The House and I

It’s official. I am writing another memoir. This one will revolve around the home I own on Vashon, once the home of famous 40s author Betty MacDonald, who wrote “The Egg and I” and the “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle” series of books. I plan to call the book “The House and I.”

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Vashon house 2014. This is the addition that Betty built onto the house. The original part of the house is hidden behind it.

Vashon 1938

Vashon house 1938. The structure in front was the original kitchen but was moved to make room for the addition and is now the guest house.








I hope it will be a little bit memoir, and a little bit biography of Betty, since there seems to be very little published about her, which is a shame. She was such a great writer of humor, her words and phrases are brilliant and although she insisted she didn’t write what we would now call memoir, her stories are very myopic and revealing, more for what she doesn’t say than for what she does. None of her books mention her divorce from her first husband, but after her experience at the chicken farm near Port Townsend described in the “The Egg and I,” she took her toddler daughters, Anne and Joan and left her first husband Robert Heskett after four years of marriage to move back home with her mother in Seattle. While in Seattle, she tried to get a job, or rather a series of jobs which she later chronicled in “Anybody Can Do Anything,” her book about trying to find work in Seattle during the Depression. She was then forced to leave her children (now around 9 and 1o years old) with her mother for almost a year while she was treated at Firland Sanitorium (in her book “The Plague and I” she called it The Pines) for tuberculosis. Later, she met Don MacDonald and in 1942 they married. Together with Anne and Joan (now 14 and 15) Don and Betty moved to Vashon, where she eventually left her job with the government to write her first book, “The Egg and I.”

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The living room as it looks today.

The living room as it looks today. The flowered couch in the picture to the right is in approx the same location as the sand colored couch in this picture.








I have been doing some research on Betty by going to the Vashon/Maury Island Heritage Museum where there are two big binders of letters, photos, book covers and such. I sat in the back room of the museum surrounded by shelves of books, the binders open with me snapping photos of the pages with my iPhone. Gee, remember when we used to photocopy stuff? There were so many letters, written by Betty or by people writing to her. I particularly liked this one that she wrote to Bert Lippincott (the original owner of J.B. Lippincott Publishing Company, the publisher of her books, but who had obviously retired from the company) because it mentions how she is beginning to write “Onions in the Stew,” her book about Vashon and the house.


Betty_letter_2-6-1954So many fun aspects of the house, Betty and Vashon to explore. Thus begins the journey!

Lessons About Loss From a Mudslide

Jim does Bobcat

Jim does Bobcat

I hate to file my nails and so I turned on the TV to distract myself from the task, watched a surfing competition and got sucked in. I tried to figure out what enabled one surfer to win over another, since it wasn’t entirely obvious to me. The surfers were so graceful, skidding along the top edges of waves, in “full rail carves” I learned they were called, before twisting their boards in complete 180 turns, seemingly oblivious to the powerful force of nature just under their slivers of fiberglass and resin.

I was so focused on the surfers doing their “rail carves” (the commentator seemed to enjoy just saying it in his best “hang 10″ California-boy voice), that I barely noticed the ticker tape line of text along the bottom of the screen. At first I just saw “mudslide” and had to wait for the line to repeat before I learned there had been a massive mudslide in Oso. I didn’t know where that was exactly, but I knew it was in the vicinity of Seattle. “18 people missing.” The surfing competition ended with a handsome Brazilian boy being sprayed with Champagne and cute blonde Australian girl winning on her home turf.

Jim and I headed to Vashon where only a week before, we’d had our own mudslide. A Bobcat was rented and Jim looked cute with his tongue sticking out with the effort of the Bobcat as it made its way through a three-foot high pile of muck that had dumped itself into the middle of the driveway. We bonded with the neighbors, repairing a strained relationship, over shovelfuls of muck. The sun  shone and the whole experience turned into an adventure.

Arriving a week later, subsequent rains washed the remnants of muck from the road, but the rootball of the huge tree that slid down the hill seemed more ominous this time, so close to the wall that kept it from careening down the hill, where it could easily take out my kitchen or the house next door. We carefully compared its position using photographs that I took the week before. “Nope, it hasn’t moved at all,” Jim declared and I breathed a sigh of relief. A disaster averted. How lucky.

Upon our return to Seattle on Sunday night, the news from Oso was far more grave. 14 people confirmed dead, 172 missing. That night in bed, I tossed around thinking about how they only found one or two people alive, how the sounds of possible survivors stopped, how their family members must feel as they waited, filed missing person reports, hoped for air pockets and miracles. I realized how closely I empathized, because I suddenly understood how similar the circumstances of this slide were to the days after 9/11 – The difficulty of rescue, the lack of survivors, traumatized first responders, dogs walking the piles of mud trying to avoid stepping on sharp debris, American flags poked haphazardly into masses of cement-colored ruins.

I suspect Jim will be signing up for a deployment to Oso with his Fire Department (he now has Bobcat experience) and I will be left to churn through these unnamable emotions, old and rusty feeling and to pour obsessively over the sad details. The possibility of Jim helping, has me wondering if I should help too. My experience from those early post-apocalyptic days may be of use to families blundering through their own harrowing days. What would I tell them? Your lives have changed forever; the first two years are the toughest; magical things will happen that you can’t possibly imagine; you won’t believe how much strength you have; a day will come when it won’t hurt anymore; another day will come when some catastrophe will make you remember all over again; the most cathartic thing you can do to heal is help others, in whatever form that might come.

We are constantly reminded of the powerful forces over which we have no control. I suppose the trick is riding the waves for as long as possible, as gracefully as possible before we tumble into the surf.

Photo from

Photo from


How Conversations with a Psychic Shaped My Novel

esme_vintage_fortune_teller_postcard-r0632aa4ee46c449283ae525ed97a3189_vgbaq_8byvr_512Remember the Moon began from a seed of an idea I had about a dead man’s conversation with his alive wife through a psychic. I thought it would be funny to have the psychic talking in cryptic symbols – roses, rings, colors that are meant to contain profound messages to us living, while the dead husband is up there pulling out his (proverbial) hair because all he wants is for the psychic to speak clearly so he can tell his wife something important, like to buy Apple stock. Instead the wife gets “did your husband like apples?” and the wife exclaims “Yes, they were his favorite fruit!” and is deliriously happy.

Not that I wanted to make fun of psychics, just that in all my experience of trying to speak to Arron through one, I always thought he would be frustrated at the lack of complexity and detail that was being conveyed. He was a man who thrived on words and loved twisting them into knots, saying them backwards, reading mirrored words as easily and as quickly as most people read the regular way.

In writing Remember The Moon, I more or less commandeered Lisa Fox, the-psychic-who-found-me-in-a-coffee-shop, for many hours, asking Arron questions to which I got some interesting answers, many of which have been reprised in the book. My notes from Lisa’s sessions are copious. I typed as she spoke. Discussions included the levels of “awareness” in the afterlife, a soul’s purpose, what Arron’s job was in the afterlife, the idea that everything in life has a consequence in the afterlife, what happens to “bad” souls, among a host of other things. It was an amazing experience for both Lisa and I.

The kids were part of one or two of the sessions one of which made its way into the chapter in the book, “Haircut,” much of which is really more memoir than fiction.

Many of the thoughts and ideas about the afterlife that I riff on in the book were mashed from a variety of other sources as well: psychics Sylvia Brown and James Van PraagJourney of SoulsMany Lives, Many MastersEntangled Minds, among many others.

But a curious thing happened as I wrote the book: my fascination with psychics wore off. I’m not sure why exactly. Perhaps in writing that scene with the husband and wife trying to communicate through the psychic I saw comedy where I had not seen it before. Or maybe I saw my own desperation during that time, a time when I was so longing for a magical connection with Arron, I see now it was like grasping a blade of grass in an effort to keep from falling.

And yet, in it’s own magical way, that blade of grass did keep me from falling. It gave me hope that connection and communication with the dead might be possible, that magic was possible, that really, anything was possible.

And magic did happen and continues to happen. Remember The Moon is proof of that.





Navigating the Book Promotion Jungle

Sendak_Wild_rumpusI never really appreciated the book review, until I “impulsively published” my novel, Remember the Moon last week. I had no idea how difficult the elusive book review was to acquire. They are like the Holy Grail of the book world. I followed all the proper steps, that as a co-founder I have now heard and had drilled into my small brain over and over:

  1. I have a pretty good platform:
    • √ Author website with both my books prominently on display and for sale
    • √ Twitter account (3600+ followers)
    • √ Author Facebook page
    • √ Pinterest, Google+ pages
    • √ Mailing list (250+)
    • √ Author pages on Goodreads, LibraryThing, Shelfari, and Amazon
    • √ A member of the Amazon Affiliate program
    • √ Incorporated an “end of book request” where I listed all my links and contact info about my other book. Here’s a list of things to include at the back of your book.
  2. I asked for beta readers. 34 people signed up and got the beta version of the book. 17 actually provided me with feedback that was incredibly valuable and I put their names into the acknowledgements of the final version.
  3. I paid for two professional developmental edits, one copyedit, two blurb writers and a cover design.
  4. I formatted and reformatted the book myself (I used to do this sort of thing in a past life) until it was perfect.
  5. OK. I got a little impulsive and just popped it up there using Amazon KDP.
  6. I sent free versions to all my Beta readers and all the others on my mailing list, asking everyone to post amazon reviews.

I figured I was in good shape. Not that Oprah would be calling me the next day or anything, but I felt fairly confident that since the beta readers had already read the book, there would be little to hold them back from posting a review on Amazon the moment they got the email from me announcing my new arrival.

Guess what? Nothing happened. Oh sure, I got lots of congrats from friends and family on Facebook, but then, the dreaded… chirp! Nothing.

I asked for reviews on Facebook and I got one posted on Amazon. I was so grateful, I gushed my thanks on Facebook. “Sure!” she said. “I can’t wait to read it!”

A week and a stomach flu later, I posted another “gentle” (I hope) plea on Facebook for a review. I got one beta reader who obliged and I was oh, so happy.

Not all is lost though. I have sold 27 copies. 27! I’m not sure what I was expecting, but hey 27 actual people plunking down money is pretty sweet.

And now, here is what I have done since:

  1. Signed up for KDP Select so I could set up to 5 days of my book for free. I set a free date (I will leave that as a surprise and will announce it here on the day, so stay tuned).
  2. Connected my LibraryThing account with my author status and set up a free ebook giveaway (view my giveaway here by scrolling down the page). Learn how here.
  3. Posted to a group on Goodreads asking for a review. Two people accepted and I sent them free versions. (No reviews so far).
  4. Signed up for a blog tour (relatively inexpensive at $80.00). Will begin in April.
  5. Contacted all of the original bloggers on my tour for Alchemy and sent them free versions of the new book (one response).
  6. Tweeted a few of my statistics so far, both lamenting and happy. Amazing how that got retweeted. There is sympathy out there!
  7. Signed up for K-Boards author page
  8. Signed up to be a KB Featured book.
  9. Bought a Fiverr Twitter campaign for $5.
  10. Followed tips from this awesome site.
  11. Joined (free version) of Author Marketing Club (Be careful, they will push hard for you to buy a Premium membership) and used their free eBook Submission Tool to submit my KDP Free day to a dozen different sites who will hopefully post it on the special day.
  12. Signed up for and set up a promotion to give away three $10 Amazon gift cards to people who review the book. I already have 23 people’s emails which I was able to download into Excel.
  13. Because AWP is next week, I had printed 100 Enthrill eBook Cards that I can sell or give away. They have a scratch code on the back that gives people a code for them to download the book in whatever format they like.

And then a whole new range of things open up for me once I reach 10 reviews on Amazon, all of which have much greater reach than any of the above.

  1. Sign up for BookBlast
  2. BooklistOnline
  3. Getting listed on BookBub
  4. And on

Good lord, and that is just the start!

I may throw my hat into the ring and sign up for the CreateSpace 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. Ya, know they only get like 10,000 entries or so. Should be as easy as promoting a book!

For those interested, here are my actual costs on the book (so far)

1st Dev edit $500.00
2nd Dev edit $750.00
Cover design $300.00
Copyedit $650.00
Blurbs (x2) $50.00
b2b marketing $20.00
K-boards marketing $15.00
Promotion cards $200.00
Fivrr twitter promo $5.00
Blog Tour $80.00


And profit so far… drum roll… $75.41!

Yup, only $2,494.59 to go till I break even.

Good luck in the jungle!


Finding Your Valentine’s Day Whimsy

The Goodwill find

The Goodwill find

I was going for a tenderloin thinking of the dinner I made at Christmas – a beef tenderloin stuffed with a lobster tail complete with a delicious Bernaise sauce, but QFC tenderloin seemed to leave a lot to be desired, plus I had done that already. I drifted over to the fish display and contemplated the crabs, bound in rubber bands and stacked like dominoes. Seeing their undersides wasn’t appetizing.

I was grocery store drifting, in that vague limbo that happens when you are trying to shop and decide what to make for dinner at the same time. You wander the aisles hoping for inspiration to strike. Usually it doesn’t and you wind up coming home with a weird combination of things, none of which amount to a full menu.

As I stood next to the fancy cheeses, I spotted a box from another era. Fondue cheese. I smiled remembering all the times I’ve had fondue, which amounts to maybe four. Well, if you don’t count all the Raclette I ate while on a ski-trip in Austria with my grandparents, but I digress.

My sister is a big fan of fondue. I think I may have even given her a fondue pot when she got married, or for Christmas, or somewhere in there. She does fondue in lavish style with heaps of bread and potatoes and whatever else you dip into fondue. It is really more of a treasure hunt as you fish dropped bits of bread or potato out of the cheese. But always good times.

To be honest, as I stood there in the grocery store smiling at the cheese, I couldn’t remember what else you dip into fondue. Gerkins? Yes. Another item to add to the grocery list in my head.

Of course the fact that I didn’t actually own a fondue pot didn’t seem like a problem. Now I was plotting a route from the grocery store to Goodwill, where I pictured a row of discarded, barely-used, cherry red fondue pots.

I bought the cheese. And potatoes. And gerkins. It is Valentine’s Day, after all. Anything is possible on Valentine’s Day. Which is how I wound up at Goodwill at 1:30pm on a Friday afternoon when I’m sure I could have been writing my next book, or doing something far more useful than tracking down an old fondue pot. In the land of lost pots and lids, I picked up two contraptions that looked like they might pass for fondue pots. Shiny stainless steel things, a far cry from the circa 1977-era, red potbelly with a wooden handle I had pictured in my mind. But no bother. When you do fondue on a whim, you can’t be too choosy. Next was a hunt for fondue forks. Again, I pictured the wooden handled kind, with coloured ends so each person could differentiate their fork from everyone else’s. But none were to be found. Instead, I wandered the rows of castaway cutlery and found an attachment to my electric mixer that would replace one that had broken.

But when I turned for a final look at the dilapidated pots and pans, I spotted it – the fondue pot of my dreams, in it’s original 70s packaging with it’s tell-tale red potbellied-ness calling me. I broke the two pieces of masking tape holding the lid down on the box, and snuck a peak. Each piece was still in it’s original cellophane. This fondue pot had never been used! It was not red, but an olive green, but I didn’t care. It was mine.

Cupid was having his way with me today.

After I arrived home, Jim and I went in search of the holy grail – Sterno, a name-brand blast from the past. Where does one buy Sterno anymore? Or fondue forks for that matter?

A quick trip to the turn-back-time hardware store had me following its elderly proprietor into the deepest darkest edge of the store and there backed into a corner were two containers of Sterno. “Which size do you want?” he asked. I took the 3-pack of little tins that would clearly fit under the fondue pot.

But alas, when I asked about the fondue forks he said, “haven’t had those since the 70s.”

This particular neighborhood in Seattle is handy in that it has both a turn-back-time hardware store AND a trendy kitchen store, the neighborhood version of Williams Sonoma. Read: not cheap. “Should we take a look?” I asked Jim, who was appeasing all my whims today, on account of Valentine’s Day. “It’s like your birthday, whatever you like.”

After a quick dig behind another display, the kitchen store lady presented us with fondue forks and we were both surprised that they didn’t seem to have a Madison Park surcharge added to their price.

I’m not sure what all this says about Valentine’s Day, other than a whim has led us on an adventure. Which if you apply it to life or love, is really what love and life are all about. OK, I’m stretching the metaphor a bit, but hey, it’s Valentine’s Day. I can do whatever I like!

May you find your whimsy on this Valentine’s Day and may it lead you on a happy adventure.

Oops, I published my book today on Amazon!

Remember the Moon, CoverOn Tuesday, I was emailing agent queries, still uncertain if I should hold tight and try publishing my book traditionally. My current agent turned down the book because she doesn’t believe in psychics. Or that was the excuse anyway. Maybe it sucks. Hopefully it doesn’t. Judging from some of the comments I’ve already had, it doesn’t totally suck and people seemed to like it! They really liked it!

Ok, back to Tuesday. Emailing agents and I thought why am I doing this? I co-founded a start-up that bases it’s business on self publishing (, so perhaps I should walk the walk.

Yesterday, I worked at compiling my book using Scrivener  (awesome program for writers). That said, compiling to an eBook on Scrivener takes a certain talent and a deep knowledge and understanding of the Compile menu. I recompiled over and over and over until I got it just right. I even created drop caps (those large first letters that begin each chapter in many books) using a free trial of Sketch where I created the letters in 64 point type and exported them as little PDF files and imported them into Scrivener.  I spent WAY too many years in the desktop publishing world.

Finally, last night, I downloaded it to my Kindle to see how it looked, and Voila! I had it just the way I wanted it. And so I went to Amazon’s KDP  and through a few very easy steps, it was done. It takes up to 48 hours to process, but by 9:00am this morning, I was live!

Holy cow! I am not at all ready. I threw a post on Facebook and then got to work on a couple of MailChimp emails to make the initial announcement. And now here I am here, writing a post that I’ve published a book!

I’ve added all the info about the book in the area to the right, so check it out.

And if you read it and can remember, I would love you forever if you could write an Amazon review for me. Those are like gold and I didn’t do a very good job of asking for them for Alchemy, so I thought I try doing a better job this time.

Thanks to all who’ve supported me through this process. It’s been a crazy ride!

5 Tricks For Taking Your Mind Back From An Internet Vortex

369538I am tucked neatly inside Willow cottage, here at Hedgebrook for a Board retreat. Outside, pale blue streaks across an otherwise stony sky. The smell as I walked up the path to the cottage was particular to Hedgebrook, to the Northwest, a smell I call “rainforest.” I don’t know what makes it exactly – dampness mixed with pine needles and eucalyptus and cedar, and another kind of evergreen shrub I can’t identify that has a musky smell, exotic and foreign, like the scent of frankincense or maybe myrrh.

Inside the cabin, I hear a clock ticking, which is mysterious because the only clock I see is digital. The tiny bar fridge hums every 10 seconds, and of course I can no longer hear the crackling of the logs burning beside me because I have let the fire go out. I am a terrible fire tender.

As writers, we have grown used to checking spellings using online dictionaries, Googling, Wikipedia-ing and using all manner of online resources at our fingertips. For a writer, “unplugged” is a frightening notion.

It is wonderful being here again. Every detail seems heightened by my senses. I was here for three days last summer, when one of the residents was delayed in her arrival. In that time, I finished my novel. Well, at least the second-to-last draft of my novel. I felt guilty to be hidden away inside Willow when the sun was shining. It’s much easier to be here in February, where do you don’t feel compelled to dash outside to capture a ray of warmth on your cheeks.

I saw Ruth Orzeki  last week, talking about her book A Tale for the Time Being. The first time I saw Ruth speak was at Vortext, a Hedgebrook event. I don’t know if it’s her easy manner, the fact that she is a Zen Buddhist priest or that she’s Canadian (or lives there anyway) that captivated me. I just know I would enjoy having her to myself for a few hours to talk about things like time, how to unplug from online life, Buddhism, and Hedgebrook.

During her reading, she spoke about the ubiquity of time, a major theme in her book. She spoke of her main character identifying herself as a “Time Being” but how we also look at that phrase as a state – as in “for the time being.” She quoted some Japanese Zen monks from the fourth century for having made this distinction and that made me smile at its Japanese,-ness, like a Haruki Murakami (Wind up Bird Chronicle) novel. When I got home and started reading her book, a section jumped out and has stuck with me. The character of the young girl Nao (I loved realizing her name pronounced in English (Now) is also a statement of time) is speaking about entering a small temple in the middle of Tokyo and how it feels sacred to her.

“The temple was a special place. There was the smell of moss and incense, and sounds too – you could actually hear the insects and birds and even some frogs – and you could almost feel the plants and other things growing.  We were right in the middle of Tokyo, but when you got close the temple, it was like stepping into a pocket of ancient humid air, which had somehow gotten preserved like a bubble in ice, with all the sounds and smells still trapped inside it.”

From the perspective of Willow cabin, it seems obvious that Ruth wrote that portion of her book at Hedgebrook. Ruth talked about coming to Hedgebrook for three weeks, nervous about having to leave her online life behind. There is no Wi-Fi at Hedgebrook and cell service is spotty at best. As writers, we have grown used to checking spellings using online dictionaries, Googling, Wikipedia-ing and using all manner of online resources at our fingertips. For a writer, “unplugged” is a frightening notion. Ruth conceded she experienced a kind of withdrawal from her Internet crutch and continued to reach for her computer or phone to “look up” something until one day she realized she had finally stopped needing her crutch. By the end of her stay she discovered she had “gotten her mind back.” Only a few days before, I had written on a similar topic on this blog. I felt a moment of jealousy that she was able to recognize that moment, really feel it. I wanted my mind back too!

I am all too aware of this addiction many of us have to the Internet. A five-minute “email check” turns into four lost hours that is difficult to account for. Until the Internet – or maybe it’s Facebook or Google, specifically, I’m not sure – I have never had a real addiction. I never smoked, I don’t drink coffee (I honestly don’t know how I haven’t been kicked out of Seattle), I do things in moderation (I think). Yet I recognize my computer use as an addiction.

And so I see it’s important to find ways to ratchet down the brain when you don’t have a cottage in the woods or the ability to step back into 1946 at your disposal.

Stepping back into my 1946 time capsule on Vashon, allows me a few days to practice withdrawal, but this never seems an adequate amount of time to complete the process. I smell all those old, preserved smells trapped inside that old house, imagine the ghosts that once inhabited it’s rooms, pour over passages of Betty MacDonald’s book, Onions in the Stew, as a way of fully immersing myself into another life, another lifetime, being a Time Being. As if pretending to be in another time, when addictions like the Internet didn’t exist can make my present mind a little less cluttered.

And so I see it’s important to find ways (OK, this post is making me think of things I already do) to ratchet down the brain when you don’t have a cottage in the woods or the ability to step back into 1946 at your disposal. Here’s how I *try* to be a Time Being in my everyday life by pretending to live in 1946:

  1. Spend ridiculous amounts of time staring out the window. Sometimes I’m thinking, but other times I really am just staring. Zoned out. I’m sure the mailman must wonder about state of my mental health. I study the buds on the shrubs outside, watch the humming bird who comes to the empty bird feeder (disgusted, no doubt by the lack of vittles), watch the tops of trees wavering in the wind.
  2. Have a dog or small animal that annoys the hell out of you throughout the day with toys to throw and who sits on your lap/computer and forces you from being able to see the screen properly. Fish are not as good for this, but are excellent for #1.
  3. Make tea. See? I’m not so crazy for not liking coffee. Unlike coffee, you can drink tea all day long, which makes you get up and make it and then later it makes you go pee a whole bunch of times. Voila! You have risen. And I’m pretty sure they had tea in 1946.
  4. Take a break from the computer and read a book (not a Kindle if possible, since they didn’t have those in 1946). You can justify almost any reading as “research” that you need to do for your work. People Magazine is “Research,” OK? Just don’t argue with me on this.
  5. Cook dinner from scratch. I am rather old fashioned in this one. I like to cook, so it’s easy. Sort of. The hardest part is remembering to take stuff out of the freezer before 4:30pm. Or to go grocery shopping. A little trick: Do the groceries after school and drag the kid along so he can help carry bags. Caveat: Be prepared for the grocery bill to double with all the junk food you inadvertently collect as you breeze through the aisles. When you have a constantly hungry 14-year-old boy loitering around the kitchen, it’s easy to follow this tip: Get up from the computer by 5:00pm and start making dinner or you will have a kitchen that looks like a mini junk-food drive-by cyclone by 5:45pm.

We all have our little ways of taking our lives back to a simpler time. I find I often forget I even do them, and convince myself that I am a victim of complete Internet domination that there is no hope for me. I convince myself that all my short-term memory is shot, I no longer can keep up with email and my handwriting has gone to hell.  But when I write these things down (I know, it should be with a pen), I realize that I am more of a Time Being that I realized, which is a relief.

Some Lessons on Memoir Writing

wimd-34I attended a writing workshop this weekend in Sonoma hosted by Theo Nestor, my friend, memoir teacher and author of Writing Is My DrinkI went, because I’m beginning to formulate my next book, a memoir I hope to write about my house on Vashon, the one-time home of Betty MacDonald, author of The Egg and I, and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series of children’s books.

So far, I have this vague notion for a memoir about the house, which would include some autobiographical info about Betty, who for some strange reason has never had a proper biography written about her. She was, after all, one of the first memoirists, writing in a humorous way about her life during the 1940s, a time-machine look into another era.

1. Ask the questions

One of the things I was reminded about in the workshop, and the reason I was there in the first place, was to formulate the basis for the book. It really comes down to a couple of pointed questions. The tip that Theo provided was to “adopt the attitude that your life is important and ask the question, “If you were really important, what would you be writing about?” What is the most essential thing you need to share through your story?

When I think about what I should be writing about in relation to the house, I think about what it is the house means to me, which I can more or less summarize in one word:


I get lost in another time reading Betty’s books and visiting her house (weirdly, I still think of it as her house and not mine) provides me with a similar escape. The moment I enter the house, it’s as if I have opened the door of the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, into a whole different world. I can physically feel myself relax. I get excited about cooking, and writing (with pen and paper), about curling up on the couch to read a real book.

In my regular life, I spend hours behind my computer only to stand up after hours of addictive-like behavior feeling dazed and foggy, and my only reprieve comes in the form of a small dog who incessantly leaves her toy at my feet for me to throw.

I refuse to hook up Internet access at the house because I know the moment I do, its magic will be lost. I need Vashon to remain my escape from a plugged-in world into a time where life was simpler, or at least lived in real time.

2. Dance into your writing

Tanya Taylor Rubinstein was one of the day’s speakers and she speaks from the perspective of a solo performance artist. My favorite moment of her talk was when she began to wiggle around the stage, doing what a writer might call a “five minute write” but in oral story form as she waved her hands around and did a little twirl and a wiggle. “It’s a whole different way of coming at the story, and if you’re stuck it might help you.” She then had us find a partner, look them directly in the eyes and tell that partner a story about a moment that changed our life. To stay in the moment, I told my partner the moment I found the Vashon house and she shared with me a powerful story of the moment she discovered she had breast cancer. By the end of five minutes I knew I had made a new friend.

3. Be “Passionately Confused”

I also liked Theo’s idea that you must be “passionately confused” about your topic. Here the question is “what is the obsession that is imbedded in your story?” What are you curious about? It is this questioning that will make your memoir compelling because as you discover answers, your reader will as well. This is the crux of memoir, the transformation of the narrator. The narrator at the beginning of the story cannot be the same as the narrator at the end and you must be clear about what that shift is. Candace Walsh, another of the speakers backed this idea up when she advised to “live the questions now. Live your way into the answers.”

As Theo spoke and the other speakers, Candace Walsh and Tanya Taylor Rubinstein continued their workshops, I began jotting down ideas about what the themes in the book might be: slowing down, motherhood, spirituality, my relationship to money, healing, food, feeling overwhelmed by life, marriage, sex.

4. Let your subtitle frame your subject matter

Another of Theo’s points was that the subtitle of a book often frames the overall idea embedded within the book, kind of like a thesis statement in an essay. It sums up the essence of what a memoir is really about. Examples of this include: “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” and “Poser: My Life in 23 Poses.” I’ll be living my way into writing the subtitle too, it seems.

5. Fame/writing memoir won’t change you

The excitement of the day was a talk by Anne Lamott, who shared her own brand of wisdom. I have long admired her work – poignant, humorous, thoughtful, and slightly sarcastic, and maybe it was because she was recovering from the flu, or something else is going on with her, but I found her words to be threaded with sadness. She told us to not expect the writing to change us, or perhaps it was to not expect fame to change us, it wasn’t quite clear. I do believe that the process of writing memoir does change you. If you follow Theo’s wisdom on the matter, writing memoir is all about the transformation.

So perhaps it was the fame thing. I have never cared about fame, and if anything I shun it. What I seek is the change in a reader who has read my work. A transformation, a comfort, a healing. It struck me as I sat in that huge hotel ballroom how many stories were represented there – hundreds of big, tragic stories that each sought an outlet. To be a memoirist of Ann Lamott’s fame must take a certain amount of strength of spirit, a sense of responsibility to those stories. What came across to me was how fragile Anne Lamott is, and how fame must be debilitating to her in a lot of ways.

6. Carry a pen and paper at all times

I did like her advice to always carry a pen and paper wherever you go and was charmed by the idea that she writes on her hand and then “transcribes her hand” when she gets home. I am horrible with writing little things down, maybe too busy living in the moment, to remember to stop it and jot it down on a piece of paper and so I felt somewhat lacking without my Moleskin and Montblanc.  Still, I so admire her turns of phrases, her metaphors and no doubt, her jotting is where they come from. Time to get a notebook and a pen!

And so, I came away from Petaluma percolating with new ideas and resolutions to jot, which was my goal for the weekend. I also made some lovely new friends who I look forward getting to know, at least inside this screen, my little virtual 2014 world.




Learning to Drive in the Slow Lane


I miss the magical thinking of grief. That heady intensity of thought, the ability to see serendipity in all things, of having an excuse to let the little things slide because they don’t really matter anymore. I realize that grief is really a prolonged state of change and magical thinking is a result of this change. And by magical thinking, what I really mean is growth. Spiritual. Emotional. Mental. Whatever way you slice it.

Looking back on my life, I realize change was ever-present – traveling between parents on weekends, moving homes and changing schools frequently. To cope, I kept my friends constant and my family close. But eventually, I found that I needed frequent bouts of change in my life, or I grew restless. I remember my desperation during my adolescence to grow up and become an adult, someone in control of her own world, a control I now see was pure fantasy. When things were bad, I knew all I had to do was wait a while, and things would surely change. Sometimes I created my own change: I thought nothing of flying off to Europe or Australia on my own after high school and college.

Grief was simply another life change I needed to adapt to, albeit, not a very fun one most of the time. I think now that my resilience came from knowing on some level, that like everything in my life so far, even grief was a stage, that entropy would eventually wash it into a new era. Our move to Seattle, of course was another version of this hunger for change, and now that I’ve been here for a while, I am conscious of this impulse to move life along.

The down side of thriving on change: Impatience.

On the Carter side of my family, we are all known for being speedy at whatever we do: my grandmother was a speedy quilter, my father, a speedy draftsman. As a project manager, I was speedy at getting things done. What you give up though in the quest for speed is the quality of your work, which project management taught me was a bad thing. I had to learn to slow down, check all my work carefully, proofread.

Jim and I are now nearly two years (!) into our relationship. Many mornings we sit at my dining room table, each absorbed in our respective computer worlds, comfortable in our pattern, our easy rapport, our lack of desire to get anywhere, since we are exactly where we need to be.

Jim has taught me many things about the value of slow, which is odd given he’s a firefighter. Perhaps it’s because he’s a firefighter. Ever the speed queen, I mostly drive like a bat out of hell, but now I drive in the slow lane (as much as it sometimes kills me) after Jim told me that almost every highway accident he attends as a firefighter occurs in the fast lane, a place where it’s impossible to swerve to the shoulder to avoid things coming at you, often from the opposite direction.

He can run long distances, not because he sprints, but because he uses the slow and steady tortoise method. Slow and steady has become a metaphor for our relationship in a way, but I find myself sometimes chafing, my desire for speed and change an opiate.

My relationship with Arron was filled with the milestones of a young marriage: moving in together, marriage, living abroad, buying a house, children. There was always a big change around the corner to keep things exciting. A later-in-life relationship has fewer milestones through which to navigate, through which to grow together, to test limits and boundaries within the other. I find myself wondering about the next big change that Jim and I might undertake together – moving in? marriage? buying a house? Travel? And I have to stop myself.

Being adaptable to change served me well in overcoming loss, but I still need to work at keeping my inner Roadrunner in check – to not push time and to remember to allow those quiet moments at the dining room table to happen, content in the knowledge that change will come as surely as entropy is an inevitable life-force.

Magical thinking in the post-grief era.

PS: As my New Year’s Resolution, I have decided to join International Institute of Not Doing Much. At least I might, after I take my time thinking about it for a while.

Getting Through Mistfit Toy Syndrome With A Little Help From The Thanksgiving Elves

It’s that time of year again. I’ve been having my annual internal battle with myself to remain upbeat and positive about the holiday. I’ve planned a party, baked cookies, bought a Christmas tree and Satsumas. I’m almost done with my Christmas shopping.

But that nasty little Christmas gremlin is still in there, festering. I tell myself it’s residual grief – Christmas and his birthday crammed together in an extra-special helping of grief-nog. But if it was really a grief-nog hangover, then why don’t I get this during other holidays?

Maybe it’s the gifting thing that gets me down. I know this is going to sound stupid, and surely it’s a residual effect of a child of divorce or bad TV Christmas specials, but I actually feel sorry for the misfit toys and gifts (thanks Rudolf!). All those unwanted, unloved sweaters and candles that will never be lit, that sit on shelves, gathering dust, lonely… I can’t write any more, it’s going to make me cry. Clearly I related to those misfit toys on some deep, unconscious level. I’m the girl who cried when my family, during a Christmas trip to Mexico thought it would fun to bash the crap out of a cute bunny pinata. Yeah, I’m THAT girl. Don’t judge me.

By the way, I just have to love on this post about The Island of Misfit Toys. The doll is a trannie. What’s not to love about misfit toys?

My only solution to avoiding Misfit Toy Syndrome is to trick myself into thinking it’s Thanksgiving. All those lovely FB posts saying what we are all grateful for? We need more of that at this time of year.

So, Thanksgiving elves, here’s what I’m grateful for:

  • A girl who flew home last night from the east coast (not without a little drama), safe and sound and oh, so grateful to be home to have her mama do her laundry and cook her favorite Jambalaya.
  • A boy who wakes up each morning an inch taller and a smidge wiser and who makes me laugh when he pulls faces that are the exact replicas of his father’s.
  • A friend who loves and supports me even in her depleted candied-brain state.
  • A boyfriend who I cherish for his wisdom, patience, kindness, his love of me and my family, and the way he manages to make filthy every single article of clothing he owns.
  • A dog who can jump four feet in the air, thinks nothing of stepping on your face to get anywhere she needs to go, who flops down beside the heat register below the kitchen sink looking dead and who “speaks” alien.
  • A family who can make me spew champagne through my nose in laughter, enable my near-obsession with the 4th Line Theatre, howl at the moon with me, guide my sense of fashion, and say it like it is.

I hope that despite my Christmas gremlin and bad case of Misfit Toy Syndrome, I can give just a little bit of all that back this year.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone and “To All A Good Night!”