A Writing Bed of One's Own

A few weeks ago, we received notice that we have to move out of our home. It has been a stressful, exciting time, full of things to do. One of the top items on my list? Find a writing bed.

Early on, when I started writing novels, I realized that I needed to write in bed. The process felt so difficult, so intimidating, but when I started writing in bed, I relaxed. Writing a novel continues to be challenging, but somehow writing in bed comforts me, especially when I have a cat by my side.

In our previous home, I wrote in our bedroom. I ended up writing my first three novels in that bed. But when we moved, the house came with a bed. My husband moved that bed into my office. Now he could nap in solitude, without a writer in creative process at his side. And I did love having my own bed in my work space, where I could look out and see Isabella, the tree who watches over all my writing.

When we found out we had to move again, I knew I would have to leave this bed behind. But we found a house that came fully furnished. We had two extra beds that we could claim as our own. Unfortunately, neither would work as my writing bed. My office in this house is cozy. It's the perfect private place to conjure up dreams. But a queen-sized bed will not fit there. I needed a bed for a nook.

This week, a kindly neighbor stepped up and offered me her twin bed with a frame. I wasn't sure if I would like it, but when we went over to see it, I gazed upon it with wonder. The bed screams magic. While I studied it, my neighbor's cat strolled over and nuzzled my ankles. That sealed it. This was the bed to write further talking-cat fantasies.

Do you have a special writing place? I would love to hear about it. Let me know in the comments.

The Power of Song and Dance

I've often heard this complaint about musicals.

“It's so unbelievable. The characters just stop what they're doing and start singing and dancing. Who does that in real life?”

A small voice says inside my head, “I do.”

Do you?

I know many people sing their hearts out in the shower. I understand. The acoustics are marvelous. But I also get songs in my head that demand to be sung, some old favorites, some bewildering songs (Why are you here), and some ditties that I make up on the spot.

Here's an example:

I rarely travel. It is not my thing on many levels. I have an anxiety disorder. Travel has many variables out of my control. I would rather spend my available resources on creating more audiobooks. I have a complicated relationship with sleep. Why would I want to travel across time zones? I love seeing family and friends and exploring new places, but travel takes a toll.

But we did go to New York recently, and on the way back, trudging the way through the airport, where the signs were confusing and misleading. (Things are much further away than I imagine they will be.) Luckily, a song popped up in my head and I sang it immediately.

Here are the lyrics:

I hate travel.

I hate travel.

I hate travel.

Traveling's not for me!

Although the song was quite simple, it felt enormously satisfying to sing. I felt cheered up after singing it through once, and so I continued to sing it, softly enough, I think, so that only my husband could hear, and he was goodnatured about it. I imagine that he probably didn't want to hear that song a kajillion times, but, hey, they say a happy wife is a happy life. It was even better when I added a few discreet dance moves. (And here I must say thank you to my high school gym teacher, Mrs. Muilenberg, who taught us dance—jazz, tap, and ballet—and cared more about verve than form. Also, thank you, to Rocco, the jazz dance teacher at the shopping center, who added to my jazz dance tool kit.)

I would also like to add here that I hope to someday have a song about how traveling's a fine thing to do because eventually I would like to travel more, but, for the moment, this is my travel song.

I've recently started to incorporate songs in my writing. My husband and I were listening to the Harry Potter audiobook series in the car, and I was quite taken with Jim Dale's rendition of the sorting hat song. So I've stuck some songs in The Sharpest Claw: A Talking Cat Fantasy. Like me, the cats in these books celebrate with song and dance. It's been fun to add that layer to the book.

The Sharpest Claw should be out in the fall. Until that time, as always, I wish you happy moments in song and dance.

A Search for Home

Sorry for the delay in posts. We are in the middle of a situation here. We had just returned from a trip to see family in New York. When I came home, I felt so strongly in my heart that I was so happy to live here in this place. We had been here a year, and it felt like home. Two days later, we received the call. The owner of the house wanted to reclaim it so a family member could live here. We had sixty days to move.

In these moments, I regret being a writer. Why couldn't I have been a corporate person? The simple answer: I do not possess the internal wiring to make it in that world. Then why couldn't I have been one of those writers who actually does make a pile of money? I knew they're few and far between, but they exist, and I would like to be one of them. But at the moment, in this here and now, that is not true. We are renters, scraping along, and after that call, that felt truly awful.

I thought about my books, how in all of them, the character is trying to make a home for herself. It's such a basic need. We all want our place to sleep, our roof over our heads, our source of heat, our bathroom, and if at all possible, we want it to be in a place that comforts and expresses us.

A day after we heard this news, our young cats escaped into the night. Sam, the girl kitten, is good at opening screen doors. We thought the door was firmly latched. Apparently it was not, and at 11:00 at night, we realized that she and Indy, her brother, were out.

Adrenaline then kicked in. We lit up your phones and ventured out in our nighttime regalia. Indy was close to the deck, and he came in right away, but Sam was a white blur, running laps around the house. It was as if in her panic, she had forgotten who we were. We called out her names. I sang her favorite songs. She dashed away from me and vanished.

I had just finished a draft of the sequel to The Loudest Meow, The Sharpest Claw, where I wrote about kittens, inspired by Indy and Sam. In the book, Squeak, Sam's fictional counterpart, is daring, smart, confident—everything that Sam is. But Sam has this other side. She will be the first one to jump in the snow, but when someone comes to our house, she will lead the way for the others to hide, burrowing into a hole in the mattress and staying there until the stranger leaves. That was the part that was out that night, and it felt like I had no way to connect with her, to reassure her that I was on her side.

As I walked in the dark around the house, searching for this cat, I thought about how that brave warrior now lived on a page, but I may never see the complexity that is Sam again. Mike and I finally retreated back to the house. Neither one of us could sleep. I stayed in the living room near one of the decks. He went to the bedroom where the deck was. We kept watch.

Finally I heard it, the sound of the bedroom deck door opening and my husband's call, “She's in!” Sam shot past me. She still wasn't going to let me catch her, but she was safety inside now. We could go to sleep.

It's been nine days since that happened. We think we've found a solution, a really nice house one town over up in the pines. It's not as nice for the cats. The deck is elevated. They will have a catio in the air. But we will all be together, and in the end, I think that's what truly matters. We will make it our home.

On Writing and Grit

In my opinion, one of the key benefits of being a writer is that you develop grit. You have to. Consider the novelist. When you write a novel, you are embarking on a project of many thousands of words, where you have to employ different skills—an ear for dialogue, an eye for description, a heart for story. It's quite the task, and, at first, it can seem impossible. At least it did for me. I knew I wanted to be a novelist ever since I was a young girl in love with books. But it took me a long time to actually finish a book. I didn't know about craft. I thought that you just sat down and wrote a story, and I kept abandoning my projects.

So there were times of excitement that led to a moment of abandonment and then silence, as if that story had never existed. In my case, I tried many times to write a book, but every time you try, it can feel more dangerous. How many times can I fail? What's the point? I spent years not writing anything. If I couldn't finish anything, why even try? Over time, I realized that, for me, writing fed my soul. I figured out that I would not feel happy unless I was writing and that I didn't want to just write things for myself. I wanted to complete projects. I wanted to write novels. I wanted to share my books with the world.

I finally came to an understanding where I knew I had to do it. And if I failed again, it was hard for me to imagine that I could ever try again. So I set out on my course. It was a process that would not receive high points in style with the judges. I spent an entire retreat crying because the way I wanted to figure out how to write did not fit in with the teachers' approach, and they tried to dissuade me off my path. At the time, I hated my fight. I don't like to cry in public. I don't like not being a Hermione. But there was finally a voice that said, “They don't see me. They don't understand me. They're trying to tell me that I can't do it, that I'm not ready, and everything they're saying goes against what I feel in my heart. And I'm grieving right now over how I have ignored my muse over the years, and I'm mourning how much I have tried to please other people, and I'm angry that they're treating me as if I'm an ant on the ground, when I'm actually a writer with things to say.”

I quit my writing group. I fired my teachers. I lost friends. When all this was going on, I was well aware that many people thought I was unstable at best, crazy at worst. But I couldn't care. My book was at stake. My whole writing life felt like it was connected to me with the slenderest of threads.

First I read. When I had said no to my teachers, my group, my writing friends, I walked into my office, and a book stared out at me from a shelf. I had purchased it years ago but never studied it. It was called The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson. I opened it up. It said something to the effect of, “You're about to embark on one of the hardest journeys of your life.” That seemed right. For that week, I read that book and took notes and started dreaming up how my book could work.

When I did start writing, I kept that book on the table next to me so I could always see it. I called it my guide book. If I felt anxious, I knew I had my trusty maps right there. And every time I sat down to write, I would write a scene list. I would see if I could remember the sequence of my story. I would comfort myself with these numbered items that would eventually make up my novel.

And then I wrote it. I often wrote by hand. Sometimes it felt like the words were edged with rust. I often had to rewrite my scenes many times before I would not cringe with embarrassment over my words. And I did it and published it and started another one.

It still isn't easy. I don't think it ever will be. But once I had that first novel written, I had a sense that I could do it. Even though the route may look circuitous and foolish, but I would eventually find my way and my people. And that happened. Once I started writing for myself with resolve, other writers and editors and readers started showing up in my path. I found they had just the right level of toughness and kindness. I felt clear that they loved me and understood me and supported my work.

The great thing about writing is that you can then transfer it to other aspects of your life. When you're faced with a challenge, you can say, “Hey, I wrote a novel, and at the beginning, I didn't know what I was doing. I bet I can figure this out, too.” Or “Yeah, this feels lousy at the moment, but not as horrible as when I didn't think I could write a book, and then I found these resources within myself to do it. I'm willing to ride the rollercoaster. I believe I will come out the other side.”

Those are the muscles that I have started to develop through having a writing practice and producing books: I believe I can do things. I trust my process (although many others think it's weird). I do not try to do what others do. I focus on what works for me. I help others, and I let others help me when it's appropriate. (I have to do the first draft alone. For me, the first draft is the number of iterations I can do on an evolving manuscript before I can't see it any more, and I have to turn it over to someone else.)

Yes, writing is hard. It's a challenge. It's humbling. There are always ways to improve. But isn't that great? I'm embracing the journey.

Me and My Phone

I just came back from a trip to New York, where I realized a few things.

  1. I now know there's a bulldog in this world who I adore.

  2. New York bagels are the best.

  3. If I'm frustrated, it's best if I make up a quick song and sing it half under my breath a million times until I'm cheered up again.

  4. I rely too much on my phone.

For today's post, I'm going to focus on Item #4, although I may revisit #3 next week. So here's the deal. As a writer, a cellphone can be incredibly useful. You can make notes on it while you're out in the world. You can read books on it. You can listen to books. You can store your manuscript there. In short, a phone can be an incredibly valuable tool to use.

But then it happens. For me it was on the first flight of a two-flight day on my return home from New York. I was reading a book when my phone started, let's say, freaking out, because that's how it seemed to me. It wasn't a mild technical hiccup. This was a flat-out technological demonic possession, complete with pages flipping and apps launching and me holding my phone by my fingertips thinking, “But you can't do this to me! I never carry books with me anymore!”

When it first started, I tried to turn it off. I thought that maybe I could just reboot the crazy out of it. But it would not let me. I would get to the screen where I needed to swipe to turn it off, and the phone would do nothing. It was crazy. But what was more insane was, after that occurred, every moment or so, I would pick up my phone to see if the results this time would be different.

It made me realize some things:

  1. Phones are expensive. I've had this phone for twelve years. I took it for granted. I never thought about replacing it. I never imagined how much they now cost.

  2. I knew that I spent a lot of time on my phone. But I'd never felt it before. How in a moment of anxiety or boredom, what I do is pick up my phone and look at something. From that plane ride until I got home, I didn't have my phone. At first, I felt panic. Then I reached in my purse, picked up a notebook and a pen and started brainstorming for a new writing project. Once I figured that out, I felt content again.

UPDATE: When we returned home, I chatted with an Apple rep, and ended up backing up my phone and restoring it. So far, so good. Fingers crossed. But something has changed. I'm no longer so cavalier about my phone. I see it as delicate, vulnerable. And I don't want to rely on it as my favorite tool anymore. I want to let it rest. We'll see how it goes.