The Professor's House Back Cover Copy

Based on the back cover copy of The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather, I expected a story about a man who was sad his family moved. The back cover reads,

Professor Godfrey St. Peter is a man in his fifties, who has devoted his life to his work, his wife, his garden, and his daughters, and achieved success with all of them. But when St. Peter is called on to move to a new, more comfortable house, something in him rebels. And although at first that rebellion consists of nothing more than mild resistance to his family’s wishes, it imperceptibly comes to encompass the entire order of his life. Combining profound introspection with a delightful grasp of the social and domestic rituals of a Midwestern university town, The Professor’s House is a brilliant study in emotional dislocation and renewal.

After reading the book, this isn’t the back cover copy I would have written (granted, perhaps it was written by a psychologist who’s made a study of the fictional man). From a narrative perspective, although St. Peter is troubled by his family’s move, it’s not the focal point of his concern. I’d write that back cover copy . . .

Teaching at a university and writing books for the last thirty years has worn out Professor Godfrey St. Peter—but so has being married to an intense woman, raising two daughters who hate each other, and watching his future son-in-law die. St. Peter’s uneasiness increases as his wife dictates their move to a larger, more comfortable home, and his daughter and her husband grow wealthy off her deceased fiancé’s discovery. Travel this wearying emotional journey with a lonely man who’s unwilling to leave the house that’s become closer to him than his family. You’ll learn a deeper understanding for the heart of a father, the complexities of friendship, and the soul of a man who gradually loses his will to live.

Good Artists Borrow

Yesterday I stared at my screen for a long time with nothing to say. Maybe the long nap wiped all functional vocabulary, grammar, and syntax out of my brain. Or I couldn’t hold my arms up to type after spending hours and hours packing and carrying boxes (Curtis and I will be starting our own moving company soon NOT). Or it could have been apple crisp induced sluggishness.

But most likely it was because even though I love it, writing is still work. After moping, I lamented to Curtis (he’s very wonderful) that, “I have nothing at all to write,”

Raising an eyebrow, he said, “Then read.”

He unwittingly touched on one of the greatest—and simplest—creative principles.

Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

No, don’t visit the Louvre and try to leave with the Mona Lisa.

Yes, study the work of skilled people who you admire.

It’s the same in every trade. Architects look at other people’s buildings. Chefs taste food everywhere they go. Teachers take classes from other teachers. There’s always something to learn from someone who excels at what you love.

And there’s great inspiration in seeing your passion done well. Seeing something beautiful (vague for your sake, but writing in my case) ignites an itch to create something beautiful. Framed negatively, it’s jealousy. Positively, extrinsic motivation.

I took Curtis’s advice and started reading Willa Cather—a true lover of sentences (and they tell me that’s really all that writers are). Now I have things to write again.

 Here, you’ll see I’ve stolen the design of the earth to doodle on . . .

Here, you’ll see I’ve stolen the design of the earth to doodle on . . .

Five Ways Writing is Like Gardening

Today Curtis (he’s very wonderful) took me to the Chicago Botanic Gardens, which reaffirmed that if I ever quit writing I’ll be a career gardener. That’s a horticulturalist, and yes, I would switch partially because it sounds much more pretentious.

Is it too far of a stretch if I apply lessons from gardening to writing? Probably.

Will I anyways? Yes.

Well-weeded, pruned gardens are more visually appealing. In 385 acres of garden, I didn’t see a single weed. It was breathtaking. I’m sure there’s an army of weeders. Good, clean writing takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Excessive words muddy the main point.

There’s not just one good writing style. We walked through more than two dozen different styles of gardens—Japanese, evening, prairie, native, vegetable, rose, sensory—and every one is gorgeous because it’s unique. You don’t have to write like Anne Lamott or Victor Hugo to be a good writer. Your voice, your style, your you-ness makes you special.

Composition is key. Plants are organized by height, color, texture, sometimes even smell, for aesthetic appeal. Arrange your words carefully in sentences, your sentences in paragraphs, and your paragraphs in pages. Organize your writing. Your reader doesn’t want to order your scattered thoughts (realistically will stop reading instead).

There’s a place for everything. Cabbage and corn stalks may not be as visually exquisite as dahlias and heliotropes, but there’s a place for both in gardening. And writing. There are heavyweight words and fluffy terms—use both for good rhythmic balance.

People enjoy quality. Hundreds of people were enjoying the gardens today. If you practice-practice-practice and always work to get better, people will enjoy reading you (and your mom and grandma always will, regardless of whether or not you improve—yes, telling my own story here).

On the blog tomorrow: Lessons I Learned about Writing at the Trash Dump.

Kidding, kidding.

 
 Apparently this is an Inspiration Passion Flower. I would have called it a Purple Squiggly Guy.

Apparently this is an Inspiration Passion Flower. I would have called it a Purple Squiggly Guy.

 

Writing: Almost like Talking to a Friend

Often when I sit down to write I have nothing to say. Yet I have few friends who I’d voluntarily engage in conversation then sit in silence with, from lack of stuff to talk about.

That’s because if it was a friend, I’d know them and we’d already have common ground to cover: work, family, friends, the GIGANTIC groundhog living in their backyard, etc.

Conversely, a lot of what you do as a writer is like a one-way conversation. Chances are you’ll never get to speak personally to many of the strangers who read a lot of your work (I don’t even talk daily to you kind, considerate folks who skim my blog to see if I mention you by name).

But if you disassociate your writing from your audience because “Why would I write to people who I’ll never meet,” everything you write becomes boring and robotic, much like a computer manual. It’s not appealing because it’s not personal or personable. People want to read things they can relate to.

For instance, embarrassing things.

  • Today I sat through a whole meeting with a big black mark on my face that I only saw after. I think it might have been dirt. No, I don’t know where it came from. Yes, I’m too old to have dirt on my face.

  • Earlier this week I walked half-way across the street in front of a line of traffic, realized my mistake, and turned around.

  • I trip at awkward times, sometimes laugh with food in my teeth, and frequently turn BEET red and splotchy. People have been telling me I’m loud since I was . . . well, I can’t remember when they haven’t. I’m about as subtle as a peacock.

But there’s danger in trying to be the kind of personal I would be with a friend. You’re tapping your fingers waiting for me to finish talking about myself. I’m not really all that interesting, and why should you care what dumb thing I did when what happened to you yesterday at the drinking fountain was oh-so-mortifying.

Good writing then becomes the balance of using your life experiences for your reader’s benefit. You’ve got (at least) two goals, to help your reader:

a) grow without experiencing the pain/pleasure/confusion you’ve had and they haven’t
or
b) cope with a circumstance
they can’t escape

For example . . .

Our family dog died unexpectedly the day before my 13th birthday. We were on a business trip with my dad, and I didn’t get to say goodbye. The call came from our kind, dog-sitting neighbors. You know when the pit of your stomach becomes solid rock, and you want to turn your face toward a wall to hide your tears so no one thinks you’re a butter-hearted baby who can’t handle the facts? Me too. It feels awkward and uncomfortable.

But it’s okay to be that butter-hearted baby, sometimes. Some things are too sudden to prepare for, too complex to understand, and too hard to express with anything other than tears.

It’s okay to acknowledge that. It’s okay to cry, fume a little, not understand.

Years later (I’m long past 13, you see), I still think of our dog. She was a golden retriever, only nominally obedient, and staunchly defensive about her food bowl (our chocolate lab learned that the hard way—again and again. his learning curve was a pretty straight line). And while her dying certainly is not the hardest thing that’s happened in life around these parts (for Jesus knew what He meant, In this world you will have trouble . . .), it’s what I think of when something hard or sad or bad happens.

I still have fond memories of her. While I wish she hadn’t died the way she did, I no longer cringe at the memory of her death—I think of the happiness of her life.

And I remember one more thing: trouble isn’t where Jesus stopped.

In this world you will have trouble . . . But I will give you peace.

Sometimes, you just have to wait for the peace. Sometimes, it takes a long time. It’s okay to be sad in the waiting.

Happy First Day of School!

Today, thousands of bright-eyed kids had their first day of school.

In kindergarten they read a book and ate a snack. 
In high school the girls looked at each other's clothes while the guys wondered if the army requires a high school education.
In college professors read syllabuses and the freshmen took notes on everything and the seniors took no notes at all.

And because I'm now a bona fide adult I went to work, came home, made dinner, and cleaned. Then Curtis (he's very wonderful) and I discussed our 50 year plan (just kidding, who has that, more like we tried to figure out our life for the next three days). After all that, I sat on the couch and stared out at the rain and thought about going to bed—but I couldn't let myself go, because everyone else in the world started school today. That means summer is over, and when summer is over I start to write again.

Every writer worth their salt (or pepper or turmeric or some other semi-ambiguous seasoning) will tell you that to get better at writing, you have to write. Conversely, if you want your career as a writer to screech to a grinding halt, take a long weekend.

I, unfortunately, have a rather thick skull (depending on who you ask: enormously thick, embarrassingly thick, lamentably thick), and refuse to be told that as an adult I can't take a summer vacation.

So I haven't written much at all this summer, and you're experiencing a display of the utter entropy of my mastery of the craft (for example, what an overworked sentence. should have just said I got worse at words). I did other things, like travel and eat as much ice cream as I wanted and go to the beach with Curtis (he's very wonderful) and watch the world whiz by from the saddle of my cherry red bike and see friends and family and all the babies. It was a great summer.

And now I'm back to real life and it's raining outside (as if even the weather is telling me to get down to business), and I've a manuscript to edit.

But I guess I don't really mind. Because it's the first day of school and it's the first day back to writing, and when it all comes down to it

—though I love swimming and sunshine and sand and travel and sleeping and biking and walking and playing ball and wandering in search of any old adventure and freckles—

I love writing more.

 

Maybe I Deleted 1,500 Words

My mom always used to tell me to write about what I know. Then, when anything happened to me (slam my finger in a door, get in a fight with someone, experience the hurt of a loved one), she would tell me to write about it. It's a logical sequence, because even though experiencing something doesn't necessarily make you an expert, it makes you closer than the guy who lives in a tree and sleeps all day (yes, you guessed it, I'm talking about sloths. I know more about life than a sloth does. Move me to the head of the class).

So . . .

Today, I got home from work and ate an entire (snack-sized) bag of Snyders honey mustard onion pretzel pieces (they're delicious, 10 out of 10 would recommend) while I looked out the window at the dog park next door (don't worry, mom, I think I also ate a real balanced dinner at some point in the evening).

Then I fought a lengthy internal war. It was over whether or not I would go outside and enjoy the peerless, blinding late afternoon that today decided to be.

Duty and drive won out over pleasure, so I eventually coerced myself onto the couch (I know, sitting on a comfortable couch sounds like torture, right?) and opened the word document that I've been slaving away over since November 28, 2016. I know the date because I started book two the day before the sprinkler in our house exploded and ruined just about everything in the living room.

I don't really know what makes someone a fast writer—I intentionally don't look it up because it's probably much faster than me (talking writer, not typer). Then I'd have to dig through the freezer and pull out the freezer burned triple chocolate moose tracks and eat the whole thing as I cried my career into the empty carton and the sticky spoon (I'm fairly competitive. Apparently I always have to win. I just don't see it in myself though) (you're like . . . is she serious?) (I think only with people who can handle it. I wouldn't want to crush someone's hopes and dreams by beating them. PLUS I usually lose 95 percent of the games I play, so God is constantly teaching me humility).

Anyways.

If I pay attention to what I'm doing and don't get distracted watching the shadow of the sunset across the skyline, I can write about 1,000 words in 45 minutes. Today was a pretty distracted-y type of day, so two hours later when my laptop started to get very hot on the bottom and the fan turned on, I'd written about 1,500 words.

After looking up a recipe for macarons for research purposes (yes, really, as a matter of fact), I clicked back to my word document and realized I should save the work I'd done so far. I tilted the computer forward slightly, clicked command + s, and watched in tentative nervousness as that little colorful spinny doodad came up and started doing its thing. I waited patiently, thanks to being married to patient Curtis (he's very wonderful). Eventually I could move the mouse again.

But I couldn't type. So I kept waiting. Maybe pressed a key? Mostly just moved the mouse around and tried to figure out what the theologically correct thing was to pray in the moment (mostly, I said, Please, Lord, don't let it crash. And if it does, let it auto recover). After a few more minutes, everything froze completely. I stared at it for a while, and nothing happened. I stared at it a while longer. Still nothing happened. So, briskly and without hesitation I held down the power button and restarted my computer.

Then I went into the kitchen to make some dinner because if I'm going to be miserable, I may as well be well-fed. I had zucchini and corn and pasta and salmon

(which reminds me of the time I thought a cucumber was a zucchini. Fried it up with salt and pepper. 10 out of 10 DO NOT RECOMMEND. Not a food waster—for sure threw that away).

Came back to my computer, which had restarted. Keyed in the password. The Safari window reopened with the right windows. Momentary high hopes. The word window was not open. Tentative hopes? Opened the book file, which you'll remember I tried to save right as the crash began. It opened. Word count was 8,000 less than it had been moments before. Wide-eyed disbelief, terror, and woe. Word count bounced back up to just about 1,500 words short of where I had been. Relief? Sorta? Lost two hours of work, 1,500 words, and at least one jenga block in the set that comprises my wobbly sanity (writers, yo. wacky group, them).

You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you watch two people you love start to fight? Or when you see the bus coming and you know you're too far away and you're going to miss it? When you break something expensive and you have to confess? It's like disappointment + dread + sorrow?

I know that feeling too.

That's also how it feels when you delete 1,500 words that you just spent hours weaving and crafting. If I'm being honest they WERE PROBABLY THE BEST 1,500 WORDS I'VE EVER WRITTEN IN MY SHORT CAREER. And now they're gone forever (memorial service Sat. @ 10 a.m., see you there. BYOTissues).

However, the lucky thing is, they took way less time to butcher together the second time. So that's good. And, since I felt it and wrote about it, you don't have to feel it yourself (although I think almost everyone probably does at some point in life).

Always save your work.

Turn of Phrase

Merriam-Webster, the be-all and end-all of word definitions, capitalizations, and spellings, defines turn of phrase as a way of saying or describing something.

One of the key aspects of being a writer is your turn of phrase. As a writer, if you can't say what you want to say well, no one will listen. If you aren't able to articulate points 1) clearly, 2) concisely, and 3) engagingly (I couldn't think of a good c-word for that one), not many people will read your writing. When you're a writer you have to think before you write, consider the implications of what you've written, and study the back story of what you're covering so you know the whole story.

After all, you want to give the correct impression and send the right message. Writing is a big responsibility.

It's not difficult to pick it out when another writer has good turn of phrase, because their writing makes you want to keep reading or makes you stop and think. It's inspiring because if someone else can do it well, you can do it well too.

The best part about writing is that no matter how you feel about your skills today, there's always room to improve. It's all about 10,000 hours and not stopping when you get there.

*Not a writer? Try replacing writer and writing in the paragraphs above with your noun and verb—politician, librarian, professor, businessman, doctor, pilot, actor—and see if it doesn't apply to you too.

You're Born with Talent

I have written thousands of words today, but promised myself I'd write a post before I a) cleaned a little more and b) went to bed. Thankfully, the post doesn't have to be long. You'll probably like it better if it's short. So will I.

They say you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient at anything. That means we're all good at sleeping, and probably before anyone gets too old we're experts at eating too. You're likely also a pro at bathing and breathing, but what do you do that you had to learn (suspend the detail-oriented side of yourself that reminds me you had to learn to eat and bathe)?

What are you good at? What do you want to be good at? What can you do that takes specific knowledge?

Choose something to become an expert at, and then practice. You're born with talent, but you earn skill.

Settling Down to Write

Sometimes, the hardest thing about settling down to write is, well, settling down to write.

I usually finish dinner, put the dishes in the sink, and sit down to start—then get distracted because I want to clean or cook or draw or read or go outside, or all of the above. These desires seem especially prevalent when I stop moving and start thinking about words.

Sometimes, I give in to my chore-oriented urges. I promise I'll just do something else real quick, but inevitably it takes more time than I planned and soon my train of thought is derailed before it left the station. Gone forever.

The longer and the more I write, the more I realize two things:

To become a better writer, you have to have staying power. If you're getting up and doing something around the house every ten minutes, your writing will show it. It'll be disjointed, and only half-thought out, not to mention it'll take you five times longer to finish things. To get better at something, you have to stick to your commitment to improve, no matter what you remember needs to be done.

To become a better writer, you have to prioritize. When I finished The Cup during my senior year of college, I spent most of August, all of September, and the first half of October inside hunkered over my computer, watching longingly as the autumn days passed in all their charm and mystique. You have to practice to get better, and if you're serious about getting better, you'll have to say no to other things.

When it comes down to it, writing follows the rule of everything else in life: if you want to get better, you have to make some sacrifices.

Why you should work together

Usually, people live in one of two camps regarding their level of attention to detail. 

Big picture people. Give a big picture person a task, and immediately they're dreaming big. Huge. "And so in the next five years, we'll completely restructure the organization to sell ponies instead of pianos."

Detail oriented people. Ask a detail person to finish something, and two days later they'll tell you the most granular facts about every individual component. "And the steps leading down to the riverwalk on this miniature model of Chicago are all exactly .4 centimeters deep."

The best thing you can do, in writing and sometimes in life, is find your opposite, and ask these questions:

To the detail-loving writer: What's the overall point?

To the big idea writer: How will you get there from here?

It will take patience, understanding, and a enormous amount of intentional communication—but in the end, both of you will be better.