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stories matter nanowrimo sticker

A story is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle that would cover the whole floor of a room with its tiny pieces. But it’s not the sort of puzzle that comes with a box. There is no lid with a picture on it so that you can see what the puzzle will look like when it’s finished. And you have only some of the pieces.

All you can do is keep looking and listening, sniffing about in all sorts of places, until you find the next piece. And then you’ll be amazed where that next piece will take you.”

Finding Serendipity, Angelica Banks

I read Finding Serendipity in mid-November, and this quote struck me as perfect for NaNoWriMo.

Most people (including me) start NaNo with a shiny but elusive idea, and we spend the month chasing those ideas – or, as Banks would have it, sniffing about for the next puzzle piece. Some folks work from detailed outlines, but I tend to make a few notes and then plunge in.

My first two weeks of NaNo were, shall we say, prolific. I was a little hopped up on both caffeine and words by the end of Week 1:

 

I wrote so much, in fact, that my wrists and hands (not to mention my tired brain) began to protest:

 

I slowed my pace a little during the second half of November, but I still made an effort to crank out a thousand words or so every day. My story is full of plot holes (and too much dialogue), but I’m proud to say I hit 50,000 words over Thanksgiving weekend, which makes me a NaNoWriMo winner.

nanowrimo 2015 winner banner

My novel, Pies and Plies, isn’t nearly done, and I’m not sure it will ever see the light of day. But that isn’t the point. It’s flawed in a hundred places, but I still love the premise – which came to me in a dream this summer – of a family running a ballet studio-cum-pizza parlor (hence the title).

Every time I attempt NaNo, I take on a new creative challenge. This time, I enjoyed the process of drafting a young adult novel. (I read a ton of YA novels, but I’d never attempted to write one.) This story is set in the suburbs of Boston (instead of Oxford, where my previous two NaNoNovels take place). And while all my narrators end up sharing some of my thoughts and preoccupations, this narrator, Elise, is not a carbon copy of me. That was also a creative stretch, and a satisfying one.

I don’t think I’m a fiction writer at heart. I tend to write about what I know, or more specifically, what I think about what I know, and what happens to me. But I love stories and I believe that they matter, and I love joining in this annual, gleeful, worldwide burst of creativity. And it’s so satisfying to say it: I won!

Onward to December – wherein I will still be writing, but giving my wrists (and brain) a bit of a break. Whew!

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harvard yard leaves light

For long walks under bold blue autumn skies and vivid red and golden leaves.

For bouquets of yellow tulips and sunflowers, and a florist whose smile is kind.

For two groups of bookish colleagues, at Shelf Awareness and Great New Books, who make me laugh and make my to-be-read list grow every week.

For a new temp gig in my beloved Harvard Square neighborhood, which I’m already loving.

For chai lattes and strong black tea and spiced apple cider, sipped from paper cups or my favorite mugs.

For a husband who believes in me and cheers me on no matter what.

For family and friends whom I adore, who are wise and funny and supportive and kind.

For text messages and email and social media – all the tools that allow me to keep in touch with those I love.

For good books – stories and poetry that move me, make me think, entertain me, and make me want to be a better person.

For a small but stalwart church community of faithful, loving people.

For scented candles and funny TV shows and cozy slippers – all the little luxuries that make life more enjoyable.

For the blessing of having all I need – really, as Jaclyn said this week – more than enough.

gold-red-leaves-grass

It has been a hard couple of weeks in this world, and a hard few months in my own life. But today, I am pausing to remember the good, and give thanks.

If you’re celebrating, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving.

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nanowrimo laptop chai darwins

We are deep into November: golden leaves, crisp blue skies, vivid orange sunsets (which come all too soon every day now). And I am deep into my NaNoWriMo novel, because November is the month when writers around the world pick up their pens (or open their laptops) and begin writing furiously, trying to draft a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Yes, it’s crazy. Yes, my wrists and fingers are sore. But it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo twice before, writing a novel set in Oxford (mostly to assuage my deep homesickness) in 2008, and drafting a murder mystery, also set in Oxford, last year. This time around, I’m doing something a little different.

One morning this summer, I woke up from a dream about a combination pizza parlor and ballet studio, run by the same family. When I told my husband about it, he said, “That sounds like a young adult novel.” I came up with a title (Pies and Pliés) and put it on the back burner until November. Now, I’m in the thick of it, carving out chunks of time to write each day, in between job applications and freelance work and snapping pictures of leaves.

I love NaNo for many reasons. It’s a small but exuberant nonprofit run by fun people; it encourages school-age writers through its Young Writers Program; it provides writerly entertainment on Twitter for those of us plugging away at our projects. But mostly I love it because it celebrates creativity, and stories. The folks at NaNo believe passionately that stories matter, and they spend all year – especially November – encouraging others to put their stories out into the world.

There are several tricks to winning NaNoWriMo – “winning” being defined as producing 50,000 words on a new manuscript over the course of November. I’ve found it helpful to have an idea I’m really excited about, and to do a little noodling, a little plotting and note-taking, ahead of time. I haven’t worked from a detailed outline, though I know some writers do (and some writers simply open up a new Word doc and fly by the seat of their pants).

I also find it helpful, like Hemingway, to stop in the middle – of a scene, a chapter or a narrative event (not necessarily a sentence). Then I jot down a few notes so I have somewhere to start from the next day. And, most importantly, I’m enjoying the process. It’s fun.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo – or have you done it before? (Or attempted a similarly insane creative challenge?) I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!

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Privacy in public

chai journal pencil case darwins

For one reason and another, I have spent a lot of time working in libraries and coffee shops over the last few months. (If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve probably seen my copious photos of the chai lattes at Darwin’s.)

I love both settings, for different moods and often different kinds of work. But it occurred to me recently that both places offer a way to strike a balance between privacy and being in public.

farnsworth reading room lamont library harvard

In a library, it is of course generally expected that you won’t – or don’t have to – talk to anyone. Though many libraries now offer group study spaces, you can also settle in quite comfortably with your laptop at a table or in a deep armchair.

I spent an hour in Lamont Library (at Harvard) one recent afternoon with about fifteen other people – all of us tucked up in different corners of the Farnsworth Room, typing contentedly away at our computers or scribbling in notebooks. We weren’t oblivious of each other’s presence, but we didn’t have to acknowledge it, either.

The collective presence in the room formed a kind of reassuring cushion for me. Introvert that I am, I still like to know that there are other people out there in the world (or right next to me), working on their own projects, doing their thing. I like knowing I’m part of that collective, without having to talk to anyone.

darwins cafe cup

In a coffee shop, the boundaries are more porous. There’s food and drink, for one thing, and generally also music. (The music at Darwin’s ranges delightfully and eclectically from classic rock to indie folk to the occasional country song.) I’ve learned the names of a couple of baristas, and I know most of the other ones by sight – and I’m sure I surprise no one, any more, when I order a medium chai latte.

At Darwin’s, you still don’t have to talk to anyone – but the general volume is a little louder, the vibe chummier. People do sometimes ask if they can share tables, borrow a chair, or make use of a power strip or outlet. I know a few of the other regulars by sight, and occasionally I bump into a friend or colleague. I listen with pleasure to the baristas’ banter as they sling drinks behind the counter or bring new supplies up from the basement. (It reminds me of my days as a barista at the Ground Floor, long ago.)

Here, too, the background noise forms a sort of comforting baseline: the small noises of footsteps and chatter, the whirr and hum of the espresso machine, blend into a pleasing buzz. I can (usually) detach my brain from following individual noises, letting it rest in the general hum, as I jot down notes (or a to-do list) or type away on my computer. Around me, there’s usually a mix of fellow workers on their laptops, elderly men perusing the newspaper, the guy who brings in his pastels to sketch, and chattering pairs of friends.

I love my solitude, however I can get it: a solo lunch in Harvard Yard, a quiet evening at home alone, even disappearing into a book on a crowded subway train. But I also love this contradictory mix of privacy in public. I like being part of the rhythm of a place, even if – sometimes especially if – my thoughts and words can remain all my own.

Do you like hanging in out libraries and coffee shops?

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central park yellow flowers nyc

On a Wednesday morning earlier this month, I boarded a train from Boston to New York City. My husband was headed to a work conference in Texas, and I had decided to take a solo adventure while he was away.

When I told people about my plans, their initial response was always the same: “By yourself?”

My mother was doubtful, my sister surprised, my friend Abigail wistful. “You’re so brave,” she said. I’m fairly certain they all expected me to be nervous about spending three days in the city alone. But I could hardly keep the glee out of my voice.

I’m an introvert by nature, a small-town girl by upbringing and heritage. I’m the granddaughter, on both sides, of farmers who raised cattle and alfalfa hay on quiet green acres bordered by forests. I’m a West Texan, and I admit to loving the solitude and freedom of those wide open spaces: long gray ribbons of highway stretching to the horizon, the silhouettes of tall pump jacks and mesquite scrub against so much sky.

sunset sky west texas

I’ve come to cherish a different kind of solitude in recent years, though: the experience of being alone in a city.

I’m back at the Art House America blog today, sharing my love of being alone in the big city. Please join me over there to read the rest of my essay.

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hammer head coverI’m a writer. I have always wanted to be a writer.

Since I was a little girl scribbling in my first couple of diaries (the kind with locks and keys), or making up stories to tell myself before bed at night, I’ve loved playing with words. But in this digital age, writing can sometimes look a lot like moving pixels around a screen, and less like anything real. Sometimes, after a day of hitting the delete key once too often, I go home and plunge myself into more tangible tasks: cooking, knitting, washing dishes.

After spending her twenties working as a journalist for a Boston newspaper, Nina MacLaughlin found herself similarly dragged down by the endless clicking and digital noise of her day job. Finally, exhausted and soul-weary, MacLaughlin quit, and applied for a carpenter’s assistant position she found on Craigslist. Her gorgeous memoir, Hammer Head, charts her journey into the world of carpentry, working for a tough, wise woman named Mary and discovering an entirely new way of life.

I’m over at Great New Books today talking about Nina’s memoir – one of my favorite books of 2015. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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darwins journal scone tea

Another scene from my favorite cafe: tea, a raspberry scone and my current journal (with a note from Alisha taped inside).

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