Room to Write

[This essay was published on Brevity Blog, June 6, 2022.]

A couple of weeks ago, within twenty-four hours, both Stephen King and my mom told me I needed an office for writing. I decided if Mom and Mr. King agreed about something, I needed to listen.

My office space along the wall

Of course, Mr. King was talking to me from the pages of his book On Writing. He advised me (okay, he was talking to all writers) to have a space of my own with a door that closes. He wrote Carrie and Salem’s Lot in the laundry room of a trailer, but there was a door that closed. He never mentions if he ever threw a load of dirty clothes in the washer. I would have washed and dried clothes and written between the cycles.

Then Mom called. I felt too blue to just put a smile in my voice and chitchat about weather and family and the latest movie she had seen. Spurred on by Mr. King urging me to have an office with a door and frustrated by the traffic patterns in my writing space, I was weepy about not having a quiet place of my own to write.

My office space in the living room had worked if I was home alone, but my amygdala had begun to associate it with interruption and chaos. The living room is a thoroughfare from one side of the house to the other. When my husband is home, he likes to stop off and chat as he motors through. My grandkids also play in the living room three days a week. They inhabit the space with toys and voices and nonstop movement. While playing, they chatter with delight and argue with rancor, all of it mall-level noise. So, it didn’t matter if my husband and grandkids weren’t in the house when I tried to write because my brain would anticipate interruption and commotion anyway, leaving me frazzled. Logically, I understood why I was antsy, but it’s not easy to calm down a fired-up amygdala.

Mom suggested I turn the spare bedroom, tucked at the front side of the house, into an office with a pullout couch. “You can take a nap on the couch when you’re tired, and you can use it as a bed when the grandkids sleep over.” I wondered what Mr. King would say about napping in one’s writing office.

Sloth on a Shelf: I write faster than he does!

I rejected the pullout couch solution, but Mr. King’s and Mom’s advice started me thinking. Over the next several days, I wandered in and out of my two spare bedrooms with a tape measure, sizing up the dimensions of the rooms and the furniture, arriving at a solution. I swapped a desk and dresser and bought a bookcase. For the first few days, I would wander into my new space and stare at it with wonder and love, the way I looked at my children when they were newborns.

It’s not a whole office, but I like it that way. It’s a little cramped, but when I sit at my desk, it feels like a hug, and in a pinch, the bed right behind me serves as a table. Mr. King says a writing office should probably be humble, so my space measures up. I can shut the door, so I’m not interrupted. And when the grandkids visit, they aren’t allowed to play in my room.

My amygdala does yoga. I breathe and write.

Reasons to Attend an Author’s Book Chat (Even If You Don’t Write Books)

My terminal to the World

If you’re writing a book, and even if you’re not, you should listen to authors talk about their books. I’m not writing a book, at least not yet, and maybe never. But when the COVID lockdowns started, I discovered I liked attending virtual author chats and book launches. Over the last two years, I’ve listened to over twenty authors discuss their books, and I’ve noticed some reoccurring themes and ideas.

Writing is Tough

All writers have moments of doubt. One author almost gave up but decided the only way she could fail was to not finish her novel. Others talked about a manuscript they considered a learning experience then buried it in a drawer. Some took a break from a book they were writing before finishing it. All of them said, “Just keep writing.”

When the pandemic lockdowns started, many writers talked about feeling too anxious to write. When I heard a published author admit this, I realized my anxiousness and inability to sit at my desk and write was normal. I stopped thinking something was wrong with me. Another author found it difficult to write because she wasn’t out in the world, watching and listening to people, gathering material to take back to her desk. I could relate. I never appreciated how much inspiration I brought home, until I didn’t leave home.

When a member of the audience thought things must have gotten easier after a writer published a book, the author said, each book was like starting over and her second book was tougher to write. Hot dog! I write short stories and essays, and I find the same to be true. If published writers flounder occasionally, why wouldn’t I struggle at times?

Writing Takes Work

But take chances. Experiment. Play. Listen to your characters. If something doesn’t work, revise.

Read, read, and reread. Most authors talked about the importance of reading books from the genre they write in. And rereading those books helped them analyze how they were put together.

Research is important, even when writing novels or memoirs. One historical nonfiction writer spent almost a month living on a sixty-foot sailboat in the Arctic in order to research the setting for her book. It gave her confidence to write her book because she had knowledge and experience.

Once the manuscript is done, the revising and editing starts. Get feedback from writers and beta readers. Be open to suggestions, but know when to trust your work. Many authors said revising was as much or more work than writing the book.

Getting Published

Work on building a writing resume by submitting short pieces of writing. Polish them until they’re shiny, beautiful baubles. And submit! One author submitted a story to a university journal, and they loved it so much they asked her if she had more stories like it. She did, and they published a book of her short stories. (This makes me think about Lana Turner being discovered while drinking a soda at a malt shop.)

Hire a good line editor before you submit to agents or publishers. Make sure the manuscript is as good and as error free as it can be. Learn how to write a query letter. Some authors shared helpful resources.

Potential agents and publishers want authors to have a social media presence and a website, even if it’s simple. One author attended an online pitch event on Twitter with agents. A publisher liked her pitch, asked to see her manuscript, then published her book.

Fight for your work. Sometimes an editor is right. One author talked about cutting a chapter from her memoir. Even though she wanted to keep it, she understood the editor’s point. Other times the author is right. Another author fought to keep the opening dream scene in her book, and the editor eventually agreed.

Understand a contract before signing it. Think about hiring an attorney who specializes in publishing contracts. One author warned, “Don’t let excitement about a contract cloud your judgement.”

So, Sign Up for an Author’s Book Chat

You’ll learn what worked and didn’t work for authors, and some of that wisdom will be useful to you. When writers talk about their struggles, it’ll give you perspective about your struggles. As they celebrate their newly published books, you’ll believe that someday you’ll celebrate yours. Finally, almost every author chat and book launch that I’ve attended had a Q & A, and the author answered questions about his or her journey to publication. But best of all, for an hour or two, you’ll be part of a community of people who love to write.

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[Looking for a Book Chat? Lake Superior Writers hosts a series called Book Club for Writers, which is free and open to members and nonmembers. Our next author will be Brian Malloy who will talk about his book The Year of Ice on March 29, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. For more information: Book Club for Writers.]

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Yesterday, a conversation with writers reminded me of the first time I had a character in a story who wouldn’t cooperate with my plot. I wrote this blog after that experience.

Writing Near the Lake

[“Whose Story Is It Anyway?” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blogon 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…

View original post 589 more words

Writing’s Daily Worries

Originally posted on October 9, 2020

Writing Near the Lake

[“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 Poemsin 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…

View original post 494 more words

I’m Thinking

The Thinker

“Nana, be careful. You almost stepped on me,” Charlie, my three-year-old grandson, said.

“I’m trying not to, but you’re walking willy-nilly around the kitchen while I’m cooking breakfast.”

“No, I’m not,” he said. “I’m thinking.”

I stopped to watch as he paced the length of the kitchen and back. The top half of his little body leaned forward, his eyes focused on the floor, and his hands pushed against the sides of his hips. Damn. He was indeed thinking. I didn’t ask him for his thoughts. He kept pacing, and I kept making breakfast.

The next day we were back in the kitchen. I walked past Charlie and he started to twirl around. I did that as a child, spinning and spinning until I could barely stand. During one of his rotations, he smacked his hand on the chair.

“Watch where you’re going,” he said, rubbing his hand.

My three-year-old grandson often mimics phrases he has picked up from adults or his older siblings. I love it when he quips, “That’s not how my day goes” after I ask him a question or make a request. At his age it’s funny, but in a few years, he’ll be accused of being a smart aleck when he imitates adults.

“I didn’t bump your hand. You hit it on the chair while you were spinning around.”

“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I was thinking.”

I wanted to tell him he needs to pay attention while he’s thinking. I didn’t because I would be standing on the San Andreas Fault as I said it. This past week I’ve come close to putting peanut butter in the fridge, dirty dishtowels in the recycling bin, and regular milk in my other grandson’s cereal. He’s lactose intolerant. If someone had asked me “What ARE you doing?”  My only defense would’ve been—“I’m thinking!”

My problem? I spend a lot of time thinking about writing while I’m doing mundane activities. It’s worse when I’m working on a specific story or essay. I’m surprised that the kitchen scissors don’t end up in the toothbrush holder and my toothbrush doesn’t end up in the junk drawer.

Cabela has many talents, but she’s not good at babysitting me.

At the end of January, I had a seismic-thinking episode. I was sitting at my computer writing a story but had to stop because Cabela, my senior dog, needed to see the vet for a shot. It was a subzero day with lots of windchill, so I went outside, unplugged the extension cord from the outside outlet, then started the van. Because it’s tough to unplug the cord from the tank heater cord, I decided I’d do that just before I left.

Five minutes later I was ready to go. I noted the extension cord was still plugged into the tank heater. I planned to unplug it, but first I loaded both dogs in the van and placed my purse on the front seat. Then I got in the driver’s seat and drove off. I was writing in my head. My hands might have left the keyboard, but my brain was still at the computer.

Cabela was a good patient. We were soon back home, and I was writing again. A few hours later, I took out the garbage and noticed only one cord on the driveway. Someone had pilfered one of our extension cords. But that was ridiculous, why not take both of them. Maybe an unselfish thief? Couldn’t be. Perhaps my husband had driven off with the cord plugged into his tank heater. I doubted it. He’s not a writer, so he’s never thinking about a story. I must have driven off with the missing cord hanging from my van. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t remember having unplugged it from the tank heater. The more I thought about it, the more I knew it was my mistake.

My husband was going to think I was crazy. He was going to ask, “How can you not unplug the extension cord?” It would be a rhetorical question because he knows I’m capable of such things. He was going to be upset about his missing extension cord. But he was going to be more freaked out about me being okay. I was freaked out about being okay—I’m at that age.

My only excuse would’ve been “I was thinking.” His retort would’ve been “Yeah, but not about what you were doing.”

It had been hours since I’d been to the vets. But I got in the van and went to look for the cord. I drove less than eighty feet. Curled up at the corner of our lot, where the street intersects with the avenue, was our yellow extension cord sunning itself.

I stopped the van and retrieved it. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. I gave thanks for the kind person who had picked up the cord, coiled it, and set it on the corner. Then I hoped it wasn’t one of our neighbors who would ask my husband, “Was that your extension cord in the road the other day?”

I wasn’t going to tell my husband. But I called a friend and confessed because I needed to tell someone.

To myself I vowed to always unplug both ends of the extension cord before starting the van. Promising myself to stop composing stories in my head while doing routine stuff would be futile.

No one has mentioned the cord to me or my husband. I haven’t mentioned it to my husband, and he doesn’t read my blog. And if he somehow gets wind of this story, I’m going to say, “I was thinking. Charlie gets it.”

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.