The holidays tend to divide us every year. You love them or you hate them. They’re easy for you or hard for you. A time of comfort or stress. One thing is almost guaranteed, though: Whatever your usual sentiments are about the holidays, they’re probably magnified in 2020.
I discovered a magical combination of writing tricks that have changed everything. Well … changed my writing life. And sometimes that feels like everything. While all of these tips are clearly aimed at writers, and at breaking that thing we call writer’s block, the same principles can be applied to almost any craft.
I remember one summer in New Mexico when so many forest fires ignited across the Southwest it was impossible to escape the scent, and the detritus, of burning land. I’d take my dog on our evening walk around the block, watch the sun blaze red as it sank to the earth against an ashy sky, and then return inside to wipe soot from my face.
I don’t think I’ve ever told you about the fireflies. Now, here in the middle of a pandemic, seems like absolutely the right time. Before I tell you the story, I want to take a moment to repeat a truth that, while being said a lot these days, can never be said too much:
Tonight we moved our bodies and danced like teenage gypsies, with all of the self-consciousness and none of the rhythm, and because it was the first time we had really moved our bodies in days, it felt like freedom.
A curated list of some of my favorite (and most anxiety-reducing) stories. I hope they bring a little more light into your world.
Steinbeck used pencils while they were long and slender, when they felt to him to provide the correct balance—a shape that could propel him forward, like good running shoes; a size to help him pick and prod the right forms, like chopsticks.
I used to have a scar on my left hand that reminded me of my first Thanksgiving without my mother. I wonder now if I can even call it a scar, seeing as how it’s since faded past the point of detection—then again, we all know the most unassailable wounds are often those invisible to the eye. In any case, it was there and now it’s gone. Isn’t that the entire point?
We imagined the day the meteor struck what was now my backyard, how the shrapnel must have blown through the air like dandelion seeds, how that day had been buried by time and dirt, only to be sifted back to the surface by a biblical flood.
I don’t know how old I was the first time I had an obsessive-compulsive thought. I’m not even sure of my age in the earliest memory I have of such an event, although I’ve always assumed it was 6, the number we tend to attribute to all early childhood recollections.
I chose to believe the story for as long as I did because it was the kind of story children want to believe, and, if we’re being honest, the kind of story grownups tell in the first place because some part of them wants to believe it, too.
Today I thought about you. And you. And you as well. I wonder what you think about me, when your memories are likewise unpacked and hooked about your head like a series of collected ornaments, out of season and shaking loose too much glitter and dust.
The thing about the act of burning is it destroys only a shape, impermanent to begin with. It disassembles. Not unlike a caterpillar in a cocoon, dissolved to paste only to be remolded. Not unlike a star, flung into disparate corners of the universe to make a planet, a foot, a piece of cake—stardust, all.
Pain is like a wave, she told me, although she almost certainly wouldn’t have used that word. “Pain” has no place in the universe that is childbirth, even though it is so often affixed to it. What is pain when it’s only currency for something miraculous? Pain as the gateway to life. Pain as mother.
Starting a business requires something usually reserved for religion and relationships (both of which often suffer in the throes of entrepreneurship): faith. A truckload of it. A truckload with a tendency to back over and flatten too many other things that matter.
It is quiet now at night, even in the city, roads and voices muted by the mad hush of rain. Rain against pavement is also a sound, but it slips through ears like it does through gutters, spilling over and out and rushing to sea in the way all moments and memories eventually do. But I imagine that tonight even without the rain the world would seem silent, no matter the city or bustle or subway line. Tonight is made for our quiet.
It is a different kind of motherhood to tend a garden, one that is probably more about nurturing yourself than a tiny creature. But as we each stretch further from our childhoods, grow like saplings toward the sun, so it becomes more important, and often more necessary, that we learn to provide ourselves with some parenthood as well.
When I was 18, before I knew anything about publishing or pitching or rejection or acceptance, I tried to get something published that didn’t belong to me, but, rather, belonged to my mother. Years earlier, when I was only 8, she had written a poem that had become famous in my family.
It’s an innately human desire to tug at truth until it’s in full view, excavate and examine it until we are pleased with our well-considered conclusions. It is also instinctual to want to share only the prettiest fragments of our own truths, our most charming ecstasies and none of our agonies.
Loss will make ribbons of you; and while some messes can be twirled and fluffed to look pretty for a time, their usefulness is short-lived. We untangle them only to leave them in piles, to be sent to decompose with the rest of our refuse. Pretty things are not always meant to keep.
I wish the journey were slower, closer to the perception of movement that comes with gazing out into that inky periphery, watching galaxies flow past us like syrup. I wish years did not instead tumble like a series of waterfalls, each gaining a little more speed from the last.
Like all creative projects, the process will take you somewhere new, the result will resemble your imagined compositions but will ultimately turn out to be something else, and that’s exactly why we devote ourselves to such crafts. We want to see where they take us.
It is usually through the tumult of the aftershock, the wayward healing, the throbbing of a phantom limb, that you learn who you are apart from that entity, once more. You unscramble what comes next.
That simple yet purposeful act unearthed a new terrain in my life, one that made me feel like I wasn’t wasting that life, or wasting myself.
Desert lights buzz like cicadas, the fluttery rumble of all those wings and photons shuffling against each other and stretching into an air so thin you wonder if it is even there. When all else is quiet, there is still that soft, eternal flickering. The night was hot. And quiet, for a time.
I was taught as a child that I was worth as much as a man. I was taught that with brains and ambition and education I could be what I wanted, and that was a gift. So much of the prophecy proved true. I was taught that strength in the body was not wedded to brawn, that it could be realized through grace, that all power was resilience.
She told me to never settle. She was frail then, but her voice was strong. She spoke of men, but I knew she meant everything. Don’t settle. Don’t wait. Do all the things.
She didn’t wear makeup, never had, in part because no one had taught her, until that summer when the wall went red and her lips along with it, when she perfected the art of applying red lipstick. M.A.C. Lady Danger, I think it was. She rarely left home without it past sunset. She was 25.
I am not the only one trying to shake the sleep of winter. Not the only one working to build something, gathering stray bits and rearranging them to make a home more pleasing, or more supportive of my needs. I am not the only one propelled by instinct, even when I do not recognize it as such.
If you sliced open a caterpillar’s cocoon, you’d expect to find a tiny beast, a creature that would look new to you yet somehow familiar. Half caterpillar, half butterfly, perhaps a shiny and squiggly green grub just starting to sprout wings; wet, furled, squished into its soft, shrouding casing. But that is not what you would find.
Last night I dreamt of my mother. She had been gone a long time.
“Can you stay?” I asked her. “I never get to see you.”
She didn’t answer, and instead pointed to my chest.
“Your heart is bigger than it was last time,” she said, more observation than offering. “But it still has room to grow.”
There is something haunting about a rip in your skin. It reminds you that the whole thing could fall apart, turn to ribbons and dust. It reminds you, in fact, that one day it will. And then you are left with that to think about.
I know there does not seem to be enough of you, or enough of the day, or perhaps there is too much of the day. You come home and take off your shoes and lean in your chair, and it is not the relief of hours well used that you feel, or the exhale of your soles, but a breath allowed. Stillness. You gather.
Journalists are a lot like scientists, really, seeking an objective truth, trying to put pieces together. No one does it for the money. It’s a longstanding joke in the industry that most of us make very little. Some might do it for the power, or a hopeful slice of fame, although both are unlikely. I do it because information matters, because while there are some relative truths in life, often the answer is strictly “true” or “false.”
Is anyone else finding it hard to make words? In the past two weeks, I have started and stopped three separate letters. None of them will be thrown away or forgotten, I want to finish them all, and they are about things, things that matter, at least to me. But I keep getting partway and then wandering off lost, like the trail of breadcrumbs has just gone missing, pecked up by some jerk of a bird.
There was a particular pleasure in trying to skateboard in 1995 in Boulder, Colorado, when you were 13 and shy and a girl. The real word for it was probably pride, and at that age, it was a sensation worthy of a few skinned knees.
The first Christmas I remember, I must have been 7. My parents asked me to write down what I wanted so they could mail it to Santa. It is a standard custom. It’s possible I had been given this opportunity in years past; if I had, whatever I asked for must have been reasonable, or at least forgettable because it takes up no space in my memory. But that year was different. The question left me euphoric: What do I want?
Sometimes at night I still feel it rumbling, like a train miles away, thundering in the distance. I know one day it may come, rip through whatever home I have built. But for now, it stays quiet, it rumbles meekly.
I thought Iceland would be lonely. Doesn’t it seem, after all, like a place built for loneliness? Deserted up there with nothing to warm it but the threat of volcanic eruption, all wind and sleet and sky, and less people in the entire country than the population of Tampa? It is a landscape carved by lava and ice. Why shouldn’t hearts and souls be carved by the same?
She told me I could do anything, and I believed her. She was strong, and her strength made me strong, too. Sometimes we were both so strong that we repelled like the wrong sides of magnets; but we always eventually latched, compelled by some unseen indelibility. Life without her is what I imagine life must be like for a magnet with nothing to hold onto, waiting, hoping for connection.
I bought the smallest men’s astronaut costume I could find, and it is still so big that I have to cinch it with a fanny pack to keep it in place. I take a special, nerdy kind of pride in this costume, which I have continued to wear every Halloween since. It’s just a cheap polyester jumpsuit with a bunch of straps and fake zippers and patches denoting that I am an Important Space Person, but I love it.
There is a pause that takes us into the heart of any truly beautiful thing: the swell. When something touches us, makes us stop, makes us live in that moment a little longer and a little more deeply so that we can know it, makes us think about life and perhaps also death and in so doing makes life actually feel like a precious thing, makes us know gratitude and weightlessness. We only know that feeling in rare, lucky pockets. Norman knows it here. And he invites us in. In 11 words. My god, that is everything.
A letter isn’t a book. A letter is simple. A letter is something you can write throughout the week or in one great, long breath. And if a few people expected it at a certain time on a certain day—well, that I could do. And I have loved it.
The first time a boy pinched my ass I was in the fifth grade. His name was Spencer. He probably did it on a dare. I slapped him across the cheek as hard as a 10-year-old girl can slap. I stomped away, red-faced, to find a corner where I could cry.
The day we found Rokan, the sky was blue, that sort of crisp, surreal cerulean that might only exist in New Mexico and other arid, sweeping landscapes that offer nearly nothing in the airways between you and the vastness of the beyond.
I was shuffling around, hunting and weeding, when I grabbed a tuft of unwanted sprouts and yanked, and a clod of dirt came flying out with them. In the bald spot that clod left behind, I could make out what looked like a smooth, flat piece of stone. I picked at the edges and found more stone, and then more, and before long I was hacking at the backyard, trying to excavate this covert, stony path.
It is Saturday night and I just texted Cait, tomorrow’s self-imposed deadline hot on my mind: “I don’t know what to write about.” A minute passed, and then a chirp. “Write about the mattress.” It’s not a bad idea. The mattress is a good story.
Cait named one of them Charlemagne, though really they are all named Charlemagne. Ask me on a different day and I’ll tell you that’s only what we call the Albino one. The other two have yet to be named, because I cannot tell them apart.
Today I am thinking about dirt. Really. I am thinking about the difference between dirt and soil, and how to turn one into the other, and how there is the expression “cheaper than dirt” and yet how soil is insanely expensive. Like, really expensive, you guys. Maybe this whole time we’ve gotten the meaning behind that expression wrong. “Cheaper than dirt” could refer to almost anything, because almost anything is less expensive than dirt.