Today I found out, rather belatedly, that my short story “Fourteen Meals” was shortlisted for the 2019 Faulkner-Wisdom short story competition. I had received an email from the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society back in early September announcing the winners, but I must have clicked on the wrong link/failed to read the fine print, because I missed the fact that my own name was among the short-listed finalists. Oops! Better late than never.
More big news around here: we welcomed a new baby, Calla Rowan, on September 17. I maaaay have forgotten to mention here that I was pregnant. Oops. I am chalking this up to Third Child Syndrome, in which the third child gets, if not short shrift, somewhat abbreviated shrift. Calla is only eight days old but she’s already proving herself a great third child: she can sleep through the shrieking of her older siblings, she doesn’t mind little fingers touching her tiny feet, and she more or less goes with the flow (although she objects vociferously to diaper changes).
My pregnancy and Calla’s birth came at an interesting time for me, professionally. In the last nine months, I’ve had two stories accepted for publication (one in the Chicago Tribune, one in Bayou Magazine), and I’ve sent my novel manuscript out to agents. Six years into writing fiction, I’m starting to see some career momentum and it’s very exciting. However, now that Calla’s here, I must put my writing career on hold while I devote myself to taking care of my newborn.
Unlike when I had my last two kids, however, this time around, I’ve prioritized getting help. I’m hoping the extra support around the house will help me get back into writing sooner than I would have otherwise (and will preserve my mental health).
In the meantime, I am enjoying my sweet Calla, who really is an irresistible little nugget.
This past weekend, I drove 3 hours southwest from my home in Alexandria to Norwood, Virginia to stay at the beautiful, peaceful Porches writing retreat.
The idea of a writing retreat is to step away from all of the day-to-day distractions that prevent you from getting writing done, or from getting deep into your writing. The point is to sit in a room, be quiet, and let the words flow. No folding laundry, no packing kids’ lunches, no grocery shopping, no TV. Porches allowed me to hole up in a quiet room with my writing, my reading, and my knitting, and crank words out onto the page.
I spent Thursday afternoon to Sunday morning at Porches and got more done in under three days than I would normally accomplish in a month. My daily goal, when I’m writing at home, is usually to complete one scene from my novel. At Porches, I wrote 26 scenes in the novel and finished up a short story. The biggest accomplishment was finishing up the draft of my novel revision that I’ve been working on since January. What a feeling!
I did miss Al and the kids, of course. I pestered Al for frequent photos of Lucia and Ewan and we spoke on the phone every day. But man, was it nice to be able to have nothing on my agenda except to write, eat, and sleep. My typical day at Porches went like this: I’d wake up around 8 am (LUXURIOUS), make a cup of coffee, write for an hour or so, eat breakfast, write for another couple of hours, eat lunch, read, knit, maybe go for a walk, then back to writing until 6:30, when I’d eat dinner.
After dinner, I’d read and knit until bedtime, which was ludicrously and satisfyingly early (one night I fell asleep by 9:30 and slept until 8 the next day. This amount of sleep is UNHEARD OF for a mother of young children and might actually be illegal?).
I wish I could go back to Porches every month, but that would be logistically challenging, to say the least. But here at home, surrounded by nagging chores and quarrelsome children, I’ll try to hold onto the renewed sense of purpose and accomplishment I got out of my brief retreat. Until next time, Porches!
Hello, popping in from my typical hibernation to share a little bit of encouraging writing news. I was recently named one of two finalists in the James Knudsen Prize for Fiction (Bayou Magazine). Little near-victories like this keep me going as I continue to submit my short fiction and hope, fervently, to be published again.
In other writing news, I’ve booked myself a weekend at Porches Writing Retreat in early April. From the website, the place looks gorgeous and contemplative, and I’m hoping I’ll get some good work on my novel done over that weekend. I’ve been feeling kind of sluggish when it comes to working on my novel, and I’ve been putting much more energy and enthusiasm into my short fiction. I’ve learned from my past six years of writing that this process is cyclical, and that my energy for various projects will wax and wane, but as long as I am continuously working on something, it’s all good.
That’s all for now!
I just got back from the One Story summer conference in Brooklyn and, despite being sick as a dog, I had a great week. I feel so lucky to have been able to do two wonderful (and very different) writing conferences this summer. Kenyon, as I blogged about, was emotionally and physically draining, but I learned a ton and left feeling energized and inspired. One Story was a cushier, more supportive environment, and I came home feeling confident and motivated (if a bit depleted by whatever mystery virus I contracted while in New York). The conference took place at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, a former factory converted into an art space (where One Story has its offices). The week consisted of workshop (critiquing each other’s manuscripts), craft lectures (from such awesome writers as Hannah Tinti, Ann Napolitano, and Patrick Ryan), meals, readings, and opportunities for industry mingling.
The organizers of the One Story conference really made an effort to create a supportive, welcoming environment. The whole conference is made up of only twenty participants, which creates the feeling of a small, intimate community of writers. People in my workshop were incredibly kind, open, and generous. (And the staff gave us wine most nights, which helped.)
One of the most valuable parts of the One Story conference, for me, was the industry component. One night, there was a panel and meet-and-greet with four editors from various publishing houses, and the next night, a panel and mixer with four literary agents. As a non-famous writer who works out of her home office, anything I can do to get my manuscript pulled from the dreaded slush pile is a bonus, so being able to pitch to four literary agents face-to-face is huge. (This also produced another positive: I was forced to come up with an elevator pitch for my novel, something I’d been putting off for six months or so).
One night, we got to see Min Jin Lee, author of the wonderful family saga Pachinko, in conversation with Hannah Tinti at the Community Bookstore. Min Jin Lee was so down-to-Earth, funny, and frank; I loved hearing her perspective on the labor involved in researching and writing, on creating memorable characters, and on tapping into the emotional heart of the reader.
The week culminated with a participant reading, so I got up and read my fiction for the second time in my life. It was fun!
I’m so glad I went to One Story and would gladly do it again. Also, being in Brooklyn gave me the opportunity to see my dear friend Claire and to meet, for the first time, one of my former editors at Previously.TV, Sarah Bunting. After working with Sarah off and on for over five years (and doing, among other things, the vaunted Andi Dorfman book club with her and my other former editor, Tara Ariano), I felt like I’d already met her, so it was cool to sit down IRL and have a drink.
Thanks for a great week, Brooklyn! It’s been real.
I spent the last week (Saturday-Saturday) at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop in Gambier, Ohio and boy, was it a week.
The week held so much good: inspiration, knowledge, friendship, solitude. But the week was also tough. I cried every day, for a variety of reasons: I missed Al and my kids (and I found being away from them particularly wrenching given the horrors that are taking place at our country’s southern border), my six-year-old laptop stopped working on the second day of the workshop, and I received a barrage of brutally honest and challenging feedback from my workshop instructor. The first few days were especially hard. After my computer died (and I feared I had lost all of my ongoing manuscripts — turns out they’d been backed up; thank God for Backblaze), I laid on my bare dorm room bed and sobbed on the phone to Al that I thought I’d made a mistake by coming to Kenyon. He did his best to talk me off the ledge but I was totally ready to stand on the outskirts of Gambier with my thumb out and hitch a ride back to Virginia.
As the week went on and I emotionally calibrated to my environment, things improved. (I still found myself weeping when reading the news, but I’m pretty sure that’s a normal human reaction, given the circumstances). I had to let go of certain ideas and embrace new ones. I had to stop taking things personally. And I had to accept that I was not going to get a good night’s sleep on a squishy, plastic-coated extra-long twin mattress in a sweaty, cinder-block dorm room. Once I’d accepted the things I couldn’t change and began to stretch myself in new ways, I realized what a rare and wonderful opportunity the KRWW was for me. I am so glad I went.
On Friday, I stood in front of the entire workshop and read a short piece of fiction that I’d written during the week. I hadn’t read my fiction in front of so many people before, but, surprisingly, the experience was more empowering than scary, once I was up there.
I am coming away from the week at Kenyon with a whole new toolbox for writing craft, and a solid plan for revising my novel. It’s going to be a heck of a lot of work, but it’s also exciting to imagine how much my writing is going to improve. I hope to ride this wave of inspiration as long as I can. And now, off to revise.
More good news in the realm of my writing career: this July I’ll be attending the One Story Summer Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn. When I decided I wanted to attend fiction workshops this summer, I wasn’t sure how many programs I’d get accepted to, which ones would work with my family’s schedule, etc., and I would have been happy to attend even one. In the end, I was lucky enough to have a number of options to choose from. I landed on Kenyon and One Story because they each offer something unique (and important).
Kenyon, as I understand it, is a generative conference, in which participants do not come in with manuscripts to workshop, but instead produce writing continuously during the week. The focus of the week is on craft, not the publishing industry. It’s exhilarating to think about having a full week to sit down and just WRITE. As it is, I have so little time to write — often my only writing time is while my kids nap — and getting an entire week just to learn and produce is a rare luxury.
One Story will be a different experience from Kenyon, in that I will show up with a manuscript to be workshopped during the week. The manuscript I’ve chosen to submit is the first 5000 words of my novel and I am almost paralyzed with anxiety at the prospect of allowing human eyes that are not mine to rest upon this thing. I’ve worked on this manuscript for well over two years and never have I let anyone read even a word of it, so this conference in Brooklyn will be a (scary) departure for me. But I feel fairly certain that this is what needs to happen if I want to get my novel published, so I’m going to swallow my fear and just do it.
I’m excited about the potential this summer holds for advancing my future as a fiction writer. I’m also incredibly anxious about leaving the kids for a week at a time, twice. Al is a very capable parent and has a lot of support from our family, so I know everyone will be fine, but still — MY BABIES (*said in a shriek, with hand to forehead*). Wish me luck.
You won’t see many people talking about Cal Newport’s book Deep Work on Twitter or Facebook. That’s because Newport advocates giving up social media to focus more deeply on things that matter: work, in-person human relationships, fulfilling hobbies. Giving up social media is just one of many practical, albeit wrenchingly difficult, suggestions that Newport makes in his book, which purports the value of deep work, defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pus your cognitive capabilities to the limit.”
I picked up Deep Work at the end of 2017. At that time, I been reflecting for months on my increasing discomfort with my relationship to my smartphone. I didn’t like the feeling that my phone was an appendage of my body, something that could not be left behind. I didn’t like catching myself mindlessly flipping through various social media and news apps, refreshing my email, reading articles on the phone’s tiny internet browser. I didn’t like being someone who couldn’t be alone without her phone. I had survived just fine for 27 years before getting my first smartphone; why had I become so dependent on it? Something needed to change.
I was immediately hooked by the premise of Deep Work: that uninterrupted, focused, challenging work is valuable in any sort of “knowledge work” profession. (As a writer, I think my profession qualifies). In other words, being able to work deeply will make you better at what you do. Most intriguingly, the book provides practical tips for cultivating the practice of deep work in one’s own professional life.
Personally, I didn’t need to be sold on the benefits of deep work. I know from experience that the kind of writing I produce when I am focused and quiet, with no distractions, is superior than the work I do when I indulge my tendency to click on a BuzzFeed listicle at the first whiff of boredom or difficulty. Nonetheless, I found the evidence Newport has compiled in favor of deep work to be compelling. In particular, in a section titled “A Neurological Argument for Depth,” Newport cites science writer Winifred Gallagher, who studied “the role that attention — that is, what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore — plays in defining the quality of our life.” Her conclusion? “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love — is the sum of what you focus on.” Newport applies this theory to deep work, noting that deep work itself is meaningful, so “if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.” Not only that, but if you’re concentrating on work that matters, you’ll pay less attention to the “many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives.” (There are so many of these little gnats in my own life, and I’ve found they’re much easier to ignore when I’m not, say, opening Twitter and letting them fly up my nose.)
The second half of the book provides practical, actionable habits to build a practice of deep work. As I read, I turned down so many pages of the book that it would be difficult to summarize the tips that I found most groundbreaking. Let’s focus, then, on the most radical — and yet simplest — advice that Newport offers: quit social media. He suggests banning yourself from social media services for thirty days, without fanfare. Just quit cold turkey. Then, when the thirty days are up, ask yourself two questions: “1) Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?” and “2) Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?” If the answer is “no” to both questions, quit the service. If the answer is “yes,” go back to the service. Simple! Easy, though? No way.
I didn’t go the cold turkey route, as Newport advocates. Instead, I took Twitter and Facebook off my phone. This made a huge difference. I quickly realized that I don’t miss Facebook at all, although I really did miss Twitter. But I didn’t miss it enough to put it back on my phone, because I was checking it too often during the day and it was distracting me from more important things, such as giving my kids my full attention or digging into a tough revision of my manuscript. (My next challenge will be tackling my Instagram usage. Starting tomorrow (Ash Wednesday), I’ll be deleting Instagram off my phone. Something tells me I’ll be re-adding it first thing Easter morning, but we shall see!)
My biggest takeaway from Deep Work has been creating a work environment for myself that is as free from distraction as possible. When I sit down to write, I minimize the internet and do not allow myself to open it AT ALL (not even for research purposes) for at least an hour. I put my phone more than an arm’s length away, face-down. (I would put my phone into airplane mode, except that I am responsible for two tiny children and need to be available should my children’s caretakers need to get in touch with me while I’m working.) I do not get up for snacks or water or coffee. I just work. And it is really hard. The first day I sat down to do deep work, all jazzed from reading the book, I was shocked at how often I tried to open the internet while I should have been writing. I would work for five minutes or so, come to something challenging, and immediately seek to distract myself with the internet. I had no idea that I was so distractible! It was a rude awakening. The good news is, after about a month of practicing daily deep work, I no longer long to open the internet every five minutes. There is still an itch for distraction when the going gets tough, but I know to resist it. Overall, I’m working more efficiently and producing better results.
Everyone who feels even the slightest niggle of doubt about her ability to focus deeply should pick up this book. The advice is straightforward and practical, even though it can be difficult, at first, to execute. I have benefited immensely from focusing more on the things that matter and less on the crap that doesn’t, and I won’t be going back.
Some quick updates on what I’ve been up to recently:
First, one of my editors at Previously.TV, the inimitable Sarah D. Bunting, has spun off from Extra Hot Great a new, true-crime-TV-focused podcast called The Blotter Presents. A few weeks ago, I was honored to be TBP’s first guest, wherein we discussed OJ: Made in America, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary June 17, 1994, and the current reboot of true crime classic Cold Case Files. You can listen here, or on iTunes, or wherever else you care to download podcasts. Tell your friends!
Speaking of true crime podcasts, there sure are a lot of them these days, aren’t there? If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the options, please allow me to direct you toward my latest true crime podcast round-up over at The Blotter. You can read my recommendations here!
In other news, we just sleep-trained Ewan and suddenly, sleep is a thing I can have again, so expect to see more writing coming your way soon(ish)!
I am proud to announce that my short story On the Road to the Volcano received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s March/April 2016 Fiction Open contest!
I have submitted work to Glimmer Train many times over the past couple of years, so it’s really gratifying to have gotten on their Honorable Mentions list. (It’s extremely difficult to actually get published in Glimmer Train; according to Wikipedia, they only publish .001 (1/10th of 1%) of the stories they receive, so I am super-psyched to have made it as far as having my name on their website!).
Just a little, encouraging update on my ongoing quest to get my fiction published. Stay tuned.