“Are you okay?” my 12-year-old asks. We’re in the car, heading to the gym so he can lift weights and play basketball. My plan? To head to the neighborhood pub for a lonely glass of wine while he’s busy sweating.
Finishing a project is a sweet-bitter thing. Yes, the relief is great. But also–you miss it.
I miss reading Shakespeare. Of course, I can still read him, I know that, but there’s less of a hard motivation. It’s like clicking well with one person at a party and then wandering off to talk to other people. You like talking to other people, but you miss that one very clicky person.
(Full disclosure: I have never really had this experience at any party, because I hate crowds and if I find a person I can talk to I usually stick to that person long past the awkward stage and it’s all very weird and uncomfortable.)
And I felt a bit chokey when I deleted about 20 tabs from my browser, all related to my book. Poof. And immediately I worried that I’d never be able to find that page, ever again. And someday I might need it.
And–I no longer have the perfect excuse for spending seven hours every Sunday planted at my kitchen table, writing. And I have to ask myself: Why do I need an excuse to spend seven hours planted at my kitchen table writing? Why is that perfectly okay to do when I’m getting paid for it, but not when the writing project is a seed potato that might never grow into a veggie-bearing plant?
This question has haunted me since 2002. I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer.
It’s school vacation week, so last week was the perfect time to finish a big project. I’m home today and tomorrow with the boys and we are going to swim, eat in parks, go to movies, sweep the floors, and do a whole bunch of laundry. And I will do it all without page counts running teasingly through my mind. I will be as available as I ever am for their questions and knock-knock jokes. I will ask the oldest what’s going on in his endless civilization building game and actually listen to the answer. Well, mostly.
But I’ll still be looking for evidence of Shakespeare everywhere on our local travels, because what I’ve learned from writing this book is that we are collectively haunted, in a good way, by a brilliant mind that just can’t quit.
And maybe I’ll sneak in an hour or two to work on my potato.
Yesterday I sent out a list of questions to our current authors in hopes that they’ll take a few minutes out of their sure-to-be-busy last week of the year and answer in witty, engaging, informative ways. I know it’s a lot to ask. And I struggle with this. Where does the job of an author end? Should I, as an editor, be asking this stuff of my authors? Shouldn’t I leave them alone to toil away on their next projects?
I think that, back in the halcyon days of publishing, the writer’s job used to end with final edits. You were sent a galley, you made the corrections or argued about them, and you were done. Maybe you’d venture out to do a book tour. Maybe you’d sign a few copies when you dropped by the local bookstore. But mostly you were at work on your next book and, beyond checking clips of reviews sent by your agent, when you were done with a book you were done.
Now, though, more is required of authors. And more is required of editors. As an editor, I might spend one day a week actually, you know, editing. The other days I spend copywriting, marketing, giving design input, trying really, really hard to think of the Next Huge Thing, emailing follow-up, ever-more-strident emails about missed deadlines, contacting experts in the field and begging them for their expert opinions on our books, blogging, and wading through social media accounts. Editing is my favorite thing about my job and it’s also the thing I do the least.
But it’s still a great job.
I’m thinking about all of this because of this NPR story that I listened to while waiting for my windshield to deice enough for me to drive off. Editing is one of those jobs that is hard to explain. I used to think, back when I was *merely* a writer, that editors functioned as glorified spell checkers. They fixed your grammar. But then I became an editor (luckily my boss was willing to take a chance on someone with this level of misconception) and discovered that editing is more about being able to see the details of a book and the larger picture at the same time. It’s like we wear a special kind of glasses.
We’re on the cusp of a new year, and with this new year I’m starting a new blog. I mean, this one has been around for a while, but now it’s got a shiny new package,. It’s a blog about editing, and writing, and my kids, and my cats. And about books, because books are my favorite.
Welcome. What are you reading today?
We are nearing the end. Soon we will have to bid farewell to wide plank floorboards, the leaky kitchen sink, the view of lounge chairs in the sun (on which we do not sit becuase we are writers writing), the quiet, the peace, the stillness.
But I am not leaving empty handed. And while it’s tempting to slip some of the amazing artwork on these walls into my purse, that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about knowledge. Because while this week was very productive, next time we do this I’m going to be even better prepared. Here’s my advice to myself. Perhaps it’s useful to you, too.
- If you come to this particular house, don’t bring any books. There are plenty. Also, you are here to write, not to read. Put down that book and get back to work.
- Running every day and yoga on the lawn is not a waste of an hour because it will make you more efficient during writing time.
- Don’t be the kind of person who checks facebook and twitter all the time. Once in a while is okay. Also, people can tell when you’re on those sites and they will wonder why you are not working. Let this be your prophylactic.
- Updating a blog totally counts as writing time.
- Checking your stats does not.
- Find your corner early. Mine is in the living room crouched over a wooden bench on which my computer rests. Sometimes I sit in the green leather chair. Sometimes I sit on the floor. Wherever you work best, make it yours. Growl at anyone who tries to make you move. But if you go on a retreat with the right person (see #9), you won’t have to worry about squatters.
- Find your window early. Because you have to look up sometimes, and it’s best to look at something lovely but not so lovely that you want to gaze endlessly.
- Don’t go hungry but don’t eat more than usual. This is not a vacation. This is working. Would you eat Pop Tarts at the office? Of course not. Don’t eat them on your writing retreat. (Don’t eat them ever–they’re not good for you.)
- People who you can be alone with are rare and valuable. Find some and hang on to them.
- Grant yourself an evening out. Just one. Call it research.
- Don’t be bothered by anything. It takes work to get to Maine. It’s hard to leave behind your job and family. Make those favors and logistics worth it. Don’t be bothered by stupid stuff like low water pressure. This house has great water pressure, by the way. But if the water pressure were low, it would still be the perfect place to write.
- Bring painkillers, because writing for ten hours a day hurts.
- Miss your people back home. This kind of opportunity doesn’t come around often, unless you’re a certain type of person, which I am not. Miss them and delight in them when you return.
- Make plans for next year. Retreats are definitely an annual kind of thing.
We have one more night here, and we are going out to dinner soon (see #10) to celebrate all of our productivity. Goodbye house. Goodbye time. Goodbye bowls of mush.
I’m slightly more than halfway through my Maine escape. And just a few minutes ago I was nearly laid flat with the missing of my family. I’m not a sentimental person. I do not weep easily at sunsets. I know the value of alone time and I use it wisely. But. For a moment just now, I wanted nothing more than to be in my bed at home with my husband right here and the youngest right here and the middle over here and the oldest over there. It was a physical wanting, like a craving. It’s passed, but the aftereffects are still floating in the room and might descend at any moment. I might cry. I might pour a glass of wine and turn on aimless television to avoid feeling this way. Except… it’s my job to feel this way. I came to Maine to write and I have been writing enough that my fingers are sore, seriously in pain, but also, part of writing is feeling and feeling this is useful. It will bleed into my work and make it richer. And also, the greater the missing, the greater the joy upon return. I miss my husband’s smell. We really are just animals in human form, right? I miss my boys’ voices, even though part of why I had to come was so that there would be only one voice in my head–my own. I miss my cats. Especially the boy cat, who loves to snuggle on couches or in beds. It’s so good to miss the things I love. It’s a reminder: of fleetingness, of priorities, of how crucial a day can be. But also, I miss them.
Part of the writing process, at least today, has been watching robins suck worms from the front lawn of this rented house in Maine. B and I are here for the week to write. The house is old and exposes much of its raw wood. The stove is gas and tricky, and the beds are lumpy and comfortable. I chose this place randomly after hours of looking at the offerings of AirBnB. I realized that what I should really focus on was the inside of the house, not how far it was from a beach or coffee shop. And once that criteria was established, this place came into view and I knew it would be ours. Because of the bookcases and artwork. Because of the island in the kitchen. Because the couch is moved a ways away from the wall. And it’s perfect. It’s deep in the country and distractions are minimal (see: robins, worms) and I have written 20 pages, plus three blog posts for both work and personal in the 26 hours we have been here. A chicken is roasting in the tricky oven and I have a glass of wine balanced on the windowsill over the wooden bench on which my computer rests. I’m using an ottoman for my bum. The window ahead of me is open four inches and raindrops plunk on something metal out there, something out of sight, something that provides a sweet base for my soprano key strokes. I am in the kind of space where, if I had a stopwatch given to me by the devil, I might just press that button to pause all of space and time so I could stay. But, of course, before I could press, I’d think of my husband, my children, the men I left at home. And I’d hesitate and the moment would mutate. But still. Right now, the planets are aligning in a way they rarely do. I might squeeze 25 pages out of the day.
I write and edit children’s nonfiction books and I’ve been wondering lately–am I, are we, so focused on functionality that we’re missing the chance to inspire?
Most of the conversations around the office have to do with how to make our books easy for teachers to use “right out of the box.” We provide essential questions, common core correlations, glossaries, primary sources, a whole platter of design elements that make it easy for them to tick the standards boxes while still providing their students with a comprehensive education. That’s our goal. And I think it’s a good goal.
We have experts read our books before we publish them, not just to score a few lines of endorsement to print on the back cover, but to make sure our books are appealing, to make sure people will enjoy reading them, to make sure we succeeded in providing a useful commodity.
But all of our endorsers are grownups. They’re teachers, librarians, homeschoolers, professors, experts of industry. Know what they’re not? Kids. None of them are under the age of 25.
And this is starting to worry me. Do adults really know what kids are going to find inspiring? Do I?
My best ideas for kids’ books come from my kids. Yeah, I’m lucky to have them. When we binge watch whole seasons of Doctor Who (as a family so it counts as family time!) and then spend hours discussing the possibilities of time travel, alien life forms, morality in the face of alien invasion, I wonder if maybe a book about the science of science fiction might be in my future. When the yearly poetry unit roles around again and my kids starting spouting metaphors, it occurs to me that a book teaching kids to read poetry might have some worth.
But, again, these books are functional. They are written for adults to use with kids, not for kids to pick up spontaneously whenever they are struck with the urge to fritter away an hour on the page. What makes kids reach for one book and not another? What makes a book attractive to kids? Am I serving kid readers as well as I could be?
Fiction is a whole different world. One I’m actually more comfortable in. I can pick up a middle grade or young adult novel and I can get a pretty good idea if kids are going to like it. It’s a gut thing, but it’s also a character thing and a tone thing.
The nonfiction books I write and edit have no characters. They definitely have tones, ones that I work hard to get exactly right. They don’t have plots, but they are organized against a specific framework. The best part of my books are the sidebars. This is where I get to be as inspiring as possible. I inject tiny biographies of amazing people, quotes from persistent people, weird (and gross!) factoids about the topic. The sidebar material is almost always my favorite part of the book. Is this enough? To kids come away with enough inspiration?
I don’t know the answer to this. But I do know I need to ask the question. And I think finding the answer is going to take a while. And a lot of books.