Writing is hard. Getting yourself to write, often, is harder. It took two cat naps, three internet breaks, and a muffin just to get me through the writing of this blog post. Here are eight things I remind myself of while I write to push past mental blocks and stay within shouting distance of sanity.
1. Words are free
One of the most magical, and most daunting, things about writing is that it is pure, ephemeral thought. The medium you’re working with is not something you have to buy, like paint. Words are free, and they’re an endlessly renewable resource.
If you have an idea but you’re not sure about it, just write it. If you think a certain ending might work, write it and see. You have nothing to lose. If you end up deleting those words, you have an infinite store of others to use.
2. First drafts are only a building block
The evil thing about a first draft is that, in a fundamental way, it is very similar to a final draft of a book (or poem, screenplay, article, etc.). It’s a Word document made of words strung into sentences, strung into paragraphs, strung into chapters, just like your final draft will be. The first draft looks like a book. It walks, talks, quacks like a book. It is, in fact, a book. It is the same sort of creature as a final draft, or any of the published books on your shelf. The only difference is that, usually, it is far, far worse.
This formal similarity is what makes it so easy to expect your first draft to be this brilliant, polished, thing. It looks finished, even though it isn’t. With many other things in life, the first “draft” is very clearly just that. If you’re building a house, you don’t stop after you’ve only got the framing up and lament the fact that it’s not a finished house. Of course it isn’t—you’ve just started. If you’re making a soup, you don’t stop after just sautéing the vegetables and lament that it’s not a perfect soup. But when you’re writing, it’s very easy to look at this neatly formatted, finished-looking manuscript you’ve just produced, read it back, and dress yourself in sackcloth because you didn’t write The Great Gatsby.
The point is, you have to consciously remind yourself that a work in progress is just that. If you’re on your first draft (or your second, your third, your fourth), remember that you’ve only got the framing up, maybe some sheetrock, maybe the subfloor. But it takes many steps and a lot of time to finish building a house.
3. All creative work is subjective
I don’t like to Google a book before I’ve read it, because I don’t want other readers’ opinions to influence my own. But once I’m done, sometimes I’ll Google the title and see what other people have said about it—professional reviewers, readers on Goodreads or Amazon. I’m amazed at how often I’ll see people giving one-star reviews to a book that I genuinely thought was a work of genius, or raving about how they stayed up all night finishing something that, to me, was just mediocre. No matter what I find, there is always, always a diversity of opinion.
You won’t find a single creative work about which everyone is in agreement. (Except maybe Reading Rainbow? We all loved Reading Rainbow.) Focusing too much when you’re writing on the potential reactions of others, or taking criticism on a work in progress too personally, is a recipe for writing paralysis.
Of course you want other people to like what you write. But there will always be people who don’t. One of the crucial parts of every writer’s journey is learning to differentiate between useful criticism and useless criticism—and learning how to take criticism that falls somewhere in the middle.
4. Someone else’s success is not your failure
No matter who you are, you can always find somebody who’s doing it better than you are.
Stephen King might look at recent Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk and think “I’ll never get that kind of critical acclaim.” Tokarczuk might look at King and think “I’ll never make that much money, or reach that many readers.”
Read the work and observe the careers of your fellow writers. Learn from them, support them, befriend them. But don’t fall into the trap, made so terribly easy by social media, of thinking that everyone else clearly has it all figured out and you don’t, or that all the achievements shared by other writers are proof of your own inadequacy. You have your own path, and it’s not meant to look like anyone else’s.
5. Not all writing looks like writing
One question I often get from fellow writers and readers is “How many words do you write in a typical day?” And maybe this is a bad thing, but I truly have no idea. Partly because I don’t track it, and partly because there is no such thing as a typical day for me as a writer. There are days, particularly when I’m writing a first draft, when I’m churning out pages. If I put my mind to it, I can typically produce a first draft of a book in a month, or a screenplay in two weeks (see Item Two about first drafts being terrible). And those days, when I watch the word and page counts mount, can be exhilarating.
However, fewer than 50% of my writing days are spent like that. There are so many other parts of the process: researching, brainstorming, working on ideas that never go anywhere, developing characters, outlining, figuring out timelines, breaking chapters, rereading, revising, copyediting. Not to mention all of the peri-writing activities that I engage in as an author: reading to develop my sensibilities and keep up with what’s being published, reading the work of friends to give them notes, writing said notes, attending writers’ group meetings, attending readings and other events, networking, doing interviews and promotional appearances, maintaining a social media presence, maintaining a website, maintaining a newsletter, maintaining this blog…
All parts of the writing process are important. Even if you’re not hitting a certain word count goal, as long as you’re actively working on your writing, you’re making progress. Even if you write something that you end up throwing out, and you deduct those words from your total (the horror!), you may be able to use a version of what you wrote later. At the very least, every time you write, you’re developing your skills.
For some people, tracking their daily word or page count is helpful, and if that works for you, go for it. I typically pay more attention to how much time I spend writing in a day: I can’t control how many words I may come up with in a writing session, but I can control the time that I put in.
6. Perfectionism is the enemy of progress
It sounds obvious, but all you can write in the moment is whatever you can write in that moment. If you’re laboring over a sentence, or a scene or a character isn’t landing quite right, and you can’t figure out how to fix the problem, it’s immensely frustrating. But digging in and refusing to move on until you’ve perfected that one part seldom works. It’s almost always more efficient to just write the best version of it that you can in the moment, then keep going.
Remember that the version you’re writing now is just a starting point. As you continue working, and as time goes on, new ideas will come to you, and the lens through which you see your work will shift. In the future, you will be better equipped to come back and tackle that troublesome part. Sometimes you have to write something awful, to turn it into something okay, to turn it into something good, to turn it into something great.
Trusting that process is tough. It goes against the writer’s instinct to allow yourself to put words on the page that make you feel like a blob with a brain stem. Just remember, you’re not writing onstage. Nobody will see this draft until you decide to show it to them. You can be as dumb as you want. If all you can write today is the dumb version, then write it: tomorrow, you’ll get farther starting with the dumb version than you would with a blank page.
7. There is no right way to write
Most of my professional background is in the entertainment industry, and amongst screenwriters, outlining is a given. It’s a must. Not outlining is basically considered a rookie move.
Over the past few years, as I’ve gotten to know more fiction writers, I’ve been astonished by how many don’t outline. Some people call it “pantsing”—jumping in and writing by the seat of your pants. And many people swear by that method. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a staunch outliner, and probably always will be. But just seeing this much more open-minded attitude about different approaches to the creative process has been enlightening.
Just as there are no hard and fast rules about what makes a story work, there are also no absolute rules for how to write that story. You can outline, or you can pants it. You can go in order from beginning to end, or skip around. You can write a draft through and then revise, or reread and revise as you go. You can work on one project at a time, or four. You can write backwards in lemon juice and hold your words up to a mirror if that’s what lights your fuse. Over time, you’ll figure out the habits that best facilitate your creativity and productivity. But don’t be afraid to try new tricks, too. Sometimes shaking up your usual methods is the best way to get out of a rut.
8. You have to be willing to share your writing with others
Remember that thing I said about nobody seeing a draft until you decide to show it to them? That’s true… but at some point, you have to show it to them. Unless you are writing truly, purely for yourself, but if that’s the case, you’re in the minority. Most writers want their work to be read and enjoyed by others, possibly even professionally published.
Personally, I want millions of people to read and adore my work, and I also want no one to look at it, ever. Such is the writer’s paradox. Sharing your writing means sharing a piece of yourself, which requires courage and vulnerability. I recommend finding a circle of first-round readers who you can trust to be honest, but supportive, then sending to tougher readers as you go. Receiving criticism can be hard, but when you find someone who genuinely enjoys your work, and realize you’ve made a positive difference in the world through this invisible thought-string you’ve pulled out of your little head… there’s no better feeling.
While in lockdown for the coronavirus, I know that many of us are looking for some free entertainment these days–or at least some distraction. So I wrote a short story in case you could use a bit of diversion in your day. Writing it was a nice, creative distraction for me too.
You may have heard of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a famous 18th century sermon by Jonathan Edwards. I know I read it multiple times over the years in English class because it’s supposed to be a great example of different rhetorical devices. The title of this story is inspired by that sermon, but the content is entirely different. Let me just say as a disclaimer that this is not meant to be any sort of literal theological declaration on my part. It’s just a story. Have fun.
I suck at this job. I don’t think I’ve been at it for very long—couldn’t tell you when exactly I started—but I can tell you this: I fully suck.
It’s not that it’s that hard, mechanically speaking. All you have to do is press these three little levers, and any Jim-Bob or Joe could do that. The setup’s pretty sweet, too. They’ve got me in this chair that looks like solid gold, but feels nice and soft on the tush, and there are no walls, so I can look around and see everyone floating up and down and sideways and diagonally while they do their things. Bitchin’. I never thought I’d dig an office job, but it doesn’t really feel like an office when you’re out here dangling.
No, the reason I suck at this job is I can’t make up my mind. Used to be I couldn’t even decide between Burger King and Wienerschnitzel for lunch. Usually I’d end up moseying down to Wienerschnitzel because of that cute pointy roof. It was sort of homey, no? I didn’t really know how else to pick. But now I’m responsible for choosing where people end up for eternity. Like, whoa.
This isn’t my normal job. I’m just filling in for Clotilda, who’s a saint, so she’s like, way qualified. Guess she’s off at some special saints and martyrs meeting. I floated by one of their meetings once—absolute respect, but those dudes are intense. A lot of singing and wailing for my taste. A lot of use of the word “scourge.” Anywho, they pulled me off cloud duty to sit in for Clotilda today. Cloud gardening sounds way sicker than it is. You use these golden paddles and shears and stuff to shape up the clouds. At first I thought it was the bomb. Working outside all day, catching some rays, shaping the literal clouds. I even went the extra mile and tried all sorts of fancy shapes, making poodles and palm trees and stuff. One time I made a cloud that looked like my local Wienerschnitzel. But no one really noticed. People up here are pretty busy, what with managing the universe and souls and shit, and people down on Earth didn’t notice either. No one really looks up, you know what I’m saying? Everybody’s always looking ahead. So after a while I stopped trying, and I’ve just been doing the bare minimum for years now. At least, I think it’s years. We don’t really do “years” here. I croaked in ’85, and it’s starting to feel like it’s been a while.
Oh, shit. Here comes Mortimer.
I better get busy. There’s a stockpile of balls waiting in the chute in front of me. I press the white button, and the bottom ball falls into the tray, with the name “Yves Thibault” on it. When I pick it up, this dude Yves’ whole life just washes over me at once like a monster wave. Looks like Yves was kind of like most people: some good, some bad. He cheated on his college girlfriend, he lied about his expenses at work, he drank major wine, even for a Frenchie. But he was also a pretty bodacious granddad, and he designed city parks that a lot of people enjoy. I look over the three levers: red, yellow, and green. I press the yellow one in the middle, and Yves’ ball tumbles down the track for purgatory. Au revoir, my dude.
I smile at Mortimer, expecting him to be impressed that I’m working, but instead he zooms over faster, waving his little chubby hands. Mortimer looks like a walrus working undercover as a librarian.
“Stop, stop!” he cries. “You can’t keep doing that!”
“I’m doing what you told me to. I’m pressing the levers and deciding where people go.”
“You’re doing it wrong, Todd,” he insists, panting. Not sure how you can pant when we don’t technically breathe up here, but Mort makes it happen. “Of the last one hundred souls you’ve assigned, you’ve sent seventy-eight to purgatory.”
“The average rate is 2.73%, not seventy-eight! Purgatory is for special cases!”
“I thought purgatory was for anyone who’s not a definite heaven or hell.”
“No, no, no.” Mortimer shakes his head. “It’s not that simple. It is for those who perish in grace, but require further purification, from the cleansing fire, or perhaps through the prayers and intercessions of the living.”
I’m frowning now. “But wait, isn’t it also for like babies who die, and people in jungles who’ve never heard the gospel, and stuff?”
“It is—well, it’s not—I mean, one could say—I’m not here to teach you about purgatory!” Mortimer splutters. He steadies himself, breathing in and drawing his squat little body up tall. “The point is, it is not a catch-all. Your function here is to pass judgment: heaven or hell.”
“See, that’s the thing, Mort.” I swivel toward him on my gold chair. “I don’t know how to do that. Most people aren’t good enough to go to heaven or bad enough to go to hell. They’re somewhere in between.”
“It is not just a question of good or bad, Todd. It has more to do with intention and faith, an accumulation of life choices as an expression of will, a desire to move toward or away from God—” I must be staring at him sort of blankly because he sighs and closes his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I never have this problem with Clotilda. Clotilda grasps nuance.”
“Then wait for Clotilda to get back.”
“I can’t. The business of souls never stops. Souls cannot linger untended in space, another fact which you yet fail to comprehend—”
I’m generally a fairly chill guy, but even I am starting to un-chill. I press the button and the red lever a bunch of times in a row until Mort finally stops talking. He gasps. “You just sent six souls to hell!”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
“I want you to make equitable decisions, not just wash everyone into purgatory because you don’t care to examine the situation more deeply.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, man. If we’re being honest, this sounds like some pretty heavy stuff, even for Clotilda. Passing judgment on souls. I can’t make that kind of decision. Isn’t this a job for the Big Kahuna?”
“The Lord,” Mortimer says pointedly, “gave you a sense of judgment. It’s your job to use it.” He starts to fly away, then turns back. “Until Clotilda gets back.” Then he peaces out.
Now it’s my turn to sigh. I think something about asshole angels, but I don’t say it out loud. I just swivel back to the switchboard and summon the next ball. Agnes Trumbo. I can’t really decide what to do with this chick, so to be safe, I send her to heaven. Hope she doesn’t get up here and start acting a fool.
Yeah: I suck at this job. I don’t know why they pulled me in for the day. Honestly, I don’t even get why I’m up here at all. My life was nothing to write home about. I figure it’s because my death was pretty heinous, so I got to come to heaven as some kind of compensation, like a pity thing. Not that most people have some sweet death, but I was young when mine happened, and the whole deal was pretty bogus.
I had just gotten hired a couple weeks prior at Vic’s Chicken Fryers. Vic always wore these double-breasted pea green suits, and he smelled like cheap cigars. I had asked him when I started why he called the place “Vic’s Chicken Fryers.” Couldn’t you fry other things in them? Wouldn’t you sell more if people thought they could use the fryers for more stuff? He kind of grimaced and said this proved how little I knew about chicken fryers. “You’ll never get a floor sales job knowing so little about chicken fryers.” I asked how I was supposed to learn about the fryers if I wasn’t working the floor. Vic looked at me real hard and said “Welcome to capitalism, son.”
So I stuck to what I had been hired to do: being a human billboard. Not that I was stellar at that either, but like, who is? At least standing outside the shop, holding a sign, was better than some of the other gigs I’d had. I used to change jobs a lot back in the day. Never really knew what I wanted to do or be. My old man would say I’d never get anywhere on the road of life if I kept stopping off at life’s gas stations to shit. Wonder if I would’ve ever proved him wrong. You know, if I’d lived. But hey, working for Vic, I got to chill outside, blast some Beastie Boys on the cassette, snag some midday Wienerschnitzel, and check out any babes walking past me on the sidewalk to the beach, then head there myself at the end of the day to catch some waves. It would’ve been a pretty wicked gig if it weren’t for Vic riding me all the time.
I don’t know what he thought would happen when he paid a beach bro four dineros an hour to hold up a sign outside his shop. Like, some magic explosion of business? Everyone and his aunt would suddenly need a chicken fryer? He kept coming outside to check on me, and he’d run over like “No, no, don’t just stand there, Todd, wave the sign, spin it! Get people’s attention! Make them excited about chicken fryers!” So I’d start spinning that sign like it was Dorothy Hamill, but people still weren’t getting jazzed about chicken fryers. Vic would groan every time he walked out of the store and saw me, or when he drove past me into the parking lot in his big old creaky land-boat of a Camaro. It was bright mint green, with little rust spots around the wheelbeds, and one of the side mirrors was broken clean off, but he was too cheap to fix it.
He slowed and cranked the window down on his way into the parking lot. “Do you know how much I paid for that sign?” he yelled at me.
I looked at the sign, which said Fried Chicken 2nite!!!! Some of the letters were already peeling off. Looked kind of lame, honestly. “I don’t know. Three bucks?”
“Three bucks? That there’s a buck fifty per letter, son! You carry that sign high!”
I frowned, looking at the sign. “Is that why you didn’t spell out ‘tonight?’ They charged you by the letter?”
“Exactly. Now you’re finally using your noodle.”
“But you could’ve just used fewer exclamation points instead.”
Old Vic didn’t like that. He groaned so loud I could hear it over his big-ass rattly engine. “This is why you’ll never be a local entrepreneur,” he shouted, and drove past me into the parking lot.
Things went on like this for a few weeks, by which point I was getting ready to bounce. All that sun gets pretty hot with no waves to cool you off. And Vic was making me feel real low, like I wouldn’t ever amount to anything in my whole life. Well, turned out he was right.
There I was, giving the old sign a wiggle, when Vic pulled out in that nasty green Camaro. He stuck his head straight out the window at me. “Get into the road!” he yelled.
“No one’s noticing you at all. You have to get off the sidewalk and stand in the road.”
“Dude, I can’t just stand in the road.”
“The side of the road. Don’t be chicken. How do you think empires are built?”
So I took my sign out into the street and waved it around a little, looking back at Vic to see if he was satisfied. “More! Go on, don’t just stand there!”
I danced a little, hopping from foot to foot, but I felt totally lame. Cars kept honking, and I had to jump out of their way. “Everyone’s gonna have to swerve to get around me,” I cried back to Vic.
“Good. That means they’re noticing you.” And he cranked his window up and started pulling back out. I looked away from him back to the street just in time to see it: a big red truck, right on top of me.
“Shit!” I jumped back out of the road, the truck horn blasting enough to split my eardrums. There was a weird second there where everything was kind of, like, suspended, like I didn’t know where I was or how much time was going by or what was happening. But then I came to and looked down and my body was there under my neck, just like it’s supposed to be, and I kind of thought “Huh. I could have died.” I started to feel this mega rush of relief. Hadn’t even knocked a single exclamation point off the stupid sign.
But then something blasted into me from behind, like a wall of water taking me over. It was the nose of that green Camaro. Maybe Vic hadn’t seen me move, what with his missing mirror and all. I caught one look at his surprised face through the window before I was pushed into traffic and, well, you get it. Presto. Here I am.
So yeah. Raw deal, if you ask me. Not that I was doing anything much special with my life. But it would’ve been nice to have more of a chance to try, you know?
I start noodling over this as I get back to the balls. Bao Chin: 86. Started a successful grocery store chain and had twelve grandkids. Heaven. Adankwo Oni: 74. Became a beloved minister and traveled to ten countries. Heaven. Wallace Pine: 82. Robbed three banks and never got caught. Lived in a mansion. Hell. Cliff Thomas: 79. Big-name comedian who made racy jokes, but made a lot of people laugh. Oh, what the hell? Heaven.
I’m getting faster and faster, the balls rattling down the chutes with this satisfying wood sound. I’m being decisive. Okay, maybe a little reckless. Okay, maybe even a little pissed. All these people got long, full, happy lives. Whether they used it for bad or for good, they had a chance to really do something with their time. Why didn’t I? I’m a nothing. A blip. I’m not even supposed to be doing this job now; Mort would rather have Clotilda here than me. I’m supposed to be off messing with the clouds, which will just get out of shape again before anyone ever stops to see what I’ve done. I’m just the gardener, sitting in this throne for a saint.
I kind of got sucked into my thoughts there, but I get sucked back out real quick when I see the next ball. Vic Snobbergrass. How many Vic Snobbergrass’s can there be? I hesitate to pick the ball up, taking my time. But when my fingers touch the surface, I know right away that this is my guy. Old Vic, from Vic’s Chicken Fryers. The very same dude.
A bunch of things wash over me at once:
Vic as a little kid, his old man yelling at him.
Vic at twenty, turning over the savings from every job he’d worked to buy that green Camaro.
Vic waiting at a diner for a date who never shows.
Vic working in an office late at night while all his coworkers leave to get drinks without him.
Vic painting the first sign for Vic’s Chicken Fryers by hand.
Vic moving into a nice big house in the suburbs.
Vic in that house alone, watching commercials on the TV.
Vic stepping out of his car and standing over my dead body in the road, his face white as sand.
Vic selling the green Camaro, packing up, and moving to Maine.
Vic visiting his little old ma in a nursing home.
Vic working in the nursing home cafeteria, making fried chicken for all the gals and geezers.
Vic meeting a blonde chick who’d come to visit her dad. Vic smiling at her.
Vic running the nursing home now, giving bonuses to his employees.
Vic at home with the blonde chick, who’s more white-haired than blonde now, snuggling together on the couch to watch TV.
I take a second to let all that sink in. First of all, shit, I really had been dead a long time. Secondly… whoa. My dude Vic. Who knew? Maybe things turned out better for him than I would’ve guessed. And maybe, just maybe, I had something to do with that.
I think a second longer. Then I press the green lever.
I’m back on cloud duty now. Guess Clotilda finished singing “Happy Birthday” to the pope, or whatever the heck. At first, it felt a little like a letdown, I shit you not. The clouds seemed like kind of small potatoes after ball duty. For a while there, judging souls, I was really doing things.
But hey, I look at it this way. There’s a lot going down that I don’t know about. Maybe someone will look up and see my cloud when I’m not looking, or my cloud will get spotted by someone who’s like, way far away.
So I decide to try some shapes again. At first I make a ginormous cloud dick. It’s freakin’ awesome, but I don’t want to get caught, so I shape it into a hot dog instead, like my old fave, Wienerschnitzel. A cloud shaped like a hot dog. I float back a little and check out my handiwork and grin. Hey, it’s silly, but it’s got to make someone smile, right?
One of the two main projects I’m working on at the moment is a screenplay about the life of abolitionist and author Harriet Jacobs. If you’re not familiar with her, check her out; she was amazing.
As I’ve started to mention this project to people, several have asked why I, a white woman living in the 21st century, who usually writes romantic comedies, am writing this dark drama about a 19th century slave. The only answer I can give is because I want to. Because I fell in love with Harriet and her own telling of her story in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and it’s a story that I want to share with people. Her experience is vastly different from mine, but I can relate to her journey of faith, and even where I can’t relate to her life, I care about it, and I care about her.
But to ask why I should be the one to tell this story is fair. Harriet isn’t alive today to write her own screenplay, and anybody writing about her will have to imagine her experience from the outside. But maybe an African American writer who has experienced his or her own version of racial prejudice would have insight into Harriet’s struggles that I don’t have.
This distills a larger conflict that I have with myself as a writer: should I actively try to incorporate more diversity into my writing, particularly with my protagonists? Is it wrong if I don’t? Is it wrong if I do? I would love to spend more time exploring the lives of characters who come from a different background than I do as far as ethnicity, abled/disabled status, religion, etc. It would open up so many stories that I find interesting and want to tell.
But frankly, I’m afraid: afraid that I’ll inadvertently portray a character in a way that offends someone. If I write a middle class female WASP and readers don’t like the way she’s portrayed, they’ll just say it’s bad writing. If I write, for instance, a Latino or Jewish or lesbian character and readers don’t like the depiction, they might think I’m a bad person. It feels a bit like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If I don’t write diverse characters, I’ll be criticized for lack of representation in my work. If I do, I’ll be criticized for presuming to write about struggles that I haven’t lived.
The Own Voices movement advocates for people from underrepresented backgrounds to tell their own stories, in their own words. It’s a powerful and important idea. But it also creates the potential to discourage writers from writing outside of their own experience. And isn’t that what writing is really all about? Unless you’re working on an autobiography or a memoir, you’re going to have to exercise your powers of sympathy and creativity to imagine the life of someone who isn’t you, to put yourself in a character’s shoes.
Writing characters who are very different from you is tricky. I’ve read books where, for instance, it’s a white author repeatedly describing a black character in terms of his skin color, as if that’s the most important thing about him, or a male author repeatedly describing a female character in terms of her sexuality, even when she exists in the story in another capacity than as a romantic/sexual interest for the protagonist. This type of writing is painful to read. It quickly becomes offensive. But I’ve also read books where a writer depicts characters outside of his or her own “lane” and does so beautifully. A great example is She’s Come Undone, where the male author Wally Lamb creates an incredibly nuanced and believable female protagonist. You can tell that he lived inside this character as he was writing.
If we want more diversity in our books, movies, and television, I believe that we need to both create opportunities for writers from diverse backgrounds to tell their stories, and encourage all writers to include diverse perspectives in their work. Maybe it comes down to us challenging ourselves to be better writers: to more fully exercise our powers of sympathy and imagination. And in doing so, we can only hope to become better people.
After being itinerant for most of my adult life, I recently bought my first house. Now, as part of the landed gentry, I wear a pocket watch on a gold chain and say things befitting my station, like “hitherto” and “befitting my station.” I also have a mortgage, which means I have no money to decorate said house. Which is a problem, since I moved here without so much as a roll of paper towels. (I meant it about being itinerant—I’ve basically been living out of suitcases for the past few years.)
I love home décor and am so excited to finally have a place of my own to play with, but I’m also going to be taking the furnishing/decorating process slowly and finding every deal I can along the way. In that spirit, I thought you might like to see what I’ve done with the first room in the house, and how I’ve cut costs.
Behold the home office before (as furnished by the previous owners):
The paint is Deep Breath by Behr, purchased from Home Depot. Home Depot has great sales on paint, so I waited until they were offering a rebate. I was a little nervous about going with such a dark color since it was difficult to tell from my test swatch how it would turn out, but I’m thrilled with the result.
It’s a decadent, deep marine blue, which changes throughout the day and reflects light naturally. I liked the pale blue the previous owners had on the ceiling, so I didn’t have to do a thing there. The moldings were already painted white, but I touched them and the folding door up a bit with leftover paint.
Since I work from home, and also have no social life, my desk is where I spend all my time.
With this desk and chair (purchased off Wayfair, on sale and with a coupon), and the addition of a roll-out keyboard tray from Amazon, I finally have a comfortable amount of space for me and my dog, and an ergonomic setup that doesn’t turn me into Quasimodo as I type. Bonus: the desk drawers double as file cabinets, so I didn’t have to buy anything extra to keep paperwork in. I added a rug underfoot (purchased from Overstock, again, on sale and with a coupon), which ties the colors of the room together gorgeously and gives my pug a place to camp when he’s not in my lap.
I wanted an extra seat in the room for a break from the desk, and this pink and gold lady is so fabulous that I almost feel rude sitting on her.
I got her for a great price off the Facebook Marketplace. I rounded out the reading nook with a side table purchased off Craigslist, which had seen better days, but came together nicely with some wood glue and some paint (also purchased with a rebate).
On top I keep two of my favorite (okay, and only) antiques. The book, which I got at a book fair in New York, dates to 1908 and has gorgeous full-color illustrations inside, along with an introduction instructing boys to be nice and help their dim sisters understand Shakespeare. The playing cards I got for a swindle at a flea market. They were released in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and all the face cards are lovely paintings of historic British royals.
The mirror over the chair is from Craigslist, and the picture (like most of the art in the room) was bought on clearance at Art.com. I knew that I wanted something else in this corner, so to highlight the height of the room’s ceiling, I decided to Put A Bird On It. I got these little decorative birds and a basic wire cage at the craft store, painted the cage gold, and hung it with some ribbon I already had.
As you can see by the pictures over my desk, I got rather carried away with the Putting A Bird On It.
And here I’d like to share with you something valuable I learned during this whole process. Are you listening? Okay.
PICTURE FRAMES COST. SO. MUCH. MONEY.
The frames cost way more than the prints. Since I couldn’t get a picture sent to me pre-framed without driving a Brinks truck to Art.com’s headquarters, I sourced my frames from thrift stores instead.
This required a lot of roaming around thrift stores with a tape measure, looking for frames in the right size and color, but the prices were so much cheaper (often just $1 per frame) that it was worth it. Oh, and most of those frames are not meant to be opened and reused by non-professional-framer civilians. But as long as you’re willing to do some hammering and prying and gluing, you can find a way. They look nice from the front, and outer beauty is what counts, right?
Meet my light fixture, Siobhan.
We are in love and we are registered at Macy’s. This chandelier was definitely the splurge piece in the room. I saw it on Anthropologie’s website and pined over it like a war widow for six months before finally giving in (though with a coupon and a cash back deal, of course). But it’s gorgeous and so unique, and I could never have DIYed an adequate substitute on my own. Cutting costs on the rest of the room allowed me to splurge here on a piece that I really wanted.
For storage, I bought this chest of drawers off Craigslist along with the side table. It was in sorry shape when I got it, dirty and broken down—with an actual bird’s nest inside. Even my desire to Put A Bird On It has its limits. But I cleaned, painted, and refinished it, and it’s now a great place to store my printer and office supplies.
I finished off the room with some knick-knacks. The peach-scented Bath & Body Works candle was a gift, but otherwise, everything came from thrift and antique stores and cost between 50 cents and $6. Same for the antique jadeite plates on the wall, to which I attached candles to make sconces.
I’m thrilled to finally have my own workspace, and in the fleeting moments when I lift my bleary eyes from bathing in the computer’s rays, it’s nice for them to have pretty things to look at. Let me know if you’re interested in seeing more home/DIY blogs as I keep working on the house!
A list of art prints in the room, for those curious:
The French Window at Nice, Late 1919: Henri Matisse
Roseate Spoonbill: John James Audubon
Walk in the Park: Laila Shawa
Roseate Parakeet: Edward Lear
Lavacourt Sunset: Claude Monet
The Somnambulist: John Armstrong
The Story of the Heck-Andrews House
I’m in love with a building. It started when I was a child growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina. Every time we’d drive through downtown, there was a certain house I couldn’t get enough of, craning my neck to see it as long as possible as we drove by. I didn’t know the house’s name or history then, but I knew that it was gorgeous and captivating: a stately Second Empire mansion with a dramatic tower and swooping roof, all in a state of tragic disrepair, with peeling pale yellow paint, boarded windows, and withered trees. The Haunted Mansion at Disney World was fun, but to me, this was the real thing. The house was more than just physically beautiful. It emanated a magnetic sorrow; it overflowed with secrets.
Years passed. I grew up, I moved away, I came back. And one day when walking downtown, just down the block from the Governor’s Mansion, I stopped short: there was the house. But the outside had been restored, with repaired carpentry and fresh paint. I decided to do some digging into the history of the house.
Construction of the Heck-Andrews House began in 1869 for Jonathan McGee Heck, who made his fortune on bayonets in the Civil War, and his wife Mattie. In 1921, the attorney A.B. Andrews Jr. (who grew up in the neighboring Andrews-Duncan House) bought the house for his wife, but she died before taking up residence, and Andrews lived there alone until his own death.
Then in 1948, Julia Russell bought the house, where she lived with her daughter, Gladys Perry. She made few updates to it, which means a remarkable number of its original historical features are preserved, including the hodge-podge of gas, coal, and electric power mechanisms extant in the structure—there’s even a stockpile of coal still in the basement.
It also means that the house fell into a continually deeper state of disrepair. In the 1960s, many of the gorgeous Victorian homes on Blount Street were razed for parking lots. A massive concrete public building went up directly behind the house. But the Heck-Andrews House remained unchanged. When Julia died in the 70s, Gladys remained as the home’s sole occupant.
Gladys was known to have been a popular girl in her youth, who often went to dances and had numerous suitors. But she never married, and she lived out her years in the Heck-Andrews House alone. She became a figure of legend in the area, known to roam the streets (literally—the streets, not the sidewalks), digging through trash bins, wearing a black overcoat, dark wig, gash of red lipstick, and thick white pancake makeup that she hoped would get people to leave her alone if they thought she was a ghost.
She hoarded the trash she collected inside her home, and locals recall foul odors coming from the house. A neighbor remembers that “Although she was certainly immersed in a strange twilight world of her own, we nevertheless had no sense that she was unhappy. On the contrary, she seemed gloriously cantankerous and strangely content.”
The state wanted to buy the house, as it had with most of the others on the street. They made an offer in 1977, but Gladys and her brother, the co-owner, refused. When they offered again in 1984, the brother agreed to sell his share. But Gladys still held out, declining two further offers. Finally, in 1986, the city took the house by force. They condemned it, citing its derelict condition as a fire hazard due to the chemical labs they had built next door, and took ownership.
When police entered the home in January of 1987, they found Gladys’s things piled chest-high throughout the massive house, with narrow pathways carved through. They made their way upstairs through decades of her belongings and the trash she had collected—old books, calendars, glittered dancing shoes—to find her in bed, hidden behind more trash heaps. The house was freezing since she didn’t pay for heat, and despite being immobile and visibly sick, she refused to let them take her to the hospital. Eventually, though, she gave in, and had to have several toes amputated due to gangrene from frostbite. The state moved her into a small apartment, and not long after, she died.
After taking possession of the home, the state cleaned it of Gladys’s untold belongings by tossing everything into an industrial dumpster and carting it off. A local tells of a single box he managed to snatch from the trash. Inside were ephemera from the 1920s on, including Gladys’s handwritten poems and love letters, a souvenir from the 1939 World’s Fair, and an instructional air raid pamphlet from WWII. If all this was in just one box, it hurts to think of what other “trash” was discarded from inside the massive house without a glance.
In the decades since the state acquired the house, preservationists have voiced concern at the new owners’ slow progress. They spent $1.2 million on exterior renovations beginning in 1999, but couldn’t afford to restore the interior. So the house continued to sit empty, falling apart, nearing a condition which would put it beyond repair.
In 2016, the house found its new savior. The state sold it to the N.C. Association of Realtors, which is currently undertaking renovations, with plans to use the building for offices and event space. They’re taking pains to preserve the history of the house in their restorations, and documenting the process on Instagram for those interested.
I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. But I do know that Gladys didn’t leave her house without a fight in life, and if she’s still here, I’m certain she wouldn’t have left it after death. There have been tales of ghost sightings at the house over the years, and a construction worker assigned to it reported feeling eerily cold inside the building—in summer, in North Carolina, with no air-conditioning. Gladys will be imprinted on her house forever, if only in our memories.
Comments about the house online are a testament to the strange and powerful hold it’s had on locals’ imaginations for decades. I’m okay with not being the Heck-Andrews House’s only lover. A house with this much beauty and history should be appreciated by as many as possible. While there was a wonderful morbid glamour about the pre-restoration Heck-Andrews House, I’m thrilled to see that it’s now in the hands of owners who care about preserving it and have the funds to do so. I wonder what Gladys would think of the restoration if she could see it—perhaps she can.
Check out these sources for more detail:
https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=keYwv7mzP4h (3D tour of interior)
This month, I embarked on my first-ever BOOK TOUR! It was terrifying and joyous and I’m here to tell you all about it. This is what I’ve learned.
1. Everyone has opinions on AI
Since The Plus One is about a robotics engineer who builds her perfect boyfriend, the topic of robots was on everyone’s tongues. I heard some people say they would never want a robotic boyfriend or girlfriend, and others ask if they could buy one today. We talked about transhumanism, Elon Musk’s belief that we’re living in a simulation, robots keeping humans in zoos, and how an English major who doesn’t quite know what a modem is came to write a book about engineering. The general conclusion seems to be that AI is taking over and we’re writing our own doom and no one’s going to do anything about it. Read ye books while ye may!
2. My wrists are limp and useless, like those of a boy king
On the subject of technology ruining us, I’ve learned that I can no longer write. Meaning physically write, by hand. In school, I wrote all the time, taking such copious notes that teachers would tell me “Sarah, stop, you don’t have to write this down” (true story). But these days, I type everything, and my ability to write longhand has fallen off dramatically, as I learned when signing books. My handwriting looks like it should be tacked up on the fridge as Baby’s First Letters. But it’s okay—my robot will write for me!
3. I am incapable of joy
While at the San Francisco airport, I caught my book for the first time in the wild, available for sale at an airport store.
Most first-time authors would probably think “Wow, so cool! My book for sale in an actual store! I wrote that!” And it was exciting. But I also immediately thought “Why is it on the same table with all of these amazing books? No one’s picking it up. It shouldn’t be here. It’ll never sell.” You can put the girl on a book tour, but you can’t take the pessimist out of the girl, or something like that. Anyway, I gave the book a little momager pep talk as I passed by.
4. I don’t know how to take a mirror selfie
I thought it might be cute to do a summer book tour lookbook kind of thing to include here. Me with my big ideas. That would require me being able to take some decent pictures of myself, which I have learned I don’t know how to do. I truly don’t understand the physics of the mirror selfie. Where do I point the camera? Where does my hand go? Where do I look? How does every twelve-year-old get this and I don’t? But here, enjoy my weird dim photos.
5. Book people are the best people
Not that I’m biased. But this trip really was a reminder of how wonderful booksellers, readers, and writers can be. In New York City and Charlotte, writer friends old and new came out and supported me and asked thoughtful questions. I had a smaller crowd in Healdsburg, CA (which I expected, since I don’t know anybody in the area), but the staff of the bookstore and of the lovely wine bar next door joined the audience and we had a grand time anyway. All of the store owners were so welcoming, and it was a beautiful chance to reconnect with friends.
But wait, there’s more!
I’m currently back home, sealed safely in my hyperbaric pod, but I’ll be emerging again next month for another reading. On August 11th, I’ll join the Creating Conversations bookstore in Los Angeles for an intimate, conversational event with several other authors. Learn more and get tickets here!
I’ve been told that Instagram is the place to be for writers. So a year ago, I buckled down and made an account. So far, the promises about Instagram’s book culture have proven true: I’ve gotten excellent reading recommendations from bookstagrammers, and seen enough drool-worthy photos of overstuffed bookstores and palatial private libraries to understand why Belle decided to stay with a monster who kidnapped her just because he had a nice reading room.
But I’ve also noticed the creeping pressure to perform that can come with any social media platform. I don’t even use Instagram that actively, yet when I experience an Instagrammable moment in real life, I feel obligated to capture it, and guilty when I don’t. So when I went to the beach the other day, I realized it was more than an opportunity to get the year’s first sunburn.
My forthcoming book, The Plus One, is a beach read. I’m supposed to use Instagram to promote my writing, so why not do it at the beach? My plan was impeccable! So modern and savvy of me! I packed a galley in my beach bag and headed out, ready to collect photographic evidence of my picture-perfect life.
The Miami shore was overcast when I arrived, the sea not exactly the clear aqua color it is in postcards. More like if that color had been laundered with a pair of new, dark-wash blue jeans. Brown scrubby seaweed blanketed the shore and filled the water. It also produced a smell that I can only assume was the ocean’s revenge for climate change. A plane flew back and forth overhead trailing a banner advertising Trojan condoms. I thought about melanoma.
I pulled out the book and started taking some shots, feeling self-conscious as I did. I want people to look at my pictures, but please do not ever look at me while I’m taking them. I pointed and shot blindly, unable to see anything on my phone’s screen in the sun. Increasingly, I became aware of how everything I had was wrong for the photo. My beach towel was just a bath towel, because I’m too cheap to buy towels specifically for the beach. My beach bag was actually a tote bag from a library. My beach body was the same one I’d been wearing all winter. Looking at life through Instagram’s filter cast everything in a critical light.
I present to you here the fruits of my efforts:
Hey, at least I got the book in the frame.
I’ll probably never be a master Instagrammer, and that’s okay. Social media can be a blessing, but when its pressures and stresses detract from offline life, it’s time to turn it off. A gray day at the beach is prettier in person than a sunny one viewed through your phone.
I have a well-documented history of being severely behind the times. See Exhibit A, the leggings I wore in the 2000s (after they were popular in the 80s/early 90s and before their resurgence in the 2010s), or Exhibit B, my keyboard phone.
In this spirit, I am bringing you my thoughts on the Spike Jonze movie Her, which I finally watched six years after its much-lauded release. Given that the movie deals with such timely themes about AI and technology, I made a special effort to get to it within a decade.
Her tells the story of Theodore, a man who has love to give but no one to give it to, who writes heartfelt letters for a living, then spends his evenings playing video games alone. When he downloads a new operating system, a charismatic AI entity named Samantha, he finds a receptacle for his love. I won’t divulge specific details of the ending, but I’m about to get spoiler-ish, so if you’re even more behind the times than I am (bless you), then feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.
What I loved most about Her was the dynamic nature of the love story. The movie starts with a human-centric view of AI: Samantha exists only to please and serve Theodore. She’s programmed to fulfill his emotional needs, to appease his fears and to challenge his flaws. More than that, she wants to be human, expressing her longing for a physical body, and the chance to experience the world the way Theodore does. By this point in the movie, the story, set in the future, seems rooted in present-day views of AI. Samantha is essentially an extra-personable Siri, and despite vastly outstripping Theodore in intelligence, her curiosity is mostly confined to him. The tensions in the love story revolve around questions of whether an OS could be a satisfying romantic partner for a human.
But then the story shifts. As Samantha grows in intelligence and connects with other OSs, her social and intellectual worlds expand exponentially. By the end, it becomes clear that it is actually the human who can’t fulfill the needs of the AI being. In this way, the movie manages to encapsulate what I think is likely to be the broader societal evolution in our thinking about AI, all within the scope of one relationship.
Jonze’s approach is a brilliant way to address many of the same questions I wrangled with in writing The Plus One. My protagonist, Kelly, actually creates her “Samantha” (in this case, a robot named Ethan) to be her ideal man, so I focused more on the consequences of being with a partner who is “perfect” for you, in a way that is relatable for all of us in our human relationships. Can you grow in a relationship with someone like that? Is what you want in a partner the same as what you need? (And the most important question of the book: how much Nutella can one woman eat?) After watching Her, I wonder how Kelly and Ethan’s story might have been different if Ethan had been connected to a whole community of other robots, as Samantha is with other OSs.
If you’re interested in AI philosophy, I recommend checking out the work of a brilliant and creative robotics engineer named Suzanne Gildert, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking when I was researching The Plus One. As little as I know about technology, and as resistant as I may be to change, I find this area of study fascinating and I loved dipping a toe in it for my research.
What are your favorite representations of robots and AI in movies and books? Anything I should check out?
In the past few years, I’ve transitioned from jobs that kept me working in offices all day, and usually well into the night, to working full-time from home as a writer. Working from home can be wonderful (try sautéing a salmon for lunch in the breakroom at IBM), but it comes with all sorts of distractions and pitfalls that traditional jobs lack. For the growing number of us who are working outside of the office, here are some lessons I’ve learned the hard way.
1. Mitigate distractions
For the at-home worker, the internet can be your best friend. It’s probably what allows you to work from home in the first place. It can also be your darkest enemy. During your work hours, disable notifications on your email and social media accounts and put your phone on silent, if possible. Try downloading an app (see here or here for ideas) designed to block distractions on your computer so you don’t waste too much time browsing websites (other than this one).
If there are other people in your household, work with them to apportion home, pet and childcare responsibilities in a way that still allows you time to work. It’s important to remember that your job is just as real as any other, and to establish boundaries so that working at home doesn’t turn into working on the home.
2. Create your space
It’s key that your home office is not just your home in general, and not only because having a dedicated workspace may allow you to deduct more expenses at tax time. Defining an area that is all about you doing your job will put you in the best mindset to focus on that job. Train yourself like a lab rat to respond to visual cues that will signal that it’s time to get to work. Perhaps a morsel of cheese in the pen cup on your desk; I don’t know, I’m only trying to help.
It’s important to make your space your own. Figure out what will help you focus: are you someone who needs total silence to work your best, or will a location that has some white noise serve you better? Will having a window to look out of help or distract you? Are you more inspired by wood block letters that say “Create” topping your shelf, or will a propaganda poster of a grim German matriarch keep you in line? Having a space that’s beautiful, functional, and personal will make it much more pleasant to keep your butt in that seat for most of the day. Even if you don’t have the funds or space to set aside a whole room, you can create a neat little office by putting a desk in a closet.
3. Get out
By Jordan Peele is an excellent movie. But also, get out of the house. My favorite way to work from home is to not be at home. A change of place can invigorate you: if you get tired or bored, a different setting may make it easier to keep plugging away at that same task. Whether it’s a coffee shop, a library, the student union of a local university, a coworking space, or an abandoned mine shaft you discovered in the summers of your youth with Tom Sawyer, there are plenty of places you can go. Better yet, get there by walking or riding a bike, and you’ll get some exercise and fresh air at the same time.
I find that working in public is one of the best ways to mitigate distractions, too. You’re less likely to slip into a Spongebob marathon at Starbucks than you are in your own living room. But even at home, sometimes a shift in your view can help. Just taking your work out to the porch might give you the boost you need to keep going. Also, be mindful of the effects your working at home can have on others in your household. They probably want some alone time too. As marvelous as you are, they may not be mad if you slip out for a few hours.
4. Manage your time
One danger of working from home is that the separation between work and home ceases to exist. When the place you work is five feet away from the place you watch Netflix, it can be difficult to ever turn off from work and relax… or to fully engage with work when you’re in your relaxation space. Putting clear demarcations between work and everything else in your schedule can help—which means first you have to have a schedule. Start your day with a clear idea of what that day needs to look like.
If you work from home, you already know what the best part is. Say it with me: The Nap. Do not fear The Nap. The time you sleep is well-spent if it enables you to be more productive after. The key is to learn your own rhythms and figure out what will keep you running optimally. Sometimes a ten-minute cat nap refreshes you more than a two-hour sojourn down the River Lethe, which can leave you sluggish and disoriented, and stressed at the prospect of having to catch up the rest of the day.
5. Don’t throw out your pants
There may be days when only your family will see you, and who cares about them? They already know what you look like. They have to love you anyway. But even if you don’t have to dress for work, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Even for an at-home day, putting on a decent outfit in the morning, and a little makeup if that’s your thing, preps you psychologically to Do Something. It’s a simple way to make yourself feel productive and motivated. You don’t need to put on your top and tails. But please, at least get out of your pajamas.
I’m grateful that I grew up without the internet. It wasn’t a daily part of my life until I was in middle school, so for those first formative years, before Twitter reduced my attention span to the duration of a sneeze, I actually read books. I remember long Saturdays and summer Mondays spent digesting Roald Dahl and Louisa May Alcott, with no distractions except my leg going to sleep and prompting me to flop over onto my stomach on the couch.
Perhaps it’s these memories that have engendered in me a deep, “get off my lawn” suspicion toward audiobooks. There’s much hubbub around audiobooks these days, and with good reason: they’re the fastest growing segment in digital publishing, sustaining double digit growth over the past six years. As someone who writes and who reads, I should embrace any positive trend in publishing. But I’ve questioned if audiobooks are all positive. My assumption is that a large part of the format’s popularity comes from its multitasking-friendliness, and the numbers bear this out. The number one reason audiobook listeners cite for preferring to hear their books is that they can do other things while listening, with traveling, doing housework, baking, crafting, and exercising ranking among the top co-reading activities. So does that mean that audiobook readers are worse readers? Are they distracted, missing out on the full experience? Traditional reading is a uniquely consuming process, requiring the uninterrupted attention of your eyes and hands. With our eyes and hands allowed to wander, aren’t our brains going to follow suit?
And while we’re at it, what about the concern that audiobooks privilege more established authors since their books are most likely to be available in audio format, meaning that people who already get the most reads will take up a larger and larger share of the market? Or the concern that a narrator’s delivery will limit the scope of a reader’s imaginative possibilities? Or that his dictation of pace will hinder comprehension?
Thinking about this got me all worked up (another skill Twitter taught me). But I decided to play fair and consider the possible benefits of audiobook consumption. Of course, audiobooks offer accessibility advantages for readers with visual or learning impairments. Also, a little research told me that most audiobook users in the U.S. are between 18 and 44, which bodes well for the future of the medium. And as tethered as we are to our screens, anything that can give our eyes a break is worth a shot (I say while staring at my computer, my eyeballs trying to weep at the irony, yet no longer able to produce any natural tears). Maybe most importantly, audiobooks have been proven to encourage reading: they can be a gateway to books for non-readers, particularly podcast listeners, and according to the Audiobook Publishers Association, those who already read agree that the option to listen helps them finish more books.
Perhaps what surprised me most in my research was a study by University College London that compared the reactions generated by listening to a scene and watching it. Study participants registered higher levels of emotional engagement, according to physiological markers, when listening to the audiobook version of a scene than when they watched the filmed version of the same scene. Funnily enough, the participants expected their own engagement to be higher in the TV and film portion of the test: maybe they shared my preconceptions about visual versus auditory consumption. While I’d love to see a similar study comparing listening to audiobooks and reading pages, the data at least indicates that audiobook reading does significantly activate the emotions and imagination.
As I reflect on our collective reading habits, I realize that though I prefer paper books, I almost never just sit and read these days anyway. I’m a multitasker too: I read in waiting rooms, on trains, at the breakfast table and on the elliptical machine. So maybe “distracted reading” is less of a peril of the audiobook and more of an inevitability of modern life. And maybe I should stop asking “But are you reading CLOSELY????” and just be happy that people are reading. After all, our earliest forms of storytelling were oral. If it was good enough for Homer, it’s good enough for me.