This month, as I gear up to launch my new novel, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, on April 1, it occurs to me that there are lots of similarities between sending your kid out into the world and offering your book to readers.
The Month Before the Launch Is Exhausting. With your child, you’ve been to the mall three times to find the right size fitted sheets, a dorm fridge, and shower clogs. Then there is the agony of cleaning out the childhood bedroom (who knew bagels looked like that when left untended for a year?) and the pretend college experience of orientation. By the time your child actually leaves home, you’re so wrung out that all you can do is flop down on the couch and binge watch House of Cards. The month before a book launch is equally exhausting. There are the advance copies to send out, bookstores to contact, guest posts to write for book bloggers, and lots of calendar synching as you figure out your events. You’re excited. At the same time, you can’t wait for it to be over so you can just go back to writing.
You’ve Never Been So Anxious. As you abandon your child on that college campus, you envision the worst: a psychopath for a roommate, listless professors, alcohol poisoning, and fraternity hazing. You know from experience that bad things happen even to college kids who claim to have great college experiences. Now, as you launch a novel, you feel the same nail-biting anxiety. You keep imagining snarky negative reviews on Kirkus or Booklist, and wonder how you’ll cope when—because this is a guarantee—certain readers will post two- or even one-star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon with titles like “meh.” How will your book stand up to so much scrutiny? How will you?
You Cry for No Reason. For nearly a week after sending my oldest son to college, I was so bereft that I had to keep his bedroom door closed. I couldn’t even change the sheets because every reminder of him made me weep. I am always surprised by the depth of the grief I feel when I finish a novel and the rest of the process is out of my hands: these characters have been living in my head for so long that the silence is deafening when I can’t hear them anymore. The only cure is to start another book.
Eventually, You Have to Let Your Baby Go. As I was leaving my son’s college dorm, one RA told me about a set of parents that actually bought an RV and stayed in one of the college campus parking lots overnight to make sure their freshman would survive that first brutal night away from home. “Can you believe that?” she said. “I mean, can you?” Um, yes. I could. I had toyed with the idea of staying in a hotel just seconds away from campus—so I could be at my son’s dorm in a flash if he needed something. My husband finally convinced me that it was time to cut the apron springs and head home. The same, I know, will be true with this book launch. As with my children, I have done everything in my power to prepare this book to meet the world. I can continue to support it with blogging and speaking at events, but for the most part, this book is going to have to stand on its own merits with readers. I have to let it go, so that I can write the next one.
Be well, little book. Go forth and make your mother proud!
It’s a blessing to take a writer’s retreat, whether you do it officially at a place like Yaddo or the MacDowell Colony, or whether you arrange your own intensive quickie retreat like I did recently, thanks to my friend Melanie loaning me her cottage in Maine. For working moms like me, it’s a spectacularly liberating feeling to know that your teacup will be right where you left it the next morning, you don’t have to cook if you don’t feel like it, and you can string two thoughts—or even two pages—together without interruption. I have no trouble pounding out the pages on a retreat.
Unfortunately, afterward there’s always the letdown. You come back and family life is the same exhilarating, exhausting Bermuda Triangle it always is: there are work deadlines, groceries to lug home, floors to sweep, dogs to walk, kids to help with homework. And there your bag sits with those fresh pages of your novel, untouched, as mine has been for the past four days since coming home. It can be agonizing when that happens, because when you’re not writing is when the fear sets in: Can I really make this book work? What makes me think I’m a writer? Why is this worth the trouble, when it probably won’t even get published? Etc. Pretty soon you’re drowning in the icy black waters of self-doubt.
By now, though, I’ve learned a few tips for what I call “keeping my writing warm” even when I can’t actually spend much time on hammering out my new novel because ordinary life keeps throwing up roadblocks. See if any of these work for you:
- Stop with the guilt. Guilt is seldom productive. And your brain sometimes works out problems in your manuscript in a different way when you’re tending to ordinary life. I think of this as a farmer letting fields lie fallow for a little while: sometimes things grow better when you let the land rejuvenate. Just be in the moment.
- Keep journals everywhere. I know these are old school, but I have small journals that I keep everywhere around the house so that I always, always have a place to jot down an idea when it comes. I have a journal next to the bed, another one in the car, a tiny journal in my handbag, and—most importantly—a journal in the bathroom, because I often get my ideas when I’m in the shower. (Probably because it’s the only room in the house where I’m guaranteed privacy.) Writing those tiny snippets will help you beat back writer’s block, because you’ll always have something to turn to for a new idea.
- Type up your notes. I often collect these journal notes into a document I call “novel brainstorms” on my computer, just so I can have everything together. Then from time to time I print out my brainstorms and carry them with me in my purse everywhere I go, so that if I’m stuck at a doctor’s appointment I can fish them out and read them over.
- Read, read, read. It always strikes me as odd that writers don’t think they’re writing when they’re reading. Even when we’re reading for sheer entertainment, we’re noticing things. You can up your game by making notes on what you’re reading: What do you love about that description? The way the writer used flashbacks or cut right to the chase in a story?
- Go for a Mini-Retreat. Finally, and most importantly: Give yourself mini-retreats when you can’t get away for a long one. I have a favorite cafe I go to near my son’s school now that he’s taking a weekly 3-hour SAT prep class. On Saturdays, I might also take the recycling and do the other weekend chores, then zip off to a Barnes & Noble near my house for a guilt-free hour to write. Even that much can keep me feeling like a writer. More importantly, keeping my writing warm through those small rituals makes it much easier for me to focus when I do get another solid block of time to write fiction.
Last Sunday, the lead article on the hot pink cover of the The New York Times magazine was “Sexless but Equal.” It was well-timed for Valentine’s Day, and guaranteed to cause all of us who aren’t already feeling adequate to feel even more so.
The gist of the article is this: sure, today’s woman might have more help around the house from her husband, but that spells doom and gloom in the bedroom. According to the article’s author, therapist Lori Gottlieb, men who pitch in around the house are having sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those who don’t. This apparently has something to do with us powerful working wives seeing them as doormats instead of being able to fantasize that we’re married to that guy in Fifty Shades of Grey who would take control and tie us up.
Naturally I read this article and saw red, not pink, for Valentine’s Day. What kind of bologna is the media serving up now?
I kept thinking about the article all week. At one point, I remembered a dinner party I’d attended a few years ago, one where the conversation turned to sex. All of the guests seated at the table were women. (The lone two guys at the party were outside watching the kids.) And at that party I was startled to hear how many of the women avoided having sex at all.
“When he goes upstairs, I just tell him I’m going downstairs to turn out the lights or whatever, and if I stay down there long enough, he’s always asleep by the time I come up,” said one woman, the working mother of two young children. “That way I can read my book.”
“I make sure not to smile at my husband when he gets into bed,” confessed another, a stay-at-home mom of three young children. “Otherwise, he thinks I want sex.”
One of these women is married to a beast of a guy whose idea of helping her around the house on Saturday is lifting his feet for the vacuum. The other guy does everything from cooking to dusting. The common factor? These women feel a lack of desire probably because they’re moms. Motherhood—whether you’re the one staying home all day with the kids and crazed to pull them off you when your partner gets home, or you’re the one going out to earn money and coming home ready to have your kids cling like barnacles as you make dinner—is probably the most potent sex depressant ever invented.
For one thing, there is no time. Or, when there is time, your back is killing you from being a Baby Sherpa or child wrangler. Sex? Let’s fill the tub with hot water for a good soak and then we can talk about it. Except, oops, no, you’re asleep.
Who works and who makes more money, who does chores and who doesn’t: all of those things fade in the face of the logistics involved in getting time alone to have sex during the hour between the time you put the kids to bed and the moment your body betrays you and falls into a coma. Yes, it definitely helps to have your husband do the dishes and/or give the kids their baths—the recipe for happiness guaranteed by all women’s magazines, as Gottlieb points out. But then what happens is that you’re both too fried to be creative in the bedroom. It’s the same old, same old. You don’t have the energy to pull out the sex toys because then you’d have to put them away again, and you just finished picking up the living room.
Gottlieb also cites a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showing that, if a wife earns more than her husband, the couple is less likely to report their marriage is a happy one, and that the risk of divorce increases if the wife earns more than her husband. Well, duh. Women used to stay with their husbands if they couldn’t afford to leave them. Now we have more options because we don’t have to depend on men to pay our rent.
But that’s a different topic. Let’s get back to sex. And let’s get personal for a minute: even if you have a rollicking, passionate connection with your spouse at the beginning of your marriage, after ten or fifteen or twenty (my case) years, that blazing fire may take a bit longer to rekindle. Sex after marriage and parenthood needs a few magical ingredients: a hotel, maybe, where no kids are likely to be lurking out in the hallway in search of somebody to clean up vomit. Or maybe kids old enough to go out on the town in the family car—though then you’re doing it with one ear cocked toward the driveway, waiting for the kid to come home in time for curfew, while the other ear is cocked toward the phone, waiting for the cops to call and say there’s been an accident. Parenthood is clouded by worry no matter how old your kids are, and nothing dampens lust like anxiety.
By the same token, nothing is better than sex between two people who have been through all of that and more together. Yesterday—partly, but not completely, because of that article—I dug out my lacy underthings and greeted my husband with a bottle of Prosecco. Our youngest son, the only one still at home, was out, so we stayed in.
Afterward, as we were lying in bed contemplating whether or not to binge on the new season of House of Cards, my husband said, “Want me to do the recycling tomorrow?”
Now that, my friends, are the words I love to hear from my Valentine.
You have a great story to tell about something that happened to you. But should it be fiction or a memoir?
The answer to that question is less straightforward than it seems. Let’s say you’ve always wanted to write about your mom being a witch with her own coven, or that wild backpacking trip you took through India. Either story could easily be told from a strictly autobiographical point of view—and both could be fictionalized.
Memoirs and novels both require skilled story-telling. You must write compelling scenes, develop characters, create conflicts and resolve them, and weave a narrative with enough forward momentum that people will want to finish reading your book once they dip into the first few pages.
So how do you decide which form fits your story best? Consider these four key questions:
1. Do You Have a Platform or Truly Bizarre Story?
For celebrities and CEO’s, the platform is the thing that will lure publishers to your tales: they love people with big fan bases, so they’ll probably want your memoir rather than a novel. And if your story is truly bizarre, you might be better off telling it as nonfiction. Otherwise, people will think your novel lacks credibility or seems melodramatic.
2. Does Your Story Have Enough Substance for a Memoir?
Memoirs aren’t just slice-of-life tales; they require an overarching theme and a story arc. If your personal story lacks substance or you don’t have a platform as an audience, consider fictionalizing the events and adding made-up scenes to create an exciting novel. If, on the other hand, you survived that blizzard by learning how to make a shelter, then went on to become president of Habitat for Humanity building houses all over the world, that’s a great narrative arc for a memoir.
3. How Much Heat are You Willing to Take?
No matter how cool you think everyone in your family will be with you outing Uncle Robert’s drinking or Cousin Millie’s gambling addiction, telling family stories can cause both legal and family trouble. Are you ready for that? If not, you might want to write a novel instead of a memoir. Yes, the parents who locked you in a closet smaller than Harry Potter’s probably deserve your wrath, but publishing a memoir can have long and drastic consequences. If you think that’s the case, tell your story as fiction. Change just a few things about the characters, like gender or location, and most people won’t suspect (or be able to prove) a thing.
4. Is This Book Commanding Your Attention?
Once you start writing your book, let instinct guide you. If the writing is holding your attention in a way that inspires you to commit hours to it every week, or even every day, then you’ve chosen the right genre for this particular story. Don’t worry about readers, family matters, or the marketplace. Just write the best, most honest story you can, and the rest will follow.