Post-Iron Horse. Can I Sleep Now? Please?

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After our big 25th anniversary shows at the Iron Horse last weekend, I was so tired I thought I would never recover. As I age, it seems performing takes more and more out of me, or else it takes longer to mop me off the floor afterward. As my friend Steve Philbrick says, “My body tells the truth more these days.” At any rate, I have made a vow not to get up at 5 in the morning for a whole week. Maybe it will extend into a whole month. And then maybe into forever. Who knows?

It’s a strange pull I have to these 5 am wake up calls, a kind of love/hate fascination, sort of like my 7 year old son’s slightly disturbing obsession with Bellatrix LeStrange. At first, it seemed horrific to be woken at that hour. I am generally a fairly early riser—6am for almost 20 years. But last year when my writer friend Molly Burnham suggested I try getting up an hour early to make sure I got my writing time in every day, I balked. Wasn’t 6 early enough?

It turns out it wasn’t—not if I wanted to make sure I made progress on my novel, The Big Idea, a story of a family turned rock band turned family again. In order to pack in my requisite meditation, yoga, family time, violin practice with the kids, run around the park, tidying of the kitchen so that we’re not infested with fruit flies and rats, and then that little matter of earning a living, it seems I really do need to get up at 5. In the past year, I have gone from a hopeless collection of disconnected chapters to a cohesive draft of my 850 page book. It’s still not a Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, but it holds water. If I were to die tomorrow, it could be published, and it might even make sense to a handful of people.

I came to love my 5am writing time. I crept downstairs every weekday, made myself an espresso, opened my laptop and dove in. The house was quiet and peaceful, and my first thoughts poured into the manuscript. Best of all, it seemed to set my inner compass for the rest of the day, informing everything. The characters woke up with me, and I had them as company throughout the day. Most days, I had a second writing session later on, and this was when the best writing happened. But it couldn’t have happened without that 5am primer.

Recently, I have noticed, however, that my chronic lack of sleep is also informing my days. I have been irritable and just plain exhausted, and by about 8pm I am pretty much useless, sometimes verging on tears. And yet, even though my husband had on occasion begged me to sleep in, I am almost incapable of doing so. Even if I don’t set my alarm, my body rises at 5 now. And I let it, sneaking down to my writing spot like an alcoholic to the bar.

I have written extensively in this blog about my severely mixed feelings about the very fact of spending an hour or two a day working on this novel. On the one hand, it compels me. I feel strongly that I will not be happy if I don’t see this vision through, a vision I had while jogging down Sunset Boulevard in 1997 while recording Taxi Girl with Paul Fox at A&M Recording Studio. I have been working on the book and the accompanying soundtrack on and off since that time, though the bulk of the writing happened between 2001 and 2005, and then again between 2012 and the present day. The characters clamor to be heard; they speak to me as I do the dishes, as I pick the kids up from school, as I read other novels or listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. During the years when I wasn’t writing––2006 to 2012––I felt there was a hole in me.

But those weren’t exactly unhappy unfulfilled years. Instead of writing a novel, I wrote literally hundreds of songs, blog posts and two other (non-fiction) books. I wrote sermons, I made friends, I practiced yoga and I breastfed two babies. It would be just as true to say that in these past four years since I’ve hunkered down on The Big Idea (especially this last when I’ve been getting up at 5am) that I’ve had a hole in me because I haven’t gotten to do these things, at least not as much.

It turns out, as Tom and I keep saying to each other, you can’t do everything. Huh. We can’t do everything we want to do, be friends with everyone we want to be friends with, write everything we want to write, eat everything we want to eat, or look like a supermodel if we aren’t spending our entire time working out, eating watercress and tuna fish and drinking fourteen glasses of water a day, and in my case, being elongated on a medieval stretching device. I say this last thing because this came to mind last night as Tom and I were bewailing our mortal status and inability to excel in our careers while simultaneously have a social life, parent our kids the way we want to and also have fun hobbies and a lot of sex. It reminded me of how for more years than I cared to admit I tried to look like a supermodel. “Did you know,” someone finally told me—or perhaps I finally heard––“that those people are airbrushed? Those photos are not actually real people.”

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People really do win the Pulitzer Prize, just like there really was once a band called the Beatles who changed the face of cultural history and wrote 10 amazing albums in 8 years. There is now a musical on Broadway that is having a similarly transformative effect on culture. Every now and then, something comes along that blows us all away, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda. But by and large, even the Pulitzer prize winning novels get read, get their seals of approval, get bought and then end up on a dusty shelf and forgotten about.

 

What do you want to do with your one wild and precious life? Well, sometimes I want to write my book, write it as best I can possibly write it, put in it everything wise and wonderful I have been taught, make every sentence shine as brightly as possible. Other times I want to sleep. I want to lie on my back on the carpet and look out the window at a blue June sky and gaze at the fading roses along the fence and listen to my son as he takes a bath and tells me about Messi’s assist in the game against the US. I want to fold the laundry. I want to clean out a closet. I want to play the piano badly. I want to hear about my friend’s struggles and drink a can of seltzer. I want to smell the ocean. I want to make a pesto and goat cheese frittata. I want to sleep until my body wakes me up. I want to read an article in the New Yorker. I want to hold my daughter while she cries about her best friend going away to Europe and leaving her behind. I want to know where all the towels go. I want to toss my careful plan out the window and see what the day’s plan is for me. I want to go to bed at midnight and sleep till noon the way I did in summertime when I was a teenager. Maybe one day, I will. Or at least till 6am.

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How to Clear Your Clutter, De-Squirrel Your Attic and Find the Inner Architecture of Your Novel

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We have squirrels in our house. I didn’t want to tell you this, as it creeps some people out and many of you reading this blog have actually come to my house, sat around and maybe even written in the front room with me. The squirrel in question, or at least one of them, was seen here in this room. He’s gone now–Tom shoed him out at about 4am one morning in early March. Tom thought it was a chipmunk, but we’ve since ID’d it as a flying squirrel, and those are nocturnal and colony-dwellers. They come with friends. They are SO CUTE!!

Since then, I’ve heard the tell-tale scritch-scratch almost every morning when I am in the kitchen writing between 5-6am. It’s almost comical. I hear, “knock knock” as if a woodpecker is at the wall next to me. Then something scampers across the walls to the other side of the house.

We’ve had four, count ’em, four different wildlife dudes come to the house. Dude #1 referred the whole job to Dude #2 because Dude #1 said we would always have squirrels on account of our slate roof. Dudes #3 and 4 also pointed to the roof. They said it wouldn’t matter what we did until we got rid of the roof.

The slate roof is 120 years old, is gorgeous, and is the main reason I won’t consider bumping out dormers in our attic to create more space. We need more space because of the bed situation. Remember that? I had been obsessing about how to convince Tom to let us go into debt to make our house big enough to give my parents (who visit 4 times a year) a nice queen-sized bed and en suite bathroom. Right now, they sleep in Johnny’s loft bed. They insist that it’s fine, but I know better.

Besides, speaking of debting, I as a traveling musician (25 years now) feel acutely that I want to pay back, or perhaps pay forward, the debt I owe to the countless folks who have housed Katryna and me and our various bandmates and family members over the years. I have slept in so many beautiful bedrooms over the years. I am amazed at the hospitality I have been offered. I want to provide just a semblance of this for visitors who come through my sweet and wonderful town. (Just this weekend, we got to stay with Abigail’s in-laws in Chicago, and the amazing Jill Stratton in St. Louis. Angels. Haven.)

But where to gain the space? Should I bump out the side to the east? Should I pioneer the attic?

Attic. Home of the squirrels.

Or is there some other brilliant solution that I am not able to see? I need an architect.

I got it into my head that the two great puzzles of my recent months were destined to be solved together.The other puzzle is my novel. Right now, The Big Idea is over 800 pages, and that’s with a ton of darlings killed. I mean, there were a lot of brilliant darlings I threw out, and they were seriously great darlings. I know there are more, but as soon as I highlight a passage and press the control command X button, I waver. I cut, and then I paste it back. I try to do that thing Marie Kondo says to do and close my eyes and ask, “Does it bring me joy?” But the problem with that Marie Kondo thing is that ALL of my crap brings me joy! I am not one of those hoarders who has bureaus full of ugly clothes that don’t fit. I am one of those hoarders who has closets and bureaus and bookshelves and CD shelves stuffed full of things that DO fit, that are great books, that were once CDs I played all the time. AND I LOVE THEM ALL! Just as I love all my writing, every single word.

Except when I don’t. Except when I wish for a book architect to tell me what to do. Should I make a pithy 350 page book out of my 900 page behemoth? Should I start three-quarters of the way through? Or should I make it a three volume series?

Without an architect, that is the direction I am leaning. I am still about 100 pages short of an ending. Since reading the magnificent Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (which deserve their own blog post), I am sorely tempted to publish the book as a multi-volume event, one book coming out, say, now, and the others …later.

If I am honest, I have to admit that my attic is not filled with things that bring me joy. It’s actually filled with what one would have to just call…garbage. Because that is the kind of hoarder I am: I am the kind that stuffs bureaus and shelves with good items and instead of throwing anything out, I squirrel it away to the attic and basement and barn. (Pun intended.) So my attic is indeed full of useless crap, and also things valuable only to me, like every single item my kids ever brought home from school with their handwriting on it. But also truly worthless things like one ice skate that is too small for anyone in our family to wear; like old papers I wrote in high school, or worse, old floppy disks from college years with no computer on which to open them; like huge baskets full of half-knit projects. And somehow, these things render me paralyzed when I go up to throw them out.

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Plus, there are photos. Photos of the band. Photos of my first marriage. Mixed in with photos of just plain old me from my twenties. I have half a mind to throw them all out, but how can I throw out my twenties, even if I was married to someone who isn’t my kids’ father? I go up to the attic, steel myself, say, “I can do this. I know how to clean and tidy. Start in a corner and work my way methodically in a concentric circle. I know how to do this.” But then I start in the northwest corner (where the squirrels get in) and right away, I’m confronted with this scene: a white photo album–the three ring binder kind–open, with the pages half falling out. Me with brown hair. Me looking like I’m about ten years old, even though I’m twenty-three. Why did my parents let me get married then?? The pages are also covered in the dust from the house’s insulation, which the squirrels have dragged into little nests. I feel a wave of nausea and my nose starts to run and I quickly turn on my heel and leave.

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I call my sister, and I cry. She says, “Of course you don’t want to do this. Who would want to do this?” She says, “You were not a bad person. You should keep those photos.”

She makes me feel better, as she always does. And then a brilliant thought comes to me. What if the way to figure out the architecture of my book is to figure out the architecture of my house? What if the way to figure out which darlings to kill will only come to me after I systematically declutter my house? Maybe instead of devoting my spring and summer to finishing The Big Idea, I should completely get rid of all my attic, basement and barn crap, organize my photos and make scrapbooks of all my kids’ papers?

“Um,” she says. “That sounds like procrastination to me.”

“No!” I shout. “I am going to do it! And I will blog about it and post photos and then maybe write a book called My Cluttery Book, My Cluttery Attic and Me!

She is on the phone, but I can feel her eyes rolling from here.

I still haven’t lifted a finger on the photos. But since we had this conversation, I have sent the first “book” off to my first reader. I have met with an architect. I hired someone to clean out the barn and someone else to organize my photos. And I sent an email this evening to a potential producer for the soundtrack to go with the novel. Oh, and there are some Have A Heart squirrel traps placed carefully around the house. There are no squirrels in them yet, but I have been up for the past two mornings between 5-6, and guess what? No one has come knocking.

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This Week’s Writing Prompts: March 3-March 10

Daily Prompt #8 “How you do anything is how you do everything.”-R. Rohr. This is a great insight into character development. Just saying….

Daily Prompt #9: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”– Simone Weil

Daily Prompt #10: Put in the footwork and let go of the results. If you are stuck on your novel, song, story, print out five pages, or whatever you have (keep it short, though), and sit down with a cup of tea and a red pen. Then set a timer for 10 minutes and write longhand in your journal about whatever comes to you. Write a sketch of what you see before you. Pat yourself on the back for keeping up your practice.

Daily prompt #11 Just found out the word “person” come from the Latin per (through) sonare (sound). Its usage started on the stage, and is connected to “masks” which the actors wore on stage.

I love this: our characters become persons when we let the true sounds come through them. “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars” Khalil Gibran

Daily Prompt #12 put the word “oleaginous” in a poem or a piece.

 

Weekly Writing Prompts March 11-March 18

Daily Prompt #13
For A Nurse

In this fragile frontier-place, your kindness
Becomes a light that consoles the brokenhearted,
Awakens within desperate storms
That oasis of serenity that calls
The spirit to rise from beneath the weight of pain,
To create a new space in the person’s mind
Where they gain distance from their suffering
And begin to see the invitation
To integrate and transform it.

May you embrace the beauty in what you do
And how you stand like a secret angel
Between the bleak despair of illness
And the unquenchable light of spirit
That can turn the darkest destiny towards dawn.

May you never doubt the gifts you bring;
Rather, learn from these frontiers
Wisdom for your own heart.
May you come to inherit
The blessings of your kindness
And never be without care and love
When winter enters your own life.
-John O’Donohue

Daily Prompt #14 “I start drawing, and eventually the characters involve themselves in a situation. Then in the end, I go back and try to cut out most of the preachments.” –Dr. Seuss

Daily Prompt #15 “…Don’t miss anything, if you want to be a writer….I also felt, just then, that in no way did my mother-in-law’s cultivated conversation arise form a true need to exchange ideas with me. Adele intended to systematically pull me out of the desperate state of an incompetent mother, she was rubbing words together to strike a spark and rekindle my frozen mind, my frozen gaze. But the truth was that she liked saving me more than listening to me.”-Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, p. 245

Daily prompt #16 (thanks to Liz Bedell for this one) “Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”-Henri Nouwen

Daily prompt #17 “The goal, I suppose, any fiction writer has, no matter what your subject, is to hit the human heart and the tear ducts and the nape of the neck and to make a person feel something about the characters are going through and to experience the moral paradoxes and struggles of being human.” Tim O’Brien

Daily prompt #18 I don’t do my best work while I’m in therapy. I’m too onto myself immediately seeing meanings in things and more likely to censor myself. I’d rather find images I don’t understand. That’s what generates the work. Ellen McLaughlin

Daily Prompt #19
Sodden and spongy, the scarce-green grass plot
Dents into pools where a foot has been.
Puddles lie spilt in the road a mass, not
Of water, but steel, with its cold, hard sheen.
-Amy Lowell, “March Evening.”

 

Weekly Writing Prompts March 20-31

Daily Prompt #20 “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.”– William Butler Yeats

Daily prompt #21 “Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?” -Joan Didion

Daily prompt #22 “Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”-Joan Didion

Daily Prompt #23

Writer‪#‎dailyprompt‬ 24 If you are inclined to feel guilty for writing fiction instead of, say registering voters, or simply planting a garden; or if you are the kind of person who sweats beads of guilt for all the electricity your computer steals from the planet in order to write that novel, consider this: “Realistic fiction, for its part, may expand readers’ circle of empathy by seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different from themselves…Reading novels about characters unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes, which turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights…[think Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Nicholas Nickleby, The Grapes of Wrath…]” -from Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

‪#‎dailyprompt‬ 25 “Basically, here’s my advice: take time.
In your life, you may always feel as if you don’t have enough time. Adults are specialists at feeling that. Strangely, writing seems to give us a deeper sense of our own time and time in general.

What do we need? A quiet minute, a pencil, a page. Please be kind to yourself when you write. Don’t expect you will love everything that comes out–let many things come out, and know that now and then you will like a line or a phrase enough to carry you away. Don’t be stingy!

No one can predict what will happen when you start paying attention, enjoying your own words on the page. But I can promise you one thing: whatever you do in your life, whatever path you follow, if you are a person who is comfortable writing your own words down, you will have an easier, better time of everything….Language will befriend you in ways you cannot guess…and YOU will always have someone to talk to–yourself.”-Naomi Shihab Nye

‪#‎dailyprompt‬ 26 Best kick-in-the-pants/comforting advice I’ve heard/seen in a long time!

 

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