A Good Idea to Steal: A Table of Contents

I admit it. I’m a notebook jumper. It is rare that I fill a notebook to capacity before skipping to a new one.

Because I’m a little neurotic and slightly OCD when it comes to my writing (my family would tell you I’m nowhere near OCD in my regular daily life), I find it somewhat stressful to have several notebooks “going” at once — which is what I’ve been doing. One notebook for short stories. One notebook for blog entries. One notebook for ideas. One notebook with novel bits in it.

If I misplace a particular notebook, a project goes missing for a while. Much easier, and more satisfying because I like to be able to see my work add up, to fill one notebook before moving on to the next. Not only do I have everything at hand and the freedom to write what I want, when I want, but when the notebook is full I have a testament to how much work I’ve actually done.

And when I stack up the filled notebooks…I’ll have stacks.

So recently, I decided that I would be brilliant and use tabs to indicate when I switched subjects/projects within a notebook. Different color tabs indicate which project I’m on.

This seemed really smart at first, but then I kept forgetting which tab meant which project.

About a week ago, I’m complaining about my system to my friend John — which is what I do.

He says, “Use a table of contents.”

I say, “Nerd.”

He says, “No, seriously. Number your notebook pages first thing. Leave the first page of the notebook blank. Whenever you switch projects, go to the first page, list the project and the page number.”


I’m doing it. Though, I can’t bear to lose even a page of a notebook, so I’m Table-of-Contents-ing on the cover of my notebook. I figure if I need something later it’ll be good to just look at the cover and see what’s in the notebook at a glance.

If you’re looking to keep a writing notebook/journal, you should do it too. And you can even use tabs, so you can flip easily between projects.

Nothing Sets My Teeth On Edge Like Pretentious Writing Essays

There are two books that I go to pretty regularly when I’m struggling with writing. I head straight to On Writing by Stephen King when I’m thinking my Life As A Writer is useless and when I think I Should Never Dream of Writing Again. His biography is similar enough to my background to make me think that I can do this thing and the fact that he gives permission to write means a lot more to me than he probably ever intended for a random stranger.

If I’m in editing mode, I grab The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. She has unbelievably amazing advice on gaining distance and practical guidelines for getting to the heart of your story and telling said story in a cohesive way. While she uses The Great Gatsby as her go-to example, I can forgive that because of the practicality of her advice.

Now, two books cannot be all things all the time. So, when I’m hunting up inspiration or whatever, sometimes I’ll dig through my own pile of writing how-to books or I’ll check out books on writing from the library.

One such book I grabbed was Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction. It’s filled with essays from authors like Norman Mailer and Terry McMillan and Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Gilbert. So I snagged it thinking, like I do, that these authors know what the heck they’re talking about and I could do worse than listen to experts in the field.

I get the book home. I sit down to read. I read the first essay — it’s Norman Mailer’s so it’s kind of arrogant but nothing untoward.

I read the title of the second essay: “Uncanny the Singing That Comes from Certain Husks.”

Like a record scratching to a halt, my brain goes: “Wha–?”

The writer of this essay is Joy Williams. I’ll tell you up front that I haven’t read any of her other work and she’s been nominated for a Pulitzer and is quite prolific. So, she’s a good writer, no doubt. I am not saying in any way that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about or that what she has to say has no merit.

This essay just hit my buttons, bro.

In spite of my “Wha–?” reaction to the title I figured, “What the hell?” And gave it a shot anyway.

The essay is everything that irritates me about college writing classes. Throughout the essay there are these sweeping, declarative sentences about writing and writers.

Example A: “The writer must not really know what he is knowing, what he is learning to know when he writes, which is more than the knowing of it.

(I don’t even know what this sentence means.)

Example B: “The significant story is always greater than the writer writing it. This is the absurdity, the disorienting truth, the question that is not even a question, this is the koan of writing.

(I had to look up ‘koan.’ It means, according to Merriam-Webster: “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.” Sooooo, wow. That’s a heavy way of looking at writing.)

Example C: “The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct of advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery, he cares for it like a fugitive in his cabin, his cave. He doesn’t want to talk it into giving itself up.

(I’ve never heard any writer I know speak of writing like this. I feel kinda icky even thinking of stories in this way. Are all stories designed to ‘transmute’ and ‘disturb’? This kind of overarching declaration bothers the crap out of me. It brooks no disapproval and makes me think of a teacher wagging a finger at a questioning student.)

Example D: “The writer is never nourished by his own work, it is never satisfying to him.” AND “I am too wary about writing to enjoy it. It has never fulfilled me (nor have I fulfilled it). Writing has never done anyone or anything any good at all.

OKAY. This is the part that REALLY REALLY irritates me because, on one hand, it makes the writer look kinda humble because “Oh, gee, the writing itself is what’s important” but it also declares the writer of said sentences super important because “Oh, gee, I’m doing this in spite of the fact that writing has done nothing good for me. Look how awesomely self-sacrificing I am.” 

Also, don’t say writing has never done anyone any good. You don’t know that. 

Look, writing and the chance to write and tell stories is a blessing. One that shouldn’t be over-thought or over-analyzed. The idea that someone is doing it and not enjoying it, not getting ‘anything good’ out of it, or thinking they are not being ‘nourished’ by it can freakin’ stop right now. There are plenty of us will to jump in and be nourished. Plenty of us willing to ‘drink and be filled up’ as Stephen King says. 

I realize, again, that Joy Williams is an accomplished author and writer of fiction. And she does come to a conclusion about why she writes for herself. I just really wish the whole essay had been about her motivations and not the ephemeral presentation of why all writers write. 

However, if the question posed to the writer is “Why do you write?” then please, please, please don’t presume to answer for the rest of us — which is what happens when broad declarations, rhetorical questions, and generalities are presented.  

It makes my teeth hurt. 

Childhood Flashbacks, Stephen King, and Visceral Toy Stories of Terror!

I grew up loving Barbie. My closet was filled with Barbies and Skippers and Kens. These toys had dream houses and cars and closets with more clothes than any human being I’ve ever met, before or since. My parents spent hundreds — if not thousands? — of dollars on these dolls and all their accessories. 
I cannot emphasize enough how much I loved these toys. Hours and hours were spent making up adventures for them to go through. Proms. Murder mysteries. Fashion shows. Rock concerts. (Jem and Holograms was also popular at this point in time and I even had a cassette of the music.)
Needless to say, if the Barbie animated movies had been out at this time, I would’ve been all over those too. 

Then, in third grade, I had a friend — Dionne — who was a terrorist of a storyteller. 

We were at the park. (I remember this distinctly. It was the park we referred to as The Wooden Park because all of the equipment was, you guessed it, made of wood.) We were sitting on the swings, just talking, like kids actually do. We’d been playing some kind of Pretend, which I’m sure involved pretending to be Barbie. 
And then Dionne decided to tell me about her cousin, who lived in Puerto Rico. I’m not sure why this detail is important, but I think it’s because it made the whole story seem magical enough to be real. I’ve never forgotten it.  
(Before I continue, I should let you know that I was a very gullible, shy, generally frightened child. I freakin’ cried when teachers would call my name during attendance. You’ll be happy to know that I’m now a gullible, more outgoing, generally cautiously nervous adult.)
Anyway, Dionne’s cousin had a birthday party where she’d received this Barbie. I want to say that Dionne was detail oriented enough that it was a Peaches and Cream Barbie, but I could have filled that in with my own detail-oriented imagination. All well and good so far?
That night, the night of her birthday after all the presents have been opened, the cousin is woken up by something crawling on her chest. She looks down and sees Barbie (the Peaches and Cream Barbie in my imagination, remember). 
Devil in a Peach Dress
Then Barbie tells Dionne’s cousin, “Get me some coffee.”
Dionne’s cousin, scared to death, obeys and gets Barbie her coffee. (I should’ve probably questioned the veracity of Dionne’s story here. As a seven year old, I had no idea how to make coffee and Dionne’s cousin was supposedly our age. But, different seven year olds have different skill sets I guess.) Everything’s fine. 
The next night, the same thing happens. And, again Dionne’s cousin gets the coffee.
On the third night — man, Dionne does have a good grasp of storytelling…setting up the pattern and then breaking it…gotta admire it — Dionne’s cousin refuses to get the coffee. 
In the morning Dionne’s aunt goes to wake the kid up and finds her child dead on the bed. Carved into the cousin’s chest — as if carved with a small, sharp, plastic ninja hand from hell (see picture above!) — was “You should have got me my coffee!”
Ummmm. Yeah. I totally freaked out. And the girl — me — who loved Barbie, worshipped Barbie, owned miles and miles of Barbies with accessories, and had survived endless nights sharing a room with dozens of Barbies, REFUSED to have anything to do with them again. I locked those bitches in a closet and refused to play with them. Eventually, we donated them to my mom’s first grade classroom.

My mom still hasn’t quite forgiven me. 
I’m bringing this up now because I just finished reading Stephen King’s short story “Chattery Teeth,” which you can find in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. This is the second story by King that I’ve read involving toys. The other one is “Battleground,” involving those plastic army soldiers we all had and promptly lost when we were little, which you can find in Night Shift.
As I was reading “Chattery Teeth” I was disturbed, but not really frightened. It takes a lot to scare me in a story nowadays. But, being disturbed, I wondered why? I remembered being equally disturbed by “Battleground.” 
Seriously, when you stop to think about it, these are not the stories that should be disturbing you as a reader. 
Then it occurred to me that I was disturbed because of the details King used in those stories. The wind-up element of the Chattery Teeth. The way the teeth clamp down. Even the stupid little orange feet with spats that move inevitably forward. The weapons used by the tiny soldiers in “Battleground.” The helicopters that fire missiles. 
Like the carving plastic hands in Dionne’s story, there’s something visceral and real about those details. We’ve all touched the novelty toys and we know how those plastic bits feel. King does a really good job of bringing those elements into those two particular stories — which, honestly, otherwise feel like they’re novelties in and of themselves. That’s what I was responding to.
And those details may have caused flashbacks to my own childhood fears. 
Did you get terrorized by a similar story when you were little? What author brings that kind of disturbing detail to life for you?

Two Days of Nothing — I’m Scared the Crickets Are Staging a Revolution

Yesterday and today have been the first days in a looooooong while where I haven’t had to do anything. There’s no rehearsal, no performance, no kids activities, no nothing. Which left me feeling a little weird because I felt like there was something I was forgetting. Something that needed to get done that wasn’t getting done. Something that someone, somewhere would yell at me for not finishing. 

But, nope. 
There aren’t even crickets chirping. It’s like a strange vacuum of time and space. 
There is writing to work on and I’m thrilled to actually have the time to do it. And, look!, blogging. 
The amount of quiet, the sheer quantity of ‘nothing to do’ is making me a little paranoid.
*looks over shoulder*
Nope. I haven’t forgotten anything. 
*looks to the left, looks to the right*
The children are definitely behaving and not putting undue demands on my time at the moment. (Did something get put in their food?)
*peers under the bed*
I guess I could clean….
Ha! Who am I kidding? That ain’t gonna happen. 
*checks the yard, down the street, the roof*
Still no crickets chirping. I hope they’re not planning anything. Because I’m gonna go write. 

Story Sharing on the Playground; or, Talking with Perfect Strangers About the Miracle of Your Vagina

Last week SET opened Motherhood Out Loud, which is a series of monologues about motherhood. We’re going into our last weekend, which means I’ve seen this show…a lot by this point. And every single time I see this play, I’m reminded of my own experiences on several playgrounds.

My oldest kid is thirteen now (shut up) which means that, between him and my younger kiddo, I’ve been to lots of different playgrounds, met several other mothers, made friends with more than one of those mothers, and have heard that special high-pitched note that girls somehow manage to hit more than I ever care to. 
It’s struck me more than once, and after directing this series of pieces it’s struck me harder. 
Once you’re a mom on a playground, you will talk about the miracle of your vagina. 
Not in so many words. No. But you will talk about it. Because the thing you generally have in common with the other mommies on the playground is the fact that, one way or another, if you have a biological child, you got that child out of your body somehow. After the hours of being with your small child, in your desperation to communicate with an actual adult, you will try to latch on to anything, anything that will allow you to bond with another adult. The easiest thing for mommies is giving birth. 
Here’s the thing that kills me: that is one private, medically revelatory,  personal, and generally gross moment in a woman’s history. 
And we share those stories constantly with perfect strangers. 
I had one woman tell me about her experience birthing one twin vaginally and the second via C-section. I’ve heard stories about rips, tears, and broken hip bones — stuff that would make a Viking shudder. AmIright? 
The thing is — there are women whom I’ve met, and all I know about them is how their vaginas worked to deliver their child. I can’t remember their names, or where they live, or even the sex of their child. But I can remember the stories and relate to them. It’s kind of mind-boggling.
Yup, you’re really hearing about how a woman’s vagina works. Conversations that we weren’t ‘allowed’ to have, suddenly, PRESTO! we have a child and we’re allowed to have that conversation.

But, I’m kinda thinking that’s the backwards way to do this thing. Women who already have children already know how it works and what surprises lay in store…but non-mommies who want to eventually become mommies should really be hearing these stories. It’ll save them a lot of surprises.

(For example, in my case, I was unprepared for the blood. There’s copious amounts of blood after giving birth. You go nine months without a period and you make up for it all in a couple weeks. It’s gross. I would have been really happy to have been prepped for that beforehand.) 

So maybe we should be bombarding our childless friends with this information? Maybe not. Probably Reddit has some kind of discussion going somewhere….  

How Do You Bounce Back From Time Away?

Last Tuesday I outlined my plan to exercise my writing muscles back into shape. Now, I haven’t written much in a few months so I’m feeling like I’m doing some heavy lifting without warming up. And apparently I’m not the only one feeling like this at the moment.

One of my good friends, a playwright, just asked Facebook (the All Knowing) about how to get back into the writing saddle.

There was some straight up, common sense advice:

Just do it and see what sticks.
Don’t put any pressure on it, sit there until something comes.
Write fast.
Blow something up.
Copy someone else’s first line and then finish the story yourself.

I shared Chuck Wendig’s “A Smattering Of Stupid Writer Tricks” with her.

But I want to know what you do. Have you ever taken a long break and then tried to get back into the swing of things? How’d you do it?

Directing Isn’t So Different From Being a Mom

Opening tonight: My directorial debut! (Well, my co-directorial debut — my co-director Sarah Shaver is AMAZEBALLS.)

Over the last couple weeks I have had the pleasure and the panic of trying to shape a series of short scenes and monologues about motherhood. Motherhood Out Loud is a beautiful collection of pieces written by some of the best playwrights around. I’ts striking to me because there’s a great mix of hilarity and tear-inducing emotions.

So there I am: in an open theatre space filled with talented actors, armed with this strong script.

Annnnnnd I’m scared to death I’ll fuck it up.

All of it.

Which makes me think that directing is not so different from motherhood.

As a parent, I really really really hope I’m not fucking my kids up. I hope they feel loved and safe. I hope they feel like I’m someone they can talk to. I hope no one ever hurts them. I hope they are happy. I hope they are healthy. I hope that when I give advice or discipline that it’s helping to develop their character and make them stronger human beings. Most of all, I just hope for them.

With directing, there are more specific concerns — concerns about if the story is being told well, concerns about lines, concerns about lights burning out.

But as a director, I really really really hope I’m not fucking people up. I hope the actors and the technicians feel able to create in a loving, safe place. I hope they feel they can approach me with problems or observations. I hope the audience loves them. I hope they are happy. I hope they are healthy. I hope that when I give notes or assign tasks that it’s helping to develop their work and make them stronger performers. And mostly, I just hope.

I also think that directing is like motherhood in the fact that, a lot of times, you just have to bluff.

Yes. I do know what I’m talking about. Really. Just trust me.

Then hope to God I’m not wrong.

In the end, you have to trust that your kids and your crew will take care of business. You just have to set them free and say “I did my best.”

If you’re in the Springs, come check out this lovely piece of theatre. I’ll be thrilled to hear what you think.

Deadlines and Word Counts and Themes: Oh My!

Since November a huge amount of my creative energy has gone into my theatre instead of my writing. Which makes me neither happy nor sad, it’s just how it worked out — the focus went to one area and I produced good work in one medium instead of another.

At the moment I’m trying to ‘restore balance to the force’ (Happy Belated Star Wars Day by the way!) by picking up the pen and writing. Happiness!

Only it feels like this:

It’s not like I’ve forgotten how to write. I can still string words together good. Sometimes I even remember good words well. And I have the added bonus of knowing what I want to write and how I want to write it. But I feel super out-of-shape. Ya know? Like a marathon runner —

Okay. I know nothing about how a marathon runner feels. I hate running.

But I was a swimmer. I know how to swim. I haven’t forgotten the strokes. I know all the methods for moving through water. At the moment, however, I would get my ass handed to me if I tried to race anyone and/or participated in any kind of lap swim longer than fifteen minutes.

So it is with writing at present.

The remedy for lax writing muscles, I’ve decided, is the same remedy for the above sports analogy (the swimmy analogy, not the runny analogy): practice. Specialized practice.

To get back into the swing of things, I’m turning to Duotrope’s calendar of deadlines for magazines with themed issues. My thought process in this comes from my writing teacher David Keplinger — whose workshops always had a ‘box’ put around them. The idea was — whether the box consisted of a theme, particular subject matter, or a specific exercise — that if you put a box around the writing, you stop thinking about all the things that slow you down.

If you’re working within a box, you can’t waste time thinking about Am I good enough? Am I saying what I want to say? How long should this be? Those questions just kinda fall away and you work on staying within the parameters.

Generally, I’m pretty good about working within a box but the big-ass WIP I’m in the middle of is too big of a box to jump back into. I have a little too much playtime in there and I’d like to get back into the structural elements and I think Duotrope’s calendar is perfect for that because:

1. Deadlines. I have to finish in a certain period of time in order to submit my piece. I chose things with pretty up-and-coming deadlines so I don’t have time to think. Write fast. Write hard.

2. Word counts. The magazines have limits set for the words. I don’t have to debate within myself about how long or short I want it to be — there’s a definitive stopping place.

3. Themes. These make it simple for me to come up with a storyline. I can’t hem and haw for endless amounts of time about What Idea Shall I Write? With themes dictated, I’m forced to be creative in the idea department.

I feel like these are good little workouts to get back into shape. Once I’ve pounded out a couple, I’ll feel more comfortable jumping back into the big ol’ book that’s waiting for new words.