Beatrix Potter

When I was growing up, my mother took us on Awesome Great Adventures to the library. She brought home laundry baskets full of books from library sales and thrift stores and cruised through garage sales for secondhand books to fill our bookshelves. I was never short of fresh reading material, and since I started reading at four and never stopped, that was quite an accomplishment on her part.

Of all the many, many books that she brought home, I had my favorites. Bill Peet, with his clever rhymes and wacky, colorful pictures, Dr. Seuss, with his dizzying tongue-twisters, and about a hundred others. In the mornings before breakfast, we would crawl into bed with her, and she would read to us from The Biggest Bear, Blueberries for Sal, and We Were Tired of Living in a House. The books she read us then are still vastly important to me, and a few of them have found their way onto my bookshelves in anticipation of the days when I have a few small children climbing into my bed with their books before breakfast.

Several such books are the many sweet adventures of Beatrix Potter.

(Yes, that is indeed me in the picture. And yes, I was reading the book upside down. In my experience it is very important to study life upside down occasionally, in order to gain some much-needed perspective.)

Anyway.

Back to Miss Potter and her lovely, wonderful books.

Peter Rabbit was the first friend I made among her pages. His adventures between the rows of radishes and lettuces in Mr. McGregor’s garden enthralled me, and Miss Potter’s beautiful watercolored pictures drew me straight into the story, just as if I’d been there myself.

A whole string of friends followed after the first. The Tailor of Gloucester, who swore to finish a magnificent coat by Christmas morning and only just managed it with the help of some obliging mice. Jemima Puddle-duck, who really was a particularly foolish duck—and a very lucky one. And of course, last (in my list) but not least, Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, two of the naughtiest mice that ever stumbled between the pages of a book.

Beatrix Potter’s books remain a treasured part of my childhood, and the stories are carefully tucked away on my shelf with all of my other favorites. Waiting for a rainy day when I need to remember myself, or a lazy morning when I have children of my own to read aloud to before breakfast. Either way, I will be enjoying them for many, many years to come.

So that is the story of the two Bad Mice—but they were not so very very naughty after all, because Tom Thumb paid for everything he broke.

For The Writer Who Is In A Hurry

We live in a world of instant noodles.

I know, that’s not the way that statement usually goes, but I like this way better. No one likes to be stuck waiting for noodles or wifi or the next season of our favorite show. Instant streaming, Netflix, and Amazon Prime have spoiled us with their quick solutions to our every whim.

It’s great, isn’t it? Two-day shipping is the best. (My wallet doesn’t agree, but that’s beside the point.)

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for us writers, there is no quick fix, make-it-happen kind of shortcut for writing a book. The publishing industry, and writing in general, is a long-term project, and one that requires a great deal of patience and longevity. Writing a novel takes a long time, and getting it published takes even longer. To me, writing is all about faithfulness. It’s about little steps, day-by-day consistency, and continuing to believe in a project long after it has lost its novelty.

But sometimes, in the middle of a project that seems to have no end, discouragement hits. All those everlastingly long days and months seem endless and empty, and in that moment, it seems impossible to continue for one more minute without some kind of breakthrough.

And, in this industry, breakthroughs don’t come just for the asking.

Discouragement can too easily end with hasty decisions, burned manuscripts, hurt relationships, and damaged dreams. It’s easier to take steps backward than forward on days like this, and the last thing any writer needs is to do everything twice.

I have hit these moments many times in the last seven years, and the five best tips I have for coping with them in a healthy, productive way are:

1) Pause.

Hasty decisions are almost always the ones you regret later. So walk away from your computer, leave your query letters for tomorrow, and let your characters be on their own for a few days. It is my belief that the only way to fail as a writer is to give up. Rejections come and go, stories come and go, but the only person that can really kill your dream is you.

So don’t give up. Pause, breathe, and make your decisions intentionally and not out of emotion or fear.

2) Remind yourself that there is no deadline.

Writing is one of those odd and wonderful occupations that has absolutely nothing to do with age. You can start writing at thirteen or thirty-five. Some books are finished in two years, some in ten. There is no set method, there is no formula, and there is no law that says that after you’ve worked on a story for five years, you have to dump it because it’s going nowhere.

Writing takes time. The world may not always understand that, but we as writers should. Our stories are worth the time we put into them, and they are all the more valuable for the years of constant devotion and love.

3) Have an encouragement box.

On my window sill, I have a box filled with index cards. On these cards, I have scribbled bible verses, prayers, encouraging quotes, and little notes to remind myself that even when I feel awful, there is still a reason and a purpose for continuing on.

The important thing about this box is having it together and at my fingertips when I need it.

Looking for encouragement when you’re at the end of yourself is a recipe for disaster. Either you can’t find it, or you don’t have the energy to look. Write the notes when you’re encouraged, when you’ve had a good day, and you can feel that steely determination keeping you on the right path. Trust me, you’ll be glad to have them on the bad days.

4) Have a person.

Someone you trust. Someone who is going to champion you. A friend, a family member, a mentor. Someone you can call, or get coffee with, or simply sit on your bed and cry with.

Someone who will listen to your million reasons to give up with sympathy, then give you a million reasons back to continue on.

I know, this is a hard one. Writers are very often (but not always) introverted, and it’s hard to reach out to someone and admit you are struggling. But this is a long journey, and you were never meant to travel it alone. You need people to love you, encourage you, and keep you smiling. If you don’t have anyone like that in your life, feel free to shoot me a message. I’ve been where you are, and I know how hard it is. But I also know how very, very worth it all of this work will be.

5) Let the time pass.

Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.

~ Earl Nightingale

Dearest writer, it is really the small steps that make the most difference. The ones no one sees. Overnight successes do not happen overnight. They are always proceeded by years of invisible, tiny, step-by-step faithfulnesses that no one ever saw or cared much about.

The time will pass.

Your story will grow.

You will make progress if you continue to work and be faithful.

Those small steps seem to be getting you absolutely nowhere right now, but one day, when you look back, you will be amazed by how far you have come and how much you have grown.

And in the end, you’ll discover that it was really the small days that meant the most to you. The finish line is a beautiful thing, but the journey is what matters the most. So sit back, let the time pass, and enjoy the moments that you won’t be able to get back later. You’ll be glad you did.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

Soul Colors

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I have a secret. I see colors.

I don’t mean that I see the leaves turning red and orange and yellow in the fall or the glitzy flashing neon signs blinking over the supermarkets and restaurants after dark. Everyone sees those colors, and frankly, they’re not very impressive, as far as colors go. They’re faded. Washed out, like paint in dishwater. I barely notice them anymore.

No, I see people. Their soul colors. The ones they hide from everyone else.

I don’t think they’d like it if they knew I could see. Colors are private things. People hide them underneath bulky jackets and floppy hats, behind newspapers and smartphones. They like to believe their disguises are enough to mask their colors from the world, and they are, mostly.

Just . . . not from me.

The colors are the first thing I see when I wake up on my park bench, or behind whatever dumpster happened to be handy when I finished hawking my wares. People are everywhere in the city, in every alley, packed into every street and every building. It’s why I came here in the first place. I came for the colors.

Mostly, I came to see if I could change them.

If I was a better businessman, I would find one place to sell, maybe right outside the subway station or in the park, where people are more likely to browse through my wares instead of hurrying by.

I can’t do it. I’ve tried. But I like to move around. To see different places. People who live uptown have different colors from the ones that live in the slums across the canal. Different, and yet, strangely, very much the same too. It’s all the same, no matter what city I’m sleeping in. It’s only rarely that I catch a glimpse of a color that startles me.

In the springtime, I sell lilacs and lilies on my corner, or paper tigers and cranes and frogs, or kites painted with stars and snakes and dancing women. I’ve sold perfume a few times, in the fall, and when Christmas rolls around, I sell holly and snowflakes.

Today, I’ve got balloons.

Balloons are really my favorite to sell. People don’t know, but I always try to give them a color that matches their own. It’s usually the one they ask for anyway, and I like to see them walking away, tracking green or blue or lemon-yellow on the sidewalks and carrying a balloon of the same color.

That’s really the funny thing about colors. They mean different things for different people. Blue might mean contentment for one person and sadness for another. Red can mean a thousand different things. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the colors over the years, and I can usually guess. But sometimes, even now, I’m dead wrong.

The first sale I make is to a couple. They’re holding hands, and he’s getting his red all over her. Bright, cheerful, infatuated red. It’s dusted on her hands like pollen, on her cheek where he’s kissed her, in her hair. I try not to laugh.

She’s happy too. Powder blue. A little less passionate, a little softer, but very, very much in love. I sell them the right colored balloons and watch them wander off.

The next is an old woman with a walker and white hair. She smells like cinnamon, and everything about her glows coral pink, with a few gold flecks here and there and some silver in her eyes. I sit and talk with her for an hour or so, listening to her stories and admiring the colors. When she leaves, at last, I send a pink balloon with her and refuse the dollar she tries to press on me. I should be paying her.

Three rich colors in one morning means a good day, but the next customer is flat gray. A man with a suit. I think his tie might have been red when he bought it. He buys the balloon without looking at me, mumbling something about his daughter, and walks away. I give him a green one because it’s my strongest color, but before he’s gone ten steps it’s as gray as he is. He won’t notice, of course, but I do.

It takes me an hour to get over that one. I’m hoping for a better color next, but the woman who appears is gray too. Soft, ashen gray, with a little knot of painful black beneath her left shoulder. She’s got a toddler with her, a little boy who is clinging to her hand and sucking his thumb.

I love seeing children’s colors. They’re confused, because children aren’t one thing or another quite yet. He’s got orange and yellow and silver and green and a grumpy, tantrum red blotched all over him, like he got into the paint box and made a mess.

I’d laugh, but he’s holding her hand. His little fingers and his wrist—all the way down to his shoulder, really—is as gray as she is. And I don’t feel like laughing.

She seems to know, somehow, what her color is doing to his. She won’t meet my eyes, and she fumbles in her purse looking for a coin to buy his balloon with. I let the man with the fading tie go, but this time I’m more prepared, and she isn’t in a hurry. I get her talking, first about her son, about preschool and peanut butter in his hair and sleepless nights. Then about herself. About the man who abused her and the leaky faucet that her landlord won’t fix and the job that hasn’t paid her bills in two months. Her son plays with his balloon while we talk. He gets purple on his fingers.

When she’s finally run out of words, I give her a balloon too, a sea green one, and the money I made selling roasted chestnuts the week before Christmas. I’ve been saving it since. I wasn’t sure for what until just now.

When she cries, her tears leave splotches of color on her hands and cheeks. Sea green. She tries to protest, but there’s a reason I sleep on park benches and behind dumpsters. The money is definitely for her.

She’s still gray when she walks away, and that black knot doesn’t disappear. It’ll take more than a little extra cash and some kindness to dig that out. But the balloon doesn’t lose its color, and there’s a little sea green nestled around the black where her heart should be.

I’ve always liked sea green. Everyone is different, of course, but I’ve found that sea green usually has a bit of hope about it. If I look hard enough.

Frankenstein

My sister moved in with me this month.

We’d been planning this for a while. I’ve been living alone in my little cottage for about a year now, and she was ready for a place to live with a real kitchen and a bedroom that didn’t have to be vacated in favor of guests every month or so.

It was time.

So now, my very tiny bedroom has a very tiny bunkbed in it instead of a single mattress, and she’s reading on the couch when I get home. I cook, and she washes the dishes. I chop wood, and she cleans out the fireplace. We drink tea in the evenings, light the candles and our wood-burning stove, read books and pursue our various crafts (she’s an artist, I’m an author), and generally spend a lot of time in very companionable silence. And, when things go bump in the night, I feel better knowing it’s probably her being clumsy instead of a bear trying to eat me.

Since I live in the middle of nowhere, and there have been bears around our property in the past, this is a very comforting thought.

One of my favorite parts about having my sister move in has been watching her read all the books on my shelves. She has a very large, still growing collection of books herself, but we have yet to figure out how to cram them all into my little house. So for now, she is reading my books, and I get to enjoy watching her enjoy all the books I love.

It’s great.

One of the first books she picked up when she moved in was Frankenstein. I read Mary Shelley’s classic some time ago, loved it, and—unfortunately—forgot about it. This happens when your piles and piles of books threaten to bury your house and your TBR pile is taller than your living room ceiling. Books get read, loved, and then set aside in favor of new stories.

Then, my sister picked it up. And she loved it. In a very horrified sort of way. Every so often, while she was reading it, I would hear a scream of frustration from wherever she happened to be in the house, mostly aimed at the narrator of the story and his refusal to take any responsibility for his actions.

Victor Frankenstein, a student of the old sciences and a scorner of the new, is sent away to college following the death of a dearly loved family member. Death, life, and the disproven theories of the men he has spent his life from descend from a passion into an obsession. He forgets classes, his family, the woman he loves, and the rest of the outside world in favor of an experiment that will set him apart from the rest of mankind as a creator, god-like to the being he intends to bring to life.

Life he does create, but the horror it casts over himself and the shadow that falls over his family because of it is far beyond what he could have imagined. The monster he creates is, in many ways, child-like, without the understanding or morality of an adult human. Yet, Victor Frankenstein, for all his horror and remorse at his impetuous deed, shows as little or less judgment and virtue than the ‘monster’ he created, allowing an innocent girl to be accused of his crimes and casting off all responsibility for the atrocities he himself committed. (Thus my sister’s frustrated screaming.)

Frankenstein is a classic for the ages. Mary Shelley’s book is a lasting, brilliant story that continues to send chills down the spines of its readers. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.

For The Writer Who Is Stuck

Stories are hard.

I think anyone who has ever sat down to force out eighty-something thousand words (or more) knows this. Stories get twisted. Plot holes form, characters refuse to cooperate, and the words on the page don’t always match the visions we had for them.

Things get messy, and in the end, even the most dedicated planners get stuck.

I know this from experience.

I used to be an planner. I had my whole book outlined out in sticky notes on my wall, with details and character references and spoilers. I was on top of my life, and I always knew what was going to happen in the next chapter.

Now I know what happens at the end, in the beginning, and all the major events in-between. And sometimes what is going to happen next. My characters got tired of me being bossy, you see. They rebelled. I think they liked telling their own stories, and I was getting in the way.

Whatever happened, I have found that, planner or pantster, I still get stuck. Everyone does. Whether you’re stuck during outlining, or trapped in editing, being stuck is never a good feeling. We’re writers. We like our stories to flow, our characters to cooperate, and our plot holes to burn in an inferno and wither to ashes because plot holes are the worst.

I’m not bitter.

Still, being stuck is a state of being that many writers come across at one stage or another, but it shouldn’t have to be one that we stay in. Here are five tips for the writer who would like to get un-stuck and move on with their stories and possibly their lives.

1) Decide whether you’re stuck or burnt-out.

Does your story have a problem, or are you burnt-out from writing too much, or from stresses in the rest of your life? Your mental health will have a significant effect on your writing, so take a step back and consider whether this is a story problem, or a stress problem.

If you have one specific area where you’re stuck, a plot hole or a uncertainty of where you’re going next, you’re probably just stuck.

If you hate your story, your writing, and the entire project and want to burn it and never write another word, you’re probably burnt-out. In which case, I would recommend this post, as it will have more helpful tips on how to recover and get back on track.

2) Quit staring at the blank screen.

As a writer, there is nothing more intimidating than a blank page. And, if you’ve been staring at it for three hours—or three days—there is nothing more frustrating. So get away from it. Grab a notebook and a pen and get outside. Find some different surroundings. Pray about the problem. Ask the Master Storyteller. Journal for a while about your story. Write from your character’s point of view, or dump all of your frustration onto the page. Make a list of all the things that you would like to have happen in the book. Find some music to inspire you, or read a book that gets your heart thumping. Mix it up a little.

3) Look at the problem upside down.

Allow things to change. Are you clinging to a certain plot point or event that is causing trouble?

Let it go.

Keep the pages if you love them. Have them to read later, for yourself, but let them go. Try something completely opposite, even if you don’t keep it. Allow your story to dance around a little and explore the impossible, or at least the improbable. Give your imagination free rein and see what it comes up with.

4) Move on.

Books are not written in a single day. Or in a single draft, either. So if there is a problem that you just cannot fix, move on. Write the rest of the book, then the next book. Allow it to be less than perfect, and remind yourself that this is the version that hasn’t quite lived up to its potential.

Yet.

Come back in two months, or six. You will have more experience as a writer, you will have a fresh take on it, and more often than not, you will have found a solution. Writing is a long term profession, and a few months will not set you back.

5) Be positive—absolutely, completely positive—that you will find a solution.

You are a writer.

A brilliant, imaginative storyteller with unlimited potential and a thousand worlds trapped in your brain. Whatever the problem, you will find the solution. Eventually. You may try four of five times (or nine or ten), but you will come up with a solution. There is no story that is hopeless and no plot hole so terrible that it can’t be thought through and fixed.

I am firmly convinced that if you consider a problem to be impossible to fix, it will be. If you’re sure—very sure—that you’ll manage to fix this problem, and the next, and the next, you will find yourself facing that blank page with a good deal more courage and assurance than you left it with. It will take work, it will take persistence, and it will take a ridiculous amount of coffee, toffee, and gummy bears, but it will happen.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

Of Bullfrogs and Snapdragons: Coming Fall 2019

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Hedgehogs, O most faithful of readers, make excellent writing companions.

I would not admit this to anyone but you, for some of my friends would be terribly jealous if they thought that I was choosing favorites. Belinda Munkindot, who I am sure that you remember from my previous letters, would fly into the most ridiculous passion if she so much as suspected that I preferred a hedgehog’s company to her own. But there it is, dearest reader, and I do hope that you will keep my secret.

Since I have taken on the task of chronicles these small adventures for you, I have had many little visitors to my cottage. Lumpkin has come several times. He roams about beneath my desk, tapping on the walls, and occasionally will clamber up to sit on my shoulder, reading the page that I have so carefully inscribed for you and uttering a few complaints if the story happens to be about anyone but himself. Once, I caught him digging through my flour barrel, as if he really did think he would find treasure buried inside. I am afraid that I dusted him off rather roughly and ordered him to go home at once.

He is still sulking.

Belinda, too, has come to see me many times. She flits in and out of my window as she pleases, sometimes resting on my writing hand to get a closer look at what I am saying about her, sometimes tinkling in my ear, and sometimes admiring herself in the mirror I keep on my desk to distract her. Her tinkling is very bothersome, and as she seldom does anything but scold about the stories I’ve chosen to tell—or not tell—about her, I find it very trying to have her with me for long.

Wignilian would be a fine companion, I think, if he wasn’t so easily distracted. He scuttles about, sniffing this and nibbling that, and drives me quite frantic. I have been forced to banish him several times.

In the end, I have found that the only little creature I can stand to have rooting about on my writing desk is a hedgehog.

Actually, if I am to be most entirely honest, it is one hedgehog in particular that has snuffled his way into my good graces.

His name, dear reader, is Lester Winklestep.

Of Bullfrogs and Snapdragons, the sequel to Of Mice and Fairies, is set for release in the fall of 2019. Mark your calendars!

Mattimeo

I love reading aloud.

Not reading aloud like in school, while everyone is looking at you and the teacher is waiting to pounce if you have the audacity to mispronounce a hard word like ‘anxiety’ or ‘quinoa’. (Hint: neither of those words sound the way they are spelled. You have been warned.)

No, I mean reading aloud at night next to a wood fire, with candles burning and a few select people listening. There’s something magical about an evening like that.

 

Once or twice a week, I invite my younger siblings to my house for just this sort of night. They bring drawing supplies, sewing materials, or letters they are writing, and we curl up in my living room while I read aloud one of my favorite books to them.

Mattimeo, picture by A.R. Geiger

Right now, we are reading Mattimeo, one of Brian Jacques’s many, many brilliant novels. This English author has been one of my absolute favorites since I was in my preteens. He was one of the first authors I dreamed of meeting, and when I found out that he died in 2011, I was devastated.

His books all revolve around Redwall, a mythic abbey buried deep in Mossflower woods. Its inhabitants—squirrels, mice, moles, badgers, and otters—live within its dusky, sandstone walls, farming the orchards and grounds and keeping their peace with the trackless forest that surrounds them. The characters change book to book, but the feel of peace in the abbey and the promise of an action-packed, thrilling storyline is always the same.

In Mattimeo, the summer feasts are upon Redwall, and the excitement of the celebration is high. But when their young ones are stolen away by a slave band from the south, the air of celebration turns to one of grief and thoughts of vengeance. Matthias, the warrior of Redwall and the father of one of the missing young ones, leads an expedition to return their missing children to Redwall.

Meanwhile, Mattimeo, the son of Redwall’s warrior, finds that the leader of the slaver’s band, a disfigured fox known as Slagar the Cruel, has a long, very bitter, past with his father. His desire for revenge on his hated enemy incites a string of cruelty against the young mouse, and he quickly finds himself fighting for survival on the long journey toward an unknown, and very dangerous, destination.

Book Picture A.R. Geiger

Brian Jacques writing is beautiful, descriptive, and fast-paced, a difficult combination to find. My younger siblings are already enthralled by the story we are experiencing together, and whenever I pause for breath or to rest my voice, they are always impatient for me to continue.

Reading aloud together is one of my favorite ways to maintain relationships. I still associate several books with my father, because he read them aloud to us when I was small. They continue to be some of my favorite books, because of the many memories packed away inside them.

“Weapons may be carried by creatures who are evil, dishonest, violent or lazy. The true warrior is good, gentle, and honest. His bravery comes from within himself; he learns to conquer his own fears and misdeeds.”

For The Writer Who Is Exhausted

In my very unprofessional opinion, there are two types of exhaustion.

Actually, there are probably more than two types, but as I said, this is an unprofessional opinion, and as I am not exactly sure where I put my encyclopedia, we are going to say there are two types of exhaustion.

The first is physical. You worked too hard, didn’t get enough sleep, or, if you are the awesome kind of person that does this sort of thing, you wore yourself out lifting weights or running or some other kind of exercise. Your feet hurt, your muscles ache, and what you really need is a good night’s sleep, or a hot bath, or just an hour or two to lie down and read a book or binge watch Netflix. Maybe a foot rub is in order. Or a glass of wine on the couch. Whatever spices your tea.

The second type is mental exhaustion.

This one is a little harder, and it’s the kind that writers deal with on a daily basis. Mental exhaustion is harder to identify, harder to explain, and—in most cases—harder to recover from.

We’ve all been there at one time or another. You sit down to write and stare at your computer screen for three hours without hashing out a single word. Or you force yourself to conjure up a sentence, or a paragraph, or even a full page if you have a lot of stamina, but it all goes into the trash anyway. Your ideas are flat and refuse to come to life, your characters haven’t spoken to you in a month, and there’s a deadline looming.

When writers are mentally exhausted, their stories lose their magic, the job they love so much becomes a drudge, and all the creativity that writers are supposed to have in unlimited fountains runs dry. In the end, we’re left with empty pages, a headache, and a mountain of frustration at our inability to just do the work we’re supposed to be doing.

So how do we creatively refuel? It’s a little hard to tell your brain to put its feet up and take the evening off. In my years as a full-time writer, I have had to come up with a different list of ways to give my brain some time to reset itself. Hopefully they are as helpful to you as they have been to me.

1) Give yourself time.

This is the hardest one for me. I like quick solutions, an extra hour of sleep, a dose of caffeine, some new vitamins, and off we go!

But mental exhaustion isn’t like that. It doesn’t clear up overnight. In my experience, for the writers that are well and truly burned out and fully emptied, the best thing to do is to just stop.

Just stop.

Stop writing, stop thinking about writing, stop working on plot points or trying to envision scenes or build settings.

Stop everything.

Three days in, you will have a tiny creative spark in the back of your mind. If you jump on that spark and try to write with it, you will kill it.

I’ve done this. It sets you back.

So just leave it alone. Take walks, do life, get coffee. But don’t write. Don’t think about writing. Don’t talk about writing. Give it a week before you even look at your manuscript again. More, depending on how burned you are. I’ve given it a month. Sometimes more.

2) Have adventures.

“Would you like to have an adventure now, or would you like to have tea first?”

~ Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie

Your brain needs story fodder. It needs something to feed those wonderful, brilliant ideas that you pour into your writing, or it will starve. So take it adventuring. Take it to the beach, and walk barefoot in the waves. Look for seashells. Watch the gulls. Draw in the sand.

Go to the zoo, and sit on a bench and watch the tigers for a few hours. Or the turtles. Or the monkeys. Watch the people who are watching the monkeys.

Go to a new coffee shop and sit in the corner to watch the world go by, or go for a walk in a park that you’ve never been to. It doesn’t have to be expensive and it doesn’t have to be quiet—or crazy exciting, like a theme park—but it does have to be different.

Your brain needs something new.

A change in routine. A breath of air you haven’t been breathing for the last six months. Get away from your computer, get away from your office, or your bedroom, or your living room, and have an adventure.

3) Cut out the caffeine.

Caffeine gives your body a boost of energy when it is physically exhausted. It might help you stay awake through a six page college essay that’s due tomorrow morning.

It will not help you be creative, and it will not fill you up when you are empty.

4) Do not jump straight back into your writing routine.

My house is heated by a wood stove. When I build a fire, I build a frame with kindling and paper and tree bark, and light that. First a spark, then a little flame, yes?

And if I dumped a huge log on that flame as soon as it was big enough to get hot, it would die.

Instantly.

The same is true for that little creative spark you feel after three days. It needs time to become a flame, and then to grow a bit. Don’t dump a fifteen hundred word count goal on it, because I promise, it will probably die.

Start with small things.

Journal with your characters. Write a character sketch, or a setting description. Build up over a week or two. Start with a hundred words instead of a thousand. Ease into it, and take the time to remember why you love this story, these characters, and this plot line.

5) Refuel.

You cannot pour from an empty jar.

That’s just the way it is, dearest writer. You cannot give when you yourself are empty. So be willing to take the time to refuel your creativity and your mind.

Read wonderful books with characters that haunt you.

Sit down with your friends, or your family, or someone from work or church, and have the kind of conversations that go deep.

Put on music and dance. Sing at the top of your voice. Worship, read your bible, and talk to God about nothing and everything. Pick flowers, collect seashells, bake cookies to share with a friend. (Or eat them all by yourself, because I will not judge.) Cook good food, learn a new skill, and find joy in your life that does not revolve around words on a page.

The words will come. You are not washed up, your stories will not be empty forever, and you will find that spark of creativity again. Until then, find what brings you life, find what fuels your soul, and spend time counting the stars.

That, too, is part of writing.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

How I Will Probably Die

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I find the bookshop on 47th and Willow, sandwiched between a pawn shop with a broken lamp in the window and a jewelry store selling fake pearls. The windows are shuttered, and a black cat is lying on the doorstep. She arches against my hand when I reach down and pet her, and when I step over her and go inside, I half expect her to follow me.

She doesn’t, even when I hold the door for her. I guess she likes it outside better.

A silver bell rings when I come inside, but there’s no one at the counter. A dusty book is lying open beside the register, and there’s a kitten asleep in a basket under one of the tables, but no people. No customers, no employees.

But there are books. The walls are lined with shelves that reach right up to the cracked ceiling, and the books that don’t fit on the shelves are stacked neatly in the corners, or arranged in rows on the creaky reading desks in the center of the room. I browse through, finding a few titles I know and some I’ve been looking for. I can’t find any price tags, but since some of the books are pretty battered, I figure they’re mostly second-hand, and the owner has a standard price that she—or he—keeps by the cash register.

The kitten is following me. I clump down a few steps into another room, this a little more messy, a little more scattered than the last. Big, sprawling plants are growing in pots in the corners, and the books are double-lining the shelves. Some of them have real leather covers, their pages so old that they crack when I open them. The writing is nearly illegible, faded by dust and years, and I’m tempted to buy a few to keep in my library, maybe on display. I’ve always liked old books.

Another cat is sleeping on the books, a big orange tabby. He yawns as I pass by, and I scratch him on the ears and under the chin. The kitten is rubbing against my ankles, purring as loud as if he hasn’t had any kind of attention for years. I pick him up, letting him rub his face against my cheek and chin as I venture into the next room.

It’s bigger than the last. I didn’t think the shop was so big. From the street, it looks like a one-room corner store, with maybe an upstairs room for extra stock. But I can’t find any stairs, and the rooms keep getting bigger as I go along. Several ferns and a few leafy vines are growing on the tables, and one of the shelves has Venus Flytraps growing next to the books. They’re bigger than I thought they would be, although I’ve never really grown any. Maybe they feed on book moths, or something.

The books are all leather now. I pull one off the shelves, and it’s so heavy that I have to set it down on a table before I can open it.

I can’t read the writing inside. It’s hand-lettered and smeared, and definitely not written in English. I put it back on the shelf, feeling a little funny, and go back through the door to the room with the orange tabby.

At least, that’s what I meant to do. The door was the same, or looked the same, but the orange tabby is gone, and this room has a bare wall with hand-drawn maps pinned to it and an old writing desk, with quill pens and an ink bottle with dust on it in the corner. The kitten is gone, and the books are chained to the shelves, like they were in the Middle Ages. I pull one off and open it up, and the pages are lined by painted illustrations that make my stomach turn.

I go back through the door I just left, thinking I’ll find the kitten and the right door, and go home without buying anything, at least today.

But the Venus Flytraps aren’t there, and the room isn’t the one I left. Three or four more doors, and I begin to realize that I’m very, very lost.

Either that, or this bookshop is playing games with me. A few hours, and the way it toys with me starts to feel very alive. As if it’s confusing me on purpose. The kitten appears a few more times, but I always lose it again.

It’s weeks before I give up. The bookshop seems intent on keeping me alive, whatever else it has in mind, like one of its cats. I find plates of stale cookies and lemonade set out for me, or sometimes a sandwich and a cup of milk. At night we have tea in the room with the squashy armchairs and the fireplace, and the kitten finds me.

It’s not so bad, once the panic wears off. Who knows? Maybe the last owner got eaten by the Venus Flytraps or made it outside, and the shop got lonely without them. I don’t think it likes to be alone, and someone has to take care of the books and give the cats the attention they need.

So why not me?

Miss Honey

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Today’s post is not a book review.

Well . . . it is, but it’s not.

If you take my meaning.

You see, I’ve already written a review about Matilda, by Roald Dahl. Quite a long time ago, in fact. And it would be very odd to review the same book twice on the same blog. After all, there are so many brilliant, wonderful books that I haven’t even mentioned to you yet.

So please, don’t take this as a sign that I have run out of books.

I haven’t.

Still, today’s post is not a book review. It’s a character review. Because I think this particular character is worth raving about, despite the fact that in my previous review I didn’t have time to praise her at all.

I am talking, of course, about Miss Honey.

Miss Honey, for those of you that are not familiar with Roald Dahl’s classic, is Matilda’s teacher. She is the second person to recognize what an extraordinary child Matilda is, and the only one to do anything about it. Upon realizing that Matilda is much too advanced for her regular class, she immediately appeals to the school’s headmistress to have her bumped up to another level.

When the school’s headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, refuses to listen, Miss Honey immediately marches on to Matilda’s parents to open their eyes to the wonder that is their daughter.

Naturally, they also fail to listen.

What follows is an example of how powerful teachers can be in the lives of their students. Miss Honey, despite being told repeatedly to treat Matilda just the same as all of the other children, allows her the space and the resources she needs to continue growing. Books, time to herself, and, eventually, a positive, nurturing friendship that is unlike anything Matilda has experienced anywhere else. In short, she becomes Matilda’s saving grace, because no matter how smart a child is or how many books they have read, they cannot get along without someone to champion them.

Matilda is, of course, the heroine of this story, but I believe that Jennifer Honey doesn’t get enough recognition or acknowledgment, and I am going to tell you why. Besides being an exemplary teacher, Miss Honey has her own set of problems. A dead father, a legacy—and a paycheck—that is stolen week by week, and an abusive aunt that doubles as her immediate boss. She has been trampled on and hurt and, as of the moment when Matilda appears, she has no way out of the situation.

And yet, for all her trouble, Miss Honey continues to weather her storm with an amazing amount of quiet strength. She doesn’t lash out at her abuser as today’s heroines are wont to do in fits of anger. She is kind and patient with everyone that she meets, from her bitter and constantly angry aunt to the smallest child in her class. Instead of folding to her situation and allowing the abuse, she seeks out her own solution—despite having to live on an almost nonexistent paycheck—and removes herself from it, establishing what boundaries she is capable of. (A very, very hard thing to do for someone who has been consistently battered from childhood.) She scrimps and goes without, living mostly on the school lunches so that she has the freedom to make her own choices. And yet, in the midst of all of this, she is still able to see past her own problems and be a comfort and support for Matilda.

Amazing.

Roald Dahl’s masterpiece is very much a children’s book, with a child’s heart behind it, but looking at it through the eyes of an adult, I found the character of Miss Honey to be incredibly true-to-life and inspiring. Her sacrifices and immense strength took this beautiful book from an interesting and lasting read to a classic for me. If you haven’t picked it up, I would absolutely recommend it to you, no matter your age.

“There is little point in teaching anything backwards. The whole object of life, Headmistress, is to go forwards.”