Writing in a Vacuum

Writing is an isolated business, at least for the writer. Once a book is sold it becomes a team effort of agents, editors, designers, printers, bookstores, and marketing teams. But before a writer gets to that lovely prospect, there are countless days of agonizing over every word, plot point, and character. Usually all alone.

I am one such person as that. While it is true my husband (also a writer) is hands-down my best go-to person for reading pages, giving critiques, and editing with me, it still is a rather lonely place. I know my husband loves my writing, but he did marry me, right? I know he wouldn’t bullshit me, but he is just one opinion.

The Algonquin Round Table — the ultimate writer’s group.

That is why a writer’s group is so important. You can get feedback from more than one person, and if you have a good writer’s group, that feedback is helpful. Ah, but not all writer’s groups are equal, are they?

For example, last year I heard of a group that met at a church on Saturday mornings. It was a drive but Kosta and I arrived on time and took seats in the meeting room. It was a very large group–near to twenty folks crowded around the tables. But as the first few members began reading their work I realized I was in the wrong place.

How did I know? Because my husband and I were nearly the only two folks who were not octogenarians writing about their husband’s cancer/Alzheimer’s disease. That’s not entirely true, but it did feel more like a therapy group for widows. They enjoyed what I read (at least they said they did) but I didn’t get any helpful criticism. How could I when I was only aloud to read one page?

For a serious writer it can be hard to find a group of like-minded folks who are working on projects for publication. I still haven’t found one, but I am always on the lookout for potential partners. But it seems that for now I am on my own. And that’s okay. I’ll just keep working hard and doing what I love. That, in the end, is what it’s all about anyway.

 

Change your tune

As Tom Petty once sang, “The Waiting is the Hardest Part.” And when you are waiting for something, be it doctor’s tests or whether or not you got the job, it is the hardest part. Even when you are pretty sure of a good outcome, there is still that tinge of dread that things could go this way:

Usually, however, there is no battle with a lion following. (Although I’d take Russell Crowe in a gladiator’s kilt any day.)

Why is waiting so hard? Obviously it is because we generally have no control over outcomes and that makes us anxious. The unknown sits like a vague shadow just out of our reach. Does it have fangs or is it smiling? Or, God forbid, both?

I am a champion worrier. You give me a topic and I can winkle anxiety from it with little effort. I can conjure entire conversations, scenario after scenario of how things can go wrong and hardly break a sweat. It is no small thing.

But what does it get me? A big fat load of anxiety, and time still marches on and events unfold like they were always going to. Except I’ve just given myself a headache from clenching my teeth in my sleep.

I once saw a meme on Pinterest of a monk sitting on a rock in the middle of a lake. Underneath it were the words: Relax. Nothing is under control. And as hokey as that might sound, it is wisdom I try to take to heart. Most situations in life are out of our control and there is very little we can do except change how we react to it.

Back to Tom Petty. You all know I am prone to ear worms. The last few days I’ve been replaying “The Waiting is the Hardest Part.” And while that isn’t a bad tune to have stuck in your head it is making me fret. Every time I reach the the chorus I feel the spring coil a little tighter.

But then this morning I had a flash of brilliance. In high school I was a big fan of Guns N’ Roses. And while most of their music palls to an enlightened feminist such as myself, there is one song that could effectively supplant Tom Petty’s voice in my head.

“Said woman, take it slow

And things’ll be just fine.

You and I’ll just use a little patience.”

Sing it, sir.

A Kick in the Arse

It is so easy to get stuck in a rut, isn’t it? We live our daily lives and one day passes, then another, and they march on in a seemingly infinite line without much change from day to day. But sometimes, just the littlest change can make a huge improvement in our outlook and mental well-being.

I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. I don’t want to play the Glad Game or always look on the bright side. I usually wish to shoot people like that. But let me tell you about the change we made at our house last week and the difference it has made for me.

We bought a new couch. I know you’re thinking, “Whoop-de-doo.” But no, really, it has lifted me out of my rut. Let me back up a bit and explain.

When we first moved in together ten years ago, Kosta and I bought a couch. It was from a cheapy furniture store and the couch stayed intact for about a year before the frame started breaking down. My Dad, bless him, tried to shore it up and found the damn thing had been put together not with wood screws but with staples. But we didn’t have the money to drop on a new, well-made couch, so we just sucked it up and lived with it. Broken. For ten years. We both said we would much rather have a trip to Europe than a new couch.

The couch slowly sagged into its spot. We stuck pillows under the cushions to bolster us but it became cranky and carnivorous. It would eat you ass first if you sat on it. It was an awful situation that was really at the center of our home lives. We sat on it every day and it made us sad and frustrated.

Last weekend I’d had enough. I told Kosta we were going couch shopping. We aren’t going on a big trip this year and living with this half-sofa was killing us. So we decided on a budget and went to the consignment shops. Naples has a lot of them and they are filled usually with pretty decent furniture.

We walked around downtown and popped into stores. There were some that were nice but too expensive, some that were the right price but not what we wanted. There were a couple that were okay, but I wasn’t going to plop down money for something that was just okay. Consignment shops turn over pretty fast, especially this time of year when the snowbirds all go back north for the summer. I knew if we waited the right couch for us would come along.

It was getting late and we had one store left. We walked inside and boom, there it was, just waiting for us. It was blue like the Aegean, it looked brand new, and it was within our budget. I was instantly smitten and Kosta seemed pleased with it too. Up to this point all the couches had been in neutral colors – beige, and white (who gets a white sofa, I ask you???) and an occasional gold. But this sofa sat like a glittering sapphire in a field of blah.

And then we found out they were having a sale and that everything in the store that day was half off. I had to sit down. Fortunately the sofa was extremely comfortable too. We didn’t have to think very hard about it.

True, we had to pay to have it moved (it’s a sofa bed and extremely heavy), but that was nominal, and when you get a sofa for HALF PRICE it doesn’t hurt so much. We bought it Saturday, hauled the tired old sofa to the curb Sunday night, and had the new one in place Monday afternoon.

It all worked so easily that I am still stunned by it. And grateful. Because that new sofa has transformed our living room. It has transformed us. We aren’t embarrassed by its presence. We can have people over again and sit on it without being consumed.  We love admiring it, sitting on it, and feeling happy that it is there.

And now that we have that in place we want to do more. We are looking for an area rug next. I am going to mosaic some lamps. A fire has been kindled by something so simple as a new piece of furniture. And if I had kept thinking, “We can’t afford a new sofa” this never would have happened.

Sometimes you have to give yourself a kick in the arse. It’s amazing where you can land.

I Am a Dreamer

In a recent conversation, I was told that I am a dreamer. The context of the conversation put a negative spin on that statement. The unsaid words that would have followed might have been, “no one takes a dreamer seriously,” or “being practical is much better.” In other words, dreamers just get in the way of getting shit done.

And it stung, let me tell you. I have been ruminating on this for a couple of weeks now and I admit I let it get to me. I don’t like being seen as unreliable, or impractical. I believe I am neither of those things.

But I mentioned this to several people and got a very different reaction. My friend Tammy said, “I see that as a compliment!” My husband metaphorically kicked my ass over it. He said, “Do you want to be a person with no imagination?”

And I realized they were right.

I want to be known as someone who creates, someone who dreams up amazing ideas, someone who writes marvelous stories. We need dreamers in this world. Without them we are all just sliding around in the mud.

So I am going to accept, “you are a dreamer,” as a form of praise, regardless of the context in which it was given. I am going to wear it as a badge and never again see it as a disadvantage. Dreamers do not get in the way of getting shit done. This dreamer has written three novels. This dreamer makes beautiful mosaics. This dreamer will always be looking for ways to bring more beauty to the world.

And if you can’t see that, then I guess you have no imagination.

Maneuvering around disappointment

I’m not talking about little disappointments here, like Starbucks just sold the last lemon cake right out from under you or you killed yourself at the gym and the scale doesn’t reflect that. I mean the big ones, like you didn’t get the job you were going for or your best friend is moving across the country. How does one maneuver around a boulder that has been plopped down in the road? There are a few things I find that help that aren’t totally self-destructive.

(Note I am reminding myself of these because I just recently had a big disappointment that I am trying to get over and need some motivation. I hope it helps you too.)

  1. Allow yourself a “fuck it all” attitude for a few days. This is perfectly reasonable when you’ve had a big disappointment. Wallow in it, swim, until your fingers get all pruney, but for the love of God, don’t unpack there and set up house. You do have to regroup and move on, but allow yourself a few days indulgence to be immature.
  2. Do something nice for yourself. For me it’s getting a manicure or allowing extra time on the couch to read something and ignoring the laundry. Again, find something that is indulgent without being destructive, like not eating that gallon of ice cream and watching a guilty pleasure movie instead. For me, that would be something like Clueless or The Craft. Although I think a little ice cream is okay too. Especially mocha java chip, if you’re offering.
  3. Exercise. Okay, you can tell me to get bent on this one if you want, I understand. But when you’re frustrated, there is something very cathartic about wearing yourself out at the gym. I put some crunching rock on my playlist and give it everything I’ve got. This, by the way, also helps you sleep at night instead of lying there in bed and going over what you could have done to prevent the disappointment from happening. (Ask me how I know.)

And through it all, tell yourself to keep going. Giving up is an option, of course, but it isn’t a very fulfilling one. Getting used to disappointment just leaves you settling for less, and that’s never a good place to be. Doing the nice things for yourself helps you turn around your attitude and get you back on track. Because that is the ultimate goal after all. There are shitty parts to life. The trick is to deal with them in a constructive way to get back to where you need to be.

But (a little) ice cream doesn’t hurt.

What Is Your Word?

I had a text conversation with my friend Tammy last week. She asked me out of the blue the following question: If you could choose one word to set your intention for 2017 what would it be?

I had to think only a moment before I answered her: TENACITY. As in never, ever, ever give up. Never give up on what, you may ask? My writing most definitely, but it applies to all areas of my life – my career as a librarian, my marriage, my family, my friends, my spirituality, my creative endeavors in general. Writing a book and getting an agent has really taught me this lesson well and I can see it working in different ways that are surprising and wonderful to behold.

I thought it was a random thing to ask, but a very good question. Imagine my surprise when a week later I received a package in the mail containing this:

2017-02-05-09-03-50The bracelet comes from myintent.org. You can customize your bracelet to say any word that means something to you. It’s a really cool idea because every time I look at it I remember my determination to do the things I am passionate about. It also reminds me what an awesome person Tammy is.

Third Street Farmers Market

Every Saturday morning we do not have to work my husband and I get up around seven and head out to the farmers market in downtown Naples.  It’s a bit hoity-toity, catering to the millionaires and billionaires that live in my town. (As you can see in the picture above they have a bicycle valet, for crying out loud.) Lots of certified organic, artisinal goods, and specialty foods pack the two blocks of Third Street South. We have a very specific ritual and I want to tell you about it.

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Irene and her crepe irons.

The first order of the day is to get breakfast. There is a lovely lady named Irene who makes crepes. She is from Brittany, is a tiny little thing, and is fiercely proud of her homeland. She often talks of the Côte de Granit Rose (pink granite coast) while she creates her heavenly crepes complet. She starts with a homemade buckwheat crepe and puts it on the iron and cracks an egg onto it and then adds butter and mixes it up. She then adds cheese, a slice of ham, and folds it together to cook, adding a touch more butter. Irene brings a small bit of France to us each time we visit. I always say goodbye with a “bonne journée.”

Andrew Daane of Black Tulip coffee.

Andrew Daane of Black Tulip coffee.

TAKE MY MONEY.

TAKE MY MONEY.

While we let our piping hot crepes cool we go to get coffee. We stop at Black Tulip to get a cup of fresh roasted gourmet coffee. It’s a bit pricey, but I swear to you it is the best coffee I have ever tasted. Smooth, chocolately, and hardly needs sugar. The couple who own it, Andrew and Cullen Daane, are so friendly. They always ask how you are, how was your week and then hand you a cup of perfection that was brewed right in front of you. Andrew is looking to find a brick and mortar store front and God help me if he does. I’ll be there every day saying, “Take my money!”

Kosta ready for breakfast.

Kosta ready for breakfast.

 

After we have crepe and coffee in hand we go to sit at a table and eat. Third Street South is packed with restaurants, most with outdoor seating. (This is Southwest Florida, after all.) We usually commandeer a table at Sea Salt and watch the crowds go by. This time of year it is particularly interesting. There are so many people from snowbirds to tourists, locals with their dogs, and families with their kids. Sometimes I see confused people who are pushing their dogs in strollers. Seriously, what is that?

There is also this one dude who has three cockatoos. We always see him wearing the same dirty red Hawaiian shirt and straw hat, three birds on his shoulders walking the two blocks up and down, up and down while people stare and take pictures. I wouldn’t mind him at all if his birds didn’t screech so damn loud. But they do. It almost sounds like a child screaming and it is unnerving while trying to consume a delicious hot crepe and kickass coffee.

The bird dude with his screaming cockatoos.

The bird dude with his screaming cockatoos.

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Tara of Ideas in Bloom

After the crepe is eaten and the coffee is drunk, and we have had our fill people watching we stroll over to see our friends Ingrid and Tara. They own Ideas in Bloom, a flower and plant stall that sells gorgeous fresh cut flowers, potted plants, and fragrant herbs. We adore them.

Floral offerings from Ideas in Bloom

Floral offerings from Ideas in Bloom

Finally, if we have plans for supper and need veggies, we buy them. This weekend  we picked up some avocados and limes to make guacamole and margaritas. We plan to grill out Sunday afternoon and will need sustenance while our chicken cooks.

Buying veggies.

Buying veggies.

It’s a lovely little ritual we look forward to eagerly every week. Woe to us the Saturdays we work when we know it is all going on without us. But absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it makes getting out of bed at seven on a Saturday all the more worthwhile.

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My Kosta

Konstantine-George  Athanasios Karras

Konstantine-George Athanasios Karras

 

Twelve years ago this morning I met the guy above. It was my first day of work at the Naples Branch Library and my supervisor David introduced me to Kosta right by the CD racks. I still remember he wore a red-checked shirt and was very nice and funny.

Did I think immediately I was going to end up married to him? Good heavens, no.

But after about six months of working together we discovered we had things in common: we had both studied archaeology, we both loved to write, we both loved history and art and travel. When he suggested we go out for a beer to talk about writing some more I agreed. We went to McCabe’s and had a beer and talked and talked and talked. We were friends.

After that we went out once a week as friends. We laughed and drank beer and ate burgers and had a great time. We did this for about six months before I was brave enough to take things to the next level. So on January 6, 2006 I invited him over to my place for a home-cooked meal. I made spaghetti and garlic bread and he brought the wine. We watched The Thing from 1951 with James Arness as the monster. I don’t really remember anything about the movie at all because I was so nervous. When the credits rolled I leaned over and kissed him.

He didn’t run screaming, which I took as a good sign. It took him a while to figure out his mind though. At the time he was 49 years old and had pretty much decided he was going to be a permanent bachelor. He was concerned that there were eighteen years between us. But by President’s Day that year he had committed and we never looked back.

Now we write together. We talk about history and art. We travel as much as we can afford. We laugh every day. And yes, there are eighteen years between us but it doesn’t make one whit of difference. We are best friends and that is that.

The only thing I would change about my relationship with my husband would be that I had met him sooner.  I love you, honey. You’re the one for me.

Taking Stock

Checklist and a pencil

As 2016 draws to a close I think a lot of us take this time to reflect upon what we accomplished in the past year.  I know this was a tough year for a lot of folks, especially those of Generation X, who lost a lot of icons this year like David Bowie, Prince, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. We knew Bowie was battling cancer so it wasn’t a true shock when he passed, but the other three? Oy. Having grown up in the Minneapolis area, Prince was especially a knife to the heart. I think of all the amazing things he never got to accomplish because he died too soon.

And then of course was the election. I’m not one to talk about my political opinions in public, but I will say I have never seen such an ugly, divisive battle. It was truly heinous to watch. Although not having broadcast TV spared me from the political ads. I wish I could say I was hopeful but I have real concerns about the future of this country and the world.

However, I think it is wrong to say that 2016 was a dumpster fire of a year. On a personal level I had some really good things happen. I finished the first draft of my third novel. Now in 2017 I will begin the revision process and I hope to have something ready to go for my agent in the next few months.

I also had a revitalization at work. I’m not going to lie, I’ve been a Reference Librarian for nearly fourteen years and working with the public has begun to wear me out. But I found a new project on which to work that has me extremely excited. I’m pitching the idea to my director a week from today. If I have her blessing I’ll share more about it then.

I took an amazing trip this summer with my husband. We saw Austria, Germany, and France, spent time with great friends, and drank lots of good beer. We nearly killed ourselves on the 700 steps inside an ice cave, visited the crypt at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, saw Mozart’s birthplace, took the Nightwatchman’s tour in Rothenberg, drank schnapps, saw the graves of Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine, toured Brittany, and climbed to the top of the world at Mont St. Michel.

Some not so great things happened as well. My Dad had triple bypass surgery while we were on vacation. Thankfully Pop has made a full recovery and is doing very well. Mom is still struggling with her health and there isn’t much hope for improvement. Adjustment has been hard for all of us but especially for her. She gets frustrated because she can’t do everything she used to. I can’t blame her, I would go mad.

And of course the biggest hurt this year was that my book didn’t sell. But I am hopeful and excited about my new novel. Think of it as a mashup between Pride and Prejudice and X Men. I’ve had a ridiculous amount of fun writing it and I am looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and digging into revisions. I’m going to start tonight with reading the book through in its entirety and make notes as to what needs attention. Then my husband and I will go through, chapter by chapter and fix things. It’s going to be a long process, but ultimately so rewarding. I’m anxious to get back in the game.

I could never blame a year for being bad. The way I see it, I had another trip around the sun and got to do some amazing things. I look forward to the next year with optimism and hope you do too. No matter our opinion of the state of the world we all need to move forward and make the best of our situations however we can. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating 2017. It’s going to be a great year.

It’s Wednesday, it must be the beach.

unnamedMy husband and I have one car. This usually isn’t an issue since we work at the same place and have almost the same schedule. But on Wednesdays I work 10-7 and he works 8-5. Since our library is six blocks from the beach, I have started a tradition of beach and coffee on those mornings.

I drop him off at the library at 8 and then drive to a secret place where the beach is relatively uncrowded. I dress in shorts and a t-shirt and take my towel. Then I walk down the beach a little ways, kick off my shoes and go wade in the water for a few minutes. Then I return to my towel and meditate.

Mediation is something I have been working on for a while. It is the most simple thing in the world, and yet one of the hardest things to achieve. You don’t need anything to do it, just a quiet place and some uninterrupted time. I love the beach because it is naturally conducive to meditating. The waves are soothing, the sand is cool under my feet, and the breeze is usually refreshing.

Anyone who has ever meditated before knows that it is an ongoing practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Which is true to a point. I’ve been meditating pretty regularly for about a year now, and while I see an progress I know I still have an ocean’s breadth of improvement I could make.

Some days it is so sublime. I will sit, drop out of my head and sit in empty presence while the waves lull me into a state of peace. And some days (most days) it is a constant struggle with my head to get it to shut the hell up. I’ve always been an over thinker, a “monkey mind” and getting the brain train to slow down is sometimes nearly impossible.

But I show up every week and I try again. And I always feel better, calmer, more peaceful after I have meditated, whether I felt it was successful or not.

After meditating I pick up my towel and drive to The Brick, a coffee shop on the swanky Fifth Avenue of Naples, Florida. I get coffee, set up my computer, and write for an hour before I have to be at work.

Usually it is a good place to work. I can tune out most people chatting around me, but I can’t tune out TV. They do have two TVs in The Brick, but they are tuned to news stations and muted. Except for last Wednesday. Someone had put one TV on low volume but had it turned to the local Fox station. Did you know Jerry Springer is still on TV? Still doing the same damn shtick that got him started nearly thirty years ago? Well he is and I found it very hard to focus with all the screaming and fist fights.

Other than this last week’s anomaly I find it very easy to slip into my story and write. I usually find it hard to stop and pack up at the end of the hour. But I do, and its off to work I go. I love Wednesday mornings because they bring me peace and joy. It is “me time” and I savor each minute.