Work Clothes


This happens at least once a week, but usually more. I drive my youngest to Chess Club in my slippers and pick up my older teens from their friends houses or school in my fuzzy pajama pants. Usually, I’ve got my work clothes over regular clothes when they come home from school. My ten year old says, “You really like that robe, don’t you?”

It might sound crazy, but this is how I work. My favorite days start with me up before dawn. Coffee brewed, wrapped up in thick pajamas and robe, and I sit down to the desk to write. And write. And write. When I’m working on a first draft or even a revised draft with lots of new details, I work best in the comfiest, frumpiest clothing you can imagine. I don’t shower, I don’t put on make-up or my contacts, and I don’t dare leave the house unless I’m summoned by a kid or have to buy food. If I’m in the middle of something, I keep going until it’s done. Usually. Life doesn’t always cooperate, and that’s precisely when I have to show up in public looking slightly homeless.

I sometimes feel bad about myself, like “Why can’t I just put on normal clothes to write? Is it really that hard to put on a pair of jeans and comb my hair?” And voices in my head tell me my neighbors think I’m a little eccentric when I go to the mailbox in layers of leggings, long tops, robe and winter hat. (The fact I just said I have voices in my head might prove them right.)

But here’s the thing.

There are actually good reasons I don’t get dressed unless I have to.

And it’s not because I am lazy. (Though sometimes I am just lazy.)

Writing is an intimate process.

Waking from dreamland and throwing myself immediately into another dreamland is a delicate transition. I try to do as few “real life” tasks as possible because it yanks me from that hazy, creative mind-space I need to be in to write and write well. Creatives call this “the zone” and when you are in it, be damned if someone tries to pull you out. The zone is an intimate connection between the lizard brain and the imagination and it’s like following a narrow path from bed to desk. I have to work hard to stay in that place until the words are freely flowing. Otherwise, it’s tempting to put on shoes and go to Target. Just like an actual relationship, if you allow yourself the distractions, the intimacy is lost. Robert Olen Butler has a wonderful book on this idea called From Where You Dream. This incredibly inspiring craft book talks about how to capitalize on your dreamstates. It sounds mystical and spiritual and may not be for everyone, but I do think it suits the creative life.

Writing is a vulnerable process.

I have a dear friend who confesses she loves to write naked. We get a good laugh from that one, but in reality I find it inspiring. I’m not going to sit at my desk in the buff considering I live in balmy New Jersey and I’d get hypothermia before I’d finish a novel. But being naked is about the most vulnerable state you can be in, and wearing pajamas and not putting on your real-world mask is just another step in that direction. Normally we reserve pajamas for the home where we feel the most safe and comfortable, and nakedness for our most intimate partner, where we feel loved and accepted. You must be vulnerable to write. You must be honest with yourself and your characters. It’s not just a matter of spewing words and plot on a page. To authentically craft a voice, you must question and explore so much psychology—and sometimes that can be difficult.

Writing is an emotional process.

If you have ever written a novel, or attempted, or even if you journal on a regular basis, then you understand what a crazy roller coaster ride writing can be. One day you think you’re writing the next big thing—Eureka! And then the next you couldn’t be drier, and will surely shrivel up and die. Then all of a sudden your character says something that makes you burst into tears and you think: Oh my god, I might actually have something here! If you’re a journaler, then you’re probably not thinking about publication, but you’re writing about your own life, or experiences, or jotting ideas down and so constantly accessing your deeper thoughts and emotions. This is hard work, people! Don’t take it for granted! Don’t worry if you’re not crafting the perfect sentence, or saying the perfect thing to change a reader’s life. Just write. Be comfortable in your own skin. Or in your pj’s. I am not all that comfortable when I’m wearing jeans and boots and sitting at the desk. Or worse—in a café! The waistband digging into my stomach, bunched up underwear, creases at my knees cutting off the circulation to my legs. No thank you. Hard to focus that way. Give me stretchy leggings and an oversized sweatshirt on my comfy couch and I’m an emotional fountain. I’m far more apt to access the depth of my characters this way, than dressed and made up and sitting in Starbucks.

That all being said, sometimes you must GET OUT. After a couple days of living in the zone, it’s time to shower, dress, and hit the town. Talk to real people. Smile at babies. Pet dogs. Observe life and fill the tank so you can start all over again. I have a day job that allows me just that and if you can believe it, I do not show up in my robe. They appreciate that. And I like to look cute from time to time, so it works for me too. But you can be sure that the second I come home, the boots go in the closet and out come the sweatpants.

My kids say, “Really, Mom?”

Yup. Really. Where are my slippers?


The Quest for Good Sleep, Good Art, and a Good Cup of Coffee

Sometimes things seem too far out of reach. Last night, sleep was one of those things.

I live in a neighborhood where it seems the power goes out when a leaf drops. In the four years that I’ve lived here, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy and the crazy Halloween Day Snowstorm aside, the weather in New Jersey has been relatively mild. I moved here from Pennsylvania, across the river and about an hour north at the base of the Appalachian Mountains and it was never mild. You wouldn’t think such a short distance away would change the weather all that much, but I’m sure it has something to do with living on one side of the mountains or another and in PA weather was fierce. Storms were always intense, power frequently went out. But nothing like it does here when, well, nothing happens.

“Nothing” made the power go out three times last night. For some, like my daughter, they will awake and never know anything happened. I envy that child. Me and my boys shuffled through the kitchen feeling like we’d been ripped back and forth on that Whiplash ride. I’m a notoriously bad sleeper to begin with. My poor oldest son has inherited this quality and my younger son suffers the consequences of hearing his older brother stomp around the kitchen when he’s pissed he’s not sleeping. The three of us all use fans for white noise. The fan is both a blessing and a curse. Without it, I’d have surely committed homicide on a sibling, roommate or spouse in my lifetime. But that’s exactly the problem–when the power goes out, the fan goes out. Sleep becomes unreachable.

Today is Day 6 of NaNoWriMo. Most know that this writing challenge involves daily immersion in words, at least 1,700 a day to keep up the pace to hit 50K by November 30th. Between Novembeard and NaNo, you can have some seriously bedraggled looking writers wandering out in the world this month. Throw in the lack of sleep and you better just step back. Yesterday, I hit 10K on my WIP.  Pretty significant milestone in the NaNo challenge, ahead of the word count game, 1/5th done, and well into the arc of the story. Potentially. The story was moving along relatively well, the words were obviously on the page, but it read like instructions for bicycle assembly or something. Just words, little punch. I kept telling myself–this is NaNo, it’s not about perfect art the first time through, it’s about getting the quantity of words down.

But is that really what I am about? Quantity of words?

Like sleep–quality is sometimes more important. Trust me, as a life-long sleep-challenged being, I know how great a solid hour nap can make you feel. Sometimes it’s the depth of sleep that is more important than the length. I have a close friend who never reaches REM sleep, the quality restorative sleep we all need to recover mentally, emotionally, and physically right down to the cellular level. Ten hours of sleep might as well be two hours of sleep. This is not acceptable, it’s not quality. This is how my 10K was feeling–empty.

People say: Don’t stop and go back when you’re in NaNo!  (This is beginning to sound like a sci-fi novel)  But I couldn’t go forward. The depth of my story was unattainable and to keep writing at that surface level would have just meant a month of emptiness. Like a month of bad sleep. It would hang on my shoulders, nagging me to please fix it or at least try! And the thing is I knew what had to be done: a simple change of POV. All the writers out there are laughing at me.

Simple. Ha.

Nothing in the art world is simple. Nothing in my sleep world is simple. Nothing in life is particularly simple–except when you go with your gut instinct, it no longer matters. Difficult becomes easier. Unreachable becomes possible. Change, on any level, is not for cowards.

So, I started changing the manuscript I’d so diligently punched out over the last week without looking back. Now I’m looking back. And it’s going to slow my word count a bit for a couple days, but suddenly my protagonist has a voice, my story has energy and depth. It doesn’t feel empty anymore; it found its purpose. It’s not perfect and it will require revisions as all stories do, but my feeling about it has changed. The story is no longer unreachable.

That’s more I can say about sleep, but hey, 1 out of 2 ain’t bad.

However, the power is back on. I have a few hours to work before I go to my day-job. And the coffee is brewing: one hot cup of motivation at a time.


NaNoWriMo: You Want Me To Do What?

Saturday is November. It may seem like just another weekend, but for many of us in the writing community, it’s the first day of a brand new novel. Or at least brand new work which can be put toward a novel, like banking words instead of cash. NaNoWriMo—or National Novel Writing Month—is a lot of fun and all it requires is that you write 50,000 words in 30 days.

Yep. That’s it!

Break it down and it doesn’t sound quite so scary. 1,666 words a day. If you’re an experienced writer, 1,666 words is really very little, but it does require that you sit down every day to accomplish that number, otherwise you will have to double, triple, maybe even quadruple your total if you procrastinate. And if you’re like me—jobs, kids, dog, bills—you can’t necessarily spend a Saturday writing 7000 words to make up for your week. Though I have definitely done that.

I won NaNoWriMo in 2010, so this will be my second time “competing”. I quote that because it’s not a competition between writers, it’s more a competition for personal achievement that you share with your fellow writing friends. The first question a lot of people ask is “How did you win?” As an honor system, it’s totally up to you if you want to upload 100 pages of the same sentence or 50,000 “the’s”. But what would be the point of that? A true writer wants to do as decent a job as she can with the time she has. Getting down the framework of a novel, even if she knows it will likely change, is important. And the time restrictions and word count requirements serve as guides and incentives to get the work done. I doubt many participants are looking for ways to get around that. One of the joys of writing is personal satisfaction. There is no personal satisfaction in cheating.

The 50,000 words I wrote in 2010 ended up being fairly competent. In fact, a more developed version of it won 2nd place in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award the following year. While I couldn’t sell it at that time, I set it aside for safekeeping because I was in love with the story and unwilling to give up on it. Little did I know, a few years later, I’d pull that file from the dusty corners of my hard drive, that it would get me into Vermont College of Fine Arts, and that I’d end up rewriting it for my Master’s thesis. It is now a brand new novel and I’m confident it will eventually sell. And those NaNo bones are still there. I’d say November 2010 was well worth my time.

I head into this year’s competition with confidence that I will win again. I have quite a bit less free time than I did in 2010, but since then I’ve earned my MFA and if grad. school teaches you anything it’s that free time can always be found—that it MUST be found if you intend to be successful. Writing demands time management. There is no way to succeed in the publishing business without it. This may be one of the most valuable lessons of NaNo as well. It forces you to set aside expectations of perfected work and just write your heart out. Say no to social life for a month. But have fun. Be creative. You never know, you may just get a brand new story out of it.

And who knows where that story will take you.

Happy writing!

It’s Been Broughten!

The 777 challenge is on.

My good friend Heather Demetrios has drawn the line in the sand and dared me to cross. I slip on my best cowgirl boots and Stetson, pull out my six-shooters and…ahem…well, since I’m certainly not shooting her, post seven sentences.

Seven sentences from page seven of my WIP, seven lines down. 777.

It just so happens that I started playing around with a brand new novel idea this week, so I’m going to post 7 lines of rough character work from this unnamed road trip novel about two girls, best friends, who go on a post-graduation trek to photograph abandoned buildings across their state. For Jill, an artistic girl who feels like the black sheep of the family, it’s an exodus from her parents’ “tyrannical hypocrisy” in order to make them take her seriously, and Jade, once left in a Walmart bathroom as an infant, thinks she’s just along for the ride until she finds something she didn’t even know she was looking for.

For both it’s actually a journey about finding their self-worth.

This is an excerpt from Jill’s POV:

We never had any idea when Dad would be home. Always working late with his secretary and such. Mom did nothing about it, backed him up, even, saying his job demanded a lot of his time. Right. Apparently it demanded his dick, too.

“I told Jade I’d be there by ten. I’ve got to go.”

“Please be careful, Jilly. And call me, just once in a while, so I know you’re alive, okay?”

I hugged her. It was a lame hug, I’ll admit, but it was all I could manage. 

So, to send this challenge further into the world, I now tag Donna Galanti, Kathryn Craft, Marie Lamba, Kathryn Gaglione, and Shae Edwards!

Looking forward to seeing your words, ladies!

Title: Writer

I know a lot of writers. For the first time in my life, when I run through a mental list of close personal friends, general friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, a huge number of them are writers. Over the last several years, I’ve learned how to put people in my life who are of like mind, supportive, compassionate, and somewhat on the same path as I—the path of writing—but now I see exactly how important and wonderful it is to be surrounded by so many kindred hearts. I have a few close friends who are artists of other means as well, and their creative personalities blend with mine seamlessly. But it’s the writers that I’m focusing on for this, because being inundated with so many talented word-smiths, I’ve started to see many patterns emerge, many similarities between us and how even when there are stark differences in life experience, there is some kind of link that connects writers to one another.

One of the patterns that stands out to me as I get to know people’s personal stories is the generation of their writing. Often writers are asked about their process or how they got the idea for their latest book, but what fascinates me the most is how they got started on the writing journey in the first place, what made them want to be a writer. It seems there are two main answers, although it’s by no means black and white, these are just two predominant observations.

  1. Born to be writers. These are people who, as children, wanted to be writers. They told stories to their friends at sleep-overs and around the campfire, wrote stories for school, family, themselves, the family dog, read voraciously, and knew at a young age that they wanted to be storytellers. They may have gone on to write their first novel in college or not until they were 40, but the drive to write stemmed from an overwhelming desire to tell stories.
  2. Born to write. These are people who, as children, wrote. It might seem like only a slight variation from the first category, and it is, except that these people didn’t necessarily set out to be writers, telling stories was second to the desire to write for writing’s sake. Rather than writing stories, they wrote in journals or wrote poetry. The distinction is in the reason these people must write, for those who write without thinking about a story or structure or a future purpose are primarily writing from an overwhelming desire to express themselves.

There are, obviously, many variations of these two categories and writers are like snowflakes in the way that they work, live, write, and process, but I find these two basic descriptions can be tacked to most of my friends, myself included. Both types have the need to write. Both have the need for expression. Both have many thousands of words under their pen by the time they are grown-ups, yet, each has its own set of strengths and challenges.

Writer #1 is a never-ending fount of story ideas. Not only is he plagued by a constant onslaught of “what-ifs”, he sees a story at every turn, every new experience, and with each person he meets. The idea-well will never run dry. He can spin a story out of the most inane detail, create instant complex characters, and often see the beginning, middle and end of a project right from the start.

Writer #2 is a never-ending fount of words. She can write for 12 hours if the flow is right, wake up before the world, tugged by some invisible force that requires tapping into. Whether it’s a blog post, a journal entry, or a story, this writer has to hit some kind of personal epiphany in order to have a good writing day. It is her primary way of processing anything, and in fact, when struggling with an issue—personal, societal, ethical—she will often turn to the computer or a journal to work it out.

These both good writers make. They can both finish projects and write like mad-people and feel personally fulfilled as well as be professionally successful. But their challenges are often different. Writer #1 can sometimes be so consumed with ideas that it’s difficult to pick just one and Writer #2 can sometimes be so full of words it’s difficult to turn them into a concise, concrete story. Writer #1 may struggle with the emotional component to a story, where #2 can’t seem to find a plot.

I’ve begun categorizing my writing friends just for fun. (Yeah, none of you is ever safe.) I listen to their stories about their childhoods, their writing journey, even their physical and mental well-being, and compare their careers. I throw myself in the mix; I see how we all fit in this complex flow-chart of creative thinking and production and living and it’s fascinating how very different we are and yet, how most of us were born from one of these two categories. Because I fall into the category of Writer #2, as I’ve observed and taken mental notes and even now having written this blog post, this personal interest has also turned into a character idea.

The writing life intrigues me even as I am part of it. Perhaps that is the most fulfilling aspect of this career. To be enamored with your own process and that of others in the same vocation is a pleasure of its own, a perk to the job, an encouraging push to keep working because in some way, we are all linked and all moving toward our personal and artistic best. So, where do you fit? Can you place yourself in one of the two categories or do you fall somewhere along the spectrum of both? Regardless, you can find comfort that you are never alone in your pursuits and no matter what your process, your motivations, your production levels, if you write you are a writer.

Serendipity and an Apple

I had been simultaneously dragging my feet and longing to buy a new computer. I needed to do it soon because our desktop officially crashed last week. It had been unofficially crashing for weeks prior and I knew it was only a matter of time before resuscitation was impossible. Each time I saw that black and white text screen I cringed. Pressed restart. Sighed when it set itself right. The poor thing is ten years old. That’s, like, at least 95 in Dell years.

As it reached old age, I began debating whether or not I would (or could) replace it. The kids get iPads from their schools, but writing a research paper is tough on an iPad. They needed something to write with, something to print from, something to play Minecraft on (c’mon, people, priorities), so I knew a purchase was justified. I’d get an upgrade and they’d get my current laptop. I have wanted a Mac for myself for a long time now, but always ended up buying something cheaper because I didn’t really need a Mac.

I always have a tough time with that word. Need. What do we need really? Not much. In fact, I was in Target this morning buying paper towels and toothpaste and contact solution and watching the numbers tick up as I added things to the basket. I passed a couple browsing in the home décor aisle, and I heard the woman say with urgent desire, “Oh, I NEED these!” I didn’t look to see what she was referring to, but I can almost guarantee you it was something ridiculous like maple leaf napkin rings or ceramic pumpkins. Both very cute, but I’m sorry. No one needs napkin rings. Now if it had been a pair of suede riding boots, I might have agreed with her. I always need suede riding boots.

But truthfully, how often do we consider what we actually need versus what we want or what we think we deserve or what we justify to ourselves as logical. In Kohls, where I went in only to pay off the entire balance of my credit card (Okay. Fine. I looked at the boots.), the woman asked me if I wanted to sign up for their new shopping rewards program. I must have given her a baffling look, because she quickly tried to explain how you get points for every dollar that you spend and I’m staring at her, thinking the entire time: This is Kohl’s. You already have a gazillion programs. How many more do you need? Why are you trying to confuse us? And what the hell are shopping reward points anyway? How do I live in a country that rewards you for buying shit you don’t need?

Whatever. Yes. Sign me up.

I didn’t buy any boots. Don’t pat me on the back or anything. They didn’t have my size. But numbers were ticking up in my head once more anyway, considering the computer, considering the coming bills, considering my lack of a pair of boots in every color, for every day of the month. What we all need sometimes is a different perspective and I work very hard at keeping mine intact. Sometimes I slip up and I buy boots. Sometimes I sit down with the bank and get actual things accomplished and that was what I did today. I met with the nice loan officer and she told me she can refinance my car for half the monthly payment I pay now. In some ways, that sucks. I don’t like debt. It’s even more ridiculous than shopping reward points. But we live in a country where college could easily cost a student a mortgage payment and a reliable car twenty-grand. For now, me and my car and school loans will have to figure out a way to get along. At least I was feeling a little better about buying the computer. The scales balanced a little bit. I was figuring things out. I didn’t get new boots, or shopping reward points, but you know what? I still felt that little jolt of euphoria that shopping sometimes gives you. That “retail therapy” boost. And in a much more permanent fix. Because figuring out my finances was something I actually needed.

Then I was on my way again and thinking about how to now tick up the numbers in my checking account. Lowering bills was good, but increasing input even better. There was a sign hanging in a local restaurant looking for servers and I’d been considering stopping in for a couple weeks. It’s a cute little brewery and I’ve eaten there a lot and it’s close enough I could walk to it. It would be a great third part-time job, except that it would require nights and weekends—the bane of a single parent’s schedule. The bane of a 38 year old’s schedule, really. How much sleep cycle abuse can one person take? The tips would be great, but the consequences on my kids (and my brain) not so much.

And then I got an email with good news.

An unexpected job offer came waltzing into my morning as if it had no idea of what was going on at the moment. Hands in its pockets, whistling a happy tune, it just decided to pop in and see if there was any chance I might be interested. It actually excused itself and said, “Sorry, is this a bad time?”

Wait? What? Get your ass back over here!

I’m reminded, yet again, that over and over, regardless to what you attribute your circumstances, regardless of what you think you deserve or don’t deserve, that more often than not we are somehow taken care of, somehow held by the universe, lifted up and far beyond what we think we can handle. Given gifts we assume were meant for someone else. It’s not really all a matter of God or serendipity; it’s a result of hard work, being open to opportunities, and a lot of positive thinking. But sometimes things seem so magical, so perfectly timed, it’s hard to not believe.

So, Momma got her first Mac laptop today. Still a hold-my-breath purchase. Still not sure if it’s needed. But I am willing to bet that the universe still has more in store for me. Something better than suede riding boots. Something more magical than I could guess.

Today, I’m willing to believe.


The Pain and Pleasure of the Calling

In a recent TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert says great failure or great success can propel you so far away from your “home” that the emotional reactions are identical, and the only thing you can do is find your way home again. She’s referring to the abrupt and huge success of her novel Eat, Pray, Love, in which the only way for her to recover from the fear of never writing a book that successful again was indeed, to write. And how after a six year phase of failure, prior to EPL, she did the same, she wrote. Writing is her home. Writing is her calling.

I’ve been thinking about callings a lot lately. I first heard the term as a young girl when my grandfather referred to finding his calling in seminary. After twenty years of marriage, serving in the military, and holding down multiple HVAC jobs, he felt incomplete, and wasn’t living the life he wanted. He went to seminary, became an Episcopalian minister, and thus found his calling. The way he spoke of his experience made the whole idea seem so mystical and abstract to me as a kid. Even as a young adult as I was raising my kids, I remember fumbling around with all sorts of creative outlets and jobs and wondering: “Are one of these things my calling? Will I know it when it calls me?”

And the scariest thought: “What if I don’t have one?”

But I always suspected that I did. Deep down, as much as I loved my family and enjoyed most everything I tried, including the church like my grandfather, I knew something was still missing. Nothing clicked in that mystical way he spoke about. None of these things were my calling. I knew this because none of these things moved me. I could still easily fit in the pretty little box I’d created for myself called “security”.

And I hate to say it, but callings are not secure.

My grandfather didn’t just find a new vocation. The ministry found him, plucked him out of his HVAC, domestic life and opened his eyes to an entirely different world. It pulled him in and made a new home for him. A home that, once discovered, made it impossible for him to return to the home he’d known. He divorced my grandmother, moved out west, and began a new life. It was a traumatic event that confused many people, including his granddaughter.

I finally found that calling for myself in an activity I’d done my entire life, an outlet that had served as both fun and therapeutic and expressive since the age of ten when I received my first diary. Ironically, the same year my grandfather left his first life for the next. For me, it was writing. Sometimes I wonder why it took me so long to catch on. Here was something I’d thrived on through my entire life, and yet never took seriously. Clearly, I wasn’t listening, not to myself, not to my ability, not even to what gave me pleasure. But about eight years ago, I finally stopped bouncing around and heard that voice that had said so many times, “Someday you should write a book” And so someday came. And I did. And I have been unrelentingly writing since.

Now I find I am hardly myself unless I am writing. I don’t have much peace without writing. Sometimes this is painful because I know I am, at times, detached from other people, and it creates gaps in relationships. Sometimes I am lost in a daydream world that no one else will ever find their way into. I express myself better through written language than spoken, which can be challenging when you live with other humans. When I’m not writing, I feel like I should be writing, even if I’m just eating breakfast. If I have a few days in which I feel unproductive, I begin to get anxious and irritable. I start to feel a bit lost on a current of air, like a dandelion seed.

Other times, it’s joyous. A single scene of discovery can make my entire day. An idea while bike-riding. A character speaking to me when I’m on a long walk in a meadow. Finishing a project. Seeing my novel spread before me on color-coded index cards. Discussing the process with other writers who totally get it. I am completely engaged and present.

All of these things–my grandfather’s stories, my experiences–all with both pleasure and pain, are how I know I’ve found my home, that internal mystical location that my grandfather promised existed. Not everyone’s life will be as up-heaved as his, or, for that matter mine, was, but it provides such a powerful look into how strong a calling can be. How once found, it can change your life indefinitely. You cannot turn back to that pretty little box labeled “security”.

Gilbert goes on to say, “Identify the best, worthiest thing that you love most and then build your house right on top of it and don’t budge from it.”  There will be phases and events, people and losses and successes that fling us from home throughout our lives, but we must always return to that calling once we’ve found it, or we will be lost.

O Captain, My Captain


I know I am not the only writer, artist, well-wisher who will run to their blog/facebook/twitter and post something about the loss of our beloved Robin Williams. When I first heard the news—through Facebook—I thought it was a hoax. Quickly, however, I realized it was not. It was very real and very sad. I broke down after reading the first article. And then I thought, “What is wrong with me?” I never met this man. I didn’t know him, only the characters he’d played. Other than star-struck 15 year old girls, who cries over celebrities? I’ve been crying on and off since. And I’m not 15.

Dead Poets Society was one of the first movies that impacted me on a level a couple steps up from entertainment. For the first time, I identified with multiple characters, truly admired an adult character, and held on to the story as truth for my own life. The movie had values and dreams that I could believe in, that I could hope for. And Williams’ character was an adult I could trust. Fictional, of course, but if someone had written this character, they had to exist, right? I was 13.

A few years later, Williams did another film that resonated. Despite being quite a bit goofier than Poets, this movie came out smack in the middle of GenXer’s tumultuous adolescence. Although I was five years past my own parents divorce, and had virtually no relationship with my father at the time, he took me and my sister to see Mrs. Doubtfire. The story certainly touched me, Robins’ character especially, but it wasn’t until I was older that I knew why: Because it showed me that fathers really do love their children.

And then in 1997, yet again, a movie that I saw as a very young newlywed and reeled over the scene where Williams, as a therapist, assures his patient that it “is not his fault”, a scene that still haunts me, perhaps more today now that I have far more understanding of just how much we can go through our lives faulting ourselves when there really is none to be had.

I’ve enjoyed many other of William’s movies and comedy shows and even just clips of his effervescent personality.  But he carried me through the nineties. You might say it was the movies or the characters, not the actual man who made an impact. But I disagree. If you look at his body of work as a cannon, or a collection, the way we’d look at a painter’s life or an author’s shelf of books, the art is very much the man, the man very much his art. Not all are great, some aren’t even good, but as a whole, as a representation, Williams’ work was well-rounded. Hilarious, dark, grievous, endearing, youthful, disturbing, innocent, beautiful.

It is profoundly sad that, in the end, it was the darkness that took the man.

And maybe that is why articles are reporting how “Everyone is devastated.”  How difficult it is to accept that behind that infectious smile and the rip-roaring jokes that made us feel like we knew who Robin was, was actually a very sad man. Depression camouflages itself well. Only the closest family or friends may be aware, and even then, are often surprised if their loved one finally succumbs. We see it again and again, especially with artists—they vanish behind some kind of mask, and then they vanish altogether, and we are left wondering how we missed it.

But even as a kid, I saw the sadness in Robin’s eyes and perhaps that is exactly what made him and his work so accessible to me. Here was an adult who had seen what I’d seen and was still living, still laughing. He was genuine. No one can make you laugh like that unless they know and speak the truth. No one can make you laugh like that unless they’ve seen the other side of that joke. This is what makes great comedians great. This is what makes all great artists. Truth in beauty and loss, together. But it is a lot to bear, holding the weight of both beauty and loss, and we lose too many of the greats far too soon.

RIP Robin.

Thank you for sharing your heart, and for being one of the greats who have taught me to share mine.


Sometimes inspiration is hard to come by. There are times when I’m pulled out of a dead sleep with some kind of genius idea that must be put to the page before I even think about closing my eyes again. Or on my way to work, I’ll scribble on gas receipts that are left lying all over my car. (You don’t want to be driving behind me in those moments.) Or while out on a walk and I’ll have to run home before the idea fades like a wisp of a dream. But the truth is, these moments, while precious gifts to any artist, are sometimes very few and far between. Life is busy. Days are simultaneously long and short. There are needs to be met and chores to be done and bills to be paid. Sometimes inspiration seems like a myth I once believed in that has since been debunked.

Writing is work, I remind myself. Inspiration plays a part, of course, but more often than not my inspiration is simply the desire to write, so when that desire is lagging, it can be crushing. Life piles up around me as I work and I begin to feel suffocated by responsibility and often writing is the first thing that goes. Over the last two years, I’ve been working on my MFA, so writing couldn’t be set aside. There were due dates and expectations and monthly goals. Although my classmates and I would sometimes bitch and complain, I’m fairly certain we all clung to those deadlines like lifelines. I know I did. They were “excuses” to not have to finish the dishes, to skip the lacrosse-mom meeting, to send someone else grocery shopping. I loved these excuses; they validated me and my work. Now I sit down to the computer and think–What is keeping me here?

I knew the end of a program such as mine could feel like being tossed off the edge of a cliff. I thought I was prepared. I’d hoped to be further along in my manuscript, closer to an agent, and therefore ready for my next set of deadlines, aka: lifelines. But it didn’t happen. Too many factors to juggle, never enough time, changing expectations from month to month and it just didn’t add up quite the way I’d hoped a year ago. This, however, is life. You really can’t be prepared for much of anything, you can only work hard, make your choices, and keep going.

My daughter had her eighth grade graduation dance this weekend and because she’s in such a tiny school, parents are in charge of planning just about everything. My inbox quickly filled with thousands of emails from the other moms. I kept myself in touch enough to know what was going on, to help out wherever needed, but I remained on the fringe, didn’t put a single idea out there as the planning began and only sent emails to thank people for their work. I knew my creative energy was better spent elsewhere and for some of the other moms, their creative energy only went to such activities as their kid’s dance planning. The event was a huge success because of those moms, no doubt. And it reminds me how much the variety of personalities is what keeps things going. How inspiration strikes in a multitude of ways and is no less important for those moms as it is for me.

The dance theme was The Red Carpet. Absolutely perfect for my dramatic daughter, who brought a cardboard standee of a Walking Dead character as her date, and who is one of the most creative individuals I know. She inspires me on a daily basis. I have always been creative as well, but filled to the brim with insecurities left over from a difficult first couple decades of life. But she has had a stable childhood and is still highly creative and that fascinates me. She’s proud of her art, she’s not afraid to say and do and dress and how she wants, and her inspiration is purely the desire to create. I’d love to bottle some of that confidence. I know it will take her far.

Anyway, at the dance, we hung movie posters all over the hall. Some were photo-shopped to have the kids’ faces, which was hilarious and well-loved, some couldn’t be re-worked with the kids photos and remained untouched.  One such poster caught my attention. It was a soon coming movie that is sure to be a hit with teenage girls (and a lot of their mothers) internationally. The book is a NYT’s bestseller. The author, one of my very favorites. Although I”m often pretty quite about my love of YA fiction and even quieter about the fact that I write it, I asked the woman who got the posters if I could have it if none of the kids claimed it, thinking there was no way this poster wouldn’t get claimed by the end of the night. A hall full of 14 year old girls–I didn’t stand a chance. But the movie-poster mom must have gotten a kick out of my request and she said: Consider it yours.

Call me crazy–I am. I hung it up in my bedroom like any of those kids–including my own daughter–would have done. But my reasons are different. I’m not enamored with the actors, nor the love story, although it is perfectly melodramatic and lovely, it’s the source of this poster that inspires me–the book. The fact that a book can circle the globe, touch millions of readers young and old, and become a household name. As a writer, I don’t seek super-stardom. In fact, the idea of that actually terrifies me–though, don’t get me wrong potential agents–I’d never turn it down!  I’m just completely enamored by story and how this story will sit in the hearts and minds of so many people. That’s pretty damn inspirational. And so now, I work.

photo (19)

Beyond the Barista: The Life of This Writer

I work at a tiny, specialized coffee shop located in one of the many artsy, hipster New Jersey towns along the Delaware River. I started looking for work about two months ago after a short employment hiatus I took in order to focus on my MFA, in particular, the monster of a thesis I had to write. I wanted a lot of flexibility to work on that, as well as my novel, and it seemed like a good plan at the time. Unfortunately, the lack of an external schedule of any kind ended up killing my productivity. And even more of the lack of routine, the lack of human contact and the ability to ever get out of my own head. It has been a difficult year.

I’m not the only writer employed at the café. Nor am I the only one with a terminal degree. (I’ve always been amused by that term—terminal. Certainly feels like the end, sometimes.) And I’ve thought a lot about why this happens. Why aren’t we all teaching at the local university instead of pulling shots for a crowd that pays for a cup of coffee with a 100 dollar bill? (Not kidding—that happens pretty much every single shift.) Why aren’t we more prestigious and wearing suits like our customers and, well, salaried?

For me, there are several reasons. First of which: I have no experience working full time. None. Zip. In nearly forty years I’ve never worked more than 20-30 hours a week except for summer camp jobs that were pretty much 24/7, a lot like motherhood, actually. The idea of being held to a full-time schedule actually terrifies me. I’m uncertain I could handle the work-load, the added stress of early mornings (where I don’t stay in my PJ’s) day in and day out, or the demands of dozens of students, eager or otherwise.

Another reason many artists choose to work in the food industry or similar places is the opportunity to observe while getting paid (plus tips!). The coffee shop, and I imagine restaurants and bars and the like, are full of characters who show up every day, ordering the same large, skim, quad latte, requesting the same seat by the window, paying with three dozen pennies, or getting pissed when you miss-count their change. Yeah, that happens to me a lot. Writer, not mathematician. But I’m getting better.

I’d say that I’ve been fortunate to not have to work full-time, but in reality it has caused stress on my family. From moves to foreclosure, we have financially suffered with only one income. There have been many sacrifices made for me to stay home with my kids as well as continue to write. Yet, even though the kids are older and don’t need me here quite as much, I still cannot muster up the motivation for a 9-5 schedule, so I chose two part-time jobs instead. The café and at-home freelance work. Don’t get me wrong, working at home has its challenges too. I can expect to be interrupted pretty much every time I sit down at the computer, which is always. Between the dog needing to go out, my daughter, whose bedroom is across the hall, playing the same Weird Al song thirty times in a row, and my ten year old describing his latest custom Lego board-game creation which usually comes with a set of genius instructions that rivals The Settlers of Catan, I must always be ready to turn my patience on at any moment. Difficult. When you are writing, articles about milk or blog posts or a short story, you are in your head and in the zone. Being yanked out of it repeatedly is not only bad for the work, but bad for your children’s health.

But sometimes writers are in their heads far too much. At least this writer is. Which brings me to the last and possibly the most important part about having a day job that is nothing like your passion. Working at the café forces me to stop thinking. Let me rephrase: It forces me to think differently. Whether zipping around the counter to grind coffee, prepare a pour-over, put away clean dishes, and make change—yes all at once!—or counting the drawer down at the end of the day, it gives me tasks that I almost never do otherwise. Chatting with customers who think you’re their new therapist keeps my verbal and listening skills sharp. These are the things that force you out of your brain, out of that zone and interacting in the real world.

For some of us, this is necessary for survival. I don’t say that lightly. Because for some of us, there is a paradox of both needing the creative zone and needing to leave it in order to function emotionally. I often find the very thing I love the most is also the very thing that could kill me if I’m not diligent about leaving it once in a while, for I tend to careen into a deep, dark hole when I’m not paying attention. It’s about basic human needs, really. Touch, laughter, affection, eating, sleeping, and face-to-face conversation that keeps us real. If I’m not careful, I can live my entire life through my laptop. When I’m in the zone—and this can span over weeks—I lose sleep, I don’t eat, I hardly talk (other than Twitter/Facebook), and I probably look like a zombie when I wander around the house.

Now you’re probably thinking—who the hell would choose that life!?

I could say, it chose me. Writing, the zone, my own personal struggle with mental illness that both complicates and simplifies everything. It would be easier to claim victim to such a strange calling. Instead, I claim it. It’s the life I want and the life I must learn how to conquer instead of it conquering me. Without my kids and now a job where I’m expected to show up non-zombified, I’m not sure I’d ever leave the zone. Disastrous indeed.

Creativity is so important to me that prestige and salary has very little attractiveness. Not everyone understands this—I don’t even understand it all the time, especially when I think about how we will not have a penny for our kids’ college educations. I sometimes feel very guilty and selfish. And I often feel this quandary regarding a creative life: I’ll die if I do, I’ll die if I don’t. The life of a writer is not an easy life. But I don’t know any writers who would—or could—give it up.

Meanwhile, I better learn how the hell to count change.