A Good (Writing) Life: Blurring the Lines

I have an excuse for having been recently AWOL from “my rooom,” but, first, I’d like to share something a good friend just told me about being CEO’s of our own lives (which applies to every wage earner and hobbiest on the planet, not just writers!).  

The analogy (and another “nugget”) was supplied by a recent seminar this friend attended. The other nugget is that we’re also our own board of directors.

The rule of this “game” is that every 90 days you (the CEO) and you (the BOD) meet to discuss how you (and you) are doing with your life. The other caveat is that the only two questions y’all discuss at your 90-day meetings are these:

Where am I going? And how do I get there?

When I was twenty years old, my answer would’ve been shallow, considering I never looked at life past the next party.  

By thirty, I’d morphed into a worrier because I still was not challenging myself; only now I knew it. I was thirty, after all! But I didn’t know how to challenge myself in a healthy way. I didn’t trust myself enough, so I’d somehow convinced myself I wasn’t going beyond where I was—which actually wasn’t a bad place. I wasn’t massively discontent. I had many blessings: good health and good relationships.  

But I wasn’t stretching myself. And it wasn’t that I didn’t know what I wanted to go after, because I did. I really wanted to write novels, but I had one large problem in this arena (actually, several, but first things first): I couldn’t accept that novels-in-process are largely ephemeral things, some never finding their endings (or, often, even their middles).

And that’s because their “architect” just isn’t ready or seasoned, or committed.

And then something happened. My mother got sick. And I stepped up the pace and began writing furiously—and before I knew it, writing was my healer. And then it became my habit, and when my mother died, it became my commitment—and then, surprisingly, it evolved and became my joy: I had evolved. My new life was that I could hardly wait to get to my desk in the morning and dive back into my story.

I didn’t know it yet, but I’d just begun blurring the lines between work and play.   

And the next before-I knew-it was I’d finally found a middle and an ending to a novel—my novel—and I became content with myself, even though this first novel wasn’t commercially viable (and I knew it).

But what that first finished story (the one every writer has at the bottom of her/his closet) gave me was the knowledge that I had the ability to find middles and endings.

I held a meeting with myself. Where was I going next?

The answer was I now wanted to try writing something commercially viable. How would I get there?

By taking another first step, my husband, DDF, reminded me.

This next first step was already growing from an idea I’d fallen in love with some time before this. It had come about while visiting a Revolutionary War battlefield. Wandering that old Pennsylvania battlefield, I imagined a woman looking back on her own life’s fight for autonomy, and I knew, at that moment, I had “something”—what, specifically, I’d no clue. As I said, novels are especially fragile at their beginnings.   

But I did know I wanted to incorporate suspense, mystery, a love story, and all sorts of other meaty things into my autonomy story—and I wanted to have fun “building” it.   

So I took that first next step and began writing, and at a subsequent “daily briefing” with myself, I suddenly came to another realization: I wanted more than a book.

I wanted the lines in life to blur further.     

Actually, I want to make living well an art form.  

DDF, who enjoyed life to the fullest, knew the value of play. My husband played his heart out at tennis, golf, skiing, skating, biking, table tennis; you name it, all the while never losing sight of his responsibilities. He became ill while I wrote what would turn out to be The Angry Woman Suite, a suspense/historical novel about a celebrity double murder in Pennsylvania and the fallout on three generations of two families.

His illness, which started with the occasional “lost” word, became a 6-year journey to the bed just a few feet away from me, where he lies peacefully as I write this. He’s near death. Has our 6-year journey been hard? You betcha. But did we still have fun along the way?

You betcha times ten. We did our best to blur the lines.

I had a 90-day corporate meeting with myself last night.

Where am I going next? I asked myself. What will life look like without my husband in it? How do I even get started going where I’m going? And do I really have to go there?

Yes, I really do.

Many times I haven’t had a clue about anything in life. I rise up to meet it, only to find again and again that life’s a lot like novels at their beginnings: ephemeral, variable, hard to pin down.

But a master in the art of living—and, trust me, I’m not there! I’m a wannabe—knows that the pursuit of something, anything, is undertaken with equal parts work and play, blurring the lines.

I’ve picked up my husband’s healthiest tools for living well and added them to my toolbox. I intend to use all mine and his where I’m going, which is on to the next novel outline, the next character sketch—in fact, one of my new characters is almost fully developed, looking something like this:  

“He was decent, no matter the stories whispered about him, which I’ve since concluded were due to the fact that he was relatively young and still good-looking by the time everyone got to calling him “the keeper of Broadway”—in short, that he was a conniver was assumption. What he was, after all was said and done, was still a boy from the sticks, the purest kind of Oklahoma boy, a charm that worked for him—and on me—every single time.”      

This character is looking a bit like the man I married—or at least he does now. But characters, like life, have a way of changing.

Still, this is where I’m starting, Baby Rae at my side, for now.  

The Angry Woman Suite is available from Amazon, and via the Barnes and Noble website.

Wooden Ships and Writing Fiction, Free and Easy

I love the sun—an excellent reason for living in San Diego—however, because I live on the peninsula, I generally experience more fog than sun. I don’t love fog but the deep, steady cadence of fog horns stirs something deep and primal in me—perhaps I was a seafarer in a previous life?

Hmmm . . . more likely I sold smelly fish dockside. . . .

But when the sun breaks through the fog or marine layer on the peninsula—and bear with me here, because I’m about to go all sappy on you—when it does, it’s like a benediction.

We celebrate the sun up on the point because it’s rarer here, and thus never taken for granted.

When it happens, it is the absolute loveliest thing to wake to sun streaming through my windows. What I see on a clear day, down the hill, is a sail-studded bay and the graceful arch of the Coronado Bay Bridge, and beyond the bridge, the hills of Mexico. To the left of the bridge is a city of silver skyscrapers shining in the sun, cradling an airport.   

And that view, instead of fog, is what has greeted me every morning this past week, thanks to a high pressure ridge, and it’s something we’re expecting for another full week.      

It was four days ago, right after I sent the last read-through of my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, back to my editor, and was thinking, What’s next? What do I do next, first? (if that makes sense) that I opened the newspaper and looked straight on at a full-page color sketch of a 3-masted Spanish galleon—so beautiful, she took my breath away. The stuff of dreams, of magic and adventure. I jumped into her story.

The galleon was called San Salvador, and she sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542—a full sixty-five years before the first English settlement on the North American continent. She was the flagship of an expedition led by Juan Cabrillo, the first European to explore San Diego Bay. Although Juan Cabrillo is memorialized by a statue at the tip of the peninsula, there is no remaining physical evidence of the beautiful San Salvador in San Diego.

But, oh, it gets better. . . .

Because there’s going to be. Funded in part by The San Diego Maritime Museum, and a very large contribution by an anonymous San Diegan, the museum is building a full-sized, historically accurate, working replica of Juan Cabrillo’s wooden ship.

In my backyard.

Okay, not literally. But almost.  

The San Salvador is being built on public land at Spanish Landing, across from the airport, an easy walk from my house—and so, of course, off I went with my brother, Brian, who also lives on the peninsula, a student of anything maritime and historical, to take a look at her.

It was still early morning when we set out—as I said, an easy walk—and climbing the Nimitz St. bridge, caught a glimpse of long reddish “fingers” touching the bluest of skies.  

We walked twenty feet or so along a winding underpass, past a myriad of mysterious tools and band saws and huge stacks of wood, until we emerged bayside again; amazingly, right next to varnished oak cross ribs rising ark-like from the keel, the backbone of what will be, in a year or so, a 92-foot, 3-masted wooden ship.

We didn’t speak . . . we walked the length of that keel and those ribs that look much like cathedral ribs turned skyward, and I imagined 16th century ship shipwrights piecing their wooden ships together without the help of naval historians or plans drawn on a computer and transmitted to a 93-foot by 35-foot lofting floor where today’s crew can look on a virtual drawing (made up of “jigsaw puzzle” pieces) of the ship for construction.

So how did those 16th century shipwrights build their ships?  

By the seat of their pants, come to find out. Trial and error. And probably always asking themselves, What’s next?

Because isn’t that what we all ask ourselves when we begin building something new for the first time, whether it be a house, a business, a painting, a Spanish galleon—or a novel?

What’s next? How do I make this work? How do I make this the best of the best? How to start, which direction to go, how to make my “dream” workable, and solid and beautiful at the same time? 

And that’s what I think is so cool about us. By that, I mean the big “us.” The human race. We reach, we move forward, and we build things from nothing but dreams and visions. We are innovative, and though our penchant for momentum is what often makes us giant pains in the patooties, too, it more often—and definitely historically—is what makes the human condition magnificent.

And that’s what I saw in that San Salvador skeleton. I saw “us” as builders—and it moved me, because the upside of us as a species is that we do bring the impossible to life. And if the first San Salvador, a “mere” vision before it became a launched reality and made history, wasn’t a stunning example of that, nothing is. And this second San Salvador was “just” a dream, too, before it became a keel and ribs on the beach—and the vision is that our second San Salvador will be used to travel the California coast as an ambassador for a city shining in the sun: San Diego.

What’s next?

Interestingly—to me, anyway, but especially on my “San Salvador day”—I’ve been asking myself, What’s next? a lot lately. I’ve started a second novel, and it’s slow going, primarily because I’ve been working toward the launch of The Angry Woman Suite, my novel about a double murder and the ensuing fallout on two generations—and I also have a fulltime day job and an ill husband: I’m busy.

But you know what they say about excuses. Plus, I don’t want to be one of those people who wave excuses around, until excuses become how they’re known. You know, like “the excuse lady.” Ugh. I don’t want to be that.      

What I want is to be a 16th century shipwright flying by the seat of her pants. Yes, I do.

Because building a story is also like working with jigsaw puzzle pieces. Making up believable primary and secondary characters; constructing a story arc, a plot line, secondary plots, dialogue that is spot-on, narrative with momentum, building tension—and, oh, did I once mention cohesion in all this?—a story with cohesion, where everything fits perfectly together, coming right up! Whew, where to start? And when you close up shop for the night, where to start again the next night?  

Of course it would be easier to plop down in front of the TV and tell yourself you’ll “work it” when you’re feeling the inspiration, when life isn’t so busy, when the day job’s not so hard, when you’re not needed so much, when you’re not so tired or put-upon—which is exactly how novels don’t get written.

And “plopping down” also guarantees a galleon won’t be built.  

So, what’s next? I asked myself on the beach the day I met San Salvador, walking the length of her keel and ribs and marveling at the idea, the sheer ballsiness, of her. Not just because she’s in my backyard, so to speak. But because she truly is rising from the ashes of a 16th century ballsy dream, from the hands of long-ago shipwrights who had to have asked themselves a few hundred times, “Oh holy hell, what do we have to try next to make this bloody thing fast and maneuverable, yet still big enough to hold people, horses, pigs, and cargo for weeks, months, on end, on the high seas?”

Variations of this question have always defined us, from inventing the wheel through to re-inventing it a bazillion times more throughout millennia—but the answer to “what’s next?” has always been the same: stay with “it” . . . stay the course; otherwise you’ll never know about bringing something home.   

So there you have it. Easy-peasy (do you want to slap me now?). Whether it’s a ship you’re building, a career, a family, your first book or the second, commit, and then fly by the sea of your pants. Trial and error. Stay with the vision, if for no other reason than the sheer ballsiness of rising to a challenge, falling down, and picking yourself back up again, until you finally bring your vision home. Because bringing home a dream is about as good as it gets.

As always, thanks for coming by! Till next time (and more on the ship and more on writing). . . .        


Going Into The Unknown

The cover of the first edition of Adventures o...

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Is anything scarier for a writer than total blankness?

As in his or her mind? And the blank screen in front of same?

In a word: no. Though rejection runs a close second.

“Going into the unknown is invariably frightening, but we learn what is significantly new only through adventures.” M. Scott Peck, MD (psychiatrist and best-selling author)

I sort of love that quote. So I’ve reframed writer’s block—the dreaded blankness—as Peck’s unknown. And Peck’s interesting use of the word adventures, as in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is infinitely more seductive than the word discipline (what is actually required for trudging through the darkness of blankness). And, see, I can’t help translating adventure as fun: a night on the town, an exotic vacation, and/or white water rafting. Now we’re talking.

We’re talking a method of making writers block palatable, even … adventurous. Because writing can be hard, people.

So why do it?

Excellent question—but it’s like asking why climb Everest, or build outrageously tall buildings, or do Sudoko. (I get the first two, but Suduko?)  

Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is generally regarded as the first Great American Novel, is my conception of the complete man. He was smart, brave, a little dark—okay, a lot dark—funny, and hot, and a first-class adventurer.   

So hot that I initially (and unconsciously) fashioned Aidan Madsen, the romantic lead of my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, after Mark Twain—er, till someone told me rather derisively that George Clooney might actually be hotter than Twain (and way less dead). An apt observation–and so, yes, Aidan Madsen is now Clooney-hot . . . he also has layers. And secrets. He is, in a word, complicated–maybe even dangerous. But more about Aidan later.   

Mark Twain put the manuscript for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn away for months, even years, before finally finishing it. Maybe because he was drawing blanks all over the place. Or maybe it was the fear of confronting the realities of slavery—but in the end, Twain the adventurer followed through on the theme of his novel, doing what he had Huck do: the hard thing. 

Despite the occasional “blank-out” or boredom, rising to a challenge, along with tenacity, are the primary characteristics of writers (and mountain climbers and builders-in-the-sky).

Okay, and Sudoko savants, too. The act of writing is not an unknown. Neither are the acts of scaling mountains and building skyscrapers. The mind itself is the unknown. Whether blank (asleep), or awake, it’s the uncharted.

So, going into the mind—what all adventurers do—is the ultimate game. The kind of work that’s fun. It’s why writers confront the dark blankness of fear, and keep going back to it again and again, meeting self-imposed challenges and repeatedly raising their bars. Simply put, writers are competitors who write to best themselves.