Hi, Sharon here. One of my favorite things in all the world is hearing people’s stories. Maybe it’s why I consider myself a storyteller first and a writer second. The idea behind the Spoon River Anthology, the author going grave to grave and telling (making up) the stories of the townsfolk and their interrelationships sounds like my idea of a great week—though, apparently, Spoon River was a depressing place to live!
In any case, when I did briefly work as a bartender, the best part of the job, hands down, was hearing people’s stories. (Sound familiar?) From the beginning of time, we humans have loved hearing stories. Reading them is wonderful, and now watching them is a great pleasure. But hearing them can be a special treat. So I was thrilled when it was time to turn my latest books, The Bartender’s Guide to Murder, into audio books–and thrilled again when actor/director Abbie Pfaff was chosen to perform them. Listening to each of them, Death in Tranquility, Death By Gravity and Death Among the Stars, I am happy to report, they’re great!
Curious to find out what goes into recording an entire novel, I got Abbie to answer some pressing questions.
How did you decide to produce and narrate audio books?
A friend of mine in Chicago is a Talent Agent, she told me during the 2020 beginning of the pandemic that I would probably enjoy narrating since my background is in Directing and Film. She was absolutely spot-on.
What parts of your theater education came in most handy? Script analysis was crucial; piecing together every scrap you can find about a character and making them as round and squishy as possible. Directing instincts kick in when setting a scene, such as keeping track of the environment around the characters and how it affects them. And then, also bringing the scene that has just happened into the next by carrying the emotions or lack thereof.
What goes into the process that normal listeners might not realize? Staying up until 4 or 5am recording to avoid the neighbors’ lawnmowers being in the background [if you have your own home studio]. Or the amount of thought that goes into which characters will be afforded a lower resonance. I’m not a big masculine creature, but I sure try to sound like one every once in a while.
What were the most enjoyable parts of theBartender’s Guides to Murderto record? The climactic scenes where Avalon is in the thick of it, practically stepping on the murderers. Those scenes carry themselves in Avalon’s emotional state and anxious thoughts.
What parts were most challenging? Most challenging of all, would be the beautiful art of pronouncing words, specifically alcohol brands. I worked as a bartender in Chicago for multiple theater venues and even with that, I can say with certainty, I was not prepared. Challenging, yet very rewarding to learn.
Which characters did you enjoy voicing? The way Investigator Spaulding somehow both takes charge of a room and then also cares so deeply for what Avalon has gleaned, he was absolutely enjoyable to play opposite of Avalon’s curiosity and playful nature. Glenn MacTavish has my heart in the recording booth, he is a teddy bear of love. Sally, she was a blast, a firecracker personality I’ve met many times in the theatre world. Alma Eddings, for her terrible discomfort with visitors. Isobel Lester, the woman could side-eye. To name a few.
Any that were harder? Accents were a struggle at times. Glenn MacTavish’s thick Scottish accent, as well as Avantika’s soft Indian accent, were difficult to get right. Eventually, with enough takes, I was able to hear their personalities shine through.
What is your usual process for working? Read the book, script analysis, highlighting, and plan the voices. Record for a few days, edit files for a few days, repeat. Proofing multiple times for any mistakes. Communication with the author throughout.
What is your prep work? What percentage of the process is the actual reading?
It is a huge chuck of the process, at least a week goes into reading/rereading and analysis/notes. I place time “beats” and emotion based “beats” in the script to make the recording smoother later. I highlight character dialogue and character thoughts, this creates a quick signal in the booth to prepare for vocal shifts so that I will not need to stop. I research accents, research specific people’s voices, and pronunciation research. Luckily, I find joy in paperwork and zen in small details, otherwise it might have not been such a great career switch.
Is there a time of day you prefer to work? An amount of reading you can do at one time? I am a night owl. My workday begins around 3pm when editing and ends before midnight. With breaks, of course. On recording days, I start at 11pm and end sometime before 2am, preferably. Though, sometimes it is necessary to record up to when the birds wake up. I’ll go as long as I can, depending on how rough my vocals sound. I take a 10 minute vocal break for every 50 minutes recording.
Any thoughts for someone who might be interested in audio book narration? Tell the story. Whatever you can do to help the words come to life in a way that benefits the narrative, do it. Your author matters, they know the meaning of each sentence they have written. They are a valuable resource that you should respect and communicate with.
If you are listening to a well performed and produced audio book, what do you know to appreciate? Their silences and pauses. The way the spit sounds and click sounds are edited out. How they use their breathing as a tool. How they are able to not annoy people even after hours of hearing them speak.
Since each of the Bartender’s Guides to Murder features the recipe for a cocktail or mocktail after each chapter, it seems we should ask, what’s your drink of choice?
Amaretto Sour is my natural go-to. However, I made a deal with myself that once I finished narrating the Bartender’s Guide to Murder series I would make some of the drink recipes from the books. “Waffles and Sympathy,” from chapter 10 of the first book, is at the top of my list.
Apparently, we aren’t the first or only New Yorkers who planned to move to North Carolina. In fact, every workman who came to fix up our house to put it on the market claimed to be heading south within the next couple of years. Or, short of going themselves, Marty from Retro Modern has a sister who’s moved down and “loves it but it drives her crazy that they ask you five questions before they pour your cup of coffee,” and John, our car mechanic, has an aunt and uncle who came down but he doesn’t like to visit because they “live on one of those chichi golf courses.” So many people were or had moved down that Bob and I thought maybe we’d go to our local NC farmers markets and call out, “New York!” and see how many people respond.* (*We never did this. In fact, we got NC plates for our cars ASAP.)
Meanwhile, we did move down. Of course, it was the middle of COVID so we couldn’t exactly go out line dancing every night. But we did discover the local grocery store (5 minutes to the close one, 10 minutes to the big one, 14 minutes to the fancy one). We started sampling takeout from various nearby restaurants.
In short, we are starting to get the lay of the land. Here are a few things we’ve discovered are delightfully specific to our new stomping grounds.
On a trip to the grocery, we discovered the shelves are stocked a bit differently.
There is an entire shelf of different kinds of grits, the same with cornbread mix. Local cornbread is often not sweet, so I was afraid when I couldn’t find Jiffy cornbread mix, which I need for my famous stuffing. Turns out I wasn’t looking hard enough. They come in 12-packs on the lower shelves.
Sadly for people watching their carbs, biscuits are a food group and come with nearly everything. Not rolls, mind you, biscuits. Can you even think about Bojangles or Cracker Barrel and not picture a plate of fall-apart, dip-in-honey pieces of heaven?
Bob and I have acquired new favorite tastes. His is pimento cheese dip. It’s a fresh made local delicacy around these parts, and you can get it any way you can imagine.
Our daughter Linnéa’s favorite is sweet tea. Somehow it’s not the same as plain old iced tea with sugar in it. It’s, well, sweet tea.
As far as drinks, I’ll go with Cheerwine. It’s a cherry flavored soda that is something of a precursor to Dr. Pepper. But it’s somehow just so southern.
As are Moon Pies. First, what size do you want, regular or mini? Chocolate, vanilla, mint chocolate…they’re serious about their Moon Pies.
Besides groceries, we have found some other happy differences.
It’s considered cold here at 46 degrees.
Happily, contractors work straight through the year. In Warwick, when I wanted to hire a deck contractor in December, he explained he’d start working again in April. The guys who poured our driveway would come in May. The gazebo people started up again in March but couldn’t get to us till July. Here, Hector asked to take off Christmas week and started work on our deck in early January. Sure, the team had to take a few days off here and there due to weather, but the project is was finished in February.
Speaking of inclement weather, of course our first winter included the “storm of the decade.” It really was. There hasn’t been a foot of snow in Asheville since 2011. Lucky us. The snowplow guys, who came up our driveway on ATVs, couldn’t get to us right away. Even though they cleared the snow, we were left with half an inch of ice on the driveway. The next day I tried to take the Subaru down. Nope. The car remained sideways at the top of the driveway for the next three days. Fortunately, we’d seen the storm coming and were well-provisioned.
No matter where we want to go, it’s 18 minutes from our house. Downtown Hendersonville, 18 minutes. Downtown Brevard, 18. The Asheville Airport, 18. You get the idea.
And there are hikes! So many hikes! When our daughter Linnéa visited we tried to find one and found 50. Pisgah Forest, DuPont Forest, Flat Rock, Carl Sandburg farm, the Biltmore Estate, Jump Off Rock, and Jump Off Rock (apparently, Cherokee princesses had no recourse when unlucky in love but to jump. I think this is likely the myth they told gullible white people whenever they didn’t want to divulge the real name of something.) But, seriously, you can spend your whole life hiking around these parts and never run out of waterfalls.
Our mail delivery person is Chris. She thinks the Fed Ex guys is rude for leaving packages at the bottom of our driveway and she’ll drive them up.
Before we moved into our house, when we came for the inspection, we briefly saw a pure white squirrel who looked like he was checking us out. We wondered if we’d ever see him again. Turns out, yes. And many of his aunts, uncles and cousins. We recently met Rita and John, the people who built the house, and asked if they fed the white squirrels. Rita claims one would sit in her lap and eat Hershey’s kisses. We’re a ways from that. A note: these are not albino squirrels, who have red eyes. They are a mutant variety, descended from the original two who were loosed in Brevard 50 years ago, and we love them. I’m wondering if I can import some pure black squirrels? They would look so good together.
Churches! There are churches every 6 feet. Well, maybe not quite every six feet, but there are a lot. Our favorite is up the road, just in the next county: Transylvania Baptist Church. There is Power in the Blood.
Lastly, we are half an hour from Asheville, a city bustling with arts, restaurants, breweries and entertainment, and bursting with history. We’ve already taken guests on the Comedy Tour and the Hop-On, Hop-Off Greyline Tour. We have annual passes to the Biltmore Estate and went with the kids and then with Barb at Christmas. We are regulars in the River Arts District.
The hard thing is, there’s so much to do right here near home, it’s not often we gear up to drive a whole half an hour to get to the city.
But when y’all come to visit, that will be a different story.
Has a novel ever helped you get through a hard time? They’ve helped me, so I was just wondering. Usually, when a book “takes me away,” it’s not the dense, classic type you study in school. Right now, when I need to get to sleep, I’m finding Fannie Flagg’s new novel THE WONDER BOY OF WHISTLE STOP is a great help. I love revisiting those folks from FRIED GREEN TOMATOES and finding out that some of them are doing just fine, thanks.
I’ve loved hearing and telling stories since I was a kid. I loved creating worlds and populating them. I had so many friends! Of course no one else knew them, or knew where the secret rock was, where we met. I also had breathtaking adventures as the youngest secret agent. Again, it’s nowhere on my resume (but would anything employing the word “secret” be on a resume?).
For me, now, writing is therapy. It’s where I channel my emotions and explore life’s questions. As you know from my last post, I started writing the Bartender’s Guide to Murder series after our catastrophic house fire. One thing you can be sure of: someone facing murder is worse off than me.
The mysteries I write tend to feature of cast of characters who are, for the most part, good folks. They’ve got issues–everybody’s got issues–but only one or two of them would actually kill anybody. The rest of them are dealing with life, in all it’s joy and sorrow and messiness and complexities, and with all it’s questions and quirks. That’s the part I love.
That’s why I’m so lucky to have Avalon Nash, my young bartender heroine. Avalon is smart, she’s intuitive, she’s got issues that go deeper than mine. But mostly, she asks questions. That’s what I love about writing these mysteries, is that I get to explore life’s questions–sometimes, the tough questions–alongside folks I like. Even if they’re fictional.
The second of Avalon’s adventures, Death by Gravity, is coming out on December 2. In it, she deals with some more difficult issues than she did in the first book. I’m grateful for the reviews the book has gotten, but I’m a little afraid when people call these books “cozies.” One person said the first book was “squeaky clean” except for some language in difficult scenes.
I never meant the books to be cozies or squeaky clean. I do believe difficult things are sensitively handled. Violence is referenced but happens offstage. They’re rated PG-13, at most.
I do hope the tone is one of hope. That’s what I need to work through all the craziness in this world to get to. That’s where I direct my stories.
If novels have helped get you through hard times, I’d love to hear which ones. I always feel those of us who have read the same books have friends in common.
Oh, here’s a special offer. If you’ve read a Bartender’s Guide mystery, or even if you haven’t, if you email me at Sharon@SharonLinnea.com with the subject line Drinks to Die For, I’ll send you a fun ebooklet with some yummy recipes from the books.
Five years ago, we had a serious house fire. We had to live somewhere else for a year while our home was rebuilt. It was traumatic, to say the least (see previous post). My wise husband suggested, no matter how fraught life had become, I should be writing. Writing is my therapy, my way of processing. Harlan Coben says it this way, “If I don’t write, I hate myself. Simple as that. My life is out of balance.” Okay, I don’t hate myself. But my life is out of balance. Bob suggested I write something “fun” to counter the stresses in other parts of life.
But write what? Or, for a novelist, the question is, write who?
The summer between his junior and senior year of high school, my son Jonathan announced he’d like to train to be a bartender. I said, funny thing, so would I. So we did. We decided to take the course in 1 week. Hardest thing either of us had ever studied for. We studied together in the car for the hour and a half down to the school, we went to school all day, we studied the hour and a half back. There was a written test and a drink test–you had to make 6 cocktails randomly called out to you in four minutes. But! Once you are a bartender, a good deal of your job is talking to people. And for voyeurs like novelists, it’s hog heaven. Or vodka-heaven. Perhaps it would be for a sleuth. The irony is, I’m not much of a drinker. I’m in it for the mixing of flavors and the conversation. I sat down and started to write, wondering who would show up.
A young woman, at a train station. She was running away from her life in Los Angeles. Her mom is a successful, if controversial, comedian and her father is a well-known conservative pastor. Her name is Avalon, her best friend has just died. She is changing trains to head to her family home in Brooklyn.
A young woman, unexpectedly at a crossroads, not knowing for sure where she’s going or what’s coming next. A young woman searching for a home who loves hearing people’s stories–and who knows how to bartend. Sound familiar? She turned out to be someone I might enjoy travelling with through the changes in this crazy world. Perhaps you would, too. If you’d like to meet her, keep reading. Here’s the first chapter of Death in Tranquility, Book 1 from The Bartender’s Guide to Murder.
Chapter 1 Death in the Afternoon
“Whenever you see the bartender, I’d like another drink,” I said, lifting my empty martini glass and tipping it to Marta, the waitress with teal hair.
“Everyone wants another drink,” she said, “but Joseph’s missing. I can’t find him. Anywhere.”
“How long has he been gone?” I asked.
“About ten minutes. It’s not like him. Joseph would never just go off without telling me.”
That’s when I should have done it. I should have put down forty bucks to cover my drink and my meal and left that magical, moody, dark-wood paneled Scottish bar and sauntered back across the street to the train station to continue on my way.
If I had, everything would be different.
Instead I nodded, grateful for a reason to stand up. A glance at my watch told me over half an hour remained until my connecting train chugged in across the street. I could do Marta a solid by finding the bartender and telling him drink orders were stacking up.
Travelling from Los Angeles to New York City by rail, I had taken the northern route, which required me to change trains in the storied village of Tranquility, New York. Once detrained, the posted schedule had informed me should I decide to bolt and head north for Montreal, I could leave within the hour. The train heading south for New York City, however, would not be along until 4 p.m.
Sometimes in life you think it’s about where you’re going, but it turns out to be about where you change trains.
It was an April afternoon; the colors on the trees and bushes were still painting from the watery palate of spring. Here and there, forsythia unfurled in insistent bursts of golden glory.
I needed a drink.
Tranquility has been famous for a long time. Best known for hosting the Winter Olympics back in 19-whatever, it was an eclectic blend of small village, arts community, ski mecca, gigantic hotels and Olympic facilities. Certainly there was somewhere a person could get lunch.
Perched on a hill across the street from the station sat a shiny, modern hotel of the upscale chain variety. Just down the road, father south, was a large, meandering, one-of-a-kind establishment called MacTavish’s Seaside Cottage. It looked nothing like a cottage, and, as we were inland, there were no seas. I doubted the existence of a MacTavish.
I headed over at once.
The place evoked a lost inn in Brigadoon. A square main building of a single story sent wings jutting off at various angles into the rolling hills beyond. Floor-to-ceiling windows made the lobby bright and airy. A full suit of armor stood guard over the check-in counter, while a sculpture of two downhill skiers whooshed under a skylight in the middle of the room.
Behind the statue was the Breezy, a sleek restaurant overlooking Lake Serenity (Lake Tranquility was in the next town over, go figure). The restaurant’s outdoor deck was packed with tourists on this balmy day, eating and holding tight to their napkins, lest they be lost to the murky depths.
Off to the right—huddled in the vast common area’s only dark corner—was a small door with a carved, hand-painted wooden sign which featured a large seagoing vessel plowing through tumultuous waves. That Ship Has Sailed, it read. A tavern name if I ever heard one.
Beyond the heavy door, down a short dark-wood hallway, in a tall room lined with chestnut paneling, I paused to let my eyes adjust to the change in light, atmosphere, and, possibly, century.
The bar was at a right angle as you entered, running the length of the wall. It was hand-carved and matched the back bar, which held 200 bottles, easily.
A bartender’s dream, or her undoing.
Two of the booths against the far wall were occupied, as were two of the center tables.
I sat at the bar.
Only one other person claimed a seat there during this low time between meal services. He was a tall gentleman with a square face, weathered skin, and dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. I felt his cold stare as I perused the menu trying to keep to myself. I finally gave up and stared back.
“Flying Crow,” he said. “Mohawk Clan.”
“Avalon,” I said. “Train changer.”
I went back to my menu, surprised to find oysters were a featured dish.
“Avalon?” he finally said. “That’s—”
“An odd name,” I answered. “I know. Flying Crow? You’re in a Scottish pub.”
“Ask him what Oswego means.” This was from the bartender, a lanky man with salt-and-pepper hair. “Oh, but place your order first.”
“Are the oysters good?” I asked.
“Oddly, yes. One of the best things on the menu. Us being seaside, and all.”
“All right, then. Oysters it is. And a really dry vodka martini, olives.”
“Pimento, jalapeño, or bleu cheese?”
“Ooh, bleu cheese, please.” I turned to Flying Crow. “So what does Oswego mean?”
“It means, ‘Nothing Here, Give It to the Crazy White Folks.’ Owego, on the other hand means, ‘Nothing Here Either.’”
“How about Otego? And Otsego and Otisco?”
His eyebrow raised. He was impressed by my knowledge of obscure town names in New York State. “They all mean, ‘We’re Just Messing with You Now.’”
“Hey,” I said, raising my newly delivered martini. “Thanks for coming clean.”
He raised his own glass of firewater in return.
“Coming clean?” asked the bartender, and he chuckled, then dropped his voice. “If he’s coming clean, his name is Lesley.”
“And you are?” I asked. He wasn’t wearing a name tag.
“Skål,” I said, raising my glass. “Glad I found That Ship Has Sailed.”
“That’s too much of a mouthful,” he said, flipping over the menu. “Everyone calls it the Battened Hatch.”
“But the Battened Hatch isn’t shorter. Still four syllables.”
“Fewer words,” said Joseph with a smile that included crinkles by his eyes. “Fewer capital letters over which to trip.”
As he spoke, the leaded door banged open and two men in chinos and shirtsleeves arrived, talking loudly to each other. The door swung again, just behind them, admitting a stream of ten more folks—both women and men, all clad in business casual. Some were more casual than others. One man with silvering hair actually wore a suit and tie; another, a white artist’s shirt, his blonde hair shoulder-length. The women’s garments, too, ran the gamut from tailored to flowing. One, of medium height, even wore a white blouse, navy blue skirt and jacket, finished with hose and pumps. And a priest’s collar.
“Conventioneers?” I asked Joseph. Even as I asked, I knew it didn’t make sense. No specific corporate culture was in evidence.
He laughed. “Nah. Conference people eat at the Blowy. Er, Breezy. Tranquility’s Chamber of Commerce meeting just let out.” His grey eyes danced. “They can never agree on anything, but their entertainment quotient is fairly high. And they drive each other to drink.”
Flying Crow Lesley shook his head.
Most of the new arrivals found tables in the center of the room. Seven of them scooted smaller tables together, others continued their conversations or arguments in pairs.
“Marta!” Joseph called, leaning through a door in the back wall beside the bar.
The curvy girl with the teal hair, nose and eyebrow rings and mega eye shadow clumped through. Her eyes widened when she saw the influx of patrons.
Joseph slid the grilled oysters with fennel butter in front of me. “Want anything else before the rush?” He indicated the well-stocked back bar.
“I’d better hold off. Just in case there’s a disaster and I end up having to drive the train.”
He nodded knowingly. “Good luck with that.”
I took out my phone, then re-pocketed it. I wanted a few more uncomplicated hours before re-entering the real world. Turning to my right, I found that Flying Crow had vanished. In his stead, several barstools down, sat a Scotsman in full regalia: kilt, Bonnie Prince Charlie jacket and a fly plaid. It was predominantly red with blue stripes.
Wow. Mohawk clan members, Scotsmen, and women priests in pantyhose. This was quite a town.
Joseph was looking at an order screen, and five drinks in different glasses were already lined up ready for Marta to deliver.
My phone buzzed. I checked caller i.d. Fought with myself. Answered.
Was grabbed by tentacles of the past.
When I looked up, filled with emotions I didn’t care to have, I decided I did need another drink; forget driving the train.
The line of waiting drink glasses was gone, as were Marta and Joseph.
I checked the time. I’d been in Underland for fifteen minutes, twenty at the most. It was just past three. I had maybe forty-five minutes before I should move on.
That was when Marta swung through the kitchen door, her head down to stave off the multiple calls from the center tables. She stood in front of me, punching information into the point of sale station, employing the NECTM—No Eye Contact Tactical Maneuver.
That’s when she told me Joseph was missing.
“Could he be in the restroom?”
“I asked Arthur when he came out, but he said there was nobody else.”
I nodded at Marta and started by going out through the front hall, to see if perhaps he’d met someone in the lobby. As I did a lap, I overheard a man at check-in ask, “Is it true the inn is haunted?”
“Do you want it to be?” asked the clerk, nonplussed.
But no sign of the bartender.
I swung back through into the woodsy-smelling darkness of the Battened Hatch, shook my head at the troubled waitress, then walked to the circular window in the door. The industrial kitchen was white and well-lit, and as large as it was, I could see straight through the shared kitchen to the Breezy. No sign of Joseph. I turned my attention back to the bar.
Beyond the bar, there was a hallway to the restrooms, and another wooden door that led outside. I looked back at Marta and nodded to the door.
“It doesn’t go anywhere,” she said. “It’s only a little smoker’s deck.”
I wondered if Joseph smoked, tobacco or otherwise. Certainly the arrival of most of a Chamber of Commerce would suggest it to me. I pushed on the wooden door. It seemed locked. I gave it one more try, and, though it didn’t open, it did budge a little bit.
This time I went at it with my full shoulder. There was a thud, and it wedged open enough that I could slip through.
It could hardly be called a deck. You couldn’t put a table—or even a lounge chair—out there.
Especially with the body taking up so much of the space.
It was Joseph. I knelt quickly and felt for a pulse at his neck, but it was clear he was inanimate. He was sitting up, although my pushing the door open had made him lean at an angle. I couldn’t tell if the look on his face was one of pain or surprise. There was some vomit beside him on the deck, and a rivulet down his chin. I felt embarrassed to be seeing him this way.
Crap. He was always nice to me. Well, during the half an hour I’d known him, he had been nice to me.
What was it with me discovering corpses? It was certainly a habit of which I had to break myself.
Meanwhile, what to do? Should I call in the priest? But she was within a group, and it would certainly start a panic. Call 911?
Yes, that would be good. That way they could decide to call the hospital or the police or both.
My phone was back in my purse.
And, you know what? I didn’t want the call to come from me. I was just passing through.
I pulled the door back open and walked to Marta behind the bar. “Call 911,” I said softly. “I found Joseph.”
It took the ambulance and the police five minutes to arrive. The paramedics went through first, then brought a gurney around outside so as to not freak out everyone in the hotel. They loaded Joseph on and sped off, in case there was anything to be done.
I knew there wasn’t.
The police, on the other hand, worked at securing the place which might become a crime scene. They blocked all the doorways and announced no one could leave.
I was still behind the bar with Marta. She was shaking.
“Give me another Scotch,” said the Scotsman seated there.
I looked at the bottles and was pleasantly surprised by the selection. “I think this calls for Black Maple Hill,” I said, only mildly surprised at my reflexive tendency to upsell. The Hill was a rich pour but not the absolute priciest.
He nodded. I poured.
I’m not sure if it was Marta’s tears, or the fact we weren’t allowed to leave, but local bigwigs had realized something was amiss.
“Excuse me,” the man in the suit came to the bar. “Someone said Joseph is dead.”
“Yes,” I said. “He does seem to be.”
Marta swung out of the kitchen, her eyeliner half down her face. “Art, these are your oysters,” she said to the man. He took them.
“So,” he continued, and I wondered what meaningful words he’d have to utter. “You’re pouring drinks?”
It took only a moment to realize that, were I the owner of this establishment, I’d find this a great opportunity.
“Seems so,” I said.
“What goes with oysters?” he asked.
That was a no-brainer. I’d spied the green bottle of absinthe while having my own meal. I poured about three tablespoons into the glass. I then opened a bottle of Prosecco, poured it, and waited for the milky cloud to form.
He took a sip, looked at me, and raised the glass. “If I want another of these, what do I ask for?”
As he asked, I realized I’d dispensed one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite libations. “Death in the Afternoon,” I replied.
He nodded and went back to his table.
It was then I realized I wasn’t going to make my train.
Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) absinthe
1/2 to 3/4 cup (4 to 6 ounces) cold Champagne or sparkling wine
Hemmingway’s advice, circa 1935: “Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”
Two years ago, on May 17, our lives changed abruptly. It was 8 a.m. on a pastel Spring Sunday morning; my husband was on his way to work in New York City; our daughter, a high school senior, and son, a college sophomore recently returned home, were zonked out in their rooms. I’d fed the dogs and cats, and settled comfortably into the chair at my desk in my upstairs office with a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of joe to catch up on a few things before church.
Something smelled strange. Did the neighbors have a fire in their fireplace? It seemed early in the morning and late in the season. I opened the window, then walked the hall; nothing suspicious.
Three minutes later, the smell of burning. I walked the hall again. This time, there was thick black smoke pouring out of a vent by the stairs. The fire alarms went off.
“Fire!” I said, pounding on each of the kids’ bedroom doors. “Fire! Get up, get out!”
That’s when I discovered you actually can get teenagers out of bed immediately at 8 a.m. on a Sunday.
We leashed the dogs and shooed the cats out and my daughter grabbed her hamster. I scanned the house for any other living beings; within three minutes, smoke had become so intense you could barely see your hand in front of your face.
Rhetorical Question: What would you save in the event of a fire?
Actual Answer: Your family. The rest is commentary.
The volunteer fire department arrived quickly. We live in a large town but a small community; as the address went out over the emergency band, the kids’ phones lit up. Our street threw an impromptu “come as you are” early Sunday block party.
Those first hours are a blur. Eventually,the neighbors went home, the firefighters and police packed up and the ambulance was dismissed. Newly homeless, I called the 800 number of our insurance company. They couldn’t find us without the policy number, which was…in the house. I hung up and called back. This time the agent found the policy, took my name and phone number and said someone would get back to me by Tuesday. Seriously? What did we do until Tuesday? How did I even begin?
Then our neighbor Trish called our local agent, and, like a good neighbor, within the hour, Bonni Oswald, was there. It was clear a) she was a truly caring person, and b) this wasn’t her first fire-demolished rodeo. She contacted the company for us, and the necessary folks started rolling in. The Loss Unit turned us over to the Large Loss Unit. Bonni gave us cash for immediate needs and instructions for us to rent somewhere to stay and charge it to State Farm.
All of this happened when I was in Adrenaline Mode. I couldn’t process the fact that many of my Earthly possessions had gone to heaven before me or that our cats were out in the coyote-infested wild or that I didn’t live on my street any more. I was focused on the knowledge that, as a parent, it was my duty to keep my family and other dependents housed, fed and safe. Those first days, nothing else really mattered.
Even while charting the map through New Normal, as the size of the loss and complexity of rebuilding our lives became clearer, there began to be glimpses of gold nuggets amongst the ore. I decided the only way through would be to grab onto the positive, to keep watch for things we’d eventually gain in the fire. Here are six long-term positives that came out of one massive negative–and I suspect they’re the same for many types of adversity.
Resilience. The week after the fire, a national magazine had a cover piece on the psychology of resilience. Dr. Philip Keller, one of the field’s leading researchers, explained that a key elements of a psyche that can bounce back is a history of hard times. Facing challenges and difficulties is the only way to learn to flex and strengthen the “meeting challenges” muscle. People who have an easy life are those who sink when faced with catastrophe. Dr. Keller believes this to the extent that he felt, as a father, it was his duty to teach his offspring to face life-threatening challenges. As a result, when each child turned 18, he took them on a life-threatening adventure, to fight their way out of the Amazon jungle or up and down an oxygen-deprived mountain peak. What his children had in common, upon returning home alive, was two-fold. The progeny now knew they could survive almost anything—losing that job interview wasn’t that big a deal—and, each told their father they never wanted to speak to him again. Lucky me! Our family was facing a true life challenge and it wasn’t my fault! We could face this ultimate challenge together, and the kids didn’t have to hate me for putting them through it.
Identity. It’s funny, how much of our identity has to do with this is where I live, this is my stuff; my grandmother’s rock collection, my mother’s beloved Lladro angels, the ribbon I won at the 3rd grade science fair. Each reflects a time and place, a series of choices and experiences. When they’re gone, who are you? With the exception of my children’s first two years, we had always lived in this house. Now, when the kids came home, we lived somewhere temporary. And it was okay—good, even. It proved that we were a family no matter where we were. I was a writer even without my office or my books or papers. I found I had to write, to remain sane. In fact, the things that were authentic held fast and proved to be strong and deep. And we put up a sign in the foyer: Life takes you to unexpected places. Love always brings you home.
Endurance. Anyone who faces a disaster quickly discovers that there is a community of people who dwell daily in the detritus of your particular catastrophe. While it is new and abrupt for you, it is their same-old-same-old. We were fortunate to have good insurance. It didn’t bring anything back, but the house was immediately taken over by people who knew what they were doing. One thing they were doing was making an inventory and packing up every.single.thing.in.the.house, at which point our lives became a two-year journey along the Drowning in Paper Trail..
When you move on purpose, you have a chance to choose what to take and what to get rid of. We had no such opportunity. They cataloged everything. And, once this was done, things that had survived the fire—non-working light bulbs, VHS tapes, junk in the junk drawer—were packed into hundreds of the nearest boxes and put into storage. (A month after we moved back, I unpacked a box containing my half-eaten bowl of oatmeal, spoon cemented to its contents for eternity.)
Then a list of things that did not survive the fire, 3,000 of them, from Mario Kart game cartridge to living room sofa—were presented to us in a grid. I was to go through these items and give the insurance company the price for which they were purchased, at any time during the last 30 years.
It became a year of slogging. Not only through unending paper work, but of phone calls and meetings and signing off on a million things. Usually, when you redo a room, say, your kitchen, you have happy months of planning and choosing. When you have to do every room at once, and instantly, it’s not the same joie de vivre. Also, the house had to be brought up to current code—no grandfathering in! That meant, among other things, a brand new $10,000 egress from the basement.
Even with a contractor we trusted and insurance adjusters who were on our side, It was never-ending. (And TiVo, stop charging us for service to an empty house and melted machines. This is my fifth call! Stop it!) Meanwhile, none of my other obligations had gone away. Prioritizing was key, and keeping on keeping on, even when it felt like another day of chewing Kleenex, was absolutely necessary. When life becomes a marathon and you have no choice but to run it, you find an endurance you never knew you had.
Letting go. My hardest day of clean-up at the house was when we found a boxed wedding gown in the basement, and it was so badly burned that I couldn’t tell if it was mine or my mother’s. It was tangible proof that the past had been taken, forcibly, and the physical proof of it was gone. Somehow, the fact that we lost so many things, that their discovery was unrelenting, on a daily basis, made it a dwelling place with which I was familiar, and eventually, comfortable. I recognized a stark demarcation between people and things.
There also became an obvious choice between holding on and mourning each thing, making life a continual pit of quicksand, or, (as was popular at the time), thanking each thing for its service and continuing on. Until I was shopping on Thanksgiving weekend with my then-college freshman daughter, and she said, “So we’ve lost all our Christmas ornaments—even the ones Jonathan and I made when we were little?” Somehow, that did it. I became the unhinged woman sobbing in the lighting aisle of Lowe’s.
But there was also a different, deeper, process of letting go that was triggered by the fire. I was doing fine, hitting my marks, doing what needed to be done, keeping it together—and suddenly, driving alone in the middle of a Tuesday, I couldn’t breathe. Could pull no oxygen into my system. I had to steer onto the shoulder and turn off the engine. The second time this happened, I realized what was going on. My subconscious was coming to grips with the fact that any control I thought I had over my life was an illusion. We are all going to die, it could be in 50 years, it could be in thirty seconds. Worse, our loved ones will die. We’re all one phone call away from disaster, one bowl of oatmeal and smell of smoke from our lives becoming something completely else. And there’s not a damn thing to do about it, except acknowledge it and come to terms. The funny thing is, once I was freed from trying to control my life, I was able to dwell much more spontaneously in, and be more appreciative of, the moment at hand.
Gratitude. Once you’ve had a catastrophe, it becomes open season for everyone else’s horror stories. You hear of people who lost loved ones or pets in their fire, of people who had no insurance and lost everything, of people who had insurance that would only repaint the puce wall puce and replace a 23-year-old red fringe chair with an identical 23-year-old red fringe chair. We’re grateful that State Farm (who has now dropped us, by the way) wanted what our mortgage holder wanted: the dwelling to be worth as much or more than it had been, pre-fire. It could have been so much worse. Even our cat Crystal, who was so freaked out by the fire and all the subsequent strangers that she ran away, was eventually caught in a Have-A-Heart trap and is now back, calm and happy, in the bosom of the family.
Shortly after my Great Lowe’s Meltdown, I went onto Facebook and asked any family and friends who might be inclined to send us a Christmas tree ornament that would, in some way, remind us of them. The response was overwhelming. We got ornaments from all over the U.S., as well as overseas. The ornaments came from people who celebrated Christmas, and those who did not. Our children’s first nanny sent ornaments made from photos of the children in their first years. One friend of my daughter’s, only home from college and in town for an hour, spent much of that time running into our house, hanging an ornament on the tree, and running back out.
Now our tree has come to have a wonderful, happy new meaning for us each December, as it is a virtual hug from friends and loved ones, far and near. We are grateful for each and every one. The ornaments stand for everyone who helped us through the hard time, from the fire fighters, to the insurance adjusters, to the neighbors, to the people who worked at the utilities, plumbers, painters, drywallers. There are many good people in this world.
Fresh start. Now, two years beyond the fire, we can be profoundly grateful for the fresh start the fire gave us. Neighbors whose kids have grown are having to update their homes for sale. Ours is completely updated! Kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, wiring, plumbing, you name it! We have that double oven I always wanted and the gourmet cooktop my husband lusted after. The basement is large and light and legal. The paint is not puce. All the stuff we’d saved for decades, and would have to go through someday? Gone. (Well, except for one garage bay. And if you’re interested in half price Lladros or Hummels, let me know.)
Mostly, oddly, I have let go of even the things we still have. I know I could walk out the front door of our beloved house, leaving everything but living beings behind, and be okay. It’s nice to use this stuff, but it no longer defines who I am. That kind of makes every day a fresh start. And I am grateful.
World Book Day is celebrated this month in the United Kingdom (here it is World Book Night in April). School children are urged to dress up as a fictional character. Apparently one little boy has already been sent home for coming in a “Christian Grey” suit. (If he was in my class, I’d have him go back to the hall and re-enter as Willy Loman. Problem solved.)
So, while it’s not OFFICIALLY World Book Day here, it did get me thinking that ANY day is the perfect time to celebrate books.
In that spirit, let me celebrate the books I am reading right now, or have recently finished. I don’t usually read 5 books at a time, but I am just now, all very different, and for different reasons.
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
You might have heard that I’m not a big fan of end-of-civilization novels (scroll down to the post, “Hi-tailing It Out of Distopia” for an explanation). But my husband went out of town and left me this book with a note saying, “I think you’ll love it! Enjoy.” Now, my husband is sparing with his exclamation points, so I took the note seriously. The book is about a time in the not-too-distant future after a pandemic thinned the population by, well, almost everyone.
The story follows a small travelling company of actors and musicians who perform classical music and Shakespeare in the small settlements that remain. Granted, I haven’t finished the book, but the characters are interesting and real, and the book does seem to celebrate the good in humanity and even the “magical” everyday things we current readers take for granted.
DEAD UNTIL DAWN by Charlaine Harris
Yes, I realize I’m about 10 years behind everyone else, but there was a copy left by the bathtub and what is a girl to do? Isn’t it great that once books are written, they continue to exist and be unique? I’ve met Ms. Harris, she is a down-to-earth person who is nice to other writers and willing to dish about Alexander Skarsgard. I’d heard the Sookie novels were “episodic,” and the series was a little much for me. But what the heck?
Here’s the what: Sookie jumps in on the first page, a fully-realized character with a clear eye, a sense of humor and a big chain. There isn’t much she isn’t afraid of, and her crazy Southern world is introduced as normal-wacky. Vampires? Shape-shifters? Southerners you recognize and a town that feels like a real place? Obviously, a kajillion people read these books because they’re just plain fun. So what if the plots aren’t exactly tightly woven? And my best guess about the series is that somehow the men–the showrunners, the producers, writers, directors–co-opted Sookie and struck out on their own. Obviously they were successful, but it’s not the same thing.
KAIULANI: CROWN PRINCESS OF HAWAII by Nancy and Jean Francis Webb
This one might strike you as kind of odd, after all, I did write a biography of Princess Kaiulani myself (that won the Carter Woodson Award, yay), and this biography was written back in 1962. But here’s the deal. During the time my husband and I honeymooned in Hawaii, we saw a small newspaper article about Princess Kaiulani, and I fell in love with her.
I found the Webb’s book (and every other book on Hawaiian history in print) and then, we found the Webbs. They lived in Manhattan, as we did. By then, Nancy was battling Parkinson’s, but they welcomed us, time and time again, into their apartment. We would sit and talk for hours. A lot about Kaiulani and their journey to write the book, but also about their journey(s), period. They wrote radio dramas in the Good Old Days and had wonderful stories of a New York and a writing life not long gone. There is a new edition of their book out now, in paperback. My copy of their book is the hardcover, and it is signed. It is also falling apart. It is a prized possession.
Why did I pick this book up to start reading it? It was the beginning of a long journey, and I hadn’t read it in a long time. Some of the language used in 1962 sounds outdated now, even a bit insulting, but back then it was the politically correct speech of the day. But, they were a step closer to 1899, when “our princess” died. When they wrote, people who remembered Kaiulani were still alive. Honolulu was different 50 years ago, as it had been 50 years before the Webbs. But I’m loving it. Like a visit with old, beloved friends–and I mean both the Webbs and the Kalakauas.
LISTENING FOR THE HEARTBEAT OF GOD by J. Philip Newell
Every year, our church reads a book collectively during Lent. We are a church of people who love to learn and to discuss ideas. This is a book about Celtic Spirituality, and it is fascinating. Oftentimes we Christians don’t realize how much of what we find in the Scriptures has to do with the lens through which we read the text. For example, the idea of Original Sin was pretty much plunked whole into Church theology by Augustine, who did us some mighty favors and some mighty disservices.
It’s interesting to hear the argument for the theologians who lost the argument at that one specific time in history. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Suppose that theological statement is actually fact? Wonderful, necessary discussions. I LOVE ideas. I LOVE discussions. I LOVE books.
Here are two books I just finished, and I found them interesting counterpoints to each other.
THE BOSTON GIRL by Anita Diamant
The Boston girl is a grandmother who is telling the story of when she became herself to her granddaughter. It’s a very workable conceit. The main character came from a family of Jewish immigrants who arrived stone poor to live in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. Times were tough. Money was tight. Loved ones were lost. Marriage prospects were not happy ones. The possibility of education for girls was a far-away thought. And yet.
YET. Our heroine has pluck, she has hope–but mostly, she has friends. Her world broadens. Her thinking broadens. Her prospects,–finally–broaden. It is a specific person’s story, but in many ways, it is every immigrant’s story. It is a fast read, and it is wonderful.
WE ARE NOT OURSELVES by Matthew Thomas
Another immigrant saga, this one of poor Irish in the mid-to-late 20th century, it takes place in the Outer Boroughs of New York City. Our heroine is also from a family who arrived stone poor (actually, drunk poor). Times were tough. Money was tight. Loved ones were lost. Marriage prospects were not happy ones. She managed an education. And yet.
YET. Our heroine is stoic, not plucky; without hope that things will get better (not because they couldn’t, but because, well, wherever you go, there you are), and most trenchantly, she has no friends. She is completely self-contained and self-absorbed. Friendship is dealt, like cards, not fallen into. It was the kind of book you admire greatly and don’t enjoy for a minute.
At least, that’s me. But the great thing is, there are books out there for everyone! There are new worlds and new ideas and new ways to think and to view the world and make us appreciate what we have, and then, on to the next. It’s quite the most marvelous thing.
Okay, last one up: My Life in France by Julia Child
Very possibly, one of the most wonderful books, ever. And not because it’s Dostoevsky or even Mary Stewart. Simply because Julia Child is an indomitable woman, who can find delight in any situation. If you have trouble sleeping at night, keep this book by your bed. When you wake up, start reading. The phantoms of the night will fade into the France of the 1950s, your worries will fade into butter (it is Julia), and you will soon drift off, with a smile on your face.
Did you watch the Oscars this year? It was my favorite Oscars, ever.
I am usually ambivalent about awards that pit artists against each other. Talent is unique, material is unique, and deciding which actor, musician or writer is “better” than others at the top of their game is a stunt pulled by and for marketing. What I especially hate are the “losers.” Yes, everyone feels sorry for the nominees who don’t win, but, honestly, they’ve been feted and will continue to be. They’ve grabbed the brass ring. Then winners inevitably give “the speech.” You know the one–“Hey, kid in the middle of nowhere who doesn’t fit in! I once was you, and here I am! Your dreams CAN come true!” Obviously for the statue-holder, that is correct. He was feeling alone and misunderstood in Paducah, yet here he (or she) stands. Can’t argue with that.
If your dream is to live through middle school and high school and eventually end up somewhere where you feel comfortable in your own skin, absolutely true.
If your dream is to win an Emmy or a Tony or a Grammy or an Oscar–no, those dreams CAN’T come true, unless you are one person out of 500,000 truly talented working professionals in any art form during any given year.
To my mind, the real “losers” on these shows aren’t the non-winning nominees. They’re the uber-talented, hardworking artists who aren’t in the auditorium and will never be. In other words, most of us. Talented artists who spend hours doing art and also work at the hardware store, the library, the community college because we live in a society where bankers and plumbers are valued and dancers and poets and painters and singers and writers are not. The losers are also the general public who are only made aware of certain easily-accessible pieces of art which are mostly “entertainment.”
But this year showed there was another possible way to win.
Okay, as far as entertainment value, it wasn’t close to the best Oscars. The opening number was infectious and jaw-dropping as far as the special effects. The rest of the show proved that even Neil Patrick Harris, who rocked the Tonys and the Emmys, could not hold up the behemoth that is the Oscar telecast. It still implodes under the weight of its own importance. This year’s ceremony was crippled by the fact that all the winners were givens. (Although I’ve got to say that Meryl sold the grief bit before the “In Memorium” better than anyone ever has and proved her worthiness for yearly nominations all over again.)
But the reason it was great was that it was the first time I remember that we were all called to remember WHY we do art.
A couple of years ago, I was editing a really wonderful book in which working actors talked about their craft, and how to have a successful life while being an actor. One of the best was Eden Sher, who plays Sue Heck on THE MIDDLE. She is phenomenal. USA TODAY and other periodicals have gotten tired of trying to call the attention of Emmy voters to this consistently bravura (and totally funny) show. They have never gotten the respect they deserve, but Eden is committed to her art and to her character (even at the expense of having “the Hollywood look” every week.) Another mega-talent in the book was an English actor named David Oyelowo. I know lots of actors, and each actor has a pet project they will produce/star in some day. They also have a reasonable plan about how this is going to come about. Usually, this plan is in its 13th or 14th iteration. Mr. Oyelowo had played Henry VI for the RSC almost right out of drama school. He had then done a couple of interesting turns in quality BBC shows, after which he moved to the States. He was in EVERYTHING. In tiny roles. He was the pastor in THE HELP. (Do you remember there was a pastor in THE HELP?) The school principal in INTERSTELLAR. One of the Union soldiers who recite the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln in LINCOLN. The bag guy in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. The other bad guy in JACK REACHER. So he was working all the time. But he had this pet project. He was going to play Martin Luther King, Jr. By the time he was interviewed for the book, he was on plan 12. Everyone in Hollywood knew that the project had been bouncing around for years and had lost funding (and directors) more than once. A lot more than once. But this one felt different to David. He is a man of principles and faith, and he felt the MLK movie was about more than David advancing his career. It was why he acts. He spoke about it in his NOW YOU TELL ME! entry. I thought of those as “genre comments,” filed under pet project.
You might notice I haven’t blogged much lately, even though I’m under strict instructions to be habitual. But I was tired of being a writer. Not of writing, but of being a writer. Making artistic decisions that are market driven. Trying to be fun and myself and yet do my part to market and sell my books. Watching famous friends who have grabbed the ring do it more easily than I (or at least in bigger houses and at fancier events). Truthfully, they often have people who do it for them. I thought, maybe I’ll just go back to writing little things that I like and that no one else has to like because no one else has money riding on it. (We writers often default to the introspective cave mentality.)
After the big push for my most recent novel, I was tired. I didn’t blog. I didn’t write. (I also didn’t clean the kitchen, lest you get the wrong idea.) I was just kind of worn down.
Then, last Wednesday night, I turned on the television, and THE MIDDLE was on. It was a 2-parter, in which Sue (our friend Eden) had to tell her boyfriend why she couldn’t marry him. This was just a regular sitcom on a regular night, not even a “very special episode.” And at the end of the show, Sue finally gave Darrin her answer. It was one of the longest monologues I’ve ever heard on television–but you didn’t think of that, then. Because to “Sue,” every word of it was new and being discovered as she spoke it and deeply true. It was one of the most bravura pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. I was agog. This is WHY she acts. (It is also WHY I watch actors.) If she isn’t nominated for her performance in “The Answer,” there is no justice in the world. There’s every chance she won’t be. But as she was doing that scene, through however many takes, her WHY was plainly and proudly on display. Eden Sher, you GO, girl!
Which brings us back to the Oscars. You probably heard that David Oyelowo played the radical son of Oprah and Forest Whttaker in Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER. He and his family spent Christmas with Oprah, and David told her about his pet project. Lo and behold, it’s 2015 and SELMA, starring David Oyelowo, is up for Best Picture. You probably also heard that his performance was overlooked for an award. So, in the eyes of many, he was a loser. In fact, the Hollywood Reporter always runs “brutally honest” ballot deconstructions in which various anonymous members of the Academy tell why they voted as they did. One woman said she found it very distasteful that the cast and crew of SELMA actually took a stand on current matters of civil rights. Apparently, they should make movies about it, but not actually DO anything about it. But that was David’s WHY.
On Sunday night, John Legend and Common performed “Glory,” the Oscar-nominated song they’d written for SELMA. The production of it was stirring. At the end, the audience in the auditorium leaped to their feet in an ovation that you knew was not just for the song, but for the film, for Martin Luther King, Jr., for nonviolent resistance, for the call for justice in this broken world.
The camera cut to David Oyelowo, who was doing his best not to cry. And then he was crying.
And it had nothing to do with winning, or even with whether he was nominated or not.
It had everything to do with the WHY.
And I thought, God bless you, David. God bless everyone who is brave enough to speak up and speak out and work for justice. God bless everyone who holds onto the pet project that encapsulates her WHY.
And hell no, I’m not crawling back into any cave. I’m writing what I want, what I’m SUPPOSED to be writing, the things that feed my soul and tell me WHY I write. And I don’t care about the “voters” who want us to write about things but not DO things. This is about LIFE. It isn’t about awards. Or marketing.
David, man, you awakened courage and purpose in many of us, not by winning, but by caring.
And to my fellow artists, writers, actors painters, I say, “remember the WHY. And let’s go.”
Last week I was the guest at a library book group. The librarian who booked me warned that they were a feisty group who would speak their minds. They were reading my movie murder mystery, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS.
They were a feisty group, all right, and we had a fine time. They were an intelligent group, also, who spotted and wanted to discuss not only plot and characters, but ways I’d decided to work with the literary references and mystery tropes. One man said, “I admit it that at first I thought the book had a little too much estrogen for me, but then I started seeing how you were playing with the reader, and I became fascinated. It became a great psychological game of cat and mouse.” We talked about the writing process and the reading process and the contract implicit between author and reader.
Then one woman spoke up. “Well,” she said. “You surprise me. You’re not what I expected a writer would be like. I mean, we hear so much about writers being loners and anti-social. You speak English really well. I mean, you talk really interesting. I mean–well, you know.”
The thing is, I do know. Truth is, if you’re naturally gregarious and a doer rather than a ponderer, you’re probably not cut out to be a writer. (At least not a fiction writer. You’ll likely do well at writing and selling self-help.) Fiction writers are made from the stares of kids looking out the window during class, often accused of “being somewhere else” while something not as interesting (say, math or the rest of life) is going on.
It’s not that we writers are an unfriendly bunch. It’s that we keep to ourselves for a living. In fact, I belong to a group of professional fiction writers who work hard at helping their aspiring counterparts and giving opportunities to each other. I brought a friend to a recent party. No one talked to her. I posit this is because chatting is not a writer’s strong suit. (In fact, during my formative years, my father was the pastor of a large Midwestern church, hence, my definition of Hell is still “a coffee hour you cannot leave.”) On the bright side, the aforementioned gathering was at a painter’s club andl the painters were thrilled to meet my friend. She is planning to start taking watercolor classes there.
Now, there are sometimes when being something “for a writer” comes in handy. For example, sitting around a pool in Hollywood, surrounded by people with body types unavailable to most of us, it helps to think, “Hey, I look pretty good for a writer!” Or, perhaps you’re in an endless PTA meeting where a few completely jerkish parents are STILL holding forth on an issue of seemingly no consequence, and you think, “wow, I haven’t killed anyone. Great self-control for a writer.” Or, you’re watching a TV show in which they’re having “adventures” with the ghosts on the Queen Mary, but the voice over is using the word “ironically” in such an egregiously incorrect way that it’s much more jolting than ghosts talking–but you don’t throw anything heavy at the television. “Wow, staying really calm…for writer.” (Okay, I turned the show off. Couldn’t take it any more.)
Most fiction writers would likely agree with John Green’s quote, “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.” I know the feeling.
And yet. Yet, now, somehow I’ve slipped over. I do love telling stories while looking people in the eye. More that that, some of the most fun times of my year are the “The Book Inside You Workshops” I lead with fellow author and editor Tom Mattingly. It surprised me when I realized this had happened–this morph into a novelist who enjoyed standing in front of others and talking out loud.
I know exactly when it began to happen.
I started working in book publishing in New York while I was still at NYU, and I continued after graduation. My first two editorial jobs, at William Morrow and Taplinger, opened my eyes and taught me so much about books and authors and publishing. When visiting my parents in California, the writing teacher at the local community college asked if I’d come and talk to his creative writing class about publishing. I said sure. As I prepared my notes, I began to get excited. There was so much insider information I could give these writers that I would have loved to have had when I was starting out! I went to the class, and we all started talking–and talking and talking. Afterwards, I realized it didn’t matter what I’d worn or how I’d come across, all that mattered was the exchange of information. We were in it together.
Slowly, that’s what changed everything for me. It no longer became about me talking and others watching, it became about the exciting information I had to share, or the wonderful adventure of a story we were going to go on together.
Oddly, I stopped dreading looking people in the eyes when I realized that, instead of looking at each other, we were looking together in the same direction. I got to be the one holding the lamp.
I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason, when I talk to others such as the library group, I seem pretty sane. (Also, I now realize that people will think you’re stuck up if they talk to you and you’re gazing into the distance so I’ve cut down a lot on that.)
Perhaps when we meet up, we’ll get into a stirring conversation about fantastical things. Perhaps we’ll use the word ironically correctly. Perhaps we’ll even discover we speak pretty good English for writers.
Until then, perhaps I’ll meet you in the middle distance…just beyond the next horizon…
So. This book you’re writing. That you mean to write. That you’ve written some of. That you mean to get back to.
You’ve got the idea. You’ve got the talent. You’ve made the commitment. Why aren’t you writing?
You tell people it’s Writer’s Block, which can be kind of a catch-all, but usually means you’re unable to interact with the material in a meaningful way. Thousands of pages of advice on getting past Writer’s Block have been written.
But what if it has nothing to do with the material? What if you know what happens next, or you need a next book and your mind is as empty as the cornbread shelf at the grocery store on Thanksgiving?
Or you mean to write, you want to write, you know what to write…and it’s not happening?
Here are three possible culprits–once you’ve identified the suspect, it’s easier to make the arrest.
1) Place in your creative cycle.
This is something I’ve seldom seen discussed, but the fact is that human creativity has a cycle. Unless you’re a machine, you can’t constantly be on the “output” setting without taking time on the “input” setting. You need to see new places, talk to different people, read new books, think new thoughts, or you’ll have nothing to write about. Sometimes you’ve put all your creativity out there, and you simply need time to refill and replenish. Don’t beat yourself up about this. Think of it as a new beginning, a an important, wonderful phase for your personhood. Dive into that stack of novels awaiting you. Take that trip. Drive around your town at 5 in the morning or email a blogger or journalist whose thoughts you’ve admired. Watch documentaries. Listen to NPR. Agree or disagree and have a fine time doing it. When you start feeling feisty or excited or surprised or wonder-filled or ticked off, you’ll know it’s almost time to enter “output” mode once again.
Let’s get down to it. If you really really want to write but you just don’t have the time, well, you don’t really really want to write. Harlan Coben points out that Mary Higgins Clark was a single mom with 3 young children and a full time job when she wrote her first book. She did it by getting up at 5 in the morning before anyone else was up. James Patterson had a family and a high-powered 20-hour a day job running an ad agency, but he started coming in an hour early and closing his door and writing his own stuff. If you want to do it, you can find a way. Get up early. Stay up late. Bring a sandwich and write at lunch. Don’t watch a favorite show.
Some very important caveats: a) If you don’t have the time because you’re feeling too guilty because other things like housework and shopping and waxing the floor and seeing your mother and baking cookies for the bazaar are getting in your way, have a very stern talk with yourself. Explain that nothing trumps writing. Your writing time isn’t time you’re stealing from others, it’s a commitment you’ve made to yourself. Say that until you mean it. NOTHING TRUMPS WRITING.
b) Carve out that time on purpose: when and where it will be. In your home office at 5 a.m.; in your work office an hour before you’re “on call.” Make that sacred. You’re working.
c) Create your boundaries and explain them to others. Then make them actual boundaries. If the door to dad’s study being closed means kids, dogs and neighbors can come in and say, “what are you writing?” or “where are the car keys?” it isn’t a boundary. Kids, spouses and friends are remarkably trainable. If 5 to 6 is your writing time and you won’t be answering the phone, opening the door or responding to texts, give them a week, they’ll stop calling/knocking/texting. But your boundaries are only as firm as YOU make them.
This is the internal force that fights against the undertaking of any creative project. It’s what makes you decide to mop the floor instead of working on your book when the floor isn’t even dirty. It’s what gets you to log on to your computer, open your manuscript–and go play games or watch videos for an hour. Steven Pressman, in his book (and his discussion with Oprah, below) claims Resistance rears its ugly head whenever you are poised to start something that will “move you to the next level” creatively or personally. It’s why there’s something important you need to do, you want to do, you know how to do–and you can’t make yourself actually do.
How do you overcome resistance? Apparently, there’s only one way. You identify it, call it by name and then run the creative ball down the field, knocking it down in the process.
In other words, you JUST DO IT.
(Of course, sometimes you might need encouragement and a plan. If that’s the case, find a good mentor or a local writers group to help you figure out how to start. This usually amounts to knowing how to break things down to small, do-able parts.)
As you know, we writers spend our days in deep philosophical reveries, contemplating Life, the Universe, and Everything. However, there are some questions that seemingly cannot be answered, even by fiction. I have started keeping a list, and I present some of them here. If you have any more of these questions yourself–or, have answers to any of these questions (huzzah!) please weigh in.
+ Why is the song “My Way” only sung by known jerks?
+ When did flowers cease to be about fragrance? The idea that we invent roses that look pretty but have no smell amazes me, and not in a good way.
+ Do we really need both “hearty” and “hardy”? It seems either will do.
+ Why do they make it so an $800 dishwasher depends on a 3 cent piece of plastic that holds the detergent chamber closed?
+ Why are the spigots in those lovely beverage dispensers so high up? A good quarter of the drink will be un-pourable.
+Why do people who make toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash assume everyone likes the flavor of mint?
+ Why do so many people think you need to come to a complete stop in a car before turning right?
+ Why do drivers now assume they MUST pass left-turning cars on the right, even if it’s dangerous, when they only save 10 or 20 seconds?
+ Why do people use “vanilla” to connote something boring or uninspired? I believe the flavor vanilla is phenomenal.
+ Why do they make pens that don’t write? Or at least don’t write for long, and are so choosy about types of paper and surfaces?
+ Why have police vehicles gone from flashing lights to a roadside light show extravaganza that blinds passing motorists?
+ Why do butter pecan and chocolate ice cream taste better when they come together in the same carton, rather than if you scoop them from separate cartons into the same bowl?
+ If the flies who are buzzing against the screen have lived their entire lives inside the house, are they suddenly really confused if they’re loosed into the vast expanse of sky?
+ Does Benedict Cumberbatch smoke simply to keep from being perfect? And can he not think of another fault that wouldn’t kill him?