Just Watch TV

Art is relentless. It’s hard to break free.

News

Through March 3, the audiobook of Road Out of Winter is on sale for $4.99 at Apple Books, part of their '“under 5” promotion. Audiobooks are expensive, and this one is so compellingly read by award-winning actor Brittany Pressley—who reached out to me for more insight, researched southeastern Ohio, and was my very first choice for a narrator—snap it up while you can.

Just Watch TV

I missed a deadline recently. That almost never happens. This wasn’t a deadline for something I was contractually bound to write, but a themed issue for a magazine that fits well with my next book, so I was hoping to pitch a story. And I wrote the date down wrong.

I hadn’t worked ahead because I was too busy meeting another deadline, this one for a fellowship (I made that one!). One trick I learned early in my career—or maybe early in single parenting—is to mark deadlines a few days in advance of when they actually are, to trick myself into making sure I get done in time. 

But this time, I failed.

I am so very tired. We all are. Tired of waking early and getting a reluctant kid ready for school where he can’t play and just be a kid. Tired of the no breaks—not even small ones: my mom taking the child for the weekend, a playdate with friends, dinner out with friends, dinner out at all.

And the deadlines. So many deadlines. The deadlines were there before, but not compounded by the isolation and total drudgery of the pandemic. The unrelenting sameness of it all. I love our house, but it’s the same house. I take walks, but there are only so many directions I can go. Every night I look forward to peering up through the skylight to see what the moon is doing. I rearranged my office just for the hell of it the other day, even though it meant I lost a day’s work.

And the work. The work is unending. It has to be, because I don’t get a regular paycheck. I go from deadline to deadline. And then I faltered, misstepped and missed one.

I needed a reset.

A year into the pandemic, one of the patterns my small family has settled into is that after dinner and dishes, the child takes a bubble bath, my partner plays a video game, and I watch TV upstairs on my laptop. It’s a little thing and a very small amount of time, maybe forty minutes if we’re lucky. Still, it’s the only time all day we have to be alone. 

But I don’t just watch TV in my time. I answer email, I write things down in my planner, I work on social media. I work.  

I don’t rest. I never just rest. And then something happened the other night.

A Discovery of Witches was particularly engrossing, my phone ran out of battery, or the pen I had brought with me to bed didn’t write. Something happened and I didn’t work when I rested. I just watched a witch show for forty minutes. I can’t remember the last time I did that. 

I have dismissed advice about overworking because I don’t feel like what I do is work. It’s less and much more. It’s hard but it doesn’t feel like it, even when I’m under time constraints and trying to pull a more analytical piece of journalism together.

At the artists’ colony, where I hung out with visual artists, so much so that my photographer friend asked if I could leave the writers’ house and move my desk into the studios, I learned the phrase artistic practice. (I was embarrassed not to have known this before, but I did grow up next to popcorn farmers.) Right away this phrase appealed to me. 

Practice. Something you do every day. Something at which you are constantly striving.

But the downside of that is the constant part. Art is relentless. It’s hard to break free. Sometimes a walk isn’t enough. Sometimes switching genres isn’t enough. Sometimes you need a real, turn-off-your-brain break.

You need to just watch TV.

You can’t go—I can’t go—from deadline to deadline, article to grant to essay to book, without a small pause in the middle. A real pause of nothingness. A reset. Just a few moments for the switch to recalibrate, for you to, without working. (Even the relatively mindless work of updating social media or looking at your phone is still work.)

Just watch TV. I recommend teen supernatural shows, network dramas, historical ridiculousness. Don’t think. Don’t be for forty minutes, thirty, twenty—whatever you have. Don’t be so that later you can be present for your work, for your practice, for when it really counts.  

Skullcap 

If you need help to rest or feel calm, common skullcap, like valerian, is a great herb. The flowering plant is part of the mint family, and can be taken for sleeplessness as well as for anxiety. One of its older names is mad dog weed because it was thought to be a cure for rabies (it’s not).

I don’t suffer from insomnia often, but when I do—usually because I’m worrying and can’t turn my brain off—I really do. Skullcap is good for turning off that racing mind. You can find skullcap in teas in many grocery stores, or as an extract in health food stores. I find it has an almost immediate calming impact.

To Walk Through the Fire

Writing scary moments

News

I’m doing quite a lot of virtual events this spring, calling the leg The Lost Spring Tour (after a line in my novel). First up, this Thursday 2/11 I’m reading for the Beck Series at Denison University, my alma mater (!!!) at 7:30pm EST. The virtual event is free and open to all. Sign up here to get the link!

To Walk Through the Fire

By now many of us have had or are about to have a birthday during the pandemic. I’ve never been a party person, but I find myself feeling grateful I threw parties the last few years before the virus. As for my own pandemic birthday a couple weeks ago, it was strange, but I felt very loved and seen: my partner and my child gave me multiple gifts having do with fire.

Have I told you about the visual artist, the older woman, at the artist colony?

The last snowy morning after breakfast, when we were all getting ready to go our ways, never to meet again so far, she grabbed my arms and looked me dead in the eye. I want to get a tattoo on my arm where she reached me. I need to remind myself of my own power, which is what she said to me, urgently, with the wisdom of an artist in her late seventies, who had lived through marriages, misogyny, ageism, poverty, raising children and a grandchild. It’s a secret, what she said to me. 

But I will tell you this: what she said was key to my work shifting.

During the two precious weeks I was able to spend at the artist colony—the first and only one I’ve been able to attend as a single mom—I was writing a novel which I abandoned. I might go back to it someday. But after that morning when the artist told me a secret about myself, I began writing a book I called The Grower, which eventually became Road Out of Winter.

It wasn’t a secret so much as a reminder. You know you are this intense thing. This is the source of your power. Don’t try to fight it. Go to it.

During revision of creative work, I think there is a temptation to scale back. The enormity of what’s happening hits you. People will read this project, soon—your editor, proofreaders, reviewers and critics, then eventually an actual public: strangers, maybe not all of them friendly or understanding. This thing in your heart and your head will be free and free to be criticized, misinterpreted, just plain ignored, or beloved.

You will be tempted to backpedal in these final drafts, maybe to protect yourself from getting hurt.  

These hot dogs don’t stand a chance.

But for me, the opposite needs to happen. For the story to work, it needs to be real. It needs get even DEEPER in revision. It needs to be bolder, badder. Darker. I can’t flinch away from hard or weird or challenging parts, but need to step up and own them.

The misogynist skateboarding cult in Road Out of Winter. The ambivalent and painful reality of motherhood in my next book, Trashlands. Rather than skirt these intense aspects, I have to commit to them, jump into them—jump with no rope to pull me back. To be certain. To burn with them. 

For my birthday, my family gave me a small concrete fire pit, candles, a light that looks like a big glowing orb. I love them. We watched Buffy on my birthday. I’ve been introducing the show, which I’ve seen many times, to my partner and son. It was the first slayer episode and in a way, was perfect for that day. Death is your gift.

Well, fire is mine. And sometimes, I forget that. When the pressure of publication, edits due, bills due, internet comments, messages from strange men, press down, it’s easy to forget: I was born for burning. That’s where my strength lies—and maybe yours too—not in backing away, but in being in it.  

Season 5, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

When something isn’t working or is frightening, go deeper in. Don’t avoid but embrace it. Go big. Go back to your gifts. My gift has always been a darkness burning. 

Clove Oil

If you haven’t been to the dentist in a while (thanks, pandemic) or you’re just experiencing some tooth soreness, a few drops of clove oil will make the pain go away.

A natural anesthetic, put a small bit of the oil on a cotton swab and dab it directly on the affected area in your mouth. It takes a few minutes to work, but the pain relief will last for several hours. Apply every 3-5 hours, as needed.

Clove oil is numbing and soothing (and smells great), but is very strong—a little goes a long way—thus, its inclusion in this essay about burning.

Trouble Concentrating? Try a Reward

Brain Fog and Lion’s Mane

I bought a new planner for 2021, slimmer and less extensive than my 2020 planner, which had a third of its pages left unfilled. On one page in the spring, I realized when I went back to look, my son had scrawled in his third-grade penmanship: Nothing matters! We’re all going to die!

So, 2021 is starting cautiously, at least in my planner.

But like everyone, I have a lot to do alongside surviving. Edits for my October 2021 novel TRASHLANDS are due early next month—and it’s the biggest, most ambitious book I’ve ever done, with multiple narrators telling the story of a community in a junkyard. I have a grant from National Geographic to report upon the pandemic, virtual readings and book club visits lined up, and of course the business of trying to pay the bills. 

Despite being smaller, my 2021 planner has a new feature. After Main Goal for the Month, it has a blank for Reward.

Reward? Isn’t the reward for accomplishing your goals … accomplishing your goals? 

I’ve never had a problem being motivated. Having to write in order to eat will do that to you. But well before that, I was independently driven. In elementary school, several of my teachers let me “work on my book”—whatever I was currently scribbling in the Mead, spiral-bound notebooks I went through like candy—rather than listen to announcements. When I was in grad school, one of my professors said his main job was getting out of the way. 

But the grind we’re in now—the never-ending pandemic; the constant stream of trauma, violence, fascism, lying; the lack of socialization or breaks or childcare; the increased drudgery and hypervigilance—it can wear even the sharpest knife down.

My reward for finishing my work has always been … more work. Other work. A new writing project or idea waiting for me, shiny and new, on the horizon. I’ve got that now. I churned out a new book draft last fall during my son’s school Zoom meetings. I had to leave it waiting while I switched gears to TRASHLANDS edits.

But I finished the first pass of those edits late last week, and I found I needed something else, not just an immediate jump into more work, even different work. I needed something that is actually a break. 

My reward for finishing my work now is rest, which can take many forms: reading, cleaning (I’m a nerd who loves to organize), watching dumb TV. And maybe sometimes, though not all the time, that reward can be material. Uncertain what to write under Reward in my planner this first month, I wrote buy witch books. And I did. Three material things helping me through this pandemic winter have been: a velvety electric blanket, CBD lotion, and $18 sweatpants

Maybe you need to order wine. Maybe you need to get yourself a plant. Maybe the way to get your work done now is to change the reward system, to have a reward system. Other rewards I’m planning for myself in the future include candles, hiring a redesign for my website, and getting a tattoo when it’s safe to do so. Rewards don’t have to be indulgent, expensive, or self-destructive. My whole family will appreciate these electric candles, and an updated website would be good for my career.

My creative process has always included walks to think. But in these dark and difficult days, I think I need something waiting for me at the end of the walk too, something kind.  

Lion’s Mane

Early in the pandemic, a longtime friend who is a poet contracted the virus. She mentioned lion’s mane as the only thing helping her “brain fog”—the confusion, disorientation, and just mental sluggishness that is now a well-known component of the virus. She said she had picked up some of the lion’s mane, a mushroom sold powdered in capsules, on a whim at the health food store, but was glad she had listened to her intuition. 

I had just bought lion’s mane myself in error, meaning to pick up my favorite mushroom, cordyceps, and misreading the label in my haste to get out of the store. 

But my family has found that the lion’s mane I got by accident really helps when we’re having a hard time concentrating; feel out of it, tired, or worn-down—feelings that most of us are cycling through now. You can forage lion’s mane of course if you’re careful, or find it whole in some stores and cook it like any mushroom. Listen to your intuition, and maybe have some on hand.

Revision: The Magic We Have

Summon it

News 

If you want to give some small magic to someone—perhaps, like me, your baby Yoda doll from Etsy has still not arrived after six weeks and you’re looking for a quick gift—you can give a subscription to this newsletter. You can have the gift subscription arrive whenever you want. It helps me and it could help your loved one too. 

Revision: The Magic We Have

I’m deep into revising my next novel, TRASHLANDS, which will be published in October 2021. I’m doing content edits, which is the first stage in the official process of getting a book ready for publication. This means thinking deeply about structure and plot, adding scenes or rearranging them. It looks like a newspaper article, from far into the book, might be moved up to the beginning, for example. It looks like I have to write new scenes about a market in a junkyard, about a violent temper, about love.

I like revision, and people always ask me why. It’s true the pressure of revising a book slated for publication is different than say, revising a new manuscript no one knows about (which is my reward for finishing TRASHLANDS: yet another book…).

But what I like so much about revision is the discovery. Revision is magic. To create something out of—in the case of my draft—trash. To make the unworkable work. To stitch together some dream you had, or something somebody once said, or an image.

People asked me, on virtual tour for my last book, what inspired it. That’s a difficult question. It’s everything and nothing. It’s many different things. But at this point in the writing stage, it’s alive—and it tells me what to do.

Bound manuscript with questions, in this case: do I need more details of the dead mall? I think yes.

I like revision because things fall in line. Your brain knows what to do, is something I tell my high school writing students. Your brain is smarter than you know. You’ve planted something in there that’s going to come back. I have found some random detail I stuck in a first draft may end up being essential in the next. Three years ago, I made a character in TRASHLANDS nearsighted. I don’t know why. Now, eleven months till publication, it’s an important plot point involving a journey, an injury, a trade for antibiotics in a strip mall lit only by skylights.

How do you revise? That’s another question I get a lot. I think, like drafting a book and creating in general, it’s different for every person—and every project. The book teaches you how to write it. I tend to print a copy out with my editor’s comments, bind the manuscript in cardboard covers, and use a red pen to write in questions of my own. I note where I need to write more or notes to myself to think more deeply about. What contradicts itself? What doesn’t add up or needs to be intensified? 

More junky! More trashy! are actual notes I wrote in my latest draft.

I ask a lot of questions of myself in the revision process. Then I try to answer them. I just went through and made a reverse outline—reverse because it’s being done after the book is written—where I noted the main ideas of each chapter. Also, because this novel has multiple points of view and memories, I marked where in time we are.

Main ideas and timeline of a chapter.

Magic happens at the last minute. If you’ve put in the work on a project, it will reward you with answers. And that’s one of the most supernatural things about revision: you summon it. 

In TRASHLANDS, the main character needs to make a big decision near the end of the book, in a scene I haven’t written yet. I’ll figure out what to do, I said to my editor when we talked. I know it’ll come to me.

And on Christmas Eve, fueled by eggnog and Kentucky Bourbon Breakfast Stout and a lot of thinking, years of thinking, it did.

Notes from Strange Men

Tundra and popcorn

News

I’m participating in #signingforbookstores, an incentive to help independent bookstores who have been massively hurt by the pandemic. For a limited time, if you would like to give ROAD OUT OF WINTER to someone (or yourself) this holiday season, I’ll send you a signed bookplate and bookmark, free. It’s a safe way to get signed books right now.

Notes from Strange Men

A few weeks ago, when it was very cold and snowing, my family went to the zoo. The zoo on a bitter cold day was a good choice in the time of COVID. It was nearly empty, so deserted I felt comfortable getting hot chocolate and a big bag of kettle corn for my son. We normally don’t eat food in public these days, not wanting to take our masks off, even for minutes. 

But there were so few people around in the open, freezing air, we ate from the bag of popcorn, spending some time in front of the grizzly bear, who sat like an overstuffed velvet doll, staring. Eventually my partner pointed out: it wasn’t me the bear was interested in; it was my popcorn. 

A keeper came up to the enclosure: Are you hungry? Ready for dinner? She was, and the bear—her name is Tundra—was about to hibernate for the winter. We won’t see her again for awhile. 

As a general rule, I tend not to respond to men who are strangers who write to me. I’m not sure what compels a man to angrily contact a stranger after reading their article in a newspaper or magazine, an article which—perhaps especially for freelancers like me—the writer likely did not choose to write, but was assigned. We didn’t have say over the headline or most of the final edits, and we certainly weren’t paid enough to respond to a steady stream of blustering strangers. Do men do this to other men?  The need to weigh in seems like a kind of entitlement—and/or free time—I and most of the women, queer, disabled, or parent writers I know just don’t have.

I don’t list my email online, a recommendation I learned from a journalist who is a woman. My website has a contact form only, and I generously block on all social media. 

At the same time, it’s important to leave some channels open. Sources need to be able to reach out. The commenter with a sincere note, the student with a good question, the reader with a need for true assistance (or the editor with a job offer), need to be able to get through. 

But just like the grizzly, who seemed harmless but is in fact, an animal capable in no uncertain terms of bringing death, strange notes can escalate. Like many women and nonbinary folk, I have been stalked, my life threatened, my apartment googled. Men don’t seem to realize (maybe some do) that even getting an unsolicited missive from them—even seeing a stranger’s name pop up—can be scary.

More often than not, enflamed attacks have much more to do with the stranger than you: you just happened to wander by his cage. But that is cold comfort if, like me, you wake up the morning after a piece you write to make rent is published to twenty-five messages from unfamiliar men.

Small ways you can protect yourself? In case you don’t know: Set your preferences to only show notifications from people you follow. That way you’re not alerted each and every time your name happens to be mentioned or a strange man tries to get your attention. You don’t need that. I don’t babysit social media threads, and I don’t feel the need to respond to everything.

Say it with me: you don’t have to respond to everything. It is a pandemic, and even when it’s not, you’re likely keeping things together with nothing but your bare, scratched arms. 

If you do respond—for example, on Twitter—make sure you take a screenshot of an offending post rather than retweeting it. Avoid leading someone’s followers to you or giving them more attention or followers. And if you respond via email, consider using a form response when it’s warranted—another tip I picked up from a woman writer.

I don’t have the time, but even more than that, I don’t need to be derailed. Being a single parent in a pandemic, a freelance journalist, a novelist, a disabled person in this world … a person in this world is enough. I said my peace, and if a stranger wants to say his, he can try writing his own article. Good luck getting that headline through the second editor.   

Recipe for The Best Popcorn Ever 

Popcorn is my favorite snack. I come by my love for it honestly: I spent the first four years of my life next door to a family farm that grew it commercially. One of my first memories is of my parents’ air popper overflowing onto the kitchen linoleum. The first present my partner gave me was an antique green glass bowl for popcorn, from an Ohio glass company, after I broke my cherished one.

Mainly because I didn’t have a microwave for many years, I learned to make popcorn on the stove. Here’s my recipe for the best popcorn ever. This is not exact, obviously, so consult the instructions on your bag of popcorn kernels for measurements. 

Heat vegetable oil on medium in a big pot on the stove. Add kernels (I know I said look at the instructions, but I always add more than it says). You’ll want a lid on your pot, partially covering it so steam can escape. Shake the pot so the heat distributes. Take it off the stove when it’s been a second or two since you last heard a pop. 

Add melted butter, salt, and—here’s where it gets Appalachian and witchy but stay with me—nutritional yeast and dried dill. Nutritional yeast is a wonder snack my midwives introduced to me. Adding dill is something the mother of one of my child’s best friends, an artist and teacher, inspired me to try. Together with these additions, popcorn is perfect, a warm and satisfying snack (or let’s be real, dinner) for these nights of cold and early dark. 

Let yourself be comforted and don’t email back.  

Loading more posts…