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?


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!

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.

Okay Ever After

photo (6)


“Fairy tales are about trouble, about getting into it and out of it, and trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route of becoming. All the magic and glass mountains and pearls the size of houses and princesses beautiful as the day and talking birds and part-time serpents are distractions from the tough core of most of the stories, the struggle to survive against adversaries, to find your place in your world, and to come into your own, difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”

 ~Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby

I recently read that paragraph on a friend’s post and I’m picking up the book this week.  Solnit’s perspective is spot-on, and I like how she talks about trouble, which could mean the protagonist getting into trouble or trouble finding the protagonist, and how it creates a learning experience. I’m specifically reminded of  Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. It was one of those stories I read over and over until the book opened right at the spot it knew I’d return to. Not a particularly encouraging story, but fascinating to me nonetheless. There was a story without a happily ever after. In fact, it had a rather twisted theme, but for some reason it interested me as a kid because it was so different from a lot of fairy tales or books that were out there.  It was difficult.

Difficult, the way I see it , means trouble, as Solnit says, but I want to expand it for the sake of this post. A difficult story can be one with perilous circumstances or just sad experiences. The key is that these plot points provide enormous growth potential–for the character and the reader. And though the story may feel dark, it’s not completely devoid of hope.

In addition to Andersen’s twisted tales,  I preferred books that involved characters who had major odds or serious grief or difficult life circumstances to conquer, whether fantasy or realism, it had to have some kind of emotional core that dealt with parents, siblings, or even best friends. The cute pink covered books were completely uninteresting to me. And for the most part, my tastes in reading have not changed at all. When I read kids books now I still prefer the ones that really tug at the heartstrings. Anything by Kate DiCamillo, and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness are a couple that come to mind. Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia, Charlotte’s Web and others like The Secret Garden or Little Women, where life (or plot) hands a character a grievous circumstance or two and the main character doesn’t turn to sea foam like The Little Mermaid. A truly good story, for me, is one that makes me think/question or cry. Although I am okay with a completely sad ending as well, as long as it’s earned. Little Mermaid, when read as an adult, reads more like an instruction booklet on how to be a good little girl–it’s a bit creepy and not entirely earned. But it’s an older style of writing and that’s a different blog post.

About two years ago I listened to a lecture by Matt de la Pena and he spoke about the necessity of darkness. He talked about how kids need the dark stories and he’s absolutely right. Far too often, adults, parents, teachers, even other writers, think that children need to be supplied only with lovely, beautiful stories that illustrate life’s finer moments. While it’s true that beautiful stories that focus on pleasant things are valuable, the opposite is also valuable. After all, both exist. And often side by side.

What was very true for me, even though I didn’t quite know this as a kid—sad or darker stories can actually comfort a child, remind them that they are not alone, that their lives aren’t the only ones confusing or sad or downright messed up. Because that child’s life doesn’t look anything like those pink covered novels about cupcakes. She doesn’t have a whole lot in common with those girls whose life is about finding the best dress for the first day of school.

Stories that provide characters who not only survive, but reach some kind of peace despite their flaws or their flawed circumstances give a child confidence that she, too, will find her way through it all. It may not have a Disney ending, and it may not be entirely happy, but she will find hope in it because all she really needs to know is that she will be okay.

So write your stories—fantasy, sci-fi, realism, apocalyptic with a twist of steampunk pirates, whatever they are—with this in mind: it doesn’t have to be a perfect ending or a fairy tale romance or an everybody wins scenario in order to encourage, teach, or comfort a reader. It doesn’t have to have some kind of moral or religious lesson at the end, like the way Andersen tended to wrap his tales, but a glimmer of hope is good thing. Regardless of style, craft an authentic story with an authentic ending and your readers will cling to the emotional impact of it, they will feel the truth that’s in all good fiction—and maybe they will even discover that they will be okay.