Why I Learn

For the past 36 hours, I’ve been going through the tutorials learning to use FileMaker, a database creation software.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “Didn’t you finish putting all that info into a NeoOffice database?”

Yes I did. And then I moved the file from one folder to another, and the database disappeared. The form I created to populate it remained. The report I created to show all the edits in a printable list remained. It’s the actual table – you know, the thing with the information in it – that disappeared. The Pirate and I poked around for a half hour before I said “It’s no use. If NeoOffice’s databases are this fragile that you can’t even move the file without entirely breaking them, they’re of no use to me. I need something better.”

I had similar incidents that led me to learn Photoshop, Dreamweaver, how to drive a manual transmission car, how to make homemade pizza, how to build a chicken coop, FrameMaker, InDesign, how to use a tampon…I could go on and on. It seems like I have not had a single week in my adult life where I wasn’t learning a new thing to solve a new problem I’ve encountered.

My mother, when she found out I was getting her an iPad for her birthday, signed up for a class to teach her how to use it. I’m not that person. I can’t seem to get motivated to learn something until I have a specific problem I need to solve, and the way I learn things is to take the tools I’m presented and poke and prod them until I’ve figured out how to solve my problem. Granted, this leads to solutions like a rock-solid chicken coop built entirely without right angles, but I’m not after perfection. I’m after completion.

It makes me wonder what other people do when faced with an obstacle. The whole purpose of the database was so that I could put all the hundreds of edits I’d received for my novel into a single list, sort it into types of edits, and then tackle them in an orderly manner. I suppose I could have just saved a copy of my manuscript and then picked up each markup I’ve received, make the edits, and then move on. That process would take two to four times longer, but it would get the job done. And I’d have to do that longer, manual process on every novel for which I receive feedback. Now, I have a single tool that I can use to enter all my edits for any novel, and I can use it over and over again. I’ve solved my organizational problem.

I guess that’s why I learn. Because I’m not after perfection in my end results. I’m after perfection in my processes.

What Is Revealed/What Is Hidden

There are facts about my life that everyone knows. My parents divorced when I was very young. My mother was a single parent for most of my life. Only one of the four of us siblings didn’t finish college. My extended family is close emotionally, although not geographically. Those facts are generic, bland, and could be said of millions of other people. They don’t challenge anyone, they don’t embarrass anyone, they wouldn’t hurt anyone if they came out in public.

I’ve been talking to a few people about parts of my life that are not so well known. The things about my life that aren’t well known aren’t historical facts (sure, our family has its share of illegitimate babies, extramarital affairs and homosexuals, but everyone knows about them and nobody cares). Mostly, they’re about my own opinions of the things that happened to me as a kid.

From the time I was very small, my family has classified me as “dramatic,” their way of saying that I’ve always blown things out of proportion. My childhood was a really awful time that I was lucky to survive. I don’t recall it as being happy, and while I have a hard time remembering things like birthday parties or family outings, I recall in stark clarity childhood slights, fights and wounds. I contrast my view of my own childhood with my younger sister’s view of hers. She once claimed that she “raised herself,” but she may have amended that view now that she’s older. She was outgoing, popular, always the center of attention. When it was just my sister and me living with my father and stepmother, it was crystal clear that they liked her and had no idea what to do with me.

I’ve told people stories about my childhood, about things that I’ve been through, and they all say “You should write a book!” That’s true. I should write a book, but the book I should write is fictional and has nothing to do with the things that I’ve lived through. I can’t write those things, because I don’t have the courage to say thing things I know about my family to the rest of the world. Mostly, it’s because I know terrible things about the people I love, and yet I love them. Truly, deeply, in a give-my-life-for-them kind of way. I love my family in a way I feel as a physical sensation in my chest. It’s the stillness between heartbeats and the peak and trough of every breath. And yet, I know these awful things.

But there’s the flip side of this knowledge. A while back, I recounted something to my younger sister from our childhood, and she told me that she didn’t believe it had ever happened. I could have pulled rank on her and said “You’re three and a half years younger than me, you don’t remember,” but she’s the sort of self-confident person who wouldn’t believe me. I don’t think that the thing I recounted was anything of consequence. I could never tell her anything of consequence because of the fear that she would tell me it had never happened. I can’t stand the thought of having the defining moments of my life denied, because it would be too much like having my own pain denied.

Maybe if I put my family in a room, like they do at the end of television mysteries, and went around the room saying “YOU threw spoons at me when we were little,” and “YOU sided with your friends against me,” and “YOU told Mom and Dad that I’d done stuff that I hadn’t so I’d get into trouble,” pointing my finger in their faces as I paced around the room, the other hand held behind my back, maybe if I did that, we could all talk about it and what it meant to me. Maybe they would understand that the things they experienced as good-natured teasing hurt me deeply. That their labels for me – “lazy,” “weird” – defined in a negative way how I saw myself for most of my childhood.

So in the meantime, I write fiction. I don’t make my characters autobiographical, and I don’t base them on anyone in my family. If you want to dissect my fiction for clues into my early life, I will tell you not to bother. The truth you’re looking for is both more and less than you think it might be.


I’m Ruined

I spent December and the late part of January in writing intensives that brought home two dozen rules of good writing.  I’ve read half a dozen books, written fifty-odd pages of fiction and critiqued five hundred more since mid-December. And now I’ve been handed the latest work by one of the folks in my critique group, and I find that I’m reading the work of my dear friends differently.

First, my magic red pen has circled all his adverbs and underlined all his uses of “was” or “had.” Then, it has called out the instances where I’m being told something instead of shown it. Then, it’s putting brackets around all the POV shifts, all the verb tense shifts and all the “what the hell just happened” points. The only page that hasn’t received any revision marks is one that, because he formatted his manuscript in Word and I use NeoOffice, came out blank. (I went ahead and put a very sarcastic “This page intentionally left blank.” I know that contains an adverb, but it’s not original to me, so I don’t feel guilty.)

If it were my manuscript, I would receive back the markups and feel a little discouraged. I would look at red ink on every page, in huge amounts, and I might think “I’m terrible at this.” But there are two things that I know about this situation: the first is that this is an early draft, and the author is expecting major rewrites at this point. In fact, he may expect having to do more rewrites once it gets accepted for publication. Because that’s the second thing. The guy who wrote this has his third book coming out in April. He knows how to write commercial fiction.

The takeaway is that I can’t be hard on myself when I’m doing my own edits. I’ve long said that the hardest part of writing is editing, because it’s hard to edit yourself. On the other hand, I’m not sure.  Rick Moody said in a revision class that he believed that the larger questions of plot, characterization and style would solve themselves if you solve the smaller problems of adverbs, bad metaphors and passive voice. I am beginning to see how that’s true. Stripping your prose bare of all the stuff you put in to prop it up not only highlights what you did put in when you shouldn’t. It also shows up what’s not there. Tension. Action. Drama.

I’m going to start the re-writes on the novel that has been workshopped to death. It’s been two years since I wrote it, and it’s going to get the good going-over it deserves. And I hope that when my friend reads the markups I put on his draft, that he’s happy with the amount of revision I’m suggesting. And I hope that Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, H.P. Lovecraft, P.G. Wodehouse, G.K. Chesterton and all my other favorites forgive me, because now, even when I read their works that have been labeled as “classics,” I can’t help but think “Adverb…passive voice…adverb, oh my – two in a row!”

Pandering to My Inner Nerd

Now that I’ve gotten about 2 dozen people’s written comments on the first 25 pages of my novel Two Women and a Boat, it’s time to do something about them. But I’m not the kind of person who can pull up an electronic document, pick up a pile of markups, and just dive in. I’m more methodical. More anal.


  1. Much of the feedback, like typos and grammatical errors, is the same throughout all the edited manuscripts.
  2. I won’t act on all the feedback I get from each critic.
  3. I don’t want to have to keep going back and forth over those 25 pages over and over. I want to be able to go through and correct all the typos, then all the single-line fixes, then all the global fixes, etc.
  4. I want to keep track of who gave what feedback.
  5. I want to be able to incorporate the recommended grammatical fixes from all seminars/classes/lectures.

I don’t mind taking a little more up-front time to create a system that will save me time later, but I’m not a natural programmer (unlike my amazing husband). I can’t just look at a pile of data and order it in a way that will get me what I wanted. After four tries, I think I’ve come up with a database that I think is perfect.

It captures the name of the critic, a description of the correction, the date it was entered and the date it was completed, the manuscript version, and, the touch that I really feel will make a difference in my ease of editing, a field for correction type. I’m all excited now because it means that I can power through these 24 packets of comments, enter them into a single long list, add in all the rules that I know I should be looking for in my whole manuscript, and THEN sort by the type of correction I’m making. I can do all the globals at once. I can fix all the typos in one sitting. All the missed words, all the added words, all the local changes…

And now I’m going to get back to it.

Living Out Loud

I’m nearly at the end of listening to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop TalkingIt’s a well-researched and nicely-structured discussion about how introverts differ from extroverts physically, psychologically and temperamentally, and how American society undervalues the contributions of introverts.

I’ve identified as an introvert for the last 10 years or so. Before that, I believed I had problems with depression (which was situational), that I was socially awkward (because I was measuring myself against extroverts), that I might be autistic (because I was so different from other people I knew that I felt like a different species). Having come to grips with my introversion, I’m comfortable understanding my own needs and have developed an array of coping mechanisms for the kinds of social situations I encounter frequently.

When I tell people I’m an introvert, they don’t believe me. Other introverts don’t believe me because I am loud. Really, really loud. Embarrassing loud. Extroverts don’t believe me because I’ve spent so much of my time growing up among them, working with and for them, and being married to them, that I fake extrovert well. I grew up in a large family of mostly extroverts where the way you got what you wanted, whether it was second helpings at dinner or getting your sister out of your bedroom, was to yell. If you wanted someone’s attention, you didn’t tap them on the shoulder or stand in front of them until they acknowledged you. You stood wherever you were in the house and yelled until they yelled back.

I live in a house with two other people. My husband is an introvert raised by two introvert parents. His parents trained him from childhood to walk soundlessly over hardwood floors and to speak only when the other person was in the same room. You can tell he doesn’t like to yell by the fact that he does it only when he’s angry. My daughter is highly sensitive. From the time she was an infant, she would startle at sudden noises, shy away  from strangers even with me present, refuse to speak up in groups. She cried easily and demanded that her clothes not touch her in certain ways. She hates yelling.

I’ve made it my mission this year to work on my loudness. We adopted my husband’s parents’ rule about not yelling between rooms, and that’s going well. I’m working on speaking at a reasonable volume. I’ve been making an effort to be more mindful of the volume of my voice, and have found that the results are wonderful! Peaceful, non-stressful dinner conversation. Discussions that don’t have the physical feel (to me) of arguments. Just turning down the volume has made a difference in the way we interact – we tend not to interrupt each other as much, and to say “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me” more often. If these little shows of civility are a result of turning down the volume at home, I think that my next mission will be to start speaking more quietly when in public.

If I were more quiet in public, I image that people would have to come closer to me to hear me. In coming closer, they would have to moderate their own voices. In such an intimate tête-à-tête setting, people would naturally become more conscious of whether they’re talking over each other, using kind language, saying inappropriate things. They would be better able to discern the effect their words had on their listeners. Widespread civility might result! I see the experiment now as necessary, and I’ll let you know how it goes. But you’ll have to lean in close to hear.