In Which My Career Is Profiled in a Book About Art and Artists

In 2017, award-winning essayist and critic William Deresiewicz emailed me and asked if he could interview me about my life, work, art, and finances. (Those are four of my favorite topics to discuss, so of course I said yes.) Deresiewicz explained that he was writing a book about “arts careers in the new economy” — and this summer, The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech was published.

A lot has changed, in terms of my life, work, art, and finances, since 2017. Even back then, I wouldn’t have said I was “struggling to survive” — I think my last official “struggle” year was 2012, and I spent half of it living off the $10K I’d saved up (and the other half going into $14K of credit card debt that I finally paid off in 2016) so it doesn’t even really count.

That said, the way I am profiled in The Death of the Artist is lovely, honest, and insightful. Here’s how it begins:

Nicole Dieker is pretty much the ideal person to have tried to self-publish a work of literary fiction. Dieker grew up in small-town Missouri, the older of two daughters of a piano teacher and a music professor. Her upbringing taught her to value the arts, but above all, she told me, it taught her to practice. “The idea that every day you’re going to sit down at your instrument and you’re going to try to get better at it—that taught me as much about how to be an artist as the actual art itself.”

If you want to read Deresiewicz’s thoughts on why my freelance career has gone so well — and his analysis of The Biographies of Ordinary People both as a text and as a marketing project — you’ll have to read The Death of the Artist for yourself.

The other artist profiles are pretty good, too. ❤️

On the Secret Music and Math I Tuck Into Most of My Writing

All right, you asked about “the secret music and math I tuck into most of my writing even though I know most readers won’t know it’s there,” soooooo…

Well, with The Biographies of Ordinary People the music was obvious. I literally gave you every piece the Gruber sisters played or sang or listened to, and tried to give you enough context to understand the story even if you didn’t know the music (though I secretly hoped you’d listen to at least some of it on your own, and if you were part of my Patreon when I was drafting the book I gave you an actual playlist).

The math was less obvious, though it was also right in front of you if you knew to look for it.

The story begins on Rosemary Gruber’s 35th birthday and ends on Meredith Gruber’s 35th birthday.

There are four parts, each with 35 chapters.

Part 1 covers three years (1989–1992); then we skip five years.

Part 2 covers three years (1997–2000); then we skip four years.

Part 3 covers five years (2004–2009). It was only supposed to cover four, both halves of Biographies Vol. 2 were supposed to cover four years each, but I really wanted the three Gruber sisters to meet up at the Obama inauguration, which I mistakenly entered as “January 2008” in my initial outline. (When I realized it had really taken place during January 2009, I thought about making the inauguration its own little section, so I could keep the two parts at exactly four years each. Then I decided nobody would care about it but me.)

Then we skip three years.

Part 4 covers four years (2012–2016).



But that’s what I do when I make stuff (writing or, in my previous career, songs). There’s always some kind of scaffolding holding the thing together — go read the author’s note at the end of Frugal and the Beast if you want to see how I constructed each of the stories in that collection, for example.

Now let’s go even deeper.

I read everything I write aloud. In fact, I say most of it aloud before I ever put it on the page. Say it to yourself, if you want:

The last night before they left was Rosemary Gruber’s thirty-fifth birthday.

It’s in 4/4 time.

“Rosemary Gruber” has the same number of syllables, and the same stresses, as “thirty-fifth birthday.”

I took a first-page critique class while I was drafting the novel, and one of the other students helpfully suggested that the opening sentence would be tighter if it were “The night before they left was Rosemary Gruber’s thirty-fifth birthday.”

I’m not going for tight. I’m going for a line that you can speak as though it were a song. So it has to be last, to keep the rhythm of the sentence and the assonance with left.

Next we have “It had, of course, been her birthday since the morning, and the girls had duly remembered to call out ‘Happy birthday, mommy!’ when they came out of the bedroom.”

It had

Of course

Been her birthday

Since the morning

You see the rhythm, don’t you? It’s right there. The words couldn’t be anything but what they were, or it would spoil it.

And the GIRLS had DU-ly re-MEM-bered to CALL out. Read it aloud. Read the whole thing aloud. You’ll hear it.

And that, my dear readers, is the secret music.

Are you glad you asked? ❤️

An Excerpt From The Biographies of Ordinary People: Meredith on Christmas Eve

The Biographies of Ordinary People is a Millennial-era Little Women that follows three sisters from 1989 to 2016. This chapter takes place in December 1989, when oldest sister Meredith Gruber is eight years old. It is also one of my very favorites, in the whole book. 

If you aren’t familiar with the story: Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie are the three Gruber sisters. Alex (short for Alexandra) is Meredith’s best friend. The rest should make sense on its own.

The thing Meredith liked best about the Methodist church was that nobody asked her to consider her sins. In Portland they had gone to church with Grandma and Grandpa Gruber sometimes, and it was a big church with ceilings so high that Meredith couldn’t even read the words at the tops of the stained glass windows, and when you turned around to walk out of the sanctuary you had to face an enormous statue of Jesus nailed to the cross, with red painted blood dripping from the hole in His side. Meredith tried to look everywhere else but at that Jesus. She focused her eyes on Grandma Gruber’s purse instead.

But before that you had to kneel down and think about your sins, and Meredith felt like she was in the wrong place because she didn’t have any sins. She didn’t steal, she didn’t lie, she didn’t cheat, and she didn’t try to hurt people. What was she supposed to think about, in the silence? She thought about her parents and her grandparents, and she was pretty sure they didn’t have any sins either. Why were they all doing this?

The Methodist church never used the word “sin.” When they said the Lord’s Prayer, they used “trespasses,” which Meredith liked because you could hear the “s” sound come out of a hundred mouths at once, and there were plenty of “s” sounds in “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It was her favorite part of the prayer.

Meredith had asked Dad what “trespass” meant, because she knew about “No Trespassing” signs from books but thought they probably weren’t talking about that.

“It’s sort of the same thing,” Dad had told her. “Think about it like going into someone’s space when you aren’t supposed to. Like when you’re playing, and you want a Barbie that Natalie’s playing with, and you get her to give it to you even though you know she doesn’t want to.”

Meredith had definitely done that. She hadn’t even realized it was bad. So she also liked this church because it helped her become a better person.

Now she stood next to Natalie and Jackie and Alex, wearing red velvet to match her sisters and shaking hands with the grownups in front of them and behind them. Some of them said “Peace be with you!” and some of them said “Merry Christmas,” and one of them asked if they were excited for Santa, and Jackie said “Yes!” so loudly that everyone laughed, which Meredith thought was a little unfair. Jackie didn’t know yet about Santa, and it was mean of them to laugh at how excited she was.

Meredith had figured out Santa when she checked out Little Town on the Prairie from the library. She asked Alex if she knew, and Alex talked about footprints in the snow and half-eaten carrots next to the stockings, and Meredith said that at her house, Santa didn’t leave any footprints or carrots. They put it together like the Boxcar Children solving a mystery, and then Meredith decided not to tell Natalie or Jackie. Laura Ingalls hadn’t told Grace, after all.

After everyone shook hands and sat down, it was time for Special Music. Meredith and her sisters walked to the piano in their matching dresses, Natalie carrying the music book under her arm with a paper clip in the right spot. The two of them made sure the book wouldn’t tip forward, and then they carefully lined up their hands on either side of Middle C, while Jackie took her place next to Natalie and stood very still like Mom had taught her.

Meredith counted, trying to do it so no one else could hear. “One, two, three, four—”

“JOY to the WORLD, the Lord is come!” Jackie sang out as Natalie and Meredith shared the melody between their fingers. Meredith also had a few chords to play with her left hand, and she concentrated on what Mom had told her: be the accompaniment, not the solo. She kept her fingers curved and her wrists loose. It all made a difference, even though it was hard for Meredith to hear what the difference was.

After they finished, the congregation clapped, which embarrassed Meredith because she knew you weren’t supposed to clap at church. She didn’t know whether they should bow, but they hadn’t practiced bowing, so she didn’t. The three Gruber sisters stayed very still, like Mom had taught them, until the applause stopped.

Then Jackie and Natalie went back to their seats and Alex sat down on the bench next to Meredith. They moved the piano book pages forward to the next paper clip, and played “What Child Is This?” They had picked this Christmas carol because it sounded like castles and princesses. Dad had explained that it was also a folk song from England, and pulled out a record called “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” which Meredith wished he would play again, as soon as it was over. She wanted to write a story about a girl who listened to that record and closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she was in a magical forest. The instruments made sounds like trees and rain on leaves and waterfalls.

The other reason Meredith liked “What Child Is This” was because it was both happy and sad, so it really felt like Christmas. It was easy to think of all her trespasses tonight, and all of the ways she had been trespassed against. Even though she didn’t believe in Santa anymore, she still wanted to be good. She wanted to get everything right.

Then it was time for the candles. There had been candles in wicker baskets when they walked into church, and now everyone took their candles and one of the ushers turned off all the lights and the pastor lit her candle from the big Peace Candle in the center of the room. Then she walked to the first row, and the candlelight began spreading throughout the sanctuary.

Everyone sang “Silent Night” with no piano or organ, just voices. It was all voices and the steadily growing light, and Meredith half singing as they began a second verse and she realized she didn’t know any of the words. It felt like forgiveness, like it was okay that Meredith had read an extra chapter of her library book instead of cleaning up the playroom and Mom had come up the stairs and said “Meredith! What did I ask you to do?” or like it was okay that she had sat on Santa’s lap and pretended he was real. It was okay that they had called Grandma and Grandpa Gruber that afternoon, and Meredith had nothing to say except she was fine and school was fine, and she felt like she should have said more because it was a special day and she wanted them to know she loved them. It was okay that the congregation had clapped at their music, even though it had felt so embarrassing to sit quietly while it was going on.

Christ was born. Meredith looked at Alex in the candlelight, and Alex made a face, and Meredith tried not to laugh—and then she made a face back and Alex did laugh, but covered it up with her hand. Meredith looked the other way and saw Natalie leaning into Mom’s side, and Mom’s hand reached around to hug Natalie’s red velvet shoulder. Dad was helping Jackie hold her candle, as Jackie kept singing the one verse of “Silent Night” that she knew, over and over. When all the verses were finished, the ushers turned on the lights and the pastor called out “Merry Christmas!” and it was.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash.