Tag Archives: writing

Remember Snail Mail?

It took such a long time. By the time the mailman brought an answer to your letter, the situation often had changed, but…  you had a permanent piece of paper with the other person’s handwriting on it. I saved some of my grandmother’s letters.

I don’t miss it. Email is so much faster and more spontaneous. People tended to worry about paper mail. They wrote it out first and then copyed it out on nice stationery. Half the time, they got intimidated and ended up not writing at all.

Back in Cave Junction, we sat around a rusted little metal table with our colored marking pens and decorated our letters and envelopes with psychedelic designs. I will be going to Cave junction next week; I expect to find the place changed since we lived in a tiny cabin next to the Illinois River. I drew on my experiences there and used Cave Junction as one of the settings in my novel, “A Shack on the Outskirts of Heaven.” It will be fun to look around.



My parents were terrified of uncertainty. They had a hunkered-down mentality, as if they were spending their lives in a bunker. Taking any kind of risk was unthinkable. “Don’t rock the boat.” “Be careful–you don’t want to burn your bridges.” Being raised this way tends to give a person a slow start.

My parents had a skewed way of looking at things—college, for example. I was told that I had to go to college so I could get a job and pick up the slack if something happened to my husband. This was my mother’s reality; my dad had an accident and ended up partially disabled. Mother graduated magna cum laude from USC and after graduation, she went to work as one of the “girls” in a dental office. Every job she ever had was in a doctor’s or dentist’s office, and she seemed to believe a bachelor’s degree was required for these jobs. She never had a library card; for entertainment, she read the short articles in Reader’s Digest.

I, on the other hand, was a book addict. I always wanted to write. I wrote my first “novel” at age 9, about a horse. At university, I had lots of ideas for books and stories, but there was always an academic paper that I had to write instead. I don’t think they had degrees in creative writing in those days, so I majored in literature. When I graduated, I was expected to return home and get a job filing charts in the doctor’s office where Mother worked. I needed that degree in order to file the charts in alphabetical order.

I rebelled. I drifted from one place to the next, picking fruit, cleaning houses, pulling weeds, and writing in fits and starts. I never finished anything I wrote. I ended up a single mom, and like my mother, found myself doing doctor’s office jobs—billing insurance, transcribing chart notes and letters, and handling worker’s compensation claims. In my spare time, I started a novel set in Egypt’s First Intermediate Period. I wrote 300 pages before I got stuck. By then, my daughter had grown up, and I had moved up from working in private medical offices to hospital systems. It was a good living until I got laid off. Writing was still my passion, though, and I started another novel. I finished that one and wrote two more books. It has taken a lot of years, but I’m using my education at last! I’m a very late bloomer, but now I’m writing from a lifetime of experiences as a single mom working in the trenches. The good thing about being a late bloomer is having so much to draw on—bizarre work situations, hitchhiking, living in the woods, and so much more. I have lived it all.

Switching Gears

Around the middle of June, I finished the first draft of a novel. It’s my third book.

Since I was laid off from my job, I’ve been writing every spare moment that I didn’t spend in my discouraging, fruitless job search. My characters feel very real to me, and I’ve been so absorbed in telling their stories that I haven’t focused on the next step–getting my work out in the world.

I put the last novel away for a while to let it cool before I look at it again. I’m sure I’ll find lots of ways to make it better when it’s time for the second draft. Between books now, I’ve been filling up days and hours jumping from one website to the next, learning about what I need to do to get my books “out there.” I need to send out query letters to small presses and literary agents. Queries need a “hook,” a synopsis, and a bio, all on one page. Am I intimidated? Oh, am I ever! I have to rewire my brain into a whole new mode.

My  Books:

At Play in the Apocalypse — My own experiences as a university student during the Isla Vista riots in 1970. The book opens in San Francisco with the Vietnam War Moratorium, where my boyfriend Joel and I first met, and continues with our romance during the riots, burning of the Bank of America, and the brutal police occupation that followed. Here’s a paragraph:

“All the lights are on in the bank. The broken doors stand open and the fluorescent glare spills out onto the sidewalk. Overturned furniture and loose papers cover the floor along with broken glass, pens, rubber stamps, and smashed adding machines.  A crowd has gathered; everyone stands and stares at the ruined bank. Slowly, we all form into a silent line, and we file through the bank and out again. No one says a word, and nobody touches anything; we’re paranoid about fingerprints and being caught later with anything from the inside of that bank. I worry about the surveillance cameras. Are they filming our procession through the rubble under the harsh, white lights? But for some reason I don’t understand, it feels important to be here, as if we are somehow documenting what has happened.  I think we all sense that this is a turning point, that our lives will never be the same.”

A Shack on the Outskirts of Heaven — The story alternates between Celeste, a twenty-something who finds herself pregnant after a brief romantic interlude with a guy she met while traveling in Ireland, and Eileen, her mother, who became pregnant with Celeste under similar circumstances. It’s about being pregnant without a man around. How do we cope with that loneliness and make do on our own?

“All evening I’ve been sitting here alone at the computer, my mug of tea untouched, getting sadder and sadder. I looked up home births on the Internet; I want to read stories about single moms having their babies at home, but all the birth stories are about married couples, and the men are awesome–totally helpful. What is this? Do single mothers always end up having hospital births because they don’t have any support at home? That’s not the way it is for me—Liz is coming, and Holly and Maddy will be here. They’re all excited–they went to the library and checked out books about pregnancy. But reading about these women with their kind, helpful, loving husbands makes me feel so left out. I feel totally alone, like having my man here is the only thing that matters.”

Looking for John — The story continues where “Shack on the Outskirts” left off. It’s about John, Niall’s young son. Niall is also the father of Celeste’s child. John’s mother kidnaps him, and his dad, frantic and heartbroken, searches for him everywhere.

“Uncle Conor’s red car is parked in the driveway down below. That means he’s home and I have to be careful. I take off my shoes and tiptoe so I don’t make a sound. It’s warm up here in the cupola, sunshine makes the floor tiles shine like gold. I go from window to window, keeping watch. I’m high above the roof and I can look out over the whole city. I look down at the streets and watch for Da’s car. I wish he were here. I haven’t seen him in ever so long.”

I’m reading The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters by Wendy Burt-Thomas. Learning to market my work is a lot like going through training on a new job.

Coming up for air

I’m about halfway through the fourth draft of my novel and hope to have this latest version done by the end of the month. It’s going well, I think. I don’t know how many work-throughs it will take; each time, after I put it aside for a few months, I find new places that need serious improvement.

I will be posting for Sunday Scribblings again when this draft is finished.

I’m still working full-time at the job that pays the bills, but I’ve been 32 years in an occupation that is fast becoming obsolete due to automation and outsourcing. Spending all my spare time on my novel helps me avoid thinking about this, but it’s time to start considering what to do next. I want to write, and ideas can’t be outsourced. Brainstorming is in order, and I will have to chisel away the calcific deposits that have formed around my brain from working the same kind of job for so many years and start “thinking outside the box.”


I’ve been working hard on my novel’s fourth draft all week. After being away from it for awhile, I was able to see a part where it drags, and I need to figure out how to tell it in a different way, or perhaps not tell that part at all; I haven’t worked that out yet.

Saturday morning, I came up for air to go to the Wordstock festival at the Convention Center. It was the best thing I could have done. In addition to rows and rows of booths with different small press publishers and lit mags, authors were reading their work, giving talks, and participating in panel discussions on eight different stages. There were so many, it was hard to choose which ones to attend! You could also sign up for workshops; I didn’t but bought the book that went with one of them, Get Known Before the Book Deal, a Platform Development Checklist by Christina Katz.

I loved Joyce Maynard, who read from her new novel, Labor Day. Julia Glass read from I See You Everywhere. Her first novel, Three Junes, the book I’m currently reading, won the National Book Award. Prior to that though, it took seven years of continuously sending her work out before her first short story was accepted. Stories like that really give me hope. I was late to the panel, “Fire and Ink: Writing About Social Action,” and missed some of it, but the speakers were either mumbling and not speaking into the microphones, or the microphones were off; at any rate, I couldn’t hear anything they said. Then the poet Frances Payne Adler got up, turned on her mike, and blew us all out of the water with a riveting poem about a woman being arrested and dragged off by the police.

Authors in the panel, “My First Book,” were giving advice to a 13-year-old who wants to write. It was either Naseem Rakha or Marie Mockett who told her to make a note in every book she reads when she comes to a paragraph that grips her emotions; just write the feeling down in the margin–sadness, anger, joy–and then go back later and figure out what the author did to evoke that emotion. I think I might try that myself.

And off she goes…

I sent the story off again. I have a couple of things out now, after not submitting any stories for a long time when all the writing I was doing was on my novel. I got lots of rejections before I started that novel, but I got something accepted, too, only to have the magazine abruptly fold and cease publication just when the issue with my story was about to come out. Now I have to get used to rejection letters all over again, as I’m working on stories in between revisions of the novel.

Yesterday’s rejection was the first of what will inevitably be many, and I decided to change the energy on my end at least. Now I’m having a bit of fun composing an all-purpose rejection letter of my own.

Dear Writer:

Just by adding to the hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts we receive every day you have already annoyed us even before we opened our mail. An enormous glut of submissions makes it impossible for us to respond personally, but these few cogent points cover nearly every circumstance:

1.  You may have noticed that we publish the same authors over and over again. This is because we like what they write. If your manuscript does not resemble P.J. Inkwell, Clementine Boxwood, or “Iguana” (well, you get the idea), chances are it is not for us.

2.  If your writing does, perchance, bring “Iguana” or the others to mind, we may come to the verge of liking it, but why should we use it when we can publish the real thing?

Therefore, for either/both of the above reasons, your manuscript has been recycled.


Iguana, Editor

A “bad mail” day

A story I’d sent out came back today with a form rejection letter– “We’ve returned your work if sufficient postage was included. If not, we assumed we could recycle it.” Ouch! I’m sitting here licking my wounds instead of being mindful. The bowl of soup I had for supper was good, Japanese noodle soup to which I added tofu and chopped zucchini and yellow squash. It was hot and comforting, and I did remember to pay close attention to the taste and different textures once or twice during the meal, but the rest of the time, my mind was going round and round about what to do next. I need to send the story back out (get right back on the horse), but which magazine is the best choice?  I’m leaning toward Tin House but decided to sleep on it first. Decision making is always easier in the morning.

Today I discovered how hard it is to practice mindful eating or any kind of mindfulness for that matter when I’ve had a disappointment, so I’ll try just sitting with that feeling for awhile and letting it be.