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).

YES I KNOW THAT’S NOT “MATH MATH”

IT’S JUST NUMBERS

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? ❤️

Thoughts on Writer’s Winter Break

This is where I’m supposed to write you a very long post about everything that happened at Writer’s Winter Break.

The truth is that I’m still processing most of it.

I would say, for starters, that if Catapult and William Morris Endeavor do it again next year — and I am fairly sure they will — you should go. (Understanding that you’ll need to be able to both cover the costs of the retreat and take the time off work, so this advice isn’t applicable to everyone. But if you, like, have the resources/ability and you’re on the fence? Go.)

I got to run into the ocean, which I hadn’t done in… three years? We had dinner at this restaurant by the bay and there was a path down to the beach, and a few of us decided to get up and walk it, and then I took off running — and people told me afterwards that they were impressed by my spontaneity, and then I had to explain that it wasn’t spontaneous at all, I had worn plastic sandals and a white cotton dress so I could do exactly what I’d planned, because I knew the moment was coming and I wanted to run directly into it.

But we can look at that as a metaphor for the writing advice I got during the retreat — which was, essentially, to take advantage of the full abilities of both my head and my heart.

Everyone else before this has just said heart.

I have heard so many times that I need to tone down my intellect and my desire for structure and the secret music and math I tuck into most of my writing even though I know most readers won’t know it’s there.

I have heard so many times that I just need to let go and feel and be messy and all of that.

And I was messy, at that beach dinner. Everything from the knees on down was covered in sand and salt.

But I was able to run into the surf wholeheartedly because I knew there would be a surf for me to run into and dressed for it.

And that’s what I was encouraged to do with my writing. To be as smart and structured and forward-thinking and open-hearted and ambitious and thoughtful as I actually am.

To see the story I want to tell and the way I want to tell it and then to take off running until I hit the waves.

So that’s what I learned, at Writer’s Winter Break.

And yes, I woke up early this morning so I could keep writing. ❤️

Learning to Trust the Circular Nature of Writing

Kimberly Lew is a published playwright and writer whose work has appeared online on websites including The Washington Post, Real Simple, Fodor’s, The Toast, and The Billfold. Learn more at www.kimberlylew.com.

When I was younger, I loved arts and crafts but was low on patience. I had a lot of creativity and maybe some artistic talent, but I needed instant gratification. If I did a sketch, I expected it to look exactly the way I wanted it the first time around — I was not a fan of erasers. When learning to sew, I expected to turn around ready-to-wear garments and accessories. There were many lopsided purses and pillowcases I insisted on using because I couldn’t admit that I needed to practice my stitching or measure my materials a little more carefully.

Writing was a nice outlet for me, especially in school. I used to love being able to write something during journal time and volunteer to read it out loud, getting to see my classmates’ reactions to my stories and ideas. Then, when all was said and done, I could close the journal and move on to the next thing.

But the more I started to learn about creative writing, the more I realized how important the revision process was. It was tricky to be able to filter through the noise of feedback, to tiptoe along the line between my original vision and the advice of others. As I started wanting to work on longer projects, the idea of how long of a journey it can be to see something through, all so it might just sit in a drawer or on a hard drive, became incredibly daunting. I stopped writing for a while, because it didn’t feel productive when there wasn’t necessarily a visible finish line — or anything else that would give me the same feeling as seeing my classmates respond to my work.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the lack of writing was still a part of the writing process. In the first long break I took from writing with any kind of frequency, I traveled, living in Georgia, then California, then studying abroad in London. I reconnected with family that I hadn’t been able to spend time with. I got my first job and made my own money for the first time. By the time I started writing again, inspired by a writing course I took in London to help fill out my class schedule, I had a lot more life experience to draw from, a lot of new perspectives of the world to explore. Since then, I’ve gone through a lot of different phases where I’ve come in and out of writing, and I’ve learned that those times can be as important as the ones where I’m fully committed.

I used to believe that writing was a linear journey; that you had an idea and then you put that idea onto paper and then you tightened that idea through editing and then you got that idea published. There were two finite points, a beginning and an end, for every project, and to take stock of one’s work would be to lay out every line, sorting them into two piles: those were that complete and those that still needed to be finished.

Over time, I’ve come to see that writing can be more like intersecting circles. Every piece can be a representation of a particular moment, while intersecting with different stories at different times. And every circle, while complete in its own right, does not exist in isolation.

One of my most prized pieces I’ve ever had published is an essay about my grandfather. It was born out of a short piece I wrote when I visited him one summer, basically a journal entry scrawled on loose-leaf paper as I tried to come to terms with my feelings about his living with Alzheimer’s. It lived in a purse for a year and then eventually became the inspiration for an essay I wanted to submit to Longreads, which was not accepted, and then shortened to send into Modern Love, where it was also rejected. The piece was sent to a few other places before I set it aside completely for a few years. 

When I finally resurrected it, a lot of things had changed. I had written a full-length play inspired by my grandpa and Alzheimer’s that had a reading in New York City, and I had sadly lost my grandpa more recently. Using this piece that I had revisited every so often over many years, I wrote a new personal essay that reflected new discoveries and experiences. Eventually, that piece found a home where it was edited and published, and I completed one of many circles that got a passion project where I needed it to be.

While treating writing like a discipline is important, I’ve also found that sometimes an idea needs time to develop — and even if you put it on a shelf, it has a tendency to come back around. Sometimes bigger works require multiple versions, lots of notes and revision, and research. Sometimes the darlings we’re told to kill have a second life as an important puzzle piece or totally new thing. Sometimes a piece doesn’t make sense until you have the life experience to understand other people’s critiques.

Learning this has allowed me to put less pressure on my writing. I used to get worried — especially when I wrote something I was immensely proud of — that I might never feel so inspired again. But time always helps, and I keep getting the opportunity to look at the body of my work and all its many circles, making new connections and rearranging them into new configurations. As long as I want to write, I not only have the potential to create something new, but also a whole foundation to build on to get to the next thing.

Now, if I get into the weeds of a project and find that it’s not working, I don’t feel pressure to mold it into something it’s not or to feel the need to salvage it out of pride. Instead, sometimes I step back and tell myself that I’m completing the circle for now, that I can let go. Maybe there will be a chance to revisit it in the future — to pull it out of a drawer or a hard drive and reacquaint ourselves, like old friends.

Writer’s Winter Break Class Prep

So today I’m going to share with you the short piece I put together for the Writer’s Winter Break retreat/conference I’m attending later this week.

(Assuming the weather doesn’t keep me from flying out on Wednesday. It has been snowing constantly since Friday afternoon.)

Here’s the context: for the class I’ll be taking with Meg Wolitzer, I’ve been asked to bring one page of my own writing, one page of another author’s writing, and up to two pages addressing an issue in my own work.

I’m bringing the first page of The Biographies of Ordinary People, the first page of Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers (which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago), and the following statement:

I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People in 2015 and 2016, with funding support from Patreon; after the novel was finished, I queried it and was told that, while the writing was lovely and the characters compelling, it was too quiet to be marketable. One agent said “I can work with you to develop something that might be more appealing to a large audience, or you can keep what you have as an art book that will appeal to a select few.”

I chose art book, published and marketed and toured it myself, and the people who loved it loved it.

Then I told myself I needed to learn how to write something that might be more appealing to a large audience.

In the past two years, I outlined one speculative fiction novel about Mars that went nowhere, drafted a second speculative fiction novel about parallel universes that I immediately trunked, and got most of the way through the draft of a cozy mystery with a Millennial-aged amateur detective (she’s got student loans and a social media obsession). My writing is no longer as lovely and my characters are no longer as compelling; I’m writing for “the market” and it’s not working.

I don’t think this is necessarily a genre issue; I read avidly and love all genres. One of the reasons I picked Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers as my published-writing sample was because it is either a literary fiction or a science fiction novel (I’ve talked to indie booksellers who didn’t know where to shelve it) and I would love to write something like that.

The other reason I picked The Wanderers is because the opening chapter does what I was trying to do with the opening chapter of Biographies — introduce us to the world of a woman who lives mostly in her head, who has issues being honest with the people in front of her and is about to leave everything she’s ever known — but it’s tighter and more satisfying and plotty in a way that Biographies is not. 

You turn the first page of The Wanderers wondering why Boone has called this meeting, what he’s going to ask Helen to do, and whether she’ll agree to do it. (To be fair, you also turn that first page feeling pretty sure that she’ll agree to do it. This is how stories work, after all.)

You turn the first page of Biographies remembering what it was like to live in a tiny apartment in the Pacific Northwest in 1989. That was actually what I was going for, and why the people who appreciated this book did in fact appreciate it, but… it’s not enough for what I do next. 

And I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I want it to be better than what I’m writing now.

I’ll be back from the retreat next Monday, and I’ll let you know how it goes. ❤️

(also there will still be a guest post on Wednesday)

(don’t miss the guest post)

Where I Got Published This Week

Lifehacker

Does Your Spending Match Your Position on the ‘Wealth Ladder’?

When to Walk Out of a Job Interview Early

Your Workspace Needs an Analog Clock

Only Check Email When You Have Time to Respond

Rest Can Be Just as Productive as Work

Have a good weekend! I’ll be working throughout the weekend and into the Monday holiday to prep for the Writer’s Winter Break conference (both in terms of prepping writing for the conference and in terms of prepping work to run while I’m away) so I’ll probably toss up a post either on Monday afternoon or Tuesday—and, of course, you can expect another excellent guest post on Wednesday. ❤️

Goals and The Scatter: Cultivating a New Year of Creativity

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the first in an ongoing column about the creative practice.

In the past year, I’ve gone a bit sour on cruising the internet, and gotten back into curated newsletters. (Side note: if you have favorites, please share!) A friend of mine, the lovely and thoughtful San Francisco Bay Area poet Allie Rigby, publishes a monthly one called The Herd. In this month’s issue, while admitting her ambivalence about New Year’s resolutions, she encourages her community to think about what they want creatively in 2020—and to share one intention with the group. “There is magic,” she points out, “in sharing a goal.” So I’m going to do some magic right now; you’re my witness. In 2020, I’ll write my second book.

Also, I’ll get the first one in front of a series of publishers I think are right for it, until one of them agrees. Plus, I’ll do some serious vocational discernment, work daily with a plan I’m designing to mitigate the frightening ways my body handles stress, and spend a full day, once per month, in silent retreat from all tech and to-do lists.

I was going to share just the art-specific goals with you here. But that contradicts something I’ve been learning for years, which crystallized in 2019: everything you do feeds—or eats, or a little of both—your art. Maybe also this: your life is your art. 

I wrote my 2020 goals while driving up the central coast of California on my winter holidays. During those same holidays, I interviewed for a new job, then received the news that they want me to start this month. Change has been coming in this department for some time, a distant storm I’ve been feeling just over the horizon, charging the air. I’m relieved to feel the rain falling. The inevitable thunder and lightning both excites and worries me: a new employer and colleagues to learn, a project I’m helping to invent as we go along, some travel, work dreams, changes to my daily routine. And as all of that whirls around me—oh right, I’m writing a book and managing my stress so it doesn’t kill me.*

Most creatives don’t live by our art alone. Writing is a full-time job, for which I need another such to pay the rent and take vacation and buy good wine and feed the cat, et cetera. I suspect I’m preaching to the choir right now: you read a blog about the art and finance of a creative life. You know this is a balancing act. So how does one actually balance?

I don’t know. But following my earlier bit of magic, I’m going to set in motion another. I’m going to tell you about The Scatter, and how I’m using it to build a creative life that aligns with my goals and my values, while respecting my limits and also the essential mystery of being human.** And I’m going to let the shared statement of that intention roam free in the world, and see what good work it can do. 

You may already recognize The Scatter. It’s that daily frenetic task-switching from article to email to work to laundry to existential worry. It’s the inability to focus on knitting or reading or going for a walk—just that, and only that. It’s the compulsion to check Twitter again, or your email, or your stats, even when you lack any specific question or interest, just because you have a free half-minute burning a hole in your brain. It’s the need to check eight things off your to-do list today, and the feeling after you’ve done them that you could really do more. It’s the way you question your competence and worth when you realize how exhausted you are, and the way you still think you can get all of that done tomorrow. 

My Scatter started to show when I took a job that couldn’t provide the intellectual challenge I need to focus for eight hours a day. Humans are great at adapting to non-optimal situations—I got my work done, and well—but all such decisions exact prices, produce side-effects. I did this job for some time, and it afforded me many things, including quite a lot of bandwidth for writing. It also brought The Scatter, dropped on my kitchen floor every day like a critter the cat dragged in, and I have to clean it up. 

I told my (wonderful) therapist recently that I couldn’t find time to do all the things I need. I had already edited out of my life so many things I liked or valued but just couldn’t keep saying yes to without exploding; why hadn’t that solved the problem? She asked if I’d considered not trying to do every important thing every day. Maybe some things are weekly, she suggested, or monthly. 

Around this time, I also discovered that I can do about one thing a day before my body starts throwing stressed-out signal flares. I had to say this out loud to realize its truth, and then I had to figure out what I actually meant by it. 

Every day, I get out of bed and perform the rituals of bathing and dressing. I do some kind of contemplative practice, I do whatever my current project is, and I walk or I dance. Most days I also work (tech Monday through Friday, writing Saturdays and Sundays.) I’m doing, by a conservative estimate, at least five things. 

Outside that baseline, I’ve got one free square in the middle of the day’s game board. So if I want to draft an essay, or submit poems, or volunteer at my library, or have dinner with a friend, or go to the DMV to renew my drivers license—that’s my One Thing. 

So I made some lists. First, every activity I require and/or value. Then I crossed some of those out. What could I edit? I did. (Now I just have to stick to it.) 

Next, I placed those activities into four columns: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Yearly. (Very quickly, I started writing this out as DWMY.) Daily is my baseline. I make time for each thing on the Weekly list at least once a week. The idea is the same for Monthly and Yearly.

  • Weekly includes items like writing sessions, naps or baths, housework, email correspondence, movie nights, errands and incidentals. Yep, those are all things I used to try to fit in daily or every other day. 
  • Monthly is for volunteer work, therapy and discernment time, silent “sabbath” days (see my 2020 goals, above), manuscript development, submitting individual pieces for publication, outings with friends, seasonal projects, less frequent incidentals like medical appointments, and freelance writing pitches or assignments. I was previously trying to do most of these every week. 
  • Yearly is things like theater, travel, craft workshops, personal or writing retreats, and social visits with out-of-town friends and family. And yes, you guessed it, I was trying to fit all of these in much closer to monthly. 

I’ve been practicing with my DMWY list for about a month—half of which I spent on vacation; that part doesn’t count. So I don’t know yet how effective a tool it will be. I do know some important things already, which suggest this can help me both to control The Scatter, and to work effectively and joyfully toward my 2020 goals. 

First: when I’m feeling The Scatter, I can know that I am doing enough, and doing good things, if I put a mental checkmark by my Daily baseline items, plus one item from my Weekly, Monthly, or Yearly list. This is already helpful, although it’s going to take time to accept that I may simply get less done. Which is ok. 

Second, when I’m feeling exhausted, or having a lot of stress symptoms, I look at my lists: how many extras did I take on today? Yesterday? How does the week ahead look? Soon I’ll be able to ask myself things like: What’s my pattern this month? If I’m feeling unbalanced, I’ll be able to look at my lists for Weekly or Monthly items I’ve been neglecting.

Last, and perhaps most importantly in the long term, DMWY builds unscheduled free time into my day, and reminds me that such time is crucial. Building a valuable day around Baseline+One Thing means there’s almost always time left over. In the past few years I’ve tended to fill that uncritically in the moment: an hour of writing here, a half hour catching up with online articles there, an extra errand, a cat nap, bouts of Twitter. And still I felt I was “getting nothing done.” DMWY has already helped me identify what I truly need and want to accomplish, and set limits on the daily exercise of that accomplishment based on experience of my own traits and limits.

The rest of my day? That’s for play. For “boredom,” which is great for creative life. For refusing to define, or schedule, or quantify or try to “use” every minute of my time.  

I am, of course, capable of doing more than One Thing, and many days demand it. Life is complex and doesn’t often cede authority to my personal plan. But the limit of One Thing is just true for me, and hard-learned. DMWY is an experiment: (how) can I best align my actions and values and limits, and accomplish what’s most important to me in the short and long term? I imagine this will take time. And In spite of my regular feelings to the contrary, I have nothing but.  

***

*I just said something possibly wise and possibly crap about your life as your art. I guess now I get to find out which adjective applies. 

**This is going to sound a lot like another 2020 goal. I don’t think of it that way because I started it in 2019, but keep reading and see if it doesn’t just dovetail right into my Official 2020 Goals. Calendar years aren’t objectively real anyway.  

On Creativity and Insomnia

So… I don’t think I’ve had a true week of good sleep since my birthday.

(Which, in case you don’t already have it on your calendar, was in the beginning of November.)

There was some Life Stress stuff on the weekend prior to my birthday, followed by me drinking the first cup of coffee I’d consumed in god knows how many years (and eating a pile of candy for the first time since going off sugar) then not sleeping for most of the entire night.

And I kept trying to catch up, to give myself plenty of time for rest and do all of the good sleep-hygiene things that I already know all about, and things kept happening and sleep kept not happening.

Not every day, thank goodness.

But at least once a week.

At this point I’m half-asking myself whether I need to buy a new mattress or an entirely new bed, because I know enough about how CBT works to understand that I’ve started to associate my bed with not sleeping—and because my silly internet foam mattress has started to develop a hip-shaped depression in the center of it anyway, a year or so after the 100-night grace period has worn off.

And then I go sleep on the sofa, which is still as firm as the day I bought it.

(I cannot tell you how much I love my sofa; how the minute I sat down on it at the furniture store I was all this one, no other sofas need apply, and how I’m literally writing this post from the sofa right now.)

But the reason I’m telling you about this now, after roughly two months of watching my Fitbit sleep score drop from the high-80s to the mid-70s, is because not sleeping is starting to make it harder for me to make things.

I’m still getting all of my work done, of course; that’s something I’ve always been able to do. I’ve written articles from planes and buses and emergency rooms and beds and sofas. I was completing freelance work the day after I got hit by a car. I’ve also got enough buffer in my schedule that I can time-shift stuff if I really need to step away from work for a day or two.

But the fiction-writing side of things is getting more difficult.

In part because I’ve been taking the time I’ve set aside for my own work and using it to take naps. (Which I know can mess with your circadian rhythm, I own Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep and refer to it frequently, and I only nap in the early part of the afternoon.)

So my new goal is to get myself rested before this Writer’s Winter Break next week, because I spent most of the Maggie Stiefvater writing seminar I took last year absolutely exhausted (I was in the process of shutting down The Billfold, which was not “conducive to sleep”) and I don’t want to feel like I’m not fully myself while I’m there.

Wish me luck. ❤️