Tag Archives: Writers Resources


My desk (fantasy version)

My desk (fantasy version)

I used to have students who would say to me, “I’m a writer, but I hate to read.” Whenever I’d hear that—and I heard it too much—I’d always want to do one of those obnoxious cough talks, where you hold your hand over your mouth, bark a cough, and simultaneously say something rude. But I was a good teacher, so instead I’d suggest a book I was sure would capture their interest.

You can’t write and not read. I mean, I suppose you can, but I don’t really want to have to read what you write. And frankly, it seems a little rude to me to write something you think other people should read when you refuse to read yourself. I suppose you could be a chef who doesn’t like to eat anyone else’s food, but where would you get your inspiration and style?

I have no idea if I would have thought of myself as a writer if my mother hadn’t made being a reader non-negotiable. Maybe I would have been like those old students of mine, enamored with the idea of having my name on a book or a story or a poem published with my byline without having bothered to study craft or let someone else’s words inspire my own. It’s one of those unanswerable nature vs. nurture debates. I grew up in an apartment that was filled, floor to ceiling, with books crammed into a brick-and-board shelving system. I saw my mother reading and I was read to nightly. I had my own library card the moment I was allowed to have one, and I knew how to use it. (Brief aside: one of the saddest losses to me in this barcode age is the absence of the satisfying “Ka-chunk” sound when you checked out a book.) My childhood was spent at garage sales, used bookstores, and in the book sale section of the musty Salvation Army store, where Mom’s early collection got its start. Though I might have gotten bored during these lengthy browsing sprees at times, I was resigned. Books were holy and when you were in the presence of some that were for sale, you kept quiet and waited for selections to be made and the ting of the cash register that signaled the benediction.

I had my own bookcases before I had my own room. They were full of Little Golden Books, Dr. Seuss, the Little House on the Prairie Series, Trixie Belden mysteries, and all manner young adult books. The shelves grew. First three small ones, and then a desk set with adjoining shelves that were later cut in two, turned sideways, and had boards put across the short ends, giving my own library room to grow. When my  mother and step-father got married and bought a house, it wasn’t long before we’d enlisted him into building floor-to-ceiling shelves in my bedroom. When I was constructing my library, my belief was that it was something I’d carry with me for life, like scars and family photos. You might weed out the baddies, but even if you outgrew a book, you didn’t casually release it into the wilds. You hung on to it because it was part of the literary canon of your life.

* * * * *

When you think of me, I’d like for you to have the above photo in mind: my tidy desk with a row of writing books in front of me at the ready, should I need to find an answer about style or read a line for inspiration. These are all books that I’ve read in total or in part and know to be useful. When I look at my desk, these books bring me joy because this is the sort of person I always imagined I’d be: organized, controlled, and like a good Girl Scout, prepared.

But I’ve got a book problem. They multiply like rabbits. Despite the fact that I culled the herd when I moved here, and left half of my collection back in Indiana at my folks’ house, I’m operating at near maximum capacity here. When I was cleaning out my office this past spring after I resigned from my teaching position, I weeded extensively. There were a lot of books there that I had bought when I was just starting my collection, thinking that my life wouldn’t be complete if I hadn’t read the complete works of  ________________________________, but two decades later I no longer felt compelled. I’m beginning to recognize that I don’t have an infinite amount of reading days ahead of me, and so I’m trying to be choosey. (Which begs the question, why was I up until four a.m. last night finishing the latest Dan Brown novel.) But even with the weeding, every time I’m back home, a few more books leap into my suitcase, desperate to be reunited with their siblings.


So this is what my writing studio looks like, plus another set of shelves on the opposite wall where the books are double-stacked. Plus, a small set of cubes to go on top of these just as soon as Z and I figure out how to secure the shelves to the wall without wrecking our chances of getting our deposit back.

There wasn’t room for bookshelves in our living room, so for the first year or so that we were married, it was largely book free, give or take a coffee table book. Then I started getting books that I was planning to read “next.” So I put them on the windowsill behind the sofa. At first, it was just a few books and I definitely would be getting to them shortly, but then I went to a bookstore, used up an Elliott Bay Books gift card, went to a reading and felt compelled to buy the author’s latest title, had a birthday, and the next thing I knew, my “next” collection ran the length of the double windowsill. While the books in my studio are arranged in a very specific but intuitive fashion so I can easily find what I need, on the windowsill it is a free-for-all. I put books there as they come to me, so race car driver Janet Guthrie’s biography is right next to National Geographic’s Scenic Highways and Seven Secrets of the Prolific.

Book chaos

Book chaos

Books crept into the weird bar space behind our TV. Some appeared under my little wooden stool. We won’t speak of my nightstand, where the stack is currently so high, it threatens to block out my light. Nor will we speak of Z’s poor books, which I always relegate to hidden corners and alcoves. Any of these books could go live in the studio, where they might be more at home and so I would have more surfaces in my living room on which to set Zimbabwean objet d’art (read: stone hippos and wart hogs made of scrap metal), but I know as soon as I take them there, they’ll be lost to me. I’ll forget about them, find them in ten years and wonder what made me ever think I wanted to read a memoir about a Seattle mom who loves yoga or an American family who lived in Berlin before World War II.

And don’t even get me started on why it is I think I need to own every book about writing that was ever written. I’ve got so many books on how to be a productive writer, that I refuse to buy another unless the first line is: In order to be a more  productive writer, quit reading books about how to be more productive. It’s a sickness I have.

What I'm reading NEXT.

What I’m reading NEXT.

This is my most recent stack of books, compliments of Z and my folks. They came for both Christmas and my birthday. The desk behind them will open. Right now. But as soon as I cash in those holiday gift cards? Forget about it.

I know the world of e-reading makes for tidier living spaces, but I’ve got five books on my iPad and I can’t remember to read them. An iPad, to me, is not a book; it is a place to check my mail, watch Downton Abbey, and play “Ticket to Ride.” My brain doesn’t hear the start-up ping of an electronic device and think, “Oh boy! Time to read!”

So here’s my 2014 challenge to myself. I am going to show up to those books on the windowsill (and my new books, of course!) read as many of them as I am able, and report back to you.

If it were a real challenge, I’d make some outlandish promise about how they’d all be read and removed by December 31st, but I’m not crazy. Some books will probably always need to live there so I have easy access: The Art of the Personal Essay, The One-Minute Organizer, and You Can Heal Your Life (because sometimes I need to know what negative thought pattern I have that might be causing my big toe to hurt). That’s 68 books, plus the top two on my nightstand that I’ve got  to finish, which rounds it off to a solid 70.  And maybe, for good measure, I’ll read all the magazines I’ve been stockpiling since I got married. Joan Didion has been staring at me from the cover of Poets & Writers for two years now.

What are you reading? Oh, don’t tell me. The windowsill is already full.


A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood



One of the things I’ve learned to love in Seattle is a sunny day.  It’s not that they’re exactly rare here (Indiana has its fair share of grey), but when the sun is out like it was today, it’s a celebration and I don’t want to ignore it on the off chance that I won’t see it again until May.


Since I had an errand to run near Z’s campus, I decided to make an afternoon of it. I loaded my bag with a book of Lopate essays, my laptop, and my camera, and headed to a picnic table under a maple tree within sight of my beloved dog green.  Z came out of his office to give me a kiss before heading off to his class, which was also a bonus. I held my face up to the sky and I swear I could feel the Vitamin D going right into my pores. (This is not something you will ever see me doing when the temperature is above 65, by the way.)


Before I had a chance to pop open my laptop, an older guy ambled toward me. He was carrying a paper coffee cup and a reusable grocery bag, and because the sun was in my eyes, I had no idea how to categorize him: should I smile or gather my belongings and find another spot. Before I could suss him out,  he said, “Do you mind if I share this space. I’m a writer. I won’t talk to you.”


I could hardly say no to a writer who promised not to speak. Fortunately, it was a day when I was feeling great love for Seattle and all its people and not one of the days when I want to scream at passersby, In the name of all that is holy, can I not have two quiet square feet to myself for fifteen minutes? Because it was a good day, I sat beside this stranger and wrote. I tapped words into my computer and he scrawled out pages in a dark script on a steno pad. I wasn’t tempted to look surreptitiously at what he was writing, though I did glance at him out of the corner of my eye when I heard him reading what he’d written under his breath.


Some of my more extroverted writer friends have writing partners, people with whom they get together on a regular basis and sit for a couple of hours working on novels. I’ve never understood. In general, any sort of human distraction is deadly to me. I can’t imagine getting together with a friend and not spending the designated time talking about writing instead of doing the actual work. The only reason I can write with Z is because he has this willpower and focus that doesn’t allow for interruptions or distractions. (Such an annoying trait when you yourself want to goof off.)


It was a bit of a surprise when I looked up from my laptop and it was almost two hours later.  Because this complete stranger had been sitting beside me, it hadn’t occurred to me to waste time in all the ways I usually do. There was no internet surfing. No staring at the dogs. No watching passersby and guessing what their lives were like. I put my head down and I wrote. (Though it was impossible to ignore a squirrel with its mouth full of orange maple leaves that stopped a foot away from me and stared.)


The sun had started to go down and it was too cool to comfortably sit still and write anymore. Z would be coming along soon and there was a particularly bossy corgi on the green that I wanted to see up close. I packed up my stuff and the man said, “It’s been a pleasure writing with you. You’re an excellent writing partner.” I commented on his handwritten drafts and my need for the keys clicking under my fingers. He told me to have a good evening. The end. Perhaps I am capable of getting together with someone and writing so long as he or she is a total stranger. Before you know it, I’ll be writing in coffee houses just like a bad Seattle cliché.


So that’s it. One perfect fall day. If the rain comes this weekend and knocks all the leaves down, I won’t be able to complain.