Making a List. Checking It Twice.

It’s the 27th. In four days, I start my next novel. I posted earlier about how I am planning for my story this year, but I didn’t post about all the other stuff that needs to happen this year. I’ve been asked in previous years about how one holds down a job, keeps ones’ household running and writes a novel without resorting to incredibly hard drugs or armies of servants, and I answer that it takes one simple thing. It takes a list.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon practicing in Boston, as well as the author of dozens of scholarly papers and general-interest articles about medicine and, more recently, organization. His recent articles have been about how we, as fallible human beings, continue to improve our performance professionally and personally throughout our lives. His book, The Checklist Manifesto, outlines how to continue to perform well in the face of increased complexity.

I’ve always been a fan of lists, and I’ll need them more than ever, considering that in November I will write a novel, help plan a new website for the volunteer group I work with, read and critique the writing of the rest of my cohort in grad school, look for a new house and host company from the 8th through Thanksgiving.

If you’re thinking of starting listing, here are some things you might want to consider to make your lists really work for you:

  1. Make sure your list items are tasks, not projects. A project is a collection of tasks, so if you have “clean out the garage” on your list, you might want to break it up into things like “take old bicycles to the dump,” “put old work bench on Craigslist,” etc.
  2. Review your list at least weekly. I put the date in the margin every Monday, and continue the same list. Then, I use a new color of hilighter to mark off the things I finish. This method means that I can instantly see what I got done this week, and tell how when I put it on the list. Things that sit on your list for 3-4 weeks should be re-evaluated – they might need to be broken into smaller chunks, or postponed.
  3. Take your list with you everywhere. Mine is just a spiral-bound notebook that lives with all my other stuff. When my husband wants to talk about what we’re doing this week, or when I go to a volunteer meeting, I bring it with me so that I can capture any new tasks and so that I have a reminder not to over-commit myself.

Fear of the unknown is a well-known phenomenon (a Google search on that phrase yielded 40.6 million results). People with complex lives are afraid that they may miss something – that they won’t know that they should be doing X when they’re busy doing Y. Making a list is a great way to take that fear of the unknown, that fear of losing control over the complexity of your life, and make it manageable.

November Is Coming! Am I Ready?

Every year since 2002, I’ve taken on the challenge of National Novel Writing Month. Both Nanowrimo and I have matured a lot over the last 9 years, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my process, particularly since this year, November’s new novel will be followed by December’s start at grad school and January’s Borderlands Press Boot Camp.

Every novelist has their own way of coming to a story. Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, said that her first inkling of the 800-page masterpiece was just an image of a man in 18th century clothes who might be connected with magic gone badly wrong. From that she grew plots and subplots, a host of characters and an entire new world.

The first time I did Nanowrimo, I had an entire plot all sketched out. In fact, I had blatantly cheated, having started writing on about October 24th because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to take on what seemed to me at the time an impossible challenge. But then, on the night of October 31 (actually in the wee hours of the morning on November 1), my grandmother passed away. The news threw me into a tailspin as I thought about all that had perished with her – the miracle stories, the cryptic mutterings, the trashy magazines. Both sides of my family are all about the matriarch, so we were a body whose head had been removed and we thrashed and spasmed in the throes of her death.

I threw out the entire story I’d written and started over with a story that had been brewing in my mind for years, but I had never gotten enough of a grip on to write down. It was the story of Orpheus, and although I knew how the plot would work, I wasn’t sure where and when it should be set. My grandmother’s death fixed the time and place – Mexico of the 1920s. Over the next month, I wrote frantically, going so far as to give dictation to my not-yet husband as we made the 12-hour drive from San Jose to Phoenix with a 10- and a 2-year-old. I cried as I wrote, I wrote as I cried, I wrote as if the peace of my soul depended on it. I often had no idea from one sentence to the next where I was headed (although, because I was using the familiar material of myth, the plot was already determined), so I just wrote to soothe myself.

I can honestly say that writing has never been so…easy’s not the right word. That novel was many things, but it was never easy. Writing has never been so sure for me since. Because I’ve never had the same combination of a ready-made plot and an emotional need to stave off the specter of mortality, my plots have suffered. The middles sag, the endings come out of nowhere, the beginnings lack snap. Perhaps that’s it! Instead of spending my time trying to plan more – character sketching, world building, plot outlining – maybe all the planning I need to do is to connect with the obituary pages and remember what it felt like to be so desperate to get the words out that I thought I might suffocate if I slowed down.

I’ve Been Promoted!

I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for decades now, and it’s less a religion than a lifestyle. I make it a habit to think very long-term about the things that I do, making sure that I’m doing the right thing. I try very hard to practice the whole “right speech, right action, right livelihood, right thought” thing, although I must admit that my own personal weakness is right thought. My biggest indulgence is a constant stream of mental snark that occasionally spills out of my mouth as speech.

One concept that colors my thought is that of the ten worlds. These ten worlds are ten different states of being, and while they are typically presented from lowest to highest, you can move from any one of them to any of the others. For a list of the ten worlds and how they interact, go here. I’ll wait.


For the first half of my life, my normal state was hunger. As a middle child, I craved attention from those around me and often acted like a drama queen to get that attention. I was a young child in the early 1970s and suffered the double whammy of a terrible recession and hippies. That meant two things: we had no money and everyone was on a health food craze that meant that “treats” looked like carob and sesame seeds, which are (and let me be perfectly blunt about this) NOT TREATS. Treats are candy and potato chips, and I desired them inordinately. When I got them I hoarded them, guarded them jealously, ate them quickly.

The interesting thing I’ve come to realize, though, is that my normal state has changed. I’m decades away from childhood and privation, and I’ve come to realize that there are very few people whose attention I actually want. I’ve worked hard in life to make a career for myself and to become good at the things I do. For my husband and myself, hard work has paid off and we’re doing very well for ourselves. I feel very lucky in that regard.

But I’ve come to realize that I’ve lost patience with people.

I no longer work a paid job. Nowadays, all my work is volunteer work done on behalf of my chosen charity, but right now I’m frustrated because I’m trying to accomplish a set of tasks, but nobody I work with believes that I know what I’m doing or can accomplish what needs to be done. I want to yell “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the woman who makes other people jump to do her bidding because she’s the god of Getting Shit Done!” I have similar frustration every time I read a short story or novel that’s just bad. I think to myself “I write better grocery lists than this! Why am I still getting rejections?”

My life is particularly blessed right now, but I find myself prowling, growling, scowling, howling. I’m not recognizing what’s going right because I’m so busy railing against what’s going wrong.

The nice thing about the ten worlds is that it takes so little to go from one to another. Buddhism is not about striving to achieve anything: it’s about striving to give things up. For the foreseeable future, I’ll be working hard to give up resentment and the need to get people to acknowledge my superiority. Because Buddhism is about giving up one’s illusions about life, and if there’s one thing that I do know deep down inside, it’s that I’m not superior to anybody.

Only the Rich Can Afford Nothing

I’ve been watching a terrible lawyer drama show on Netflix, and much of the action takes place in the lead character’s apartment in New York. You can tell she’s rich because the apartment is the size of an airplane hangar and none of the furniture touches each other. There’s enough space to do an entire gymnastics floor routine without knocking over a single chrome vase or coming close to touching a wall. Even the other character, who lives in a hotel room, has enough space in her hotel room that you can’t ever see the whole room from a single camera angle. I’m jealous because you can see practically my entire house from one camera angle.

I live in a small house with a lot of stuff in it. Bookshelves full of books, a huge hutch full of dishes and glassware and tchotchkes that people have given me from their travels, stuff inherited from my parents and stuff given to me by my children. Some of it I bought myself from catalogs because I fell in love with the way that it looked in the airy, richly-furnished make-believe world the catalog created. I’ve always liked looking at catalogs because the rooms in catalogs are like storybooks of lifestyle possibility where every tight space is cozy, every bedroom is airy, every dining room can seat twenty and every home office is neat and tidy.

The opposite of that look is squalor – the condition of being dirty, overcrowded and miserable, with its insinuation of poverty. When movies, television or books want to show poverty, the irony is that they show possessions. Clothes-strewn floors, pots and pans on counters, toys littering the floor. The poor have plenty of stuff, but no space in which to put it.

That’s the thing. It’s not that the rich necessarily have more stuff than the poor (although one assumes they have a better class of stuff – more fashionable clothes, nicer pots and pans, more expensive toys). It’s that the rich have someplace to hide their stuff. There’s a catalog/website called “Frontgate,” and it bills itself as “luxury decor for America’s finest homes.” A large part of what they sell is storage. Places to hide nearly everything, including litter boxes, electrical cords, and any dead bodies you may have lying around your backyard.

There’s another class of people who appear to have nothing: monks. Monks are expected to live lives of poverty, chastity and obedience, and therefore not just to not have anything – they’re expected to not want anything. It’s a noble ideal, and one that many people recognize as praiseworthy without actually cultivating it themselves. Monks in their stuff-less existence have less to distract themselves from the larger questions of life and therefore can devote themselves to pursuing the larger truths. Monks are better than you and me because they have chosen to pursue real answers to life’s mysteries, rather than the fake answer of material gain.

Maybe that’s why the media portray rich people as having so little stuff. They want you to believe that the rich are actually better than you. Not just better off, with not only more cool junk, but with more expensive furniture to hide that cool junk behind, but better. More virtuous. Privy to answers about the inner workings of the universe whose questions you can’t even afford to ask.

The sorrow and the pity is that so much of America has bought that lie, even though they can’t afford it.

Writers Read

Part of the grad school process is that I have to read a bunch of stuff. To start with, I have to read the works of the folks who are teaching at Antioch, because I have to choose one of them to be my mentor, and it had better be one whose writing I actually admire and would like to emulate. Then, I have to read the works of the other folks going through the program with me, and I have to critique their work and offer them my feedback.

Here’s my dilemma: thus far, of the three books I’ve read from the teachers in this program, I only like one of them. Steve Heller, the head of the MFA program at Antioch, writes in clear, lyrical prose that didn’t get in the way of the touching story he was trying to tell. I’m in the middle of reading Father’s Mechanical Universe, a novel about a boy and his father in the 1950s. The subject matter is not normally my cup of tea, but Heller’s style is wonderful. I wish I could say the same for Jim Krusoe‘s Blood Lake and Other Stories, which relies too much on plot at the cost of character development. Characters in his stories don’t act like actual human beings, so I can’t relate to them or understand their underlying dilemmas at all. Even worse is Dodie Bellamy‘s The Letters of Mina Harker. Thirty pages into it and not only does it not have any discernable plot, but the “letters,” are all the stupidest sort of expository crap (kind of thing that opens with “Dear Sing, You are my best friend confidante a staple of every Hollywood biopic…” I mean, do you start out letters to your mother with “Dear Mom, As you know, you are my mother”?) cobbled together with the occasional use of  “cunt” to keep our interest piqued. If I wanted to hear someone fling epithets around, I’d talk to my mother.

I’ve got two other books that I haven’t even cracked yet, and next week I’m due to get the first work for the Borderlands Press Boot Camp, which doesn’t happen until January.

With all the reading I’m doing, I’ve made a huge decision with my writing. After having an email conversation with Annie Finch about my work, I’ve decided that I’m not doing myself any huge favors by trying to work simultaneously in several different genres. Right now, I’m doing a young adult piece. The last thing I had published was psychological horror. My best work is magical realism, but it can also be classified as spiritual. So, with that thought in mind, I have to do some thinking and planning, and figure out what my literary home is.

And I’d better do it quick. National Novel Writing Month starts in a couple of weeks, and I will be starting my next novel then.

New Website, New Look

A couple of years ago, the Pirate and I had a website built as part of a program that taught people website-building skills. We were excited to be able to get a cool new website while providing a service to folks in our own community. But, it turned out that all the big plans we had didn’t really pan out. Certain things, like putting pictures into the blog, ended up being a little more cumbersome than they should have been, so we didn’t use them.

On top of that, the comments thing became a problem. The CAPTCHA never worked quite right, so we turned it off. As a result of that, we’re being inundated with spambots that are posting dozens of spam comments a day that have to be manually removed.

It may take a while to figure out moving all my old posts over to this blog, but in the meantime, this is the new blog. Hooray!