Category Archives: Writing

“Mr. Rogers Talks About Discipline” and I Talk About Mr. Rogers

One of the great things about having a  child is that I have an excuse to watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood from the beginning. While my daughter loves the show, especially snapping her fingers to make a “snappy new day,” I often find that Mr. Rogers says exactly the thing I need to hear in my own life and work, and he doesn’t shy away from the hard truths.

We’ve made it to 1982, to the week titled “Mr. Rogers Talks About Discipline.” I confess that my inner child groaned and rolled her eyes when she saw that title, thinking that it was about obeying your parents, blah, blah…but I should have known Mr. Rogers better than that.

It’s about the other kind of discipline. Self discipline, where you make yourself do hard things. Here’s a link to the full lyrics of “You’ve Got To Do It.”

I’d like to quote just a couple of the stanzas here. These are the ones that had me nodding along and (nearly) crying.

You can make-believe it happens, or pretend that something’s true.
You can wish or hope or contemplate a thing you’d like to do,
But until you start to do it, you will never see it through
‘Cause the make-believe pretending just won’t do it for you.

You’ve got to do it.
Every little bit, you’ve got to do it, do it, do it, do it
And when you’re through, you can know who did it
For you did it, you did it, you did it

If you want to ride a bicycle and ride it straight and tall,
You can’t simply sit and look at it ’cause it won’t move at all.
But it’s you who have to try it, and it’s you who have to fall (sometimes)
If you want to ride a bicycle and ride it straight and tall.

[…]

It’s not easy to keep trying, but it’s one good way to grow.
It’s not easy to keep learning, but I know that this is so:
When you’ve tried and learned you’re bigger than you were a day ago.
It’s not easy to keep trying, but it’s one way to grow.

Oh, my goodness, Mr. Rogers.

It’s you who have to fall.

It’s not easy to keep trying , but it’s one good way to grow.

I think these are things we tell children, but there’s this persistent idea that as adults, we should never fail and we should be grown.

How silly is that?

As a writer, I fail all the time. I fall all the time. And I try all the time, and I grow all the time. But often I forget that all of that is okay, that it’s expected, that it’s even a desirable state of affairs.

In 1987, I wrote Mr. Rogers a letter, and he wrote back.  My mother found his letter in our attic, and now I have it on my desk in a folder I call “Inspiration.”

He wrote:

 You asked me where the ideas for our puppets come from and why Daniel Tiger is scared and shy. Courtney, ideas for Make-Believe come from many places, just like ideas for your own pretending do.

[…]

I wonder if you ever do some play with puppets? You might like to try with sock puppets or puppets made from paper bags. I wonder what your puppets would be like? What you would think of would be unique because it came from you.

Sometimes, on bad writing days, I imagine how interested Mr. Rogers would be to hear about my work, how he would search for the roots of it in my childhood, ask me if I had always been interested in making up stories about history. (Yes. Ask the kids in my neighborhood about “Medieval Times,” everyone’s favorite game.) He would ask if my own little girl influences my work. (Yes. I want to tell stories that say something I would like her to know, but not in a didactic way, just in the way that all good writing says important things. I try to write books I would like her to have.) He would ask if I ever think about the people who will read my work. (Sometimes. I try to think about the pleasure readers, not the reviewers. But sometimes I can’t help thinking about the reviewers.)

I know all this because I’ve seen my share of Mr. Rogers’ interviews recently.

I got a lot out of watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, but I think I might need Mr. Rogers even more as an adult. Children know to keep growing. Adults sometimes need a reminder.

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The Joy of Caring Less

I always thought I was a one-project-at-a-time kind of girl.

I have discovered I was wrong.

In my January post at YA Outside the Lines, I discussed the frustrations I’ve been feeling about writing in the last year.

It was bad. As in can’t eat, can’t sleep, drive my family crazy bad.

I’m happy to report that it’s now much better, partly because I decided if writing was making me this miserable I shouldn’t do it because it’s not like it’s paying very many bills, either. But I can’t not write.

I used to write for myself, because I couldn’t not do it, and because I enjoyed making my mother and my English teachers cry—it is something, isn’t it, to make people feel? It’s a kind of power. I wrote with no thought of publication or awards. Those things were too far off.

Then I was published, and there was critical approval, if not money in it, and I have always loved approval better than money, anyway.

I wanted them again, those tiny hits of approval that really do hit my brain like a drug.

HOW COULD I GET MORE?

That became my goal, not writing what made me glad to write, not the projects that pulled at my heart and made me happy, but this.

WHAT CAN I GET PUBLISHED?

WHAT WILL MORE PEOPLE READ?

HOW CAN I MAKE PEOPLE LIKE ME AND GIVE ME MORE OF THOSE LOVELY APPROVAL HIGHS?

I discovered, in my desire for publication and approval, that I could not write. I was holding everything too tightly, afraid of failing, afraid of wasting my time.

Something made me let go. I don’t know what. Maybe my arms finally got too tired. I let myself drift.

I drafted (in longhand, which I haven’t done for over a decade) an historical fiction picture book. A book featuring real people (always very scary to write about) who spent a remarkable evening together and left behind a record of it so sparse it could not become narrative nonfiction because I had to fill in the gaps. It’s something I never would have let myself write while I was holding on so tightly to what would sell.

I began it two Friday nights ago while my husband bathed our daughter. I never write at those times, when it is loud and I can hear her laughing and splashing and him singing some song he loves from his own childhood about elephants playing on spider webs. I began it because the first lines came into my head and I needed to get them down before I forgot. I realized I had been an elephant on a spider web, and no elephant can play on a spider web if she thinks too hard about it. I felt joy in writing for the first time in a long time, and I woke up the next morning and finished the draft. Whether it ever sees the light of day or not is immaterial. Those six hundred words brought me back.

Last Thursday, I forgot to put my daughter’s school bag in the car, and I ended up driving to and from her school three times during what is meant to be my work time. It was okay because in that drive I realized which novel project I should be working on. The one I know is not “commercial” enough. The one I know can come from no one but me. (There are, however, pretty dresses in it, and the calculating part of my brain that knows I can sell historical fiction as long as there are pretty dresses—come on, you know it’s true—rejoices.)

In my research for various incarnations of the above novel over the past year, I stumbled upon a nonfiction story I wanted to tell. My husband has been after me for years to do nonfiction, because I do love it and I am good at it and I was trained as a historian first. I registered for a class on writing narrative nonfiction, because I also find great joy in learning and reading and homework assignments.

These projects are very different from each other, but they all have connections. All are set in my beloved eighteenth century because I think I am right, after all, after much wandering, to focus my work there. There is great joy in knowing a world well, and it’s interesting to see the same world from so many different angles as I work on different projects.

Working on three projects at a time enables me to hold them all with a looser rein. If one fails, perhaps another will succeed. I don’t feel so uptight about things. If I get stuck on one, I can switch to another. Nothing is life or death. Some people need to pour everything they have into one thing at a time, but I can’t. Because what if I give everything I have and still come up short? I can’t do it. I freeze in terror.

Working on a variety of projects keeps me from getting bored, from holding any one project so tight it can’t breathe, so tight I can’t breathe. It keeps me from caring too much. Caring too little is bad. Caring too much is bad. I need to care just enough to do the work well and then to let it be.

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Greetings from the Playroom (And the Office and the Nursery and Sometimes the Kitchen)

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to spend more time on my blog and social media sites. When my daughter was born (16 months ago!), I panicked and cut everything down to the barest of bones re: writing. That meant spending my precious, precious time actually writing books, so I quit on my personal blog. However, I kept blogging with my blog group at YA Outside the Lines, and sometime last fall I came to the conclusion that if I could write one blog a month there, I could do it here.

I thought I’d bring you up to speed by writing first about where I’m writing. This lovely room with dark paneling and a pretty fireplace (cold and covered in sharp places, don’t worry, the baby is safe) and wooden beams on the ceiling used to be my library. The walls used to be lined with bookshelves. It was my favorite room in the whole house.

I never spent any time in it. It was a storage room for books. Now it is my daughter’s playroom, and I spend lots of time in it. It’s still my favorite room because see: lovely.

About a year ago, we moved the bookshelves downstairs to the basement (finished and dehumidified, don’t worry, the books are safe), where they still provide relatively easy access to the books despite the fact that we have to maneuver around all the other stuff we don’t have room for upstairs. (In other news, I am Marie Kondo-ing my house. I know that book made a lot of people angry, but I have so far done my dresser and looking at my sock drawer is the definition of bliss. So, angry people who are perhaps a little bit sensitive about someone suggesting you own too much stuff, I suggest you do what you would do with any other self-help book and take the parts that work for you and toss the rest. I…really…the anger about that book just baffles me, but I like organizing and tidying, so maybe that is personal bias.)

I’ve just started writing from the playroom. I used to spend all the working hours in my office (like most people), except (unlike most people, I guess) my office is in our smallest bedroom.

Three summers ago, while visiting my parents, I worked in the dining room off the kitchen, discovering by accident that I work better with more going on around me. I can cook chicken while also writing! Who knew? Oh, the possibilities! My childhood home, which you can buy and I will hate you only a little bit, has an amazing kitchen desk, which I think is the greatest thing in the world. I would love a kitchen desk, and I don’t even do much of our cooking.

I’ve made a similar discovery in the playroom. While certain types of writing call for more focused attention, there are loads of things I can do while also taking bites of imaginary food.

And here’s where history comes in handy. It’s a very practical course of study because you realize that things have not always been the way they are right now. As with Marie Kondo, you can take and toss from various eras. Look at me being so postmodern.

I am embracing the meshing of work and life that used to be common when almost everybody worked at home and rejecting the compartmentalization common to the mid-twentieth century, when my house was built. I’m learning rooms can have more than one purpose. (This is probably obvious to other people.) I’m writing with distractions and without them. (To be honest, when I don’t have distractions, I create them. I’m the kind of writer who needs to look up between sentences. Hello, Facebook, what great/horrible thing do you have for me today?) My daughter gets loads of focused one-on-one attention from a variety of adults, including me, but it’s also a good thing for her to see me work, and we are lucky that I can do certain kinds of work and play at the same time.

I started writing this in the playroom, while watching my daughter transport pretend food from one side of the room to another. I’m finishing it in the quiet of my office. My favorite place to write is in the glider in the nursery. That thing is comfy, and when it outgrows its usefulness there, into my office it goes.

How do you use your space to best advantage? Where do you like to work and play?

 

 

 

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Spelling “Tuesday”

Just in case it makes any difference, Stephen and I have been reading aloud to our daughter while she’s in the womb. Our most recent selections are the Winnie-the-Pooh books, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne, which I have read many times but not since I wrote a paper on them in my undergraduate children’s literature class ten years ago and which Stephen has never read at all.

Owl Winnie-the-Pooh(Side Note: Judging by the “Lists of Inspiring Quotes from Pooh” and the abundance of Pooh-themed greeting cards, lots of people have never read these books because those “inspiring quotes” are either taken out of context or I have no recollection of Pooh ever saying them. Stephen learned the hard way never to buy me a Pooh greeting card because I will say something like, “When did Pooh say any of these insipid things? Never! Look, it’s not even punctuated correctly!” He has taken to calling this body of work “Apocryphal Pooh” to assuage my offended literary feelings.)

But back to my story. In The House at Pooh Corner, Rabbit observes that Owl must be respected because “You can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right.”

Owl gives it a go. He does something, even if it’s not perfect. As a writer, I often feel like I’m spelling “Tuesday” wrong. Like I’m failing even when I’m succeeding, because maybe I could have done better. Have I, in fact, always done my best? Will even my very best ever be good enough?

I was devastated for a minute when Stephen told me he thought my current manuscript was better than The Last Sister, because The Last Sister has a publisher and (some) people will read it and maybe find out that I am a total fraud at this writing thing, while my work-in-progress does not yet have a publisher and maybe no one will ever read it, which seems somehow worse. In both cases, perhaps, I have spelled “Tuesday” wrong. But at least I have spelled “Tuesday.” At least I have not spent my life not spelling “Tuesday” for fear of getting it wrong. Which, I suppose, is a fancy way of saying I have not allowed perfectionism to stand in the way of action. Which is kind of a big deal for me, because I am nothing if not a perfectionist. I have dared to do it wrong, but at least I have done it. I have to respect myself for that. I should respect myself for that, and my work should keep getting better. By the time a book comes out, I should be a stronger writer than I was when I wrote it.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms and devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

To me, that’s all another way of saying that we should try to spell “Tuesday,” even if we fail. What’s your “Tuesday”? How can you dare to spell it wrong today?

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World War I and the Power of Story

I planned to write quite a different blog post, but then the Internet reminded me that today is the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I, so that other post will have to wait.

All I can really remember about how I came to my interest in World War I is that sometime in middle or early high school, I saw a picture of some soldiers and thought that was the last time guys looked truly hot in uniform. Tell me, who doesn’t love a man in puttees? My mom told me my great-grandfather, who fought in France and spoke of the war only in reference to French girls in order to annoy my great-grandmother, would have appreciated that.

Also, I think it partly came down to a question of fairness. I’m an American. Americans can talk World War II all day long, but we’re kind of lost when it comes to World War I. That’s partly because we weren’t in it very long, but I think there’s more to it than that. World War II calls up more emotions Americans are comfortable with: clarity of purpose, a solid win. As a culture, we don’t like to dwell on the past, no matter how much it affects us. And what’s the use of a war no one could really win? I became interested in that neglected war because I saw that it was neglected, overshadowed by its bolder, more triumphant offspring. All wars are sad, but World War I seemed to me especially so, not as if the events were sad, but as if the war itself—insofar as wars have a consciousness—were sad.

World War I will always appeal to storytellers because it’s such a perfectly constructed tragedy, almost too perfect to have occurred naturally, as if it were scripted to wring the audience’s hearts. For a century, World War I has provided the raw material for excellent works of literature. It’s sometimes called the most literary of all wars, and maybe that also piqued my interest, because the military and diplomatic history of the war doesn’t interest me any more than military and diplomatic history ever does. (Not much).

I’ve grown out of my high school belief that F. Scott Fitzgerald was The Best Writer Ever to Live (Sorry, Dr. Bruccoli. Please think I am still smart.), but his take on the war in Tender is the Night rings truer to me than any other:

“This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”

“General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty-five.”

“No, he didn’t—he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”

You see what I mean about why World War I appeals to writers and other artists? Half the work is done for you before you get there. I’d love to write about World War I, but I don’t know if I could do it right. Perhaps I am too American, too ready to grin into the sunlight, too unwilling to look back and grieve properly, to walk purposely into the darkness of a time which brought no real triumph—and indeed no satisfying conclusion.

What period of history draws you back time after time? Why do you think that is?

 

 

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Working Through A Monumentally Bad Day

A few weeks ago I had a Monumentally Bad Day, and today I’m having another one, though this one is not quite as bad. My Monumentally Bad Days usually start with lack of sleep the night before, which is not necessarily a pregnancy symptom—I’ve struggled with insomnia my entire adult life. Right now, everything is compounded by the stress late pregnancy is putting on my bones, joints, and muscles, so I spend a lot of time in a physically and emotionally draining state of chronic pain. Nine weeks to go. Only nine more weeks. I hope.

Add to that my ongoing struggle with the fact that I don’t feel either my writing or my teaching career is where it should be (and teaching’s on hold until we leave Illinois—thanks, ridiculous state certification requirements that don’t exist anywhere else! I really need another Bachelor’s degree now that I’ve been teaching at the college level for years: that definitely makes sense.), the fact that I feel like I miss out on almost everything important in the life of my South Carolina-based family and I’m afraid my child will miss out on even knowing her extended family, the fact that I AM NOT HAPPY about having a baby so far away from home, and a few other areas of dissatisfaction I feel powerless to change because God knows I have tried, and you have the recipe for a disastrous meltdown.

This isn’t meant to be an Eeyore post. My life is very blessed in many ways, and I’m nothing short of delighted that I won’t have fifteen family members in my hospital room taking pictures of me shortly after giving birth and peeyore in snowosting them on Facebook, so there is always a silver lining. I don’t know if I even have fifteen close family members—we’re a small bunch, like the Tudors but without the beheadings. These are just the things simmering under the surface that rise to the top when I don’t feel well. Yesterday, I had a Monumentally Good Day, so I guess it all evens out.

But I still need to work, even on bad days, even when I don’t feel well, even when Baby seems intent on spending her entire day repeatedly hurling her full body weight at my vital organs. I’ve tried cutting myself slack, and it’s not for me. I’m much happier when I expect more of myself.

I started this list for myself on my last Monumentally Bad Day, just to remind myself of things I can do to make it better and get things done.

How To Work (Even on a Bad Day):

  • Make sure you’re physically comfortable. Make sure the lighting is right for the work. Go to the bathroom if you need to. (I am really bad about this. For some reason I feel it’s a waste of time.) Brush your teeth. Wear comfortable clothes.
  • If you are making no progress on one item on the list, for whatever reason, move on to something else. Sometimes the best thing you can do is leave it and come back refreshed. Don’t use this as an excuse not to work on a project just because it’s hard, though. Only switch if you are really blocked. Just make sure you’re spending your time working on something.
  • Nap if you’re genuinely tired. Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is take a nap, especially if you really are sleep-deprived. This doesn’t have to take all day. Half an hour can sometimes make a huge difference in the quantity and quality of the work.
  • Eat if you’re genuinely hungry. The idea of the starving artist aside, low blood sugar never produced genius. But don’t eat too much, and don’t eat junk. Both will make you sluggish, and that will not help you think.
  • Exercise. I have a treadmill in my office, a recumbent bike downstairs, and several yoga and strength training videos. I am one of those annoying people who really enjoys exercise for its own sake. Sometimes, when I’m achy or tired or cranky, I have to remind myself that I always feel physically and mentally better if I get moving. Even now. And exercise is really good for your brain power.
  • A little caffeine goes a long way. Or it does for me, anyway. I’m limited to one cup of caffeinated tea a day right now because of the baby (I could have two and still be well under the limit, but I’m trying to be as good as I can), but as soon as she’s out, I am going to get so messed up on caffeine. Seriously, it helps. I know some people will get all judgy about caffeine consumption, just like they get all judgy over how long you breastfeed or if you babywear or cloth diaper or make your own baby food or whatever. (These people need to get a life and perhaps some perspective. I will do what is best for my baby, but I shudder at the thought of getting my identity from any part of my baby’s digestive system. Just saying.)

So there you have it. My notes to self about Working Through a Monumentally Bad Day. How do you stay productive at work when either your body or your brain isn’t cooperating?

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More From the Writing Process Blog Tour

You can read my contribution to the Writing Process Blog Tour here.

This week, check out responses from the awesome writers I tagged:

Mary Claire Marck

and

Bev Patt

scribe

Neither of these writers is an old man with a beard, but I love a good woodcut.

 

 

 

 

If you are a writer, I hope you get something you can use from these writing process blog posts. If you’re not, I still hope you get something you can use. I apply advice from athletes, chefs, and people in many other fields to my work all the time. What strategies or inspiration from people in other fields do you apply to your own work?

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Thursday Thoughts: Coming Soon

If you have superpowers of observation, you’ve noticed that the url for this site has changed. That’s because I came to a big decision yesterday about my online presence and because my husband, who is my webmaster extraordinaire, can’t stand not to act on a new idea immediately.

I had big deadlines last week, and the little things were piling up, so I’ve devoted this week to handling all those little bits and pieces, one of which is the direction I want to take my blog. Stephen is also my idea guy extraordinaire (I made a really good investment when I married him), so we blocked out time on Monday night to brainstorm. He had a million great ideas, which I considered for about 48 hours. Many of those hours were spent mildly freaking out about how much I have to do and how little time I have to do it.

Late yesterday afternoon, I realized the problem, the thing that was making me feel like I had an elephant sitting on my chest. I could do so much awesome fun stuff with this blog, but my goal isn’t to be a professional blogger. It is, and always has been if I’m honest, to be a professional author, which requires a whole different approach. Blogging regularly has been terrific discipline for me over the past year and a half. It’s made me accountable for the time I spend reading and writing. It’s helped me get comfortable sharing my thoughts with a wider, sometimes unknown audience. Every “like” was great for my self-esteem. It’s been great fun. I would absolutely recommend it as a discipline to anyone who wants to force himself or herself to write and to share that writing.

But it’s time for me to take it in a new direction. I started this blog partly as a defense of historical fiction, but it doesn’t really need me defending it anymore. Obviously, there’s an audience. Obviously, it will sell to the right people. As an author, I don’t need a blog specifically devoted to historical fiction anymore. I want to write about other things, too, on the blog and in fiction. One thing that ultimately made academia a bad fit for me was the constant pressure to choose one itty-bitty narrow thing and study it to death. That’s not me: I’m interested in everything. In the final analysis, I just don’t have the time or the desire to do the kind of intensive blogging Stephen and I talked about on Monday night. It would take away too much time from the work I get paid for and from the work that feeds my soul, both of which need to take precedence.

What I need now is an author website with an embedded blog, so over the next few weeks, that’s what I’ll be transitioning to. I’ll still be blogging on a fairly regular basis and talking about what I’m reading and writing, but this makes me feel a little freer to choose the topics that are relevant and helpful right at the moment. To be honest, it feels a little weird to have a url that’s just my name, but whatevs. As blogging helped me get comfortable with putting my work out there, I hope this new website will help me get comfortable with putting myself out there.

Thank you for all the support and interest you’ve expressed over the past year and a half. And please keep reading.

 

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Wednesday Words: “What Do You Do?”

I hate that question. I really, really hate it. I don’t work for a company (well, I work for several companies), and I don’t have a clear job title. Also, I’ve done jobs in the past that I’m not currently doing, but they’re still a big part of who I am. Do you stop being a teacher and a librarian just because you’re not doing it for a paycheck? I don’t think so; that kind of thing doesn’t get out of your blood easily. I hate the question because it makes me feel like I should have an easy, pat answer, and I don’t, so when I start to try to explain, “Well, I write curriculum…and novels…and I, uh, edit some stuff. Content and line,” people’s eyes start to glaze over, and I feel like a fraud, like I don’t do a “real job.”

I was quite gratified to discover that other people hate this question, too. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene’ Brown writes:

“I used to wince every time someone asked me this question. I felt like my choices were to reduce myself to an easily digestible sound bite or to confuse the hell out of people.

Now my answer to ‘What do you do?’ is ‘How much time do you have?’

Most of us have complicated answers to this question. For example, I’m a mom, partner, researcher, writer, storyteller, sister, friend, daughter, and teacher. All of these things make up who I am, so I never know how to answer that question. And, to be honest with you, I’m tired of choosing to make it easier on the person who asked” (113-114).

While this is something men struggle with, too, it immediately made me think of the following passage from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

 

“There is no mark on the wall to measure the precise height of women. There are no yard measures, neatly divided into fractions of an inch, that one can lay against the qualities of a good mother or the devotion of a daughter, or the fidelity of a sister, or the capacity of a housekeeper” (84).

Oh, but how we all love yardsticks. And how people love to ask questions we don’t yet know the answers to or which don’t have quick and measurable answers or to which we couldn’t possibly yet know the answers. People love answers. Answers are more comfortable than questions.

So how do you answer this question? What do you do?

Brown, Brene’. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden, 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. Ed. Susan Gubar. Harvest-Harcourt, 2005.

 

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Thursday Thoughts: Make-Up Work

I didn’t wear make-up to my book club on Tuesday night. I only brushed my hair. I realize this is not a big deal for many of you, and I admire you so much for that, but it was a big step for me. This has to do with writing, I promise.

I resisted make-up for years, like I resisted anything else that smacked of “fake.” I resisted it until I was in about eighth grade, when, in true adolescent girl fashion, that stunning self-confidence that had buoyed me through childhood fell away almost overnight, leaving me scrambling for something to replace it with.

All of a sudden, I cared. I cared so much. I couldn’t figure out why boys didn’t  want to “go out” with me (“Where are they going?” my parents would ask. Hah. Hilarious, Mom and Dad.), like they did with other girls. I’m sure I was not alone in this, but it felt quite isolating.

I found an answer in make-up. I wore so much more than I ever needed, so much more than I ever wear now, and now I know I didn’t need it. But I thought I did. It was more than a mask. It was a shield. It became a habit. If I’ve ever left the house without make-up in the last *counting* eighteen years, I don’t remember it.

I don’t wear much make-up anymore. Along about eleventh grade, I realized I was no good at applying it. Three shades of eyeshadow were really more than I could handle, and blush was just never going to look right on a really pale girl with freckles. Later, I developed allergies to everything and didn’t wear lipstick for years because it’s just about impossible to find lipstick without soy in it.

In several of the books I’ve read recently about managing your time as a writer, the authors talk about time wasters. One of the things readers are encouraged to do is trim their beauty routines. Because, really, does your computer care? Mine is already pretty short, and this is in no way an attack on make-up. Used well, as a tool and not as a master, make-up can be a good thing. I get dressed and put on shoes and do my hair and make-up (almost) every day even if I’m not leaving the house because it makes me feel more professional and energetic. It makes me feel like I have it together, even if I don’t.

Tuesday’s Make-up-Free Book Club was almost an accident. I didn’t feel well and slept late on Tuesday morning, I was already behind from Monday, and by the time I woke up, I just wanted to get to work, so I threw on clothes, ate breakfast, and did. Somehow, despite still not feeling well, I managed to get everything on Monday’s and Tuesday’s extra-long to-do lists done. I kept meaning to do my hair and make-up, but I didn’t have time. By 4:00 in the afternoon, it seemed like a bit of a waste.

I considered skipping book club. If I wanted to finish that day’s tasks, then the choice was between going sans make-up or not going at all. I got a little twinge of bravery, and it helped that I was feeling reasonably confident and that I’d gotten used to seeing my own reflection without make-up all day. Also, my hair was not doing anything too crazy. Also, I realized I don’t want my daughter to get the idea that women can’t/shouldn’t/don’t go out in public without make-up ever. I want her to see it as a tool and not as a master, which means changing my own habits because children are always watching, always internalizing the rules that aren’t really rules because someone made them up and they can be unmade up. I don’t want her thinking she’ll reach an age at which she’ll always need to adjust her face before showing it to the world.

I decided the issue was really whether the book club wanted to look at my face or hear my thoughts. I don’t think anyone even noticed a difference.

I asked Stephen when we got home if he’d noticed that I didn’t wear make-up.

“I never notice if you wear make-up or not,” he said. “I don’t really notice much about your appearance. I always just see you.”

Some women might not like that. I think it’s maybe the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.

“Then why do I even wear make-up?” I asked, pushing the point.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s your issue.”

It always has been. But Tuesday night was a big step for me because I chose everything (completing tasks, seeing friends, discussing books) before I chose my appearance. When time wouldn’t let me have it all, I chose the important things first. I felt proud of my breakthrough, and I felt a little of that childhood confidence return.

 

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