Category Archives: creativity

The Only Thing to Discourage is Discouragement Itself

Image(via NYPL)

Is it because of writing so many of these things for the people who pay me money to write that I seem to only be able to think in lists lately?

Or is that just life in the internet age? Or life as a mother of young children who is constantly being interrupted and hasn’t had a cohesive thought in a half a decade?

Where was I?

Oh right lists. I have been thinking and talking a lot about discouragement lately.   I feel like I am often having this conversation with other writers I know:

Writer Who Is Not Me: What kind of book should one write? What is the best kind of Writer to be?

Me: Ummmm I dunno. Those are Important and Big Thoughts to Think. But I don’t have time for thoughts like that anymore. I think I remember having thoughts like that. Now I’m just happy when I have a minute to write.

WWINM: But what’s the point of it all? You work and work and work on a piece of writing and for what? Why do we try so hard? To what end? Writing something no one will publish, or that someone will publish but no one will read, or that will be read but get lousy reviews, or be really well-received and then called overrated, or that will do well now but never enter the literary canon? Or else to get a job teaching writing that still barely supports us or offers only crud health insurance so that one day we sit joylessly among our dusty books while the teeth fall out of our heads one by one?

Me: Ummmm I dunno. I just, like, get crabby when I don’t write?

But of course I get discouraged, everyone does. Here are three ways I try to dig out:

1) Do the thing. Talking about writing and thinking about writing are both somewhat crazy-making. What I actually like doing is writing. I had a rather abstract conversation about What Writing Is the other day, and felt a little muddled, and then sat down to write, and changed the phrase “walked down” to “descended” and felt a clean jolt of joy, and then became miraculously unmuddled. These are rare moments but such good ones.

2) Don’t do the thing. Then again, sometimes trying to write makes me just as crazy as not writing, because in my life right now finding time to write means missing out on family time on the weekend when my husband can watch the kids, or paying a nice lady many dollars I don’t have to watch the children, or not sleeping enough which then makes me not a nice mommy, and all of these things are stressful, and sometimes I have to remind myself that, in the grand scheme of things, there is no real rush, and if creative work happens slowly for a few years when the kids are small, it’s really okay. It’s just a few years, in the end. So if I don’t write 150 pages and finish my novel draft this weekend, and if I want to read a book tonight instead of doing novel research, it’s okay not to beat myself up about it.

3) Make it easy to enjoy other peoples’ successes. This is a tricky one I know, and not a nice one to talk about because who wants to admit that they greet other people’s triumphs with a petty, self-pitying inward grumble? I mean, I can imagine some people feel that way. Other, much smaller-souled people than moi, of course!

Something that has been really nice for me the past 6 months or so is hosting my reading series, Lit at Lark.   Reaching out to writers, getting to enjoy great writing in that pure-reader way that first made me want to write, connecting with other people who do this crazy thing I do too – it’s been somewhat nourishing. And it helps me to remember that when something good happens for another writer, it’s really just something good for everyone who likes books and wants them to keep existing.

4) Then of course there’s also just, like, this:

Image (via Kateoplis)

Recipe for a Good Day

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The funny thing about parenting is that just when you think you have it all figured out, a kid stops napping or starts biting, or schedules change, or you change, and it’s almost like you have to start all over, figuring out how to have a good day. That’s my goal lately, a good day. It’s hard to think bigger than that, and when I start considering Childhood or Theories of Brain Development or What Kind of Parent One Ought to Be I get really tired and need a nap. But my kids don’t nap. So I can’t. Instead I spend a lot of energy trying to make each day good. Not perfect, but good. Each day with little kids is a marathon and a lifetime and a work of art and a mess. Inevitably.

Because I seem to have to relearn this every day, I am writing this to remind myself what helps, at this moment in time — as the kids are almost-3 and almost-5 and still home for most of the day and at the end of a long long winter — for a day to be a good one.

1) Stay busy but flexible. This is a real SAHM thing, to be sure. Maybe it’s because my kids are so, how you say, batshit crazy, it always helps us to have a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan Z. In this matter give them pretend choices. “Do you want to do X or Other X, both of which I have pre-approved?”

2) Remember to take breaks. Book time in bed. Juice breaks at playdates. Bench-sits at museums and parks. You actually have to make it happen and it actually makes a huge difference. There is no nap anymore. Get over it. Remember that some minutes playing math games on Starfall will not suck their imaginations out of their heads. Chillax, Mama. Break time = important.

3) Invest in healthyish convenience food. Because I am sorry, but few things are as enraging as involving the kids in menu planning and grocery shopping just like the thingy you read said to, spending an hour cooking with “helpers” wobbling on chairs in the galley kitchen, all Montesourri-like, only to end up with a huge mess and food that the kids just look at and cry. Try again with the real food in a year. Until then, fuck it, how bad can Annie’s Mac and Cheese every night be? (Do not read the story about the girl who ate only chicken nuggets for 17 years. Do not hang out with the mom whose kid eats bell peppers at the playground like they are apples. Do not click on any BuzzFeed thingies about any kind of food.)

4) Get out everyday. If nothing else, walk to the mailbox or invent something you need to buy at the store that can be scooted to. Even in the winter. Even when they’re sick. Even when the bundling up takes longer than the outside time.

5) See other grownups/text your friends/look at twitter just enough so you stay sane or at least remember that all the parents are feeling crazy.

6) Keep the ratio of art project setup/cleanup to actual kid-entertainment potential in mind. No wants to clean up fucking cloud dough all night.

7) Remember Pinterest is a liar. Most of the internet is a liar. And nothing entertains kids for hours. Nothing.

8) When possible, don’t react. To hitting, to whining, to acting out. Remember Amy Fusselman, who writes in her memoir 8 that when you are parenting small children, you are a robot. When not reacting is impossible, don’t beat yourself up about it. Tell yourself some shit about how it’s good for kids to see you get mad and calm down or something . That has to be constructive somehow, right? Because you’re not actually a robot, are you? And just imagine how entertaining it must be for your neighbors down the hall to hear you yelling “I SAID STOP BITING YOUR SISTER’S BUTT!!” and how pleasant for them to get to feel kind of superior to you. That’s a great gift, really, that you are offering them. You’re welcome, them!

9) Leave the kids alone. I mean not alone alone but they can play together, and they can be screaming one second and resolve it the next, and you will surely be alerted if the skirmish is unresolvable. You didn’t have 2 kids to have 2 people to have to entertain constantly. You had 2 kids so they would play “kid/grownup” long enough for you to tap out a blog post on your phone!

10) Don’t clean up after they are in bed. Make them help even though it sucks and they do a crap-ass job of sorting the toys into the appropriately-labelled bins so that their room looks nothing like the ones on your really excellent Kids’ Rooms Pinterest page, which remember, is a liar anyway. Or at least let the kids see you do it. After they are in bed, that is your time. A coworker once told me, “I don’t have a clean house. That’s the new feminism.” Take out the trash and load the dishwasher and then read that New York Times article about how a clean house is a sign of a wasted life or just skim it and then read an amazing book instead, or make some art, or call someone, or do something crazy like talk to your husband. Fuck cleaning. Seriously. Unless you like it. In which case you’re crazy.

11) When all else fails, look at the kids’ baby pictures together. They love it, you love it, it helps put everything into perspective.

12) Don’t forget the 3:00 pm coffee. That’s the one that makes it all work.

13) Inevitably, on a crappy day, an old lady will stop you on the street and tell you to enjoy every moment. This is crazy of course and only possible to even consider if you’ve completely forgotten what little kids are like. But you can enjoy one moment. There is one magical moment in every shitstorm of a day, and you’ve got to enjoy the hell out of that moment. Remember, if you can, if for only that one moment of the day about all the wonder. All the goddamned crazy this-is-your-life wonder.

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(top image from Emily Winfield Martin’s DREAM ANIMALS.)

Electric Cats in the Garden: A Printable Picture Book

Electric Cats in the Garden, Illustration by Peggy Shearn

Electric Cats in the Garden, Illustration by Peggy Shearn

My grandmother was always making these charming, crazy little picture books for me and my brother, and of course I filed this away as A Thing I Will Definitely Do For My Own Children Someday. Well, right there with make every food from scratch and never say, “Wow, you are being really annoying right now” to their faces, this has mostly gotten shelved. I know, I know — I’m a writer! I should write for my children! Remember how A.A. Milne wrote all those Winnie-the-Pooh stories and poems for his own little son Christopher Robin? Let me tell you something. The real Christopher Robin? Went to boarding school from age 6. And that is how a writer/parent finds the time to document that unmissable magic of childhood. By missing it.

Still, somehow I wrote this story (I hope it’s just a chapter of a longer book, but you know, laundry), using ideas from the children. Harper really pretends to speak Polish quite frequently (also, Arabic and Spanish — Brooklyn public schools!), the kids really do play electric cats, Harper has invented all sorts of facts about said electric cats, she really did once threaten to take Ollie to play in the garden after Adam and I went to bed, Ollie told me that nocturnal creatures run Trader Joe’s at night. My talented mother, Peggy Shearn AKA Nani Peg, was gracious enough to do illustrations, and my talented husband, Adam TetzloffAKA Daddy, laid it all out and made a little book that we gave to the children on Christmas. Predictably, it was quickly buried beneath the wrapping paper of more exciting toys and dolls, but after a day or so it was rediscovered and has been pored over intently since.

So I’ll share it here, and I think you should be able to print it out, although you’ll need to have my husband explain how to make it into an actual booklet because my brain can’t handle the geometry or whatever that is. Here, it’s a PDF: Electric Cats in the Garden

I hope you like it, and that maybe even if your kids are not the actual Harper and Ollie they might like it too! Leave me an encouraging comment so I am shored up to finish the next story. Just kidding, I’m not that needy. Just kidding, of course I am.

Happy New Year!

Interview with What Will Hatch? Illustrator and All-Around Awesome Lady Susie Ghahremani

So, Susie Ghahremani.  Ridiculously talented and prolific artist (as she has been since the AP art class we took together in high school!), proprietress of boygirlparty.com, an adorability emporium offering art, books, jewelry, clothing, prints, and to-do lists that will change your life with their inviting cuteness, among many other things, somehow also a member of the San Diego indie rock band The Bulletins. Ever since I first met her circa 1993 (fact check, Susie?), she’s been the person who knows about all the cool stuff before anyone else. She had a zine before I was totally sure what a zine was, and was chatting online with band members of That Dog like 2 minutes after chatrooms were invented. So it  comes as no surprise to me that everything she makes is beautiful and super cool, and that her first picture book, What Will Hatch? is a total delight.

Written by nature writer Jennifer Ward, this gorgeous book introduces 2-5 year olds to the wonderful world of the oviparous animal. I recently used the book in a little storytelling workshop at Harper’s playschool — after reading the kids the book I gave them each little stacks of cards with illustrations of frog life cycle steps and had them put them in order, color, and title them (Harper’s was “Using Science”). All of which is to say, parents and teachers and people who love art, buy this book!

Thanks to What Will Hatch? we now use the word "oviparous" daily.

Thanks to What Will Hatch? we now use the word “oviparous” daily.

Harper loved What Will Hatch? so much that she wanted to learn more, so she asked some questions that I passed along to Susie, who graciously answered!

Why are there holes in the pages? Why do the holes become other things? How did you make those holes that shape?

The holes in the pages are called “die cuts” and they’re there to represent the shape of the egg for each type of animal throughout the book! The holes represent the egg on one page, but when you turn the page, the egg has already hatched, so I made the hole become something else in the next picture!

(I made the holes by obsessively drawing vector curves in InDesign that were output by the printer who fit a metal die to that exact shape…but are you really asking about that, Harper?)

What are those little lines across the pictures?

That is called woodgrain! It is the texture of wood, which is what I painted on for this book.

[Pre-emptive answer to the potential follow-up question: I painted on wood because I liked the idea of using natural materials to represent nature in this book!]

Why is each animal pictured in their habitat? How did you know what the habitats look like?

Each animal is pictured in their habitat because lots of people don’t know what their habitats look like and I thought it would be cool to show them! I didn’t know what the habitats looked like until I researched it!

How did you get the ideas for this book? How did you not change your mind and do something else? What does “else” mean?

The idea for the book came from the author, Jennifer Ward, who wrote it! From there, I just drew what came to my imagination after researching each of the animals. Many times, I did change my mind 🙂 Else has a few meaning. In the context of “something else”, it would mean something like “something other”, except “something other” sounds weird. Hey, you should ask your mom the writer about this one!

And here’s a question from me, Amy, the grownup: What are you working on next?

I’m on the board for ICON the Illustration Conference which launches July ’14 in Portland, and am beginning to teach. I’m always working on new illustrations and art shows! I have an art show on May 11th in Los Angeles at Leanna Lin’s Wonderland showing my collaboration with my friend Irene on a series of cross-stitch portraits of extinct animals. I’ll be at the opening signing copies of What Will Hatch as well! Then, a Little Golden Books-inspired art show June 28th in Florida curated by my friend Heidi Kenney of My Paper Crane.

[Harper clapped and squealed at the idea of a Little Golden Book art show and I am only slightly worried she will try to run away to see it.]

And here is Harper’s review of the book:

“Kids will like this book. But wait, we still get to keep it right?”

Me:” Yes, but do you think they should get their own copy?”

Harper:” Yes, because I want to keep this one.”

Pretty AND smart.

Pretty AND smart.

Be sure to check out Susie’s site boygirlparty.com! Just be prepared to find yourself inventing reasons to buy tons of lovely notepaper and necklaces and also feeling a strange twitch to draw…

Related: Read Harper’s interview with illustrator Jennifer Bell here!
Read my neighbor Lena’s interview with YA novelist Carley Moore here!
Read my interview with YA novelist M. Beth Bloom here!

What’s Missing, What’s Here: On The Eve of My Book’s Birth Day

I seem to be living in a spiral-shaped sea shell these days. Harper turned four on Monday. Ollie will be two in a few weeks. And this Tuesday, April 2nd, a few days after the kids’ birthday party with all its balloons and frosting, my book officially comes out. The Mermaid of Brooklyn is about a mother with two kids, two years apart, like mine, but I started writing it when Harper was just a few months old, one day after a visit to the swingset, with her asleep in the carrier on my chest. I was thinking about my great-grandmother and rusalkis and the weird culture of Brooklyn parenting more than my actual parenting experiences, although of course it all gets mixed in together. And on Tuesday, my book launch will be at Powerhouse on 8th, the new bookstore in the building I lived in when I wrote the book. 2 kids, 4 years, and a move later: the book.

Of course I’m so excited and thankful. But also: confused.

Thanks to Jenna Blum for my very own milk carton!

Thanks to Jenna Blum for my very own milk carton!

Due to ongoing contract disputes between my publishers and Barnes & Noble, it’s very unlikely anyone will be able to find my book at a B&N store. In many parts of the country, that’s the only place to go and stroll about and discover a new book. I know my suburban Chicago B&N outlet was where I went on weeknights as a teenager to drink cinnamon-plum tea and read philosophy texts and women’s magazines (yes, at the same time) with my best friend and browse around in the quiet store at 8 pm and happen upon some book on a table I never would have heard of otherwise — and I feel like B&N should remember this, and care. I guess what I’m saying is, I really love B&N. I love my indies, and always support them, but when I was growing up in the suburbs, B&N was a sanctuary of sorts for me. And I have been so happy with Simon & Schuster and everyone at my division, Touchstone, and all their support of my book, and I get that both sides have their reasons. I know. It’s not personal.

What replaced my neighborhood Barnes & Noble.

What replaced my neighborhood Barnes & Noble.

But then, also, an unexpectedly nice thing has happened, because of all this B&N business: S&S authors, all (coincidence?) female novelists, have banded together to try to get our books on the radar.  M.J. Rose, Jenna Blum, Randy Susan Meyers — these are authors I have only known from afar, who are doing what I aspire to — writing smart books about women’s lives that readers obsessively love — and yet suddenly we’re all tweeting each other all the time. I feel this solidarity with other writers whose books are coming out into this mess, like we are all book-sisters (and not just competing for the seven spots for reviews left in the country). And there’s something really, really nice about that. I would post all their book covers here but I still have a lot of laundry to fold. So go here, and check out these wonderful books!

I once read an interview with an author whose debut novel had been largely ignored. When asked how he felt about the book’s reception he said something like, “You know, my wife and I just had our first baby, and that is a very good distraction, and puts everything else into perspective.” I loved this. I’ve found balancing writerhood and mothership to be challenging. It’s hard to find the time and focus and energy to write, even if, maybe especially if, you’re writing ABOUT motherhood. But I’ve also the combination to be a nourishing one.

Take today: I could have spent the day obsessing about my book and what will or won’t happen with it, but I was too busy having an adventure on the subway and a raucous playdate and making Charlie & Lola decorations for the birthday party. Ollie played in an afternoon sunbeam, swiping his hand at the glowing dust motes, laughing hysterically. Harper told me she was having a hard time deciding whether to be a doctor or a teacher. At bedtime, the kids cuddled up and Harper read Ollie his favorite books, and he propped his fat little cheek in his fat little hand to listen intently, and I almost cried, and that was all that really mattered about today. I’m lucky, lucky, lucky and I know it. I would of course like to be a lucky, lucky, lucky author with books in B&N but whatever, I’ll take what I can get.

And so:

If you live in New York City, please join me at one of my readings! Wine and bunny crackers, obviously, will be served.

If you don’t, please go into your local Barnes & Noble and with a very puzzled look on your face, ask where oh where is that great Mermaid of Brooklyn book you’ve been hearing so much about could be.

And finally, if you can identify the provenance of the bookstore pictured above, feel a moment of in-on-the-joke pride. Go on, really enjoy it. Then, tell me in the comments (but don’t Google it, you dirty cheater)and if you’re the first one to do so (and you are not my husband) I’ll send you a book!

The Black Apple, always awesome.

The Black Apple, always awesome.

The Handwriting on the Wall. Er, Ceiling. Well, In the Ceiling. Oh, Just Read It.

The Note in the Ceiling

The Note in the Ceiling

In honor of National Handwriting Day, I share the above note. Adam wrote it, in his adorable chicken-scratchy handwriting, after our first summer stay at a sweet little beach house in New Jersey. He tucked it into a ceiling tile (all right, it’s a humble place) and promptly forgot all about it. A few months ago, we got this email:

Hi Amy and Adam

When we started on the work to repair the inside of the house after the hurricane, your note tucked in the ceiling floated down. I want you to know that it lifted my spirits that day. To know that our little house brought you and your family a little bit of happiness helped me get through the initial shock of what has to be done.

We are so lucky that only material things are ruined. My daughters and their husbands went down with my husband the first day to help with the clean out as I watched the grandkids. Thank God for family.

I was down with my sister and daughter to finish cleaning when your note floated down. I hope your attached note brings back some good memories. We are all very emotionally attached to our beach house and are now on the road to getting it back together for next summer.

Chris

Everything about the exchange floods me with warm, happy nostalgia: remembering that lovely summer; knowing that we accidentally cheered someone’s Sandy recovery; and most viscerally, seeing Adam’s handwriting, which I very rarely see. Let’s all spend the day writing notes — by hand! on paper! — and tucking them away places, shall we?

The Next Big Thing Book Blog Meme!

Write like a motherfucker.

Write like a motherfucker.

I have dropped so many balls lately, that with every step I take I’m essentially wading through one of those ball pits that children like to contract smallpox in at overachieving birthday parties. But here was a fun thing I was supposed to do that got lost in the wild week of kids, more work than usual, a freelance article, book business, playschool drama, and even a co-op building meeting: THE NEXT BIG THING MEME, yay! Thanks to the lovely Kate Hopper for tagging me!

What is the title of your book?

The Mermaid of Brooklyn

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A stressed-out Park Slope mother recovers her sense of purpose in life with the help of a mermaid.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction. (I almost wrote Women’s Fiction, but then I was like, nah, fuck that.)

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The inspiration was threefold: 1) a bit of family lore about how a pair of shoes saved my great-grandmother’s life, which I heard at a time when 2) I was reading about the powerful, seductive, mysterious rusalkas (aka mermaids)of Slavic folklore. The connection between these aspects marinated for a bit and then 3) I found myself becoming a stay-at-home mother to a baby, in the ever-fascinating parenting culture of Park Slope, Brooklyn. And voila: The Mermaid of Brooklyn was born.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

About two years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

A mother at the playground had read some books pitched toward young urban mothers that she found annoying, and she said, “I just want someone to write a book for moms like me.”

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have a literary agent who did the businessy magic of selling the book to Touchstone/Simon & Schuster (US) and Pan Macmillan (UK).

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?

It’s possible that comparisons with Amy Sohn, the grand mistress of Park Slope parent fiction, are forthcoming, but I’ve actually never read her books so I’m not sure how alike we really are. Our names sure are similar though! But I’d say readers who liked Peter Hedges’ Brooklyn-y The Heights, Lorrie Moore’s funny-sad mediation on motherhood The Gate at the Top of the Stairs, Maria Semple’s funny-sad mediation on motherhood Where’d You Go, Bernadette?  and/or stories with a hint of the surreal in them, like The Time-Traveler’s Wife, or Alice Hoffman’s novels, will, I’d hope, like my book too.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh man. I hate to boss around my readers, who should cast their own MofB movie however they like. But since you asked, my main character, Jenny, I see as a 2010 Zooey Deschanel. (She’s gotten a little too glamorous lately, but you get what I mean.) And my husband will definitely give me shit for this, but I always thought of Cute Dad as being played by Paul Schneider, on whom I have an undignified crush.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Reading it will make you instantly happier, richer, ambidextrous, and able to do 20 sit-ups.

Just in case it doesn’t, an acquaintance of mine read the book and wrote me, unbidden: “Basically: your book made me forget my own troubles while simultaneously soothing them; it made me feel better about life.” Isn’t that so nice?

AND The next thing I was supposed to do was to tag five authors who have exciting projects coming out now or soon or eventually. But I just wrote them today. (Doing!) (That was a ball dropping.) (And then bouncing again.) (Like how I carried that image through? Professional writer here!) So I will repost if they are able to participate. But just know that you should be very excited about new works forthcoming from Siobhan Adcock, Julia Fierro, Leigh Newman, Shana Youngdahl, and Sara Barron!