How to Find a Little Project to Sustain You

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Writing a novel will make you crazy if you didn’t start out that way. Each day you wake up with it on your shoulders. Occasionally, it slides off and what lands on the page is its own reward. But, in my experience that’s one day in thirty. The rest of the time, you’re carrying a backpack full of rusty salvage and your job is to build a large hadron collider out of it. Because it’s not actually a large hadron collider, no one but you really cares if you do it or not. At least, that’s how it was for me.

As a mom, step-mom, wife and teacher–as a human who really would prefer to live a happy life–I had to find intervals where I could be done with something, even if the something was not actually the novel. These were my little projects.

I think we could all use little projects right now, so I’ve been thinking about which ones work, and which ones got dropped or ended in frustration. It started with an inventory. What is a project?

1)It’s a thing you make yourself, that you can finish and look at and say, I made this. Right now, my husband it building a magnificent shed for me in the backyard where I’ll be able to write even, say, in a pandemic. I have a friend who takes photographs. I saw her capture three heart-shaped stones by a little secret pool. I have another friend who made a calendar, one drawing for each day of the month. These projects (literally, in one cases) are heart projects. Sure, my husband comes in from the 80-degree weather covered in sawdust sometimes, gulps a gallon of iced tea, and then lies on the floor by the air conditioner for an hour, but at some point, the shed will be done, and we can go inside of it. I should say, because he’ll read this, that my husband’s shed is actually a Big Project. You know, for the record.

2) It’s limited. The calendar project is a great example. My friend had a finite number of drawings to make, and then it was on to the next thing. One of my projects was to follow the Democratic Nomination by putting a yarding for each candidate into my front yard and then endorse the candidates in a short post. I endorsed all of them, but yes, I had a favorite and no, it was not the nominee. I also really like planning things, like travel, parties, secret gifts.

3) It has an audience built in. People who cook for their projects know what this is like. My brother gave me a chicken once–actually, it was a rooster, or as one can say in French without making a dirty joke, a coq. He was working on an organic farm, and they couldn’t sell the scrawny birds, so he brought one home to me. For three days, I marinated the rooster in red wine. Yes, it was dead already, though maybe someone wants to marinate a live bird in wine. Could be funny. And then, I served the meal to him–my brother, not the rooster. Project over, audience built in.

3) It’s challenging in some way, but builds on your existing skill set. I’m not at all crafty, but over the years, I’ve taken a couple of sculpture classes and I realized clay is really a good medium for people who are bad at art, because it responds to trial and error. You can work it, and work it and work it again. So, for a gift once, I made an action figure of a then-boyfriend. I used a pre-exisiting action figure body from a toy, and made the head out of clay. Is that weird? Yes. Did he like it? No. But, it did really, really look like him.

4) It’s got an element of fun in it. I like, for example, to plan elaborate hoaxes or practical jokes. My friend Maria and I once sustained a whole imaginary romance on Craigslist for a summer. Then, in the finale, we went and impersonated the romantic partners at a pre-arrange and public location. Was anyone following our missed connection? I still don’t know. But with Maria as my audience and co-conspirator, I had audience enough.

Maybe your project is physical–you want to canoe each of the Finger Lakes. Maybe it’s intellectual. You want to learn French. Maybe it’s altruistic–you want to collect masks and distribute them to reckless college kids while they guzzle beer. Or maybe you don’t know yet. If that’s you, I’d encourage you to do your own inventory, make your own list of qualifications. The heart of it is that it can’t be a should. It has to be a want.

“An artifact from an alternate reality”

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The Likely World centers around fictional drug called cloud, packaged and eaten off a plastic spoon, which wipes users short-term memories. It’s an antidote for regret–that awkward thing you said, the bad move on the first date, the toilet paper on the shoe. Poof! The experience vanishes from your mind. Perhaps, if users only ever used it to erase awkward moments, it wouldn’t do much harm. But cloud addicts, like real people, experience trauma. And the impulse to wipe away such a dark stain is irresistible.

Over time, addicts shed possible lives, the things their forgotten selves might have done, had they carried the bad memory through to healing. And the stains don’t go away–not really. They are embedded in the muscles, in the tissue.

In the time of COVID-19, there’s been lots of talk about alternate realities. The dark timeline is trending on Twitter. How did we get Trump, Corona virus, and a national movement of 1968 proportions all in a single era? It feels impossible. Today, I asked Coco what she’d be doing if we could cancel COVID for a day. “I’d go to school,” she said. And then, “I sound like a total nerd.” This, truly, is the dark timeline wherein our children long for the classroom in June.

The title of this blog post comes from an article on David Sedaris, the humorist and author of ten books, in the New York Times. If you don’t know him, you should. He’s hilarious. He had a 45 city tour planned for his summer book release–the eleventh, now all cancelled. He has a closet full of fancy clothes he’d intended to wear on stage–now artifacts from that better timeline.

I didn’t have 45 cities on my tour, but I had ten. All of them have become virtual, and I was on the cusp of cancelling the launch, planned as an elegant party/reading for the book’s birthday, August 4th. I don’t want to whine, but I really wanted that party. So many friends, so many members of my family have contributed to this epic project. I’m 48, and I’ve been trying to write this book all my life. I wanted to celebrate, but that celebration, I knew, was in another timeline.

Enter Bridget. Bridget is a friend who plans events for Cornell, and I was possibly actually whining to her. We were at an idyllic spot for it, socially distanced along the bank of Flat Rock, a wading area above Ithaca where our two daughters were tubing contentedly on a sunny day.

“We could do it outside,” I said. “Tables far apart. I could shout really loudly.” I knew. I knew better. But it was hard to let go.

“What about a drive-in?” Bridget suggested.

In a moment, she saved my book launch. Friends, this is going to be epic. The world’s first drive-in book launch (as far as I know.) There won’t be canap├ęs, but there will be popcorn. I’m going to give away merit badges, swag. I might do a comedy set. Afterwards, you and your family can stay and watch “Say Anything” on the drive-in screen.

Fiction is always about alternate realities, the might-have-beens and the it-could-possibly-bes. Here we are, in a summer we never foresaw. Shall we make a little joy in it?

Tickets are free, but you have to reserve in advance. If you like, you can buy a copy of my signed book when you get the ticket.

Chapter One

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Fun fact: when I was little, I had auditory hallucinations. I can remember them very clearly because they were quite particular and persisted to my mid-teens. I never told anyone back then.

The good news: they didn’t tell me to murder anyone, or that I was God. In fact, they were seemingly quite benign: after a microsecond delay, in my mind, I heard my words repeated back to me in a high, mocking voice. It was something like what happens when your cell phone echoes you while you’re talking, but if your cell phone thought you were a complete idiot and hated your guts.

Eventually, this curious phenomenon ceased, and it’s never happened since, but I think whatever is weird in my brain is related to my writing process. At its best, I hear my characters speak, and I have to listen.

I was driving in my car when the narrator of The Likely World first spoke to me. I didn’t pull over. I reached for the nearest piece of paper and, as I drove (sorry Route 89!) I transcribed the first few words. The paper was a drawing by Coco and that act, writing and driving, is still in the final version of the novel. You can read chapter one right here. While you’re here, if you like, you can take a look at the marketing campaign, and pitch in with your opinions.

We Made A Thing

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Trailer for The Likely World

Midday Thursday, I got word from Red Hen Press of a cool opportunity to share word of my book with the American Library Association. Libraries are super close to my heart. In the acknowledgements sections of the book, I talk about Tompkins County Public Library as my informal writing retreat and “part-time babysitter” when I was single-momming. The only catch was that I had twelve hours to produce a two-minute video in the weird genre known as book trailer.

No problem. I hired an experienced crew, a group of talented actors and a terrific production team. Just kidding! It’s a pandemic, y’all. I recruited my whole family instead. Coco shot the video and was properties master. Clio & guest taught me how to use iMovie and I stole Clio’s computer to do the editing. In an unlikely turn of events, Dot conceded to appear onscreen (if you have teenagers, you will wonder at my powers of persuasion) and my sister Arielle sent me video of my perfect niece. Charles was chief de-stressing officer, patting my back when my ancient computer went into death spiral mode.

What on earth is a book trailer, you may be asking? Honestly, I don’t really know. All I can tell you is, it’s a thing. And now this collaborative effort is going to be my book’s ambassador to librarians. Hope you like it, all you heroes.


The Seven Stages of Reading Your First Review

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There is such a thing as a pre-press review, and some of them are important, and some of them have the reputation of being mean. To begin with, I should say, I’m thrilled to even get reviews. I should also say that I’m thrilled I wrote a book. It’s been more than forty years since I wrote my third grade opus, “The Dancing Ice Cream Cone” at the Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge. That’s a long time to want to be a published novelist.

I’ve had signs recently that strangers were reading my book. Which is so weird. I wrote this in private. It has my heart inside it. It has some pretty embarrassing stuff. I don’t think I really got what this would be like, but what it is like is having a random person text you to describe the inside of your toilet. “Kinda gnarly,” says the stranger. “Ever think about a scrub brush?” And then they ask you on a date.

If it’s an actual reviewer, who is going to publish a review in an important place, then it’s like all that happened, and somehow your toilet is trending on Twitter.

Or it’s like having your pacemaker kick in. I didn’t even read it at first this morning. I skimmed for the “but”. It was one word long*, the caveat, but it’s all I saw at first. Then I read more slowly and saw some good words. It was hours before I’d absorbed it. Then I made this pretty graphic with all the best words which you see above. My chest has finally stopped pounding. Thanks for being here with me, all you lovelies.

*You can click on my pretty graphic to see the full review in Publisher’s Weekly.