Archive | Writing

Free Pimms and iPod Chairs: Why I Really Joined the PTA

Last Wednesday I found myself in an upscale, Italian furniture store called Natuzzi (pronounced, in case you’re wondering, Nah-TOOT-see). I’m not exactly the home furnishings type (though I did notice the leather chair where you can plug in your iPod and listen to it in surround sound and made a mental note to never, ever bring my husband here).

I was there because the store had generously sponsored the annual quiz night at my kids’ school and, in exchange, I was arranging for an event to be held at the store next Autumn.

I do this sort of thing quite a lot, actually. In between blog posts and article pitches and agent queries and whatever else I’m up to as a writer, I’m also frequently dashing off emails to the local bakery to see if they’ll donate a cake or nipping into the local off-license (liquor store) to see if they’ll slide us some free Pimms for our upcoming Summer fair. (Never tried Pimms? Get thee to an English pub tout de suite!)

People get involved in the PTA for a lot of different reasons. It’s a great way to make friends, to improve the resources at your kid’s school and to feel on top of what’s going on at the school.

All true.

But while I’m active in the PTA for all of those reasons, the main reason I do it is because it uses a different part of my brain.

As a writer, most of my day is spent (a) alone (b) typing and (c) in my pajamas. So when I go to a meeting or organize a project or cajole someone into donating money to the school, it’s a way to use my now dormant (but bursting at the seams) administrative gene, the one I left on the side of the road the day I left an office job (along with Karaoke night and bagel Fridays). Sigh.

Marci Alboher has a great book called One Person, Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success in which she describes the advent of what she calls “slash careers” – e.g., police officer/personal trainer or violin maker/psychologist.

The thrust of the book – which I’ll talk about some other time – is that slash careers enable people with multiple interests to realize all of their professional dreams. But having a slash career (yes, parenting counts as a slash!) is also a way to utilize different parts of your brain.

For me, then, doing the PTA is about taking my Admin side out of the garage every so often, dusting it off, and going for a whirl – though I’m sure there are many parents at the school who’d love it if I just gave that part of my personality a rest!

And, hey, whenever I get a bit too overzealous in my PTA duties, my friends offer me some Pimms and all is right with the world…


The website Babble offers an arch, funny take on parenting. Read here for a tale of one woman’s reluctance to embrace the PTA, only to discover that she found it quite gratifying.

Image: Pimms No. 1 by Naughty Architect via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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There Are Some Second Acts

A friend of mine sent me this article in the London Times from last week about second novels. It’s a story about the pressure on novelists who strike it big with their first novel – like Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Travelers Wife – to repeat this success the second time around.

The article goes on to list famous books that were spectacular second novels but which followed on barely noticed first novels – Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses, Midnight’s Children – to name a few. It also lists cursed second novels that followed on huge successes – Something Happened by Joseph Heller after Catch 22, for example, or Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier after Cold Mountain –  as well as one hit wonders that were never followed by anything at all. To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind both fall in the last category.

As a veteran of two career changes and an aspiring novelist, I was heartened to see the list of great second novels. The length of the list and the star quality of its titles really drove home that age-old adage: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” Most of us won’t become wildly famous in the process, but if we really apply ourselves to something, we will likely improve. (As Bob Fosse expalined to an aspiring dancer in one of my all-time favorite movies, All That Jazz, “I can’t make you a great dancer. But I can make you a better dancer.”)

I keep that quotation in my head a lot. And it doesn’t apply just to writing or the creative life. With a little elbow grease, we can all get better at what we do (though if I’d written To Kill A Mockingbird I might have put down my pen and called it a day too).

Any other great second novels on your list?

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Finishing a Major Task: What Charles Dickens and I Have in Common

I completed a major milestone yesterday. I’ve been working on a big project for the past couple of years and yesterday, I finally sent it out to a bunch of agents. It was one of those photo-finish endings that had me kneeling in a corner of the local post office with about 12 different piles of material, a bunch of bubble-wrap envelopes, a handful of rubber bands and a magic marker, furiously checking and double-checking that the right material was going to the right agent (which did nothing to endear me to the officials at said post office. Suffice to say that like most things British, the whole “leg room” concept has yet to take hold, even in post offices…) There was also an enormous queue, so that I had to stand there for like 20 minutes clutching my 12 packages, literally sweating, as I waited to send them off.

But once I mailed it all off, instead of feeling gleeful, joyous, ebullient, ecstatic…(Help me out here, guys. What are other synonyms for happy?)…I felt oddly…deflated. I came home and sat down on the sofa and didn’t know what to do with myself. Gretchen Rubin, of Happiness Project fame, talks about the arrival fallacy to capture the notion that we all think that once we hit a deadline/meet a goal/cross the proverbial finish line, the clouds will part and suddenly happiness, relief, satisfaction etc will rain down upon us. Not so. At least for me, the opposite is usually true: I find myself missing the purpose and momentum that preceded the deadline, uncertain over where I’m headed, and nervous, already, about how said project will fare. In short: there is no joy in the achievement. Only a sense of loss and anxiety.

I shared these feelings with my sister, who said I was in good company. Apparently, Charles Dickens reported something similar when sending out David Copperfield.

Of course, the solution to all this, as Rubin and others will tell you, is to take more joy in the process than in the outcome. To learn that the game of life, to quote a cheesy phrase, is all about the journey and not about the destination. Easy words to say; a simple concept to grasp; an almost impossible goal to achieve. But one of those eternal lessons of adulthood, nonetheless.

So I soldier on, endeavoring to take more joy in the doing. In the meantime, I’m trying to come up with a list of other ways that I might possibly compare myself to Charles Dickens. Let’s see. He lived in London, there’s one…Hey! Maybe this is what I should spend my time doing today as a cure to the post-finish-line blues…

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How to Grieve: Write about It

A friend of mine in London just passed me a link to the following essay in The Guardian, which is written by her 83 year old mother and came out today. It’s an essay about how much this woman misses her husband of 60 plus years and how she’s learned to cope over the past year. She just won the Mary Stott Prize at the Guardian, an annual prize honoring women in journalism.

I love the fact that, at 83, this woman still has it in her to produce such a moving and reflective piece of writing. She’s a model for us all. But she’s not alone. A few years back, Joan Didion wrote a best-selling memoir of the year she tragically lost both her husband and daughter, entitled The Year of Magical Thinking (Haven’t read it? It’s a must). What Didion does brilliantly in this book is get you ready for the process of grieving – not so much the emotional side but the psychological side – narrating with a reporter’s precision the different stages one goes through.

There’s no doubt that one of the defining events of adulthood is losing a parent. And even if you’re not a writer by trade – Cynthia Walton isn’t – what both these women do is show you how writing can be a tool in letting you process that grief. In short, they are both fine examples of writing as therapy.

I also just finished Amos Oz’ wonderful (and L-O-N-G) memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. In addition to being a captivating history of Jerusalem from the 1940s on, this is also a very personal account about how the author’s mother’s suicide when he was 13 fundamentally shaped him as a person, and more importantly, as a writer. Oz is such a talented writer that though he hints at the centrality of his mother’s death throughout the book, it isn’t until the very last page that you fully grasp the enormity of the event in shaping who he is and the writer he becomes. I cried when I read it, which is something I rarely do with a book.

But Walton’s article also made me think about the website I linked to the other day entitled Old Jews Telling Jokes. Because like these men, what Cynthia Walton is doing in writing this article is finding a hobby for herself at the ripe old age of 83 that is both fulfilling and enjoyable. We should all be so lucky.

You go girl!

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Head Shots: The Joy of Feeling Professional

Yesterday I had some headshots taken for this blog. It was something I dreaded doing, but when the time came, I ended up having a lot of fun. Here are three reasons why:

1. It felt professional. As a writer, I spend a lot of my time sitting around in my yoga pants trying to decide if it’s *really* worthwhile blowdrying my hair because, hey, the mailman likes me just the way I am…(thank you, Billy Joel). But yesterday, I actually got off my tuchus and ambled up to the salon to get my hair cut. Given that my hair is so thin that – according to my current stylist – it resembles a new born baby’s (this is actually a step up from the haircutter who once affectionately described it as “doll’s hair”), having my hair freshly cut and styled made a world of difference to my appearance.

Before the shoot, I also painstakingly applied make up to my late-February ashen winter face. I’m not usually a make-up kinda gal, but I was once (mercifully) coached on what to do by an Aveda representative some 10 years ago and have clung to her advice shamelessly ever since.

Career blogger Penelope Trunk advises that anytime you do media, it’s essential to get yourself professionally groomed in order to be taken seriously by whoever is interviewing you (she extends the list of essentials to teeth whitening, but hair and make-up are a must). But there’s an added benefit to doing hair and make up: it also enables you to take yourself seriously as a professional, which is something creative types definitely need to do every once in awhile.

2. It got me out of my comfort zone. I’m not a terribly visual person. My husband – who is – can readily attest to this. I once famously scoped out an apartment for us in Boston and came home extolling the virtues of our new “three bedroom,” only to have him arrive a short while later and inquire as to where the third bedroom was located. The answer was…nowhere. So I felt really odd just sitting there before a photographer smiling at different angles and folding my arms in different ways and pretending that this was normal. But as the hour wore on, I found myself getting more and more into it, offering my own thoughts on the different shots and “tensing my eyebrows” (as the photographer so gracefully put it) a bit less.

3. I’m learning new skills. A big part of being a writer these days is self-promotion, especially via various social marketing tools. But to market oneself seriously, you also need to learn about – and care about – things like headshots and how you come across, visually even, to the general public. I’ll be the first to say, per point number two, that this sort of thing doesn’t come naturally to me. It feels somehow terribly self-concious. But even though I know I’ll be tempted to pass the task off to one of my more artsy friends, once that little CD of photos arrives, I’m determined to be the one who sorts through them and decides which image best represents myself. Because I need to learn how to do that. And learning new skills is part of growing up.

Watch this space!

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Designing Your Creative Space

As we grow older, we often begin experimenting with different kinds of creative projects in order to keep our juices flowing or just to have a change of pace. For some, it’s pottery; for others, creative writing. Others join a singing group.

Today I’m guest blogging over at The Urban Muse, a terrific website that offers useful tips for writers of all kinds. My post is about how one goes about setting up the mental space that allows that creativity to flow.

Have a look!

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