Tag Archives: writing

Lessons from 2013

It’s the last day of 2013 and I feel as if I should write a post reflecting upon the year: the places I went, the lessons I learned, the ways I grew. But quite honestly, to quote Sweet Brown, ain’t nobody got time for that. Plus, I already did one of those posts, way back in October. And all of the stuff I said in my earlier post still applies: I still like routine, I still like putting things away in drawers, I still hate getting rejected. So today, I’d like to add just a few additional (and surprising) things I’ve learned over this past year of living abroad, moving constantly, and trying new things.

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1. Writing takes perseverance.

I’ve said this one before, and I’ll keep saying it, if only to remind myself that this writing thing isn’t meant to be easy. When I started off on my professional writing endeavor last October, I knew, intellectually, that it would be challenging and would require a certain amount of stick-to-it-iveness. I didn’t realize, though, just how much stubborn, unflappable perseverance it would take. I’ve learned, after a year of trying, that to hack it as a professional writer, you must develop a skin of rhino-like thickness, constantly muddle through morasses of confusion and disappointment, and force yourself to continue to pursue a goal that might not actually be reachable. Because it’s worth it. (And I’m still not giving up.)

2. You don’t need that much stuff.

Since moving to London in July, Al and I have moved apartments (and/or hotels) eight or nine times (we lost track of the exact number after a while — I blame PTSD). And the main thing one learns very quickly after being forced to haul one’s stuff around London in a taxi cab at rush-hour is that one simply has too much stuff.

When we moved to South Africa last October, Al and I put most of our earthly possessions into storage in Virginia and brought only a fraction of our belongings with us to South Africa. Then, when we packed up for London, we took only a fraction of THAT. And now, after living in a series of one-room corporate apartments, that amount of stuff even feels like too much. At this point, we’ve each pared down to two suitcases of stuff, because we only have a month left in London, and traveling with more is just too hard.

When we move back to DC in a month, I’m really looking forward to getting all of our things in one place and doing a giant purge of our belongings. We did a purge once before, a few years ago, and man, it feels great (and it’s cheaper than therapy, a spa day, and/or buying more stuff). By the way, anyone interested in doing a purge, or even in just decluttering, should read the excellent book The Hoarder In You. (Don’t be put off by the title!) The book breaks down the emotional reasons why we hold on to stuff and gives the reader strategies for simplifying, decluttering, and lightening. Highly recommended!

3. However, some stuff enriches your life. Keep that stuff.

I could never get rid of ALL my stuff. What would I do without yarn, knitting needles, books, and my running shoes? What about my underwater MP3 player, my pink leather gloves, and my Le Creuset Dutch oven? Sure, I COULD get rid of that stuff — but it would negatively impact the quality of my life. I’ve learned that some stuff is not just necessary, but happy-making. My advice is to figure out what those things are for you and hold on to them. Get rid of the rest (or at least, a lot of the rest).

4. Coming home is still the sweetest part of travel.

I love to travel, and I wouldn’t trade our last year of adventures abroad for anything. But I’m really looking forward to coming back to the States and starting my life there, with Al. We’ve enjoyed being away, but we’re so excited to come back.

So, that’s it: just a few life lessons I’ve picked up during the past year. What have you learned this year? Was 2013 a good one for you or an absolute stinker? For me, it was one of my best years — but I’m optimistic that this next one will be even better. Happy New Year to all of my readers, whoever and wherever you are. I wish you success, peace, and joy in the new year. See you in 2014.

NaNoWriMo

This year, I am participating in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month! The concept of NaNoWriMo is pretty simple: your goal, as a participant, is to get 50,000 words of a new novel down during the month of November. This requires writing at a pretty brisk clip (something like 1700 words a day), but considering that when I wrote my last two manuscripts, I made myself write 2000 words a day, Stephen King-style, it shouldn’t be TOO difficult.

I was initially skeptical of NaNoWriMo, when I first heard about it last year, because I figured I didn’t need it. I had just moved to South Africa, was already knee-deep into another manuscript, and didn’t need any additional motivation to hit the keyboard. I was a newly minted writing machine, after all. These days, though, as I am slowly crawling out of the pits of a writing slump, I decided I needed the kick in the butt to start a new project that NaNoWriMo provides. And so, here I am, five days in and 9700 words down. And you know? I’m feeling pretty jazzed about it! I don’t want to say too much about what I’m working on (I’m superstitious like that) but it’s a new genre for me and it’s really fun.

It’s not too late to throw your own hat into the NaNoWriMo ring. If you need inspiration, here’s a great little pep talk by one of my favorite authors, Rainbow Rowell (who, as you might recall, wrote the truly lovely Eleanor & Park).

So… who else is in?

On not giving up

I’m well aware that the pace of my blogging has really fallen off since South Africa. I’d like to say that this is because my life here in London is so much fuller, but that’s not entirely true. It’s definitely partly true — I am no longer effectively housebound, like I was in Joburg! — but I also spend a fair amount of my day doing things like participating in a one-woman Sons of Anarchy marathon (hey, it’s paid work, lay off me!), knitting, cooking, and reading, so it’s not like I have that many pressing errands to do in my day-to-day life. The truth is, I can be a bit lazy when it comes to blogging.

Another thing that has kept me from blogging is that I’ve been in the Slump to End All Slumps, writing-wise. I’m in limbo with a lot of my projects right now, waiting for people to get back to me (which can fairly be translated to: “waiting to be rejected”). It’s kind of demoralizing. I wrote here about how, as a writer, I experience ebbs and flows, but really, for the last year, it’s been mostly flows. Then I hit this major ebb a few weeks ago, and it sort of threw me for a loop. Weeks dragged by in which I had to force myself to write even a few hundred words each day, and I hated every single one of those words. There were even a couple of nights where I let myself cry, rather self-indulgently, and told Al that maybe I should just give up this whole writing thing and go back to being a lawyer. Al talked me off the ledge, but really, I was never on the ledge. I was peering at the ledge from afar, but I wasn’t actually going to go up close to it. Really, I just felt like complaining. I know in my heart that even when writing sucks and I feel like everything I produce is crap and everyone hates me, it’s still better than being an attorney. But it’s worth acknowledging that it’s not all sunshine and unicorns, either. Writing is hard. Rejections are really hard. Who knew?

Sometimes, even caffeine isn't enough.

Sometimes, even caffeine isn’t enough.

The thing is, though, I’m not going to give up. If all the writers of the world gave up because they hit a month-long snag in which things didn’t go their way, we’d have no books. Plus, maybe this monster ebb is a good thing, in the great scheme of things. The interesting thing about this period in my life is that it’s genuinely challenging me. It’s been a while since I’ve had to struggle to make things happen for myself: I graduated high school, went to college, graduated college, secured a job, worked for a year, went to law school, secured another job, and worked for three years. And then I quit that job, walked away from all the support structures that I had built around myself during my brief career as a lawyer, and embarked on something that required me to build all necessary ladders and bridges for myself. This is what entrepreneurs and writers and artists have to do, but it ain’t easy, and it can be discouraging. But if there’s one thing I learned growing up, it’s that you don’t give up on things just because they are hard (thanks, Ma and Dad for forcing me to do all those sports I was terrible at!). So, I’m keeping on keeping on. Just thought I’d let you guys know.

Also, I am happy to report that I think I am finally breaking out of my über-slump. The other day, I felt a tiny spark of inspiration and rode that wave for three hours, finally finishing a draft of a short story I had been dawdling over and feeling lukewarm about for weeks. Since then, I’ve felt my mojo coming back, bit by bit, and that’s a huge relief. And, in other news, I’m also feeling excited about the fact that Al is taking me to Oslo this weekend for my birthday. He kept it a surprise until last night (although he gave me really cryptic clues along the way, many of which had to do with Detective Harry Hole), and now that I know where we’re going, I am beyond excited. I will report back next week on our Nordic adventure.

Enjoy your Friday and weekend, and keep on trucking.

 

Book review Monday: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

Warning: This book review contains (minor) spoilers. Proceed with caution.

A few weeks ago, my Kindle broke. This was an emergency of epic proportions, as I rely on my Kindle to get me through even the shortest moments of boredom: standing in line, riding the bus, waiting for my coffee to filter, lulls in conversation with Al — you get the idea. When it broke, I was in Edinburgh, and, in an odd coincidence, I had also broken my iPhone screen that day and had to go to the mall to get it fixed, so I popped into the mall’s bookstore and stocked up on paperbacks to tide me over until I could get my Kindle fixed. Now, I’m happy to report, I have a new Kindle, and I finished the paperbacks I bought to fill the gap.

One of these paperbacks was Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. I picked it up in the store without knowing anything about it, mostly because I liked the cover, which shows a 1960s-ish looking couple gazing toward (if not directly at) each other, backed by a seaside cliff dotted with little houses. So, you know, I judged a book by its cover.

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The verdict? I liked it. It was a quick, fun read, but there was emotional power behind it. Walter pulls together several interconnected narratives, taking place at different points in time, to weave a complex story about regret, love, and ambition. The emotional heart of the story lies with Dee Moray, a young American actress who, in 1962, while an extra on the set of Cleopatra, falls pregnant but is told she is dying. Thinking she has little time left, she travels from Rome to Porto Vergogna, a tiny, ramshackle Italian town just outside of Cinque Terre. There, she stays in the Hotel Adequate View, which is overseen by the shy and dreamy Pasquale Tursi. Theirs is not a love story, necessarily — they both have other complications in their lives that prevent a traditional romance from taking place — but their relationship, while short, is meaningful, and creates ripples that stretch fifty years into the future, when they finally meet again.

There are other characters in the book who play a role in Dee and Pasquale’s story, and who are living out their own complicated stories of love and loss, as well. There’s Claire, the “executive assistant” to Michael Deane, a coldhearted and eccentric Hollywood filmmaker. There’s Shane, an unsuccessful but ambitious screenwriter who’s determined to make an epic film about the Donner Party called “Donner!”. There’s Pat, Dee Moray’s grown son, who struggles with addiction. And there are other characters, some of whom enter in one part of the story and reemerge in surprising ways later on. The book, while light and fast-paced, is not an ephemeral beach read; it has something deeper to say about the choices the characters make and the lasting effects of those actions.

One of the things I enjoyed most about Beautiful Ruins, though, was a brief interview with the author, Jess Walter, in the back of the book. In it, Walter talks about his writing process. And if there’s one thing I love, as a writer, it’s reading about other writers’ processes and understanding how they think about character, plot, pacing, and all of the other elements that make a story click. Walter has a lot of interesting things to say about writing, and the specific details of how he came to write this particular novel, but one of the things I found most interesting were his remarks on the importance of character in a story or a novel. The interviewer asked him what he thought the difference was between embarking on writing a short story versus a novel. Walter replied:

The embarking is always the same. Early to the desk. Fingers on the home keys. Coffee and a giant cookie. I don’t usually know where I’m going until I get some pages. I have a thousand ideas for stories but I tend not to know much about them when I start, even whether it’s a story or a novel. … Then I just write, figure out who these people are, why they’re doing what they’re doing. I think character is elemental; if you pay attention to the people, you’ll get the action right. 

I love a lot about this answer (including the bit about the coffee and the giant cookie), but the thing I found most helpful was his comment about figuring out characters’ motivations before building action. I had never thought about it that way before, but it makes perfect sense. Characters in a story, like people in real life, act the way they do because of something. People don’t just do things or say things; there are reasons behind every action. Those reasons might be totally bonkers or self-defeating or evil, but they exist, and it’s important, as a writer, to understand what they are. When I first read this interview with Walter, I was finishing up a short story that I was pretty pleased with. But then I looked back on it and started to wonder about one of the characters’ motivations. Why is she doing that? I wondered. Why would she behave that way? That line of inquiry opened up a whole new window onto my story and allowed me to add depth and realism to it — it even ended up changing what happened in the end, because once I understood why the characters were doing what they were doing, I could more easily imagine how the action between them would progress. I’m grateful to Jess Walter for this extremely helpful tidbit; even though it may seem obvious, it’s something that I had never considered before while writing a story or a novel.

On that note, I need to finish editing the aforementioned story and ship it off to various publications in the hopes that someone will publish it. Thank you, Jess Walter, for the inspiration!

 

 

Ebbs and flows

In my writing, I’ve noticed, I go through periods of high energy and periods of low energy — ebbs and flows.

There are weeks in which I wake up every day hungry to write, with ten different projects bubbling away, and not enough time in the day to get everything done. Those are the best weeks.

But there are also weeks in which I wake up every day and search for any excuse not to write. I have to read this blog first, or drink this cup of coffee, or go to the grocery store, or go swimming. Oh, and I definitely need to pluck my eyebrows before I can even think of sitting down to work. Eventually, I run out of stupid ways to procrastinate and am forced to reckon with the blank computer screen. Getting words onto the page is like pulling fingernails and the hours tick by slowly. Those are the worst weeks.

The past few weeks, I’m happy to report, have been a high-energy period. I’m revising a manuscript of a novel, I’ve finished a short story, I took a stab at sketch comedy writing (challenging!), and I’m cooking up ideas for new things all the time. I’ve gotten up every day this week excited to get writing. I love that feeling.

The blahs can be tough.

The blahs can be tough.

But the life of a writer, like any other job, has its moments of difficulty and boredom, and sometimes those moments stretch on into weeks, even months. Last month, for instance, when I was waiting for a few trusted friends to get back to me with their comments on my manuscript, I felt stuck, unmotivated. I couldn’t work on the manuscript without hearing my readers’ comments. I had started a short story but didn’t like where it was going. I didn’t really feel like blogging. None of the books I was reading were inspiring. I felt… blah. The blahs, by the way, are kryptonite to creativity. When you’re not feeling inspired by anything you’re reading or watching or thinking, it’s hard to drum up good material. But the thing is, you have to push through the blahs, as blah-y and treacherous as they are, and keep forcing yourself to write. Even when you feel like you have nothing to say. Even when you hate everything you’re writing. Even when you’re bored by yourself.

The good news is, if you force yourself to push through the down periods, you’ll eventually come out on the other side. This game is cyclical, you see. There are highs and lows. After a low period, eventually, you’ll once again find yourself with things to say and not enough hours in the day to get everything on paper. This is a relief, because it’s a reminder that the blahs are conquerable. The only way they can stick around forever is if you give into them and stop writing.

So — don’t stop writing.

Mental health

Since quitting my job as an attorney, my life has improved a lot. I know I’ve said this before, and I’m sure my fellow lawyers are sick to death of hearing it, but I’m going to say it again. I now can do all the things I used to want to do but didn’t always have time for: knitting, sewing, exercise, cooking, binge-watching entire television series, making art, folding my laundry, and so on. I feel extremely lucky because I know a lot of people aren’t able to indulge their hobbies and interests.

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I’ve also found, since quitting my job, that partaking in a variety of activities every day (rather than just doing one thing, day in and day out), regardless of what I’m actually doing, has in itself improved my mental health. Life is more interesting for me when I’m doing a bunch of different things. Today, for example, I went to the gym, wrote, went to the fabric store, wrote some more, talked to my mom in California on Google chat, got my eyebrows waxed, planned dinner, and knit. Tomorrow, I think I’ll write, swim, write some more, sew, and knit. Compare this to my life as a lawyer, when on a typical day I’d go to the gym, go to the office, come home, watch TV, and go to bed, and you start to see what I’m talking about.

There are certain constants in my days, of course. Exercise. Writing. Tea. These are my Essentials, the things I need to do or have regularly to feel normal and healthy. After my basic physiological demands (eating and sleeping and so on), exercise comes in near the top of the list. When I don’t work out, I feel crappy, inside and out. After that, I must write. This professional writing business isn’t for wimps. You have to actually do it — constantly — to make things happen. Plus, I love writing. If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t really be me. And yes, I need tea. Tea features prominently in the equation.

What else? Making things. I’ve talked about this before, but one of the biggest differences between my life now and my life before I quit my job is that now, every single day, I’m able to be creative. My work requires me to create and then, in my downtime, I make things.

Another Essential: reading. I can’t imagine what I’d do at night without a book to read. My Kindle broke recently and the same day, I rushed to the bookstore to stock up on paperbacks, as if preparing for a coming bookpocalypse. Priorities, you understand.

What about people? Do I need people in my life every day? Yes, but maybe not in the way you’d think. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve slid more and more into the Introvert side of the Extrovert-Introvert divide on the Myers-Briggs scale. This means, practically, that I don’t need that much face-to-face human contact every day to feel happy, which is why working at home in my little writing cocoon suits me so well. But I do need some contact, whether that means reading and responding to emails from my friends, seeing my husband for dinner, or talking to my parents on Skype. No woman is an island. But do I miss the hum of an office buzzing with human activity? Hell to the no.

So, that’s about it. I need to be physically active, creative, tea’d up, surrounded by books, and not completely isolated from other humans. How about you? What are the things that make you feel normal? How do you balance your hobbies with work and life? I recommend thinking about your Essentials, making a list, checking it twice, and then making the top one or two or three on that list a daily priority. It works wonders.

 

Hate reads and inspiration

I have a confession: I read a lot of blogs that make me angry. And here’s another confession: I don’t plan on stopping. But not for the reason you might think.

First of all, let’s talk about hate reading. I have a theory that anyone who spends a lot of time on the internet (yours truly included) will eventually accumulate a couple of hate reads along the way. This is a documented phenomenon. Last year, Jezebel (the notorious comments sections of which may themselves serve as a hate read, in a pinch) posted an article called “The Art of Hate Reading,” in which the author discusses the habit of “visiting a website, Twitter feed, or Facebook page for the express purpose of ridiculing — or indulging your disdain for —the author and/or content.” I do this. Oh, do I do this. I have a whole section set up on my Feedly reader devoted to these so-called hate reads, and they’re the first blogs I read every morning. They get the blood pumping, you see.

My Feedly reader - note categories for Hate Reads and Love Reads. I've already read the Hate Reads.

My Feedly reader – note separate categories for Hate Reads and Love Reads. I’ve already read the Hate Reads.

But I don’t like the term “hate read,” because I don’t really hate these blogs. Hate is a strong word, right? Hate should be reserved for murderous dictators and people who club baby seals and the CEO of American Apparel, and so on. But blogs? This stuff doesn’t really matter. You can’t allow yourself to feel real bile when reading a blog because people say all sorts of ignorant and/or provocative things on the internet, and if you went around reacting emotionally to every instance of stupidity, I’m convinced you’d drive yourself batty. So I don’t hate these blogs that I read, but I do find them baffling, crazy-making, and frustrating. Often, I want to reach through my computer screen and shake whatever ignorant sod pecked out the words that I’m reading, but I never feel actual hatred. What’s the point? Haters gonna hate. (Science has proven it.)

The flip side of hate reading is that if you stick around long enough, you’ll get exposed to communities and ways of thinking that you’ve never before encountered, up close and personal. This can be off-putting, but also fascinating. I think of reading these blogs as a type of amateur anthropological study. Consequently, the exposure to communities of crazies on the internet has informed my thinking and, more importantly, my fiction writing. After all, it’s the extreme examples of weirdness that I find on the internet that provide fodder for some of my more interesting characters. If you spend enough time on blogs, reading posts and comments, you start to get a real sense of how certain people — people you’d never meet in real life — think and talk. And that’s a pretty valuable resource for a writer. You know that old chestnut “write what you know?” If you stick to only writing about people you know in your own life, the landscape of characters in your fiction might start to get a bit dull. Of course, it’s not that everyone I know in real life comes from the same background or holds the same beliefs, but generally, there’s some truth to the saying that birds-of-a-feather flock together (and I don’t mean that in some weird, covertly racist way). The fact is, the majority of my close friends are American, around my age (late 20s, early 30s), highly educated, politically moderate, agnostic, or liberal, and non-religious and/or non-devout (or, if they are religious, I’m not aware of it). Trust me, they’re all fascinating, wonderful people and they make my life infinitely better. But you don’t come across a lot of surprises when you hang out with people with similar backgrounds and beliefs to yours. That’s where the internet comes in.

My husband thinks it’s bizarre that I read blogs that have no actual relevance to my life, but I’ve been doing it for years, and I’m not about to stop now, no matter how awful the content. This morning, for example, I read this comment on a blog that I peruse occasionally:

When you say your friend mouthed off about homosexuality, do you know exactly what he said, and how he said it? 

I ask because while I agree with your observations that freedom of speech should be sacrosanct and that Catholics have the right to believe (and, in my view, should proclaim) that homosexuality is an evil perversion, I also believe that we should not pour vitriol on those who are tempted into such a life, but rather should help them repent from it.

It seems to me that it is all too easy to forget one half of the maxim ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, and easier still to express one sentiment in a way that crowds out the other.

If your friend was among the homosexuals at the perversely-named ‘pride’ event, trying to befriend them and at the same time enlighten them about the immoral and destructive nature of their activities, I salute him, and condemn those who set out to silence him with their drugs. I pray they didn’t sodomise him while he was under the influence, and if they did, that the does not now have HIV as a consequence.

I think if I had read this almost comically ignorant comment a few years ago, before I was an old pro at hate reading, I would have choked on my morning hardboiled egg/done a coffee spit-take/slammed my forehead on the keyboard repeatedly, etc. But now, I just find it fascinating! I mean, if I ever need to create a well-meaning but outrageously homophobic character in a book, I know exactly how he’ll talk and exactly how he’ll spell the word “sodomise” (the British way, apparently). You can’t make this stuff up… but you can learn from it and use it in your fiction.

So, to my fellow hate readers, I say go forth and hate read. And then take all of your frustration and pour it into great writing. That’s what I’m trying to do.

[By the way, I don’t want to name names regarding the blogs I read, mostly because I don’t want to drive traffic to their websites (however modest that traffic may be), but also because I’d feel bad calling out specific blogs, no matter how insane their authors are. But let me direct you to a meta-hate-read, the wonderful website Get Off My Internets (GOMI), where hate-readers come together in actual forums to discuss the bloggers that most irk them. The phrase “get off my internets” (as opposed to “stay on my internets”) is directed toward bloggers who have crossed the line from entertaining to obnoxious — but really, we don’t want these people to get off our internets, because then what would we hate read with our morning coffee? I’ll give you a hint: I spend some time in one of these forums. Not saying which one. I don’t write anything, but I lurk, and read what other people have to say about a certain irritating, self-promoting blogger I follow. There’s something validating about finding out that others are irritated by the same behavior on the internet. Don’t judge me.]

On sewing, knitting, and the impulse to make things

I’ve always loved making things. As a kid, I did latch-hook; I made beads; I wove hemp necklaces; I painted; I sketched; I sculpted. I was always making something. I can’t remember a time in my childhood where I didn’t have several projects, of various sorts, going. As an adult, I never lost my desire to be constantly creating things, but there were long years during which I figured making things just wasn’t something I got to do anymore. There was never enough time. Or energy. Working at a law firm, I found that I was so unhappy with my work life, I had little energy after work to devote to being creative. Instead, I’d come home from work and watch TV, or read, but I wouldn’t create anything more elaborate than dinner because I just didn’t have the energy. Consequently, my creativity languished for a long time. Then, I quit my job and rediscovered unstructured free time, which has been an absolute joy. I am now an adult who gets to make things during my day. In fact, my job now requires me to be creative: I get to tell stories for a living. Best job ever, right? (Well, best job ever for me, anyway).

Me and one of my masterpieces

Me and one of my early masterpieces

As I mentioned a while ago when I talked about knitting, I love to do activities in my downtime in which I am creating something — that is, in which I am making a product of some sort, whether it’s a hat or a casserole, that I did not have to invent from scratch. I like following a knitting pattern or a recipe and ending up with something I can be proud of, but which I did not have to pull out of thin air. I love knitting, especially, because in the end, you have a product — something you can wear or use — and, best of all, the knowledge that you made that product with your own two hands. So satisfying.

There's something nice about seeing your husband wear a hat you made.

There’s something nice about seeing your husband wear a hat you made.

So, I decided, given my love of knitting, to seek out sewing classes in London. I’ve wanted to learn how to sew for years but never got around to it (see: law firm job), and I figured there’s no time like the present. Thus, early last week I reported for a four-day, twelve-hour Intro to Sewing class at the lovely Sew Over It in Clapham North. And I loved it! I came back from my first day of class, completed pillow cushion proudly in hand, and told Al that I was “pretty sure” I could “master” sewing. Yes, I used the word “master.” No one ever accused me of hedging my bets. I was encouraged, you see, by my early success at creating things made entirely up of square pieces of fabric sewn together in straight lines. To give you an idea, here are the projects I completed in my intro class:

Cushion cover

Cushion cover with buttons

Tote bag

Tote bag

Makeup bag

Makeup bag with lining and zipper

Feeling on top of the sewing world, I immediately signed up for an Intro to Dressmaking course, figuring that after another twelve hours of instruction, I’d basically be able to start a side business as a seamstress and/or make all my own clothes from here on out. But oh!, dressmaking brought me low. My first day of class was intensely humbling. We made a circle skirt, which is so named because when you hold it up, it’s in the shape of a large circle with the waistband in the middle. It sounds simple — and the pattern looked simple — but that circle skirt nearly broke me. I messed up the hem line, the waistband was bumpy, and, when the dratted thing was finally done, I found that I had made the waist just a tad too small, so that the back would not stay closed if I so much as breathed. Ugh.

I was convinced, the entire first two days of dressmaking class, that I was the dolt of the classroom. I had trouble visualizing what the teacher was telling us to do. “Stitch here,” she’d say, and I’d wonder, “But why?” I didn’t understand the why of any of it. Why do those stitches go there? What will happen if I put them somewhere else? What larger purpose are these stitches serving? This inability to visualize my final product, it seems to me, is the biggest difference between my experience with knitting and my experience with sewing. For whatever reason, perhaps because knitting is necessarily a much slower process of construction and one has time to wrap one’s mind around the contours of what one is making, knitting is just not as confusing as sewing. Sure, while knitting I may have trouble executing certain tricky maneuvers or I may accidentally mess up the measurement of a piece of work, but I generally understand why I have to do a certain thing when I see it on a pattern. With sewing, though, the patterns are just big pieces of paper, and I don’t think my spatial visualization skills are quite finely tuned enough to picture said pieces of paper arranged into items of clothing. Folds, in particular, confuse me. There are no folds in knitting.

Long story short, my first two days of dressmaking class were stressful. My Type-A, detail-oriented inner lawyer (who, let’s face it, is probably always going to be with me) was freaking out at every mistake and berating me for not understanding the instructions. I was dismayed that other people in the class seemed to zip right along, with no signs of nervous sweating. This made me even more nervous (and sweaty). I left class that day feeling discouraged, with my misshapen, ill-fitting skirt stuffed into a plastic bag.

The next day, though, we started on a simple shift dress, and things began to make a little more sense. I understood a little more clearly why I was doing things. Yes, there were certain parts of the pattern that I found confounding, but mostly, things made sense. And, in the end, my dress came out really well. It actually, believe it or not, fits me. I’ve sewn my first piece of wearable clothing. Huzzah!

Summer shift dress

Summer shift dress

So, what have I learned from the experience of learning to sew? One, I can’t expect everything to come easily to me right away. Not to brag, but I was a bit of an (idiot) savant at knitting. I was good at it right away, and could master new skills easily by looking at a book or watching a YouTube video. No teacher required. Sewing is not like that for me, and that’s okay. It is going to take a bit more practice and patience on my part to get good at it. Second, it’s good to learn a new skill, even — and perhaps especially — if you’re not good at it right away. Keeps you on your toes. Life gets boring if you don’t have to stretch now and then, after all. On her blog The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes about the three levels of fun: challenging, accommodating, and relaxing fun. Learning to sew is challenging fun. It’s hard and frustrating at first, but as you get better at it, it gets more fun — and that’s more rewarding than coasting at something you’re already good at.

Here’s to more challenging fun, then, and to always making time for making things.

My first published short story

Exciting news: the first short story I’ve written since high school has just been published. Earlier this year, I entered Narrative Magazine’s Winter 2013 Story Contest and won Second Prize, which was a great and gratifying surprise. Now, my story, Seven Waves for Good Luck, is up on Narrative’s website, for those who care to read it. I think you have to sign up for a Narrative account to read the story, but it’s free and easy, and they don’t send annoying emails (they’re a non-profit literary magazine). I hope you enjoy!

First novel vs. second novel

In the last eight months, I’ve finished two manuscripts of novels. Maybe that sounds braggy, but I don’t mean it to, since neither manuscript is published, so I might as well have spent the last eight months eating bonbons and napping on the couch. (Not to be defeatist about it, or anything.)

Reading a Jo Nesbo book in Mozambique

Reading a Jo Nesbo book in Mozambique

Anyway, I’ve noticed an interesting contrast between the process of writing my first novel and the process of writing my second. You know how they say that when a woman has her second child, the baby just pops right out? The second novel is kind of like that, too. Way easier. The first one was this long labor process of creating, writing, editing, and nitpicking — and I had no idea what I was doing the entire time. With the second one, though, I felt like an old pro, from start to finish. I cranked that thing out in a few months, edited it in a few days, and I guess I should probably be thinking about a third manuscript now. Yikes.

The biggest difference between my first novel and my second, though, is how I feel about the two. I have more confidence in my second novel. I want to tell people about it. I feel proud of it. None of this is to say that my first novel is bad, but just that novel writing has a fairly steep learning curve, and your later products are most likely going to be stronger than your earlier efforts. You learn the tricks of the trade. You develop your voice. You think more critically about plot and pacing and dialogue and all of the elements that make a novel readable (and, hopefully, saleable).

I hope that my confidence in this second piece of writing pays off and that agents and editors feel the same way, when it comes time to send it off. For now, I’m taking a few days off from novel writing while my trusted readers peruse my manuscript — but expect to hear more about it in the coming weeks and months.