Dear Karen,
I know what you mean. When I started writing, seriously writing, my one goal was to get my novel published. I met that goal, but was surprised at how unsatisfying it felt. Suddenly there were awards I had previously been unaware of that were not being granted to me! So many in fact that it no longer seemed like enough to have published a book.

The truth is I had entered a world which completely intimidated me. It didn’t help that while on tour promoting that first book the questions I fielded had more to do with where I’d gone to college (I hadn’t), and where I taught (I didn’t yet; I cleaned houses for a living) than with my dazzling prose.

I felt so out of place that at one conference I decided to just come out with it on stage. “I’ve never been to college. I clean houses for a living,” I said, and then I read from my book. That evening at dinner a celebrated writer told me point blank to never mention again my job or my lack of a degree. When I asked why, he told me that no one was interested. That hurt. In some ways it still hurts.

I’ll never forget it, but I’ll also never forget the woman who came up to me after the reading and took my hands in hers and said, “Never apologize for working hard or being who you are.” She had read right through to the heart of me. She could see my fear that I did not measure up, and in her kindness and through her touch she was telling me that I did, and that this was not a fear I need ever have, not there surrounded by literary luminaries, and not anywhere.

The truth, I have come to realize, is that my writing is important. To who besides me, I don’t know. But what if I were to suppress it (as I have tried to do)? What if I chose to not tell my own story, or the stories of my characters? What if I silenced that voice? What if all of us who feel that we could never win the game silenced all our voices? What of the world then?


Posted in Book tour, Competition, Telling our stories, The Writer's Life | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments


Three weeks back, when I was teaching at a writer’s residency, it was game night. There were parties. Downstairs in the building where I was staying, I heard cheering, on screen and off. I imagined hurrahs from the bar down the street, shouting from the lawn. There was a lot to shout about. Next day, the score was 42 to 14, Alabama over Notre Dame. That night as I lay there, lights off, trying to relax before the next early morning, the next long day of teaching and talking about the writing life, the world was so alive I couldn’t sleep.

What I was thinking about was the nature of competition itself. Words from game world. Goals. Yards earned. Points. Those words circled in my head with similar words and phrases from the previous days at the residency. Earned a position. Books snatched up by so and so. Work meets its goal.

What is the goal of the writing life?

For myself, for years, the goal has been position as much as anything. I’ve lobbied for jobs, grants, fellowships, agents, publishers, publications. And those, I know, are the necessary tools of the trade, the reality of the writing business. I want those tools of the trade as much as anyone else.

But there are parts of the game that have begun to wear me down. One friend says of another. She thinks we’re more talented than she is. Or I walk into a big writer’s conference with my husband and he says, “you can feel the force of the egos in the air,” and I want to shrug this off. But he is right. I feel it as much as he does. Another friend says this. I’m tired of not being invited to the table in the writing world. When am I going to get there? When she says that, I want to take the high road, tell her that there is only one table, artistry, and that we all eat there. But secretly, I have the same fears. The same resentments concerning who is publishing where, how many books so and so has, how fast those books are written and what jobs at which place those books have earned her.

What I want to believe is this. Lewis Hyde quoting Joseph Conrad in his book on writing. ‘The artist appeals…to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition–and, therefore, more permanently enduring. Art speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation–to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity…which binds together all humanity–the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.’”

I lay there a long while that night of the big game. I watched the shadows of branches move across the window blinds and listened to the voices downstairs, wishing I knew how to go there and sit, quietly.

Posted in The Writer's Life | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Christmas and the Writer

How ya’ feeling out there?  Too much fruitcake?  Too much sugar?  Too much wadded up paper in the recycling bin?  Too much holiday?

As a child I loved this holiday.  Of course I did.  I was on vacation from school, there was magic in the form of a tree with ornaments and lights on it inside the house, and someone known as Santa was going to bring me presents.  Plus I wasn’t writing a novel, so no interruption there.

As an adult and a writer, I have a hard time with Christmas.  I’ve got the shopping thing down to a minimum.  I no longer clean other people’s houses, and therefore no longer have to adhere to someone else’s holiday party schedule.  And I rarely drink and couldn’t care less for fruitcake.  Still there comes a day when the energy of the season leans its big old snowman head into the window of my studio, and when that happens I know it’s time to just stop.  Give in and join in.

Which makes New Years an especially wonderful time for the writer in me.  If I have been lax I can make myself lots of promises in the form of resolutions, but if I have been productive, as I have this year, I can genuinely look forward to returning to my work.


Posted in New Years Resolutions | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Decisions, decisions

I spent the year of 2012 finishing up my novel.  I dreaded finishing it because after having done this a few times, I know that finishing a book also means finishing this part of the relationship.  I am, in short, bereft at the completion of a book.  I miss spending daily, intense time with my characters, I miss the story, I miss the puzzle of it all, I miss the absorption in a fictional world.

But besides all this, I also dreaded publishing.  Anne Lamott says, and I am inclined to agree, that publishing is something you will have to recover from.  My recovery has, in the past, taken the form of years of not writing.  Clearly I needed some way to make publishing my book a process that fits more with who I actually am.  I needed a new experience.

It took me some time to finally decide to self-publish.  Actually it took a very generous offer from a friend of mine to walk me through the process and publish on her imprint.  It’s scary, and exhilarating.  The first thing I had to do was tell my agent.  I expected her to try and talk me out of it, to try and coerce me into traditional publishing, but the first thing she said after I told her was, “I don’t blame you.”  Followed by, “You’ll do well.”

I got off the phone and cried.

Posted in Completing a novel, Decisions, Publishing | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Traditional Publishing vs. Self Publishing

Yesterday I told a friend, a fellow writer, that I am giving serious thought to self-publishing my recently completed novel.  She gave me a look of intense concern, and went on to tell me that I have a “track record,” and that she is sure I can get my novel published traditionally, to “not give up.”  What I read in my friend’s concern and comments was a belief that traditional publishing is superior to self-publishing.  A more severe, but I do not feel any less true, interpretation is that self-publishing is for losers and traditional publishing is for winners.  Neither is true.  The fact is there are good novels and crappy novels published under both umbrellas, as well as rich writers and poor writers.

Besides, my decision to take a different track does not mean that I am giving up.  I have never given up.  But I am thinking that I need a new experience in the publishing of a book.  The fact is I dread traditional publishing.  In the past I have felt that I am either not being groomed for success, or being groomed for success, and that these two extremes are the only options.  Either way I am told that I need to produce a book every eighteen months, or fewer (to continue the success or as an example of why success has eluded me).

I don’t respond well to a crack-the-whip literary world.  And I know that about myself.  So the question is, how do I create an experience that best supports my needs as a writer?


Posted in Publishing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Writers’ Lives

Some people imagine a writer’s life as a series of beautiful days in which the writer and her muse loll about together on a sofa with brilliant pages of prose slipping seductively onto the floor. This fantasy continues in spite of the books we write, gritty books about our characters’ or our own lives. As writers we crack the fantasy open again and again with the stories we tell, and the ways in which we talk about writing. The fact is though, there are more difficult things to do for a living. I remember this every time I pass a road-paving crew on a hot summer day in North Carolina. And I remember it every time life takes me away from my writing.

You may have noticed that the heading of this blog mentions scribblings and illuminations in the margins of two writers’ lives, yet so far only one is posting.

That is because my blog partner, Karen McElmurray is temporarily taken away from her writing by care for her husband who ended up in the ICU last week. They are home now, and I believe all will be well, but this only reminds me that while writers who get writing done always have to prioritize their work over a million other things, there are times when another priority makes itself clear.

We would not be decent writers without the emotion of love, and all the other emotions that can and sometimes do come along with that. My prayers are with Karen and John now, and I am looking forward to her energy on this blog, when it comes, in due time.

Posted in The Writer's Life | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


In today’s world how does an artist honor those periods of time in which she needs to go fallow? Just as plowing and over planting a piece of earth can drain the nutrients from that earth, so too can too much creating, too many words, too much noise close the life of an artist down. I suppose that art has always been a challenge. It used to be that painters were commissioned by the church to create something. Subject matter was limited. These days publishers want the next big seller, which they assume will be just like the last big seller – the new Fifty Shades of Grey, the new Twilight, the new whatever. Never mind that they may have turned these works down before they became popular. Do I want my art to be driven by someone else’s bottom line? I do not. And so I remain stubborn and insistent that my creative life is my own.

Posted in The Writer's Life | Tagged , | Leave a comment