Paper, Paper, Everywhere Paper

By Friday; Stack of Documents. Working or Studying at messy desk.

I have a thing for paper, specifically notes on paper.

Last week after a hectic stretch finishing up a book proposal, getting another project off to the formatter, and completing several editing jobs, I decided it was time to clean my office.

I’m a less-is-more kind of person so I rarely find myself buried by stuff. I’m also reasonably neat and moderately organized, which means my clutter is usually neat and organized too. If anything, that makes the whole damn thing more insidious because I can fool myself into thinking I don’t really need to clean up at all. Inevitably, I end up with neat clutter piles accumulating on surfaces, in files, between books and (my new favorite go to spot) under my keyboard. When that happens, it’s time to dig out and clean up.

It is a bit of a dig because cleaning and sorting resembles an archeological dig of my last few months. Scattered here and there like notefetti are titles of books I want to read, blogs I mean to visit, quotes I absolutely love, along with story ideas and plot points and bits of conversation I’ve overheard. I find three words on one slip of paper (Dianthus ‘Candy Floss’) and a short recipe on another (for coconut oatmeal drop cookies). Cookies I want to make . . . flower seeds I want to plant.

Why am I writing these things down? Why do I feel the need? Unless I file my notes right away – and I rarely do – it only means revisiting them down the road, and expending energy deciding whether they’re worthy of being kept or worthy of feeding the fire. In short, it creates more work. And I’m kinda sorta done with creating more work for myself.

As I sifted through my stockpile, it slowly dawned on me that taking notes isn’t necessarily a sign of an ordered mind. It can be, at its worst, the sign of an obsessive one. I’m not obsessive – at least I don’t think so – but there are stretches when I think my note taking could be considered . . . well . . .  moderately compulsive. I do it, I realized, because I’m afraid. I’m afraid if I don’t write something down I’ll forget it. I’m afraid I’ll miss reading a great book, I’ll forget a snappy bit of dialogue, or I won’t have just the right quote to share with a hurting friend.

I need to trust more. I need to trust myself to remember what I need to remember. I need to trust that if I do forget, the world will somehow bring to my attention the right book or the perfect story idea or that new seed variety just when I need it most. I need to have more faith and take fewer notes.

It’s working pretty well so far, although I have to admit grocery shopping without notes has been a bit of a challenge. We’ve ended up with twenty-two pounds of sweet potatoes. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with them all. I’d jotted down a recipe for a sweet potato pie with a rosemary cornmeal crust but I seem to have misplaced it . . .



Book Buys for the Holidays

christmas-books-440x435At the request of my kids, I just handed off my Christmas wish list. The list gets smaller every year. That’s partly because I’m blessed with everything I could ever want (other than a spot on the NYT list and maybe a lottery win) and also because these last few years have taught me that the most important things in life truly are priceless: the loyalty of family & friends, good health, unconditional love.

That said, I was able to come up with a few suggestions for Teen Freud and Uptown Girl. Books were, to no one’s surprise, on the top of my list. I’m hoping to receive Jodi Picoult’s Leaving Time and a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.

Since I’ve tracked my reading again this year, I thought it might be helpful if I listed out a few of my favorite books to help you choose for the readers on your list.

For fiction lovers:

A Long Time Gone by Karen White.  A lyrical multi-generational novel set in the Mississippi Delta with themes of tradition, families, forgiveness and love. Multiple points of view from different time periods make this a contemporary as well as historical read.

In the Blood by Lisa Unger. For the suspense readers on your list. A twisted psychological thriller with secrets, lies and brisk plotting that will keep you reading late into the night.

The Late, Lamented Molly Marx by Sally Koslow. Molly is dead and watching from the hereafter as her loved ones try to discern if her death was murder, suicide or an accident. By turns hilarious and thought-provoking, this will appeal to anyone with an offbeat sense of humor and even a light interest in metaphysics.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. Women’s fiction with a touch of mystery, beautifully drawn characters and some laugh-out-loud scenes. A brilliant relationship read. Moriarty is becoming an auto buy for me.

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova. A literary read dealing with a serious theme and delivering an ultimately uplifting message. Badly injured in a car accident, self-proclaimed over-achiever Sarah Nickerson suffers a brain injury in which she’s completely incapable of processing anything on her left side. She can’t see, feel or recognize anything on that side of her body. Her left is neglected. A clever title and a clever read.

I was on a metaphysical YA kick this year and these two books stood out for me:

Guardian by Natasha Deen. Seventeen-year-old Maggie sees the dead and helps them go from bewilderment to the beyond. But one spirit will not leave until she figures out who killed him. And finding the answer might be the death of her. Great characterization, well-paced and lots of twists and turns.

Best Friends Through Eternity by Sylvia McNicoll. Fourteen-year-old Paige is killed at a railway crossing while taking a detour to avoid school bullies. She is quickly transported to a nether world where she sees Kim, a friend who died seven years earlier. Gifted with the opportunity to return to earth and relive her last days, Paige is determined to fix past mistakes and prevent her death. A beautiful story about friendship and choices, this book was hard to put down.

Shameless self-promotion time. My title The Art of Getting Stared At is now available in paper and makes a terrific stocking stuffer!

Finally, four suggestions for non-fiction lovers:

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott. A collection of essays on faith, family and community. Lamott writes with wit and wisdom, and while some of the passages touch on difficult subjects in every case Lamott leaves the reader feeling hopeful and uplifted. Highly recommended.

Seven Letters from Paris by Samantha Verant. For those who adore both a love story and the city of Paris. The log line for this book reads: twenty years, seven letters, and one long-lost love of a lifetime. Love letters and a happily ever after fairy tale. What could be better?

King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village by Peggielene Bartels.  An American secretary learns she’s been chosen to lead 7,000 subjects in a tiny fishing village on Ghana’s central coast. Returning to her ancestral home, she must blend her American sensibilities with the traditions of her native Ghana as she works to improve the lot of her countrymen. A fascinating glimpse into tribal customs and village life in Ghana.

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Anderson Brower. An intimate, behind-the-scenes look at life in the White House seen through the eyes of the staff who serve. Insightful anecdotes about presidential families from the Kennedys through to the Obamas are presented along with archival information. Well-written and entertaining, I was sorry when this book ended.

Every Writer Needs a Lizard

Every writer needs a lizard. Or maybe a frog or a spider or, in my case, a golden ladybug.

We need a mythic animal or a symbolic touchstone where we can park our doubts when they get in the way of our writing. My friend Rachel has a lizard painted on the wall of her office. Lise has a stained glass frog hanging in her window. I have a golden ladybug. She sits on my desk as a symbol of luck. One day when luck seemed about as attainable as a trip to Mars, I looked down and there she was: benign yet strong, a little hopeful even. And perfectly capable of swallowing my doubts like her live counterpart swallows aphids in the garden.

Doubt is different than disappointment. In the aftermath of an immediate bad news moment like a rejection or poor sales figures or a difficult conversation with an editor, chocolate is a quick fix. So is triple cream brie or a bracing gin and tonic or a head-pounding workout if you have no hedonistic qualities at all. A walk & talk with a writer friend or a good movie help too.

I’m not talking about disappointing news. I’m talking about those ugly doubts that linger like the nasty cough that won’t go away after the cold is gone.  The doubts that say ‘you aren’t good enough,’ ‘this story bites,’ ‘the odds aren’t in your favor,’ or ‘find a real job.’

Doubt like that doesn’t belong at the desk.

In his outstanding book ‘Writing from the Inside Out’ Dennis Palumbo says writers need doubt in the same way we need faith.  It’s a mistake, he says, to strive to banish doubt, to see it as the enemy. “Just as courage has no meaning without fear, faith has no meaning without doubt. They’re the yin and yang of all aspiration,” Palumbo writes.

Most of us, however, want faith to win over doubt. We’ll take whispers of inspiration, encouragement, and hope over shouts of doubt any day of the week.  Not so fast, says Palumbo.  The more willing we are to mine our doubts, the truer and more recognizably human our characters will be

He has me there. Anything for the writing, right?

Okay, not so fast, Dennis. There’s a fine line between doubt and despair. And despair, taken to the extreme, doesn’t serve me.

Although, I have to be honest, doubt does serve me sometimes. That niggling seed of doubt telling me the plot twist isn’t quite right or the character motivation isn’t strong enough, that’s healthy doubt. Welcome doubt. But when doubt is so strong that faith is a distant memory, I have a problem.

That’s when I hand it over to my ladybug. ‘Take it and hold it and let me write,’ I say. ‘Just for today, let me have faith.’