Aine Greaney

Writer

I am an essayist and fiction writer from Ireland who now lives in greater Boston.

Let's Celebrate! It's a Virtual Book Cover Reveal Party

Today I'm delighted to be among the bloggers hosting Nancy Christie's book cover reveal party. Read on to find out more about her upcoming e-book of literary fiction. 

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About the Cover for TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER

Choosing the artwork for TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER was no simple thing. This collection represents the culmination of hopes and dreams, long hours of labor and even longer hours of doubt.

It was essential that the cover image conveyed the emotion of the stories and, at the same time, hinted at the mysteriousness of choice: why we do what we do, and what happens when our choices turn out to be less than wise. And when my publisher, Pixel Hall Press, presented me with this haunting painting, there was no question in my mind that it was the right one for the collection.

And to celebrate, I asked Aine Greaney, along with a few other select bloggers, to share in a virtual “cover reveal” party—and she was kind enough to agree.

In return, I promised to provide some background information about the image and the challenge of finding a visual representation of a story.

So here it is—the backstory about the cover for TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER!

What does the cover represent?

If you think of life as a road, then as long as you stay in your own lane, so to speak, you have a good chance of reaching your destination. But if you cross the center line—because of inattention, confusion or deliberate action—then you run the risk of crashing.

Crashing into another “vehicle” and causing harm to one or both of you. Crashing into an immovable object and being grievously injured or possibly destroyed. Or, best case scenario for a bad situation, almost crashing and then, at the very last moment, pulling hard on the wheel and getting back to where you need to be. And then, after wiping your brow and taking a few deep breaths, doing your utmost to stay there.

The stories in TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER depict those types of situations, from the close calls to the disastrous.

Sounds depressing.

Yes— and no. It’s true that not all the stories have happy endings—like life, sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t.

But look closely at the image—follow the road through the trees to the farthest point. See the sunlight glancing through the limbs in the distance? Light—and hope. Darkness—yet with the promise of daylight.

Where did the idea of the image come from?

In the collection there is a lighthearted story entitled “Traveling Left of Center.” And when I was putting the collection together to shop it to agents and publishers and needed a title, that seemed to be so right, so perfect, that I couldn’t imagine any other name for it. Which, of course, then led to the image for the as-yet unpublished book.

Not being a visual person, I have never found it easy to imagine the cover for any of my books— from my first one, THE GIFTS OF CHANGE, to the last two short fiction e-books, ANNABELLE and ALICE IN WONDERLAND. You might say I am picture-challenged!

But in this case, I knew exactly what I wanted as the single unifying picture. As a matter fact, long ago I had even drawn (quite poorly, I might add) my version of the cover: a single lane highway and crossing it from right to left, a set of skid marks.

I shared the image concept with my publisher and after a few revisions (I can be a bit anal about type) we successfully “birthed” this book cover!

So what are the stories?

Ah, for that, you must wait, with bated breath, until August, when the book will be out in both print and digital format. But, in the meantime, if you must have a taste of TRAVELING, visit the Pixel Hall Press website where you will find excerpts of both ANNABELLE and ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

My thanks to those of you who came to the cover reveal party and Aine who made it happen! For more information and to stay on top of what’s happening with TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER, follow me on Twitter at @NChristie_OH!

How Father Saved Christmas - Micro Memoir from an Irish Christmas

This is my contribution to the 2013 Virtual Advent Tour.  This blog tour was created by Kelly and Marg over at Virtual Advent to allow us to share a favorite Christmas or holiday memory. In western Christian tradition, the real-life Advent is all about anticipation, not recollection.  But what would the winter holidays be without pulling up a chair to tell some stories and remember those who are no longer with us?

So here goes:

I grew up in a small, rural village in the west of Ireland. On Christmas Eve, you could count on two things. First, every Christmas Eve morning, my late father, who worked double-time as a lorry driver and a farmer, promised my mother that, this year, he'd clock out early and be home by lunchtime.

He never was. In those days (late 1970s), many mothers still didn't drive, and we lived out in the country, so Dad's late-afternoon homecoming always pushed our last-minute errands right up to and often beyond deadline.  

It was a chaotic deadline, but somehow, it all got done, and, next day, we all got to sit around a pungent and overflowing dinner table.  Second, once he did arrive home, it was always Dad's job to tackle the Christmas tree lights.  Now, over four decades later, I can still see him standing there in the middle of our front parlor, still in his lorry-driver's uniform, twiddling, testing and then, when he found that one, recalcitrant bulb, dead-heading it until the rest of the strand worked.   

Our house sat directly across the street from the village church, so before our fellow parishioners (of course, their trees had long been plugged in, lit up and perfect. Well lah-dee-dah!) arrived for Christmas Eve Mass, we needed to have a festive tree set in the parlor front window.   Otherwise, we'd just look like slackers.

Most years, the Grand Light Showdown involved a few twiddles and curses and bulb replacements. But one year,  despite an entire evening's standoff and a series of grunted instructions to my sister and me (Here, hold this. No, plug that out. Try the other wall plug), those miniature lights just refused to ... well, light.

My father was the uber Christmas procrastinator. We all were. I still am. But even at 8:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Dad wasn't a man to be beaten. He was a man of bright ideas and last-minute fixes--however unorthodox they might be.

Just as the pre-service lights came on in the church across the street, he stomped out of the parlor and through the house and across the farmyard where he revved up the car to drive three miles to the next village and its tiny, family-run shop that was sure to be open late.

It wasn't.

When Dad got there (he later told us), the only light was in the adjoining house, where, presumably, the family had gathered around the living room hearth for a cocoa-and-cake, drama-free Christmas Eve.  Yeah, weird, huh?

Dad clanked on the shop door handle.  Yep, locked.

Then, he found a gap in the pasted advertisements and faux-snow swirls to peer through the shop window, hoping that someone was still there doing last-minute clean-up. 

Nobody.

He crossed to the family's house where he rang on the front door.

"Just a set of lights," he told the shop owner, who stood there in his slippers. "You don't even have to open up the shop or the cash register. Just give me the lights, and I'll come and pay after Christmas." (Of course, we knew this local family, and they knew us).

"Sold out," said the shop owner. "Sold the last set of lights yesterday."

What transpired next I have never known, but somehow Dad persuaded or bribed the man to open up the shop and unhook the string of lights from the shop's own display window. Were they given as a neighborly gift? Or was this an overpriced, supply-and-demand kind of transaction like scalped concert or sports tickets? I would bet the former.

In any case, Dad arrived home with a set of slightly used, commercial grade Christmas lights. He plugged them in and strung them around our tree.

That Christmas, we had the brightest blinking wattage in our village.

Who are you remembering or missing this Christmas? Feel free to share your memories below. 

Meanwhile, jog your memory and storytelling acumen with this "12 Days of Christmas" video from Frank Kelly, one of Ireland's best actors and humorists (he played Father Jack in Ballykissangel). I dare you not to laugh.

On Thanksgiving: What Immigrants Bring to Our Shores

This week, a local news reporter called me. He was doing a Thanksgiving-themed piece on people who had washed up here in our coastal New England town from other countries (a la pilgrims). He was looking for local expatriates or immigrants who had  "done well." This last qualifier made me think. Done well. 

I arranged to meet the reporter for an evening interview at one of our local diners. There, over a cup of hot tea, I gave dates and years and reasons for leaving Ireland, followed by my motivations for staying in the U.S. of A.

I'm not sure "motivations" describes it. Most of the time, for most of us, it feels like one day rolls over into the next, and, gee, I just paid for a full tank of gas. So why waste $40 worth of refined petroleum by heading off to another country or, indeed, back to my native country of Ireland (where gas is much more expensive)?

Done well.

For some of the people I drive past on the highway every morning, I imagine that "done well" means getting to pay next month's rent. Or it means feeding their kids for another day. Or if I stroll through certain streets in Boston or my nearby cities in the Merrimack Valley, there are plenty of people for whom 'doing well' means snagging a dry, warm place to sleep for that night.

Or for an estimated 11 million people, 'doing well' means getting to stay within these shores (immigration reform, let's get a move on here), to do what they've already been doing: working and paying the rent and feeding themselves and their kids.  

Make no mistake about it: However "well" or sorta-well  us long-term expats may have done (and, of course, this is all relative and can implode at any time), we have a responsibility to these newcomers--to those folks not being called or interviewed by their local newspaper.

We also have a responsibility to live by that bootstrap phrase that our national and local politicians (especially in greater Boston) love to toss around and overuse: "Never forget where you came from."   

For me, "where I came from" is no longer my native country, but my heretofore status--26 years ago now--as a wide-eyed and petrified newcomer to these shores.

I've never forgotten that. I hope I never will.

In 2013: What Immigrants Contribute to the U.S. Economy 

Did you know that immigrants now comprise approximately 14% of the U.S. workforce? Also, immigrants are just as likely (as native born folks) to own their own businesses—thereby creating U.S. jobs.

Often, the public dialog tends to center around illegal immigrants, but every year, far more legally-admitted immigrants come here than those who enter without legal status (immigration reform, you're still not off the hook).

Among this legal group, 16% are sponsored by U.S. employers to fill in positions for which no U.S. worker was available, and an additional 8% come as refugees or asylees, fleeing persecution and looking for safety and freedom in the U.S. The remainder come for family reasons.

The Contribution of Undocumented Immigrants

They contribute their talents, their labor, their languages, cultures and outsider insight. Many risk their lives to come here. They also contribute cold, hard cash. Yep! Contrary to the fact-mangling vitriol I've had to endure at dinner and cocktail parties, undocumented immigrants do, in fact, pay taxes--a whopping 7.7 million of them, according to one study. Cumulatively, undocumented immigrant workers pay an estimated 11.2 billion into the U.S. Social Security fund, and an additional 2.6 billion into Medicare—money and benefits that the immigrant workers themselves will never be able to reclaim as benefits.

Myths, questions and answers about U.S. Immigrants 

http://wellstone.mpls.k12.mn.us/myths_about_immigrants2

NPR "Here and Now" segment, "Can Immigrants Save Small-Town America?"

Op-Ed piece"Don't Shut the Golden Door" in the New York Times?

Test your own knowledge with this quiz from "The New Americans," from the  PBS series, 'Independent Lens.'

Your First Writing Draft: Typed or Handwritten?

I’m working on my first book-length memoir. It’s terrifying. The general theme or topic: My immigration, at age 24, to America. Rather than just a ME-moir, I blend the personal narrative with national and family history, economics and psychology to examine the socio-economic, feminist and spiritual factors that made me (and 200,000 other young 1980s Irish) leave my own country.  

Depending on what gets to stay in there, I’ve written about 75 pages.

Fifty of those pages are well-polished keepers, though a literary agent or editor might have other ideas.  Mostly, I wrote and re-wrote those first 50 pages early in the morning, before leaving for work, on a laptop.  I just sat there, half asleep and clacked away.  These first 50 pages have taken me to that plot point where I’ve gotten my U.S. visa, I’ve filled in some back story (the why I left), I've said my goodbyes and I’ve hoisted my backpack on my back to leave for the airport and my transatlantic flight.

Then (cue the creepy music), it was time to generate new stuff, as in, a lot of new stuff, as in, the first few chapters of the American part of the story.

Oh hell.  I tell you, nothing, not even shopping for last year's bathing suit, was as scary.

So I did the adult thing: I found a nice big pile of sand and stuck my head as far into it as I could without actually ingesting sand or suffocating myself to death.  Oh, I didn't quit writing. Nope. I just found other oh-so urgent, must-do projects, so I could procrastinate on what I really needed to do: those first American chapters.

I don't know why I was so frightened. Mostly, when I drafted them in my head, I felt a terrible sorrow, a mother-lion protectiveness in which I wanted to take that young emigre (me!) and lead her by the hand and protect her from all the things she didn't, couldn't possibly know. More, I wanted to give her a sense of and pride in herself and, most important, the chutzpaha to assert that self.

Ah, middle-aged revisionism.

Then, one morning last week, I got myself up out of bed with, “Just get to it, and stop these damn excuses."

So I switched on my laptop. I must say, it's a very nice laptop.  And it has this super, beautiful Facebook app and Twitter and email and ... (more procrastination).

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IMG_20131111_093639_755

Then, thoroughly fed up with myself, I shut off the laptop and opened up my brand new journal, a well-chosen birthday gift from a great writer friend.

My hand stopped shaking.

America, at least via pen and paper, lost its scare factor. In fact, I am amazed by what this handwritten draft is unearthing, what I am managing to remember from 27 years ago. I am equally shocked to discover what the older, middle-aged me thinks about those early American years and my own immigration. Would all this memory and wisdom have come as easily in a typed first-draft?

Memory and wisdom.

I'm glad to say that there's a good chunk of both there now, in black (pen) and white (paper).

Do you type or hand-write your first drafts?  Does it depend on the topic, in that certain subjects lend themselves to keyboard, while others absolutely must be journaled or hand-written?  

For Labor Day: Seamus Heaney and Other Thoughts on Work and Writing

I wrote this exactly a year ago, never thinking that it would become one of many international elegies  for a great poet and wit and humanitarian.

Séamus Heaney's poem, "Digging" has always been my favorite piece of literature about work.

Have a listen to Heaney reading from his poem, "Digging."

Or read the printed version (below).

Random Thoughts on Poetry, Writing and Labor

As an undergraduate in Dublin, I was lucky enough to have Seamus Heaney as my professor and the chair of our English Department. As I sit here now, today, in America, I can shut my eyes and hear him reading to us in that second-floor classroom, to a rag-tag group of 18-year-old undergrads who were too young and too immature to appreciate what we were really hearing.

Years later, just before he became a Nobel laureate, I read an interview with Heaney in some Irish magazine in which he spoke briefly about his then-dual life as a working professor and as one of the world's most esteemed poets. In the interview, I loved the part where he stated that he always considered it his first duty to earn a living and provide for his family.

My father also dug his share of potatoes and turf and God knows what else. Above all else, my father believed in paying his way, in working hard.

In 2011, a year before Dad died, he told me that he was most proud of having produced an equally hard-working family.

Today, on Labor Day, I am proud to be the kind of hard worker who could make my father proud.

+++++++++

Séamus Heaney  (1939-)

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,

Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner's bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, digging down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it.

- from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Writers! Write to your own body rhythm

When my late mother met my then-boyfriend, she shared some maternal advice. "She's a pure devil in the mornings," she said, nodding toward me (I thought all devils were impure, but ... anyway).  Then, my mother proceeded to describe those childhood breakfasts when I sat at the table, bleary-eyed and speechless. Sometimes, I nodded back to sleep over my bowl of porridge.

I've never been a morning person.  I doubt I ever will. But that boyfriend married me anyway (we celebrate 25 years of mornings next week).

Over the years, I've gotten better at obeying that damn alarm clock, but it still takes my brain an hour or more to fully wake up. For those morning meetings at work, I have to stoke myself with extra, extra-strength coffee (there's a *strict* no-porridge policy in the boardroom) just to be marginally coherent.

And those vacation bed and breakfasts places? Yuck. Chattery, all-guest breakfasts around the frilly dining-room table are my idea of hell.

This past spring, I really needed to increase my weekly writing output. So I began setting my morning alarm clock for an hour earlier. Also, determined to bypass the downstairs kitchen distractions (cat, husband, newspaper, brown-bag lunch prep), I bought myself a small red Thermos.

At night, I fill my Thermos with coffee, then set it next to my laptop on a small desk in an attic room in our house. As well as providing that instant morning eye opener, this nightly Thermos ritual creates the anticipation of morning writing.  

Once that alarm goes off, I roll out of bed, climb the attic stairs, turn on the laptop and unscrew my Thermos cap--all while still half asleep. 

Four or six-hundred words later, I'm still not really awake. But I'm done with that day's writing. I'm ready to get ready for my day job.

I adore this morning solitude.  It makes my whole day go better. And, even more than extending my daily writing quota, this sleep-writing shtick has had an unexpected payout:  With my left-brain still on dimmer switch,  I have neither the urge nor the acuity to read back through what I've written to nitpick and change things.

Now, it's late summer and I have an entire 70-plus pages of my book. Oh, yes, on weekend afternoons and on my days off, I've read through and nitpicked--and nitpicked.  But there would be little or nothing to edit if it weren't for those early-morning, unfettered drafts. When it's a challenge just to keep your eyes open, you just keep writing.

This article in The Wall Street Journal, "The Peak Time for Everything," cites a growing body of research that suggests that, according to our individual body clocks, we have our own optimal times for certain tasks. And that these rhythms, not our actual schedules, should dictate when we do them.

My only question: I knew this before. Didn't I? So why, oh why didn't I capitalize on it? 

Have you found an unprecedented but perfect match between your daily schedule and your writing needs? Share in the comments below. 

Writing about Tough Stuff (and then getting on with your day?)

I'm writing my first book-length memoir. It's something I thought I would never, ever write--that I would never have the stomach for.  But I am writing it. I feel compelled to write it. It's called "What Brought You Here," and it's the story about my leaving Ireland at age 24 to come and live in the U.S.  The title derives from all those times when someone heard my non-American accent and inquired: "Oh, what brought you here?"

The story is, of course, about much more than just a set of economic drivers or the adventures and misadventures of my early years in America. This book is the proverbial long and complex answer to that very short question (what brought you here).

I've just drafted and printed the first 50 pages. I have no idea if it will ever get published.

Last Monday, I flipped back through the "easier" stuff to write and insert a really difficult scene.  How difficult? I, a woman who (mostly) breezes through the transatlantic airport departure lounge completely dry-eyed, sat here at my computer weeping.

Then, this morning, almost a week later, I got up, made coffee and tackled the second-most difficult scene. As soon as I began to write Difficult Scene 2, I instantly sank into another bout of  melancholy.

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2013-06-15 11.27.38

Surely this is a kind of willful psychosis?  Surely, on an ordinary American Sunday, a day when the sun is shining through my writing-studio window, it would be easier and healthier not to revisit or revive the past. To simply stay in the present?

But for better or worse,  I've written both scenes. In doing so, I've committed to typed words one of the saddest and loneliest times of my adult life.

Writing these scenes--actually the whole book so far--has taught me that sometimes, we commit our worst acts of cowardice, our most heinous acts of negligence against ourselves.

So I'm done.    I'm free to get up from this desk and go about the rest of my normal American Sunday.   

Or am I?

Busy, Guilt-Ridden Writers! Write What You Can

Two weeks ago I attended an after-work spiritual retreat at Rolling Ridge, a  retreat facility and conference center that's located only about a half-hour from my office. It had been a hectic week, so I welcomed this chance to kick back, meditate and just generally let someone else do the talking or better yet, shush my brain altogether.    

The presenter began with a story about two monks--one older, one younger. One day, the junior monk confessed to his mentor how, as a neophyte, he could never seem to measure up; he could never be as pious as his elders. The younger monk said, "You get up so early every morning.  You seem to pray with all your heart and soul.  I could never hope to pray like that."

The elder monk smiled and said, "Why don't you pray what you can, not what you can't."

This advice really applies to our writing. It especially applies to those of us who constantly dither between our creative lives and our other responsibilities, including work. Honestly, there are weeks when I should get a golden gloves for all the jabs I take at myself, for how much I beat myself up over all that "I can't" do, or haven't done or failed to do.

In her inspirational blog for writers, Barbara Ann Yoder dubs this, "emotional self-flagellation," a state she finds counterproductive.

Barbara adds:

I think it’s important to acknowledge that jobs, relationships, cross-country moves, illnesses, and many other challenges can and do at times take precedence over writing.

For me, this "emotional self-flagellation" is often rooted in a monkish belief that only long-form writing stints qualify as "real" writing. 

Or, for another perspective, check out Lisa Romeo's writing blog, in which she also refutes that perennial advice about writing every day.

Lisa says:

But to my mind the most detrimental piece of standard writing advice is the one that declares that in order to be a *real* writer (whatever that is), one must write every single day, often amended to include that one must write a set number of pages or words, or a set amount of time per day.

Since attending that evening retreat, I've been trying to change my own thought processes.

On those days when I simply can't get 500 words on the page, I force myself to ask: What can I do?

Can I do a short morning meditation to clear my brain and develop a better and more creative attitude? Can I journal for five minutes?

journal
journal

Can I switch on my laptop and just read yesterday's paragraph so that I have at least "visited" my work in progress for that day? Can I do a quick read-through and edit of the first paragraph? Can I write up a to-do list of what's left or outstanding in the work? Can I play a scene through my head while I'm driving to the day job?

By focusing on what I can do, I am actually getting more writing done--or at least, I'm staying more consistently engaged in the work.

And best of all, I'm on much better terms with myself--and this life called writing.

What on-the-fly, quickie writer strategies save your writing days?

Writing About Traumatic Events: How Soon Is Too Soon?

Last week, my audio essay,  "Sanctuary" was published at "The Drum: A Literary Magazine for Your Ears."  As fond and proud as I am of this particular essay and this online literary magazine, having this piece of writing go public gave me the jitters. "Sanctuary" is about the 2005 death of my mother. In eight years, this is my first time publishing anything about that event.

Note I said "publishing."

Not writing.

Oh, believe you me, her death made me write. And write. Confession:  I have a 3 a.m. notebook entry from one of those eerie nights when my siblings and I alternated shifts in our mother's hospital room. That night, I tiptoed down a florescent corridor and went to my sister's house to grab some sleep. But first, before collapsing into an exhausted and dreamless slumber, I wrote in my notebook.

After the funeral, when I returned from Ireland to the U.S. and my "normal" life--though there was nothing normal about it--I continued to write pages and pages about her and me, our lives together and the life that had just ended.

Once, I booked myself into my usual writers retreat ostensibly to work on a new novel. There, as if my fingers and the keyboard had a will of their own, I ended up writing a 60-page chronology of her cancer and death.  In fact, my just-published essay "Sanctuary" is as much about writing (and how it saves us) as it is about grief and healing.

Long before the medical and psychological research supported it, ever  since childhood, I have long believed in the value of writing about trauma and painful events.

And yet ....

With all those pages of writing already completed, why did it take me almost eight years to craft something eligible for publication?

In her essay, "Writing Through Grief: a Lifelong Writing Assignment" (on writing and re-writing her memoir about the death of her 19-year-old daughter), Eleanor Vincent writes:

First, there are my journals where raw writing is produced. But I would no more think of publishing my journals than of building the frame for a house and calling it a home. The journals are only the boards and nails, the raw materials. Then a process of refining begins with a first draft on the computer, followed by feedback from my writing group, and then many rounds of revision."

I didn't send drafts of my essay out for review or input. And I don't belong to a writing group. In fact, that short little essay kind of wrote itself. But this final, publishable verision  wrote itself only because I had spent the last eight years creating what Vincent calls "the boards and nails, the raw materials" of my story.

In her essay, "The Incident of the Dog in the Early Evening - Is it Journaling or the First Draft of a New Masterpiece?" Christiane Alsop also addresses this issue of discerning between "literary catharsis" and well-honed work:

Such is journaling. Good old-fashioned journaling that helps healing. I have copious amounts of it generated around the turning points in my life. Good material to revisit in ten years when a dramatic event might become an incident in a future novel. Might. But only if, in ten years, the emotional heat has cooled to just the right temperature."

Ten years. It took me eight. So maybe I'm ahead of the game. Or pain.

How do you cope with writing about painful events? Do you have a technique or approach for letting the "emotional heat" cool?  Or do we really need to?

Tax Preparation for Writers: Tips and Zen and Pain

If you haven't prepared your tax return yet, check out this great article on tax returns for artists, complete with an expense checklist for writers. This CPA's site and ebook have all the info you need (note: this is not my own accountant). I'm a lifelong math phobe. So tax season sends me trudging into the dining room for what I've come to think of as my annual tax Gethsemane.

I have my bag of receipts and canceled checks.  I have a clenched jaw, a tremble in both hands. I have a mountain of regrets for (1) My terrible childhood math teacher and (2) My conviction that numbers are really just a bunch of 9th-century hieroglyphics masquerading as 21st-century digits and invented to give us night sweats.

I've created my own homemade tax-prep technique.  Using my accountant's categories, I write said categories on a bunch of sticky notes and place the sticky notes in a double row along the dining table. Next, I unfold and assign each collected receipt to its appropriate stick-note category. Then, I total the receipt amounts and write that total on each sticky note. And finally, I write that amount on the appropriate line on the tax form.

numberblocks
numberblocks

Look, I know that it's second-grade math.  I know I'll never get into CPA school. But it's the only way that works for me.

Believe it or not, this tax-prep stuff has a saving grace. For a busy woman who often can't remember what she did last week, tax-prep season is a rear-view glimpse into the past year.

And it was a good year, full of blessings and surprises. On a freezing night in March, on the nights of my Gethsemane, I need to be reminded of that.

For example, here's a receipt from a dinner out with three other working women writers. Oh, yeah, now I remember that night. We yapped and chatted and chewed the writers' fat until the waiters started dimming the lights.

Oh, and here's a canceled check for a payment to someone named Daniel. Daniel? Daniel ... Webster? Boone?  Oh, Daniel. Yes, how could I forget that hipster who sold me the used desk and matching file drawers for my home office, my little writing haven?

Speaking of checks, here's one from my favorite writers retreat. Days writing in my room. Evenings sharing dinner and chat with one of my oldest friends. Seriously, does life get any better than that?

Oooh! Here's a fully intact MTA parking receipt from ... when? Christ, with all their tax-fare hikes, you'd think that the Massachusetts Transit Authority, the MTA, could print their ticket dates clearer? Just this once, MTA, couldn't you and your buddy Charlie be the men who actually do (tax) return?

Wait. It's coming back to me. The receipt is from that fall afternoon, a Sunday when I took the train into Boston to read and present at America's first public library.

And then ... (cue the creepy music) ... it's time for my annual attack of tax  paranoia.  Instead of this tabletop, karst landscape of sticky notes and receipts, I see every crack, every cockroach that skitters across the floor of my prison cell--as in, tax-evaders' prison cell.

Gulp!  And listen, why should I trust an accountant? Isn't she also in the hieroglyphics club? They probably all have their own secret social media page, all communicating and chortling away in that mad language that .... Yo, writer. Yo. Zen. Zen. Now.

Let's just log onto the IRS website to check and double-check these official allowances and write-offs.

"See the page on ..." "Read the addendum on ..." "Read our set and subset and footnotes of hieroglyphics for blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

And then, here's the flash point of sin or redemption for every writer during every tax season:  "Was this trip for business or pleasure?"

Phew. I've got the rest of my receipts. I've got my mileage amounts. So no final phone calls from the prison pay phone for me.

Okey dokey, what have we got here?  Oh look!  It's from my teaching stint at the Ocean Park Writers Conference in Maine. Hot summer days. Maine ocean breezes. Front-porch conversations with my students.

And it was all, all business (heh!).

Writers dish on balancing writing with work and family

I'm delighted to announce that Alizah Salario, a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, NY, is the winner of my signed book, Writer with a Day Job. All of the names were entered for a random drawing. Check out Alizah's work at her website.

Below are Alizah's tips on writing and you can read all of the tips in the last blog post.

Tips from Alizah Salario:

1) Don’t confuse your job with your career: Because the type of writing that pay the bills and the type of writing that creatively fulfills and sustains me are two separate things, it’s easy to feel like I’m not a “real” writer if I’m not earning money doing what I love. I often remind myself there is no shame in doing something for money in order to do what you love.

2) Find an ally: Even supportive friends have a difficult time understanding the unique rhythms of a writer’s life. Find a fellow writer – through a writing group, a friend, or simply write to someone you admire – who can relate and help you stay on track when it feels hopeless.

3) Create your own criteria: So much of what is considered “successful” on the web is determined by the number of comments, likes, or tweets. Remember that some of the best writing out there gets the least attention, and there are countless talented people who don’t get the credit they deserve. Make your own markers of achievement that don’t have to do with responses from others – otherwise you’ll constantly be looking for external approval.

Thank you to all who shared their writing processes and tips. I know I learned a lot.

Writers, Join this book giveaway by sharing your tips

This week I was lucky enough to be featured at The Writer's Place, a spiffy blog by writer Nancy Christie. Then, today, the interview gets included in Help for Writers.

I enjoyed the entire Writers Place interview, but I was especially charmed by Nancy's last question in which she asks for my "top three takeaways" (or tips) for balancing creativity with work (based on my book, Writer with a Day Job).

Here are my top 3 tips for balancing writing and life:

1.  Define your own path to writing and writing success. Comparing ourselves with other writers is counterproductive—even deadly.

2.  If you’re a beginner writer, create an overview of your month’s typical schedule and commitments. Circle the items that can either be outsourced or dropped altogether. Only keep those commitments that are truly, honestly as or more important in your life than writing. Even if you don’t use your freed-up time for actual writing, use it for writing-conducive activities such as reading, yoga or just sitting and staring into space.

3.  Learn how to say, “no.” When we do, people are not as miffed or disappointed as we assume that they will be. We fall into these “I should” and “I must” habits because —duh!— we’re not clear with others about what we need in order to nurture our talents as writers.

So you've got my three tips. Now, what are yours? Insert below in the Comments section and join my book giveaway. 

If we get 15 responses (each with your hot tips), I will enter all names in a random drawing for a signed copy of my book, WRITER with a DAY JOB. I will mail the book to the winner, so make sure to include a website or blog where I can reach you. Sorry, U.S. addresses only, please.

We need a minimum of 15 responses ... so ... pick and post your best tips... and spread the word  ... 

New Year's Resolutions for Writers: Ernest Hemingway's "Truest Sentence"

Should some writing come with a "made-in-China" label? In our digitized 21st century, how much of our writing is too cheap, too quick and too disposable? Has the sheer volume of digitized, podcast, broadcast and hard-copy content spawned a  24/7 static, a persistent distraction?

I have been a lifelong lover of the jigsaw process of writing, of yoking apparently disparate ideas together for a cohesive whole.  As a teacher and a writer, I have told my students and myself to "let yourself play in the word box to find that first, unfettered draft."

But lately, I have been questioning my own advice. In the time that it takes us to pen that first draft of a 3,000-word essay or story,  have the writing and publishing rules already changed? Has everyone already gone onto the next and louder message?

December has not been a good writing month because the first week was spent in my native Ireland, where I flew across the Atlantic to visit my family and to close out the mourning year for my late father's death.

It has not been a good writing month because my day job was really busy.

It has not been a good writing month because I was jet lagged and tired, addled, anxious and often awake at 3 a.m.

In fact, though I've managed to complete some essays and start a new book project, it hasn't been a very good writing year. For most of 2012, I have been plagued by this sense that some of us are destined to be the gauche maiden aunt at this hyper hip, hyper loud and hyper mercenary party called modern writing.

Or let's put it this way: This December, we tele-witnessed a young man gunning down 20 school children, another man pushing a stranger in front of a speeding train, and another man shooting up firefighters on Christmas.

So what the hell good are we?

And, worse than being ineffectual, aren't we writers--aka "content providers"-- part of the problem?  Our words are part of that blathery static that postures and obscures and, by extension, belittles the gut-crushing realities of life, death and loss?

Two nights ago, on the evening of December 30th, I was thinking about all of this when I suddenly remembered that line from Hemingway:  "Write the truest sentence that you know."

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway

But after the madness that has been December 2012,  I could find or write no fixed, existential truth.

At least, not about anything out there outside my office window.

But a quick Google search threw up this wonderful writing exercise from a Canadian writer who encourages us to adapt Hemingway's advice to write some truths about ourselves.

To atone for our year of spin and cruelty and sycophancy, I tried to call up that one true thing about me.

I wrote down 20.

Some are those bare-knuckled truths that set us on the offensive or make us brace or duck for the next upper cut.  Some of my self-truths made me hold my breath. A few made me tremble. One made me cry.

The fact that I wrote 20 truths on 16 single-spaced, handwritten pages doesn't make me super prolific or super honest.  It simply and sadly means that,  in the busy-ness and babble of life, in the gussied-up version of me that I present to the world, I had abandoned what was true.

Now, all 20 of my truths are written down. They are an excellent blueprint for 2013.

Thank you, Ernest Hemingway. I don't like your writing. Given your macho, hard-living shtick, I probably wouldn't have liked you.

But in a world turned mad and bad, I love your saving advice.

Thanks (giving) for my writing life

"It’s Thanksgiving,” he said down the payphone. His American voice sounded woken-up cranky.  "So my roommates are off work and gone home. ‘Like, Thanksgiving's a holiday over here.”  Oh, come on, I wanted to say.  I mean, with nobody getting born or killed or risen from the dead,  just how big could this 'holiday' of yours really be?  The year was 1986. The era: way, way pre-cellphone. The setting: My native Ireland.

But only for one more month. That day, the day before Thanksgiving, 1986,  the American Embassy had issued me a temporary visa. My lucky day. How lucky? I had even found an un-vandalized payphone to call across the Atlantic to one of my expatriate  friends. Now that I had my visa, I needed a landing pad in the land of the free.

I watched the last of my money clink into the payphone slot. “Is there a message?” The man asked.

“Yes,” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. “Please tell my pal Mary that I’ll ring again next week. When she’s back from … um … this ... Thanksgiving." “Sure,” he said. Then ... Clunk.

Standing in that phone box, I was one of the 19% of unemployed young Irish people. I was among the estimated 30% of college graduates for whom there were no suitable jobs in our own country.  And we're not talking "dream job" or "creative job." In fact, I didn't even know what these terms meant.

As an unemployed person--then and now--you don’t feel like part of an unemployment statistic or a unified group.  There's just you. There’s just you and your shame and your assumption that everyone else—especially your old college friends—all have jobs. And those friends who have moved overseas? Yup, they have jobs, too. And new jobs mean new friends—the kind of friends who invite you home to their family for secular-sounding American holidays that aren't named for a saint or a savior.

Even more than a job, I needed a place to be—somewhere far away from that damp, November afternoon in Ireland.  Oh, yeah, as I left that phone box to walk through Dublin's city center, I knew it in my soul: I needed a life.

But there’s one big advantage to being 24 and jobless.  Your emigration to-do list is really short.

Get yourself a temporary American visa. Check. Empty your savings for a transatlantic airline ticket. Check.Start saying ‘goodbye’ to your family. Check.Track down an expatriate friend to lend you a couch and a place to stay.

Um … well … I was working on that last one.   But I couldn't work on it until this Thanksgiving thing was over, when I’d scrape up enough courage and spare change to call across the Atlantic again.

A month after Visa Day, I landed in JFK Airport, New York on a freezing afternoon. I had a backpack and a borrowed $200 and yes, a place to stay.

I never did get to California, at least, not to live. From New York I took a Trailways bus three hours upstate, where, as an act of mercy, a family member had set me up with his American friend. That American friend, a man I had never met before, would  pick me up and put me up until I got on my feet.

In America, I went and found me some jobs. I became a waitress, a bartender, a secretary (when we still called it that), a college administrative person, a marketing assistant, a substitute elementary school teacher (quelle disaster!) and ... well, a host of other things. One year, by the time Tax Day rolled around, I submitted a whopping nine W2 forms. I went back to grad school at night. And, even with a strange accent and with substantial holes in my resume, even during the most recent U.S. recession, I managed to stay (mostly) employed.

But did I really like any of my jobs? Did any of them feed me or my vague, dreamy hope of one day being a writer? As an immigrant and as a child of working class parents, there were many, many years before I even let myself consider these questions.

My writing and editorial skills led to better and more fulfilling jobs. Almost at the same time, I began submitting my writing to literary magazines. Suddenly, the rejection slips were intermingled with a few "we'd-like-to-publish" notes. Eventually, and still with a jittery disbelief, I found myself with a dual career as a creative writer and as communications professional.

kitchencounter
kitchencounter

Yesterday morning, as I prepared for my 25th Thanksgiving in America, and before I left for my office and job,  I took my cup of coffee to the kitchen counter.

In my iPhone, I went through my last minute Thanksgiving list:

Turkey? Check.Cranberries? Check. Sweet potatoes? Check.A really good writing life?  Check. Check.

--

Writers, Learn Lots from a Wind Chime

windchime
windchime

"Where did we get that new wind chime? I asked my husband. We had just brewed some Saturday morning coffee, so my brain was still in sludge mode.

Sitting there on our back deck, he peered over his coffee mug at me. "You-bought-it," he said.

"No I didn't."

 "Remember?" He said, using that sloooow,  nursing-home voice. You gave it to me as a gift? Two Christmases ago?" 

"Not that wind chime," I said.

"You said you found it at an art show in Florida."

"But that wind chime was twice this size. And it had those long, beautiful strips of turquoise stained glass."

"The stained glass broke off last winter" he said.  "It's been gone a long time."

Finally awake, I studied our broken wind chime. For the first time since I had swaddled it in my socks and stuffed it in my airport carry-on bag, I finally saw this remaining, plainer part with its clear and deep blue sea glass.  

Writers, let's call this the parable of the wind chime. And let's remember the parable of the wind chime each time we are (1) So dazzled by our own eloquence that we shush that inner editing voice that cries, "Cut! Cut!" and (2) Already clicking the "send" button, even though we know that our current draft needs one more read and edit.

In business, creative, expository and journalistic writing, less is always more. If you want to find the richest, truest part of your work, be ready to trim all that extra fat.

With the extra parts gone, you can see what's left and beautiful.

Like the remains of a broken wind chime.

Here are my three favorite editing techniques:

1. Email myself the manuscript. Then read and edit the email. This new format allows me to switch from the role of writer to reader.

2. Read the manuscript out loud. This is invaluable.

3. Save it in an online document storage site like "Dropbox," then read it on my phone. This miniature view brings me up close and personal with the text.

What are your favorite tips or techniques for editing your own work?

For Labor Day: Seamus Heaney and Other Thoughts on Work and Writing

I wrote this exactly a year ago, never thinking that it would become one of many international elegies  for a great poet and wit and humanitarian.Séamus Heaney's poem, "Digging" has always been my favorite piece of literature about work.

Have a listen to Heaney reading from his poem, "Digging."

Or read the printed version (below).

Random Thoughts on Poetry, Writing and Labor

As an undergraduate in Dublin, I was lucky enough to have Seamus Heaney as my professor and the chair of our English Department. As I sit here now, today, in America, I can shut my eyes and hear him reading to us in that second-floor classroom, to a rag-tag group of 18-year-old undergrads who were too young and too immature to appreciate what we were really hearing.

Years later, just before he became a Nobel laureate, I read an interview with Heaney in some Irish magazine in which he spoke briefly about his then-dual life as a working professor and as one of the world's most esteemed poets. In the interview, I loved the part where he stated that he always considered it his first duty to earn a living and provide for his family.

My father also dug his share of potatoes and turf and God knows what else. Above all else, my father believed in paying his way, in working hard.

In 2011, a year before Dad died, he told me that he was most proud of having produced an equally hard-working family.

Today, on Labor Day, I am proud to be the kind of hard worker who could make my father proud.

+++++++++

Séamus Heaney  (1939-)

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds Bends low, comes up twenty years away Stooping in rhythm through potato drills Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft Against the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep To scatter new potatoes that we picked Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade, Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day Than any other man on Toner's bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up To drink it, then fell to right away Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods Over his shoulder, digging down and down For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge Through living roots awaken in my head. But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I'll dig with it.

- from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

The Next Big Thing: Blog Hop on Writers' Work in Progress

Week 8: The Next Big Thing: Work in Progress Thank you to Donna at Girl Who Reads who invited me to join this blog hop, in which writers dish a little on our current work in progress. Thanks, too, to the other scribes (see list at end of post) who have decided to post next week. Check out their works in progress  on August 22.

What is the working title of your book?

It's a novel set in greater Boston--with small parts of it in Ireland. I had called an earlier version, “Waverly Farms,” but the plot has changed considerably since then, so I don’t really have a working title yet. But I'm intrigued by my own unfolding story--and that's always a good sign.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The  creative itch  for this book can be traced back to my 10-year bug to write about wealth and its effects on people, and just how much will someone sacrifice or compromise themselves to hold onto wealth and what money can buy.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a YA crossover novel. This is my first time really dabbling in this genre. But in my 2nd novel, I enjoyed creating the teenage character very much, and found that I really got inside of her head. I've also completed a very layered, sassy short story with a 14-year-old character. So ... I'm building on these and trying a full-length novel with a 16-year-old character.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Gee, I’m not good with actors at all. But my teenage character, Drey, would have to be played by someone fairly complex, with the ability to master or balance a  cheeky worldliness with an inner sense of injury. For the male main character, Nathaniel, I think Jeremy Irons would be perfect.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A 16-year-old girl is forced to give up everything when her family declares bankruptcy, files for divorce and her mother emigrates to, and disappears in, America.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Either an agency or an independent literary press.   I don’t self-publish fiction.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I haven’t completed the first draft yet.  But between the day job and my other shorter projects, I’m working on it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Not sure.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

As an expatriate who left Ireland 25 years ago, I have watched from afar as the country underwent a huge economic boom and crash.   Recent financial articles have highlighted the prodigal greed and unfettered borrowing and development that contributed to or fueled Ireland's current economic crisis.  So I imagined this spoiled teenage character whose family suddenly loses all of its wealth, and the mother and daughter are forced to emigrate.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Despite the context above, the novel is not a sociological study. Instead, it's part mystery, part psychological thriller and an unusual blend of two main characters: A teenage girl and a 60-something Brahmin New England man. The man is really quite crazy.

Next up: August 29: Check these 5 writers' blogs or websites to hear and see what they're working on:

Carolyn Roy Bornstein

Daniela Ginta

Lori Grace

Jennifer Karin

Ted Mitchell

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