A Day in the Life of a Writer

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A Day in the Life of a Writer: Excavation via fresh hurts

Sometimes I only have a scent.  Ivory Soap. Pine sap. Old Spice. It’s faint, like an afterimage, as Atwood writes in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Other times, I catch a memory when I noodle about something peripheral, like the weather of my childhood.

And other times, I am knocked into a pit by something that happens, like my son telling me he will not be seeing me again.  As of this writing, I am 18 hours and 40 minutes from that revelation, and all I can think is, ‘if I’d known it was the last time I’d see him, I’d’ve lingered over dinner. I’d’ve drawn out the conversation, which would have been easy because our conversations have always been interesting. I’d’ve found some way not to be the mother who drives him crazy.’  Okay, nix that last one.  I actually don’t know how to do that.

(He is not suicidal.) (And he doesn’t read my blog.)

There’s more to it. There always is. But that is not what this post is about.   This post is about how present events harken back to old wounds.

I often identify old hurts by rooting around in the new ones (when I have the clarity to do so.)  Today, in this fresh hell, I can identify the pain of many old things, but I will name only two:
1) giving my son up for adoption almost three decades ago, and
2) my mother washing her hands of me when I was 11, and again when I was 19.

So my next question for myself is, which pain am I feeling?
Here’s the thing: I have seen enough of life to understand its cycles. The grownup in me knows that nothing stays the same. So the enormous pain I feel is not just about my son walking away.

So what does this mean? How does the current issue illuminate the past hurt?
I see that by linking them I am telling myself the old story of abandonment, and that’s a story I’m done with. Being abandoned means I have no power.  I’m not an abandoned waif, I’m a grownup, and I will not be undone by grief.  I do leave my arms open for him should he return. But I also accept that it could be years, even decades, before that happens, if at all.  My mother was dead ten years before I understood some things in our relationship, things about her.

I’m writing this because I am devastated and I have to work through this or go crazy. I have to be back at work on Monday and I can’t be dissolving every time something reminds me of my son. I have to see some meaning.

Still working on that.

What I do know is that I can model the grace I now recognize for myself.  I can be thankful that he has new-found faith and that he is seeking his own right path. And I can trust that everything will be okay. Mostly.  Still working on that, too.

Exploring grace

My assignment this week with my writing partners is to articulate my definition of grace because I’m finally narrowing my focus on the theme for my WIP, Out of the Woods.  I thought I knew this definition, but when my partner asked me, I fumbled for what I meant.

After our meeting, I stumbled across this:

The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self–to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.  (Barbara Brown Taylor/An Altar in the World) –reference found here.

Her quote reminds me of people who point fingers at others in condemnation, not realizing that what they condemn is what is inside them. You are my mirror. If I hate what I see in you, chances are I loathe it in myself.  I recognize my shadow in someone else far more easily than I do in myself.

Grace forbids condemnation because there isn’t room for both.

And by accepting the other, we are sprung from our prisons.
By other, I mean that which is different from us.

I’m riveted by the notion of .grace because it was absent in my family. Actually, it pretty much still is. We are awkward in giving it, and we don’t recognize it when it is extended to us. I am convinced that my mother’s grief and sorrow over her choices made her sick. She never knew how much I loved her perhaps because she couldn’t accept it. If you don’t believe in something, can you recognize it? Ever?

Another assignment I have is to identify points of grace in my life, and in my mother’s life.  I’m surprised by how difficult it’s been to identify such moments of grace for her. In my own life, yes, but not Mama’s.   Not sure what that means.


What is grace to you?




Wrestling with the story

For the past few years I’ve struggled with what I –and others–have perceived to be a gaping hole in my memoir.  Today I realized that the gaping hole is actually the end of that part of my story; I think I need to focus on excavating what I already have and delete what comes after.

I have wanted to fill the hole with my years as a mom, since I learned to understand my mother as I learned to understand myself.

But I have resisted this, and now I get why:  those years are not about Mama and me. They are part of another story.

Such a freeing revelation.

I realized this as I was reading Emma BrockesShe Left me the Gun at 2am this morning.  She writes,

It is a virtue, we are told, to face things, although given the chance I would go for denial every time–if denying a thing meant not knowing it. But the choice, it turns out, is not between knowing a thing and not knowing it, but between knowing and half-knowing it, which is no choice at all.  (I don’t know the page number, only that it is location 99 on my Kindle.)

I half-knew my mother was dying, but it felt like not knowing because every time I re-read a letter from her, I re-discovered that she had cancer.  I, too, choose denial.

So as I’m reading Brockes’ story, I’m inserting myself into the text and peripherally excavating and then I read this:

If the landscape that eventually emerged can be visualized as the bleakest thing I know–a British beach in winter–she stood around me like a windbreak so that all I saw was colors. A therapist once described my mother’s background…as the elephant in the room….” (location 122/Kindle)

Did Mama windbreak for me?  I see that I have been resting in that choiceless place of half-knowing.

Resting. Resisting.

Because I’m afraid of what I’ll find in the excavation. Not about Mama, but about me.

I relate to both the author and her mother–I see myself in both roles because my childhood experience is similar to her mother’s.
So I am excavating my own childhood, too, and evaluating my role as mother, since I severed ties in an attempt to protect my children from the poison of my past.


About the book:

Buy it.
My favorite thing right now, a third through, is the way Brockes keeps the reader at her side on the journey. I have an idea of what she will discover about her mother, but I am hoping for more details (which, by the way, reminds me that memoir IS story, and suspense is delightful).  The story–and the way she tells it–will make you reflect on your own relationship with your mother, which to me is the mark of a terrific storyteller.






A Day in the Life of a Writer: What Makes a Good Story?

A beginning, a middle, and an end.

Yeah, thanks.
Knew that, right?

Check out this TED talk from Karen Thompson Walker, and consider using your own fears to write well-developed stories.  Those fears ARE stories, after all, complete with characters and horrible things happening and an aftermath.  Don’t we create stories all the time?

Pema Chödrön states, “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” Of course we must use our fears…. That’s where the truth is.


How to excavate a story from your past: Memoir ideas


Telling a story from one’s childhood is not the same as excavating it.  One may think that simply writing out a vignette from one’s childhood addresses issues plainly, but it ain’t so.

Here’s the thing:

First you have to write out the memory exactly as it has been playing in your head for the past umpteen years.
Then you have to go back and fill in the sensory details: Was Mama’s apron black? Or red?  Janey insists it was black, but you know it was red.  Mental note: dig up old pictures, if possible.

Was music on the stereo?  What color were the curtains?
Was the TV on?  Were there toys on the floor?
How many people were in the room?
Dinner on the stove?
(Even if you’re in your bedroom, you can smell dinner, right?)

You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the dialogue right.  You have to write that down to the best of your recollection before you can feel around the edges of the words for sharpness, or hidden meanings.   And you can’t just go groping around smashing the dirt this way and that.  You have to tread gingerly. And you have to use the right tools:


these don’t serve the same function….


That flat shovel can lift an unbelievably thin layer of soil. The round point one is the tester–you know something’s down there, so you cut into the soil with it.  (If you click on the picture it’ll take to to a right proper archaeology site :))

The flat shovel is what you use to lift each layer of the memory.
First layer: remember where you are in the memory. Where are you physically, where are you relative to the story, where are you in time?
Second layer: who else is there?
Third: What happened?
Fourth: What was said, and who said what?
Then you start digging with the other shovel and see what you over-turn.

There are some memories I’ve had to sneak up on, just like I would a wispy dream.  I tell my brain that my fingers are just fiddling around on the keyboard, and I ignore any possible typos at this point because I’m typing like Stevie Wonder–my eyes are closed, and I’m leaning a little to the left because maybe that’s the way the car was going, and I’m swaying because I know Daddy’s got Johnny Cash on the radio and I’m trying to remember that empty lot on the corner that I liked to play in because I liked the texture of the greasy dirt on the bottoms of my feet.

After you write the bare-boned scene, ask yourself why it is so important.  What holds the meaning for you?  Why does it hurt to remember it?  Or why does it make your heart burst with joy?  Maybe you’re standing on the front seat of your daddy’s old white Pontiac, your small hand tucked into the collar of his shirt, and your face is snugged up under his chin where you can smell Old Spice and tobacco, and the memory holds both deep delight and terror, because you’re next to your favorite person, and you know he’s driving drunk…..





Perfectionism is the death of done


“Perfectionism is
the voice of the oppressor,
the enemy of the people.
It will keep you
and insane
your whole life,
and it is the main obstacle
between you
and a shitty first draft.
I think perfectionism is based
on the obsessive belief
that if you run carefully enough,
you won’t have to die.
The truth is

that you will die anyway

and that a lot of people
who aren’t even looking
at their feet

are going to do a whole lot better than you,
and have a lot more fun
while they’re doing it.”

Anne Lamott ~ From Bird by Bird

I will add more to this later.


these incredible lights are actually made of real dandelions.

Dandelion Chandelier

  • If you struggle with moving forward because of fears, this may help: http://tinyurl.com/nofeargoddess


Regurgitation: It’s what’s for breakfast

“As writers we live life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it. … This is our life and it’s not going to last forever. There isn’t time to talk about someday writing that short story or poem or novel. Slow down now, touch what is around you, and out of care and compassion for each moment and detail, put pen to paper and begin to write.” —Natalie Goldberg

This idea is repulsive.

I’d prefer not to envision myself as a cow in any way. Furthermore, throwing up what I just ate?  And pawing through it to find the good chunks to chow down again? Just thinking about it makes my stomach heave a little.

But I have done this in my writing.
I’ve ingested life through all my pores and then vomited the experiences onto the page.
It’s a matter of having taken in too much too fast and then needing to put all of it into one place so I can pick through it and draw out meaning.
I don’t have the words for anything unless I write it out.  If it stays inside, it stays unnamed and unclaimed.

I ingest indiscriminately the first time. The second time I’m far choosier, and those are the things that stick to my bones.

I so wish this didn’t sound like a promotion for bulimia.

first recognize your fear

“First recognize that you’re afraid and slowly build your tolerance for fear…You may still feel it, but you become willing to bear it as you write. You keep your hand moving, you stay there, you move closer and closer to the edge of what scares you.” – Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning

You’d think it’d be easy, recognizing when you’re afraid.  It’s not.  Fear disguises itself in churchy clothes, prim white gloves and veiled hats that set just so on your hair.  In slutty clothes, see-through tops and tight jeans.  In tough clothes, leather jackets and shit-kicking boots.

Fear hides in mashed potatoes, and Hagen Daz ice cream, in peanut butter and bananas, and carne asada burritos.

It skulks in Farmville, and poker, porn, shopping, smoking, and reading.

I’ve skated past fear in my thoughts, come back and circled around and finally skidded to a stop so I could scuff at it with my toe.  Slowly I’ve been eliminating places it can hide, and the result is clarity.  I can see and breathe now that I am facing my fears.  Now I’m not just feeling for the edge with my feet–I can see the edge from here, and yes, the drop is steep.  But the other side isn’t as far away as I thought.

All the mixed metaphors in this post make me grin.

Naming characters

I just discovered this on Facebook, and I think that may be the only place you can use this technique.  If you’re stumped about what to name your characters, try this meme-y thing:

Did you know your CELL PHONE has a name? Try this:

1st step: From your mobile number, take the last 3 numbers. Example- 780-496-9684 , take “684”only

2nd step: Write this @*[684:0] in the comment box below, replacing the 3 numbers with your own. … …

3rd step: Remove the * sign and press enter in the comment box!

For the naming of characters, just make up numbers. NOTE: I’ve been informed that if the 1st of your last 3 digits is a ‘0’ it won’t work.

927= Travis M. LaVoi
647=Azzura Cox
123=Morgan Grice
456=Becky Wald
789=Matt Kozlov
233=Michael Blickstead
999=Peter Saldarriaga


cut off your head–it’s getting in your way

“Writer’s block results from too much head. Cut off your head.
Pegasus, poetry, was born of Medusa when her head was cut off. You have to be reckless when writing. Be as crazy as your conscience allows.” – A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living

I do it all the time. :/