Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Bookish Christmas List: 2014

Nearly every year on this blog, I do a bookish Christmas list of gifts writerly and readerly folks might enjoy. Here's what I've found so far, but keep in mind, the very best gift for a bookish person is a book! Also keep in mind I'm not being paid to promote these products. I just think they're cool and want them myself. Also, the pictures aren't mine! See info below each image for credit and for a link to buy the awesome Christmas gift being described!

The first and most important thing your reading and writing loved one needs is a set of temporary literary tattoos from the awesome people at Litographs.

(Image and product from at this link!)

They also make shirts, and if someone doesn't buy me this Christmas Carol one for Christmas, I swear...

(Image and product from at this link!)

Best of all, this is the message you get after you order. They send literary posters to schools too:

Next up: puzzles. Everyone loves a puzzle, right? And readerly/writerly people need puzzles to distract them from all those deep thoughts that burden their little minds...or perhaps to let them go even deeper into the abyss. Whatever the case, puzzles are fun and this one is beautiful. Your writer friend needs this...and everything else at Pop Chart Lab.

(Image and product from at this link!)

Surely this next thing will end up under my tree! It's a beauteous Jane Eyre scarf from Uncommon Goods. The others in the series are pretty too, but this one's obviously the best because Jane is the best heroine of all.

(Image and product from at this link!)

Also at Uncommon Goods, a cork globe. Pin where you've been or pin where you're going. And if you haven't been anywhere and aren't likely to go anywhere soon, pin where your favorite characters are having adventures. something.

(Image and product from at this link!)

There are far too many bookish things on Etsy to list here, but this one is great for people with a nice big staircase and a childlike sense of decorating. Besides that, it's Alice inspired. Everyone loves Alice.

(Image and product from ArtikIce on at this link!)

Here's something else for the house from the weird and sometimes wonderful world of SuckUK. It's a lamp. It looks like a wee house. You put your book on it when you go to sleep at night. Look at its little book roof! (Hint: it's a bit cheaper on Amazon.)

(Image and product from at this link!)

Also on the site are these cute-patoot bookmarks. Cheap stocking stuffer! Get a bunch! Get a whole yard full!

(Image and product from at this link!)

On my travels this summer, I came across a fascinating and easily transportable gift to bring home to friends. It was a greeting card sized piece of thin cardboard with tiny cut shapes of all the elements of a real-life scene to be taken apart and modeled on a desk. I gave one friend a tiny park scene to build. Now I see they have a picture book series, too. Even if you aren't interested in building miniature scenes from Snow White, check out the site at the link under the picture. It's a fascinating art form.

(Image and product from teradamokei at this link!) 

Here's one I don't want for myself but thought someone else might like. If you keep your nails long and you're into literature, these literary nail wraps might be just your thing:

(Image and product from at this link!)

What I'd rather have from the excellent Think Geek people is this Choose Your Own Adventure style Hamlet...because as much as I love him, I just wanted to tell Hamlet to stop making speeches and freaking kill the guy already.

(Image and product from at this link!)

With all that reading getting done, your literary partner needs a comfy place to sit. How about a pillow with a light, a drink holder, and a built-in back massage thingy? I need this.

(Image and product from at this link!)

There are other types of things writers and readers should own in order to explore the world outside the books they're reading and writing. One of those is a sturdy but comfortable pair of walking boots. They shouldn't be too hot, should bend softly at the ankle, and should go with everything from skirts to skinny jeans. Born make the best boots I've ever had.

(Image and product from at this link!)

He's gonna need a field bag too, for his iPad or laptop, or notebook and pens, and his camera. My new favorite (if pricey) brand is Spikes & Sparrow. Their bags may cost a bit, but they'll last till you get tired of looking at them.

(Image and product from at this link!)

Last on this year's list is a repeat from a previous year because it's still available and I still want Santa to bring it even though it's far too expensive to justify. If you can't afford the necklace either, at least spend the five bucks on the app version of The Heart and the Bottle. It's a beautiful interactive story by the one and only Oliver Jeffers. Don't look at it and think it's a children's book. It's a human's book. (There's a whole Oliver Jeffers collection if you follow the link below the picture.)

(Image and product from at this link!)

So that's all for this year, folks. A merry readerly and writerly Christmas to all, and to all...oh you know the rest! Merry almost Christmas!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014

NaNoWriMo. In the words of the site: "On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30."

This will be my fifth year as a Wrimo. I finished the 50,000 words three out of the previous four years but have no hope or intention of doing so this year. I will, however, do what I can and have thought of a trick to write lots of words really fast so I get a respectable amount written before the end of the month. The trick? Write nonfiction in a personal essay style about my own experiences. Easy.

Here's a very rough draft (i.e. I can't spell) of some of what I've done so far. Wish me writerly time and luck for the coming month! And good luck to all you Wrimos out there doing the same!
~*~ the beach that summer, it was all to do with rebellion--one of the many tiny rebellions that would one day add up to a complete turning around. The first little rebellion started out with a bad word in a song on a cd I liked. I won’t mention the artist as they’re pretty awful and that would be embarrassing, yes, even more embarrassing than previously admitting to pooping in the tub while my best friend was in there, but that summer this particular band was trending and the guy on the cd was good-looking, so I was into it. Really into it. More importantly, I didn't mind the "bad" word and thought it was the best choice, lyrically, for that topic and moment. Okay fine, it was a Creed song. Shut up.

Anyway, so my boyfriend at the time disapproved deeply. He was a perfect physical stand-in for the beliefs I followed. Though he had started me out on similar music,   he'd since reformed and therefore thought such things were a negative influence on the mind. It’s a funny concept because there is something to it--the idea that putting in a lot of negative things means negative things will eventually come out, or the opposite with positive things. The problem comes in deciding what’s negative and what’s positive and in the person themselves. Take my husband, for example. He’s so incredibly, maddeningly level, he could watch the worst of the worst movie with gruesome scary horrible disturbing downright evil images, and happily eat bbq and shrug while it’s on. It's not real, he'd say. It simply doesn't get to him. Plus he really likes bbq. You probably know similar people. Well I’m not one of them, and maybe my boyfriend knew it. Maybe he knew how susceptible I was to suggestion and he was afraid I’d go where I did eventually go, out of his arms, in part due to some shitty music waking me up to how arbitrary “good” and “evil” had become in our circle.

We were a lot of us that way then, coming out of adolescence and into early adulthood, not sure what we believed or why or what to do next. I now know this is a common occurrence, though we had our idiosyncrasies for our time and place. Still, I thought it was a special thing happening to me and me alone.

 I don’t go to church and have no feeling of dread, regret, or bitterness about the issue. Nor do I have negative feelings toward those whose belief takes them on that path. My church-going friends respect me and I them, for the most part. But in the beginning, it was a struggle between the ills I knew and the ills I knew not of. Now the ills I knew not of aren't ills at all: they're my life. And I feel more in touch with truth than I ever did then. The breakups and unoriginal music required to get me there were well worth the trip...


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Get lost

The blog has been quieter this year. The house hasn't stayed as clean as I'd like. I've not done as much baking. The only reading has been the news and an article here and there. Travel and family visits have taken up a lot of time. The normal day to day has filled the space between all the rest.

With both ESL and university classes to teach, along with lesson planning and training and grading, it's been nearly full-time work lately. Plus we're riding bikes again. We've grown friendships by spending more time with people. Life has been busy, but life has been good.

Not so long ago, things were very different in my mind. You could have found me at this same table sitting in this same chair feeling unshakably sad, unsure what to do with myself, unsure where to look for guidance. I don't feel that way now, but then again I don't have time to. And maybe that's part of being content.

I'm sure some people find contentment when they've got lots of time to ponder the splendor of the universe, the miracle of their souls, their connection with nature. But give me too much time and I quickly stop ascending into clouds of awareness. Stopping long enough to hear the world breathing in and out begins to disturb me. I begin to feel inescapably alone--so alone that whatever happens next, be it a jarring clap of thunder or the electricity of attraction or a moment of what should be pure happiness, I feel nothing. It's hard to come back from nothing. I've done it, so I know.

Time, I'm sure, will be my best companion in days of mourning and when he paints difficult days gone by in graceful shades. But he's no friend of mine if I've got no distraction from him day after day. Being busy is good for me. Sure, work gets stressful. I can't get everything done. I get dark circles under my eyes and fall into bed exhausted night after night. But a healthy me is an active me--active doing something I love doing.

That was the other part of the problem when you would have found me sulking in this chair--I was chasing the wrong kind of dream.

In TJ Maxx recently, my main goal for the day was retail therapy. After too many days in a row working to exhaustion, browsing the aisles in a discount store or in Target, looking for some silly little treasure to warm up a chilly corner of the house is relaxing. So I was at TJ Maxx in the checkout line and came across this mug.

I love a good quote. A good one sums up something big so it's small enough to hold, literally in this case. The mug says: "Sometimes on the way to the dream, you get lost and find a better one." That hit me like a good quote should. I thought, "Yes. Yes. That's been me." If you've read this blog before, you'll know I've struggled with the dream of becoming a successful (oh who am I kidding: famous) writer of children's stories. It all started when I graduated college and wondered what to do next. After a year of wondering, I started an MFA in children's literature because I loved kids' books and thought I might have the knack for writing. That led to a winding road that ended with me not loving children's books in the same pure way I had before (for enjoyment alone) and with a surprisingly competitive urge to be the one who "made it." The degree got me a university job teaching something I wasn't terribly interested in (academic writing and grammar), but I 'd expected that. After all, it takes a while to make a living at writing. So I taught and waited to get famous.

Long story short, I didn't. Get famous, I mean.

I'm not saying it couldn't still happen. But the curious thing is that while I was off teaching all those hours and writing on the side, something shifted so that I can tell you now, after three years, with complete honesty and no trace of the competitive, almost frantic urge that led me to write before: I don't give a crap if I ever get published. I love writing. I mean you're reading my writing right now, after all, so obviously it's still important to me. And children's books are the best kind of books in the world, hands down, don't even try to argue with me about it. And it would be really fun to someday have a bigger audience and sign a book for someone. But the old fire is out, and along the way, a new one started. My dream turned out to be something I stumbled upon while I was waiting to get famous: teaching.

Teaching isn't a "better" dream than writing. In fact, it's very similar. Words send messages, whether spoken or written. Heck, I'm paid to have captive audiences listen to me tell stories. At the end of my Creative Writing class last term, I dismissed the students to go home and ended up in tears when they said, "Tell us one last story, Ms. Robin." I am, in my little world, a famous storyteller. I know my listeners so well, the stories are tailored to them. I'm given a small part of their lives to affect with my words. And sometimes, according to them, the affect is real.

Wallowing in failed stories at home and beating myself up for not being good enough at what is essentially a lottery (the publishing world)...I'm not built for that. But teaching? Oh, man. Like a glove. If someday I get published, it'll be icing on a cake that's got a hell of a lot of icing on it already. But I'm not actively pursuing that dream anymore. Because in the end, I'm a stage performer. I'm an entertainer. A storyteller. I want an audience. And I like to help people. Teaching lets me be and do all of that. The result is there's no time needed for wondering what I should do next or questioning my place in the universe. There's no time to feel lonely. There's nothing unsure. And most importantly, there's no, "When (fill in the blank) happens, then I'll be happy."

I'm happy right now.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

For the expansion of culture and knowledge

You've got access to the internet. That means you can get children's books from various cultures and in various languages online anytime you like. Simple. What isn't simple in most of the United States is finding a place to browse diverse titles in person. Even independent bookstores can't afford to keep a varied inventory. But don't lose hope. If you want a culturally diverse personal library and you like flipping through the books first, I've got a suggestion: travel to Atlanta, New York, Miami, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, border states, state capitals--wherever there are diverse, urban populations. When you get there, don't bother with McBookstores or even independent ones. Instead, go to thrift shops, Goodwills, Salvation Armies, yard sales, festivals, and open markets.

That's where I found the following. I'm lucky to live in an urban area. Here, diversity is the norm, refugee populations abound, and, unlike much of the United States and much of my life, I have the experience of living in a place where white people are one of many large groups that make up this city life, not the majority. Our neighborhood sits between a large Korean community and a large Hispanic community. Mixed in are lots of other people who don't check any of those boxes on the census and who come from all over the world. This is an excellent situation for many reasons, one of which is the abundance of children's books I've never heard of and plenty I can't read (due to not speaking the language) showing up on thrift shop shelves all over town. This week, I found six books for the expansion of culture and knowledge, and they were all under $2 each. I got some at a local fall festival and some at a local thrift shop. I'll introduce three here and mention the other three at the end of the post.

The first is Tussen Keulen en Parys (Between Cologne and Paris), by Hans Borstlap. The text is in Dutch (note: though there seem to be some Afrikaans spelling influences, such as the y in Parys instead of Parijs, the articles de and het are used throughout, so I'm going with Dutch--unfortunately I don't speak either and can't find much information on the book, so please inform me in the comments if I'm incorrect here!). The book is made up of simple sheet music to go along with rhyming songs and beautiful woodcut-style illustrations that depict fascinating scenes I can't make out without putting the text through a translator. There seem to be short verses of poetry mixed in, and lobbes bookseller says there are instructions for games included as well, such as the game that goes along with the song the book is titled after. During the game, (I think) children are to stand in a circle around one child who is the leader. They all sing the song, and when they get to the chorus, the leader is to pull a funny face or position, and the rest must copy him/her. Fun! Here are some pictures of the book.

Another of the books, Star Boy, by Paul Goble, is, according to the copyright page, "the story of how the sacred knowledge of the Sun Dance was given to the Blackfoot people." It goes on to explain that the illustrations have incorporated sacred Blackfoot symbols and explains what those symbols mean. The story tells of a girl who married Morning Star, went to live in the Sky World and was punished for disobeying the Sun. As her punishment, the Sun gives her child a scar and sends them both back to earth. One day when her child grows up and falls in love, he must try to find the Sun to ask for his blessing over the marriage and, as a sign of the blessing, for his scar to be removed. If you want to know how it ends, you'll have to buy the book yourself! Here's a taste of the beautiful illustrations.

The third book, People, is by Philip Yenawine, a man who helped found a nonprofit that teaches "visual literacy" and communication through art. It's a book of pictures from The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Above or beside each picture are questions about the image that encourage the reader to look more closely at what they're seeing. The book describes itself as one that hopes to teach children "to enjoy art and think creatively." Their stance on showing art to children--"you can help them develop their innate capacities for careful observation and creative imagination"--makes a lot more sense than the ideas in this recent article. There's a growing fear that observation and imagination are being lost, especially amongst the young generations. That's why this book seems a worthy one to have in any home library. Here are a few pictures to whet your appetite.

As promised, the other three: Little One Inch, a retold Japanese folktale akin to Tom Thumb, Chapter by Chapter, a surprising school textbook from the mid 90s, and another book in Dutch, De Koe die in Het Water Viel, with art by Caldecott winning illustrator, Peter Spier. Go discover why they're just as interesting as the ones described above. Or go find something else unlike anything you've read before. Even if you have to translate every word.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Take back your imagination

Shelby topped up her coffee and turned up the volume on the kitchen t.v. just loud enough to hear. She was watching a building twenty miles away fall down for the tenth time in so many minutes. She couldn’t let Sam hear. He wouldn’t be able to take it. He’d been up all night with terrors again. Probably off his pills. Shelby wished he’d take the damn things, even if they did make his eyes swim. She'd have to keep him away from the news for a while. Just till things calmed down.

A noise from behind her made Shelby jump. The bedroom door down the hall had opened. She clicked the t.v. off but the sound of the same news drifted toward her from the dark hallway. Sam stepped into the kitchen in his old desert fatigues, his graying hair in need of a cut and his eyes squinting at the bright light of the early morning coming in through the windows over the sink. "Now, Sam, just calm d—" Shelby started, but his expression took her words from her; it was clearer than it'd been in ten years. "It’s alright, Mama," he said. "I can help. I need to help."


That's an example I use in creative writing class to show how to express something without the narrator or the characters saying much outright. Implicative writing allows the reader to become involved in the story and use her own imagination to fill in the blanks instead of getting spoon-fed.

Over the past seven years, I've taken creative writing seriously. My style takes time and significant effort and focus, so I'm not prolific, but what I produce, I'm proud of. I recently started teaching creative writing to beginners as well, which has taught me much more than I knew going in. There are a lot of things I can't do with words. I'm no poet, for example. I'm no playwright. I just try to be observant and communicate the things I observe as freshly as I can with common words, sometimes in the form of personal essays like this one, and other times in the form of stories. Whatever the case, I approach writing as a craft, not a pastime.

During my journey to become a stronger writer, the world of literature has been shifting. Some genres have become wildly popular while others have temporarily faded. The fate of the physical book has come into question while the e-book has flourished. Some stories have made their authors superstars while countless lesser-known writers have enjoyed the ease of self-publishing. Readers have changed too, a large percentage losing the appreciation of a slow, literary, layered story and replacing it with the fast, furious, and, when possible, on screen versions.

Recently, I watched a movie most everyone else seemed to adore. The problem was that I wasn't required to think at all. The writers spoon-fed. They could have produced something compelling with all that money and talent. But, no. They gave us everything. They told us what to think and how. And they gave it a good soundtrack to cover up the fact that we'd seen that story a hundred times before. I know junk food when I see it. And sometimes it's alright. But I declare we need more meat and potatoes!--because without enough meat and potatoes, we're slowly teaching our brains to crave junk food. I was reading an article recently about how the brain can be taught to want healthy food. It's logical to believe it can learn to want challenging, interesting, compelling information too--the kind we have to chew on instead of the kind that's made of sugar and pumped into our bodies through a tube--and it's logical to assume that enough time without real stuff to think about, and we not only get sluggish and lazy on nonsense, but we lose the one thing that keeps this world from falling in on itself: and that is empathy. Because empathy requires, above anything else, imagination.

I don't want to have to tell you what's going on with Sam. I want you to stop and imagine having night terrors. I want you to imagine being a mom with a kid with PTSD. I want you to feel the tightness in Sam's chest easing as he finds a purpose, to practically be in the same room when the front door shuts behind him and Shelby feels like she'll never see him again. But there's only so much I can do on the page if the readers' brains have all turned to mush and demand to be fed Pop-Tarts and Pepsi.

We get crap entertainment because we pay for crap entertainment, whether it be in the form of a book, a movie, a piece of music, or a painting on the wall. We must change our habits. We must get a taste for intelligent, passionate, and engaging art. We must learn to want it, learn that we need it. We must be present, aware, mindful--and, for heaven's sake, we must take back our imaginations.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why I cried over Robin Williams

I grew up watching loads of television and movies. The Huxtables, the Simpsons, and the Keatons: my extended family. Do you know how much I cried when Alex's friend died on Family Ties? Or how often I hid in the back room of the house to listen to The Simpsons Sing the Blues on cassette and wondered what it might feel like to say all those bad things myself? Or how much I looked up to Clair Huxtable for being beautiful because of her strength and because she told life like it was? From the time we're small, characters--made-up people in made-up situations--become a part of us, good or bad. They affect our perceptions, our opinions, our dreams. They make us feel. They make us think. They become part of the story of our own lives.

As adults, we grow to enjoy being moved by a story. We like remembering, in the pure, concentrated form a live-action performance can deliver, the important things in life, like bravery and family and hope--the stuff we sometimes forget when we're working full-time and stressing about relationships and worrying about getting old. Stories remain an escape. And we credit actors for portraying characters well, for touching our hearts or shaking our sensibilities or making us aware. We give them awards, rounds of applause. We pay them to be good at what they do. We recognize how much skill they have or don't have. And if they manage all of that well, if they seem like people we'd like to have a drink with or a chat with or someone we'd like to have as a friend, we begin to respect them. Expect things of them. Look up to them. And yet--somehow they're still not quite real, because their lives, including the roles they play, become a bigger story to us. Will they marry? Will they divorce? Will their kids become actors too? Will they keep that hideous haircut forever? Will we hear they've gotten into drugs? Will they get old and out of touch or stay relevant? Will they get through the rough patches? Will they have a happy ending?

I didn't know Robin Williams personally. I wasn't his number one fan. I haven't seen all his movies. I didn't like all the ones I saw. But he's played many characters in the tapestry of my life. I can hear his voice in my head if I imagine it and feel his energy and remember getting nervous watching him because he seemed so close to losing control of the act and missing a step--because I couldn't keep up and couldn't see where he was going till he was already gone. Everyone's been saying how quickly his mind worked and how he was so clever and irreverent and had his very own brand of comedy and was genuinely a sweet guy. We're meant to celebrate his life now because he added things to ours just by being who he was, and we're to look back at his work and applaud his talent. And I want to do that because I'm sure he deserves it, and he does deserve it. He made me laugh and I did nothing in return. It's just that...the story didn't end right. There was supposed to be soft lighting in a room with the sun setting outside and a gentle breeze blowing the curtains, and he was to be there, backed by a symphony quietly playing in the background, saying something funny but with such wisdom, then slipping peacefully into a death that seemed a fitting ending to a happy, successful life. Isn't that how everyone's life is supposed to end? Isn't that what the stories tell us? What we're to hope for and expect? But no. That's not it at all. The stories have never been what we're to expect--they're the escape from what we know good and well does happen in real life. Everyone doesn't shake hands at the end. The bad guy is never just a bad guy. True love's kiss doesn't always wake the sleeping princess. In truth, life can be hard and heartbreaking and downright shitty.

Do you know how lonely a person is when he commits suicide? He's as lonely as you can possibly become. I was telling a friend that hell, if there is such a place, can't be torture because torture means you count enough to be punished and torture forces you to feel something. Hell is feeling completely alone and completely blank. Your heart may be beating, but to you, it's no more than the ticking of a box inside a robot. Suicide is the end of a road someone imagines to be real in their minds, a road that, when they look back on it just before the end, though it isn't, looks to them completely empty of hope or promise, making the undiscovered country seem the only desirable option. We look at this man, and those we've personally known and lost this way, and think in desperation, "I would have listened. I would have carried everything for you if I could!" And we would have. All of us would have, if given the opportunity. We could share the weight amongst us easily, couldn't we? It just doesn't work that way in the mind of the one who's alone. Something simply...shuts down, and that shutting down overwhelms them so that sometimes, before we can grab hold of their hand, we lose them.

So, yes, I celebrate Robin Williams. I celebrate his work, his personality, his attitude, his insights. He was brilliant. I celebrate him as a human soul who tried and, for a while, blazed through this existence beautifully. But I'd rather take all that beauty and energy and personality and bottle it up into some sort of magic that would blast a message down those empty roads to all who feel like robots with faintly ticking hearts:

"Your mind is playing tricks on you. Hold on. Hold On. You are not alone." 


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Inspiring home

Previously, I posted about how taking adventures, even small ones, adds to a writer's basket of ideas, characters, and settings. Having just returned from an adventure in Scotland, I've realized travel can do one better: it can help us see what was in the basket we already had.

For example, breakfast. This morning, I made two buttery scrambled eggs. Not poached, not half-boiled, not fried, not ordered from a friendly b&b owner--they were scrambled by me in my jammies in my modern Ikea kitchen on a bright, unusually cool morning near Atlanta, Georgia, not in the Highlands of Scotland where the sun has been up since 4am and didn't set till midnight. Georgia, where pecan trees give shade and the yard, not the garden, slopes down prettily, which I can see through the row of windows across the front of the house that bring in the sun or the moon, whichever happens to be shining.

Breakfast instructions left for us by our friend and perfect host, Carol, in Edinburgh

Along with the eggs, I had a thin slice of rye toast. Not white, not brown--it was dill rye bread from the Kroger deli a mile and a half away, which we didn't walk to, though we could have, because the roads are dangerous where there aren't sidewalks. We drove in one of our two cars that are both Hondas and automatics, not manuals. Jonathan would like them to be manuals, but the traffic here is London minus the roundabouts plus road rage and the occasional concealed weapon, so automatics are safer, in my opinion. Don't ask Jonathan--he doesn't know what he's talking about ;)

With the eggs and toast, I had slices of a just ripe banana and a handful of too-tart blueberries, and that was breakfast. No tea. No coffee. No juice.

The breakfast room at the beautiful Culag Guesthouse in Loch Lomond

The fruit wasn't in its own bowl and I didn't use a spoon to eat it. All the food went together with a fork on a big black dish that's curved just a bit too much, making it more a bad bowl than a good plate. I loved these dishes when we got married. We registered for them at Target. They don't sell them now. I suppose they're not trendy anymore. I prefer classic looks, but didn't know that when we got married. What I'd like now are heavy, plain white dishes that are pretty but made to do the job well, and while we're at it, a set of silverware that's heavy too, and has proper soup spoons. Eating soup takes forever with the ones we've got.

Yes, at my age and disposition, things like the size and weight of a spoon have come to matter. Before, that would have made me sad. What kind of boring old woman cares about spoons? Now I know it's nothing to do with age or interestingness and everything to do with knowing one's own mind and direction, and, more importantly, knowing what a good spoon is like. But we won't buy new dishes or cutlery for a long time because what we've got is good enough. (Now that was a boring old person talking, however true.)

A full Scottish breakfast

Instead of sitting like a lady making conversation with others at the table, especially since there were no others, I hiked up my sleeping pants, crossed my legs under me on the couch, put my plate on top of them, pulled up my laptop table, and started an episode of Friday Night Dinner to keep me company. I like noise. I know we're supposed to be mindful these days--savor each bite, thoughtfully contemplate the day ahead, be whole in oneself without needing distractions and make sure to take a picture and show everyone online how pleasant our quiet breakfast was so we seem like interesting, independent people. But growing up, there were six of us (at least) in the house at one time, the television was always on somewhere in the background, and there was a busy road out front. It's not that I don't like the quiet. It's not that I need distractions. It's that noise is comforting. It's evidence of life. It's a reminder that I'm only a small part of something gigantic, and that gigantic thing includes cheap laughs.

Our pretty, private breakfast room in Skye

So with Harvey at my feet, whining for another bite of banana, I smiled at the telly, ate my food, and took a call from Jonathan. He was just getting to work and noticed some school traffic picking up again. It'll be autumn soon, we keep saying. Just yesterday we saw Halloween costumes in Costco. 

5am departure breakfast by our thoughtful hosts in Orkney

Everyone says we should write what we know, but it's hard to know what we know--what's different, what stands out, what matters and why, what makes us peculiar, what makes us us--without some comparison. This can come from traveling abroad or from simply having breakfast at someone else's house. Is their television on? Do they set the table? Is it only because you're there, or do they always? Do they use the same spatula for the sausage as they do the eggs? Do they use oil or butter? Cheese with breakfast, or no? Rolls or biscuits? Jelly or preserves?

View from the breakfast room in St Andrews

When I read, I connect with two things: the universals and the particulars. I want to first know that the journey is one I have or could have experienced, and the person on that journey is one I'm cheering on, in all her faults. That connection is vital. But then I want to know how she makes a grilled cheese sandwich, whether or not she wears baggy clothes or fitted ones, how often she replays an embarrassing moment in her mind, if it's cold where she is, if there's a place in the woods behind her house that only she knows about, and if her spoons aren't much worth eating soup with. In other words, what makes her her. What makes her individual.

Yes, the story is in the plot, and the plot should at the very least be a hazy curved line for readers to follow, but the meaning, the voice, the personality, the movie we see and feel in our heads and hearts as we read--that's in the details. As writers, delivering a world we intimately know is often easier when we compare it to a world we didn't.


"'When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,' said Piglet at last, 'what's the first thing you say to yourself?'

'What's for breakfast?' said Pooh. 'What do you say, Piglet?'

'I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting to-day?' said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. 'It's the same thing,' he said."

- A. A. Milne