The impossibility of writing in an empty house

IMG_20180906_120325The door closes. There is that beautiful sound: silence.

The sound I’ve longed to hear, through years of being a mom to three children. No video game boss battles. Nobody banging away at musical instruments (which I admit I enjoy). No requests for food or money.

I am…alone.

I’ve made up my to-do list. All I will do with this time. Clean the bathroom, read that new magical realism novel I downloaded. Pay a bill. Write my book.

With the house to myself, with no interruptions, I should be able to write literally THOUSANDS of words. I should be able to sit at my desk and nail down the scene that’s been coalescing in my head.

The characters in my book—the young police detective, the unhappy wife, and the grieving family of the murdered ex-Nazi—are breathing sighs of relief and exchanging grateful glances. Finally, she’s alone! Now we get to do something.

download-1It’s our time. Our time down here, my book’s cast of characters chant as they launch into Sean Astin’s speech from The Goonies. They can get on with their investigations, conversations and illegal/sketch activities! At least they are motivated.

I have my special coffee mug and hot water in my French press. I have a healthy, Whole30 compliant snack. I turn on the MacBook, open Scrivener and I sit.

And wait.

A phone call interrupts my thoughts and now I’m out of my seat. I remember I haven’t watched the latest episode of The Great British Baking Show. And oh, my God, it’s Cakes! If I watch it, fold the clothes from the dryer and maybe think about that scene some more—that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? At least I’d be getting something done.

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And so the rationalization begins. If I do sit back down and write, my time is short and full of distractions.

After a few of these frustrating sessions, I decided to work with myself and my distractible tendencies. Just as I would with students I teach or one of my kids. Let’s strike a deal here, make this work.

My thought process went something like this:

Realization #1
I don’t get much time to myself. I am alone-time deprived.

Realization #2
My self discipline fails me when I feel deprived, whether it’s a diet or schedule I’m trying to adhere to. (If you’re an enneagram person, I am a Self Preservation 4, which means I’m a creative type with a high priority for self care.)

Brilliant hypothesis!
If I indulge myself for a set period of time, I will get rid of those feelings of deprivation.

My latest tactic:  For an hour, I allow myself to relax and enjoy the quiet house. Watch that Great British Baking Show episode. Prepare myself something that tastes really good. Maybe put on a Spotify playlist of my favorite songs.

Then I sit down in front of my computer. I have fully savored my alone-ness, given in to any desire to dance around like Tom Cruise in his underwear in Risky Business. I am ready now.

And so I write.

Thankfully, this is working pretty well for me so far.

If you’re a parent or spouse who doesn’t get much time by yourself—how do you stay focused when you get your alone time?

Who’s up for a bored game?

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Century, Golem Edition. A family addiction for us.

I grew up in a family of poor sports.

The kind of people who stomped off to their bedrooms when they started losing a game. I remember Monopoly games so intense that objects were thrown. Issues came up that had nothing to do with the placement of little green houses on Park Place.

Soon the winner (often my mom) was gloating, losers were dredging up past grievances and I was ducking into the nearest closet to hide.

But my engineer/gamer husband grew up playing games for entertainment. His dad is a card shark, who’s played in poker tournaments in Vegas. His mom and siblings love games. My husband goes to regular board game nights. The other days of the week, he is secretly plotting the acquisition of his next game—if not actually going down to Game Kastle to get it.

Since games haven’t been a happy part of my past, it’s taken me a long time to want to share that interest. My husband constantly looks for games that might lure me to play: “Honey, this one’s about art. I bet you’ll really like it!”

But in my mind, board games = angry confrontation. Or just boredom. Learning a set of rules to follow, and patiently taking turns at following them, seemed pointless to me. That’s supposed to be fun? Seriously?

But as I observed my husband, I started to see that it’s not about the game. It’s about the interactions of the players. My intelligent, introverted husband takes games to parties because it gives him a context for being social in a sea of small talk. He can explain the rules of the game he’s introducing (something he’s great at). Then the rules of the game are the boundaries for the discussions. He doesn’t have to work at coming up with things to say.

A game-playing friend of mine says she loves the interactions that happen while you’re playing a game. “You see how people react when things get competitive. You see what they’re really like under pressure. It’s a microcosm of life.”  I saw that big time when I was growing up. But playing a game is kind of like going on a virtual adventure with people. You enter into this thing together. Afterwards, you recount your adventures, you talk about what made  you win or lose, the close calls, and what you could have done differently.

If the game is really epic?  You’ll talk about it for years.

Are there some games that you’ve enjoyed playing with your significant other or family?

Games you might want to try with your SO or family:

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The incredibly addicting Century: Golem Edition game

Century (Golem Edition)
My husband found this on the discount shelf at a game store. We were immediately addicted and ended up hooking other friends. The goal is to collect colored gems, which are used to buy golem cards of different point totals. The art in this game is beautiful and the transparent gems are incredibly alluring. It’s a very easy game to learn.

Dominion
This game has made me something I’d never thought I’d be:  competitive.  You play different cards in strategic combinations to get money and victory points. The unlimited card combinations make each game different. For some reason, the variety levels the field, and no one player, even an uber gamer, has an advantage over time. I can win this one.

Apples to Apples
A social game, great family game. Many gamers won’t consider it worthy of attention. You play an adjective—e.g., “Evil, Pretty,”—and players play a card with a celebrity or cultural reference they think fits the word. Each person takes a turn as a “judge,” to pick the one they like the best. Goal is figuring out how to play to the judge so your card will get picked.

Goa
A game based on colonizing the Indian island of Goa. The idea is to set up spice plantations and colonies, and win victory points. The game is a favorite of my game-playing women friends. It pairs well with an evening of food and wine, probably because you’re constantly thinking about acquiring cinnamon, clove, pepper and ginger.

The top 5 writing distractions. (#5 will surprise you)

If anything is a test of your will as a writer, it’s resisting the distractions that curl up a ghostly cartoon finger and lure you away from the page. They’re evil, I tell you. Evil.

And the rationalizing that goes on in a writer’s head could fill volumes.

Everyone has their own temptations. Mine are food and the internet. I’d love to hear yours in the comments. Wait–maybe I could do some research on the subject of distractions! Now that could be interesting.

Let me just pop onto Google and look this up (disappears into bottomless void).

Distraction #1
What’s for lunch?
What’s in the fridge? It’s only 10:30 am, but it wouldn’t hurt to get something started.
Rationalization: Food is necessary to sustain life. Nobody disputes this.

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Note: This distraction gets worse when you’re on a diet and all you can think about is food.

Distraction #2
I need another cup of coffee.
Making coffee will take maybe ten minutes, but it will make me write faster.
Rationalization: So I’m actually creating time if I take a break to make coffee.

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Distraction #3
What’s Trump doing right now?
He’s up to something, that’s for sure. I’ll check my news feed and find out what it is.
Rationalization: If it’s nuclear war, I want some notice so I can revise my less-than-perfect first chapter. It may be found in the Cloud someday, after the apocalypse.

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Distraction #4
Let me go online to check something. It’ll only take five minutes.
If I go online, I will head down a rabbit hole and emerge 40 minutes later, knowing a lot more about gopher traps and French property laws, but completely derailed from my story.
Rationalization: But if I don’t check, the mistake will end up in a published book because my revising self and all my beta readers will miss it. Readers will write me mean letters.

Distraction #5
Because…cute pet
Look what Fur Ball just did! This is so going on Instagram.
Rationalization: The little guy is adorable. Posting a pic of the cuteness will make people happy. After all, nuclear war could break out at any time. Don’t we all need joy?

Since I currently don’t have any pets, the members of my writing group have kindly sent me these pictures of their adorable distractions:

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Charlotte, the therapy cat. Courtesy of rcgwriter on instagram
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One of Ariel’s very literate cats, courtesy of leiraklewis on instagram
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That face! O’Neill, courtesy of onceuponrosanna on instagram

What are your big distractions, writing friends? How do you overcome them to stay focused?

The fight to stay focused when my husband talks tech

software-computer-code-1940x900_35196My husband is a software engineer, and he loves his work. He writes and troubleshoots code for a graphics card company every day. Then he comes home and writes more code.

Because it’s so much fun.

But when my husband wants to share with me the thing he’s devoted most of his waking life to, I feel like I must strap myself to a rock and let the waves hit me.  I buckle down, grit my teeth and lock my eyes onto his in a listening stance. I maintain constant vigilance over my thoughts. If left untended, they will wander the room like one of those Roomba automatic vacuum cleaners, pinging randomly off walls and veering under the furniture.

This morning was a good example. My husband and I went out for a breakfast date. After listening to my conversation, my husband said, “Can I tell you now? About that modification I made to the Minecraft clone I’m working on?”  His eyes shine with the wit and elegance of the breakthrough he’s made in the game he’s programming. He’s been thinking about this for two weeks. This is big. He wants to share this with his wife.

So he begins. I try hard to focus. I try to picture what he’s saying in little drawings in my mind so that I can relate to all the intangibles. I have Sal Khan from Khan Academy in my head, helping me out with a play-by-play explanation on a white board. My husband is using words like stack and arraymemory and processing speed.

Then suddenly, I veer. A fly is hovering over my husband’s head. Will it land? And where? Does my husband know there’s a fly over his head?  

I start eating my food, and continue listening. He’s saying something about cubes in a stack. Okay, got it. Dang, this linguica is good.  I’m smelling tarragon somewhere in the restaurant.  Now that’s interesting. What breakfast food would have tarragon as an ingredient? Who would even think of that?  

Sal Khan is rolling his eyes at my distraction, but he gently nudges me to return to the topic at hand. He draws a cute picture of Minecraft cubes in a stack to cajole me into listening. I return to the information I stored in my head–the last thing I remember my husband saying before I drifted.  Something about some images in the game being stored as half cubes, not full cubes.

In an unexpected leap, my brain translates the information my husband has given me into big picture form. I am able to grasp what he is taking about. So this is it: He’s figured out a way for vertical stacks of repetitive graphics to be stored more efficiently so the game runs faster, and a way to make water look more realistic on the screen. I get it.

Sorta. Kinda.

“That’s kind of a big deal,” I tell him. “Doesn’t it make you want to go home to your computer and do this, right now? This is so much better!”  In some weak way, I have been able to connect with what he’s been so excited about.

My husband’s face is lit up by the enormity of what he has done. And I see, through all my inattention, that it’s worth fighting the fight. It’s worth trying to stay connected through the techie bits.

If not for the subject of programming, which doesn’t interest me, then for my husband, who interests me very much.

How not to dread writing

img_20180330_080013-e1532978494452.jpgI am a writer and a writing teacher. So I deal with my own writing motivation issues, then I turn around and help high schoolers with theirs.

My personal catchphrase and what will inevitably be engraved on my tombstone is: No one should have to dread writing.

But I do, sometimes. If I take the time to analyze why, there are usually two reasons:  1) I’m afraid I’ll fall short of my own expectations; and 2) I’m not excited about what I’m writing.

There is a great quote by public radio personality Ira Glass about the gap that creative types experience, between what they churn out initially and what they know in their hearts to be really good. Here’s a short, creative video rendition of the quote: https://vimeo.com/85040589

As you hone your craft, you will be painfully aware of how short you fall of your own expectations. The only way to close that gap is to practice more of your craft. The more you write, the better you will get.

There’s one magic solution to this–don’t quit. If you keep writing regularly, closing that gap will be inevitable. One thing that encourages me is to go back and re-read an old draft or a story I wrote a few years ago. Then I see the truth. I’m getting better.

The other reason why I and so many of my students dread writing is, we’re writing about something we’re not excited about. So here’s my oh-duh solution:  write your passion. Write about something you daydream about. Or about what you fear most. Write about something that’s stuck in your head, that you’re trying to come to terms with. Write about something that pisses you off.

Last year I had a freshman who hated to write and did the very minimum on his writing assignments. When I asked him what he loved to do, he said, “Play the video game Fortnite.”

Screenshot_20180730-121346_2I asked him what he liked least about the game. He said, “Bush camping. It’s unfair and I hate it. Players hide in the bushes, and they ambush you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

That next week, he turned in the best piece of writing he’d done in the class, a persuasive essay arguing in detail that bush camping should be taken out of the game!

If you’re writing something you’re not passionate about, write about something else. If that’s not an option, research angles on the subject till you find something you do care about. Pick at it. Find something that gets your emotions going, for good or bad.

Here are two books that have inspired me and some of my students:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life  by Anne Lamott
Tips and encouragement for any writing process, whether it’s fiction or an essay for school.

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
A sparkling and encouraging book for fiction writers, filled with the author’s sense of humor. Gets to the heart of why we want to write and how to move forward doing it.

 

What the fork

My husband has this thing with forks.

He picks up the fork he’s been given and examines it carefully, turning it on its side. He inspects the alignment of the tines. If one is bent, he sighs. He calmly gets up from where he is seated and goes to the utensil drawer to find a more acceptable one.

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photo and fork by Claire Ellen Keyes

It drives me crazy.

I can’t understand how the misalignment of one tine can be such a dinner-disruptling thing.

“It bothers me when it’s bent,” he says. “I can’t eat with it.”

I nicknamed my husband the Princess and the Pea because he reminds me of the fairy tale. The one where a young woman is proved a princess because she can feel the irritating presence of a single pea under a stack of twenty mattresses. My husband is overwhelmed by a pinch of lemon pepper in the mild sauce on his chicken. He is…special that way.

My feelings finally peaked at the intersection of annoyance and curiosity. I decided to see if this fork thing was real. Or if he was maybe making this up to be stubborn. So I asked if he would do an experiment. I would blindfold him, and he would use five different forks, some of them bent, some of them not. And he would tell me which forks had bent tines and which did not.

“But you understand that the conditions of this experiment are not valid,” my engineer says in his Spock voice. “I already know what I’m looking for, and that will influence the results.”

And that’s important because I’m writing this up for Scientific American.

So I blindfolded him. And I slid a homemade piece of his favorite pie, Banana Cream, in front of him. I started handing him forks. I had two pretty obviously bent forks, then one in which one tine was slightly off, and one fork in which all tines were perfect.

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Side observational note: It is very hard to eat cream pie blindfolded without assistance.

The final results:

  • Forks with multiple bent tines: called it within seconds
  • Fork with one slightly bent tine: (after almost a minute) unsure, maybe bent
  • Fork with perfect tines: called it–within seconds

My husband isn’t making this up. He is fork-sensitive. Maybe it’s his super power.

Of course it does seem a bit petty to me, especially in comparison with really big issues–like insisting that the hand towels and tissue container in the bathroom maintain my Pantone 14-1116 color scheme.

Packing up my horcruxes

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My siblings and I have been cleaning out the house we grew up in (see previous post), as my dad prepares to sell it.

A lot of the stuff we’ve gone through is already in the dumpster or the local Goodwill truck. Whew.

At times throughout the process, I’ve found a treasure. Something that jabs me in the heart when I pull it out. A memory hotspot.

Forget efficient clean up and packing. I pull up a chair and take a breath. Let the memories wash over me.

These are my horcruxes. In the Harry Potter books, horcruxes are pieces of a dark wizard’s soul. Keeping them intact ensures the wizard’s immortality. But in my world (and my parents’ house), these are pieces of my story, and they are now assembled in a Home Depot box. Unlike Lord Voldemort, I didn’t have to murder anyone to create them.

Here are a few. My dad’s light meter. He used it to measure light for taking photographs. When I was six, I firmly believed he used the dial to control the sun. I watched him develop the photos in his basement darkroom, under the glow of a red light. When the images appeared in the developing liquid, it was my first sight of magic.

A photo of my Japanese-born grandmother, who babysat me while my mom worked. In the photo, she’s eating a goodie on her front porch on a Nebraska summer evening. I remember her as very strict, but she always had time to sit down and tell me a story.

My mom’s old silver flute, which she’d played in band through college. In fourth grade I threw it against the wall in frustration, when I was learning how to play it. Then I hid it. She cried when she saw the dents. Then she forgave me, which made me cry.

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For some reason, I wrote this caption for Mao: “So long now, I’m off to watch Joanie Loves Chachi

A post card of Mao Tse Tung that I sent my parents when I was in college. I told them I’d run off to become a communist. I made up an elaborate story as to how it happened. They took it well.

A photo of my middle child at the age of three, with Shirley Temple curls, wedged into the bowl of a sink. One of many photos of my child happily sitting in a sink. It seemed to be AJ’s happy place.

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Each one of these has power for me. Chapters in a story of family. A story of beauty, redemption, loss and many, many plot twists. A story that will live on, either through my children or through what I write.

That’s how horcruxes work. They’re pretty hard to destroy.

Just your average superhero family

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I loved The Incredibles. When the trailer for The Incredibles 2 came out, I was skeptical that a followup after 14 years would be as good as the original. How could it?

But the new movie is action packed and (in my opinion) even funnier than the first. Since I’m working on a sequel to my novel, I’m still analyzing how Pixar put it all together. They tell a story so well.

One thing I like about both Incredibles is the idea of superheroes trying to get along as a normal, suburban family. Their fights are so relatable. They’re the same fights my siblings and I had growing up. But with superpowers, they’re a lot more interesting.

They know how to push each others’ buttons. Yet when they face a challenge, everybody knows what everybody else does best. When one person can’t handle something, they let someone else step in. Their combined efforts save the day.

My father is in the process of selling the house our family has lived in for 40 years, so my parents can move to a home suited to my ailing mom’s needs. It’s a huge undertaking. There are tons of repairs to be made, attics to clean out, and monster-truck sized dumpsters to be filled. It’s not just hard work, it’s emotional hard work. A lot of rifling through boxes, pulling out things and either sobbing or laughing hysterically over them.

The cool thing is, we’re doing this as a family. And everybody is playing a part. I’m The Communicator, making sure the realtor, contractors and family know what’s happening when. My brother is The Bulldozer, stepping in to throw clutter away when we’re too sentimentally attached to it.

One brother-in-law, The Prioritizer, excels at creating lists and visual timelines to keep us focused; the other, The Mover, works with incredible endurance and speed, moving furniture and boxes. One sister, The Decider, is ruthlessly no nonsense when it comes to finances and helping my dad make decisions; the other sister, The Guardian, lives in the house and has the biggest heart for my mom’s needs.

What one of us can’t do, someone else does. So far the arrangement is working out pretty well.

When we have survived all of this, and my parents are settled in their new place, we will be exhausted. I hope we’ll all still be friends. We will have gotten through it together, which will be incredible.

Why you need to be in a writers group

The life of a writer is solitary work. And that’s good.

When you’re by yourself, planted in front of your computer, or bent over a legal pad with your pen, the creativity flows without distraction. You have time and space to imagine your world.

I have a memory of being 11 years old, lying on my stomach on my bed in Bellevue, Washington, with a giant newsprint tablet and a pen. Just me and my story, which I also illustrated. No annoying younger siblings, no mom nagging me to do my chores. When I think of my happy place, that’s it.

If you are creating your story for yourself, for the love of it, that’s perfect. The problem comes when you are writing for an audience beyond yourself and your bedroom. When you’re going to submit to an agent or self publish.

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Come out of your cave and find your squad!

This will be a long road. So crawl out of your writer cave and gather people around you. People who will encourage you. Call you on your bad self talk, cheer for your victories.

A writers group will help you keep writing and get better at it.

I’ve been in two different kinds of writers groups. A few years ago, I was in a critique group where each of us read a chapter at our meetings. I saw how my writing came across to a variety of people. Over time, these people got to know me and helped me grow within my unique style and genre. I learned what works in storytelling and what doesn’t. I also grew a thicker skin—something you need if you’re writing for publication.

Right now I belong to two writer groups, one that grew out of a novel-in-a-year class, and one that spun off from an arts program at my local church. My novel-in-a-year group has given me some great beta readers. We also share tips on how to find agents and how to market ourselves.

My weekly writers group is all about encouragement and accountability. We have virtual writing times, which are fun and often hilarious, using google Hangouts and a productivity app. When one of us has a victory, we celebrate. We also call each other on our bullshit:  You’ve only sent out six queries, and you got two rejections—and you’re discouraged? Come back when you’ve sent out 20 or 30.

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Actual productivity app screen from one of our virtual writing sessions (unfortunately crashed by ME).

If you’re writing for more than yourself, find a group that works for you. The support will keep you going when the journey is discouraging and you’re feeling—as all writers do—that you’re not cut out for this.

Remodeling the Hero’s Journey

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We’re finally finished with our kitchen remodel. This was a big one. We completely gutted the aging kitchen we had for seventeen years.

Thanks to a five-year-old who liked to swing on cabinet doors, we’d been displaying our mismatched dishes and pantry contents for the world to see for years now. And because of an odd kitchen layout, a sink with dirty dishes was the first thing anyone saw when coming through our front door.

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Before: Proud display of dirty dishes

I knew the remodel would be a chaotic inconvenience. Microwaved food on paper plates for at least six weeks. Strangers in our house every day, sledgehammering, dry walling, cranking classic rock and Mexican tunes on the radio and yelling at each other. There would be dust in all our rooms, because there is no place that stuff doesn’t reach. My noise-averse husband and son would burrow into their respective hollows, with their headphones on.

That’s exactly what it’s been like. Some mornings I’ve walked through the kitchen and reminisced about the semi-darkness of our old kitchen with its flickering 1970s fluorescent light. Was it really that bad?

I’m a writer and an English teacher, so I know a messy middle when I see one. In a story’s messy middle, the protagonist has left the land of the ordinary, often reluctantly, and entered into the crazy, hostile world of the extraordinary. Think of Bilbo Baggins leaving the peace of the shire, at the wizard Gandalf’s urging, to steal the dwarves’ treasure from the dragon.

Bilbo doesn’t think he’s suited for this adventure. Gandalf thinks otherwise, calling Bilbo “the Burglar.”

I like living in the shire. I like tidy, peaceful places that are quiet. I don’t like being in messy, in-between states where power and water are turned off and perfectly good dishwashers are accidentally carted off to the dump.

My toddler-sized brain looks at the daily chaos and thinks only, This will last forever.

But like so many transitions we deal with in life, this is not true. Things do resolve, and the reason we human beings love stories so much is, their beginnings, middles and ends are so comforting. We hold on to this cycle for hope. When we are old enough to have gone through enough messy middles, we know in some way, things will change. This too shall pass.

A remodel is not up there on the scale of life changes. It isn’t divorce, death of a parent or spouse, or the loss of a career. At least one of those things will come my way soon enough.

This remodel is a light practice run.

The kitchen is looking wonderful, thanks to the contractors who have worked till dusk over the past six weeks. After everyone’s packed up at night, I walk on the smooth, new tile floor and think, Is this really my kitchen?

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After:  All done!

Oh, yeah, that’s another thing. I didn’t even do the actual work myself. I’m thankful for that, because I’m not a fixer-upper person. The results would not be good.

Here’s to life’s transitions. And to the good that awaits on the other side.

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Home again, but better.