That’s A Story


People who know me in real life know that I tend to punctuate most conversations with “That’s a story.” If you tell me about how your next door neighbors got divorced and moved into separate houses on opposite ends of the same neighborhood?  Well, that’s a story.  If you tell me how your uncle won a hot wing eating competition? That’s a story as well.  And your description of your great aunt Lucille who can’t take left-hand turns?  It takes Lucille an extra hour to get anywhere because she refuses to turn left. That’s definitely a story.

Everyone is fascinating to a writer.  Everyone is a story.  Even boring people are fascinating in their seeming-boringness; no one can be boring, so what tumult lies beneath those still waters?

Writers love jury duty and airports.  Recently, two members of my family got called to jury duty and I was jealous of them, first because I want to serve on a jury, but also because I, too, want to sit in a room with a selection of random individuals for a few hours, all in the name of civic duty. I want to study the lines on eyes as they squint through glasses, and the curves of mouths as they whisper words into phones, and observe calloused fingers as they punch cracked phone screens.

This post was going to be a list of ways to get ideas for your writing, but at the end of the day, all it boils down to is having the realization that people are endlessly fascinating. And pretty much everything can be a story, if you are waiting for it.

Aim Low! (The “A-Little-Is-Better-Than-Nothing” Approach to Goal-Setting)

This post goes out to the procrastinators of the world. The writers who have great ideas bouncing around in their writerly minds, but still find it difficult to dedicate the time needed to transfer those ideas into words. I feel you, procrastinators! But I do have some advice: Set a low daily writing goal you know you can meet and stick to it. Pretty soon, you will be not only meeting those goals, but exceeding them.

How low, you ask? Very low. As low as you think you need in order to get yourself in the habit of daily writing. For some people, that may only be a couple of sentences, even, or a couple of paragraphs. For others, it may be a couple of pages. Whatever “low” is for you.

This is how the medical community motivates people to exercise, after all. If they tell folks who haven’t walked any further than from their bedroom to their living room or out to their car in the last fifteen years to suddenly walk the hour per day necessary for optimum health, they will immediately squash the poor patient’s feeling of agency. “Why even bother?” the patient will think, “I’m gonna sit here and watch Judge Judy. I’ve been fine all my life so far without this walking nonsense.” Instead, doctors tell patients to walk or exercise an achievable amount of, perhaps, “fifteen minutes per day.” An hour seems unachievable, but fifteen minutes–a walk around the block–seems more doable for almost everyone. Of course, once people begin walking around the block, they realize (depending on their health, of course. I’m not trying to be insensitive here) that this is not only doable, but they feel better. So the next week, they maybe walk further. The next week, they may walk further. And pretty soon they are walking all over the neighborhood, five miles a day. But initially, they need to set a small goal and meet it. And even if the goal never grows, fifteen minutes of walking is better than nothing at all.

As a person who suffers horribly from writerly self-doubt and perfectionism, I set my own daily goal at an achievable 500 words. Five hundred words is a pretty easy goal to meet for me and if I’m on a roll, it takes no more than twenty minutes of my day. If I’m not on a roll, it can take longer, but it’s never more than 45 minutes to write a measly 500 words. The goal here is to just get myself writing: It’s “only five hundred words. It’s like brushing your teeth and washing your face. You brush your teeth, don’t you? You have time to do that….” So, I sit down to write my 500 words more often than not, and while I’m writing, I realize I’ve actually written 700 or 1000 because once I cross the “I don’t have time to write” threshold, I remember how much fun it is for me, how relaxing it is for me, how much I fundamentally enjoy writing. If I had never set a low goal, though, I never would have been able to talk myself into it. Because I am ever-so-busy, of course.

I stand by this little trick–it works every time. Would I be more productive to force myself to write 2,000 words per day? Maybe. But for the long haul, sometimes we just need to get into the habit of doing a little bit, every day, consistently. Because in the end, that’s how we live our lives. Bit by bit, day by day.

Advice to Future English Majors

Earlier this week, I had a student visit with me because she wanted to know whether or not she should become an English major. With no other guidance, I did what any other self-respecting former English-major would do: I began blabbering away, with great enthusiasm, detailing everything from my own experiences with an English degree (yes, it is a degree worth having, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), my own career path (an English degree may not lead to the most linear career path, but it certainly gives you more options than most people realize), and also, because this student seemed to want my advice on how to pursue writing, I blathered on about that, too.

In short, I told her the following:

  • I became an English major because I really liked to read and write, and had since childhood, so it was an easy choice for me. In fact, at the time, it was the only thing I thought I could do. It was the only thing I wanted to do. That may not be the case with her necessarily, but whatever she chose to do, she should ultimately enjoy the crux of whatever it is she chose.
  • The world has a shortage of people who can write well, so if she CAN write well, she will be ahead of most people in the career world. We need people who can write and just being able to do that (and successful English majors generally can) gives a person a tremendous edge.
  • The world also has a shortage of people who can think logically and critically, so if she could do that, too, she would also be ahead of most people in the career world. A degree in English can help prepare students for logical thinking, unpacking of arguments, finding errors in reasoning, and so forth.
  • Given the above, did she like to read and write? Because if not, then she’d be miserable being an English major. English majors do a LOT of reading and writing. Deep reading. “Writing-in-the-margins-after-reading-a-work-four-times” kind of reading, of the like she may have never done before.
  • Given all that, you don’t need to be an English major to learn how to write fiction. Many well-known writers had other careers, too. Just as an FYI.
  • That fear of failure at the blank page? (She nodded). That doesn’t go away. Writers learn to just live with it and find a way to tackle the fear of the blank page.
  • Every day, she should read. Every. Single. Day. It doesn’t really matter what. If she reads great literature, she’d learn how to read critically and write better. If she read crap, she’d learn how to read critically, how not to write crap, and she’d gain confidence that if that nonsense could be published, so could her own work. Ideally, she should read both quality work and crap (with more focus on quality work, of course). She should read anything and everything, so she can learn a confidence with the written word, learn new vocabulary, learn varieties of sentence structure, learn what works and doesn’t work. Writers read. There is no way around that.
  • Every day, she should write. Keep a journal and write down observations and notes on her world. This could be any notebook of her choosing, even on her phone notebook app for that matter, but all self-respecting writers need to jot down their thoughts and ideas on a continual basis so they don’t forget them.
  • Every first draft is crap and she should embrace that idea. This is completely fine and telling herself that will help her get started. But she should also remember that writers revise. A lot.
  • Don’t listen to the nay-sayers who tell you your English degree will be useless. I have never once regretted my English degree, even before graduate school. When I was an undergraduate, marketing majors loved to harass me about my English major and were forever asking me, “WHY are you majoring in English??” Well, guess what my one of my early jobs involved? That’s right: I was a marketing gopher. I wrote ad copy, press releases, and did other marketing-related work for two different marketing departments. When they hired me, they said when that they preferred to hire people with an English degree over a marketing degree (ha!). So, do your research and know what’s out there–don’t just listen to equally uninformed people without thinking critically. That’s not how future English majors roll.
  • Just because you have a degree, this doesn’t mean you will automatically get a job, English degree or other. There are a lot of people wandering around in the world with lots of degrees, but no job. It’s up to you to get the job. To this end, I recommended she make connections early while still in college. Talk to professors, be involved, get to know people in the community.
  • Be prepared to work hard. While it doesn’t involve math (amen!), being an English major is still not an easy degree. Think: 2 books of reading per week. Lots of papers.

In the end, I think I may have left her overwhelmed, clutching a Post-It note where I’d written a list of books to read, but I think it was good advice. I hope it was, anyway.

I wasn’t going to even write this post, but then, like a message from the Great Beyond, I was drinking my coffee this morning and got a good glimpse of my daughter’s laundry bag, which she brought down from her room so she could do her laundry. Check it out at the top. It is cute, unless you look closely and study the words. Then, it burns. Oh, how it burns.

Now, this bag was probably not made in an English-speaking country (one can hope), but still. I think it illustrates my point, future English scholars. If you can write well, the world needs you!

Starting From Nothing

I have always found it fascinating to hear how writers get their ideas or how they begin their stories. For me, stories sometimes begin with watching someone closely and imagining what it would be like to be them—or if not them, then someone in their lives. Then, that maybe gets juxtaposed with an unrelated idea in just a way to make a story emerge. Or it begins with an object or an item and a character. Or it may begin by putting someone in a situation and seeing what they do to get out of that situation. Or it may be a bunch of half-truths knitted together all slip-shod and rumpled just enough to make a story.

But on rare occasion, when I’m feeling very free and exploratory, I just start writing and see what happens, where my ideas take me.

Don’t get me wrong…I have a kernel of something before I begin. An image, maybe, or an idea of a character, but mostly, the beginning is dreamy, ghostly, ephemeral. It’s hard to pin down. And pinning it down isn’t the goal….the goal is to see what emerges.

And much of the time, it’s total garbage at first—a weaving of plastic grocery store bags and corn husks. Or a castle of damp playing cards. A tower of cans and bottles.

But sometimes—the best times—something sturdy and completely unexpected emerges. And suddenly, I’ve created something out of nothing.

Which is one of the main reasons I write.

Writing in Pencil

pencil pic

I am a recovering perfectionist. That’s probably the best way to put it.

You may feel that being a perfectionist is a good thing? After all, how can a quest for the ideal ever be a bad thing and shouldn’t we always try to do our best?  Well, a job well done is important, and I am not advocating sloppy work, but perfectionists can become stalled and unable to function simply because perfection is hard to achieve because it’s, well, perfection. Perfectionists know this on a cognitive level, but deep down, they feel that if something can’t be perfect, then why bother tackling it at all?  Or many have the idea that, more often than not, the results of their work will fall far short of perfection and this realization causes them to become frozen in their own doubt.

That’s how it is with me, anyway, but over the years, I have learned to cope with this paralysis in order to be moderately productive in life. When it comes to writing, this is where pencils come in.

I love all writing implements, but I have a special love for pencils. Pencils with large erasers. 

When I am in doubt about my writing, frozen in front of a computer screen (and while I know we can hit “delete” on a computer keyboard, it’s just not the same thing, psychologically), when I’m not sure where to start, I drag out a yellow legal pad and open up my pencil box (pictured above).

“Write something crappy,”  I tell myself. “Go on. It’s just for fun!”

I start writing then. I don’t allow myself to stop, even if I think what I’m writing is stupid, because the idea is to just get started. In pencil.

Why pencil? Well, for one thing, it’s casual. It’s breezy. It’s reminiscent of school and homework, nothing serious.  One of my high school classmates (I couldn’t tell you who) once said–when catching me doing math homework in pen–that doing math in pen is like picking your nose with a wire hook. I needed to be able to EARASE!  He was genuinely mortified that I couldn’t erase and the same is often true with writing. Therefore, pencils bring me back to the world of homework and drafting ideas and sketching concepts, not official “sign-this-in-black-ink” documentation thoughts of which pen evokes.

Pencil lead is ephemeral–at least theoretically. I have journal entries going back 30 years that are written in pencil, so I’m not so sure it’s as ephemeral as we think, but because it is so easily erased, I think of it that way. Pencil isn’t meant to be lasting, which allows me to write something that is equally ephemeral. When I write in pencil, I say to myself, “This is not permanent. I will improve this. This is just for now.”  And that gets me going.

The yellow legal pad also plays a role–legal pads are for jotting ideas, notes, brainstorming….they aren’t for preserving forever. When combined with pencil lead, it’s the perfect recipe for a paralytic writer to overcome perfectionism.

You can erase this, pencil says. It’s okay if it’s crap.

At some point in this process, I feel confident in what I’m doing to move onto a computer.  Not that I think it’s perfect, but by then, I’m at the “it’ll do” phase and I’ve passed the perfectionist hump. Sometimes, I will write a whole first draft in pencil and then re-invent the new draft as I write on the computer, adding scenes, taking whole new angles, changing POV, etc. but the bones of the thing are down in pencil.

Then, once I have a draft on the computer, I shred the yellow legal papers covered in pencil. I love doing that, too, and it’s also an important part of the process, for me.

So, if anyone out there suffers from perfection-induced writing paralysis, you might try digging out a pencil or two, with a nice new eraser, and see if this works for you!

Finding Your Voice


So, I just finished teaching my 5 week summer class–hence my temporary disappearance from this blog. I don’t normally teach anymore in my current role (just one class in the summer) and I find that teaching, while exhilarating on one level, works a part of my mind that leaves me emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. I am out of practice, I suppose. Or maybe, because I am not in the trenches every day, not teaching a several-course load anymore, I am even more aware of the challenge I face as an instructor–hyper-aware of the difficulty of reaching students who, largely, don’t want to write, don’t care about writing, and don’t see it as relevant.  Many of them feel that writing is only for budding English majors and for “arty” people, but the rest of the world needs “real” subjects such as math and science.

So, with that in mind, I always begin the term by letting them know that the ability to write–just on a competent level–is relevant to them. I explain why: No one in the work place can escape writing a competent email, for one. Even now, in our video world, we will largely deal with people via the written word. I explain how I come from a family of business folks and all of them write more than I do (a slight exaggeration, but I will say they write almost as much as I do). I get some nods after this sales pitch and once I feel I’ve gotten some buy-in from at least a few folks, I move on. Yes, world, you have to know how to write. It’s not just for us English-y peeps.

The other half of the class, however, doesn’t believe that writing is irrelevant, though. No, these folks feel it is very relevant and hence, they are terrified to do it because they don’t believe they do it well. They don’t believe they can do it well. That’s the other part of the sales pitch. I have to reach those folks as well.  They feel they are “not good writers,” and therefore, they have a deep fear of being in freshman composition, which they have to have to move on with their goals in life.  And yes, some of them are NOT good writers, for whatever reason, mainly a complete lack of practice and training over their entire K-12 educational experience. They CAN be good writers, but they are going to have to work at it and put in some hard work to make up for the fact that they haven’t written an entire paper in years prior to college.  Yet, practice is everything! I once told my older son, when trying to explain to him the importance of writing when he was in high school that just as when he stopped swimming for a few weeks, he gained time and lost the edge, what did he think would happen if he stopped reading and writing often? All skills take practice, including writing. Especially writing, given the complexity of the skill. How on earth can you get better at something if you don’t do it?  I try to sell this concept to the terrified students. You absolutely CAN write, I tell them.  You are just as smart as anyone else here, but writing can be difficult and like anything difficult, you have to practice it.

They haven’t practiced when they get to me. I’m not blaming anyone, mind you.  I am simply noting my experience from what I see as a professor and a mother, both.  Even at the high school where my kids went (a good one, too. We moved to his location because of this school), there is a huge differential between the Pre-AP and AP English classes–where they write essays now and then, although still not enough, in my opinion–and the “Regular” English classes where they hardly read a book and never write one single essay over the course of the semester.  I’m not exaggerating–I saw it first hand. I see it with students who, when writing the very first “diagnostic” essay (and don’t know me yet), will write at the end, “I am sure you aren’t reading this anymore, but if you are….” because they are certain no one actually is reading their work. Someone in their past didn’t read their work–it’s obvious.  And as a parent, I know that it was only once my dyslexic kid (who took “regular” English classes) got into college did he learn how to really write with any kind of compentency, only because he had to write tons of papers and expend a lot of effort doing it. Shocker.

I can tell the students who have a mastery of writing because they are comfortable with their voice. They may make mistakes, but they are calm, relaxed, familiar with writing.

New writers posture. They pretend to sound writerly because they view writing as something foreign, something they can’t claim for themselves. I see this all the time in students who write essays in a stilted voice. Or they can write a fairly-competent essay in first person, but when asked to change the tone to third, they clam up because they have no experience doing this–a skill they will need to finish a college degree. They talk circles around a subject because they are scared of language and because they are scared of language, they are scared to explore and play around in a way that allows them to learn.

My job is to talk them out of doing that. I will meet with them in my office and ask, “What did you mean here?” and point to a convoluted sentence that makes zero sense. The students will hem and haw and then I’ll say, “Just tell me in your own words what you meant.”  They will do this and I’ll say, “Write that down.”

“Write that down?”  They are distrustful. They don’t want a bad grade.

“Yes, write it down. Use your own words.”

“I can do that?”

I tell them yes, they can. They not only can, they should. Write it in your own words.  Use your own voice, just like you speak. Then, if you have to, you can neaten it up later and fix general grammar errors, but over all, your writing needs to be your voice.

I never fail to see relief on their faces when I say this. When I tell them that they can be themselves on paper, with their own ideas, their own words. Writing IS for them.

With luck, they will even write more often, even after they leave Freshman Composition.



Making Your Writing A Habit

racing snails

One of the most challenging elements of being a writer is the art of habit-creation.  I am not talking about writing when we are inspired, of course. When we are inspired, writing comes easily.  We look up and three hours have passed….how did that happen?  (Don’t you love it when that happens?)

No, inspired writing is not the problem. The problem comes when we are uninspired. When we are tired. Or cranky. Or scattered. Or wanting to eat pizza and binge on Better Call Saul. As with anything that requires daily habit to keep on track, once I allow myself to slip up and not write for a day (or two, or three) it becomes that much harder to get back in the game.

It’s not that we can’t catch up if we fall behind–it’s just more difficult. And if we aren’t careful, months can pass before we realize we have fallen off the writing horse and it has now galloped on ahead, four towns over. I liken it to exercise.  Several months ago, my husband and I were in the habit of running (albeit slowly. Jogging is probably a better word for it since neither of us would win any races, but it sounds so much sexier to be a “runner,” no?) 3.2 miles at least three days per week. The other four days, we walked that distance, often a little more. Then, one day, for reasons I don’t remember, but which fell along the lines of  “what a DAY! Let’s go get pizza!” and while we walked, we walked to the local pizzeria, which also has $2 beers on Tuesdays.

And you know, that was not a big deal on the surface. It was just one day, right? The problem was, the next day, with our bodies loaded with carbs and our minds still equally exhausted (because that never really goes away. If you wait to do the important things when you are feeling at the top of your game, you’ll never get anything done),  we were equally uninspired and instead took a shorter walk around the neighborhood instead. The next day, same thing. And so it goes.

Yesterday, however, I decided to get back in the swing of things and when I got home from work, I donned my running clothes, stretched, and hit the road.

Let me just say, it was every bit as terrible as I thought it would be. Whereas a few months ago, I could run that 3.2 miles easily and feel as if I could run another mile at least, yesterday evening, I thought I was going to die.  I ran slower than ever  and the entire time,  I imagined scenarios in which I passed out from heat-exhaustion and concerned neighbors had to rush out and dial 911. I made it 1.5 miles (barely) before deciding to walk the rest of the way. While I was glad I started running again, it would have been so much easier if I hadn’t ever stopped.

(Runners everywhere are laughing at me and my pathetic 3.2 miles, but alas, I have never been speedy.  Still, the idea wasn’t speed, but physical fitness and the knowledge that if I wanted to, I could outrun a zombie in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Right now, a zombie would catch me for sure. All because I got out of my little training habit).

Bit by bit, little by little, we build ourselves into who we want to be. We live our lives the way we want to live them, and this is reflected in our habits. This is true of any habit, which it is so important to do your best to stay on the horse, keep pushing ahead, even if you don’t feel like writing (or running, or whatever else it is you do).

So, what did I learn from this? Here are some thoughts on how to making writing a habit:

Schedule Your Habit. Probably the biggest thing you can do is to make time in your schedule for the important things you want to do, which will include writing. Understand that our lives are filled with a ton of tasks that need to be accomplished, but if we really want to do something, we must schedule time and make it a priority.  Then, prepare for your habit. Charge your laptop. Tell people you will be working from 5:00 to 7:00. Etc. I have read that the best plan is to do everything important “before 8:00 am” and I agree with this, although for me, it’s a far stretch to do “everything” important before 8:00 am since I also value my sleep and have to also be at work by then. This is why I have to move some of these things into the afternoon (i.e.: running). I do try to write in the morning, though, when I’m fresh, because writing is more important to me than running. It’s all about making priorities and living accordingly.

Have Smaller, Achievable Goals. When I am training for the zombie apocalypse, I have a goal of 3.2 miles, three days a week, with walking the other days. When I am writing, I have a goal of 500 words per day Monday through Friday.  I can write beyond the goal, but that is the goal. It’s modest, achievable, and I’ve found that by having smaller goals I can meet, I am more likely to write beyond my goal.  I also have smaller goals–finish this short story by the end of the day, revise this short story by next week, send out this one to ten journals by Monday, etc. This is just what works for me–you might have different goals and this is fine. Know thyself and what motivates you, but have a goal each day so you can concretely say you have “met” the benchmark you have set for yourself.

Remind Yourself Of The Reward (And The Consequences).  I have always been a writer and while I have had short stories, articles, and academic articles published, I have done so slowly and in spurts. Why? Because I have made other choices in my life at the expense of my writing (not that I have any regrets. If I had the chance to go back and do things differently, I wouldn’t change a thing other than getting rid of cable sooner and spending less time watching baby animals on YouTube). My writing career has been haphazard due to these other priorities taking place–some of them were noble, but some of them fell akin to going for a walk to the pizzeria instead of staying focused.  So, when I am tempted to not write for a day, I only have to remind myself of the short story I wrote five years ago that was still unedited when I started seriously writing again. Five years slips by quickly, people. “Just one day” of not writing can add up, day after day, and suddenly, you realize you haven’t progressed and you have a fairly decent draft of a short story sitting in a file somewhere for the last few years. If you had made writing a habit, that story would be published by now.

Schedule Vacations. I am a huge advocate of taking mental breaks, though. So while this is going to sound counter-intuitive, I feel it is important to allow yourself some planned vacations from your habit. Not too long, but small vacations can give you much-needed perspective. The key here is “schedule” the vacation.  Going back to the pizzeria trip that derailed our running goals, that could have been avoided if we had planned to walk to the pizzeria in the first place. If we run three days a week and we know there is a special deal on Tuesdays, then we could have scheduled our runs on other days and made a plan to walk to the pizzeria on Tuesday. The same is true for writing. I sometimes just need to think–unhindered from the idea that I am supposed to be doing something else.  This is why I don’t require writing on the week-ends (although I often write anyway). Or if I decide, in advance, “I’m taking a mental break on Friday and going to the beach” and not writing for a day, as long as I make this plan ahead of time, as long as it is scheduled, then it will not have the debilitating effect of derailing me in the long run. It’s all mental. It’s not the fact that you aren’t writing–it’s the lack of discipline and feeling of failure for not sticking to your plan that derails you in the long run. If you feel you have given into temptation, you are more likely to do it again tomorrow, but if you schedule the break, then you have control and accountability.

Log Your Success. Keep track of your days of writing and whether or not you met your goals. This can be jotting it down in a notebook or ticking it off on a to-do list or calendar. Whatever works for you. It can be incredibly helpful to see your progress and, again, hold yourself accountable. This is how you can also avoid five years passing without returning to a short story draft you wrote. Or thinking, “I wrote this, when?”

Keep Trying. So, as a fallible human, despite your best efforts, you might still follow the siren call of that unplanned pizza night, metaphorically-speaking. If it does, don’t waste time beating yourself up over it.  Just lay out your running shoes–or charge up your laptop, or sharpen your pencils–and start all over again. You can catch up. You’ll just have a rough patch at first.

Happy habit forming!

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On Creating Characters (Spying On The Neighbors, Part Two)

spying cat 2

Welcome back! So, before we begin, let me reassure you that this post will ultimately deal with how to develop character in your writing. Promise.

I do, however, need to back up a bit. In yesterday’s tale, I made it seem as if I saw the former trio of neighbors for the first time as I watched them from my twin daughters’ bedroom window, but this is not actually the case.  That was just the first time I realized they might make good story fodder. A few weeks before that incident, however, they had already begun contributing to my fictive rendition of their lives.

See, when they first moved in, I didn’t actually know who had moved in. I only knew that someone had bought the house, a moving van appeared, a general ruckus ensued, and after the dust settled, the kids and I baked the new neighbors some chocolate chip cookies, stacked them on a paper plate, and trotted around the corner to their front door. We rang the doorbell. We waited. And waited. We could hear movement inside the house, but no one came to the door. Then, just as we started back down the walk, the kids excited to eat the cookies instead, the door opened. The younger woman—who was about my age at the time—answered the door.

“Can I help you?” she asked. She had her hair wrapped in a towel and clearly, we had interrupted her—maybe she’d been in the hot tub—and I felt bad. I hadn’t meant to intrude on her life, but when we moved in, our other neighbor across the street brought us cookies, so I was trying to learn some civility and be more like her.

I apologized and bumbled around, telling her we had made them some cookies—welcome to the neighborhood! She opened the door a little wider and I introduced myself and each of the kids. Then, however, instead of taking the cookies, she explained she didn’t eat cookies or allow her daughter to eat them either. Cookies had sugar.  Sugar wasn’t good for kids.

She eyed my brood of five, who saw where this was going and began to inch closer to the cookie plate. You have to move fast if you want the competitive-cookie-edge at our house.

“Oh. Okay. Well.”

Such went our first meeting.

The second meeting occurred a few weeks after that when she showed up at our door.  I smiled when I saw her. Maybe she felt bad about her previous decline and made us cookies? Or maybe she had a question about preschools? Maybe she wanted to go to the movies? I invited her in, but she declined and stood there on the doorstep with her daughter dressed in a pink ruffly dress, eating a popsicle.

Then she asked me if we had a CAT? A black and white cat? Because if so, this was a “courtesy visit” to let us know that our cat was sitting on their outdoor furniture and if it happened again, they were going to take the cat to the pound.

Oh no.

I explained to her that the cat was not ours, but belonged to the neighbor across the street (the super nice one who bakes people cookies without awkwardness).

“The cat is always at your house,” she said. “And we are allergic to cats. We cannot have cats on our outside furniture, so this is a courtesy visit to let you know to take care of your cat and keep it inside.”

“You said that,” I said, once I found my voice and stable ground, “but the cat really isn’t our cat. You’ll have to talk to Flora. It’s her cat. But Flora is really sweet. I’m sure she’s going to help keep the cat somewhere safe.”

She harrumphed, thanked us, and strutted across the street to harass Flora. Welcome to the neighborhood, indeed.

So, long story short, a narrative of this family had begun to form—even before they began hosting their frequent parties.

Before we continue, though, I should say that I wasn’t tempted to write about this woman yet, or base a character on her.  Mean, small-minded cat-knappers do not by themselves make strong characters.  And why? Because the characters of great stories need to have some type of realization through the course of the story. Characters need to have some epiphany for the story to exist at all, but the previous run-ins I’d had with this person indicated that she, in her current state, was not capable of realization and change.  I’m not saying she didn’t have reasons for her behavior–I’m sure she did. We all have something going on–but at that point, I couldn’t see them or imagine what they could be. So there was no story. After all, not everyone is capable of having an epiphany  at every moment of their lives and clearly, this woman was not about to be dissuaded in her quest to box up Flora’s cat and cart him off to the pound. (In fact, she DID do this, a month later, but I’ve already turned this into a soap opera as it is. But don’t worry. It ended well and Flora got her cat back although he had to live inside forever after).

The Grinch can only be the Grinch if his heart is capable of growing. The ghosts of Christmas appear in Scrooge so that we can learn why Scrooge came to be Scrooge and only then we can understand how he might have the ability to change and grow. Hamlet can’t just rant and whine for the entire play….eventually, he has to make things right, however late. The grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard To Find” has to recognize the humanness of the Misfit and thus her own humanity. And so on. The upshot here is that we can’t have a story based on hateful people who steal cats, unless the hateful cat-stealer has something else going on, something to help us see the mustard seed of redemption. And I just didn’t see the potential for that yet. So, no story.

But then they started hosting parties.


(Now we actually do have a black-and-white cat. Cats love to adopt us.)

Not long after I first saw the younger woman in the hot tub from the twins’ window, they held their first party.  It was no big deal, really–just some music and people drinking–completely normal partying. No one fell into the hot tub or danced on the outside furniture from which the cat had been ejected. I know this because I combat-crawled across my daughters’ bedroom floor as they slept and peered through the blinds. Okay, I’m not proud of this, but as a child, I read Harriet the Spy more than ten times and not much had changed for me in that department when I reached my thirties. At the time, I was in grad school as well and, living in the suburbs, I took what story fodder and entertainment I could get.

From there, they began to hold small parties every night.  After the child went to bed for the night, the mother and her daughter would have four or five different men over for drinks. Every. Single. Night.


Starting about nine every night, I could hear their voices and know it was time to crawl across the floor and, ducking just so to keep out of sight, I’d watch the older mother waltz in and out of the sliding glass door with drinks. I’d watch the younger woman slow dance to music with her arms above her head as the male guests watched. They laughed and smoked cigarettes and played music and what on earth were they up to over there? I guess you could say that it was at this time that I found the sympathetic quality, the detail that helped me to see the younger woman’s redemptive abilities, the oyster inside the shell. Because however cruel she may have been to the cat, and however rude she had been to her new neighbors, no matter what they were up to in their back yard each night, I now had a better sense of the humanity of this woman.

As the weeks wore on, however, the neighbors–and often their guests–started looking up at the window and eventually, they built a fancy enclosure structure with red curtains that they could close off around the entire porch.  Which they did. Game over.

But by then, I had my story. I did notice that after awhile, the younger woman had a new live-in boyfriend.  He drove a yellow jeep and stayed all night most nights and the younger woman seemed happy with him, judging from the way she ran to him and flung her arms around his neck after he’d pulled up into the driveway and exited his Jeep. And I hope she was. I hope she is. At least she is when I get to write the story.

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Spying On The Neighbors (Confessions of a Writer)


Okay, I feel I should begin this post with two disclaimers:

First, if any of my current neighbors are reading this, you can rest assured that I would never spy on you. You should know that the houses in our neighborhood are designed and constructed in such a way that makes it impossible for us to look down into each other’s backyards or look into one another’s windows through the kitchen. Very thwarting, but it keeps the good-will flowing, and now you don’t have to look at me with suspicion when we meet at the mailbox.

Second, I am making a confession here, but please judge me kindly. If any readers lived next door to the reality-TV situation I’m about to describe in this post, you’d be spying too. Especially if you are a writer.

With those two disclaimers out of the way, let’s begin.

Writers observe. We are the ones in the grocery store noting your purchases of kale, cookies, ibuprofen, white wine, almond milk, cat food, and roach traps.  By the time you pay, we have your life worked out and a short draft written in our heads about your vegetarian diet and cat addiction. We are piecing together why you need white wine and wonder whether you realize the ingredients of Oreos are far from being vegan? Then we wonder how do the roach traps fit in to the developing narrative. Those aren’t very animal-friendly–you must be very fed up with your roach problem. Now, we have imagined you with roach traps lined up all over the house, which causes great philosophical angst for you and this morphs into an existential crisis, causing you drink more white wine, which explains the need for the ibuprofen.

By the time you pay, you will feel our eyes and look at us. What are we staring at?

We smile at you. Go on. Pay. We want to know if you are paying with cash or credit card. Maybe you are even writing a check? We wait to see if you will pay with a check.

And so it goes.

But what if you lived next door to us?

So, many years ago–in a different city and different neighborhood–we bought a house and only after we moved into it, as we were arranging our twin daughters’ bedroom furniture, did we realize that the huge floor-to-ceiling window in their room overlooked the next door neighbor’s tiny back yard, which featured a giant flagstone-surrounded hot tub.

My husband and I looked at the hot tub and at each other and discussed our hope that they didn’t use that hot tub in any kind of an illicit way,  what with our four year olds able to look right down into their back yard. Maybe we needed to keep the blinds shut most of the time?

As it turned out, that particular neighbor was an older woman whose husband recently died and no, she never even went into the backyard, let alone soaked in the hot tub. After a year or so, however, she put the house up for sale and another woman bought it.

Enter interesting neighbors.

The woman who bought it was a single woman–about fifty-five, if I had to guess–and when she moved in, she brought her own daughter, who was then in her late twenties or early thirties.  She, too, had a daughter–a little thing of about two or three. I learned all this one day when, while changing the bedsheets and straightening the twins’ room, I heard the squeals of a small child. Most of my own kids were in school, with exception of the newest four-year-old, who had taken advantage of his siblings’ school day to commandeer the Gamecube.  The sounds of Mariocart lilted from the living room. Nope. Wasn’t mine.

I looked down and saw the tiny neighbor and her mother, floating on a pink raft in the hot tub, a cold drink in her hand. The daughter ran around the edge of the tub, blond hair tucked up into a short pony-tail. As I watched, the older woman came out and smoked a cigarette, watering the plants and talking on the phone.

Ooooh. Interesting. I sat down on the floor with the old bed sheets. A pattern of threes. All women. All three home on a week-day. Smoking and watering plants. And I was hooked.

And it only got better from there, let me tell you. I would come to learn a lot about this trio, but at this point, I am going to be late for work. What to do, what to do.

I guess this will have “To be continued….”

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