Finally, “After”

It’s May! We are now firmly into spring, after a very long winter. Part of what made it so long was that I didn’t make very much time to do the three things that keep me grounded–reading, writing, and walking–so I was somewhat off. Between work, family, and church commitments, the time I took for self-care had gone by the wayside. But, the year-long church commitment is now over, with a successful result.  I’ve been back to the gym in the past month on the treadmill and at the weight machines, and I’ve found 30 minutes to get outside and walk during the work day about half the time. I am reading at least four books simultaneously right now, including an audiobook in the car, and I’ve been journaling daily for a while. I’m on my way back.

In my journal, which I do first thing after I wake up, I find myself writing a quick recount of the past day and giving myself a pep talk about what I need to get done that day. Lately, journaling hadn’t brought me amazing new insights and seemed kind of ho-hum. I’d start writing, but then stare off into space and stop. The siren song of my phone and social media has been hard to resist.

I found at The Gift of Writing the idea of listing several writing prompts at the front of your journal, so that when you come to a point that you’re not sure what to write, you just flip to the inside cover and pick a prompt.  I did that with the journal I started in November, with fair results.  The prompts were things like “What does your heart say?” and “What can you do in the next couple of days to get you closer to where you want to be?”

I started a new notebook recently, and thought I’d go one step further.  If you’re looking for writing prompts, go no further than The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron.  He has collected over 800 of them there, ranging from introspective to prompts designed to help you work with a piece of fiction or nonfiction you’ve already started.  As if having the book right next to me while I journaled wasn’t good enough, I went through and picked out the prompts that seemed appealing and listed them in the front of my new notebook.

The other day I decided on this prompt: “What is your five-year plan?  What would you like your life to be like in five years?”  If you’ve known me for a while, you know that I have to have a plan.

For a very long time I had the habit of daydreaming about my life “after” something–long ago it was “after I lose weight” or “after I’m done with school” and then it was “after I meet someone” or “after I have a baby” then everything would be perfect and my life would be wonderful.   Of course, that’s no way to live because life is never the way you expect it would be after.  After can’t meet those high expectations.

When I did the five-year plan prompt, I realized that in five years, I don’t want my life to be any different than it is right now.  I want to live in the same house, have the same job, the same friends, and go to the same church.  I want the peonies I rescued from across the street a few weeks ago to be getting ready to bloom, and my daisies to be getting ready to turn a good portion of my lawn into a cutting garden.  I want to take my daughter to school down the street, listen to an audiobook on the way to work, lift weights and feel strong a couple of times a week, and turn my face to the spring sun as I walk off the long winter.  I want to continue to cook on the weekends so that I don’t have to during the week, and I want to keep talking to and spending time with my beloved sisters and friends.

Oh, sure, I’d love it if the clutter fairy came to my house to put everything away and work against the forces of chaos and dirty dishes.   But I don’t see that happening as long as I make reading, writing, and walking a priority after taking care of my daughter and making sure we have a roof over our heads and food to eat.  And it would be nice if the powers that be determined that public service jobs deserved pay that was more on-par with those in the private sector.  And there is still great injustice and suffering in the world that requires a lot of work from a lot of dedicated people.  And there’s no guarantee things won’t change because of factors beyond my control.

But, all in all, I realized that I’ve got everything I need right here, right now.  There is no “after.”  This is it, and it’s pretty damn good.

Writing Project 2014 Update

I’ve already blown the schedule I made for revising the memoir I’m working on. I’ve just finished edits to Chapter 3 today (a snow day), which I wanted to get done by January 19. I should already be done with edits to Chapter 4 by now.

But that’s OK. I’m still plugging along. I’m actually really happy with the process I’m using and the progress I’m making. I started with 13 pages, and I’ve revised it into 32 pages. I’ve added a lot of scenes and gone way back into my memories, finding insights along the way. I know that there is still a lot to do, but I can’t edit a blank page. Without reaching deep and bringing up what I remember, I wouldn’t get anywhere.

So I will keep going, without judgment. I actually took the laptop to my daughter’s basketball practice and edited while she played! No desktop or anything, just my lap and the bleachers. If that doesn’t show dedication to my writing, I’m not sure what does!

The new goal is to get back on schedule by February 23, when I’m supposed to have both Chapters 4 and 5 done.  They are currently 20 pages, which may morph into 40.

So on this snow day, I will do phases A and B for Chapter 4–which involve editing on paper and listing additional scenes.  I tend to get hung up on writing additional scenes, but I can’t even start writing them if I don’t know what they are supposed to be.  And then I have 2 1/2 weeks to do the rest.


January Reading

I decided that I liked my year-end reading posts so much that I would try to do them at the end of every month, so I could write more deeply about some of the books that I loved.

Here’s the January list:

Cherry by Mary Karr
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen
Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
Takedown Twenty by Janet Evanovich

I had to balance the three serious memoirs with some very light fiction. It seems like I didn’t read much this month, but I have several other books in-progress that should be finished within the next week.  I’m also terribly addicted to Facebook on my phone during times I would otherwise be reading, such as right before bed.  I can see right now that if I want to keep up last year’s reading pace, I’ll need to stop that.

Cherry is the sequel, of sorts, to Karr’s The Liar’s Club.  It’s very different–for most of it, she uses the second-person “you” perspective, which I never quite got used to.  I think it can be effective in small doses, but I didn’t really like it when it comprised most of the book.  Despite the issues I had with the book, there were some great lines:

“The more real the threat of her absence became, the more I felt all the bolts and lug nuts of who I was loosen.” (about her mother’s inconsistent presence during that time in her life)

“I instinctively knew the rules laid down for girls’ comportment, but I wasn’t yet resigned to them, for to place my head into that yoke was to part with too much freedom.”

” . . . he provides escort, his gaze on you certifying your romantic and sexual worth (the only value girls seem to have in that time and place.” (about her first boyfriend)

Despite the great lines, between the second-person perspective and the drugs, it wasn’t my favorite book.  I often have a problem with drug scenes in movies and books, and Carr did a lot of drugs during the time she describes in this memoir.

The second and third memoirs I read this month, Autobiography of a Face and Truth and Beauty, are related, although I wasn’t aware of the existence of Truth and Beauty when I started Autobiography, which has been sitting on my to-read stack for probably a year.  It’s a classic memoir, on many reading lists, published in 1994.  Lucy Grealy had bone cancer in her jaw when she was nine years old, which caused her to have to have several years of chemotherapy and radiation, and left her with part of her jaw missing before she started junior high school.

It is a beautiful memoir.  I could so identify with the way she wrote about not fitting in, about the teasing, about the longing for a relationship.  “If only I could get someone to have sex with me, it would mean that I was attractive, that someone could love me. . . .The longing for someone and the fear that there would never be anyone intermingled to the point where I couldn’t tell the difference.”  I don’t feel that way now, but she described perfectly the way I felt in high school and college.

The end of the memoir is hopeful.  She wrote: “There I was with my short skirts and sharp mind and list of lovers, trying so hard to convince myself that maybe all I really needed to do was learn how to treat myself better. I was on the verge of learning this, yet I was still so suspicious, so certain that only another’s love could prove my worth absolutely.”

Unfortunately, when I looked to see what Lucy Grealy was doing now, hoping that she had found love, or at least peace about not having it, I found that she died of an accidental heroin overdose in 2002.  And then I found out that her friend, the writer Ann Patchett, had written a memoir about their friendship, which was Truth and Beauty.  So I immediately reserved the book at my library and picked it up the next day.  Lucy was such a compelling person, and Ann had chronicled their friendship so well that I gulped it down.

Ann Patchett thought that Lucy never got over her need, her obsession to be in a relationship.  One of Lucy’s favorite questions, one friends and I have also asked, was “Will I ever have sex again?”  Patchett has been criticized for her frank portrayal of how some women talk about sex–but I applaud her.  I think she got it just right.  Several years ago, the Red Ravine blog posted an in-depth discussion of the two books, so I won’t repeat it here, but I will quote that blog author when she wrote that “I came to the conclusion that writing memoir is the most courageous and risky kind of writing one can undertake.”  I’m so glad that both authors had the courage to write these memoirs.

Finally, if you’ve never read Carl Hiassen and need a good laugh, try him!  He is gifted in creating outlandish characters and then setting a scheme in motion that will have them all in the same place at the same time, interacting as only they can.  I suppose he and Janet Evanovich have that in common, although Evanovich’s characters reappear from book to book, and Hiassen’s usually don’t.  Takedown Twenty is one of the better of the higher-numbered Stephanie Plum novels.  I think they were great in the beginning, but have been formulaic recently.  This one was a day’s read for me, and worth it if you are a fan.


Writing Project 2014

I’m snow and cold-bound, so have way more time than usual.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like.

I have struggled with the form I want my writing to take. At one point, I was researching a novel. Then I thought a family history memoir was what I wanted to do. I wrote every day, about 5000 words a week, and ended up with pieces of a novel (maybe 100 pages) and of a memoir (about 200 pages).

A lot of the memoir had to do with my breast cancer experience, but I really don’t want to publish that.  I don’t think it would be very marketable, because it seems like everyone and her sister has published something about going through breast cancer. Surgery, chemo, radiation. Blah, blah, blah. It sucks. What can I say about that that is different?

I ran out of steam in the 5000 words a week in the summer of 2012 and never really got back into it. What I did do was start handwriting in a spiral notebook, as Natalie Goldberg suggests in Writing Down the Bones. Just writing practice. With no goals. I have been able to keep that practice up, not every day, but most days. I have five notebooks of gobbledygook now–the random stuff that goes through my head when I wake up in the morning, when I have to wait for my daughter at some activity, or when I’m struggling to get focused on something–anything! I find that getting the crap out of my head onto the page somehow helps.

So I’ve been struggling with form. I have all of this raw material, that is written but disorganized rambling.  When I looked at it, though, I realized that I have about 90-100 pages of my relationship history. In all its gory details. Letting my ex-husband move in the day after I met him.  Meeting a guy while driving on the highway, while I was pregnant as a single mom by choice. Internet dating off and on for nearly 10 years. Meeting someone between chemo and radiation, while bald and boobless, and breaking up while on a cruise to celebrate the end of treatment. Giving away my cat and dog because a boyfriend was allergic to them, only for him to fail to understand how having had cancer affected my parenting. Meeting someone wonderful, knowing my patterns, thinking I wasn’t following them, but realizing later that I hadn’t come as far as I’d thought.

Seeing that I’m currently single, without plans to change that status, it seems like shaping my past relationships and what I’ve learned from them into a memoir would be helpful to see where I’ve gone wrong, and so that I don’t make the same mistakes should I ever decide to try it again.

In the fall of 2013, I wrote in my journal that my goal was to have a final draft done by the end of 2014. I started working with what I have, and hit a wall. I started editing, then did nothing for weeks, or even more than a month. But I did come up with a process.

For each chapter, I will:

A- Edit on paper.

B-Make a list of additional scenes I need. I tend to write much more easily in essay form than in novel form, with scenes, so that is what I need to add.

C- Write the additional scenes, in a notebook or using Write or Die.

D- Type in the edits.

So after the new year, I made up a schedule. I’ve listed the 12 chapters I have, which vary in length from 2 or 3 pages to 19 pages. I’ve given myself goal finish dates for each chapter, generally depending on how long each one is. As I get each stage done–A,B, C, or D, I list it next to the chapter with a checkmark.

My goal is to be done with this draft by June 1, 2014. I’ll rest for a couple of weeks, and then re-evaluate. I think the next step will be to work with the plot and narrative form, because I tend to work more in summary or essay. Essay is fine, but it is not a memoir.

And by telling the blogosphere my plans, I have accountability.  I just finished edits to Chapter 2.  The goal to finish Chapter 3 is January 19, 2014.  Feel free to ask how I’m doing!

The Stories We Tell Ourselves


This is the first time I’m reblogging. This post is worth it. Imagine what we could do if we change the stories we tell ourselves?

Originally posted on Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer:

storyI am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories ~ WASHINGTON IRVING

I stumbled upon this quote today and it really struck a chord with me. But first I had to look up who Washington Irving was. Turns out he was a 19th century American author, essayist and historian. I don’t think I had ever heard of him before now – although as I discovered I did know two of his best-known stories The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.

Back to Irving’s quote; and the question that it triggered in my mind is how much should we believe the stories we tell ourselves? For don’t we all tell ourselves stories which define who we are? We are the daughter of X, the sister of Y, the mother of Z and so forth. What do you do, people ask us. I work…

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What I read in 2013 and what I want to read in 2014

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

Stephen King, On Writing

Ever since I read On Writing in 2008, I have taken Stephen King’s words to heart.  He admitted that he reads 70 to 80 books a year, so that has been my goal.  In 2013, I read 85 books, 12 more than in 2012.

When I analyzed the books I read in 2013, the numbers came out generally like this:

  • 20-25 Memoir/ Autobiography
  • 35+ Novels, including 7 “Classics” and 3 Childrens/Young Adult
  • 10-12 Writing Craft
  • 10-15 Nonfiction (including self-help, history, but not writing craft or creativity)

I loved the classics that I read, especially Pride and Prejudice, The Moonstone, Girl of the Limberlost, Hard Times, and Tom Sawyer.  Most of them I read on audiobook through LibriVox, through which volunteers read, record, and make available free public domain audiobooks.  In that future life in which I will have enough time to volunteer for all of the things I want to do, I would love to contribute my own reading and recording.

I read a lot of memoirs in 2013, primarily because I realized that the writing I have done and want to shape into a book is really a memoir, so I’ve been studying the form.  I still have a lot to do, but I’ve read many great examples that also include family history, including: What We Have, Missing Lucile, Nola, Ava’s Man, and The Lost.  I loved to read about Sonia Sotomayor in My Beloved World and Marcus Samuellson in Yes Chef, although I’m sure both books were ghostwritten.  To me, that didn’t diminish their journeys.  Other books were a combination of memoir and nonfiction, such as Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Wolf’s Vagina, and Pollan’s Cooked.  Each provided insights that I hadn’t considered.  I want to read just as many memoirs in 2014, and I have plenty of lists to start with.

When I compiled the 2013 list, what surprised me was how many books on writing craft I read.  I realized that it’s much easier for me to read about writing than to actually write.  So I think the reason I read all the writing craft books was avoidance.  Don’t get me wrong, many were very useful, especially the ones about plot, journaling, and memoir writing.  I learned a lot about how I need to shape my material.  And The Icarus Deception, by Seth Godin, was life-changing and paradigm-shifting. Although it isn’t about writing per se, it’s about creating art, so I included it in this list.    In 2014, I want to read less about writing, and write more.  

Fiction.  A portion of the novels I read were for my library book club:  Defending Jacob, An American Tune, Blue Asylum, Goldberg Variations, Cup of Gold, Devil’s Trill, Goodbye for Now, and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  Most of those were books I probably wouldn’t have picked up myself, and I continue to treasure the opportunity to expand my book horizons and discuss them with other book lovers.

My favorite novels of the year were probably An American Tune (Barbara Shoup’s novel set in Bloomington and MIchigan between 1969 and the recent past); The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (what happens fifty years later if Alaska had become a Jewish protectorate in WWII, minimizing the effect of the Holocaust?); The Last Days of Dogtown (outcasts and forbidden love in the early 1800’s, including all of the savagery and cruelty of the time); MaddAddam (Atwood’s final book of the dystopian future trilogy begun with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood); and Kindred (written in the late 1970’s, Butler wrote about slavery and time travel that seems to combine aspects of the later Beloved and The Time Traveler’s Wife).

Novels that had an interesting twist:  Defending Jacob, Goodbye For Now, Gone Girl, and The Perfect Ghost.  I enjoyed the surprises each of these books gave me.

I’ve realized that I like a lot of books.  There aren’t very many I don’t care for.  There were only two this year that I can say I wish I hadn’t read:  Cup of Gold and The Lost Get-Back Boogie.  Cup of Gold was one of Steinbeck’s early books, and I didn’t care for the sexism and conquer-the-natives exploits of Captain Morgan.  The book was well-written, and kept me interested in finding out what happened, but I didn’t like what was happening.  Boogie was also well-written, but I had anticipated that it would be a mystery.  Instead, it was a crime novel, tracing the activities of an ex-con and his drugged-out friend.  It wasn’t what I expected, and I don’t care for drug scenes in movies or books.   (Years ago, I started but couldn’t continue with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces for that reason.)

Although I can’t say I wish I hadn’t read them, I continue to read Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, but just for the pure entertainment.  I don’t expect the characters to say anything profound or come to life-changing realizations when I read this series.  Although they were great mysteries in the beginning, they’ve become formulaic and I’d just like her to pick between Ranger and Morelli, finally!

My wish for 2014 comes from Seth Godin, from The Icarus Deception:

Sometimes, courage is the willingness to speak the truth about what you see and to own what you say.

I hope what I read in 2014 helps me to speak my truth and that you are able to do the same.

My 2013 In Books

I’m running a little late this year for my annual book list, but here is the list of all of the books I read in 2013, in the general order I read them.  Stay tuned tomorrow for the analysis and reading goals for 2014!

  1. Hard Times by Charles Dickens
  2. Old Friend From Far Away by Natalie Goldberg
  3. Defending Jacob by William Landay
  4. Explosive Eighteen by Janet Evanovich
  5. The Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
  6. Smells Like Dog by Suzanne Selfors
  7. Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag
  8. What We Have: One Family’s Inspiring Story About Love, Loss, and Survival, by Amy Boesky
  9. Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life by Elizabeth George
  10. Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate by Michael Henderson
  11. An American Tune by Barbara Shoup
  12. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  13. Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall
  14. Open Heart by Elie Wiesel
  15. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
  16. Notorious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich
  17. Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make this Country Work by Jeanne Marie Laskas
  18. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
  19. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are–Your Guide to a WholeHearted Life by Brene Brown
  20. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  21. Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne
  22. When Memory Speaks: Exploring the Art of Autobiography by Jill Ker Conway
  23. At Home: A Short HIstory of Private Life by Bill Bryson
  24. Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck
  25. Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness by Robin Hemley
  26. Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing by Les Edgerton
  27. The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? by Seth Godin
  28. Ava’s Man by Rick Bragg
  29. My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
  30. Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
  31. Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok edited by Roger Streitmatter
  32. Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin
  33. The Dread Disease: Cancer and Modern American Culture by James T. Patterson
  34. Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf
  35. Four Souls by Louise Erdrich
  36. Night by Elie Wiesel
  37. Tapestry of Fortunes by Elizabeth Berg
  38. Leaving a Trace: The Art of Transforming a Life Into Stories by Alexandra Johnson
  39. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
  40. The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne
  41. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by MIchael Chabon
  42. Goldberg Variations by Susan Isaacs
  43. Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention by Katherine Ellison
  44. The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn
  45. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown
  46. Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and the American Dream by Deepak and Sanjiv Chopra
  47. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
  48. What Came First by Carol Snow
  49. Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating by Dan Slater
  50. The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson by Bryan Furuness
  51. The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant
  52. The Faith Club: A Muslim, and Christian, and a Jew –Three Women Search for Understanding by Ranya Idilby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner
  53. The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke
  54. Devil’s Trill by Gerald Elias
  55. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  56. Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood by Naomi Wolf
  57. A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward edited by Isaac Metzker
  58. Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel
  59. Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression edited by ??????
  60. The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne
  61. The Moonstone by Willkie Collins
  62. The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master by Martha Alderson
  63. The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
  64. Superparenting for ADD: An Innovative Approach for Raising Your Distracted Child by Edward Hallowell and Peter Jensen
  65. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter
  66. Journalution: Journaling to Awaken Your Inner Voice, Heal Your Life, and Manifest Your Dreams by Sandy Grason
  67. Room by Emma Donoghue
  68. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  69. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd
  70. Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington
  71. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
  72. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
  73. Carrie & Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story by Carol Burnett
  74. The Perfect Ghost by Linda Barnes
  75. Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
  76. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach
  77. A Playdate with Death by Ayelet Waldman
  78. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
  79. Kindred by Octavia Butler
  80. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  81. Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot by J Madison Davis
  82. Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia by Mark Salzman
  83. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart
  84. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  85. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life by Natalie Goldberg