Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I'm cheating on my book. With a new story. If the first novel is true love forever, then the second novel is infatuation. I have all this energy for it, because of its…well, novelty. The wide open space for new characters, problems, and themes may intimidate me eventually. But right now, I still have the safety and comfort of the story that I know. That makes it easier to begin a new one. It's like finding a new lover before you break up with your boyfriend. I don't recommend that strategy for human relationships, but for writing, it seems to be working.

I used to worry that I would never finish the first book, wouldn't be able to let it go. I didn’t want to spend years rewriting the same thing, moving commas, a slave to my perfectionism. And although I did not meet my goal of finishing by my birthday, the end is in sight. I am making what I believe to be the last round of corrections before I submit it to agents. That, in and of itself, amazes me.

Equally reassuring though, is how naturally it seems to be wrapping up. Just as many people told me, “You'll know when it's done,” I do seem to actually know. Part of how I know is that I've stopped daydreaming about the characters from my first book. New characters have invaded my head. It feels like the new book is evicting the old one, saying, you had your time, it's our turn now. I like it. Daunting as a new book could seem, what I feel most right now is excitement. Que viva la infatuacion!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Writers' Conference - Friend or Foe?

My first writers’ conference caused (among other things) the sense that I had no business as a writer, that I would never finish my book, that I shouldn’t bother. So I was understandably squeamish about attending a second. But after the North Wildwood Beach Writers’ Conference this week, I’m a convert. Now I believe, even if you’ve had nightmare experiences like me, you should try again.


You meet a bunch of writers and talk about writing for a few days straight. You could meet a writer you admire, an agent or editor who can help you. You learn about the publishing business. You get inspired. If you're extraordinarily blessed, you may have a critique experience like the one I had.

For the Wildwood conference you could submit the first page of your book for a critique if you wanted. I had just recently written the first page of my book and was reluctant to submit something so fresh. But I listened to the little voice that told me to do it and tried to forget I had. I didn’t know until the critique session started that the reviewer was a contributing editor of Harper’s who has edited writers like, for example, David Foster Wallace. (If you don’t know who DFW is—find out. He’s a revelation.)

So this editor stood in front of the room and began reading people’s first pages. She said she would read six. I didn’t know if mine would be one of them. I fervently wished both that she would read mine and that she wouldn’t. I fidgeted and sweated through the first, second, third and fourth entries, which were not mine. Then she read the first sentence of my first page. I tried to not outwardly cringe or actually crawl under my chair. It was anonymous, so nobody, including her, knew it was mine and I didn’t want to give it away in case it was awful.

After reading, she said a number of things that she admired. The person who edited David Foster Wallace liked things about my first page. A lot. You better believe I wrote down every nice word she said. I may pin it to the inside of my bra and wear it around for a few months—that’s how much it meant to me.

Then came the hard part—the things that didn’t work. It’s hard to hear criticism of my writing, even if it’s constructive. Here’s a summary of what happens inside me—shame at being less than perfect, at being exposed as less than perfect, followed by defensiveness, then panic. The defensiveness I can keep in check. The perfectionism I can overcome. The panic is hardest. The smallest suggestion can make me feel like I’ll never finish the book.

Luckily by now I’ve been critiqued enough that I know what to expect. All these feelings are familiar if not welcome. So I thought, okay, yes, this happens when I get feedback. I went home, talked to Carl, watched the Phillies, reminded myself of the positive things she’d said, went to bed.

The next day at lunch I ended up at the table with the editor. I didn’t know if I should bring up the critique and wasn’t going to force it, but when another writer asked about my project, I confessed that mine was one of the pieces she had read the night before.

I told her how much her thoughts had helped me, which seemed to gratify her. Then I hesitated, seeing an opening. Somehow I managed to squeak out a question about the critique. What followed was David Foster Wallace’s editor telling me what she thought of my work, my ideas, how I could improve what I had, what was already great.

I am still stunned. Both that I had that opportunity and that I had the courage to take advantage of it. Best of all is after that conversation I felt more confident about what I’ve already written, and have a good idea of how to fix what doesn’t work.

So here’s the thing—go to writer’s conferences. Even if you get scarred and discouraged, though I hope you won’t, you learn from that. And maybe the editor of (insert literary hero’s name here) will end up giving you meaningful feedback. You never know.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


Yesterday marked one year since my Grandmom died. I can cry just writing that sentence, but I won’t since I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Ocean City. Ocean City, where I have so many memories of Grandmom, like her last trip to my parents’ house, where she and I shared the room with the single beds, as we had in so many places over the years. By then, she was an octogenarian widow, and I was a married woman, but for that night, we were two single girls again.

I still miss her so much it physically hurts me. Not all the time. Not all day every day, but it can still hit me with a force that steals my breath, bends me over, clutching the kitchen counter, tears springing forth, bursting out. It’s worse at night. If a wave hits me at night, I can cry and feel like there’s no stopping it—nothing other than exhaustion or dehydration. Sometimes I’ll get into bed, still sniffling, and just hope to fall asleep, which eventually I do.

One of the worst days I’ve had in recent months was the day I changed my hair color. The day after Grandmom died I woke up with a visceral need to change my hair. I walked into a salon in my town and asked them to make me a blond. The change was so dramatic that my husband literally did not recognize me at first. I needed that change, I needed an outward sign that life would never be the same.

As her anniversary approached, I found myself needing to change it again. Needing that year of mourning to be over, an outward sign that the worst had passed. Another change. Another loss.

I didn’t want to be too dark, but I wanted darker. My hairdresser, who prefers brunettes, was only too happy to comply. But when she finished I almost burst into tears. Because Grandmom was really gone. And that time when it was so raw, so present, that’s gone too. Which is good. Life has to go on. But losing the intense grief, somehow that feels like a loss too. Because that was the thing that made me know she was real, she was here, she loved me. And without that, what will I have? Her things. My memories. Ocean City. Her recipes.

Now I am crying in the coffee shop. Embarrassing. But the reason I wanted to write about this is that I don’t think people talk about grief enough. People are ashamed to cry in public, to show sadness. I’m trying to change that about myself. I heard someone say the other day that she grieved her father’s death for decades. That helped me. Because there’s part of me that thinks I should be over it. That Grandmom was 92 years old, lived a full and happy life, died a year ago, that it shouldn’t still hurt.

And it is better. It doesn’t hurt as much or as frequently. But how could you ever stop missing someone you really loved? Someone who made you feel so good with just one look, one squeeze of the hand? Somehow, just being with Grandmom made me know that I was going to be okay, that whatever I was struggling with would work out, and that I would survive it. Her faith in me was so strong that she didn’t even have to say anything, though she often did. I miss laughing with her, I miss confiding in her, having her confide in me. I miss having coffee with her and her friends, feeling so special and cherished. How many people in life actually cherish you? If you’re lucky enough to have one, and you lose them, doesn’t it make sense to feel that loss?

So I just wanted to say, I’m still grieving. I think in some sense, I will always grieve this loss. But I know, I still know, how blessed I am to have a loss like this to grieve. Alice Walker said in a poem that “grief/emotionally speaking/is the same/as gold.” I think I’m beginning to understand what she means.