Guest Post: A Room of My Own by Meg Waite Clayton

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Please welcome Meg Waite Clayton, author of the national bestseller The Wednesday Sisters,  to Books on the Brain!  In this essay she writes about her workspace and the special things she keeps there to inspire her.  

Virginia Woolf famously said in “A Room of One’s Own” that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” My room is a bedroom which has in place of the requisite bed and dresser: a desk, a couch, two small round tables suitable for setting manuscripts on, and lots of books.

imageDBI occasionally think I should replace my bookshelves—a walnut bookcase and a china cabinet, both originally my mother-in-law’s—with more practical floor-to-ceiling built-ins that would hold the books now overflowing my shelves. But it’s hard to imagine parting with the history and beauty they bring to my space, so my books spill over to my closet and, I admit it, my floor, my desk, even my couch. I turn to them sometimes when I’m writing. (Whenever I write a party scene, I pull out The Great Gatsby to remind me how it’s done.) But for the most part, I keep books near to inspire me. One glance at the Austens and Eliots, McDermotts and McEwans, among others—many signed by the author—reminds me what I’m shooting for.

The center of my room of my own is my desk. It’s a holdover from my days as a lawyer, when I could afford to buy swanky hand-crafted reproduction Queen Anne. I fell in love with it at first sight, and even when I was still marking up corporate contracts in my lawyering days, I imagined I might someday work up the courage to pursue my childhood dream of writing a novel here on its lovely cherry-wood surface.

webarmadillo-150x98I’m a superstitious old soul, and so I keep on my desktop a number of talismans to bring good juju to my writing: a psychedelic armadillo my sons gave me in celebration of my first publication credit (an essay in Runner’s World, and your guess is as good as mine what a psychedelic armadillo has to do with that!); a Japanese doll my Uncle brought me from one of his many adventures, which wears a string of pearls given me by the Vice-Mayor of Wuxi, China during one of mine; a card, the cover of which is a lovely photo by my friend Adreinne Defendi; a “Follow Your Dream” candle made for me by my friend Mark Holmes; a cheesy “You will always be my Best Friend. You know too much” plaque my best friend, Jennifer DuChene, sent me; a pen holder given to me many, many years ago by the best storyteller in my family, my Uncle Jim—which now holds a pencil (for practical and symbolic reasons) and has taped to it a fortune cookie message: “The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do”; my favorite honeymoon photo of Mac and me, now 21 years old; one of my children at 5 and 3, taken 14 years ago; and a digital frame that rotates a myriad of family and friends; and the medal from the one marathon I’ve run (also years old).

webbrendaangel-107x150Like my books, my talismans spill over. Elsewhere in my office are the dried rose petals from the bouquet my parents sent me when I sold my first novel; a collection of champagne corks each marked with a date and event that was cause for celebration; a bullet shell from my turn at a machine gun near some war tunnels in Vietnam, where I was traveling when The Wednesday Sisters sold to Ballantine Books; a writing angel send by my dear friend and fellow novelist, Brenda Rickman Vantrease, to watch over me. Why these particular things? The marathon medal reminds me that if I can run 26.2miles, I can do anything. But I think the other talismans simply make me feel loved, and that love frees me to be myself, to trust myself as I write.

marathonmedalforweb-150x145The desktop photo above is repeated on my website, on my Writers’ page. There, you can scroll over my talismans—as well as marked up manuscript pages, outlines, my journal and the “research bible” I put together for The Wednesday Sisters—for a glimpse at how I write. Some of the items listed above are pictured, but others have been added since I took the photo: my talismans multiply almost as fast as my books do. The roses? I have a wonderful husband, who gently nudged me toward my dream years ago by telling me he believed I could do what I feared I could not.

To be honest, my desktop rarely looks as neat as it does in this photo. It’s usually covered with post-it notes to remind me of things I want to do or revisions I mean to make. Dirty coffee cups, yes, and chocolate wrappers, newspaper clippings, and books. But that’s one of the nicest things about having a room of my own: I can close my door. It allows me what Woolf writes so eloquently of in her essay: room—psychological room—to live in whatever place I choose, free to imagine my own, unlimited world.

megMeg Waite Clayton’s bestselling novel, The Wednesday Sisters, has been selected by major book club programs including the Target Stores Bookmarked program, and the Borders Book Club program. Her first novel, The Language of Light, was a Bellwether Prize finalist, and her third, The Ms Bradwells, is forthcoming from Ballantine Books. Her short stories and essays have been read on public radio and have appeared in commercial and literary magazines including Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and theLiterary Review. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Michigan Law School, and lives with her family in Palo Alto, California.

From Books to Babies: How I Stumbled Upon the Biggest Decision of my Life

local-newsPlease welcome Miriam Gershow, author of The Local News, who has written this guest post as part of a TLC Book Tour!  Check back tomorrow for my review of this excellent debut novel!

For years, whenever anyone asked my mother when I planned to have children, she quoted a line I once told her: “Miriam needs to give birth to a book before she’ll give birth to a child.”  It was one of those lines I had said so off-handedly and so long ago, I barely even remembered it.  But my mother held onto it.  I think it reassured her as she waited through my twenties and then my early thirties, as she watched me get married at 35, as my husband and I bought a house and got a cat, and did all the things newly married couples were supposed to do.   

Well, almost all the things. 

My mother, like any good Jewish mother, awaited word of a coming grandchild, or, short of that, at least some a hint of interest from our end.  But at a time when the ticking of my biological clock should have been a base drum booming in my ears, it was barely even a tick. 

Because that line I had so casually tossed to my mother years before was true.  All my life, I have wanted to be a writer.  I dabbled in it through my twenties–writing bad stories and worse novels, joining writing groups, sharing my work with anyone willing to look at it.  At thirty, I returned to school for an MFA in fiction.  After graduating, I committed to writing as my honest-to-goodness job.  During the day, I took an adjunct instructor position at a university.  Whenever I wasn’t teaching, I wrote.  And wrote and wrote.  I began the arduous, one-step-forward-two-steps-back process of forging a fiction career.  I won a prestigious writing fellowship.  I was paralyzed by writer’s block for most of that fellowship.  I got a handful of stories published in literary journals.  I got dozens and dozens more stories rejected. I finished a short story collection.  I found an enthusiastic agent, who tried to sell that collection.  The collection never sold. 

miriam_gershow_portraitThrough this all, I could not conceive of conceiving a child.  Trying to get my writing published was already a full time job on top of a full time job.  I couldn’t fathom a third job–and one as life-altering and paradigm-changing as becoming a parent.  

And then a funny thing happened:  I wrote a novel and I sold that novel.  After fifteen years of trying, I had done it.  I had finally birthed a book. 

So now what?  

At first, nothing changed.  If anything, I was more consumed in my writing then ever. I was working with an editor and on-deadline for the first time.  My life was all about the panic, pressure and excitement of revisions.  There was no aching in my loins.  There was no longing for a child in my arms.  

But then an even funnier thing happened.  I finished the revisions, took a few months off, and began work on my next novel.  As I sat in front of my computer, I found I was a little bored.  A little restless.  This never happened with my writing.  My writing was always what centered me, what kept me sane and balanced and happy.  For the first time ever, I had the feeling of having already done this, of retracing my own steps.  I was not excited.  And it hit me, distinctly and undeniably: 

I’m ready to try something different.  I’m ready for whatever comes next. 

Without particular fanfare or panic or even those aching loins I’d been waiting for, I realized I was ready to have a baby.  I was ready to alter my life and change my paradigm.  The idea actually excited me.  Suddenly, I just knew.  If my writing career had been a long, slow process, with me concertedly hammering out each step of the path before me, then the decision to have a child was far more instinctual, percolating quietly beneath the surface until bursting through one day, clear and resolute. 

I am now two months away from my due date.  My novel came out four months ago. I’m still at work on the next novel and no longer bored by it.  Pregnancy has proven to be a creative wellspring; I’m bursting with ideas.  I know my life as a writer is about to change in ways I cannot even fathom.  I know everything is about to change radically and irrevocably.  For many years, the idea of such a change filled me with–at best–apathy, and–at worst–all-out dread. Now, though, I embrace it.  Surely, I’m about to stumble into the most rigorous juggling act of my life, but, to my own amazement, I’m up for it. 

My mother already has her plane ticket booked.  She arrives three weeks after the baby’s due date.  Briefly, my husband and I toyed with the idea of telling relatives to wait a few months before visiting, so we could have a long stretch of time alone with our baby.  But then we changed our minds; my mother, we figured, had waited long enough.

Blogger Bio:  Miriam Gershow is a novelist, short story writer and teacher. Her debut novel, The Local News, was published in February 2009. It has been called “deftly heartbreaking” with “urgency and heft” by The New York Times, as well as “an accomplished debut” (Publisher’s Weekly) with a “disarmingly unsentimental narrative voice,” (Kirkus Reviews).

A QUESTION for all you moms out there:  Did you have an ‘aha’ moment when you knew you were ready for parenthood?

Review: Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett

imageDB-2.cgiTruth & Beauty by Ann Patchett is the story of the author’s friendship with troubled fellow author and poet, the late Lucy Grealy.  

I read Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face last year and developed very strong, protective feelings for this brilliant girl/woman who was permanently disfigured by Ewing Sarcoma and the resultant treatment and surgeries.  When I heard that Bel Canto author Patchett had written about their friendship, I couldn’t wait to read more about Lucy, but then I quickly changed my mind when I discovered Lucy’s family’s reaction to the book.

The idea of the book lingered in the back of my mind, however, but because I didn’t want to betray Lucy, I refused to buy it.  Then it seemed like I was just being stubborn about it. Finally, on a trip to the bookstore, I happened to see it on a table and, wanting to be close to Lucy again, I took it home.  Part of me is glad I read it but another part wishes I’d left it alone.  The book made me appreciate Ann Patchett’s writing more (I wasn’t a fan) but it made me think less of Lucy.

Ann and Lucy attended Sarah Lawrence college at the same time but were not friends.  Ann knew who Lucy was (everyone did) but Lucy was only vaguely aware of Ann.  Then they were both accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, where they were roommates and where their love for each other emerged and grew.

patchettgrealey‘Do you love me?  Do you love me best?  Am I your favorite?  Do you think I’m pretty?  Do you think I’m talented?  Will I ever have sex again?’  Lucy plagues Ann with these questions on a continuous basis over two decades.  Who would want to be friends with this clingy, needy, self absorbed woman?  I couldn’t find the Lucy I knew anywhere, the strong, brave, dazzling presence of Autobiography of a Face.  

Lucy had a brutal battle with the aftereffects of cancer.   Her disfigured jaw made speech difficult and swallowing nearly impossible.  She had 6 teeth in her mouth because she didn’t have a stable jaw to hold dental implants.  Her diet consisted of very soft foods and alcohol.  She loved to drink and party and socialize, but basic things like eating and talking were a constant struggle.  Her love life was complicated by her lack of self esteem and her distorted self image.  Her ever-increasing pile of medical bills seemed insurmountable, so she just didn’t open them.  Disorganized and irresponsible, she missed deadlines and frittered away writing workshops.  Chaos ruled.

Ann, the long suffering friend, the ant to Lucy’s grasshopper in that old fable, went to great financial, physical, and emotional lengths for Lucy, but it was hard to understand why.  The relationship seemed extremely one-sided, almost a parent/child dynamic, but with a peer.  What was Ann getting out of it?  Lucy would sit in Ann’s lap, demand her attention when Ann was speaking to others, whisper to her during dinners out, pout if Ann got too successful or earned a writing fellowship or received an award.  Then later there were lies and drug abuse to contend with, and while Ann occasionally lost patience with Lucy, she stuck by her to the end.  Why would anyone put up with Lucy’s crap, unless they had some kind of savior complex? 

But this book.  What does it say about Ann?  About Lucy?  I can’t shake the feeling that in writing this book, Ann wanted to get back at Lucy for the shabby way she treated her by baring her secrets to the world.  Is this admirable? Is this the way a true friend would behave?

And Lucy.  Can anyone be this one dimensional, this needy and self involved, and still have so many friends?  She was an absolute magnet for others and had dozens and dozens of friends, yet in this book I can’t see any redeeming qualities in her at all.

There is no doubt in my mind that Ann Patchett loved Lucy Grealy but I question her motivation for writing this book.  It feels like a payback of sorts.  It is not really a biography, an autobiography, or a memoir, because it doesn’t tell the story of either of their lives, only the shared bits, and only from one vantage point, so I’m not sure what to call it.  

If you’re going to read this book, read Autobiography of a Face as well.  At least you get a more fully realized image of Lucy Grealy that way.  If I had read Truth & Beauty first, I wouldn’t have wanted to read any more about Lucy, ever.  I’d recommend the two books together but I wouldn’t recommend reading this one on it’s own. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair or accurate by itself.  If you’re interested in either writer, I’d recommend it, although I’m not sure it has much worthwhile to say about friendship in general.  It is well written and I can appreciate Ann Patchett’s talent, but it’s hard to know what is true, and there’s not a lot here I’d call beautiful.

Guest Post: A Little Theory of Mine by Marisa de los Santos

Marisa sitting oneThe lovely Marisa de los Santos, author of the New York Times Bestseller Love Walked In and Belong to Me (review and giveaway HERE), is guest posting today about balancing work and family.  Thanks, Marisa, for this wonderful essay!

A Little Theory of Mine by Marisa de los Santos

I get the question a lot, usually from women and often during book group meetings:  “How do you balance writing and family?”         

The easy answer is that I write my books while my children are at school.  Technically, this is true.  Any writing I do happens somewhere between drop-off and pick-up.  Weekends and evenings, I get a little time at my desk, but mostly these parts of the week are given over to homework, ballet classes, piano lessons, swim practices, meets and games, family dancing in the living room, family singing in the car, family bike-rides, movie-watching of the G/PG variety, and general hanging out.  When the kids go to sleep at a reasonable hour, which doesn’t consistently happen, weeknights belong to my husband and, sometimes, a glass of wine.  Saturday nights are ours, too.  So I balance work and family by writing my books Monday through Friday, while the kids are at school. 

imagesBut this answer is really too easy.  In fact, I stopped giving it for the same reason that I am deeply attached to it:  it makes my life sound tidy, when my life is anything but tidy.  Plus, I didn’t usually get away with it.  Most of the time, before the answer was completely out of my mouth, people jumped in with:  What about groceries?  What about laundry?  What about reading and exercise and volunteer work and meetings and friendships and email and shopping and dealing with the plumber?

While I have some help with some of these tasks and obligations, both from my husband, a true partner, fellow writer, and prince among men, and from a highly capable and much-loved young woman who helps with the kids a handful of hours a week and does errands for me on Thursday afternoons, I end up attending to many of them myself, usually during the hours between drop-off and pick-up.  When I explain all of this to people, I’m sure they wonder how my books get written at all.  I wonder myself.

lovewalkedpaperbackBut the truth is that I do all of the things I do not only because I have to, but because I want to.  I want to sit in the choking heat of the indoor pool or in the lobby of the ballet school and watch my kids do what they love.  I am co-president of Home and School (our school’s version of PTA) because I want to be part of the place where my kids spend so much of their time.  I want to be the one who thumps the melons and picks the piece of salmon my family will eat.  I need exercise, friendships, and family dancing to keep me sane.  Still, sometimes I resent how little time I have to write.  On bad writing days, I beat myself up over the squandered hours.  I envy the lives I imagine other writers are leading.  I long for the peace and time and big trees of writers’ colonies, despite the fact that I have never been to one and, in my heart, don’t really want to go. 

Over time, I have developed a theory.  If people hear it and dismiss it as rationalization, well, I don’t blame them.  It probably started out as rationalization, my putting a positive spin on my frenetic days and limited writing time.  But no matter why I came up with the theory, I’ve come to believe in it.  Not just believe in it.  I’ve come to see that it’s more than just a theory.  It’s big and holistic, ill-defined and not terribly original, but I recognize it as one of the deep truths of my life.

It goes something like this:  everything feeds everything else.  Writing time and family time are false distinctions.  Sweating it out at swim practice, watching my son’s arms arc and arc and arc; choosing one tomato over another; helping set up for the school book fair; listening to my daughter read an Ivy and Bean book aloud, her downward-cast eyes and chirping voice; watching Law and Order reruns with my husband; my obligations to the people I am honored to have in my life, the hours I spend with them:  all of these things make me–I almost wrote “a better writer,” but better than what?  Better than who?  All of these things make me a writer.  They impact directly the words I write in palpable and invisible ways.  Just as the hard-won hours I spend with language, story, and characters make me the friend, sister, daughter, wife, mother that I am.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Interview and Giveaway: Laura Fitzgerald, author of One True Theory of Love

images-1Recently I had the opportunity to interview one of my favorite authors, the wonderful Laura Fitzgerald.  Laura is the author of the bestselling book Veil of Roses, and a new novel, One True Theory of Love (reviewed here), which just came out in February.  Even though she is really busy promoting her book and going to book signings and festivals, she took the time to give me very thorough and thoughtful answers to my questions.  Please enjoy this interview, and leave a comment if you’d like a chance to win her new book!  

BOTB:  If you had to describe your new book in one sentence, what would that be?

Laura:  One True Theory of Love is a story about the redemptive power of second chances in life and love.

51svuaqeq5l_sl500_aa240_BOTB:  You mentioned your very own book club recently read and discussed One True Theory of Love.  What was that like for you? 

Laura:  It was incredibly fun, because it was such a celebration of a big goal achieved and these are great women with whom to celebrate. It was also a great discussion of the book’s themes of second chances and the changing nature of relationships. All in all, it was a fun night of much wine, great discussion, and laughter.

It was also a bit weird, because everyone was asking me about my husband’s forearms and are they as sexy as Ahmed’s in the book…That’s been the one big difference between Veil of Roses and One True Theory of Love. With the main character in Veil of Roses being from Iran, no one suspected there was anything of me in her. But with this second book, I’m being asked that question a lot: How much of Meg is you? And, of course, there’s a lot of me in both Tami and Meg, as there is a lot of me in every character I write. I’m all over my books, hiding in plain sight. 

n225748BOTB:  I’ve read on your website that the idea for the book came from a book club meeting you attended for your first book, Veil of Roses.  Can you tell us about that?

Laura:  Well, I was quite far along in my writing of this other story that just wasn’t working out – I couldn’t get the main character to be likable, and the story itself was so different from Veil of Roses in tone and temperament that I was coming to the sad conclusion that it wasn’t the right “next book” for me. This realization was confirmed as I met with three book clubs in Wisconsin in the course of a week. 

The clear message was they like the “make you laugh, make you cry” flavor of Veil of Roses. The book I’d been working on was a straight “make you cry” type of book. Also, in each book club, members were going through huge life changes, falling in or out of love, mourning the deaths of loved ones, and just in general fighting the good, hard fights that life presents us. And it just struck me how much courage it requires to build yourself back up after life has knocked you down. We like to believe our happy ending is out there, waiting for us – that no matter how bad things are, if we just try harder, or try AGAIN, good things will happen and we’ll be happy. That’s not always how it works – but this deliberate optimism is what helps us move forward. 

I hate to sound existential, but I believe the happiness can be found in the struggle. Life is richer for going after what you want when there’s no guarantee of a positive outcome. It just is. 

BOTB:  What has been the most exciting thing that has happened to you since becoming a best selling author?  How has it changed your life? 

Laura:  I can’t and won’t downplay how nice it is to forevermore get to be referred to as “national bestselling author,” but the life-changing part of it comes down to the fact that I had a hard-to-achieve goal and I achieved it – writing a novel good enough to be published at a time when no one cared whether I did it or not. I now get to spend my days doing what I love, in a way that is perfectly suited to my skills, wants and personality. I am figuring out how to tell great stories, and after years and years of work learning my craft, I am almost at a point where I feel I’m hitting my stride with my writing. It’s exciting for me personally to feel with some confidence that the next few books are going to be a culmination of a lot of work on the backend, and that the best is yet to be. 

To repeat: Life is richer for going after what you want when there’s no guarantee of a positive outcome. I feel like I’m walking on a tightrope and to stay on it requires every ounce of skill I have, plus some luck. It’s a position I love to be in. 

BOTB:  Do you write with a particular audience in mind, or do you just write what you like?  

Laura:  Pretty much all my stories center around women who have to summon the courage to do something that is hard for them to do in order to get their shot at happiness — it’s a proactive approach to life and ultimately very affirming. We save ourselves, and we find ourselves in the broken pieces. I firmly believe that. My audience is any woman who needs that message. 

BOTB:  What is the writing process like for you?  Do you treat it like a job- writing for a certain number of hours a day- or do you wait until inspiration strikes?  How do you manage to get anything done with two young kids at home? 

Laura:  Writing is my job, absolutely. I have an office that I go to Monday through Friday while my kids are at school. I’m at this phase in my life where I’d spend twice as much time on my writing if I could – seven days a week, probably, but I’m acutely aware that my kids won’t be this age forever. My top value at the moment is maintaining balance and it’s a constant struggle. So I leave my writing at the office and spend the rest of the time with my kids. And husband. And friends. (And on facebook.) 

BOTB:  Can you tell us about your workspace?  Do you have interesting things on the walls or on your desk to spark creativity?  

Laura:  I rent an office a few miles from my house, and it’s mine, baby – all mine. No phone, no internet connection, no husband, no kids. I don’t like clutter, so I keep my desk clear, with only a great view of the Catalina Mountains in front of me. I’ve got Ethan Allen furniture – desk, reading chair and bookshelves. I have three prints on my walls – two simple and artistic photographs, one of a book with its pages spread open and one of a cup of coffee shot from above (I love both coffee and books). I also have a print of Mark Twain with one of his quotes: I find it usually takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech. This has significance to me because I believe in doing a ton of work behind the scenes to make my writing come out smooth and easy. I’m a big planner and thinker and having my office – which I think of as my “pretty little prison cell” allows me the space and time to do both. And then to write, of course. 

BOTB:  You mentioned that you’re writing a sequel to Veil of Roses.  I’m so excited about that!  What will it be called, and when can we expect to see it in stores?  

Laura:  I’m working very hard to make this sequel even better than the first book. In addition to learning what happens after Tami and Ike’s wedding, I’m delving into the lives of two other characters from Veil of Roses – Tami’s mother, and Rose. 

As yet, it hasn’t been titled. I’m calling it GONE TO PICK FLOWERS, but that’ll likely change. It should be in stores by next summer (2010).

BOTB:  Laura, THANK YOU for your time and generosity!!  I loved your book and am so thrilled to be able to offer a copy of it to one lucky reader!

If you’d like a chance to win a copy of Laura’s new book, One True Theory of Love, leave a comment here by Tuesday, March 17th.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

A couple of weeks ago in a Sunday Salon post I listed some books I’d read but hadn’t reviewed, inviting readers to ask me questions about them (copying a Weekly Geeks idea).  This question came from Florinda (who is having an AWESOME 2nd chance CONTEST- Check it out HERE):

Florinda, on August 3rd, 2008 at 4:02 pm Said: 

Bird by Bird is one of my “permanent collection” books – LOVE it.

A couple of questions for you:

The subtitle of the book is “Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” What “instructions” do you think will be most helpful to you, in writing, life, or both?

What are your thoughts about Anne’s expressions of her Christianity? 

Anne Lamott is the teacher I wish I’d had, or the friend I wish I knew.  In reading Bird by Bird, you feel like you’re sitting in her class, or maybe chatting over coffee.  She’s able to give advice without coming across as preachy or better than you- just wise, loving, and experienced.  She acknowledges your fears and encourages you to keep going.  She’s enormously talented and generous with her words.  She’s inspiring, giving you the courage and motivation to just do it and keep on doing it (whatever “it” is- not just writing), all while making you laugh.   Here is what she says about writer’s block: 

“Writer’s block is going to happen to you.  You will read what little you’ve written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit. …  Or else you haven’t been able to write anything at all for a while.  The fear that you’ll never write again is going to hit you when you feel not only lost and unable to find a few little bread crumbs that would identify the path you were on but also when you’re at your lowest ebb of energy and faith.”  Pg. 177  

She goes on some more about writer’s block, the reasons for it and the feelings associated with it, before giving her advice:

 “The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do.  We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, to alleviate unpleasant feelings.  But if you accept the reality that you have been given-that you are not in a productive creative period- you free yourself to begin filling up again.  I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams of stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing- just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day.  Then on bad days and weeks, let things go at that.”  Pg. 178

Her advice is to approach writing (or a project of any kind) in a step by step (bird by bird) way, breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks, and trust in the process rather than focusing on the end result.  Her specific writing advice that I’m trying on is to write every day (300 words)- even on a bad day- even when you don’t feel like it, use simple language, write for the love of writing-not the end result, give your best stuff- don’t save it up for later, give everything you have, be interested-look around-pay attention and write about things that matter to you, give yourself the freedom to write anything that pops into your head- to try new things- to not self-edit while writing but to wait and remove things later as necessary.  In general, don’t take yourself too seriously.  It’s good advice.  

On Anne’s Christianity and her expression of it.. I don’t really feel I know enough about it to comment on it.  She seems to love and trust God through all of life’s unexpected turns, and for that I applaud her.  I haven’t read her other work in which she talks about her faith more extensively.  Her younger reckless years are documented at length in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (one of very few end-of-the-century works included on the Modern Library’s listof the 1900s best nonfiction) and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, but I haven’t read those yet.  

But back to Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  I received this book as a gift, and it’s a gift that will be giving back to me for years.  I would highly recommend this book to beginning writers, of course, but Lamott’s little life lessons and anecdotes would appeal to anyone.  I loved this book and plan to re-read it soon, as it’s almost like a warm hug from someone who cares. 

Review: The Heartbreak Diet by Thorina Rose

The Heartbreak Diet: A story of family, fidelity, and starting over by Thorina Rose is like a comic book for adults.  However, there are no action heroes here:  no laser beams or men in capes; just the brave heroine, Thorina, who puts the worst part of her life on display in an honest, heartbreaking, and hopeful manner.  

Thorina finds out her husband X does more with his running partner than run.  She handles the discovery of his adultery with such dignity and class, even going so far as to meet the other woman, Vivienne- who is younger with glowing skin, bigger breasts, and an unencumbered lifestyle.  Thorina’s husband, a cruel selfish bastard, wants to try a polyamorous relationship (yuck) and they go through gutwrenching counseling sessions, but ultimately, he leaves Thorina and their two young sons (who later tell her, “Vivienne’s really nice!  It’s kind of like having another mom!” OUCH).  Thorina’s friends prop her up and keep her sane, and she eventually comes to terms with the end of her marriage.  

Ok, so the story isn’t very original, but the execution of it certainly is.  I really liked Thorina.  I laughed through her revenge fantasies and was completely charmed by the frankness of the writing and the freshness of the illustrations.  The Heartbreak Diet is a quick read. I read it in under an hour.  It was my first foray into the world of graphic novels, and I enjoyed it immensely.  This book would make a great gift for anyone who is on their own Heartbreak Diet, forgetting to eat lunch due to major distractions in their lives.  I would highly recommend it.

Blog Stop Book Tour featuring Susan Woodring

This is my first time hosting an author on a blog tour (thank you, Mary Lewis from Blog Stop Book Tours, for arranging this!), and I’m so excited to welcome Susan Woodring, author of the brilliant short story collection, Springtime on Mars (reviewed HERE). I mentioned to Susan that Books on the Brain focuses on book clubs, and she suggested she write about why a short story collection is a great choice for a book club. Here’s what she came up with!

Coming into This Planet Again and Again: The Case for Short Story Collections
By Susan Woodring

“A story collection?” The woman, drifting amid a crowd of authors and book fair browsers, gives me a look of uncertainty: wrinkled brow, a moment’s hesitation. I touch the cover of my book, channeling words of comfort to it like a mother speaking to a distressed child. It is my child, my baby, caught now under the glare of this stranger’s scrutiny. Then, brightening, the woman says, “Say, don’t you also have a novel?”

As a novelist-turned-short-story-writer, I face this kind of thing all the time. Most people prefer non-fiction, but if they are going to read fiction, let it be a novel. They want to get cozy with a group of characters, live with those characters for a bit, follow them across a stretch of narrative time, all the while hoping for some happiness—or at least resolution—at the end. They want reading fiction to be a full-blown relationship, not a date; a home, not a glitzy hotel. They want to settle in, hunker down, and read.

I don’t blame them. I love novels. There’s nothing like moving into a fictitious world, getting to know its inhabitants, making friends, staying for dinner. Even better: I love it when a novel is so good, I come to the end with reluctance; I want it to go on and on. I completely understand the attraction. Yet, there are days when a girl needs a night out on the town. She needs a romp, no strings attached. To be dazzled, drawn close, given a glimpse of the funny, the ironic, the poignant, the wild. A girl needs a short story.

I wonder why fiction-readers often shy away from short story collections. You would think, with how limited everyone’s time is these days, a person would be thrilled to depart on a literary adventure that she or he can begin and complete in thirty minutes’ time. If coming to the end of a novel is satisfying, then wouldn’t a short story collection—with ten or more endings—be even more satisfying? Why wouldn’t a reader who finds joy and companionship with a few characters over the course of three hundred pages be all the richer for a series of quick but intimate encounters with dozens of characters?

The short-story form, I suppose, has a reputation for being hyper-literary. There are a fair number of scholarly journals out there publishing rather dry, pointedly confusing and—dare I say it?—boring stories. It is true that the short story is the purest, most artful form of fiction. While some writers do blatantly misuse the form, only wanting to show how smart they are—how elite—most short story writers simply love the art of short fiction. Short stories are, at their best, quirky, humorous, searching, true, and smart. The short story is able to crystallize a single, breath-catching moment in a character’s life—a moment that will, for that character, change everything. You can liken a well-written short story to a brilliant gem held under a light, the writer turning it just so until it glints brilliantly for a breath-taking instant. These extraordinary glimmers of truth, depth, and nuance flash again and again in a good collection.

I think a short story collection is the perfect choice for book clubs. For starters, there’s the obvious advantage of each story’s being self-contained. If you’re not smitten with a story in the first few pages, if it’s about dogs and you loathe dogs or if something about the narrative voice or the central character irritates you, fine. Move on to the next. The beauty of a short story collection is its variety; you’re almost guaranteed to find something you’ll like. Even the most eclectic mix of individuals can find something to love in a book of stories. More: a collection of short stories written by the same author is the best of both worlds. Sure, there’s the variety, but there’s also a common thread running through the stories. A collection of stories contains recurrent themes, situations, and life-questions. Each story offers a new way of seeing a common theme or motif. This makes for a lively, insightful, and challenging book talk. Also, a short story collection can be as comforting as a novel since you’re in the hands of the same author throughout. The scenery might change, and the people are different, but it’s a familiar voice speaking the story to you; you can be assured this writer will guide you through this story just as skillfully and as faithfully as he or she guided you through the last.

I don’t know if I’m able to convince the doubting woman at the book fair or how much success I’ll find in my mission to turn the world into short-story readers. As a novelist and a short-story writer, though, I can say which is the hardest to write, which demands the most from me in terms of talent, restraint, and insight. When you write a novel, you reinvent the world. When you write a short story collection, you reinvent the world ten times over. Reading a short story collection, then, is as big, as triumphant, as satisfying as coming into this planet again and again, each time seeing something new.

Susan’s Bio (from her website): Susan Yergler Woodring, an award-winning short story writer and novelist, grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. She also lived in California, Alabama, Illinois, and Indiana as a child. Upon graduating from Western Carolina University, she spent a year teaching in Vologda, Russia before moving to the foothills of North Carolina to teach middle school. Susan is a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte. She is the author of one novel, The Traveling Disease. Her short fiction has earned many honors, including the 2006 Elizabeth Simpson Smith Short Fiction Award and the 2006 Isotope Editor’s Prize. Her work has appeared in Quick Fiction, Yemassee, Ballyhoo Stories, Slower Traffic Keep Right, The William and Mary Review, Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing, Passages North, turnrow, and Surreal South (Press 53). Susan currently lives, writes, and home-schools her two children in Drexel, North Carolina.

Susan Woodring’s website can be found HERE

Susan has agreed to give away a copy of her book to one lucky winner. Leave a comment HERE by midnight PST, Friday, June 6th. Thank you, Susan! Wishing you all the best of luck with your short story collection, Springtime on Mars!

The Calliope Experiment #3: The Beach

This is for the fiction writing challenge called The Calliope Experiment.

Shivering as she made her way across the rocks, she wondered why she hadn’t thought to bring a sweater.  It always irritated her when Jack reminded her of things like that, but apparently she needed the reminding. 

She came to a place that required her to set the box down so that she could boost herself up and onto a large boulder.  The rock, smooth and flat, was table-like, and standing on it afforded her a clear view of the coast all the way north to Rocky Point and then south to the old lighthouse.  She could see someone near the water’s edge but from this distance couldn’t make out if it was a man or a woman.  She had hoped to be alone out here, so she sat down next to the box, thinking she would wait until the person moved on. 

Carefully lifting it to her lap, she thought again how surprisingly heavy the box was.  She hadn’t expected ashes to weigh so much, but of course there were bones in there too.  Jack had said it was silly to cremate a dog, but Bear wasn’t just any dog.  Bear was her friend, her companion, her confidante.  Bear was her substitute child.  When people asked if they had kids, her reply was always, “No, but I have Bear.” 

And now he was gone, and there was still no baby.  The months of tests and shots and sex on demand; all the hoping and waiting had taken their toll on her psyche.  Waiting-waiting for nothing as it turns out.  The crazy mood swings and everything else might have been more tolerable if the end result had been a baby. She felt so tired, so empty, so alone.  And now her pseudo-baby, Bear, was gone too. 

The person was moving down the beach slowly in her direction.  She could see now that it was a man.  He was tall, like Jack, and had a fishing hat on.  He was wearing a green sweater and jeans, rolled at the cuffs.   His gaze was focused on the ground and he bent down now and then to pick something up, presumably a shell or a rock, and put it in a bag.  “Move on, old man” she thought, ungraciously, but he was clearly in no hurry. 

She smiled, then, as she thought about how much Bear had loved the beach as a pup and a young dog.   How he’d pull on the leash and his entire body would wiggle with excitement as they approached the water.  How he’d race into the waves the second he was released.  He was definitely a water dog- a big chocolate lab.  It had been a couple years since they’d brought him down here.  His arthritis had gotten so bad that it was hard for him to walk over the rocks, and he’d tire himself out so much that he could barely make it back.  He was too big for them to carry.  Still, she wished she’d brought him back for one final visit, but they’d had a windy, cold spring and the time had never been right.  

She’d come down here without much of a plan, and it was freezing.  She thought she’d scatter his ashes over the surf, but now she could see how ridiculous that idea had been.  The wind wouldn’t gently scatter the ashes, it would just blow them back in her face.  She thought of the futility of it, of everything.  Bear was gone, he wasn’t coming back, there was no baby, and probably never would be.  

She put down the box and brought her knees up to her chest, resting her head on them and finally allowing herself cry.  So she wasn’t made of stone after all, as everyone suspected.  At first it was just a couple of tears but before long it was huge gushing sobs, smeared mascara, snot and all.  For several minutes she gave in to the despair of losing her precious pet, and along with it, her dreams of motherhood.  She startled at the feeling of an arm around her, and looked up to see green eyes matching the green of his sweater.  Jack.  “What are you doing here?” she asked.  “I brought you a sweater,” he said. 

 

The Calliope Experiment #2: The Sleepless Night

Calliope’s Coffee House is a blog about books, writing and reviewing (she is a fellow reviewer at LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers group).  She recently started a writing challenge called The Calliope Experiment in which she posts a picture on Saturdays, then asks people to write 500 words about it and post it before the following Saturday (read about it HERE).  I am not a professional writer by any means, but this sounded like fun, so I’m giving it a try.  Here’s the picture and my story to go with it.  I’m calling it The Sleepless Night.  

2:48am.  Exactly 4 minutes since the last time I looked at the clock.  Exactly 3 hours and 12 minutes before the alarm is set to go off.  The storm rattled the windows and terrified the cat earlier (I’ve got a lovely scratch to prove it), but it is peaceful now, with the moon shining through the window and a little breeze stirring the lace curtains.  So where the hell is Joey?  I started calling his cell phone at midnight, since he said he’d be home by 11.  Call after call goes straight to voice mail.  I’ve asked him repeatedly to make sure his phone is on if he’s going to be out late.  Why does he insist on making me worry like this?  Even if he is practically a legal adult (8 more days), he knows I can’t get to sleep until I hear his key in the lock.  And God knows I need the rest.  

3:09am.  This just doesn’t feel right.  He’s not a perfect kid, but he’s a good kid, and it’s a school night.  He’s a high school senior, almost a man, but he’s still my baby, my firstborn.  At what point do I call the police?  Do I wait until morning?  Would they even do anything right now?  I can feel the panic rising inside.  Should I wake Ann?  Maybe he told her where he was going.   But she has to get up for school in a few hours too.  Where did he say he was going?  Or did he say?  I don’t think he did.  Who has he been hanging out with lately?  That Marcus kid’s been at the house a lot but I think he’s just sniffing around Ann.  There’s Jeff, but I haven’t seen him in months.  Sara- but they broke up, more or less.  I can’t think.  Who else?  

4:08am  I sit straight up in bed.  “Joey?” I call out.  “No, Ma, it’s just me.  I had to go to the bathroom.  Go back to sleep,” says Ann.  “Is your brother home?” I ask, trying to keep the edge out of my voice.  “I don’t know, his door’s shut,” she says sleepily.  “Honey, knock on his door,” I say.  “Ma..”  she whines, but does it anyway.  No answer.  I get up to look out the window.  His car is not in the driveway.  Shit.  Shit.  Shit.  My mind races from one scary possibility to the next.

4:27am  “Ann.”  “Ma, what??  I’m sleeping!”  “Your brother hasn’t come home.  Do you know where he went last night?”  “When does he ever tell me anything?”  

5:09am  I pace the floor.  It’s too early to start calling his friends.  Ann suggests I send text messages but she has to help me because I’ve never done that before.  She texts Marcus, Sara, Jeff, and a few others with the message, “Have u seen Joe?”  I try to check his email but I don’t know his password.  Ann checks his myspace page but comes up with nothing.  Coffee.  I need coffee.  Ann goes back to bed. 

5:48am  Headlights across the front window.  A car door slams.  Dear God, please let it be my Joey and not the police.  Please, please, please.  I fly to the front door and throw it open.  Oh, thank God, it’s him!  My baby, my boy.  “Where the HELL have you been?” I demand, as I shove him in the chest with both hands. “Ma, chill out.  I fell asleep at Sara’s watching tv.  I’m sorry,” he says, his eyes puffy and his clothes crumpled.  “Dammit, Joe, I was just about to call the police,” I say, and start to cry.  “Ma..” he says and puts his arms around me, his little mama.  He is a good 6 inches taller than I am.  Ann comes down the stairs and says, “Welcome home, jackass.”  

 

Do you like to write?  If so, try this fun weekly exercise and be sure to link back here so I can read what you’ve written!