’m interviewing myself on paper. I don’t know why that works, but it creates a different kind of analysis than only thinking through the answers to myself. But do what works for you.
  • Celebrate the small victories. I brag about my word counts to my kids and husband and let them know how I’m doing on reaching my goal deadline. I wrote my writer friends who had given me advice and shared my plan and how it was going and we all virtually wa-hooed together. Celebrate however works for you – a piece (or two or three) of chocolate, a glass of wine, a long walk, a celebratory gif sent to that accountability partner. Whatever you do, acknowledge your successes. You deserve them!

I hope one of these tips helps you. Share in the comments below what tips and tricks have been working for you during this pandemic.

Wishing you all grace and gentleness wherever you are on your pandemic writing journey.

Filling the Creative Well

After finishing the final round of edits on my manuscript a few months ago, I embarked on a measured approach to querying which resulted in an initial positive flurry of full manuscript requests (YAY!). The only downside is the subsequent and necessary waiting  (BOO!). No problem, I thought. I know this is the approach I want to take. I would simply move ahead with other projects.

That plan worked for a little while. Then I met those deadlines and found myself staring at the blank page. Even worse, I found myself facing that page with what felt like an even blanker mind.

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Uh oh.

I fell back on old habits, habits that had worked in the past. I showed up. Every day. Butt in chair. Fingers on keyboard. But all I seemed to accomplish were a slew of open tabs on my browser and an overly detailed plan for a PTA role I’m stepping into (my creative loss will be our school newsletter’s gain, I suppose?). When the kids’ most recent school break started and I realized I wasn’t yearning for the page like I usually do, I knew I had a problem. A big one.

The last round of edits had taken a toll. The struggle to write a query letter (my writing nemesis) seemed to drain whatever was left. My creative flow had slowed to a paltry trickle. It was a relief to finally realize during a moment of quiet that my problem wasn’t in my head. My creative well was empty. I had expended all my banked creative juices on the manuscript without remembering to refill as I went along. I let myself run out of creative gas. No amount of sitting and staring at the page would refill that tank.

And so I am taking action.

Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way offers the concept of a weekly Artist’s Date (see her explain it here). I loved this idea when I read The Artist’s Way and have vaguely incorporated it into my regular writing routine over the years, but certainly not consistently, and definitely not in the last six months of head down, obsessive finishing work on my manuscript. So while once a week is a great target, and one I hope to incorporate into my routine moving forward, I feel I need a more extraordinary jump start out of this arid creative wasteland I currently find myself in.

Next week, when the kids go back to school to finish the last three weeks of the current school year (year round school is such a blessing to work from home parents), I am planning a series of daily field trips, or Artist Dates. Art museums, cemeteries, gardens, and people watching, are all on my list of things to do. I may take in a movie by myself or sit at a bar or coffee shop alone. I will get out of my chair. I will take my hands off the keyboard. I will watch, taste, smell, and listen to the world instead.

I will not pressure myself to write. I will not set goals for productivity. I will not judge myself by my creative output, or lack thereof.

I will simply go, notebook and pen in hand, eyes wide open, and mouth shut tight, and be a witness to the world around me. Perhaps a portrait in a gallery will inspire a character, a walk through a new-to-me landscape offer a question, a snippet of conversation spark a conflict.

Or perhaps it won’t.

I am admittedly nervous and excited. There is a safety in my office. It offers comfort and protection and routine. But I think that safety might be part of the problem. It is a room of my own, but I need to throw open the door and invite the world back in.

After giving and giving to my manuscript and giving and giving to my children on this school break, I am open and ready to receive again and see what surprises the muse, the wind, the world have to offer. I am confident they are there for the taking. And my writer’s soul will take them and ruminate on them and save them for the next blank page.

Feel free to join me on my journey. I will be posting photos from my excursions on Instagram at @monicacoxwrites.

What are your favorite ways to refill your creative well?

Tip of the Day: Go to Author Events

I love going to author events. I especially love going with friends, but have no qualms going by myself and often do.

Last year, I took my mom to a reading by an author we both love at a bookstore around the corner from her office. As we settled into our seats, she confessed, “I’ve never been to one of these before.” At a recent book club, where I often harass members by posting local author events on our club’s Facebook page, someone asked, “How do you even know about these?” My mom, the book club, these are all avid readers. I forget that I might be the only book nerd in the group who constantly stalks the four area independent bookstores (we are so blessed in the Triangle area of NC with options) and their listings of readings, launches, and other events. This year alone I have seen Anna Quindlen, Tayari Jones, Sally Hepworth in conversation with Barbara Claypole White, and Christina Baker Kline in conversation with Therese Anne Fowler. And there have been so many more that I had to miss due to scheduling conflicts.

Author events are a wonderful opportunity to listen to writers talk about writing books to people who love reading books. It’s a match made in heaven. You can ask your burning questions about process, research, and that pesky character you became obsessed with, or simply listen to a passage of the book in the voice the author imagined in their heads. You can buy the book (or several) from your independent book seller and have it signed. By the author. For yourself or as a gift. You can say something embarrassing (Sarah Gruen) or pedestrian (Anna Quindlen) or gushing (too many to count) to the writer as they sign your book. They may even tell you an interesting tidbit (Wiley Cash) when you share your own interesting fact related to their research. You can even meet interesting people while waiting in line – like the time I met local cookbook author Brigid Washington (does her book not look AMAZING?!) and ended up having a lovely chat about writing, motherhood, the myth of balance, and our shared love for the author we were seeing.

Yesterday, in my son’s second grade class, they participated in a virtual visit with David A. Kelly, author of the Ballpark Mysteries, the MVP series, and Miracle Mud. He talked process, inspiration, the importance of revision, persistence, practice, and genre. The kids loved it. They asked questions, they were excited, they were engaged. They suddenly had a real life visual of how a book comes to be and the face behind the name on the cover of the book sitting on their nightstands.img_0718.jpg

At first, I thought how wonderful it would be if this interaction inspired them to writing careers. But now, I think how wonderful if it inspires them to support writers by attending author events throughout their lives. All because they had an early experience with a writer in an accessible and fun way. After all, writers are just people. People who love books. Just like you.

So check your local paper, follow your area bookstores on social media, sign-up for your favorite author’s newsletters and see when they will be coming to your area. And go to author events!

I’ll see you there!

My Writing Journey: Taking my Kids Along for the Ride

For the past couple of years, my husband, the kids, and I answer a few specific questions to formulate our goals going into the new year. For example:

  • In 2018, I want to learn…
  • In 2018, with my family, I want to…
  • In 2018, I want to help others by…

While we sat around in a sugar cookie coma, pine needles still littering the floor, 2017 barely behind us, we each contemplated our own goals. At some point, my eleven-year-old piped up:

“Hey, mom. Are you ever gonna finish that book?”

Ah, out of the mouths of babes. Thanks for being the outside voice to my internal self-doubt there, kid.

The fact of the matter is it felt like that. That I might never finish. Granted, there was a false start, tons of necessary research, a major move for our family, and the fact that I was/am still learning. I have to work really hard at this thing. I was coming up on two years on this project. It felt like forever to all of us.

“I will, honey,” I told him. “When it’s right. And this is the story I need to get right.”

I have been super honest about my writing journey with my kids. For one thing, it’s important to me, so of course I would share it with the people who are the most important to me. Despite my own insecurities of having a “job” that doesn’t pay, my husband has always made a point of asking how the writing is going in front of the kids, putting my work on the same level as his. They have helped me brainstorm titles and have come along on research trips. They love to read and write stories of their own, so sharing what I’m learning helps them, too. We are learning together.

But perhaps most importantly, I want to show them their mother following her dreams. I want them to see me trying, failing, succeeding. All of it.

I had that example growing up. My mom went back to school to forge a new path. My dad started his own business. Things were tough for both of them during those times. But they forged ahead. They didn’t give up.

Yet, somewhere along the way, the practical part of me showed up and talked the dreamer part of me into picking a college major and career that would pay the bills. And it did. And I liked it. Even loved it. But I wasn’t in love with it. Not like I am with writing. Even when the writing is bad or a struggle or the rejections drop into my inbox with a (friendly or was that an ominous?) ding, I can’t imagine doing anything else. (This might come as news to my husband since there have been many days I’ve threatened to pack up shop and go bag groceries at the local supermarket. Although, seriously, this seems like a satisfying job to me – like Tetris, but with a dozen eggs, a box of cereal, a half gallon of orange juice, a loaf of bread, a bag of grapes, and four cans of beans. Oh, the possibilities!).

I have learned, however, that practicality is just fear in disguise. Recognizing where I need to be – writing – has changed my outlook. I am no longer defensive about what I don’t know but curious. I am seeking ways to improve my craft, searching for new inspirations, challenging myself with new genres (essays, flash fiction, poetry), looking for opportunities to get paid for my work (beyond (hopefully, one day) selling the novel). And I’m continuing to be honest with my kids about that day’s struggles, victories, or detours. Because it’s my turn to be the example.

When I have a particularly hard time figuring something out or realize I need to study something a bit more before trying again or have to write twelve drafts of the same query letter, it shows them that effort gets results. When I get rejected and they see me keep going, it shows them perseverance. When I receive good feedback, they see me celebrating accomplishments. When I meet new writers or go to author events, it teaches them how to support others, network, and take risks.

Fast forward from January resolution making to this past weekend. While driving home from a family outing, I clicked on an email notification (don’t worry, the hubby was driving). It was a rejection on my full manuscript from an agent. A nice rejection. An ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ rejection. A keep querying rejection. But a rejection nonetheless. And no matter what, it still stings in the moment.

As I read the agent’s comments out loud to my husband, the same eleven-year-old reached his hand from the back seat and patted my shoulder.

“It’s okay mom. Maybe the next one.”

It can be a long journey as a writer. I’m glad I picked the perfect travel mates.

Listening for the Muse’s Whisper

I recently finished the novel that has taken me two years to write (two years, two houses, two states, endless revisions). It’s done. Or as done as I can make it right now. I sent it out to a few interested agents and am waiting. Ugh. The waiting. Waiting for the feedback. Waiting for the rejections. Waiting to send it out to the next group. Waiting for the one yes.

The finishing was entirely anti-climatic. There was no celebration. There was no champagne. There was simply real life crowding out the fictional one and fast. And the real life mess I found (and continue to find) myself surrounded by has completely thrown me out of my creative routine.

In the weeks since real life’s descent, my fictional lives took a back seat. More accurately, they took a separate car and their GPS and mine apparently did not match up – I haven’t seen their car for days. I have spun out in several different directions about what to do next, how to accomplish my creative writing goals, how to get my freelance writing off the ground. All roads feel like dead ends, my brain unable to take any single route to its destination.

For a little while, I couldn’t write anything. The whiplash of switching from full-on, months-long revision mode in my fictional world to real life problems with no easy solutions for me to conjure up out of the ether left me dazed, confused, empty. I admit, I was scared. I have never had my mind feel so empty, so quiet. It was disconcerting and disorienting.

But I kept reading: books, articles, interviews with authors. I went to lunch with fellow WFWA writers. I added books and blogs to my growing to read piles. I wrote a new blog post. I kept putting in an effort, even when it felt wasted.

I walked. I listened to music and to podcasts. I watched a movie or two. I gave up some days and ran errands.

I kept showing up – butt in the chair, hands on the keyboard. Determined. Aware. Ready or not.

This week, while perusing a spreadsheet of upcoming deadlines for possible contests to enter, a line of dialogue popped into my head.

“Open the door.”


I quickly opened a doc and typed it. A response followed like a gift. Lines poured out. Not many, but enough. A short scene appeared on the page. What was happening? Who were these people? Who were they to each other? Why was she so scared? Why was he so angry? Is that actually fear? Is that really anger? It’s not a novel. It’s not the next big story. But it’s a story. A short piece that may be strong enough to stand on its own two feet or, at the very least, get me back on my own.

It was a whisper. A drip. A start.

Real life, writer’s block, busyness, it’s all going to happen, to me, to you, to Stephen King and Ann Patchett and probably happened to Shakespeare, too. There is so much noise in our lives ready to drown out the muse. But if we keep showing up, keep putting in the effort, keep feeling, exploring, seeing, trying, we may be able to still ourselves long enough that a single whisper will make it’s way through the cacophony and the emptiness won’t be empty anymore. The whisper will grow into a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter… The words will start to fill the page again.

I am learning to live in the quiet, to seek out the peace, to listen to the whispers.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
 -Emily Dickinson
The muse doesn’t leave. It’s waiting. Are you listening?

The Story of the Shells


On the left hand corner of my desk in a small, glossy, eggshell-colored bowl, rest a pile of shells. These shells are remnants, pieces of larger shells, worn down fragments that tumbled and swirled along the ocean floor for months, years, decades maybe. They are flattened like Play-Doh, smooth like stones. They are striped in layers, like sedimentary rocks. I picked them up where other shell seekers had left them in the sand while they searched for the pretty, the unique, the whole.

But I love these pieces. The smooth remains of something beautiful and broken.

I hold them, rub their grooves, warm them in my palm while I puzzle over a problem in my writing. They jingle in the bowl as I search for the right one. The one that might unlock the solution. The cat sometimes paws them, enjoying the sound they make against the bowl. Occasionally he succeeds in sneaking one out and over the side of the desk skittering it down the hall with Pelé like precision until I rescue it once again.

I work my stories, scenes, characters over like these shells. I smooth them, reduce them, expose their layers, until the stories, the scenes, the characters are beautiful and broken for the reader. Or at least I hope I do. That is the goal. To take what was once a whole and living thing and whittle away until I find the one truth of it that can fit in your hands and rattle in your pocket.

The whole shells are beautiful. They are treasures and worth our admiration, awe, display. The whole shells are our whole lives. Complete, perfect in their living.

But the truth of our lives lives in the details. In the nicks, the chips, the strange colors, and occasional barnacle attached.

I’m in search of those fragments, those bits of shells we shed or hide or try to forget that hold the lessons the oceans teach: rest and let go. Let the ocean carry it to a safe place, polish its edges, expose its layers, deliver it to the shore. Then wait for someone to pick it up, admire the flaw, and tell the story.