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My Writing Process

April 14, 2014

Writers, and their relationship with the page, fascinate me.  Getting to peek behind the finished words of writers I admire–to see their beginnings, middles and ends — is such a treat. So when the Writing Process Blog Tour started, I gulped up the passages. I was especially tickled when Kristen Levithan at Motherese asked me to participate. Kristen is a light for me — her writing is beautiful, honest and intelligent. I often nod as I read, thinking, Oh, me too, me too. Our blogship blossomed to friendship, and knowing she’s out there in my world softens my edges and my heart.

And so, I bring you my Writing Process:
1.) What am I working on?
I’m working on writing. Regularly. After months of prioritizing other things, my writing muscles were atrophied. I’m finally writing more regularly and it feels good. Really good.
I’ve got the beginnings of a novel that continues to percolate; I believe I’ll write it some day. For now, I enjoy having the story and the characters in my pocket, wondering how it will all turn out for them. I just need to find the time that is right for me to do so.
During our move, I’d write a lot for myself. I was surprised to find poems on the page when I was done. I always feel like a kid careening in my mom’s high-heeled shoes when I write poetry–like I don’t quite yet have the gams for it. But maybe, with practice, it will take shape and it will come.
I am most comfortable with essays for now. I have several ideas that I hope to pitch as well.  Now that I have a bit of exposure to the publishing world, I know that this endeavor can take many, MANY months from start to finish. I just keep on trying.
2.) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This is a question I have difficulty answering. But if I was pressed to answer, I’d say this: it’s different because it’s written by me, through my layers of living, through my lens. And that perspective is uniquely mine. I try to write my truth, from that quiet, shrouded place within, and share something that will hopefully resonate with others. I feel that the more people share their truth about living, the better life will be for all of us. The writers I read on a regular basis do this for me and I hope that readers will find the same solace in my words.
3.) Why do I write what I do?
I started writing to capture my children’s lives for my husband who was traveling extensively. As it turned out, I started to write for him and the person I ended up really writing for was me. Now, I write to understand. Writing has become as critical to my happiness as a pounding run or a sweaty yoga session. I write about the things that capture my interest, those topics that raise their hands and don’t stop until I’ve explored them. And, those posts I write that seem to be the grittiest are those seem to resonate the most with others. The complexity of life is the universality we all share.
4.) How does my writing process work?
My writing is usually fueled by Diet Coke from McDonald’s. Not from a can. Not from a bottle, but thanks for offering. From a large plastic cup and a straw and mmmmmmmmm when those first bubbles hit my tongue, Nirvana!
When I’m lucky, my writing starts with a spark (unless there is no spark–see below). An idea will ripple through, coursing with either question or truth. There’s a magic about those first ideas that bring a warm glow, like whiskey once it’s reached your belly. I’ll rush to jot it down wherever I can–the compact notebook I carry in my ridiculously large bag, a receipt, an email to myself. I’ve tons of scraps of paper holding sentences started, ideas captured.
After the rush, I then I sit with the hard work of building something more, more substantial, more meaty, more gritty, beyond that of first love and more like a solid marriage, applying diligent work, kindness and patience. That’s when my wicked avoidance skills kick in. Dusting my desk and bookcase. Washing snow pants. Push ups. Sharpening pencils.
There’s this funny thing that happens to me when I’m writing and I hit a block, like a clogged drain. I step away to take a break. As soon as I’m doing the other thing–driving, folding, etc–the words I needed, or the insight I sought, suddenly barrel down on me in full sentences.  Ha Ha! I usually think, shaking my fist at the sky, Oh sure, come to me when I can’t capture you! When I’m driving in heavy traffic! Oh, creativity, you insolent wench! After I’m done talking to myself and madly gesturing to the sky, I scurry to capture those sentences. And sometimes, they’re actually as good I thought they might be.
Most times, during the writing of anything, I feel that feeling that every writer before me has felt–This is shit, I won’t be able to make it come together, who wants to read this dither, blah blah blah and I’ve come to begrudgingly recognize it as part of my process. I persevere, and write and edit and edit and write until it’s a piece of work of which I am proud.
When there’s no spark, and when I have nothing, that is when (not surprisingly), it is the very, very hardest to write. I’ve recently made a switch and started to follow two pieces of advice from Dani Shapiro. (If you ever get a chance to study with this talented, kind and beautiful woman, please do so. I’ve studied with her several times and count my lucky stars that I did.)
1. Long Hand. Dani writes, in Still Writing,
“…the screen can make our work look neat and tidy–finished–before it is. … If you’ve never tried it, see what happens if you write a draft of something longhand. Before long, you’ll be forced to x out whole sentences. You’ll draw circles and asterisks and arrows. You’ll change your mind about what you’ve crossed out, and write “stet” in the margin. It will look messy, because it is messy. It should be that: a beautiful, complicated mess.”
And so, for the last month, I’ve been doing just that. I like it. It gives me the freedom to be messy and let the words flow. It helps me stop worrying about perfect writing and allows me to get down to the business of actually writing.
2. Join the Symphony. The other piece of Dani’s advice that I religiously follow is this: “Fill your ears with the music of good sentences, and when you finally approach the page yourself, that music will carry you.”
I used to try not to read the work of others before I wrote, for fear it would cause me to unwittingly copy their style. Now, since Dani gave me permission, I devour the words of others and steep in the ancient tradition of writers–people honoring their questions and then, trying humbly to do the same. Word by word.
Next week, the Writing Process Tour continues….
Tracy Morrison, Sellabit Mum
Tracy and I have gotten to know each other during our This Is Childhood series and shit howdy am I glad we did. Her writing sits in that unique space which is simultaneously powerful, thoughtful and funny. She makes me laugh and think at the same time.  She is, in her words, “a mom to three girls, wife to one husband and owner to 2 cats 1 cat (poor Tyko). …. I started blogging in 2008 after I realized my kids never laughed at my jokes and I needed a new audience. Even though many days my kids make me go crazy in my head, I still know that I am where I am supposed to be. Right now. In my spare time, I try to make new mothering in my 40s sexy but my body laughs about that. Maybe my husband does too. Thank goodness we mostly have the lights off.”
Be sure to check out her post next week on Monday, April 21.

A Compilation. An Honor.

April 7, 2014

This Is Childhood cover

Childhood (and it’s ensuing companion, parenthood) comprises of millions of moments–the anticipation of firsts, the trepidation of lasts and all the living we do in-between. Those days string together forming months that stumble into (gasp) years.

Brain, Child, Magazine, has compiled This Is Childhood–10 authors commemorating these glorious years of childhood with essays exploring ages one through 10. An amazing keepsake, including a place for your own reflections. I’m honored to be included in this collection of essays, alongside some of my favorite writers. This Is Childhood is a great gift idea for Mother’s Day– or maybe even Just Because– because, as we all know, time goes quickly whether we take time to stop and notice, or not.

Beginning Again

March 25, 2014

February embraced me with her gray folds. Hibernation-worthy fatigue walloped me after a harsh winter and, frankly, a long year. Looking back, I could see why I was exhausted. Surgery. Recovery. A cross-country move. A CROSS-COUNTRY MOVE. Heart-breaking goodbyes, soul-mending hellos. Card board boxes. Fucking boxes. Unknown quantities of pizza. Big changes. Small changes. Using GPS to get everywhere in a city that, while new, feels familiar with the sturdy, Midwestern sensibilities of my youth. Being the New Girl. Again. Navigating social circles. Again. A broken leg for Henry–a full-leg cast and crutches through the mounds of January snow. Abby was sick. Henry was sick. Abby was sick. Henry was sick. Hubby was sick.  Then I got sick. The temperatures hovered around zero for weeks. I didn’t write. I didn’t run. I ate many french fries and drank red wine and my muffin top flourished. 

I judged the progress I made with my new life and our new home. I judged the lack of it, too. I judged my emotion and judged how slowly my To Do list shrank–if anything, I watched it grow exponentially each day, becoming a serious contender for my muffin top. I struggled to feel as if I progressing.

Judge judge judgity JUDGE.

Beginning again. Starting the momentum, gaining the energy to sustain. When at the beginning, it seems that beginning  again is the hardest part. 


I stand in the vestibule outside my Yoga class. I begin to shed my exterior winter armor and whittle down to a tank and black leggings. The hushed greetings of students mill about. My winter skin glows garishly. I pad, bare-footed, across the hard floor, dodging puddles of melted snow on my way into the studio. I find a spot near the wall, slightly separated from the other students, slightly alone.

I unroll my mat and thawp it down on the floor. I love the certainty of this sound, mat to ground. I find my shoulders, standing attention at my ears. My life, stresses and the past year are very much alive in knotted colonies in my muscles. Rock like, rigid, terse.


From several mats away, a fellow student enviably exhales as she lays in repose, awaiting the commencement of our practice. I am jealous of her languid exhale as my staccato breath punctuates the calm, open room. Subtle incense burns.

I step gingerly onto my mat, a vessel with a destination in which I’ve placed a lot of stock–delivery back to myself.  I try to stretch iron chains, tangled and rusty from misuse and neglect. My knees pop in the silence. A dust mote saunters by. 


A thick, stubborn, glacier-like dam resided at the end of our driveway. A temporary break in the frigid temperatures (a balmy 38 degrees F) yielded a brief thaw. I stood at the end of my driveway, surveying the ice dam. It was just me and a big shovel, slowly chipping away at the ice. A brave bird chirped. I lowered and lifted the spade. Slowly. Repetitively. I began to enjoy the methodical work which I knew would make some dent in the ice. I shed my coat as the physical labor warmed me. I paused and turned my face to the golden, late afternoon sun.

Returning to my work, I listened to the comforting gurgle of melting snow and ice, trekking downhill to hidden tributaries below. I surveyed the black slush, the marred shoulder of my street, the gravel, the fray of this winter. The fray of this life.


Ever since the last box left my house, I’ve been practicing yoga. The yoga poses have started to become more comfortable and familiar and have lost their intimidating edge.  During my practice, my thoughts monkey about, tapping my mind like a petulant child,

Should we get a Lulu tank? Everyone has one and they loooove them.

You need to schedule your mammogram.

Loooook, she knows all the poses. 

You need a pedicure!

Nice effort, muffin top. Way to gain the real estate. 

I’m hungry. Are you? Can we get french fries after this?

I try to release them. I shoo them away.

Each time I come to my mat I am amazed at how long it takes me to join my physical body in the present. And once I am fully present in that stark yoga studio, tears often come. Like buried bulbs, my emotions unfurl in the warmth of my attention. They stretch into the room, into my consciousness, into the light. My teacher guides me into this foreign terrain, the fertile ground of my experience. There I twist, raw emotions and muck tumbling out into the room, onto my mat, down my face IN PUBLIC. Then, I worry. I worry that my fellow students will hear my emotion and that I will disturb their practice.

My teacher guides us to child’s pose and I rest with my knees pointed east and west, my forehead on my mat. She begins reading a passage and her words reach me, open and splayed on the ground:

There is Buddhist story about the lotus and the mud, an ancient anecdote which chronicles the necessity of the dark, fecund mud to produce the glorious lotus bloom. The mud. The lotus.

It seems as if her words have been selected just for me. I’ve been tilling this fertile soil, layering the compost of stress and life so I can wriggle my toes, spread my roots and bloom.

The sun beats down on my face and my feet are grounded firmly in the mud. The moments of grace exist within this regular life, filled with normal challenges and frustrations. The warm connection of new friendship. The solid comfort of tenured friendships, physically connected again. Dissonance. Gratitude. Stress. Joy. Happy Sad. The satisfaction of having Made It Through. Watching the walls of a house transform from a place to a home. 

The dark, rich, fecund muck.

Stretching, reaching, growing.

And, the resulting, beautiful blossom. 

photo (3)

In Print

March 14, 2014

Most of my words exist either electronically or in the long-hand scrawl of my journals. Rarely do I see my words in print. On paper.

This week, I got to do just that.

photo (5)

I may have purchased several copies. I may have secretly wished that someone–the Target check-out clerk?–would ask me why I had so many copies of  Parents Magazine in my cart. I may have displayed the stack of magazines to my family  and may have done an extremely silly rap/song/dance in the kitchen as Hubby, Abby and Henry watched on. Henry may have drummed an awesome riff to accompany my rap.

This piece is near and dear to my heart because it delves into the nitty and gritty of being an imperfect parent living a real life–which, I believe, is fairly universal. We all encounter the fallibility of this human existence, every day.

You can read it here. Or, in the April issue of Parents Magazine.

Brain, Child

January 30, 2014

Brain Mother logo_Generic

I recently discovered Brain, Child Magazine, thanks to my friend Lindsey (who, by the way, often directs me to all sorts of fabulous tidbits). Brain, Child publishes thoughtful, meaningful essays and short stories about the full spectrum of parenting.

Today, I’m honored to have a piece at the Brain, Child, blog. Please head over to read my essay? And? Be sure to check out the other pieces. Their content really cuts through the noise.


 Six years ago, when my husband and I finally decided that we would have two children—not three, not four, but two—it proved to be one of the hardest choices. Our conversations over many months ranged from the pragmatic reality of college tuition to the emotional, procreational pull of life…

The Never Agains

I Believe

December 16, 2013

I stood at the kitchen sink with the usual school morning mayhem unfolding around me. Washing, drying, packing, fielding, answering, signing Important Things, reminding. Oh, and, of course, mitigating the seemingly endless bickering. But that’s a post for another time.

Henry sat down on the kitchen floor to put on and tie his shoes. I continued my buzzing about and then he asked,


“Yea, Henry?”

“Is Santa real?” Pause, pause, pause… “Is Santa really the one who comes and puts all the presents under the tree?”

Everything stopped. I stopped. All the blurs of my morning stilled. I was suddenly aware of so many details: the soaked dish towel that hung dejectedly over my hand; the crumbs on the counter, which multiply like little rabbits; the tilt of Henry’s head as it held his jaunty Santa hat.

And the avoidance of his eyes to mine.

Without not-looking back at him, I thwopped the dish towel on the counter and refilled my coffee mug.

“I believe in Santa, H.”

“Me too!” He beamed. And then, “but those kids on the bus said that he wasn’t real and that moms and dads put the presents under the tree.”

“Why would they say THAT?” I bantered back.

“I don’t know.” He answered quietly.


In this moment, I LOATHE THE BUS*.  Children like to be The One Who Knows. Especially when they can clue someone else into something that they know first. I get it. But oh I really, really don’t like it. Unfortunately, this drive forces The Ones Who Know to then usher others into the realm of non-believers. When Abby graduated from being an innocent believer in Santa, I asked her to take a sacred pledge, promising to be a perpetual spreader of wonder and belief to preserve the magic of Christmas for other children.


Although the edges of this last Christmas of innocence are slightly tarnished, I will soak up every gift which unfolds. Each one–especially the ones I know will become hazy-edged memories: the way his mittened hand still reflexively reaches up and grabs for mine. The way he runs out of school and tackles me with hugs, no matter who is watching. The ease with which he shares his most important thoughts–from the number of diamond swords he’s found in Minecraft to the specifics of an uncomfortable situation with a friend. The feeling of his body, heavy with sleep, on my chest.  The way his Santa hat always adorns his head, even while he sleeps.

I am keenly aware that this may be the last year I have an unabashed Santa believer under my roof. If I’m really honest, he may have already passed to the other side. But let me be clear: I am doing everything in my power to make this a Christmas in which he believes. I brainstorm ideas that will wow him and make his Christmas Spirit meter tip over into burning faith. At least for the next fourteen days.


Abby is my faithful spirit wingman in this quest. When she hears Henry say something that wraps his belief in Santa in question marks, Abby reports to me.

The latest one: “Mom, Henry said that you and Dad are the elves. That you do the work. I told him that was silly, that OF COURSE you and Dad couldn’t do all that stuff.”

I looked at her and my shiny eyes met hers.

“Mom? Why are you so sad?” she queried through inquisitive eyes.

How do I answer her? That this is a profound stage of childhood that I’m not ready for him to leave? That her desire to sprinkle this season with mystery and magic slays me? That their faith and belief infuse my days with a pureness that sparks my soul? That ever since I figured out that my parents were arm-in-arm with Santa, that I extinguished my anguish by making Christmas magical for my baby brother? And that then, when I got older, I realized that if I had children I would get to relive this time with them? And that now, half of my children don’t believe in Santa and the other half almost don’t? UGH. That I vicariously view the world through Henry’s reverent belief? That this milestone marks the clear, bold swath of time’s passage?

I wipe the tears away. My answer to her comes starts in a hug. I wrap her solidly in my arms and say,

“I just want him to get all the time he should to believe in Santa. I don’t want anyone to take that away from him.”

Or, as it turns out, from me.


* I love Sixteen Candles and can still see Sam’s (a.k.a. Molly Ringwald’s) disdainful face  as she spits out this line.

A Hodge-podge and Hello

September 4, 2013



It’s been so long.  Too long. But, such is life at times. I remind myself that this living I’ve been doing will fuel my writing wells and, I hope, my words will runneth over.


In the meantime, a brief catch-up is in order.

1. The Surgery

My eyes, laden with anesthesia, tried to open. Beeps sounded and shoes padded on sterile floors.

“What is your pain level, on a scale of one to ten? Ten being the worst.” I heard her before I saw her.

“Eight.” I tried to form the word, but it stuck somewhere in my voice box.

“What?”, her question stitched through her brows. She leaned in closer.

“Eight.” The word finally picked itself up from the gravely underbelly of my throat and escaped.

“I’ll get you something.”

Through the haze of pain meds, I tried to listen as they explained. An orange-sized cyst.  An ovary removed.

Endometrial implants abolished.

We left the hospital and Hubby drove me home. I sat in pain; slow and hesitant, scared.

Days passed and heavy sleep carried me away.

Good news pierced the haze and pain: the citrus cyst is benign. I drift back to sleep with gratitude resting comfortably around my heart.

I’ve lived with endometriosis for 20 years and let me tell you, she’s a bitch. She nags with pain, ruins plans and throws throbbing tantrums regularly. This surgery was my last effort (the third in a series) to avoid having a complete hysterectomy which would put me into medical menopause.

More good news: I am feeling better every day. My days are much more normal than they were for the last eight months. During my recovery, my children showered me with remarkable love and tenderness. Emotions jumped like jacks from their eyes: are you ok? was that hug too hard? when will you be regular mom again?

Love. Frustration. Understanding.

My friends wrapped my family and me in Good Samaritan help. They delivered delicious meals to warm our bellies and special gifts to brighten our days. We basked in their love like a puppy rolling in the autumn sun. Because of my rock-star hubby, children and friends, I quietly healed and gave over to the slow cadence my body desired. I devoured books (how did I ever not read Tracey Chevailier before? The Girl With the Pearl Earring and The Last Runaway are exquisite). I retreated into the safety of my bedroom, wrapped in rumpled, cotton sheets, slowly returning to me.


The bad news: I still have pain. I am still not supposed to run or do push-ups (incredibly frustrating). Amongst the pain, I allowed the ever-hungry guilt monster swallow me up, dousing me with shame for allowing the pain to trump all else. I’d been in lay-down-in-bed pain on and off since December and by the time June’s surgery arrived, we were six months deep, sloshing around in my limited patience and harsh tones.

People say kids are resilient. I hope they’re right. My wish is that time’s edge will soften my worrisome grip, as well as my children’s memory of this stretch of discomfort. I also hold hope that through the shit storm, I’ve given them a realistic, ring-side seat to life and that yes, sometimes it really isn’t fair and sometimes it really isn’t easy. And that you keep on keeping on in spite of it all.

And it gets easier. And that I, too, will absorb this lesson. Life.

2. The Move

Ahhh, the scent of cardboard and the distinct sound of packing tape stretching to close a box full of your life. There’s nothing like a move to add spice and fun to your days.

Denise, where’s the thingamagigger?

I sure don’t know!

Mom, do I have any clean underwear?


Where’s my iPod?

Your guess is as good as mine!

Mom, where’s Orange Dog? 

AHHHH! For the Love of All That Is Holy, I forgot to put a Do Not Pack sticker on him!!!!

Hey, Denise, can 17 people come over and complete 25 different moving tasks simultaneously, and all ask you varied questions to which you don’t have the answers!

Swell! Sure!

We packed our bags, our house, our life, and said goodbye to the East Coast and hello, once again, to the Midwest.

Familiar rhythms now surround me. The moving-in process will take time. We’ve landed safely in our temporary housing where we’ll live cozily and happily until we take possession our home in a month. Both Abby and Henry started at their new schools yesterday. New buildings, new faces, new systems, new everything. Thank goodness they are resilient.

So much change. Because, yes, this is life: goodbyes, pain, hellos, challenges, questions, uncertainty.

So much beauty. Because, yes, this is life: the solid goodness of friends, the support of family, a September, late afternoon sun shining warmly across my back, and the grace in my humbled acceptance of its multiple truths.



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