Write through the possibilities

Well I am doing Nanowrimo again, and I have hit that preverbal two week wall. I tend to be a pantser. (In case you don’t know what that means, I will explain. Common lore amongst nanowrimo participants dictates that there are two, or maybe three, types of writers. There is the plotter, who plots out her novel before writing it, with outlines and highlighters and notecards. There is the pantser, who writes her novel in a “flying by the seat of her pants” kind of fashion, learning the narrative as she goes. And then there is the plantser, who is a combination of the two. But since probably most of us are plantsers to a certain degree, that last category seems like a bit of a cheat, at least to me. I’m a plantser. But if you strip my writing style to its barest of bones, I’m a pantser. No matter how badly my autocorrect wants me to be a panther.)

Anyway, back to that wall. Yesterday found me pressed up against it hard. Yesterday for me was the day I suddenly decided I didn’t know anything about writing, and instead of putting words on the page, I was reading books about inciting incidents and novels which were far better than any bit of dribble I could ever write. It got so bad that I was looking up pajama pants on ebay.

Yesterday I wrote all of 300 words, even though I was at my computer most of the day. Then before bed I started writing a list of what ifs. And this morning, looking at my list, I figured out a way to break through this first wall.

WRITE THROUGH THE POSSIBILITIES. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard people talking about that before, but I never quite understood what it meant. Kind of like when my grad school teacher told me to go deeper with my writing. Yes! I wanted to go deeper! I wanted to really get in there and start sucking on that marrow and mine those trenches, only, How? (I still don’t have the answer to that one. If you do, please feel free to share in the comments.)

But how do you write through the possibilities?
Here is one way.
Make a list of what-ifs. They can be outlandish as hell. What if the world flips on its side and everyone has to learn to walk sideways and also backwards. What if so and so character joins a cult, or gets stuck in an elevator, or the house burns down. It doesn’t matter if, due to the nature of your novel, the What If is unlikely ever to occur. I’ll give you an example. You think to write: What if Megan’s horse asks her what she’s making for dinner? No no, you might say. In this world I have built, animals don’t talk. It doesn’t matter. Write it down.

Then go through the list and write as if. If you have written, “What if my main character dies?” write it. What happens? How did she die? How do your other characters move around this? Who mourns? Who is secretly relieved? What does her frenemy wear to the funeral? Her mother? What does her horse have to say about it? (jk)

Maybe you can’t use any of this. Maybe it throws everything off. That’s okay. You aren’t writing a final draft. Write through it, and when you are done, move on to the next What If on your list.

If nothing you write from this list feels right, you can always make another list. In the meantime, none of this is wasted. In writing though the possibilities, you have gotten to know your book a little better. You have mined the trenches. And if nothing else, hey, you have increased your wordcount.

And maybe, just maybe, you have found the What If that blows a hole through that wall and sends you propelling headfirst into week three.


Atlas of an Uncharted Woman


Cranial Zone
Symptoms: Phantom headaches
Cause: unknown, pain began immediately following tubal ligation
(see Childbearing Zone)
Diagnosis: NDPH (new daily persistent headaches, a blanket diagnosis meaning chronic daily headaches of unknown origins)
Attempted treatments: (including but not limited to: Acupuncture, Allergy testing and immunotherapy, Amber jewelry, Bowen, Cardio, Chiropractic, Cranial Sacral, Elimination diets, Eye doctor, Flower essences, Herbs, Massage, Medical intuitive, Meds, Medical Marijuana, Meditation, Neurology, Shaman, Tinctures, Yoga
Duration: Upwards of six years.


Mental Region:
(Why is the chin called the mental region? This is beyond the scale of author’s research.)
Symptoms: initial pain, supposed but not remembered
Terrain: white scar tissue, thin, thread-like
Cause: 5 yr old subject climbing stairs at mall, looking back at ice cream shop, trauma to mental region by sharp curve of stair
Treatment: Stitches (6?), ice cream, telling of story (1001 Dalmatians) by Mom.

Mountainous Zone
Diagnosis: too big
Treatment: Breast Reduction
Terrain: Mostly smoothed out with some thin white scarring
Ability to nurse children: V good
Ability to run, ride bikes, dance, not slump, not wear bras only found at Fredericks of Hollywood: excellent.

Chest Region (Upper East Side) (left)
Diagnosis: Collapsed lung
Cause: Driver side of car T-boned by woman running red light
Treatment : Insertion of chest tube
Follow-up: removal of chest tube
Terrain: Squishy, flabby bit of skin size of coin slot

Abdominal Zone
Diagnosis: Burst appendix
Cause: No one knows and perhaps never will
Treatment: Laparoscopic appendectomy
Coincidence: David Letterman’s appendix bursts nearly simultaneously (exaggeration: possibly slight but also possibly significant.)
Terrain: very pale scar, 2”

Childbearing Zone
(Birth Canal)
Diagnosis: Tearing of rectovaginal septum (lining between rectal and vaginal cavities)
Cause: Soon-to-be-born child supporting her black brothers and sisters in a salute
Treatment: Episiotomy, followed by stitches to put rectovaginal septum back together again
Drugs: None.
Terrain: Unknown. Can’t see it. Probably gruesome and Frankenstein-ish

A crepe paper plum

I am starting to go through some of my old notebooks and I came upon this little jewel from 2004. I think I was reading PoemCrazy by Susan Wooldridge, and I’m pretty sure these were her questions I was answering.

Who were you in my dream

I was the girl in Balenciaga

What did you hear

I heard the click of white heels on linoleum

What were you wearing

A cape and blue stockings

What were you eating

A crepe paper plum

What did you want

I wanted a pair of finger symbols shaped like fish

Why were you hiding

There were ticks in the grass

Who was with you

The moon and my cape

Where were you going

To the party, if I could make it without tearing my dress


I love this exercise because after you’ve answered the questions, you can take them away and string your answers together to form a poem, or at least the first draft of a poem. Poemcrazy is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it.

Stargazing with Liam


It’s the little things, as they say.
This month my son has an ongoing homework assignment to track the stars. He has a little notebook which he carries with him to the park near our house. He brings along a pencil, stares for a bit at the heavens, marks things into his book, then returns home to add details with colored pencils.
I knew about this but wouldn’t have really been part of it if my husband hadn’t been out of town last week. Usually, it is my husband who goes with him. I’ve been totally fine with that, especially since star gazing sometimes means getting up at five am. But last week my husband was out of town and so I accompanied Liam to the park three different times within a twelve hour span.
It was unseasonably cold in Sacramento. We went out the first time and saw the rising stars in the east. Lit up Christmas trees could be seen through neighbors’ windows; the air smelled of people celebrating a new California law. A man walked by with his dog. The next time it was colder. I wore my puffy jacket and Ugg boots, and our breath came out like smoke. The stars had risen a bit higher in the sky. Liam pointed out The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia and the Milky Way. I told him I was grateful to be out with him on a cold December night, staring at the sky. “Everyone should stare at the sky,” he said. In the morning the alarm woke us. We bundled up and stumbled sleep-drunk into the street. Now everything was blanketed in frost. Our breaths seemed to crystalize. I know someone in Chicago or Detroit would laugh at me, but the cold went straight through the puffy jacket I bought years ago in Ireland, and I shivered maniacally. We laughed about my uncontrollable shivering. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he said, and I protested, happy. This was such a gift. These are the things our ancestors remembered were important. It made me grateful too. It was one thing to be shivering in the park, knowing that in ten minutes I would be back inside my warm house. I know there are those who do not have such a luxury, and my heart breaks. I think I would want to die. I don’t know what to do with these insights, I just know that I am grateful to that snowflake of a night.

On the Road


North on 5, once again. We have made this trip so many times. All the visits to Chico, all the years of meeting Tyler’s mother at Orv’s outside of Williams, where the line for the restroom was always five deep. Stops for gas in Dunnigan, burritos in Arbuckle. None of this new. Not the California people envision. No one has ever received a postcard from Zamora, California, and thought, “Man what would I give to live there.”
Once you get past Redding the landscape changes. This is the real Northern California—rain and fog, pine trees on the mountains shrouded in mist. Wet streets and tiny waterfalls in the gullies cut into the hills. Crows everywhere.
We pass The Basshole in Lakeshore, where I drank beers with friends the year I was 21.
Farther North: cars kicking up streams of water from the rain wet asphalt as we climb into the mist. Mossballs in the trees, a dead buck on the side of the road. The radio playing “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone” which seems wildly inappropriate. Snow in the hills, a wet black bag like a mangled crow against a chain link fence.
We are going to a yurt which I booked on Airbnb. The yurt is in the town of Weed, just in the shadow of Mt. Shasta. My husband has climbed the mountain 13 times and now he and my son have a plan to climb it again in May. My husband, who is deeply offended by climbers who talk about “Bagging that mountain” or “Making mother nature my bitch.” To him this is the worst kind of sacrilege.
If you look on Airbnb you’ll find this yurt and you can stay there. The owner made us feel so welcome and we were beyond comfortable. My son and I hiked and my husband and I hiked and the dog and I hiked and the DVD player was broken which seemed like the greatest blessing because for two nights we had nothing to do but sit by the fire and play board games in this warm and cozy yurt. During the day there was nothing to do but hike and write and drink tea and make fires in the fireplace. Sometimes it would rain and that was my favorite. The rest of my family drove to Bunny Flat but I was unwilling to get back into the car so instead I hiked and built a fire.
We stopped the next night in Chico, where my husband and I met. In one sense, you could say we met in Mexico or on the way to Mexico and in another you could say we met in Chico and either would be correct. We were both students at the college and members of the outdoors club called Adventure Outings, and when we met it was because we had both signed up for a three week camping trip through Baja. Anyway, now we were back in Chico and it was November and the trees were yellow and red. Shane rested while I took the kids to The Bear for lunch. We went to the Yoyo museum in the back of Bird in Hand and my son bought a yoyo and neon strings. We went to The Bookstore which is my favorite bookstore in California, at least, and we walked to the creek on campus where, one night, I’d sat with a friend (probably drinking contraband beer) when a little river otter or something rose from the water and walked onto the bank just beside us before disappearing into the water again.
Evening was TV in a hotel room.
This morning I received bad news from my mom. I called her from the road, because she had sent a text asking me to phone her. My mom was crying and I sat in something like shock for the rest of the drive. I am still waiting for the tears to come. But I am grateful for the wide open spaces that planted themselves in my body while on the road the last couple of days. There is room now for this grief. There is room again for whatever happens next.


A dark day. The sun has risen and animals are flittering about. I have never so badly wanted to be a dog, or a cat, or a cricket. Unaffected. This morning I, along with countless other parents, had to wake up and tell my child that the thing I swore would not happen, could not happen, happened.

My son is white, and probably straight, and he is terrified. I can’t even imagine how difficult this conversation was for so many of my friends. My son is worried that his friends will be deported. He is worried about what this means for his future. He has watched the debates, and while he doesn’t understand some of it, he knows what Trump has, to this point, represented. Hatred. Racism. Misogyny. Homophobia. Bullying.

It’s confusing. In fairy tales, terrible things happen, terrible people make terrible decisions, but in the end, love trumps hate.

In kid movies, there is so often a bully. Some kid spewing his hate and terrorizing the neighborhood. The hero finally stands up to the bully, and the bully sulks away, tail between his legs. Because love trumps hate.

On the playground, there are real bullies. My son has stood up to them. He has stood up for the children who are different from him. He has a good heart. He knows he is doing a good thing. So this election, it just doesn’t follow the simple rule of cause and effect. Bullies don’t win. Love does.

This morning I, and so many of us, were called upon to answer some really tough questions. And I think a lot of us had the same questions as the children did. And yet we did it. We got through it. We talked about vigilance, about continuing to stand up to bullies, about how important love is, especially now.

And then our children went off to school and we cried. I did. I couldn’t keep my shit together during yoga, and the lovely instructor silently brought me tissue.

I think it’s okay if we mourn for this day. It’s good for kids to know that we too cry, we too grieve, we too get angry. But the sun will rise again tomorrow, and the children will need role models.

I went to volunteer at my son’s school today, and I was struck by how the children, some of whom still wore “I voted” stickers, were able to persevere. To play. To laugh.

We are entitled to our grief. But we also need to count our blessings, and at least in my case, my children are the most beautiful blessings I can imagine. So tomorrow I vow to be a role model for my children. I won’t mourn for the death of America. America isn’t dead—I can see it in the faces of the children. Tomorrow I will wake up and be present. I will be in the moment. I will laugh again. And I will stand up for the people who are different from me. I will stand up to the bullies. The children, our future, are looking for a hero. And they are right to know that we are going to win.

A Witchy Little Tale for Halloween

There is a section in When My Heart Was Wicked that goes, “I have these images in my head. Memories, dreams—whatever they are, they seem real. Then again, I dreamed for many nights as a little kid that a witch sat beside my bed as I slept. In that dream, I would wake up and she would be looking at me, not saying anything. She scared me. I never found out what she wanted. That felt real, but it had to be a dream, so maybe these other things were dreams too.”

The truth is, this section was lifted from my own life, from my own childhood. Countless nights, a witch, watching me sleep. An unsettling dream.

My father still owns that same home; my old bed is still in the same spot. I have slept in it while visiting, along with my two children. One day we were talking about reoccurring dreams, and my daughter told me, “I keep having a dream at grandpa’s where a witch is sitting by the bed, watching us sleep.”

What do you think about that?