Crooked House

If I was an architect or a builder, I’m sure that I’d be building falling-down bridges and houses whose floors tilted so that marbles would roll from wall to wall. My staircases would be crooked and there would be corridors that led nowhere. Surely, the bathtubs would leak onto the kitchen table.

It’s taken me decades to construct this book of mine, this story-without-end. I’ve read countless books and taken classes, hired helpers and still, this unwieldy piece of writing has eluded me like Jell-O slipping through my fingers.

I spent today in a fever, writing a book proposal for this agent Pitch-a-Thon that I decided, spontaneously, to sign up for. It’s hard spending years writing a book that nobody really cares about or wants. I just decided I’d had it, and I was going to put together a proposal and march myself over to this agent and wind myself up and pitch.

The agent has very considerately provided a book proposal Template on his website. I filled out all the sections. It wasn’t going so badly. But then it got to the Table of Contents section.

Include the full Table of Contents, with detailed summaries of each chapter. This section could be anywhere from three to 20 pages – it needs to give a comprehensive, detailed map of what the book will contain.

I have an outline that I’ve been following for the past year or so. I copy-pasted it and started tweaking it and editing the “detailed summaries.” As I did this, I could feel a growing sense of dread and hatred. I hated it. I hated its chronological orderliness.

For years, I have been declaring that I do not want my book to have a “traditional shape.” And yet I keep writing these deadly, chronological, traditional chapters. I ploddingly put them in order. It is killing me.

It turns out that it was a great idea to write this dreadful book proposal. Because it showed me just how deadly bad it is, and how much I do not want to keep going in this vein. In the middle of the afternoon, an industrial sized light bulb exploded in my brain. And I remembered a book.

Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth. Eureka! I scrambled through the thousands of books in our ridiculous collection and finally, after hours, I found it.

I have just spent the past half hour studying the structure of this collection of autobiographical essays. It’s not in chronological order. Hooray! It’s not even in any kind of thematic order. The chapters, or essays, range in length from two pages to 57 pages (akin to a novella). They ricochet throughout her life, starting with a “preverbal baby memory” and then bouncing from teen years, to adulthood, to preadolescence, to age three and ten and eighth grade. The structure is both invisible and unnecessary. It’s a book about her. It’s a book about relationships and family. That’s it. It’s full of beautiful imagery and sentences.

I don’t know if this is what my book will look like. But just knowing that it CAN be a book with asymmetrical windows, boarded up closets and an inexplicable sprinkler system, has made me breathe a whole lot easier.

How do you come up with structure for a book or a short piece? Do you know right away what its shape will be? What patterns or things to hold it together? This has been the single most challenging thing about writing this damn book, and I welcome any shared experiences.

I’ve been dealing with some writing “stuckness” in the past month or so. And I’ve been aware that it’s had to do with both inner and outer obstacles. The writing was just not happening.

  • The first thing I needed to deal with was my space. I alternate between writing in my home office, and my shared office space at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. But recently I realized I was fleeing to the Grotto more often than not, because my own space was just such a damn mess. These photos don’t even begin to show the half of the mountains of paper and boxes all over the floor. I could barely get from one end of the room to the other. Well, I hired a TaskRabbit to help me out last week. I just needed someone to sit next to me, to cheer me on, and to not let me get bogged down in reading every single sheet of paper. She just held up the basket and said, helpfully, “Recycle, right? Right!” In the end, I filled up more than half of the giant bin out on my driveway. That’s about 10 grocery bags worth of unnecessary paper. It made an immediate difference. Suddenly, I wanted to sit in my cozy chair to read. I wanted to sit at my desk and write. For the first time in many months, I wanted to hang out in this pretty space I have in my own home.
  • IMG_8202.JPGI also just picked up this book that I’d been hearing a lot about: “the life-changing magic of tidying up.” I could honestly build a CABIN out of all the decluttering/organizing books I’ve purchased over the years (with varying results), so I had to laugh at myself for getting yet one more. But the voice in this book is so very Japanese – it’s kind of strict, kind of charming and very compelling, in a very new way. It’s all about letting go of stuff. And her approach is unique – she doesn’t advocate going room-by-room, or doing a “little at a time,” which many books encourage, as a way of not freaking people out. Well, this author is apparently not afraid of freaking people out. I’m a little freaked out. But intrigued by her approach, which is to go by category. Ie., clothes, books, kitchen equipment. Her way is to lay ALL the stuff out at once. Like, ALL of it. Every. Single. Piece. Of Clothing. Or book, or whatever. And then have a massive laying on of hands. Of deciding if this object truly is worthy of keeping. She has guidelines for deciding yes or no. And the rest of it – the majority of it – out it goes. GONE. Yeah, it freaked me out. But it also made me think: this is probably what I need.
  • After I dealt with the outer environment, I had to deal with the inner environment. I took a trip to see my therapist, whom I hadn’t visited in years. But she knows me well, she knows the pits that I can crumbfall into, especially regarding my writing. She calmed me down and reminded me of some things. She reminded me that I’ve often settled for “crumbs” in certain relationships (relationships that appear to be in direct opposition to my writing life) and that the price of those crumbs is diminishing my voice. I left there thinking about crumbs. And the need for a
    little compassion.
  • I also had to deal with my body, which has been similarly cluttered. As I wrestled with writing issues, I often used food as a form of comfort. This didn’t really lead to long-term comfort, of course, but actually a kind of numbed out despair. So on February 1st, I embarked on a 30-day Whole30 plan. I decided to eliminate alcohol, sugar, grains, legumes and dairy products, just to see what would happen.  It’s been 3 weeks now, and I’m feeling a heck of a lot better. And it’s a lot easier than I had ever imagined. I’m never really hungry in ways that I used to be, I’m not craving any of those things, and I’m just feeling overall cleaner. I haven’t quite decided what I’m going to do when the 30 days are up, but I do know that these changes have had a positive impact on my inner physical state, and no doubt for the writing as well.
  • Final step involved clearing out my schedule, which is typically packed-to-the-gills busy with events, activities, social things, readings, classes, etc. I made time for a morning of silent walking followed by silent writing. I was nervous. After all of this clearing, would the words really come? Yesterday morning I joined up with five other silent walker-writers. We walked through the beauty of a redwood forest. I found a meadow with beautiful views. The fresh green was brilliant. IMG_8226.JPG

After all of this – the office cleaning, the therapy, the fresh food and the walking  – finally, there were no more obstacles in the way. I sat down after the hour walk, took out my notebook, and the words came.  Relief.


Walk without speaking for one hour. Then, write without stopping for another hour. It’s a simple sequence, but somehow it’s magical, what that combination can produce.

I’ve been doing this practice since 1996, when my writing friend introduced me to it. We’d switch locations: one week, we’d walk the beach in San Francisco and then write at her house; then the next week, we’d walk in the redwood forest and write at mine. We ended up writing hundreds of pages in this way.

What happened in that silence during the walk?  Every walking hour was different. Sometimes it was filled with worry, or running through a mental to-do list, or hashing out the happenings of the previous day. Sometimes, the words that would later be fill the page, came into our minds whole. All we would have to do when we got to the notebook or computer, was spill them out.

Eventually, my friend moved, first out of the country, and then to New York City. Our shared walking/writing sessions had to happen long distance. We walked quietly on our own, and then faxed our pages back and forth.  We were only able to walk together during scarce visits to each others’ coasts.

Last year, I began inviting others to share this practice with me. It has been incredibly moving for me to witness other people experiencing this for the first time. Something happens in the quiet. The words come.

The next group session will take place this Sunday, February 22nd, starting at the Skyline Gate lot of Redwood Regional Park at 10:00am.  Let me know if you’d like to join us.

book cover art by Mollie Ito Roark

book cover art by Mollie Ito Roark

I’m so excited. My mini-memoir, The Mouse Room, was published by SheBooks a few weeks ago.  Yahoo! I’ve been working not this crazy story for decades- first as fiction, then as part of longer piece, then finally as this little 33-page memoir. I’m proud of it. I worked really hard at it and had some fabulous editing by the folks at SheBooks.

I’ve gotten wonderful responses so far. Some very cool Amazon reviews. But one of the things I was not expecting, was to hear several people say to me, “I’d love to read your book, but I don’t have an e-reader!”

Don’t have a Kindle or a Nook? No problem! There’s a free Kindle reading app, so you can read it on virtually anything with a screen. Your laptop. Your phone. Your iPad. Your smart television!

free kindle

It takes a few seconds to download. Voila! Some people said, “Oh, cool! I didn’t know that! I’ll go do that right now!”

But some other people said, “I’m sorry. I’d love to read it. But I only read on paper.”

Wait. Really? But didn’t you just say this on email? Or in a text message? Or on Facebook?

You only read on paper?

I can understand this. I love paper books. In fact, I own thousands of them. THOUSANDS. I love the way that they look and feel and smell. I love being able to scribble in them. And turn down their little doggie ears. (another sacrilege to many, I’m sure)

On the other hand, I’ve had other people comment that they won’t buy or read a book if it’s NOT electronic, because too many trees have already been killed. And because books are too heavy and take up too much space and the bookshelves are already toppling over from the weight.

Noooo! Not the trees!

Noooo! Not the trees!

I was discussing this with another writer/reader yesterday. She said, and I think this pretty much sums it up for me,

“I love words. I just love words, in any form.”

That’s how I feel.

She went on. “What if Gutenberg said, Look at this amazing piece of writing I just produced on a printing press! Many people can read it at once!” And what if some people responded, warily, “No. I only read works that are written, by hand, in calligraphy. I only trust writing made by humans, not machines.”  And what if the first calligraphers were told by suspicious naysayers, “I’ll only read it if it’s chiseled in a stone tablet. Or painted in animal blood on a cave wall.” Etcetera.

What’s this about? Is it fear of change? Dislike of technology? I can relate to this on many levels. I, who was once (long ago) so enchanted by the zippy magic of email, am now mounting a personal handwritten letter campaign so that I can again enjoy the thrill of finding a personal letter in my (actual, wooden) mailbox. (yes. if you write me a handwritten letter, I promise that I will write one back.) I am even taking a calligraphy class next month in order to bone up on my rusty Weaver Writing Style!

write to me. I'll write back.

write to me. I’ll write back.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Just because we take up reading e-books, which I am doing more and more of these days, (I looooove getting free samples on my iPad to see if I really want to invest the time and money in a book), it doesn’t mean abandoning books forever. I love being able to increase the font size in an e-book to assist my (cough) aging eyes. I love carrying a hundred books with me in my phone that I can read while waiting in pesky lines.  My husband is fond of reading Gilead during half-time at Warriors games. (that’s my guy: preferring Marilynne Robinson over the Warrior Girls!) But I also love reading paper books and writing paper letters.  And even making paper.

making paper with our own little hands

making paper with our own little hands

So what’s it for you?  Would you never read an e-book? Never kill another tree for literature? Or do you just… love words?



cool souvenirs I brought home

cool souvenirs I brought home

BEFORE: I’m so excited. I’m so so so so excited! I should be packing, but instead I am poring over the schedule and all the details for the upcoming AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Seattle, where I’ll be headed tomorrow!!

I first attended AWP in Tempe, Arizona back when I was a MFA student twenty years ago (!) and one of our fantastic professors, Elmaz Abinader, took a little group of us to our first writers’ conference. It blew my mind, and introduced me to the incredible world of authors and poets and small presses and chapbooks, sessions about teaching pedagogy, readings from dawn till dawn, and amazing, inspirational panels about every topic imaginable (and some beyond imagining!). It broadened my life and horizons in ways I couldn’t even begin to describe.

Elmaz and two of her very first MFA students! (20 yrs later)

Elmaz and two of her very first MFA students! (20 yrs later)

I’ve had a few other opportunities to go to AWP, and every time has been wonderful in its own way. The last time I attended was in Vancouver, where I got to meet up with some of the other editors from Literary Mama.

Literary Mama Kate Hopper reading from her memoir

Literary Mama Kate Hopper reading from her memoir Ready for Air

AWP is often described as a fantastic reunion, and for me this is true. I am so thrilled to be meeting up with some of my favorite writers and friends, some of whom I don’t get to see for many years at a stretch.

SheBooks reception. The perfect wine!

SheBooks reception. The perfect wine!

Are you going to AWP? I just started putting together my already overpacked schedule, and here’s where you’ll find me, through the next few days.

We were in a writing group together 23+ years ago!

We were in a writing group together 23+ years ago!


It was great. It was exciting. And overstimulating. And exhausting. And yes, a big giant writers’ reunion. I got to hang with some of my favorites. The panel I was on turned out to be fantastically well attended and lively. (see a review of it here)

"How Far, Imagination: Writing Characters of a Different Race" panelists

“How Far, Imagination: Writing Characters of a Different Race” panelists

I barely slept. I got hoarse from speaking loudly in crowded rooms. I was absolutely melted when it was all over. But worth it? Absolutely.

keynote speaker Annie Proulx

keynote speaker Annie Proulx




blurred-eye-chartI’ve been putting off going to my eye doctor for a couple of years now, even though I really need it. I’m supposed to go annually ever since my diabetes diagnosis. Even though I have to take off my glasses and hold a piece of paper up to my nose to read it, I still procrastinate. Beyond having a ridiculously busy schedule, I have to ask WHY? I keep forgetting the name of the opthamologist. I keep having to ask my endocrinologist, What was her name again? And I write it down. And then I forget again.

Today I remembered something which I think is the clue to my “forgetfulness.”

I remember sitting in the chair with my eyes all dilated and blurred. I think the doctor asked me something about my medical history. I said I did not know because I was adopted. (sigh)

She said, “You were adopted? How CUUUUUUTE!”

I was stunned. For one thing, I was over fifty years old. This was a real trigger for someone who really, really dislikes being seen as an eternal adopted “child.” Even if we are thirty, fifty or ninety years old, some will always see us as “children.”

As I was peering blindly at a printed page this morning, this memory suddenly hit me and I realized why I will never, ever go back to this opthamologist again. This is just one of those microaggressions that has a long lasting internal ripple effect. Even if she meant no harm. (I’m sure she didn’t! She thinks adoption is cute!) I just realize I have no desire to go back to a health professional and use my eye exam time educating her about adoption. I just want to get my damn prescription fixed.

Now I’ve got to start searching through the fine print of the Yellow Pages and find one  that might have a clue.

IMG_1354The final leg of my nomadic writing sabbatical took place last week in a Secret Undisclosed Location in the Sierra foothills. One of my dear writing friends recently bought an amazing cabin/cathedral/barnlike structure DEEP in the forest (and I mean deep!). It is very beautiful and very remote. She invited me and another friend to come and have a writing retreat there. It’s quite stunning, out there in the woods.

I woke up to amazing views of the forest.


It took some very lovely walks and got back into the silent walk>writing routine. That was really nice.

manzanita forest

manzanita forest

We shared some wonderful meals together. It is so nice to cook and eat with friends. Here we invented a gorgeous dish of black rice pilaf with caramelized onions, shredded Brussels sprouts and toasted walnuts. With steamed artichokes and THREE dips (Sriracha, black olive and lemon paprika). Can you say yum???


I had some time to do some right-brain art. I’d signed up for an online art class and was stressing because I didn’t have the right materials or enough time or whatever. But once I got started, it was really quite wonderful.

"Mermaid In Distres"

“Mermaid In Distress”

Mermaid #2

Mermaid #2

It was good to be away. But even in remote locations, distractions can tumble in. I spent most of Friday distracted because I heard that my girl had gotten into a bicycle accident.  Her dad was working all day and hard to reach by cell. Long-distance fretting ensued. She needed to go to the ER and get a head scan. Fret fret fret. The scan turned out to be negative for bad stuff (wheww) but that took all day. And she still had a bad bump and a lopsided face and a black eye and concussion. So not much happened that day. (maybe that was the art day?)

And then there was Monday of course. The Boston Marathon and all of its heartbreak. I had several friends running in that race. Needless to say I didn’t get much done on that day other than this blog post.


I guess that’s what I’m learning. There are distractions. We do as much as we can. The world leaks in. I’ve decided to draw my nomad days to a close. For one, it was awfully nice to come  home to my Own Bed.


For the rest of my April sabbatical, I will be short-distance commuting to my new office spot at the Grotto. I brought my desk in there yesterday and am looking forward to making it all writing-conducive.


I’ve been to some amazing places this month. I’ve gotten good work in. But in the end, the place doesn’t matter as much as just sitting down and getting the damn thing done. Onward!


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