The Book that is So Hard to Write

I wonder if all writers have this book in us: the one that burns a hole in our brains, wakes us in the middle of the night with its people, and its scenes, and its heart crushing realness. It’s the one your mind drifts to during the day, and the one that hijacks your dreams. It’s the book that demands to be written, even when you’d rather be writing something else: something funny, something fluffy, something that’s more like fun, like escapism, like the reason you wanted to write to begin with.

This is the book that sneaks into everything, the one that your mind drifts to when it’s tired. This is the book that leaks into your other writings, the one that bleeds onto the page while you’re trying to shove it away and write something easier, something you think other people will like, something in line with your other books that people seem to enjoy.

This is not a fun book. It sinks its teeth into you. It leaves scars. It opens old wounds and laughs while it does so. It feels like fiction, and you call it fiction.

But it isn’t.

Not entirely.

This is the book that insists on being written. You try to tamp it down as you type, because it seems too heavy, too dark. It’s not fun like the others. There’s humor, sure, just like in your real life—but underneath is a current of something darker, something that has become more obvious to you as the years went by and your hair began to gray. You keep trying to steer the story in the direction you want it to go, but this book is stubborn. It’s not interested in what you want.

Soon it seeps into everything. And you have to write it, or else it expands, crowding out all of your other thoughts until your head feels like a pressure cooker, and you have no choice but to write the words it demands, and release the valve, and free up those parts of your brain that you need to do daily tasks, like shop for groceries and balance your checkbook.

This is the book that is so hard to write. It’s the thing that claws at you in the wee hours. The thing you don’t like to talk about unless you’ve had a few glasses of wine. It steals your breath sometimes, and it makes your chest hurt. This is not a pretty book. It might not have a happy ending. (In fact, you’re pretty sure it doesn’t.) It’s not a book they’ll one day make into a rom-com. It’s one that people you know will almost certainly see themselves in, and sometimes those people are close to you, and you wonder if those people will ever read your book, and if they’ll imagine themselves in the pages.

Most of what you write feels like fiction: it’s imagined, it’s constructed. It goes the way you planned. But this book—it feels raw. And though you disguise it with fictional characters and towns, it feels like you are revealing too much: you are telling too much truth. But you have to. This is the book that wants to be written. This is the book that has its claws in you. Often, writing it feels like a slog. The writing of this book does not come easy—not like your other books. You stare at blank pages until your eyes water. You think you are wasting your time. The pieces don’t fall neatly into place. The words are difficult to type. They are jagged, and sharp, and tear at your soft edges. They make you think this is the worst thing you have ever written.

But maybe, it’s the realest thing you’ve ever written.

This is not therapeutic. This book takes drags you into dark corners, and sometimes leaves you there. You don’t feel better after the words are on the page. But you know they have to be written. This is the book that has sunk its teeth into you. But this book has something that maybe your other books don’t have. It has a beating heart, just like the others, but this book has wounds and scars, just like you do. It has ragged edges and sharp corners. It might not end well, but it will end the way it must. It is like an arrow, piercing and true.

When you get to the end, it’s hard to describe. You don’t feel better. You don’t feel broken, but you do feel bruised. You feel like you did the thing that the story wanted you to do. But you feel exhausted, and vulnerable, and raw.

This is the book that is so hard to write.

Things I Learned from My Aunt Et

In December, my great-aunt Et passed away. In memory of her, I’m sharing this post again, which I wrote for her back in 2014, on her 88th birthday. (“Aunt Et”, by the way, sounds mysterious, sometimes French, when you say it aloud. It rolls off the tongue like “Aynette,” my uncle says. It was hard for us kids to say “Aunt Et,” in that proper way, and she hated to be called Esther, her given name, because she said, “It sounds like an old woman.”)

***

I come from one of those large Southern families where titles like “Aunt” and “Grandmother” are often given like a knighthood. I say “given,” but they are earned. Usually through love.

I was a lucky kid. I had a handful of grandmothers. Two were the mothers of my parents, but there were others—the honorary ones that I got as extras–like my great aunt, who has always been Et—a nickname that had stuck with her since she was a girl.

My Aunt Et spoiled me when I was a kid. I often stayed with her after school, and she let me eat cake batter out of a bowl while watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.” I still remember lying on the floor on a braided rug, licking batter off a spoon while watching Bo and Luke Duke go sailing into the air in slow motion in the General Lee. She never told my mother when I misbehaved (which was likely more often than I recall). She let me take bubble baths in her pink bathroom, and play with the special soaps and perfumes she probably got as gifts from friends. She has been a grandmother to me my whole life, sharing in my joys and hardships. I’ve learned a lot from her, but in honor of her 88th birthday today, I’ll list the ones that were most important.

 
1. Wash your hands. You’ll live longer. (And we all know where they’ve been.)

2. Cake tastes better when it’s shared.

3. The same goes for happiness and good news.

4. A girl can have as many grandmothers as she wants.

5. It’s easy to be kind. So why not be?

6. Everybody needs a second home, where they can eat cake batter with a big spoon, watch ridiculous t.v. shows, have tantrums over pimento cheese sandwiches, and not be judged.

7. Call your friends as often as you can. You’ll pick up right where you left off.

8. You can never say “I love you” too often.

9. Sometimes smiling at a stranger leads to a lifelong friendship.

10. Sometimes you have to buy a girl a big goofy stuffed parrot. Because years later, it will remind her that she did something well, and that someone noticed.

11. Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first—and often.

12. If you have a kind spirit, you will never be alone.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Et. I am a kinder person because of you.

On Stillness

In early December, the fella and I decided to take a “for real” vacation. We hadn’t done this in, well, we couldn’t remember. To us, that was a good indication of how badly we needed to take some time off. Because my job gives me a month of furlough (sort of), and he had use-or-lose vacation days, we took the plunge.

We planned a week at Tybee Island, a tiny barrier island down on the Georgia coast that I’m sure is booming in summer. In December, it’s quiet as a tomb. And that’s exactly what we were looking for.

The last couple of years have been a real whirlwind. I’ve done some things I’m really proud of (like starting a publishing company called Blue Crow with one of my dearest friends). But it’s also been a really stressful time that often felt like a life-size game of Jenga. (“Let’s keep pulling out pieces and see when Lauren crumbles!”) I took on too many projects, didn’t say “no” often enough, and ended up feeling overwhelmed 99% of the time.

One day I told my fella I was afraid I was becoming a workaholic. He said in his calm, non-confrontational, kind Midwestern way: “Well, you do stare at your screen until the moment you go to bed.”

So that cinched it. I planned a week away for us. Loosely planned, mind you. We’re two people who don’t need a vacation agenda. We don’t leave with a bullet list. We just go someplace that sounds interesting that has some things we haven’t seen before–and we seek out some stillness.

Stillness is something I’ve needed for a long time. I used to find it when I worked for the National Park Service. Most days I could go about my ranger duties and find some quiet in my tasks: trails that needed upkeep, elk that needed monitoring, remote campgrounds that needed surveying. It was a long drive sometimes, from one outpost to another, but that meant a drive along the Parkway when it was bursting with fall color, or a hike on a remote trail that needed a little TLC. Sometimes on my walks I’d stand still and watch leaves fall all around me like snow. Or listen to elk bugle in the meadow, or listen to the rippling stream under the footbridge where I stood. I felt closer to the earth, grounded, like I belonged there, too.

Now I have to go out of my way to get that feeling. I leave my office to take short walks. I sit out on the deck and listen to the twittering cardinals and nuthatches. I keep my bird feeders full so there’s always a crowd. I plant flowers and try to keep them alive, because it feels good to have my hands in the dirt.

While on Tybee, we took walks every day. We wandered along the beach at low tide, watching the sandpipers. We ambled through town by the lighthouse and the battery. And then we found a little park with a trail that wound through the shrubs and the live oaks, a curtain of Spanish moss overhead.

And in that park, we came across a Great Blue Heron wading in a pond. We followed the path towards him, quiet as cats, and stopped when we were about ten yards away. I’d never seen one so close before. I could see the different shades of blue in his feathers, the tiny crest on his head that flapped like a cowlick in the breeze. The heron stood still as a statue, and we did, too, inching as close as we could without disturbing him.

It felt good to find that stillness again. To savor that moment and think only of that long-legged bird and its patience, escaping from the cacophony that lives inside my head most days. Most days, my head feels like a pinball machine, a dozen different thoughts banging around in my skull, pinging and colliding and competing for my attention. My to-do list feels like it stretches through two time zones. The high-priority tasks are daunting. The hours seem short and the days seem few. During my commute, I try to piece together my free hours, trying to find the most efficient way to use them, plan how to squeeze as many tasks as I can into my remaining hours before bedtime. And the next day, I do it all over again.

My month-long “vacation” has emerged as a time where I can play catch-up. I’m writing a book. Editing two more. (That all sounds like work, you’re thinking. And you’re right. It is.) But I’m also carving out time to read books for fun, and try painting again, and do some things that let me quiet my mind so I can tell myself I do not have to be a workaholic. It’s always been hard for me to find balance—I fling myself into a new project and get completely consumed by it, and feel like I don’t have time to do leisurely things like read books and do yoga. But I have to do those things, because they are the balance, and they quiet my brain. They are the stillness.

I was lucky the heron allowed me to get so close to him, to watch for a few minutes, and remember what solitude and stillness feel like. I’m even luckier to have a fella who was happy to take a moment to escape with me to the quiet place—because I know not everyone would stand there for a full ten minutes and watch a bird with me. But sometimes I think the world might be a kinder place if we all took a few minutes each day to seek that healing stillness.

When We’re Old, We’ll be Badasses

 

 

Last weekend I went to a writers’ conference with my partner in crime Katie. (Some of you know that with our powers combined, we are Blue Crow Publishing.) Appearing as “exhibitors” meant that we spent most of the weekend stationed at our table, doing a mix of mingling, crowd-watching, and talking with some amazing writers. In the slow moments, our conversation wandered towards our own book projects, new ideas, and whining about what we call “old lady pains.” 

“My sister put a hole in my head,” Katie said, pointing to her forehead. “She removed an old lady wart. The technical term is barnacle.”

“As in the hull of a ship?” I said. 

“Exactly. Like an old beat-up ship. She wouldn’t even schedule an appointment—made me plop down as soon as she spotted it. My sister is so mean.”

(For the record, Katie’s sister is a dermatologist. We’re not talking about a random person with an x-acto knife. Still.)

I told her my back hurt in weird places. She said she had to dye her hair more often to avoid “dishwater blonde.” I dyed my own hair recently, to cover up the appalling amount of gray that I know exactly who caused, and my fella said it looked “magical.” It damn well should have looked “magical” for the amount I wrote on that check to the hairdresser. (That’s the day I learned to ask “how much will this cost?” even when you trust a person with your life. And your hair.) 

Since then, the gray has come back and I’ve since decided to call them mermaid hairs. Let’s just change what we consider “magical,” shall we?

My fella and I often talk about what we’ll be like when we’re old. Will we wear ugly cardigans? Will we bark at waitresses and talk to ourselves as we wander through the house? Will we blurt out all of our thoughts like we’re earning a merit badge in ornery? 

Katie and I, sitting at that table, wondered the same thing. “Will we go out of the house wearing tacky pants because we have no one to tell us how bad they look?” she said. Who would save us from ourselves and our bad fashion choices? Would someone tell us our lipstick was too red or our hair was too blue? Would anyone tell us when we were yelling in a quiet room? Would we have to stop drinking bourbon and stop eating ice cream because our bodies were rioting against us? Things were starting to look bleak.

A couple hours later, a statuesque woman with white pixie-cut hair strode up to our table. (I’ll call her Sarah.) We asked her what she wrote, and Sarah said, “Well, I was a journalist, and I’m working on a memoir. I’m like a hundred and twelve years old, but back in the sixties I was a stringer.” This woman wore a black leather jacket, had an earring in the top of her ear. She looked like she could arm wrestle both of us and win. “Back in Miami, I was covering the fire, and I met a guy from Newsweek in a bar…”

“This story is already amazing,” Katie said. “Go on.”

The woman went on to tell us that she had been a local reporter, sent to Miami to cover a story. She’d strode right up to the guy from Newsweek and told him, “I could write for y’all,” and he said, “Okay, send me something.” She went on to tell us about her Ph.D. in Rhetoric, her research into the Loray Mill Strike of 1929 and Ella May Wiggins. “That new book about it,” she said, doing a big thumbs-down, “He didn’t do enough research. He said there wasn’t any information out there about her, but the woman had six children. Please.”

She wanted to write the real story, with her journalist’s eye. “She was a real woman,” Sarah said. “Not just some folk hero.” 

Sarah was feisty, and witty, and dropped just enough cuss words to make me smile and think of my grandmother. When she hurried off to her next session, promising to send us her manuscript, I turned to Katie. 

That is what we’ll be like when we’re old,” I told her.

“Total badasses?” she said.

“Absolutely.”

 

 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com. Special thanks to the NCWN conference, which was a total blast to be a part of. We can’t wait to see you all at the next one.