Saturday, December 13, 2014


You’d think I’d have learned my lesson. The last time it happened, I had “a feeling” a few hours beforehand and backed everything up to a thumb drive—except my photos. I lost four years of my girls’ childhood. Not many months later, I woke early with the same feeling and hopped out of bed to grab a thumb drive and hurry downstairs. Too late, that second time. I lost all the remaining digital photographs of my kids, dating back to when we bought our first digital camera when my youngest was six months old. I have no photos of Kayla from age six months through the time she started school. Two crashed hard drives and years of visual memories are completely gone.

That second time, I wept.

And now it happens to me again, with no warning, no “feeling” to presage digital disaster. I did back everything up—including photos—just a couple of months ago, before taking my laptop in for service, but I haven’t backed up since.

  • Gone: the NaNoWriMo manuscript
  • Gone: All new writing from the past few months (which isn’t saying a lot—but I’ve written more in the last three weeks than I had for six months or more prior)
  • Gone: materials developed for but not yet posted in my online thesis class
  • Gone: my household budget spreadsheets for the next six months

This time, the hard drive crashed near the conclusion of a big editing project. I was in the process of transferring my proofreader’s corrections to my master copy, but I lost only a few hours’ work and not a few weeks’ worth. Though I hadn’t backed up my own stuff, I had backed up my client’s work.

When I learned the drive was a total loss, I texted my sister-in-law, who is also a writer. She replied, “So, are you okay? I would have a good angry. Ty.”

Then 30 seconds later: “Cry”

I haven’t had a cry at all, haven’t wanted to, but then I do keep my emotions well buried much of the time. Even as I drove home from the Apple store, I felt I’d dodged a bullet. I lost a manuscript assembled out of drafts and essays still wedged here and there on thumb drives around my bedroom and study. I didn’t lose my power to think and to articulate. I didn’t lose a job or a home or child or parent or my husband. The loss of 5,000 or 8,000 words of new writing is far from a fatal error.

Perhaps I have finally, finally learned my lesson. I’ve installed a router that backs my work up wirelessly every hour and will store 2 terabytes worth of data. (Uh, what the heck is a terabyte?)

The blank hard drive on the barren laptop before me feels kind of good. I’ve chosen as my new desktop wallpaper a blue sky with whisps of white clouds and a white crescent moon visible through the clouds. A small handful of folders and docs are hung on those clouds, and I know the content of each and every one of them.

The file I’m working on today holds this coming week’s guidance for my thesis students, to be posted online tomorrow—essentially, I’ve written a blog post focused on our topic for the week: the writing workshop. I’d drafted the first bits of the thesis guidance last week, but instead of trying to remember and reconstruct, I started from scratch. Wrote something brand new. And it’s good.

Perhaps I’m in denial, but this loss seems small. I still have hundreds of pages of drafts on those thumb drives. I still have the urge to put fingers to keyboard. This coming Wednesday night my best friend of thirty years is coming to see the girls’ Christmas Concert, and on Thursday my eldest flies home for Christmas Break. The tree is up, and the shopping is done. Our furnace works. The fridge is full.

My imagination and memory are wide and deep. I am fifty-one years old. I’ve got more than enough new material—so much left to write and not enough weeks and months and years left to write it all.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Mornings Unplugged

For the long Thanksgiving weekend, my family and I drove to the Oregon Coast and stayed at a cozy beach house with no Internet. The first time I stayed there, about five years ago, I was truly shocked to arrive and find there was no Internet connection, and I was mildly stressed during my entire stay. I now retreat to the beach house at least once a year, prepared to unplug and relax. It’s easier to deal with the shock when you know it’s coming.

This discovery will come as no surprise, I’m sure: Without the distraction of the Internet, I got tons of reading and writing done! Over the course of five early mornings, I drafted notes for two new essays and read two memoirs and nearly half a thick essay anthology.

Duh. When I unplug, I get stuff done.

My usual morning routine is to get up around six so I have an hour of coffee and computer time before my kids get up. If I wake earlier, I get up earlier. I poke around Facebook, read and answer emails, check my online course, and then click back through Facebook and email again until it’s time to shower and get dressed to take the kids to school.

What a waste.

When I got back from the beach, I challenged myself to use that early morning hour (or three, on those mornings when my eyes pop open at 4:00) to read and to write without the distraction of the Internet. I should respect my writing goals enough to give myself those best hours, which for me are in the early morning.

So Todd and I have been leaving the router and modem unplugged before 7:00 a.m. I moved my morning reading and writing space from the living room to the basement to make it harder for me to turn on the Internet just to check this one thing ...

And of course I’ve been getting stuff done. I’ve revised a chapter from my NaNoWriMo manuscript and am coming close to completing one of the new pieces I drafted at the coast, which fits perfectly with the NaNoWriMo material and will become part of that larger manuscript.

I told myself this past week of mornings unplugged was an experiment, but I know I have to make this into a permanent habit. Writing transports me into memory and enables me to explore connections and philosophies and relationships and spiritual convictions. When I don't write, parts of my mind and personality fade away. I don’t experience the world as fully because I’m not exploring my thought life as deeply.

Writing, for me, is a way of living, of experiencing life.

Many years ago I realized that I couldn’t eat sweets for breakfast. If I ate a cinnamon roll or even jelly on toast in the morning, I felt spacey and slow all day. For years now I have avoided sugar in the morning. It’s not even a sacrifice any more.

Last January I stopped drinking Diet Coke or diet anything. I tried cutting processed foods as well, but I backslid on all but the soda pop and fake sweeteners. I haven’t had any soda, diet or otherwise, in 2014. No aspartame or Splenda. I’ve built these small habits of self denial for the sake of my body. Now it’s time to build a new habit into the coming months and years for the sake of my mind and heart. I already know how I will live 2015.

No sweets for breakfast, no Diet Coke, and mornings unplugged.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Day 22

50,381 words, but far from done. Now to actually do some shaping and purging and augmenting! 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Day 16

Quite frankly, I’m ready to be done with this NaNoWriMo business. I have 48,000 words, but so what? I spend from 20 minutes to two hours a day writing (the two-hour days are rare). The excitement of meeting the challenge doesn’t appeal to me at all anymore, but I know that without this push and the public exposure of this blog, I would have given up by now. If I’d given up, I wouldn’t have this crazy assemblage of thoughts and memories, which, potentially, contains all the ingredients needed for a book.

On the days I write for 20 minutes—a lick and a promise—I’m ready to give up. Maybe when I get to 50,000 words I’ll just stop, I think. But on those days when I take a little more time—not just writing a snatch but also scrolling through the pages, skim-reading bits, seeing that portions do hang together—on those days I’m pretty sure there’s a publishable book in here somewhere, many months (or years) from now. But I can only shape a book out of this stuff if I hang out in the manuscript, if I think on it and read through it and keep on pushing myself. If I put it aside for a week, two weeks, six months, the work will languish. I have so many drafts, so much of my mind recorded here and there in drafts on my hard drive. When I immerse myself enough in the manuscript, I know I must continue.

The second week of November, I started a big, wonderful, copyediting project that has immersed me in someone else’s manuscript. Four, five, six hours a day, I’m transported back seventy years. When I’m not editing, I’m pulling World War II titles off my bookshelves—even my “breaks” revolve around this editing project! Today is Sunday, and I’m forcing myself to rest from the editing for one day—but I’m eager to get back to the characters who even during the copyediting process are becoming so dear to me. 

It’s weird to move between the vast, well-structured World War II compilation I’m editing and my own snips and drafts, not even yet adequately stitched together. I’m frankly a lot more interested in the editing project than in my own writing. If I hadn’t made a public commitment to this cheater’s NaNoWriMo, I would gladly tuck my own work away for a few weeks. Which would stretch into months. I know myself. Daily I choose to honor the potential in my writing. I choose to have a tiny bit of faith that slow and steady will take me to the finish line, that some of these pages deserve a home in a book, that slow deliberate plodding will bear more fruit than manic hypergraphia.

So, however reluctantly, I will keep on writing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Day 10

On the morning of Day 7, I received news that my dear writing mentor, Judith Kitchen, had died. That day, I had to teach a software training session—no way I could cancel. I had an afternoon appointment with a student writer, and I couldn’t cancel that either. Shouldn’t life stand still when we need to grieve?

But I know better. I don’t expect life to stand still, and I also don’t expect myself to power numbly through. I proceeded through my day with puffy eyes, a scratchy voice, distracted and grieving. I wore black, though in our culture that’s no sign of anything in particular. And when I wasn’t teaching, I read.

One of Judith’s most recent works was The Circus Train, a novella-length essay published as a book last winter but first appearing in The Georgia Review last year. I’ve had that issue of GR on my dresser for a full year now, but I never opened it up and started reading Judith’s long essay. I was waiting, for some reason.

I opened Judith’s essay and started to read. Judith took me once again under her wing and let me into her thoughts as she remembered her life as a girl, a young mother, a middle-aged woman full of health and love but already squarely facing her mortality. The year after my mother-in-law died, Judith was diagnosed with breast cancer. Each time I saw her—once or twice a year—I wondered if it would be the last time. But she kept rallying, kept surprising her doctors. Just weeks ago she was hospitalized and struggling to breathe and it seemed like the end. Then she sat up in bed and started editing poetry.

Judith kept writing through the chemo brain fog, through breathing struggles, through weakness and prednisone puffiness and lymphedema.

And because she kept writing, I have access to her mind as she considered a life lived, a life about to end. And here I am in the middle of a writing challenge, wondering if I even want to keep writing. I certainly want to quit writing for today and for tomorrow, and I have struggled over the past weeks and months as well.

Judith kept writing, and because she did, I have her mind on the page. She still keeps me company, and her words continue to speak.

Judith would have rolled her eyes at my wimpy attitude. When I found a small publisher for my first book and worried that I was settling for something too small, Judith shrugged. “You will write many more books,” she said. “Publish, then write another.”

So I did. And Judith helped me, though she was sick and weak and probably should have focused on herself instead. She made sure I had the best second book possible—and I know many, many other writers who are this week remembering Judith for all she was and all we are because we had her.

I wrote a little on Day 7, though my heart wasn’t in it at all. A few hundred words. And a few hundred more on Day 8. Yesterday I felt just as weary, just as sad. Today is Monday and I started a big editing job and conducted another software training and turned in grades for my online class.

But what about the writing?

I’ve decided to make my NaNoWriMo project into an even bigger mess. Take a couple of those essays I was reserving for another book. Break them up and plug them into this one. If they don’t work, fine. Nothing else is clicking, and I’m not going to throw in the towel (until December 1).

Judith would have told me not to reserve my best stuff for some later project. “What the hell are you waiting for?” she would have said. So I won’t wait. I have no faith that any of this will come together, but I won’t quit yet.

A lifetime of writing, Judith, and it wasn’t enough. Thank you for leaving us with so much of yourself.   

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Day 5

A word of advice

The NaNoWriMo website gets jammed in the evening when everyone is posting a word count. I tend to write in the morning, and I go ahead and enter my word count as I go, even if I plan to write more later in the day. You can update your word count as many times a day as you’d like. If I do write in the evening, I enter that word count the next day.

What I’m learning

Keep in mind that I did not start from scratch. On Day 1 of NaNoWriMo I was already halfway to my goal. This means my daily goal is already less than half that of a true, non-cheating NaNoWriMo participant. I’ve been spending no more than two hours a day writing—sometimes just an hour, and yet I’m making progress and I see the shape of the manuscript emerging in ways I wouldn’t have if I’d just read through drafts without adding any new writing.

I can see that I need to set up a quest or Big Concern early on and shape the book to explore that quest or concern. And I’m already getting a good idea of what that Big Concern is for me—not something I ever considered writing about until this month, although I see my quest there under the surface in much of my writing to date. This is the fun part of writing—discovery! 

Much (if not all) of this material will need to be rewritten once I know better where the manuscript is headed. Creating a book out of discrete pieces (whether stand-alone drafts, blogs, or essays) can happen in two ways (probably more than two): as a collection of discrete meditations or essays, or as narrative nonfiction.

This writing wants to be narrative. What a surprise! When I fantasized about converting blog posts into a book, I imagined a minimum of revision. I thought I would just plunk the pieces together and voila! I love the essay, but I think I might love the challenge of book-length narrative even more—holding the structure of years and multiple themes and threads together and cinching them tighter in each round of revision.

I’m not yet doing the cinching, but this NaNo cheating forces me into the manuscript each day for at least an hour or two. I skim eight or ten pages of what’s already written, then find an access point to dip in and write. I surface again, skim, then write some more. It’s that writing time, inside the manuscript, that helps me think, that helps me to see the narrative threads and motifs in my life. 

But the time when I’m not writing is just as valuable—maybe even more so. Because I’m physically “into” the manuscript every day to get my word count, I find that I’m also mentally into the manuscript while I’m going about the rest of my day. More than once I’ve opened the file again hours after completing my word count in order to add another thought, another paragraph, another few hundred words.

Reading list

To help keep my head in the manuscript even when I’m not immersed in it, I’ve started a reading list, along the lines of what I see as my Big Concern in the work.

Why Place Matters: Geography, identity, and Civic Life in Modern Times, eds. Wilfred M. McClay, Ted V. McAllister

The Body Geographic, Barrie Jean Borich

Leaving the Pink House, Ladette Randolph

Our Town, Thornton Wilder

Word count: 35,382

Sunday, November 2, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Day 2

Yesterday: Day 1

The throat tickle I’ve had all week dripped and scratched itself deep yesterday. Full-on cold symptoms. Awesome. But I figured if I didn’t get started on November 1, I wouldn’t get started.

So I sat down at my desk, opened my computer, and started cutting and pasting. I started with blog posts from the time period I have in mind to write about. The blog posts added up to something just under 10,000 words. I didn’t read them as I cut and pasted. No evaluation or censoring—well, not much. The point of NaNoWriMo is to produce raw material, isn’t it? I might not be truly producing yet, but I’m certainly not going to start editing, either.

After I’d harvested all I could from the blog, I went through my very messy hard drive, searching through drafts, cutting and pasting in between blog posts as I tried to keep things roughly in chronological order. I have so many drafts, mostly unsorted, all over the place. It’s hard to find what I want by keyword search any more. I didn’t take loads of time to organize, but as I searched I also made some attempt at leaving my files tidier than I found them (thanks, Mom). Even though I wasn’t reading the drafts, I could still see certain friendships and places appearing and reappearing in those drafts. I resisted the impulse to chart or measure or plan. Not yet. My only plan right now is not having a plan.

Here’s why. I’m afraid if I take the time to develop a plan, I’ll talk myself out of trying to end the month with a 50,000-word manuscript. It would be so easy to decide this stuff is boring and no one will be interested. That may well be true, but I’m not going to make that assessment until at least December!

Day 2

I would have liked to use the extra hour from setting back our clocks to sleep, but my cold woke me up at six—I mean five o’clock. I remembered a couple of journal entries that might fit with my manuscript, so I added those fragments (1,500 words) to my work-in-progress before I even got started writing for the day. And from the moment I laid fingers to keyboard, I had to banish thoughts about how lame this exercise is and how messy the manuscript. I promised myself: no indulging in self doubt until December. Power on through.

I started on page one of the 30,000 or so words I’d patched together from drafts. As I read, I added some narrative and reflection and made notes for threads to weave into later parts of the manuscript. In fits and starts, I wrote 1,138 words—my first new writing of the month. I only got to page 18. Tomorrow I intend to pick up there and continue reading and augmenting my way through until I’ve got another thousand words.

Here’s my advice to myself today, starting as I am with a pretty good chunk of manuscript already before me:

Resist deleting. When you notice repetition, leave it stand for now. Don’t worry about tense inconsistencies or any craft decisions. Keep slapping on more words here and there and filling out the pages with material. Just write.

Day 2
Starting word count:            31,786
Ending word count:             32,924

Words written:                       1,138                                     
Words remaining:                17,078           

Words per day to finish on time: 589