In Which I Interview Myself for The Nervous Breakdown

The Nervous BreakdownThe Nervous Breakdown is an online community full of great reviews of books and movies, author interviews and original essays, and all kinds of cool content. As a writer, my favorite feature is their self-interview, in which authors interview themselves. Often authors do fun things like taking on different personas for interviewer and interviewee or asking inappropriate, off-the-wall questions, and/or use it as a chance to talk about topics that haven’t come up in other interviews or other things they find interesting.

I’ve been a fan of these for a while so it’s such a pleasure to get to do one myself to celebrate Hand Me Down‘s rebirth in paperback. I’m pretty proud of this interview, actually, and it was tons of fun to work on. So I hope you’ll check it out. I start by calling myself a chicken and a liar, and it gets better from there. I also talk about forgiveness and Christopher Pike and seeing my flasher ex-stepdad on the local news.

You’re such a chicken.

Excuse me?

And a liar.

Well, I am a writer. But this is a strange way to begin an interview. Can’t you be nicer to yourself?

Why didn’t you just call your book a memoir, chicken? Were you too scared to put yourself out there and be honest?

Hand Me Down isn’t a memoir. It’s a novel.

But isn’t it true?

Continue Reading Self-Interview

The Nervous Breakdown has also posted an excerpt from Hand Me Downchapter one in its entirety. Enjoy!

Spring Is in the Air

For such a short month, February sure packs a wallop. There are so many application deadlines and events and holidays and birthdays (I guess lots of people have sex in May, huh?), and it feels like a generally busy time for all of us. February means business. Now that the Christmas trees are out of the house (though, I saw one on the curb just last week!) and we’ve stopped living on cheese and wine and chocolate and are ready to come out from under our blankets and away from cozy fireplaces, step out of our slippers into non-elastic-waist pants and leave the holidays behind, it’s time to get back to work. 

And I did. I did publicity outreach emails, wrote guest blog posts and answered interview questions, applied to two MFA programs and wrote a statement of purpose, entered seven novel contests, applied for two conference fellowships and wrote the corresponding personal essays, and applied for the NEA fellowship for the first time. (Man, that application is a hassle—but it’s free, so why not?). I accepted an invitation to be on a writers workshop panel in June and to teach a workshop in September. All this on top of my regular trying-to-write schedule and, you know, life.

I have also sort of met my goals of getting outside more and spending less time on social media. I am still not writing enough, but that feels like it’s getting closer. I’m getting to the point where I notice things I want to describe, scenes I witness seem to slow down so I can capture them in my memory and I write them down when I get home. I’ve been making lots of notes, and I’m pretty sure the writing will just pour out of me when the time is right. The fact that I am now feeling hopeful rather than terrified is a shift in itself that tells me I’m making progress, even if it’s not all on a conscious level. Writing is tricky that way.

I think the change in weather also makes me more positive. It’s staying light after 6 pm and the air smells like flowers and the cherry blossoms are blooming pink confetti all over my neighborhood and the sun is out more and the wind isn’t icy on my cheeks. I can open the car windows when I drive and when I’m working so I can hear the birds twittering their songs. I love spring.

This spring means a paperback release for Hand Me Down (I’d be so grateful if you preordered a copy!) and decisions about what to do for next year. I think February was just the primer and March is going to be all kinds of busy, but I also think I’m ready after my winter hibernation.

Change is in the air. I can feel it building. Shifts—in our location, our focus, our behaviors, our perceptions—can be hard, but the other side of the transformation seems promising right now. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Blog It

I never know what to blog about. Book stuff, sure, but what else? I don’t have adorable children or cats or dogs; I don’t go on crazy adventures or cook beautiful dishes. Pictures of my day would include a computer screen, some less-than-beautiful food, and a scattering of other mundane things: laundry, errands, maybe some pretty scenery from my walks.

But I do think a lot. About everything. And those are the things I often think to write about but then I think, who cares about what I think? Are people really going to take the time to read my thoughts on random things? And I’m always so worried about how everything I write has to be “good enough” to be published, and I worry about talking about my personal life publicly, on the internet, and not calling it fiction, and I worry that I will seem silly and self-indulgent, and I worry that I might offend readers, and I worry endlessly instead of writing.

I read this piece from Claire Bidwell Smith on blogging for ten years (!) and I realized that I love her blog, like so many others do, for her voice. It’s not just her thoughts, but the way she expresses them that keeps us reading. We respond to both the story and the way it’s told, the universal themes in the everyday. Thousands of people have responded to my voice in Hand Me Down, so it’s not unreasonable to believe that some of you might connect with my voice here on this blog if I were willing to put myself out there. Plus, this is a blog, it doesn’t have to be book-level writing, right?

So I’m going to try. Even though I’m intimidated by all the fantastic blogs already out there, even though I’m worried about, well, about everything (all the time), I’m going to attempt to write more confessional, personal essay-ish, write-about-my-experience kinds of posts. Because that’s what I love to read, and that is one of the things I do know for sure: it’s always more fun to write the thing you love to read rather than the thing you think others want to read.

Here’s to more writing and being less afraid.

A Rambling Post About Gloom and the Election and Writing that Eventually Leads to Nancy Drew

I’ve been feeling glum lately. The changing weather makes for gray skies and gloomy days—the kind when it’s hard to tell what time it is and all day it feels like it could be either late morning or early evening without the sun to help mark the passage of time.

Plus, I was sick for weeks—still am, a bit—with the cold that comes and goes, sometimes accompanied by a fever and body aches and gets better but never seems to really go away. I felt horrible as I watched news of super-storm Sandy and all the devastation on the east coast; worried for friends who were without power. The election brought out so much hate and lies and fear and stubbornness, people bashing others and refusing to listen to dissenting opinions, blaming and yelling and name-calling…I had to get off social media for a few days.

And then along with the outpouring of relief and celebration and disappointment after the voting, there was also an unbelievable number of folks who went crazy. Regardless of your political opinions, in no way was the election a “tragedy” rigged by “terrorists.” I was honestly scared by so many of the comments I saw on the internet. The lack of interest in truth, the complete absence of critical thinking or applied logic, the hate-speak—it’s terrifying to think that there are so many people who are unwilling to even listen to opposing views and desperately cling to their delusions. One of my biggest fears is people who are able to hang onto a belief that has been proven false. Progress is impossible if you refuse to admit there’s a problem, obfuscate the issues with smoke screens to ignore real dialogue. Healthy debates—real debates—are good for solving problems; I’m not saying we should all just get along. But disagreeing requires a back and forth, which is what we need. Disagreement would be a step in the right direction, as all there seems to be right now is people screaming at each other and that means no one can hear a thing.

Whoa, sorry. That got away from me a bit there. I basically wanted to say that all of this along with a few personal issues and a general feeling of failure and career worries have gotten me into sort of a funk. I want to hunker down beside a fire and get swept up in a good story and ignore the world. But there is so much to be done. Isn’t that always the way?

I have also been feeling unable to write, hence the dry spell here on the blog. I don’t know how much of my feeling blue is caused by or is causing my inability to write, but whichever was the chicken or the egg doesn’t matter because my mood and my word count have remained low. It’s become a cycle, and since I’m all about trying to break those (have you read my book?), here I am, writing, and hoping that I get a boost.

If you’re still reading, thanks! As a reward for following me through to the end of this ramble, which came out of a post that was just meant to say something like, “Hey Guys! I’ve been feeling glum so I’m not writing much, but here are some words of wisdom from Nancy Drew’s Guide to Life,” here’s the payoff: some words of wisdom from Nancy Drew, one of my first literary influences, the strawberry-blond queen of sleuthing.

On Etiquette:
“It’s a bit gratuitous to quote passages from Shakespeare on a daily basis.” –The Clue of the Dancing Puppet

“Never interrupt a voodoo doctor.” –The Haunted Showboat

On Dating:
“A young lady with some judo skills can take care of unwanted advances in short order.” –The Whispering Statue

“After receiving an electrical shock to the system, find as many men as possible to vigorously massage you.” –Mystery of the Glowing Eye

On Braving the Wilderness:
“Don’t try to ford rocky streams in an old jalopy.” –The Message in the Hollow Oak

“It’s a good idea to arm yourself when in the wilderness because you just might have to kill a large lynx.” –The Secret at Shadow Ranch

And one final word of advice from Nancy for your holiday weekend:

“Cover your face immediately when confronted with an explosion. Obviously, it is good to avoid explosions in general.” –The Mystery of the Fire Dragon

How Can I Write Naked When Everyone Is Watching?

This essay was originally published on Book Pregnant, but I thought it could use a reboot. As fall starts and the weather turns, there is an almost physical push for me to get back to work, to shift from publicizing Hand Me Down and really dig into the new work. But I’m feeling paralyzed by the pressure. Does this ever happen to you? Here is my take.

How Can I Write Naked When Everyone Is Watching?

Writing used to be easy.

Are you laughing yet? If you’re a writer, you know that’s a load of crap. Writing is not easy; it never has been. What’s that Hemingway quote?There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed. It’s funny because it’s true, and most of us are familiar with the pain, the gutting open of ourselves, the pouring of our hearts and stories onto the page. I’m a writer; I can take the abuse. I bled onto my keyboard for years. But it seems that ever since I sold my novel, writing has gotten even harder.

When I wrote Hand Me Down, it was just me at my computer, alone in my office. Just my voice—and, Liz, my narrator’s, of course—in my head shaping the language, telling the story for an anonymous, would-be, someday, maybe-in-my-wildest-dreams-will-someone-else-actually-read-this-whole-thing potential reader. I wrote for me. I wrote because I had to tell my story, had to understand the hard truths of my childhood by twisting them inside out and rearranging them in an order that made sense. I could write like I was naked—bare my soul completely with words—because no one was watching.

I knew people would read my stories, sure, but they were my professors, my classmates in workshops, strangers at a conference, a very limited, very supportive audience. Back then I felt free enough to write honestly. No one knew the things I called fiction were true. No one cared if my work was good enough to publish—in fact, it was expected not to be. We were all learning; criticism came with the intention of improving the work rather than with the judgment that comes once a piece is finished.

Years later, after I sold the book, my editor had very few suggested changes, but we all agreed that the ending could be improved. I needed to write an entirely new climax scene. And I choked.

I couldn’t write anything for weeks. The pressure of creating something brand new that was going to go into the finished book was overwhelming. I had spent the better part of the previous five years reading and rereading and revising every word of my manuscript over and over and now I had mere months until a deadline that carried the weight of a paid, binding contract for an editor who represented a big NY publishing house. It was enough to strike me dumb, and I became paralyzed by these new real-life demands on my creative process. My bare-soul writing had gained a VIP audience and I felt fully exposed. I froze in the spotlight and it was like I was five again, running offstage to puke in the wings during our church play, incapable of performing.

Near tears, I finally had to call my editor and tell her I was stuck. I couldn’t admit that I was a fraud, but I knew I was. These people had invested in a lost cause; the whole sale had been a mistake. I had managed to fool us all by pretending to be a writer and my house of cards was about to crash.

I’m so lucky I have a fantastic editor. She talked me off the ledge, said we had a little bit more time. She said the words I most needed to hear: give yourself a break. She made me feel safe enough to risk being uncovered again, like I was back in workshop, writing for myself, writing to tell the best story I could tell, to understand, to discover truths. I convinced myself no one important was watching and I took off my writing clothes, spilled more blood onto my keyboard.

But my relationship with writing has changed even more dramatically since then. Not only did my editor read my book, but then the marketing and sales teams, my publicist, my family, booksellers, industry reviewers, media reviewers, bloggers, and then, the general public. Now, anyone who wants to can pick up my book, read my blood on the page, read the product of my emotional sweat and literal tears. Not only that, but they can respond to me directly, tell me how much they loved Hand Me Down and can’t wait for the next book. It’s so wonderful and gratifying to hear that, to hear that people are responding to my words and my story, but it also reminds me that there are now people waiting for me to write. I feel like everyone is watching, and I don’t want to let them down.

I’m trying to work on my second book, but I’ve found that it’s not me alone at my computer anymore. It’s not just my voice in my head, but also the negative comments from readers (even though they are few), the positive comments from readers and reviewers (what if I don’t live up to the praise?), statistics about sales figures and sophomore flops, the VIP audience of my agent and editor that are now among my earliest readers instead of the last, the knowledge that this book needs to be written more quickly than HMD, that it needs to be saleable, publishable, in order to keep my career moving, the nagging doubt that I’m capable of writing a second book.

If I can’t even be alone in my own head, how can I possibly get to that place where I can gut myself open?

There is no simple answer, or not one I know of. (If you’ve found one, please share!) I’m doing my best to work my way back to that safe space I started out in, the frame of mind that I’m only writing for me. I need to learn to protect myself from those outside voices, pretend that I’m invisible. This book does need to be publishable, eventually, and I can only get to publishable by writing those shitty first drafts, so that’s the place to start. The public doesn’t exist for this second book yet, and though my agent and editor are supportive readers, I need to kick them out of my brain for the beginning stages as well. I’ll put blinders on and earplugs in and focus on the writing, the storytelling, the characters’ voices, not the ones beyond my office. I’ll hang dark curtains over all my windows, and while I know the world is still out there, at least they won’t be able to see me.

It’s like that saying: Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one can hear. I also love Jennifer Weiner’s addition from her BEA speech: “Tweet like your mother’s not online.”

Write like you’re naked. It’s not easy, but we knew that already. We wouldn’t have made it this far if we couldn’t take the pain.

Everything Is Fiction

I read an article this morning in The New Yorker that says all the things that I believe about fiction, that I believe about writing, better than I say them when I try to explain why fiction is so important. Keith Ridgway starts with, “I don’t know how to write. Which is unfortunate, as I do it for a living. Mind you, I don’t know how to live either.” (Me, too, buddy. Me, too.)

But the crux for me is this:

Everything is fiction. When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events…You have a perception of the way things are, and you impose it on your memory, and in this way you think, in the same way that I think, that you are living something that is describable. When of course, what we actually live, what we actually experience—with our senses and our nerves—is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos.

Because everything IS fiction. Narrative is how we experience our lives, even within our own heads. It drives me crazy when people say they only read non-fiction because “it really happened.” Fiction tells truths clearer than the random chaos of real life, and real life can’t ever really be described anyway. Even non-fiction stories are narratives constructed and shaped into a digestible arc that makes sense out of “what really happened.”

I could go on and on, as it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for years and talking about a lot lately in relation to Hand Me Down: truth in fiction, getting at truth through fiction, and the choice between novel or memoir for a story that is mostly true. I’ll be posting more interviews where I discuss these issues, but for now, you should really just go read this piece, Everything Is Fiction. It’s short and brilliant. Enjoy.

Not Done Yet

I’m supposed to be working on additional content for the paperback release of Hand Me Down and I’m having trouble writing. I’m not sure I can tell you what the bonus content is yet, but I will say it’s a little bit more from Liz after the current ending, and I think it will be a great extra for readers.

It’s mostly done since it’s something I wrote before I sold HMD. I just have a few more scenes to add, and I even have ideas for them, but I can’t sink back into Liz’s voice. It’s been nine months since the final final edits on this book were done and I’ve spent that time trying to get Liz’s voice out of my head so I could write a different book, get to know a new narrator. It was finally working—I’ve begun the very early phases of my second book, but now, just for a brief few scenes, I have to crawl back into Liz’s head, let her talk to me freely after months of telling her we needed to take a break. This is all very confusing for both of us, and I’m finding it’s much more difficult than I expected.

Of course, everything about publishing this book has been nothing like I expected. And things keep changing and shifting and I’m trying to find a balance in this new life as a published author while still trying to write like no one’s watching or waiting, but sometimes it’s difficult. More so than I expected. (Are you sensing a theme here?)

So, why am I writing a blog post? I’m trying to assuage my guilt over not writing the work that is due soon, and also trying to tell myself I’m not superwoman. I can’t do it all. I get so mad at myself when I can’t complete a task by the deadline, even a self-imposed deadline. I feel like a failure; like I’m letting everyone down. Like I’m not good enough.

If you’ve read HMD, you might have some insight into how deeply this triggers a panic response in my chest, makes my heart flutter with fear. If I’m not good enough, I expect my world to collapse in on me again.

It doesn’t matter that it’s been fifteen years since the events that inspired Hand Me Down took place and I was forced to leave my home. It doesn’t matter how many people have loved my book, how many good reviews I’ve received, how far I’ve come or how hard I’ve worked. It doesn’t matter if I felt loved or safe or fearless for any amount of time before right now. If I can’t do this one thing—this week that means write a scene, but this fear applies to so many other tasks—it proves my success was a fluke, that the love and safety I felt were lies. That I’m not good enough and never will be.

The trick is remembering that the voice in my head that says I’m a failure is the same voice that spurred me to work my ass off, to push as hard as I could to get this point where I even need to write new content for a book that is already published; a book people have really responded to. It wasn’t a fluke. The good things in my life are not lies; the true lie is that I don’t deserve them, because I do. And so does Liz.

Maybe that’s part of why these new scenes are harder for me to write. Liz’s story—my story, too—isn’t over yet, but overall it’s headed into a lighter place and after so many years of darkness, it’s a bit difficult to accept, more so than we expected. That negative voice is hard to ignore, especially when it disguises itself as a protector, but I know we’ll make it through. We always do.

Book Pregnant is Kicking Ass Right Now

I belong to an online community—or, “secret group” as Facebook calls us—of thirty debut authors. We talk shop, ask each other for advice, listen to each other’s complaints and worries with support and encouragement, basically we help each other through the process of publishing a book after it’s been sold. There are no manuals or guides for this part of being a writer, and publishing is a murky and complicated business once you’re on the other side. We have banded together as people bonded by this uncommon experience. We’re called Book Pregnant, and right now we are kicking ass.

This is just good news—and only the good news that is public and okay to post—from the past few days!! Over the past few months we’ve had members hit the NYT bestseller list, do NPR and other radio interviews, get reviews in countless prestigious magazines, newspapers, websites, and trade journals, appear on hundreds of blogs, receive blurbs from big-name authors, release book trailers, speak at TEDx, give dozens of readings at universities, indie bookstores, and libraries, win literary contests, sell second books, and so much more. We are full of powerhouse talents and I’m so pleased and honored to be part of this tribe.

Find out more about Book Pregnant writers and our books, and check out our blog, the way we pass some of the knowledge we’ve gained from each other along to you.

Are you part of a writing tribe?