Tree House People and Cave People

By Lisa Alber

After four years of home ownership, I finally painted the interior. The previous color was what I liked to call “snotty beige/brown” – ugly and drab and too dark. It was awful, but now the paint color lighter, warmer, and airy, and I love it.

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend about cave people and tree house people. Cave people like the coziness of enclosed spaces, and tree house people prefer open and airy. I’m definitely the latter. The only room in my house that’s cavelike is the bedroom that’s my office — I never use it. Instead, I sit at the dining room table in front of the sliders that look onto my garden. In the summer, I sit outside. I inhabit well-lit coffee houses and bistros, but never the silent cubicle rooms at the public library.

I can’t even work at a desk set against a wall. That’s too closed in. A desk against a window is fine though. On writing retreats, I’ve been known to shift the desk so that it’s facing the view (which is usually the ocean).

In my upstairs office, I dream of enlarging the window or putting in a skylight. The new paint color, pale narcissus, helps tremendously. As does the giant mirror that hangs directly across from the window. And also the track lights aimed at the mirror that bounce light off it and around the room.

I recently read an article about retirement living in tiny houses. Super affordable, energy efficient, and, you know, it’s quite the thing. I tried to imagine living inside a 400-square-foot tiny house, or maybe one of those shipping container homes. Could I do it? Honestly — could I?

The thought of it makes me itchy. The only way would be if the house was mostly windows and located in a warm climate where I could plant myself in an outside living space most of the time. Frankly, I don’t see it for myself. (I don’t live in a large house, but it’s bigger than 400 square feet!)

I have theories about why I’m a tree house person. I grew up in an airy, vaulted ceiling kind of house with great views. Also, I deal with depression, which is very cavelike and unpleasant. All that aside, in the end, we like what we like. The funny thing is that I’m not a big fan of heights, so you’d never actually get me into one of those tree house homes or hotels.

Nostalgia For What I Never Had

By Lisa Alber

I spent last week in Chicago and Lansing, MI, with my two younger sisters. We re-connected with relatives on both sides of the family: Mom’s side in Lansing and Dad’s side in Chicago. My dad passed away in 2001. My mom, last year. One of my maternal cousins, K, had found a five-year journal that Mom kept for one year, 1946. She was 14/15 years old, and she went to the movies every chance she could. She read a lot, sucked at algebra, excelled in English, went to mass and confession, loved horses, and enjoyed scrapbooking.

Except for mass and confession, that could be a description of me at that age. I got to thinking about how much she and I could have bonded. Why didn’t Mom mention her love of horses? Why didn’t she commiserate with me over my math woes? Why didn’t she take an interest in my scrapbooks?

Were we too much alike? I also recently learned that she had curly hair, which I inherited. She told me once that she never liked my hair.

Over in Chicago with my dad’s side, my one remaining aunt, J, mentioned that she’d felt sorry for us girls. She said, and I quote, “Your mom was never meant to be a parent.”

I loved her honesty, and I felt oddly relieved that she validated what I’d always intuited. I grew up with my basic hierarchy of needs met—shelter, food, water—and that was about it. Years ago, a therapist called it “benign neglect.” I was pretty feral considering our suburban lifestyle. I remember crusty, oozing, painful sores behind my ears because I was so dirty.

Aunty J recalled one of our rare family visits to Chicago, and how my parents dumped us at her house for the week and left without saying goodbye. We didn’t notice because for years they’d been handing us off to overnighter child-care minders while they larked off for long weekends in Carmel, CA, or wherever.

Aunty J also said my mom teased her mercilessly about how much she did for her kids. For example, baking cakes. To this day, I remember how amazed I was by her cake-frosting prowess. It was like I’d never seen a cake being frosted. “Wow, you’re so good at that!” She responded with something slightly grumpy, like, of course she was, no duh.

It didn’t occur to me to tell her that I didn’t know a frosted cake could look so tidy and yummy because Mom didn’t do cakes much, even for birthdays unless we begged. As the oldest child, I was the first to become aware that we didn’t celebrate birthdays and other holidays like “normal” families. I started to hector and insist on Easter baskets, birthday cakes, Christmas stockings and pretending that Santa existed (luckily, my dad was a Christmas guy when it came to having a beautiful tree), proper Halloween costumes, and please, could she cook us turkey for Thanksgiving? (Never happened.) I created rituals for us, as best I could.

I still don’t celebrate my birthday much, and I have a hard time remembering other people’s birthdays.

Anyhow, back to Aunty J. Apparently, when she spoke long distance with her brother, my father, he talked about what we girls were up to—he was interested even if he was never around—but Mom never talked about us.

I know many things about Mom now: undiagnosed depression (she was usually in bed when we got home from school); sexual abuse on her mom’s side of the family; a huge family scandal when Mom was a teenager; her own bitter, overly staunch and crusty mom; an out-of-wedlock son given up for adoption; loss of the man who I suspect was Mom’s soul mate; CIA recruitment straight out of college and life in Europe after that …

She will always be a mysterious figure—a figment that reflects too readily back onto me.

Could I write a novel based on nostalgia for what I never had? I suppose I could. A novel about absentee mothers, mother-daugher relationships, misperceptions, family mysteries … but I probably won’t. Or, maybe I already have with Kilmoon.

5 Tips for a Stellar Writing Retreat

By Lisa Alber

I just returned from a five-day writing retreat in Sunriver, Oregon. 7000+ words written. I wrote my way out of a plot blockage. Good friends. Good food. Great vista. All in all, perfection.

I got to thinking about all the many writing retreats I’ve gone on over the years, excluding retreats run by professionals. Half my retreats are solo adventures, the other half with pals. For the latter, here are my five recommendations for a perfect writing retreat:

Come prepped and with specific goals.

If the goal is to maximize word count, then come with research and ideas in mind. If the goal is to finish those last few chapters to The End, then be ready to pound them out and revise later. If you’re in revisions, have a general strategy and perhaps a daily goal.

Choose like-minded retreat pals.

Let’s face it, some people are more social than others. It helps to surround yourself with people with similar work habits. I have several gangs of writing retreat buds. We’re all focused, independent, and ready to relax at the end of a productive day. Being social is part of the fun of a retreat, of course, but it works best if people are on the same wavelength.

Location location location.

Pick a beautiful location with vistas so the eye can settle into a deep and tranquil distance. The closer to nature the better. I’m a big fan of retreat spots with plenty of space, indoors and out, so that we can spread out or write communally, as desired.

Prep the food beforehand.

We come prepared! (And there’s always too much food.) We’re each in charge of a meal, and breakfast is either unstructured, or not. As long as there’s plenty of coffee, I don’t care about breakfast. I also like the freedom of eating lunch while I write, but then for sure coming together for dinner.

Relax with walks, naps, sitting in the sun, early bedtimes, reading …

No point in driving yourself into a state of anxiety. That’s for everyday life. Fill the creative well!

 

 

Writing and Grieving While Gardening: A Lesson in What’s Important

60259631_10219183819888660_5888423291214888960_nBy Lisa Alber

I happened to be browsing my defunct blog and came across a three-year-old post that holds as true today as it did then. It’s really a post about writing, I realize now. And as I sit here a year after my mom’s death, I’m struck by how much gardening helped my grieving process in addition to my writing process. The garden is looking pretty fabulous this year because of all the work I did last year.

Have I grown since three years ago, since a year ago? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that time spent in my garden is still a balm to my soul. Writing my current novel is on the upswing again, and I’m grateful for that. I’m looking forward to hours and hours of writing in my backyard in the coming months.

Anyhow, without further ado, here’s the post with a few notes and things.

IMG_3882~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

However many years she lived, Mary always felt that she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow.
— Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

The other day I was talking to my writer buddy, A, about the usual thing: how behind I am on my work-in-progress (LISA NOTE: Gawd, some things don’t change!). I joked that with all the time spent in my garden since April, I could have had the novel completed, revised, and polished by now.

So what’s up with me and my garden? Yet another procrastination method or a requirement for mental equilibrium?

I’ve owned my house for a year four years(!) now, and (still) much to my surprise I’ve become what I call “one of those crazy gardening ladies.” I suppose it’s better than being a crazy cat lady or a crazy-looking Botox lady, but still, I’m fascinated by this newly discovered side of myself. I hadn’t realized I would take to gardening to the extent of digging up bushes and transplanting established plants and sifting through the soil to dig out every, and I mean every, bluebell bulb I can find. (<–Yeah right, I don’t do that anymore–futility, thy name is bluebell.)

So what gives with that?

I (re-)realized as I was talking to A that I always need a project. You might think, But isn’t fiction your project?

No no, oh no — not any more, it isn’t. It’s my *work* now. A while back, writing fiction was my soul release, my labor of love. I pursued it just for me — writing is the way I connect and process — but once I started to get published, I was forced to think of it as a business. Which it is, definitely, and I don’t have a beef with that.

59620296_10219119851809498_7964259789431635968_nWith the advent of fiction writing moving over to “the dark side,” I was left with a void. A project void. I no longer had a creative outlet that was just for me in the spirit of Elizabeth Bennett …

… I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.    —Pride and Prejudice

Over the years I’ve tried out all kinds of creative activities in addition to writing: photography, painting, guitar, piano, pottery, drama, cooking (which may surprise people who know me well), crocheting, knitting, decoupage(!), printmaking, scrapbooking, and more I can’t remember.

Ultimately, fiction (with photography on the side) stuck, but now I need something to replace fiction. Looks like it’s gardening! And I’m content with this, more than content, actually. Gardening seems to be doing my poor, beleaguered, neurotic mind some good.

  • IMG_3901There’s a meditative thing that happens where I don’t think I’m thinking at all. (I must be, but you know what I mean.)
  • I lose time, which is signal enough that I’ve been 100% living in the moment.
  • I’m outside and physical and getting dirty—a nice opposition to the cerebral, clean world in front of my laptop.
  • Unlike writing, I can immediately see the result of my work. Instant gratification. While writing I can see my word count, but I can’t tell if what I’ve written is good or not. Whereas, a de-weeded flower bed? That’s nothing but good.
  • The excitement of seeing perennials pop up, watching buds grow fatter until one day the rose or the lily or the peony  pops open. That’s just good for the soul.
  • And, I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that mucking about in my garden enhances my creativity when I sit down to work. (TRUE! I need time to let my story thoughts ripen.)

So, I may joke with A about all the time “wasted” in the garden, but I know it’s time spent on what’s important rather than just on what’s urgent. Life needs to be more about the important than the urgent.

Do you have a just-for-you activity that ends up being therapeutic?

Murder-A-Go-Go’s: A Music-Inspired Anthology

By Lisa Alber

Today (Monday as I write this) is publication day for an anthology that I’m honored to participate in: MURDER-A-GO-GO’S: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Go’s, edited by Holly West and featuring sooo many great authors (many of whom I call friends).

Music-themed anthologies are fashionable these days. In the last several years, I’ve seen anthologies inspired by the music of The Replacements, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, and Steely Dan. All male, you notice. It’s about time for a female-artist-themed anthology, especially centered around a band like The Go-Go’s — the first, and to date only, all-female band to write their own songs and play their own instruments and top the Billboard album charts. That’s no mean feat in a male-dominated rock world.

The way it worked was that we were assigned song titles as prompts. My song/story title is “It’s Everything but Partytime.” From a process point of view, I found it challenging and fun to start with a title. Normally, I don’t know the title ahead of time and struggle to come up with decent titles all the time. Working backwards from a title was oddly liberating. And let’s be honest, it’s rarely going to be partytime for characters involved in a crime. So I could have written just about anything.

However, I decided to work a party atmosphere into the story — a fun and maybe funny environment in which to set a murder. I decided on a furry convention for the sheer novelty and silliness of it. I realize these conferences are serious business for devotees of the furry world, but … you know … it’s funny. It just is, especially if you’re an outsider — let’s say a cranky detective — who doesn’t understand what the hell is going on.

It made for a great push-and-pull. The environment is an obstacle to sussing out the murderer of a guest at the conference hotel. However, ultimately the environment helps the detective find the murderer. The environment is light and humorous, but the crime is dark.

This week I’m heading up to Vancouver, B.C., for a writers conference called Left Coast Crime. A bunch of my anthology pals will be there, and we’ll toast ourselves in true tipsy writerly fashion. That’s what I call partytime!

 

 

When Your Novels Sucks And You Stick it in a Drawer

By Lisa Alber

I happened to see this question posted on Facebook recently:

For those of you who have novel manuscripts that you put away because they weren’t working (i.e. they sucked), what were the problems that you noticed in those drafts?

Normally, I don’t go in for pseudo-survey conversational gambits like this. My interest that day might have had something to do with the drawer novel that I periodically pull out and then shove back in the drawer. It might also have had something to do with my work-in-progress, which almost landed in the same drawer a dozen times last year.

Interestingly, most of the responses fell into the following categories:

  • Not enough plot: Lack of forward momentum. Episodic scenes with protagonists on the road to nowhere. (Thank you, Talking Heads.) Conflict and goals and obstacles and stakes apparently sidelined.
  • Passive protagonist (often linked to plotlessness): Characters with not enough to do. Too much rumination and thinking, not enough movement. Reactive rather than proactive.
  • Too much plot: Bigger plot than you know what to do with. Situation so complex you can’t write your way out of it. Too many subplots.
  • You don’t know but it’s off: No matter what you do, it doesn’t feel right. (This one’s a toughy.)

The responses got me thinking about my drawer novel and my novel in progress.

My drawer novel is a case of too much plot and my inability to let some of it go. I know! I drive myself nuts sometimes. I’ve noodled every which way with the parallel plot line (I love a good parallel plot line), but it’s too much. The entire thing’s gotta be re-jiggered into one storyline … Next time. Or maybe never. Maybe that was my practice novel … (but I can’t quite let it go!)

My work-in-progress also contains a parallel plot line — heh — but I’m more skilled than I was when I wrote the drawer novel. Nevertheless, something was off.

Head. Wall. Ouch. Repeat.

I was suffering from a case of I-don’t-know-but-it’s-off. My solution was to think bigger picture: voice and perspective. I engaged in a thought experiment in which I imagined the story from some other character’s point of view, and imagined it told in first person instead of third (or vice versa). In my case, this was enough to rock my world and a-ha myself out of my stuckness.

Whew! Massive rewrite, to be sure, however, at long last I’m back to having fun with the story. Which, it seems to me, is the ultimate barometer. If, no matter what you do, you keep not having fun with a novel, let it go.

The last pattern I noticed in the Facebook responses was that the bullish attitudes about manuscript problems tended to come from the more experienced writers; these were problems they’d yet to solve, that was all. Most stories are salvageable, but it may take a few (or more, probably more) years of craft experience to learn the art of the salvage.

Oh, and don’t forget your friendly neighborhood beta readers and brainstorming partners. They save me all the time.

Reapplying the Bum Glue

By Lisa Alber

It’s not that I haven’t written since my mom died at the beginning of the summer … It’s that I haven’t truly been writing either. Know what I mean?

There’s a self-discipline to sitting down to the writing. There’s also a self-discipline to clearing life stuff out of the way so I can sit down to the writing. I’m out of practice with both.

So, this morning as I laid in bed, I gave myself a lecture:

  1. Whatever you do, do NOT roll over for the return journey to slumberland. It’s your own blasted fault you accidentally read until 1:oo a.m.!
  2. One hour, just one hour, of writing is a-okay. Ignore word count rules. Thinking counts as writing!
  3. Turn on the computer and. just. WALK. AWAY. Do not pass go, do not collect stressors from the email queue and distractions from Facebook! However, do open the manuscript so that it greets you when you return with your coffee.
  4. For a change of pace, try relaxing with your coffee for 15 minutes before starting the computer hunchback routine. Maybe open a novel by an author you admire, turn to any page, and read to get your juices flowing.

Happily, I achieved the written word today. It’s still not enough — there goes Little Miss All-Or-Nothing again — but it’s what I could do today.

The truth is, I wrote for one and a half hours. The truth is, if I can wiggle past the daily distractions and day-job triggers, the one hour often turns into more.