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How I Write

There’s a little thing going around called How I Write.

Normally when someone says there’s a little thing going around I run to the nearest hand washing station and scrub away. Then I drink a concoction of apple cider vinegar, cranberry juice, and lemon that feels like swallowing fire (I assume. I’ve never swallowed fire. I come from show people, but have never been in the circus myself.). Finally, I pray a fervent prayer of pleaseohplease Lord, don’t let me or the kids or heaven forbid, Mark, get sick, amen.

This time, however, I am glad to have caught the little thing from Leigh Ann. I’m also conflicted. Talking about writing feels pretentious and self-absorbed. Topping that off, a recent crisis of confidence (how artistic of me, right? barf) almost kept me from sharing. I wondered whether I should accept the baton from Leigh Ann, and then I smacked myself in the face with that baton. It was a metaphorical smack, but if you suspected I actually hit myself in the head, that’s okay. I do stuff like that all the time.

I realized that if like reading what other writers have to say about their process, perhaps you’ll like reading about mine. Confidence will be rattled now and then, but the writing must continue. The show must go on! (Remember, I’m descended from circus people and vaudevillians.)

And so. My answers to the How I Write questions:

1. What are you working on?

A novel. I know, sister, me and everyone else. The knowledge that 1 in 5 people (totally made up statistic) has a novel in their bottom desk drawer or drafts folder has stopped me dead before. What makes me any different?

I’ll tell you: Me. I make myself different. (Imagine I wrote that more eloquently and less grammatically clunky.)

This novel evolved from a need to tell a story of loss, recovery, and survival, and to tell it in my voice, with some humor. There are thousands upon thousands of tales of loss, but none have been told by me.

I started it a couple years ago and it was terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. I read over my first few “chapters” (and yes, the quotes are appropriate), and quit. It was rubbish, not even fit for the compost bin. The story was muddled, tone and voice all over the place. I knew why I wanted to tell it, but not how.

The story worked at me, quietly, for the next couple years until I said fine, I’ll try again. I have a clear vision for it now. That’s not to say I have the plot nailed down, but I do know the basics of where my character came from, where she is, and where she’ll end up.

That feels good.

I’m also working on personal essays for this blog and other publications. Writing personal essays is a lifelong dream that started with reading my mother’s Erma Bombeck books, and finding pure bliss in Dave Barry’s weekly column. I used to read parts of Dave’s columns aloud to my family. I was always laughing so hard that I couldn’t speak coherently, so mostly they heard my guffaws instead of the story. I’m sure my family loved those live, unintelligible readings.

2. How does your work differ from others in your genre?

Saying I have a genre feels writerly and smug. I want to talk about it my best Thurston Howell III voice. Lovey, dear, let’s discuss genre.

I’m not ready to talk about the novel in a lot of detail. It’s early yet. For this question, let’s stick to personal essays.

I don’t know that my work is vastly different from other work out there. There are a lot of us – a lot – telling the stories of our lives in 500-800 words a pop. In less than 32 seconds, I can think of a dozen warm, funny writers that I hope I don’t differ from too much, at least not in the feeling I want to leave with you when you read my essays.

I view life with a humorous slant. Above all, I see the funny. This has led to inappropriate laughter at all the most cliché times: funerals, hospital waiting rooms, parent-teacher conferences, and work functions.

Laughter aside, I’m also a huge pile of mush. Once I’m done snort-laughing as quietly as possible while my husband’s colleague holds the entire table hostage with tales of his rod (fishing, duh, but you see why I got the giggles), I can find the heart of the moment. Maybe it’s something endearing about the graceful way my husband handles these work shindigs, or maybe it’s a poignant thought about growing up and not chortling at the word rod.

3. Why do you write what you do?

See my earlier nods to Erma and Dave. See also all that stuff about wanting to tell a story in novel form.

I write because I have no other marketable skills. I write what I do because, simply, it makes me happy. I process things by writing them down. Not only does it bring me joy, but writing also centers me and helps me make sense of all the crap. Jeez, there is a lot of crap going on out there.

4. How does your writing process work?

First, I get a cup of herbal tea. Then, I sit at my desk and work away for five uninterrupted hours.

Hahahahahahahaha. Ha.

I have small children. I have no childcare outside of preschool and elementary school. I do not have a housekeeper, lawn service, or chef. I do have an incredibly supportive husband, thank goodness.

Because of the no childcare, no house-care thing, I write when I can. That means I break the cardinal rule of WRITE EVERY DAY. I’m always writing in my head, but I don’t get to the page/screen daily. Most days, yes. Every day, no.

When I have a deadline, I meet it. Usually there is crying and some bargaining with God, but I meet that deadline. When there is no deadline… My process is haphazard, at best.

There are scribbled notes that I never understand when I look at them days – or months – later. There are feverishly written drafts that seem like pure genius at the time of writing, and pure drivel upon a second reading.

The process evolves as my children do. We’re all growing together. I suspect that once they are both in elementary school, things will look differently than they do now. Let’s not even talk about writing during summer vacation.

And there you have it. I think I could talk about writing, or write about writing all day, every day. I’ll stop here, though, in case you cannot so much read about it all day.

I’m passing the torch/baton/whatever to AmandaCarol, and Virginia, some of my favorite Austin-based writers. Talk about heart and humor, these ladies are masters.

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A Walk on the Weird Side

I like to think I’m friendly and neighborly and blah, blah, blah, people like me. Of course I learned a long time ago that not everyone is going to like me. I got real comfy with the idea that four out of five dentists/all the people will not agree I’m an okay person. Still, I try to not be completely intolerable. I attempt to hide some of the weird.

Despite such efforts, things like this happen on the regular:

I’m not going to talk to you, but I may tweet about you.

I wasn’t going to chat her up, because ain’t nothin’ gonna to break my stride, nobody’s gonna slow me down, oh-no I got to keep on movin’* (or: I do not have time to stop. I wasted half the morning staring into space, and now I have to get this walk done so I’m not late to pick up my kids.).

I’m not planning to corner you at the mailbox so I can blather about the school carnival and, like, whether we should get the kids a 20-punch game card or a 15-punch game card? Probably 20, because they’ll totally use up 20 punches in like an hour and then be begging us for more anyway, so why even waste time on the 15-punch card, right?

Whether I want to talk right then or not, it stings a bit to think people are avoiding me. Lately I’ve developed a theory on why I receive some side eyes in the PTA room. See, I listen to stuff when I go on walks. Not music, usually, because I can listen to that any time. When I walk, I catch up on podcasts and comedy albums.

(I’m not trying to sound smart, and if you read all the way to the end, I think we’ll all agree that’s impossible anyway.)

My favorite podcasts right now include quiz shows like Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, and Ask Me Another, as well as shows like Nerdist Writer’s Panel, This American Life, and Pop Culture Happy Hour. Typically, This American Life and Nerdist Writer’s Panel are relegated to the car. I don’t know why, don’t make me give you a made up reason. Quiz shows, however, are great for walks, because they’re zippy and humorous and not overly thinky. Same goes for comedy.

The other day a neighbor I recognize, but don’t know well, drove by. I gave a small wave, and she looked bewildered. At first I thought, how unfortunate to have your resting face be one of bewilderment. Then I realized she wasn’t so much bewildered as openly staring at me. I do not think it was my kicky neon yellow sneakers that caught her eye.

I’d been walking along, answering quiz questions. Now, it could have looked like I was talking to myself, silently, moving my lips. Odd enough, yes? Yet here I was, talking out loud, but not to myself. I was talking to Ophira Eisenberg. Never mind that Ophira lives in my phone, or in Brooklyn, depending on how you look at things.

Today I listened to Maria Bamford on my walk. I missed her stop in Austin last week and have been consoling myself by listening to every one of her albums. (Are they still called albums?) Having Maria in my phone is like a salve on the disappointment suffered when saying, Hey, I’d love to see Maria! did not result in my husband rushing out to buy tickets. Also the disappointment I feel in myself for even expecting that to work. We all know I buy the tickets around here.

Back to walking with Maria. During today’s walk I laughed hard. And often. And loud. Walking became not only a physical exercise, but also a mental exercise in self control, of which I have little. I tried to remember, Laugh inside, Missy. To yourself. In your head, dingbat.

I think it’s important to stop here and point out a couple things.

1. I despise ear buds or headphones of any kind. I carry my phone set to a volume that seems to disturb the tai chi practicing octogenarian around the corner. To the casual observer, I do not appear to be listening to anything. That’s right. I’m a woman, walking along, listening to nothing, laughing and talking loudly. Addled suburbanite or one of our nation’s criminally insane? It’s hard to know.

2. I usually have my dog, Piper, with me. Piper is afraid of stuff. She’s not fearful of normal things like bigger dogs, bears, or strangers with candy. Piper’s afraid of small rocks, or lone roller skates abandoned on the sidewalk. Even the sidewalk itself can be unnerving. Transitions are terrifying. At home she frequently turns around so she can walk backwards over the transitions between tile and wood flooring.

Anyone watching us may see Piper suddenly jump to the side, or come to dead stop for no obvious reason. It’s totally obvious why she jumped if you can see the single, dead, dried up worm in our path, but you probably can’t see that from the window of your home office.

Let’s pause for a minute while you create a mind picture of my daily walk.

Got a mental image?

It’s a picture of a woman who may be talking to herself and cracking up. In fairness, I do sometimes think up stuff that kills me. Like my good (imaginary) friend Arthur Bach, sometimes I just think funny things.

It’s a picture of a woman who may be laughing out loud at her dog. True, Piper is bizarre and hilarious. She can’t talk but I know what she’s thinking, because dog people are like that. We’re canine mind readers.

It’s a picture of a woman who may be teetering ever closer to the proverbial edge. Don’t even pretend you don’t know of the edge. We’re all walking right up next to it, baby.

This picture is, I think, a major clue in the great suburban mystery of why that lady who lives two streets over ran from me.

*Thank you, Matthew Wilder, for your 1983 reggae hit, Break My Stride, that now provides a soundtrack to my casual acquaintance avoidance issues.

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