Whose Story Is It Anyway?

[“Whose Story Is It Anyway?” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on July 9, 2020.]

At the end of the 1946 romantic comedy, Cluny Brown, Adam Belinski, animated by a flash of insight, tells Cluny, “I’m going to write a bestseller, a murder mystery.” Belinski and Cluny agree the victim must be a rich man because it’s pointless to murder a poor man, and Cluny asks, “Who killed him? Who did it?”

My first initial written in the bark

“For 365 pages, I will not know myself,” replies Belinski, “but when, on page 366, it finally comes out, will I be surprised and so will millions of others!”

The first time I heard Belinski tell Cluny he’d write a mystery without knowing who committed the murder until the last page, I laughed. Ridiculous, I thought. Of course, he’ll have to know who the murderer is when he starts writing his book.

But I wasn’t a writer then.

Before I started writing, I heard authors talk about their characters as if they had a say in the storyline. Interviews often went something like this:

Interviewer: Why does your character go to Oslo, connect with Norwegian relatives, and paint fjords instead of going to Paris to create haute couture and stroll along the Seine with a Parisian lover?

Author: Well, at first the character was going to Paris, taking the fashion world by storm, and meeting a soulmate, but when I tried to write it that way, the character steadfastly refused to get on a plane to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

I’d listen to authors talk about characters and wonder, Do authors actually talk to their characters? Do characters visit authors in a dream? Is this some type of mystical, mysterious, transcendental, existential enigma? Then I’d conclude, Characters might talk to real writers, but I’ll bet mine will never talk to me.

And then one did.

I was writing a story, and my character needed to do the right thing after doing the wrong thing. Our conversation went like this:

Me: Time to do the right thing.

My Refusing to Be Reformed Character (MRBRC): Nope, don’t want to.

Me: But your doing the right thing is the whole point of the story.

MRBRC: Tough cowhides. I see no point in it.

Me: Readers won’t like you if you don’t.

MRBRC: I don’t care. I’d much rather be memorable and get my way.

Me: Can’t you be memorable and do the right thing?

MRBRC: Seriously? How droll.

Me: But what about my story?

MRBRC: Excuse me? It’s my story. It’s about me, not you.

I gave up. My character did the wrong thing, and she wasn’t sorry. And to solidify her position, she mocked the other characters.

I finished the story and sent it to a local contest in northern Wisconsin. The story earned an honorable mention. The first judge wrote, “This story is professional. It can give the reader a look into the mind of an underprivileged child and how envy and poverty come together to affect behavior.”

The second judge wrote, “A vivid portrait of a girl who would rather steal than earn. Sadly, there are real people like that. I didn’t like her.” This judge said I developed the story well, but added that she hoped the girl didn’t grow up “nurturing her self-pity.”

Well, me too. I’ve hope for my character’s future, and even with her faults, I still like her. Would my story have placed first or second if the character had done the right thing? I don’t know, but I’ll never rewrite her storyline. In the end, I empathized with my character’s choice.

And I realized something. The first judge read my story as a commentary on poverty. The second judge talked about my character as if she were a real girl, who’d grow up to be an adult. My character, unlikeable but memorable, got under the second judge’s skin. My character’s defiance makes the story resonate more than her compliance would’ve. I can hear her gloat.

Since the debate with my I’m-going-to-do-the-wrong-thing-no-matter-what-you-say character, I’ve had other characters argue with me. I understand now what writers mean when they say characters speak to them, so if a character wants to discuss something with me, I listen.

I still laugh at the end of Cluny Brown but for a new reason—I get the inside joke. The script writers were poking fun at the writing process.

Fluffy Writing for Those Times I Need a Break (But Still Want to Write)

[“Fluffy Writing” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on March 26, 2021.]

Writing is fun and frustrating. The lists for what make it either fun or frustrating are almost as varied and numerous as the people who write. (I read a lot of essays written by writers about the ups and downs of writing.)

My writing buddies, Ziva and Cabela

Sometimes I wrestle with a short story or an essay for days or weeks (or months). I wrangle with voice, tense, point of view, structure, characters, dialogue, and a bunch of other writing concepts. Finally, when I feel I’ve pinned the piece to the mat, I set it aside for a while. At this point, I’m not ready for another match with a new story or essay idea that’s been patiently waiting on the sidelines.

I want to keep writing, but if I’ve struggled with a piece, I need a break. I need to watch a good movie, laugh with friends, binge watch British TV shows. And, I need to write fluffy! (Sometimes I even need to write fluffy during an epic clash with a story or an essay.)

I’ve developed some fluff strategies:

  • I write about humorous events. I’ve written about losing a belt and the odd way I found it, learning to use my new pressure cooker, my fear of reading at open mics, a takeout order gone awry, and a chaotic art project with my four grandkids. There’s often humor lurking beneath the mundane. I don’t worry if my writing is funny or not; I just enjoy writing about something that amused me.
  • I write outside my typical style. My writing tends to be unadorned. But sometimes I yearn to write something flowery, jacked up on purple prose (but hopefully, I draw the line at a pale shade of lilac). I splash on too many metaphors, adverbs, and adjectives, like cheap perfume. These pieces often sound old fashioned. In this vein, I wrote a flash essay about visiting Split Rock Lighthouse in the 1970s with my father and again in 2017 with my grandchildren. Editors keep declining it, but one of my readers said it’s one of his favorites. (His friend told me to ditch some of the adverbs and adjectives, so I cut one adjective.) I wrote an essay about my tulip buds being eaten by rabbits during the pandemic spring of 2020. And, I wrote an essay about trying to write and take care of four grandchildren thirty hours a week. Both essays are a lilac shade. But I like them because they capture how I felt.
  • I write about writing. I always have something to say about writing. I’ve covered writing titles, avoiding household chores so I can write, wondering if I’m a real writer, writer’s block during the pandemic, and a rebellious character in a story who refused to follow my plot. Right now, I’m writing this essay (and I have more rough drafts about writing saved in a file).
  • I ask myself what if questions. One of my relatives said of my dog, “Ziva is such a cat.” Her accurate assessment of my dog’s personality made me wonder, Could I write a story about a dog that behaves like a cat? It’s not a fine literary story or even a literary story or maybe even a story, but when I read it, it reminds me of my relative and my dog, both of whom I love. I wrote my only historical fiction story based on my great-grandfather’s parents by asking, What if a certain event hadn’t happened?
  • I wrote a spoof on romance stories. At least I think it’s more spoof than satire or parody. I don’t consider myself a writer of spoof, satire, or parody, but it’s fun to try. I smile more when I try to write humor. Smiling relieves tension, and that’s the point of my fluffy writing interludes.
  • I write for or about my grandchildren. I enjoy this for the same reason I like taking pictures of them, reading to them, or walking down the street with them. Or doing anything with them.
  • I write for my blog, which prefers light, fluffy pieces and always accepts my work. It’s nice to know I won’t be getting a rejection letter.

For me fluffy writing is like a good walk, a session of yoga, and a good night’s sleep. It gets my blood flowing, centers my being, and energizes me. It’s like watching episodes of a Keeping Up Appearances, a British sitcom, after watching the lives of characters unravel on Upstairs, Downstairs, a British drama. It’s like topping a healthy sweet potato casserole with large sugary marshmallows.

And now, fluff break is over. Time to wrestle with the next story idea that’s been waiting for its match.

Open Mic Time

[“Open Mic Time” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on January 12, 2021.]

Open mics are one place I always get more than I give. I listen to writers read their poems, stories, and essays. Some read quietly; some perform. I laugh, sigh, hold back tears, and sometimes shift in my seat with the rest of the audience. Open mics give writers a place to share their writing, to gauge an audience’s response to their work, and to collect inspiration.

Memorable events happen at open mics. A father attended his first open mic to listen to his adult daughters read. He composed a poem about lichens during the intermission and read it after the break, receiving a raucous round of applause. A woman read her poem, a humorously honest tirade about the struggles of single parenthood, and the audience cheered with laughter. An elderly man read his story about funeral homes providing hospice care to make the progression from dying to burial more efficient, and it was disturbingly funny.

I started writing at age sixty. I started going to open mics at age sixty. It’s a correlation based on causation. Take my word for it.

I went to open mics, but I wasn’t ever going to get up and read.

Then I won a writing contest. I wasn’t able to read my story with the other winners at the reception. But that felt like winning too because I don’t like public speaking. My voice wobbles. My knees shimmy. My hands vibrate. At the same time, I’m inside of myself, feeling my body prepare to flee the tigers prowling in the audience and having an out of body experience.

Someone told me, “You should enter your story in Writers Read.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

My brain twitched as it was explained. Writers submit short stories, essays and poems. Judges select pieces to be read by the writers in front of an audience while being recorded to be played on Wisconsin Public Radio. What I heard: Enter a story, if the judges select it, YOU HAVE TO STAND IN FRONT OF PEOPLE AND READ—OUT LOUD.

I remembered my eighth-grade acting debut as the Wizard of Oz. I was the man behind the curtain. My part was small, but I was going to be mighty. On the night of the performance, my bellowing Wizard voice, perfected in rehearsals, sounded like a whimpering munchkin. I’d come down with a bad case of stage fright. I gave up acting.

A couple of years before I started writing, I recalled listening to Shonda Rhimes, a television producer, talk about her book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person. Rhimes, an introvert, avoided media interviews because she had panic attacks. Then she decided for one year to say yes to things that scared her and write a book about it. So, I said yes and submitted my story to Writers Read.

My story was selected. Elation and apprehension. I’ve domesticated my stage fright over the years, but it’s an uneasy coexistence.

The program organizer advised participants to practice, READ AT OPEN MICS, and attend rehearsal the night before the performance. I envisioned tigers drinking beer and flexing their claws while I read my story at an open mic, but I was saying yes to all of it.

I practiced, reading to my iPhone recorder and listening to myself. I read at two open mics, working to make my story come alive. The spectators were friendly and supportive because many of them were also reading. Some readers were smooth and entertaining. Some were nervous and small voiced. But all of the readers gave me confidence that stage fright wouldn’t leap up and swallow me.

A week later when I read in front of the Writers Read audience, I didn’t sound like the mighty Wizard of Oz, but I didn’t sound like a whimpering munchkin either.

I decided to read again at another open mic, but two months later the pandemic shuttered community gatherings. Live open mics have been replaced with virtual ones. Recently, I read an essay at Superior Shares, a virtual gathering. For an hour I heard writers read their work to an audience. Some people came just to listen. When it was my turn, I was nervous, but I could tell other readers were nervous too. People shared joy, laughter, and heartache through the gift of their writing. The audience was supportive.

Even though virtual mics are live, the audience isn’t gathered in one place and the computer screen diminishes a sense of intimacy. But it’s not as intimidating to read to a group of small faces on a screen. Clapping and cheering are replaced by mime-like clapping and comments in the chat section. But the comments are a bonus, immediate feedback about something an audience member likes about a writer’s piece.

I’m hoping we can return to live open mics soon, but in the meantime, I’ll attend the virtual ones, sometimes to listen and sometimes to read. If you’ve never read at a live open mic because you see your own tigers in the audience, try reading at a virtual one. It’s a good way to ease into the world of public performance. And fortunately, the open mic host doesn’t send Zoom invites to the tigers.

Unlabeled

[“Unlabeled” first appeared on Brevity Blog on January 13, 2021.]

Ask me how I decide if I’m going to write about an event as fiction or nonfiction. I have a mental flowchart for that, and I can explain it clearly.

Ask me how I choose a point of view or tense. I can’t explain that as easily, but I sense when my choices aren’t working and try a different approach.

Ask me if I consider myself a writer, and the waters are murkier. It depends on the day. Did I write? Did I get a rejection? Did I submit a piece of writing? Did I walk away from the computer thinking I just spent hours writing crap or I’m excited to work on this tomorrow? Did I spend any time learning about the craft of writing? Did I spend time with other writers? When did I last get paid for something I wrote?

Most days I call myself a writer, but there are days I call myself a pretender.

Ask me if I consider writing a hobby, a job, or a profession, and the waters are an oil-slicked quagmire. Recently, as a panelist in a presentation about beginning a writing career after retirement, I was asked, “Is writing your hobby, job, or profession?” and I stumbled over my answer.

Sometimes writing looks like a hobby. I learn about it, spend money on it, try to perfect it, and want to put it on display when I’m finished. Occasionally, I earn money, which has never happened with my real hobbies. But most of my writing, like the crafts I create, is given away, published without pay. It’s satisfying to be chosen, but if my writing doesn’t pay for itself, maybe it’s a hobby. But I’ve never devoted this much time to a hobby.

So, maybe I should consider writing a job. Just a low-paying job, really low paying. If it’s a job, maybe I should figure out how to get myself a raise. I could write articles for magazines. I’ve tried. I start them, save them in a file, and abandon them, returning like a remorseful lover to a story or an essay that I jilted while in pursuit of a paycheck to give my writing legitimacy.

I could do corporate writing. A couple of years ago, I met a woman at a writers’ gathering who said she made good money at it. But I love writing fiction and essays. I told her about my first story, which had recently won a contest. (I was probably obnoxious, like a mother showing off pictures of her firstborn.) Others talked about memoirs, novels, or poetry they were writing. Somewhere among all the chatter about craft and books and resources, the woman looked at me and said, “I need to make time for my writing.” Her words and the look on her face have stayed with me. She was young and needed the income. I’m retired and free to explore my passions. So maybe it’s not a job.

I can’t call writing my profession. Yes, I belong to two writers’ associations. I subscribe to a writing magazine and read it cover to cover when it arrives. I subject my work to critique and critique the work of others. I enroll in classes. But I don’t treat writing as a business. I don’t need to pay the bills with it. I don’t have a website or a Facebook page. I’m not writing a book I need to market. Not yet anyway.

Maybe writing is my occupational hobby.

Yesterday, my nine-year-old granddaughter clarified the whole issue.

I had my four grandkids for the afternoon, and at three o’clock, I learned I needed to read at a virtual open mic. I was on the sub list and another reader couldn’t make it. I asked my grandkids to play quietly while I rehearsed.

My seven-year-old grandson asked why, and I told him I needed to practice.

But my granddaughter told him, “Because Nana’s a writer, and she’s a good writer.”

The grandkids cooperated, more or less. My granddaughter sat at the table drawing pictures. Two of my grandsons played in a bedroom and the toddler napped on the couch. I pulled out a 500-word essay that was published this summer. I knew I could read the essay in under five minutes. Halfway through I realized my granddaughter was standing behind me.

When I’d finished, she asked, “Is that a true story, Nana?”

“Yes,” I said. “Even the part about the gun in the kitchen cupboard, but no one got hurt.”

Still, I wondered if the piece was good enough to read at the open mic. I started looking for something else, verbalizing my angst as I did.

“Nana, you should read the story you just read. It’s really good.”

I took my granddaughter’s advice and read the essay.

She’s right. I’m a writer. A hobby, a job, a profession? For now, the label doesn’t matter. On this day, at this moment, I’m a writer.

Tales of Title Writing

[“Tales of Title Writing” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on November 15, 2020.]

Submission guideline: No one- or two-word titles.

First time I’ve seen that one. But I’m a rookie.

The editors desire longer titles to capture the attention of readers. The two stories I want to submit have one- and two-word titles.

I stare at the computer screen trying to think of longer titles. Zip. I close my eyes trying to conjure up longer titles. Zero. I reread my stories, hoping for inspiration. Zilch.

I don’t feel rebellious enough to ignore the guideline. I like my one-word title, but I agree my two-word title has to go. One of my writing friends who read the two-word title (along with its story) advised, “Titles are important. You might want to think about a new one.” Maybe my title composing needs fine-tuning.

Instead, I rationalize my lazy title-writing behavior. Does it really matter? Who remembers titles? We aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, so why judge a story or an essay by its title?

Then I remember my first encounter with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine shortly after its release. Someone pointed to it in a bookstore and said, “That’s a good book.”

“Oh,” I said. The title didn’t capture my imagination.

A couple of years later, my daughter-in-law said, “I think you’d like this book,” while handing me Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. We’ve similar tastes in books, so I read it and loved it. I’d judged a book by its title. It was time to work on my titles.

Research is a good way to avoid writing, revising, cleaning, so I start with research.

I learn titles can’t be copyrighted. Nice to know. Still, I decide against recycling titles by literary giants or literary middleweights or any other writer. But what about a quote from Shakespeare? His works are in the public domain. I search Shakespeare+quotes+youth+death. I find a five-word quote and pare it down to four words, change one word and use a synonym for another word to best fit my story. Inspired by The Bard, I’ve doubled the length of my two-word title, and my writing friend says, “The new title ties in better with your story.”

I’m not stoked about changing my one-word title, but I’m game for more research.

I pull an American short story anthology and a recent literary journal off my bookshelf. The two books contain a total of sixty-three short stories and creative nonfiction narratives. Twenty-one of them have one- and two-word titles. Thirty-three percent. Captivating or not, short titles exist. I keep my one-word title.

I don’t submit either title to the no-one-or-two-word-titles publication. Self-reflection about this behavior is another essay.

***

“About the title,” a friend starts, “wait—let me finish.”

He’s been teaching writing so long he recognizes the look flashing across my face. At the same time, I know that look is on my face. I’m already taking a deep breath and reminding myself about feedback rules: Listen. Don’t defend. Don’t argue.

We’ve met for coffee, but first he’s giving me feedback on a flash essay. The essay is 493 words. The title is twelve words.

“Normally,” my friend says, “lengthy titles are discouraged.”

I didn’t come across a too-long rule in my research, but I know a twelve-word title isn’t the norm. I’d written two titles and torn between them, I weaved them together.

“But,” he says, “this title works. It mirrors the tone of the essay and sets up the irony revealed at the end.”

Bingo. He understands. Even if he hadn’t, I’d have kept the title. Sometimes a writer has to know when to disregard feedback. But I entertain the idea both of us might be wrong.

The twelve-word title is accepted for publication in a yearly collection of short stories and creative nonfiction.

***

During my research, I find some practical advice for title writing: Engage in a mindless task, think about titles, make a list, then ask your readers which title they like.

Having a story in need of a title, I begin cleaning—my mindless task of choice. (Cleaning and writing have a symbiotic relationship in my world. I take turns doing one to avoid the other.)

After an hour, I’ve five possible titles. I send the story and titles to five different readers, asking them to vote. The first four readers each select a different title. The fifth reader votes for a previously selected title. Without a definitive outcome, I pick the title I like and enter the story in a contest.

Months later I learn my title placed second in the fiction category.

***

I finish my third revision of a flash essay, which has been declined twice. Something in the essay speaks to me, but something’s been missing. Now, I feel the essay says what I want it to say. Out it goes to readers. One reader writes, “powerful ending.” Perhaps I’ve nailed the meaning I wish to convey.

But she began with, “The title is too philosophical.” Yep, she’s right because the essay is about my father, who was a difficult man, and philosophical is where I’m at.

Another reader writes, “This title is perfect.”

I’m not changing the title, so I embrace the second opinion.

I spend the afternoon submitting the title to publications featuring flash essays. Maybe this time.

***

Epilogue

Writing is tough, but titles aren’t an easy chew either. I write short titles and long titles. I write titles I love and titles I tolerate. Feedback is contradictory.

This essay is on its third title.

And the job I’d least like to have? Writing titles or captions.

Writing (or Not Writing) and Daycare for Grandkids

[“Writing (or Not Writing) and Daycare for Grandkids” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on September 8, 2020.]

The synapses in my brain zing snarky impulses from neuron to neuron, causing my mind to fire on all cylinders with crankiness and snarl, feed me serotonin.

I have to write because that’s what the old gray mass wants. At this point, my brain is past accepting substitutes—walking, chocolate, reading, or cleaning won’t short-circuit the cranky electrical impulses as my brain begs, write, you know you want to; write, you know you need to; just bloody hell write.

***

I’m retired and days should be my own, but my grandkids need daycare, and being the only available option, I’ve been babysitting now for two-and-a-half months.

Most weekdays my four grandkids fill the house with the discordant sound of a young orchestra struggling to play on key and in time. I love them, but by the end of the day, their continuous, overlapping voices and sounds of play erode my energy, leaving my mind worn down like a piece of driftwood partly buried in sand.

Writing saves me from feeling like a clunker that’s been dropped into a car crusher, being pushed into itself on all sides. It’s been days since I’ve attempted any writing, and the front and rear bumpers of my soul are almost rubbing together.

Each morning I’ve grand plans to write after my grandkids go home. But after they leave, I descend into a stuffed chair, stretch my legs over its ottoman, and muster up what I need to get through the few hours I’ve left before going to bed. Writing rarely makes the cut.

My weekends are grandchild-free, but I’m spending them working on a sizeable editing job for a client. The work is stimulating, and the client’s writing is enjoyable, but it’s not the same as doing my own writing.

Because I’ve the reserves for escapism but not the stamina to write, I hide from writing, pretending I’m being productive by reading a novel for my book club, embroidering dishtowels for friends, and watching British police dramas with tortured detectives, hence phrases like bloody hell slinking into my speech. (In one police drama, the storyline featured a detective winning third place in a prestigious writing contest. It was the character’s last episode, and with no explanation for his exit, I’m assuming he left the force to pursue a rewarding writing career. I decided the show was mocking me. But I still watch it.)

***

Today, mercifully, my 22-month-old grandson falls asleep on the daily car ride my grandkids and I take after lunch. I carry him into the house and place him on the couch. He curls up like an armadillo and slips back into a deep slumber. If he follows his routine, he’ll sleep about two hours. His older siblings migrate to the rec room to play with a marble run and building blocks. An enticing silence replaces the din of chatter, constant questions, and chirps of “Nana.”

I brush aside plans to catch up on housework and slip into my writing hole. I ease in by organizing a few items on my desk. Next, I slide a little deeper by doing some research for an article I’m writing. Finally, I burrow in and start writing this essay about how hard it is to write after caring for grandkids all day.

***

A friend of mine often tells me I’m doing an important job (the babysitting not the writing). I agree with her that caring for children is important, but I don’t say that for me, it’s not enough.

Writing isn’t my hobby, but it’s not my job either. I started writing after I retired, and I grapple with its place in my life, but if I ignore writing, it picks and prods at me. If I don’t write, writing finds me, invading my thoughts, diverting them from the world around me. I start composing in my head and later find I’ve driven to the end of my day, but don’t remember the scenery along the way.

***

After more than two hours at my desk, except for quick breaks to check on my grandkids, my brain is swimming in a pool of serotonin. So, when my sleeping grandson awakes calling, “Nana,” I know I can handle whatever he tosses at me for the afternoon. We meet halfway between the living room and family room. He reaches up for me and I reach down for him, scooping him up in a big hug.

At six o’clock my son picks up his children, and I write for another half-hour, but I’m tired because it’s been a ten-hour day. I take a break to eat, but I don’t want to leave my writing world, so when I join my husband in the family room where he’s watching TV, I read a book about writing essays. The book, a bit academic, isn’t what I thought it would be, but the writer’s prose is wonderful and I find myself lulled by the rhythm of his sentences, enjoying his contemplations about essays. I’ve entered a Zen-like calm. It’s the best I’ve felt in days.

Even if it’s just in snippets of time, I resolve to write more, to read more about the craft of writing, and to sign up for writing classes. If I don’t, my brain will hunt me down, nip at my heels, and bite me in the behind. And, having started writing after retirement, behind is what I feel. At sixty-one, I don’t see unending days and years stretching ahead of me, like I did when I was twenty and thirty. It’s harder to say, I’ll write when life settles down, because that doesn’t happen. Life pushes in, but with keyboard at fingertips, I need to push back.

Old Love Inspires Me to Write Again

[When COVID-19 caused dangerous spikes and lockdowns in April and May, I became too anxious to write. I’d only been writing over a year, and this was my first serious bout with writer’s block. But I needed a creative outlet, so I turned to a cherished hobby. “Old Love Inspires Me to Write Again” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on June 17, 2020.]

COVID-19. Schools are closed; nonessential businesses are closed. But I worry about my husband, an essential worker, getting sick. I fret about my 79-year-old mother living alone in Michigan. I miss my children and grandchildren. I think about death.

And, I can’t write.

Fellow writers describe their new writing routines. Breathlessly, like excited young lovers, they talk about the hours they spend writing. I flutter between cleaning, cooking, walking dogs, and checking email. I’m not admitting I can’t write. Scariest thought racing through my head: Do I ever want to write again?

A writer writes, even in tough times. I wonder, Am I a real writer? I have ideas, but my concentration has jilted me. Then I read an essay by another writer who says that it’s okay to not write at this time. Validation. Perhaps I need a break.

I turn to an old love—quilting.

A stack of my son’s hockey T-shirts, which I’d cut and ironed to fusible interfacing months ago, squat on the dining room table.

I look at the T-shirt blocks and freeze. I’ve no pattern, and it takes precise measuring to create one. The blocks taunt me, much like my writing when I’m away from my desk. At this point, both are unrequited lovers.

Just start the quilt. Or write. Make a choice.

I begin surrounding each block with a black border, difficult because each block is a different size. I abandon the quilt and mop the kitchen floor.

Stop it. Start sewing. Make a mistake? Use a seam ripper—the delete button of sewing.

I return to sewing borders around each block until I come to the black T-shirt. Dilemma. A black border along the black T-shirt lacks contrast. I delve into my fabric stash. I find a gray print with a hint of pattern, which compliments the black T-shirt. Audition time. I place the black T-shirt on the gray fabric and return it to the other blocks. It screams, “Look at me!”

Cabela, our standard poodle, helps with the layout.

Egad, it’s a little darling. I kill it by replacing the gray border with the same black border I used on the other blocks. It no longer causes a scene and it works. Harmony returns to the quilt. Yes, the little darling had to go.

I arrange blocks on the floor. Blocks are sentences. Rows are paragraphs.I move blocks around. I exchange one row with another row. Reordering my “sentences” and “paragraphs” until the quilt reveals its best version.

I stitch the blocks together in vertical rows. Time to add narrow strips of bold color between each row. I select fabrics of blue, green, and red to enhance the bright colors in the final border. But the quilt is already bigger than I expected. I could cut a row, but each row tells a story about my son’s hockey days as a player. I study the T-shirt blocks on the floor. They float on the black background. Separating each row with a color would be superfluous: “words” that don’t belong. I stitch the rows together without colored strips. My son’s quilt is ready to go to the machine quilter.

The finished quilt top before it went to the machine quilter, who quilted it with a pattern of hockey sticks and pucks. My son now has the quilt to keep him warm this winter.

I escaped the pressure to write by quilting. My hunger for creativity was satisfied, and my pursuit of serenity was realized. But writing followed me throughout the composing and editing my son’s quilt. As I pieced the quilt, I wrote the rough draft of this essay, first in my head then at my desk. Quilting calmed me and gave me space to think about writing. It carried me back to my desk.

I’m writing again. But when I become too antsy, I throw myself into the arms of another quilting project.

Writing’s Daily Worries

[“Writing’s Daily Worries” appeared on Brevity Blog on December 18, 2019, and on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on January 9, 2020. It was published in the anthology Many Waters: St. Croix Writers Stories and Poems in 2020.]

Thanks to writing, my worries have shifted. (So has my ability to make sure I put the milk in the refrigerator instead of the cupboard, but that’s another blog.)

I take a break from writing to get some water. In the kitchen I discover dishes are piling up and all the cereal bowls are dirty. But I worry about a story I want to submit to a contest, so I go back to my desk. I reread the story and forget to start the dishwasher. In the morning I’m handwashing cereal bowls.

“The truck needs an oil change,” my husband says.

“I’ll call,” I say, as I worry if a clause at the end of a sentence is nonessential or essential—to comma or not to comma. I don’t seem to have an ear for distinguishing between nonessential and essential clauses at the end of sentences.

Before I started writing, I worried about what to cook for supper. These days supper is a fleeting thought and easily evicted from my mind while I hunt for publications to submit a story. I play matchmaker. Is my story like their stories? Might it be considered even if it’s a little different? Or will some editor ask everyone in earshot, “Did she even read our journal?” My story doesn’t seem to fit. I read it again and wonder, Will I ever find it a date?

When my husband gets home, I’m reminded about supper. But it’s always another five minutes before he comes up from the basement. I keep looking at publications. When he gets upstairs, supper becomes a multiple-choice question: A) heat up leftovers, B) cook a frozen pizza, or C) go out for dinner.

Up from the basement, my husband asks, “Did you call the mechanic?”

“I forgot,” I say.

But I did rewrite the sentence I was fretting about. It lost its rhythm, so I changed it back. I played with the comma again. I put the comma in and read; I took the comma out and read. I raised my hands to the ceiling, threw back my head, and yelled. I thought about meditation, but I’d only think about commas. And comma meditation is an oxymoron. So, when he asks about the mechanic, I’m still worrying: nonessential or essential?

The real fear? I’ll make the wrong choice. An editor will read my story and notice a missing comma, in what she obviously knows is a nonessential clause. She’ll ask everyone in earshot, “How can this person call herself a writer?” It’s of no comfort that Oscar Wilde spent a whole day wrestling with one comma.

I give the comma a break and call the mechanic. If I wait until tomorrow, I might be prewriting a story in my head, and unless the story is about a mechanic . . .

After supper I go outside to pick up dog poop. I hardly notice the robust weeds in my gardens. Before I started writing, they’d registered in my brain like a 6-point earthquake. Embarrassment would lead me to pull the largest ones. But I’m looking for dog poop and trying to decide between two different endings for a short story that I’ve been working on for months. I don’t have any leftover brain capacity to feel shame about rogue weeds. Maybe I should abandon the story. But it taunts me when I ignore it, so I keep rekindling our relationship. I cut the story more slack than I’d give a person who gave me that much grief.

Maybe it would be easier to quit writing, but then I’d have to go back to my old worries.