Two Truths

 

I loved my papaw. My papaw was a racist.

That first sentence was easy to write. The second one was incredibly difficult. Even now, looking at those black words on the white screen, I’m tempted to back space over them. To erase them. But like a lot of Americans in general and Southerners in particular right now, I am learning that you can’t just keep the truths you like and erase the ones you don’t.

But first things first. I loved my papaw. I still think about him almost every day, and he has been dead, unbelievably, for almost thirty years. Papaw was a small man, which came with some advantages in the coal fields of Appalachia. Like a boy in a Dickens novel, he started working at the age of twelve, but instead of finding Dickensian employment as a chimney sweep or a boot blacker, he climbed on a cart and took a ride into the blackest of places, a coal mine. Because he never grew much after his twelfth birthday, he became a useful miner who could dig out the coal in tight spaces bigger men couldn’t squeeze into. Well liked by his coworkers and known for his work ethic, he was eventually promoted to foreman. After the mines closed in the 1950’s, he struggled to find a way to support his family. For a while, he worked a low-paying job in a gas station. Then, he and his wife and daughter (my mom) moved to Ohio so he could get a better paying job in a tannery. This foray to the flatlands didn’t last. My nana was too homesick for the mountains. They moved back home, and eventually Papaw found work in the produce department of a local grocery store. However, he still spoke with pride of his years as a miner, and he was a lifelong member of the United Mine Workers of America.

One of the main reasons I love my papaw is that he helped make my childhood magical. He was one of those special people who had a genuine gift for relating to children on their level without condescension or sentimentality. Like a lot of budding fiction writers, I was an imaginative child who lived inside the stories I made up, read, or saw. If my imaginary worlds were less real to Papaw than they were to me, he never let me know it. He spoke to the bevy of dolls I called my “children” as if I had given birth to each of them, and if he was making me a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, he made tiny sandwiches for them, too. When I was living in the Land of Oz, he always called me Dorothy. And when I was obsessed with the old Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies that played on the Early Show, he called me Jane, and I called him Tarzan…a fact that caused lots of amusement among his coworkers at the grocery store, many of whom started calling him Tarzan, too.

On Christmas or my birthday, I could tell that Papaw took genuine pleasure in seeing my excitement and watching me tear into my presents. But he was there for the small difficulties of childhood, too. If I skinned my knee playing, he cleaned the wound with soap and water and painted it with the dreaded iodine-based “red medicine” that mountain people of his generation swore by. On days I was home sick with a cold or virus, he would come over, sit on the edge of my bed, and play board games with me.  Whatever the game, he played by the rules and never let me win on purpose. He said if he made it too easy for me, I’d never learn to be a good player.

But Papaw played by the rules in other ways, too—the rules of the society in which he had been raised. The flip side of his pride in being a miner was that he never acknowledged the personal and environmental exploitation of the coal industry. Even when he was dying from chronic lung disease caused by his years of mining, he said that if he had had the knowledge that it would eventually lead to a slow and painful death, he would still have chosen to be a miner. His views of gender were also typical of his upbringing and environment. While he was always very supportive of all my ambitions, he still believed there were some jobs women couldn’t/shouldn’t do, and while he was a big fan of FDR, he hated Eleanor because she had once visited the inside of a coal mine, which was “no place for a woman.”

Papaw was a believer in every existing ethnic stereotype, and if there wasn’t an existing one, he’d be happy to make one up based on his limited experience. He told a story about how when he was working at the gas station, he dropped a five-dollar bill on the ground in front of the Jewish department store owner who was there buying gas. He said, “And of course, when the Jew saw that money, his mouth took to watering.” He had worked with some Italian immigrants in the mines and observed that “they left chickens out to rot before they’d eat ‘em,” “worshipped Mary,” and “was bad to drink.” When the watermelons came into the produce department at the grocery store where he worked…well, you can guess what ethnic group he said would be “busting through the doors to get at ‘em.” This confused me as a child: didn’t just about everybody like watermelon?

The thing about how my papaw relayed these stereotypes is that there was never a tone of anger or bitterness. His observations about Jews or Eye-talians or, his preferred racist slur, “jigs” were delivered as humorous anecdotes, the same way he’d tell you a funny story he heard from one of the fellers at the barber shop.

Since I grew up in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, a lot of the shows I watched on TV with my papaw and nana featured black characters and spotlighted social issues. Nana and Papaw laughed at Archie Bunker on All in the Family, not because he was a bigoted buffoon but because he was telling the “truth” that other people were too weak or scared to say (Maybe Archie Bunker was the Donald Trump of the 1970’s in that respect, but he had the distinct advantage of being a fictional character). Nana and Papaw also enjoyed Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons, but the way they laughed at Fred and George was different than they way they laughed at Archie; they laughed at the black characters, not with them. In the late ‘70’s and early 80’s, there was a strange fad of sit coms about wealthy white people adopting adorable, diminutive black children. Probably because he loved children, Papaw especially enjoyed these shows, but the way he talked about them probably wasn’t what the show’s producers had in mind. On the days when Diff’rent Strokes aired, Papaw would inevitably ask, “Does that little n****r come on tonight?” I winced at that word, but later, Nana and Papaw and I would laugh together when Gary Coleman’s Arnold uttered his catch phrase, “Whatchoo talkin’ bout, Willis?”

Papaw thought Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, who starred in the other popular “let’s-adopt-a-precocious-black-child” sit com, Webster, were cute and endearing, and he felt the same way about black children he encountered in real life. Only a few black families lived in our little mountain town, but one of them lived just up the street from my grandparents. The two youngest children, Lisa, a girl who was barely school age and Michael, her preschooler brother, would often walk up to Nana and Papaw’s house to “visit,” where they would be rewarded with Little Debbie snack cakes from the kitchen breadbox. These visits always made me uncomfortable because while both of my grandparents were outwardly very nice to the kids, I was also aware that their tone with them was different than it was with me or the other white kids in the neighborhood. It was a tone of the sort of kindness you extend to someone or something that is worse off or lesser than you. Though Lisa and Michael were well cared for children, Nana and Papaw still fed them Little Debbies the same way they would feed table scraps to the stray dogs that showed up in the back yard. Though Nana and Papaw certainly were no one’s definition of nobility, their behavior toward Lisa and Michael still smacked of noblesse oblige.

There is a spectrum of racism, and my grandparents’ prejudice was much less blatant than some other white adults I knew. There was the substitute teacher who asked me why I was jumping rope with the one black girl in my class. When I said “because we’re friends,” she asked, “Does your mother and daddy know you play with her?” There was the old man who used to live across the street from Nana and Papaw who got so angry when a young black man walked across his yard without permission that he went into a screaming rage, had a heart attack, and died. While my grandparents were far from progressive in their racial views, they were not in danger of actually dying from the intensity of their bigotry and hatred.

It’s no mystery why I’m reflecting on these things. With the murder of George Floyd set against the backdrop of a pandemic and a divisive government, our country is showing both the fresh wounds and the old scars of our racial—and racist—history. While no particular part of the country has a copyright on racism, I feel like those of us in the South have a lot to reckon with. Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” Only a Southern writer could’ve come up with this line. Here, we are surrounded by our past, right down to statues of Confederate soldiers who died for a (thankfully) Lost Cause. As those statues topple, so should the lies white Southerners have often told themselves about our region’s history.

But it’s hard. Because when we white Southerners acknowledge the history of racism in our region, we also have to acknowledge the racism of people whom we love(d) who also love(d) us. Mamaws or nanas or grannies who made us chicken and dumplings and taught us how to crochet hats for our dolls. Papaws or Pawpaws or Grandads who taught us how to play checkers and made us cups of warm milk tanned with a splash of coffee. Cousins we swam with in the summer and had snowball fights with in the winter. My own parents were antiracist, but many parents of my peers were not.  And so when white Southerners unconvincingly argue that racism was not one of the primary tenets of the Confederacy, maybe they’re not saying this because they feel the need to defend Nathan Bedford Forrest or Jeb Stuart or any other long-dead white Southern “gentlemen.” Maybe it’s because they’re telling themselves that racism isn’t a component of the beliefs of people who have held them, laughed with them, cried with them, raised them, or grown up with them. It’s hard to reconcile that kind of love with that kind of hate.

My papaw died when I was in my early twenties. He and I talked about many things during my childhood, teen years, and young adulthood. But never once did I start a conversation with him about race, about why he held the views he did. That was on me.  Because we should have had that conversation. And as a region, we need to have that conversation, not just in the streets but with the people we love.

 

The Backslid Blogger

Those of us who were raised Southern Baptist are familiar with the concept of “backsliding,” which is what happens when a previously devout person falls off the proverbial wagon and descends into sinful behavior such as drinking, dancing, or playing cards for money. I fell off the Baptist wagon long ago and backslid into being a lax Unitarian. However, now I must confess my status a a backslid blogger. Just like someone who’s been missing from church for years, I have let my blog slide not because I’ve been drinking (well, okay, a nip every now and then) or dancing (well, maybe a little, mostly to the new Janelle Monae album) or playing cards (I never got the hang of this vice, unless you count Go Fish), but because I’ve been parenting, teaching, writing, and generally living a life.

The good news is that in the interim during which I’ve let this blog lie fallow, I have written a new young adult novel, Quiver, which will be released by Three Rooms Press in October 2018. Set in rural East Tennessee, Quiver is the story of an unlikely friendship between a homeschooled Evangelical Christian teen and an also-homeschooled progressive, vegetarian gender-fluid teen. In our divisive times, Quiver is a call for empathy and understanding across the cultural divide. The book is already generating a lot of praise from such venerable sources as Foreword magazine, which gave it a starred review, and VOYA, which gave it a Perfect Ten Award.

And so, like a backslid Baptist returning to the fold, I ask your forgiveness for my long absence from this blog, and I hope that when you read Quiver, you’ll consider my time away to be time well spent.

 

On Badness

I’ve always been one of those people who gets labeled–sometimes euphemistically–as “creative.”  My writing is mainly what’s earned me that label, though I have dabbled in other arts.  I’m not a bad actress in a “doyenne of the community theater” kind of way, and while I don’t have the kind of visual talent that results in one’s paintings hanging in a gallery, I can draw a cat that looks like a cat.  The area of the arts in which I am totally deficient is music.

There is a myth–one that I’ve even heard espoused by some music teachers–that everyone can sing.  This is a myth I can easily debunk simply by opening my mouth.  When I was a member of my small-town church’s children’s choir (not a high-talent operation, I can tell you), the elderly choir director suggested, “Perhaps it would be best if Julia just moved her lips instead of singing the words.”  And so, while the other children chirped “Jesus Loves Me,” I lip synched like world’s tiniest drag queen.

My parents rightly believed I should have some kind of musical background, and since it clearly wasn’t going to be vocal, they opted for instrumental.  And so from the ages of eight to fourteen, I burned my way through music teachers like a string of failed marriages.  My first was a patient Christian high school student whose Pekingnese snoozed under the piano as I haltingly plinked away, his smoosh-faced doggy snores acting as a metronome.

Once my teen teacher graduated high school, I graduated to studying with a music professor at the college where my dad taught.  These lessons were held before school, early in the morning (not my best time of day then or now).  The professor would fuss over the length of my fingernails, ask me to remove my rings, and then listen to me sleepily fumble my way through dumbed-down versions of classical pieces.  I would joylessly practice these pieces the whole school year in preparation for the spring Piano Guild, where I would play them, sweating profusely and trying not to throw up, in front of a panel of judges.  I had worked on the pieces so long by then that I performed them competently, in the same way a chimp forced to type long enough might eventually produce a sentence.  I think back on this particular music teacher with pity because I know I was a miserable, lazy student.  She must have been miserable, too, because she was used to college students–music majors, no less–not sulky middle schoolers whose lack of talent was exceeded only by their lack of discipline.

Sensing my misery, my parents decided to try another approach to my musical education.  Dad suggested a former student of his who performed traditional Appalachian music with her husband and sons might bring more fun and less formality to my experience.  She taught in her little house in the country, and I probably learned more on her plinky old upright piano than I had anywhere else.  Instead of trying to force me into classical mode, she let me learn the songs I wanted to play, which led to the surreal experience of learning to play “New York, New York” in a house in a holler while–no joke–a fresh-killed groundhog simmered on the stove.

Once I hit high school it became obvious that my interests–and certainly my talents–lay elsewhere, and I dropped piano in favor of writing for the newspaper and acting in plays.  I hadn’t really thought about my dubious musical history until a few months ago when my middle schooler expressed an interest in learning how to play.  I poked around and found a reasonably priced digital keyboard and a piano textbook for the “older beginner” in hopes that it wouldn’t seem too babyish.  I figured six years as a lousy piano student qualified me to get him through the beginner book.  If he stayed interested after that, I’d have to outsource.

But first I was going to have to touch the keys again myself.  I discovered–somewhat to my surprise–that I can still read music, at least in the way a second grader can read an “early chapter book.”  Getting the message to my hands is another issue altogether.  My left hand, while perfectly content to tap away at a computer keyboard, resents the implication that it should hit the piano keys the same time as my more cooperative right hand.  Thirty minutes at the digital keyboard led me to have two discoveries.  The unsurprising one was that I still sucked, but now my suckiness was exacerbated by years of inactivity.  The surprising one was that I–perhaps for the first time ever–was having fun playing.

I played all the less degrading pieces in the beginner piano book, then decided I needed some sheet music that fit my woeful skill level but still sounded more adult.  Nobody–not family members, not even pets–wants to hear a forty-four-year-old woman hammer out “Sweetly Sings the Donkey” over and over.  I got online and typed in “easy piano” and “pop,” and after filtering through loads of Taylor Swift sheet music, I discovered the oeuvre of Dan Coates, a man who apparently makes his fortune by arranging classic rock and pop songs so they can be banged out by musically unremarkable amateurs.  I ordered a book Coates developed in collaboration with Rolling Stone magazine and rejoiced that soon instead of sucking at playing “Sweetly Sings the Donkey” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” I could suck at playing “Iron Man” and “Ode to Billy Joe.”

I know if I continue to play around on the keyboard, I’ll get better.  But I also know I’ll never be good.  So why spend even a small stretch of my limited leisure time doing something I’ll never excel at?  The answer, my friends–and yes, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is in the Dan Coates song book–is because I have given myself permission to suck, and it is liberating.

Whenever kids start an extracurricular activity, whether it’s music or karate or dance, sooner than later the emphasis turns to performance or competition.  Even if the kid only started the activity because it looked like fun or because the outfits looked cool, he or she is soon practicing exhaustively for a recital or tournament, being scrutinized, criticized, and evaluated.  For the kids who keep up with the dance or violin or whatever into adolescence, the time demands often swell due to membership in a company or a youth orchestra so that there’s no time for anything else but school and homework and–one hopes–sleep.

True, there are some kids with talent and drive who will grow up to be professional gymnasts or dancers or musicians, but for the ones who won’t, extracurricular activities that are too time consuming and performance oriented can lead to stressed out, burned out kids.  I explore the subject of pressured gifted kids in my novel Gifted and Talented, but here my concern is for the kids who aren’t prodigies.  Isn’t it possible to expose kids to the arts and music  just for fun, for the experience of trying something different with their minds and bodies, for maybe making their worlds a little bigger?

There is value in being achievement oriented, but there’s also value in dabbling in something you’re not particularly good at for fun.  The key, I think, is in knowing you’re not that good.  Being bad and thinking you’re good is another issue entirely.  It’s painful to watch tone deaf people audition for “American Idol” thinking they’ll be the next big thing (Don’t these people have family and friends who can talk them down before they humiliate themselves on national TV?). I’ve had students enroll in my creative writing classes confident of a future place on the New York Times’ Bestseller List  who can’t write a competent sentence.  And maybe–just maybe–a certain ex-President should limit showings of his barely competent paintings of what his feet look like in the bathtub to family and friends.

But private dabbling is fun, and by working on something that doesn’t come naturally to me, I’m stretching my brain a little.  Surely it’s better to spend one’s spare moments getting less bad at playing “Ode to Billy Joe” than it is to spend hours getting really good at “Candy Crush.”  And so, like Salieri in Amadeus, a merely competent composer driven mad by jealousy of Mozart’s genius, I say “Mediocrities of the world, I absolve you.”  And I say this knowing that for me musically, mediocrity is a level to which I can only aspire.

 

 

“The Watts Line” Revisited

Words you have put into print take on a life of their own.  Publications, no matter how small or obscure, never die.  That’s why I wasn’t as surprised as I probably should have been when a woman browsing my table of titles at last year’s Kentucky Book Fair said, “You’re ‘The Watts Line’ girl, aren’t you?”

That’s me.  Or rather, that was me, around thirty years ago when as a high school student in Corbin, Kentucky, I wrote a weekly entertainment column for The Corbin Times-Tribune.  I’m still not sure why the newpaper’s editor, a cigar-chomping Appalachian version of Lou Grant, agreed to let a fourteen-year-old contribute to his publication.  He had gone to high school with my very pretty mom.  Maybe he had a crush on her.  Or perhaps he had been amused by my confidence when I pitched the idea to him.  He had nothing to lose.  The Times-Tribune‘s pitiful weekend entertainment supplement consisted only of TV listings and a few syndicated filler pieces.

It was probably an act of adolescent hubris to think I could produce a weekly entertainment column in Southeastern Kentucky, which is not exactly a mecca of popular culture.  Movie reviews were the staple of my column, yet within easy driving distance there were only two movie theatres (one with only one screen) which changed movies every three weeks.  In the best of times, my parents would drive me to Knoxville or Lexington for a play or concert which I’d review.  In the worst of times, when I’d seen all th movies at the nearby theatres and had no prospect of leaving the immediate region, I’d trudge to the video store (which, for the record, had a tanning bed) and select a VHS tape from the new releases.

If I were truly committed to doing this blog justice, I’d wade through my messy garage, find the box filled with my old “Watts Line” clippings and revisit the writing of my teenaged self.  But I’d rather not.  “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman” seen in those columns makes this middle-aged woman wince.  As a young writer, I showed promise but no restraint.  I never passed the opportunity for a pun or a witty–or so I thought at the time–aside.  Under all the Dorothy Parker Wannabe witticisms, I see a lonely kid who masks her insecurity with arrogance, who aspires to bohemianism without fully understanding it, who wants to be an iconoclast but with every breath is screaming, “Like me!  Like me!”  I also see someone who doesn’t know herself nearly as well as she thinks she does, especially when it comes to her sexuality.  Honestly, was I in such deep denial that I convinced myself that I had a crush on Bruce Willis?  “Moonlighting” Bruce Willis, mind you, not “Diehard” Bruce Willis.  But still.

While it’s easy for the forty-something I am now to laugh at the teenaged smartass I was then, I have to say that the years I spent writing “The Watts Line” taught me some lessons that are still with me today.  The first and most important was to sit down and write, no procrastination and no excuses.  My copy was due on Wednesday afternoon so it could make the weekend edition.  I got it done no matter what school or extracurricular activities I had going on.  Sometimes I’d be writing about something amazing I couldn’t wait to tell people about.  Many other times I had nothing to write about but a mediocre movie I’d watched on the VCR while gorging on Doritos.  Not inspiring, but I wrote anyway.

I know a teenager hammering out a movie review isn’t the same as a real writer laboring for hours over a story, poem, or play.  But writing every week still demystified the process for me thanks to the power of the deadline.  I had to write my column–they didn’t pay me $20 a week for nothing–and so I did.  My small experience with newspaper work made me remarkably un-neurotic about writing.  Some days produce better quality writing than others, but I never have trouble with the act of sitting down and working.

Other than the writing itself, the greatest pleasure I got from “The Watts Line” was having readers–not just my parents, but people who didn’t have to read my work because they loved me.  Periodically, I would get “fan mail” sent care of The Times-Tribune.  Often these readers expressed astonishment that “The Watts Line” was written by a teenaged girl (As an adult, I am astonished by their astonishment; I might as well have been dotting my i’s with hearts).  Kids at achool who never took notice of me otherwise asked me about–and often argued with me about–my columns.  A disparaging comment I made about David Lee Roth caused me a few particularly dark school days, but at least I was being shunned for my written opinions and not for something stupid like my shoes.

The most surprising piece of “Watts Line” correspondence came after I reviewed a Neil Diamond concert I’d seen in Knoxville with my mom for Mother’s Day.  In the column, I praised Diamond’s talent but poked fun at his (to my eyes then) aged female fan base and his propensity for displaying his graying chest hair.  I have no idea how a copy of The Corbin Times-Tribune found its way into his hands, but Diamond himself wrote me a charming note in which he called my wise-ass comments “fun and funny and true.”  The note was signed “your fan, Neil Diamond.”  I still have it.

Cranking out “The Watts Line” every week was a good introduction to the writer’s life, both because of the steady writing habits it instilled and because of the reader response that made a lonely artistic type feel less lonely.  And come to think of it, that twenty bucks a week may have been the steadiest income I’ve ever earned from my writing alone (It also allowed me to have an enviable collection of Chuck Taylor All-Stars).  And so while I don’t want to look at any of my old columns any more than I want to look at pictures of myself in braces and big eighties glasses, I know that being “The Watts Line” girl helped shape me into the writer I am today.

Sisyphus Does the Dishes

My housekeeping is lackluster. I say “lackluster” because it sounds more flattering to describe it for what it lacks (luster) rather than for what it is (slovenliness). I’ve heard many fellow slobs say they’re messy because they’re creative. While I’m not sure that messiness equals creativity, I do know that I’d much rather work on a chapter of my current novel than clean something that’s only going to get dirty hours–or minutes–later. Writing is always new. Writing is discovery. Cleaning is(and my apologies to Albert Camus for borrowing this analogy) Sisyphus rolling that damn rock up the hill so it can roll back down again.The one Sisyphean domestic struggle I do undertake daily is washing dishes. While I hate cleaning, I do like cooking for my family. Cooking, like writing, is creative. Unlike writing, it produces the greasy, crusty side effect of dirty pots and pans. Usually I manage the mess by cramming it into the dishwasher, but last week the dishwasher went on the fritz right after I’d shelled out for an expensive car repair. Fixing the dishwasher would have to wait for another paycheck.

A broken luxury item definitely falls under the heading of a First World Problem, so I promised myself I wouldn’t complain each night when I piled the dishes into the sink and filled it with hot, soapy water. What I didn’t expect was that this nightly ritual would bring back a memory about one of the reasons I became a writer. 

As a kid, I ate supper at my maternal grandparents’ house a couple of times a week. While Nana waited for the cornbread to brown, I’d sit in the living room watching a rerun of “Gilligan’s Island” or “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I’d know we were ready to eat when Nana hollered, “Buttermilk or sweet milk?” She always asked, though I invariably said “sweet.” Apparently she lived in the vain hope that I’d develop a taste for buttermilk.

Supper was always a variation on the same theme: pinto beans with the aforementioned cornbread, fried taters, and a cooked-to-mush green vegetable such as cabbage or turnip greens. In the traditional Appalachian style, all items were seasoned with and/or cooked in a heaping helping of hog fat, be it bacon grease or lard. Filling to the point of rendering the eater torpid, it was a meal for coal miners but not for cardiologists. 

Supper was followed by the evening news. Nana took a particular interest in celebrity death. Once, when Papaw had left the room during the news to fetch a fresh plug of tobacco, she hollered at him, “Arthur, Sid Vicious is dead!” His response: “Woman, who in the sam hill is Sid Vicious?” After the news, it was time to do the dishes.

I don’t know if Nana and Papaw’s domestic arrangement was spoken or unspoken, but she always cooked, and he always washed the dishes. My job was to help Papaw, though I’m sure he managed just fine the evenings when I wasn’t there. Sometimes he’d wash and I’d rinse (or “wrench,” as he pronounced it), sometimes the other way around. 

Regardless of which of us was doing what, Papaw told stories. Nana’s stories were interesting, too, but they were always dark, dealing with illness and accidents and morbidity. Papaw’s were often funny, and he was an audience-centered storyteller. With me, he told stories a kid would like. He told about how as a nine-year-old boy, he kept sneaking sips from a bottle of sweet Italian wine he’d been charged with taking to his parents in the coal camp, until he got so drunk he curled up and slept in a ditch. He told about how his grandmother tripped over a cow in a dark field and went on an unexpected (by her and the cow) ride. He told about his buddy in the mines who always ate dessert first so in case there was a cave-in, he wouldn’t have missed the best part of the meal. My hands soaking in the hot dishwasher, my developing writer’s mind soaked in his stories.

Feeling that same sensation this week of my hands growing pruny in the soapy water, I felt the presence of Papaw by my side, rinsing while I washed, his stories still alive inside me.

My First Blog

My First Blog” sounds like “My First Doll” or “My First Potty”–a purchase one might pick up for a baby growing into toddlerhood. But this is truly my first-ever blog. Despite have written over a dozen novels and quite a few short stories and essays, until today my blog virginity has remained intact. I’m sure it says something about my lack of ease with the electronic format that I drafted this out longhand on a yellow legal pad.

The yellow legal pad is where all my writing begins. I always finish on a computer, but I never start on one. Sitting in front of a glowing screen feels like work, and for me writing must be play. And so just like I used to sprawl out with my drawing pad and markers when I was a kid, I sprawl with my legal pad and pen and let that same part of my imagination take over.

Later, once I’ve completed a draft, I turn to the computer, the perfect tool for revision. Need to get rid of that tangent where I clearly lost my mind for three paragraphs? Block and delete. Need to move a passage from one chapter to another? Easy breezy. The computer is such an ideal revision tool that I can’t imagine how I would have revised my work in the pre-digital age. Retype the entire manuscript on paper? No, thanks. I probably would’ve been too lazy to be a novelist and would have had to develop a talent for shorter forms, like limericks and haikus. Plus, there’s the whole issue of authors only having one copy of their work on paper, a copy which could easily be lost or destroyed–a thought that makes me so anxious I have to stop writing about it right now.

When I talk to other writers, I’m always fascinated by their individual approaches to the process. In addition to the longhand versus computer question, there are environmental issues: In an office, café, or comfy room? In absolute quiet or with music or background noise?

One piece of advice I always give busy grownup writers is don’t write only when your ideal conditions are met. Flexibility is important. When I was much younger an much more wrapped up in the idea of being “an artiste,” I used lots of statements about my writing which contained the word “only”: “I can only write at night after everyone else is asleep.” “I can only write with a cup of Earl Grey tea.” “I can only write on Big Chief Tablets like John Boy Walton used” (I know, this one is weird). These statements, while they must have spoken to my identity at the time, were horribly self-limiting. If I had an idea I was ready to run with, why wait until everybody else was in bed? Why delay my creative urge because I had the wrong brand of paper or was down to Darjeeling in my tea stash?

As a busy grownup writer, I have learned to toss away superstitions about when, where, and how I can or cannot write. Ten minutes early picking up the kid at school? Whip out that legal pad and write on the dashboard. Why read a two-year-old issue of “Good Housekeeping” in the doctor’s waiting room when I could use the time to write instead? Every week I try to get in a couple of stretches of writing under closer to ideal circumstances, but the writing I do on the fly adds up as well. And when I’ve finished my draft and start revising, I can’t tell the difference between the work I did during a long, interrupted stretch versus what I wrote while waiting for an oil change. Some of it’s good and some of it’s bad, but the quality seems unrelated to the writing circumstances.

Writers write. It’s what we do, though sometimes we get so particular about the wheres and hows of it that we do less of it than we should. That being said, I’m still mighty partial to my yellow legal pads.

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Published on July 16, 2014 10:34 • 54 views

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