Photos: The Writing Attic

Dear you,

This is morning. Every morning, if the sun is not yet up. The room is painted in sunrise pink and when I’m up there working, the windows glow for the neighborhood.

 Mornings in the attic are a ritual. Coffee first, of course, but then straight upstairs to get to work. The kitten comes too, every morning. Her level of helpfulness waxes and wanes; some mornings she’s right there with me, watching me type. Most other mornings she’s playing with everything but the immense lot of toys I bought her.

I love this attic. It is my pride and joy, my own little slice of heaven. To have this space to stretch, toss papers around, be as maniacal as I want, is something that I still marvel at, even a year later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And of course, the kitten has her own desk, where she does all her important work.

I love this attic because it is filled with gifts and creations from my friends and family. The stained glass books are a gift from my mother-in-law. The antlers were a joint effort from my niece and my brother; she shot the deer and he created the mount. The picture of the lady is a gift I gave myself; my grandmother has a figurine of a lady in a similar dress. But this lady’s hair is tied back and proper, her hands are gloved and holding a bouquet. She is prim and small. The lady in the picture above (titled Vivacious) has her hair down. She is smiling and dancing. The picture is part of a calendar created by the local electric company, year 1950. 

The walls upon entering are decorated with an intentional purpose. Artwork from Texas, gifts from new friends, a photograph taken by my best friend from home during her first college photography class (her grown self now an accomplished photographer.)

Ahead are more reminders of how loved I am. There are photographs taken by my father-in-law when he was young paired with photographs taken by my husband when he too was a teenager. Macrame art from a friend named Lisa. A mobile of seashells, sand dollars, and petrified wood created by a friend on a whim and given to me because I happened to be there when he finished it. There is a canvas art print thrifted and created by my mother-in-law for my husband to outfit his first college apartment, something I vividly remember hanging on his wall when I went to this same apartment for the first time. We were sitting on the couch watching Commando. He laid his head near my lap. This was the night of our first kiss.

When I was four years-old, my mother used to dress me in my sleep at four am and take me to my grandparent’s house so she could work her shift at the hospital and still go to nursing school at the same time. My dad drove truck and was long gone by time the four am wake-up call rolled around. My grandfather waited for me in this chair every single morning. We would sit in it together and watch the weather news until my grandmother woke up and made breakfast. When we moved my grandmother into assisted living, she sat in this chair every day with an oxygen tank hooked to the back. After she died, my mom used it as her sewing chair but once I had room for it, she drove it to Nashville so I could use it in the attic, which tells you everything you need to know about our relationship and what kind of mother she is. Now, it’s the chair where I read my drafts.

There are mementos and memories strewn about this room that breathe life into every word I write. Here, my brother’s glass horse forever memorialized in the broken-hearted essay I wrote when we left Texas. Here, a stolen cup from Olive Garden pilfered for me by a boy with a crush on our high school band trip now used to store idea notes. Real good ones like “widowmakers” and “Do the lord’s work” and “artifacts” and “JUST DEAD INSIDE.”

old attic

And here it was before, the week after we were lucky enough to buy it, just a little dead inside but filled to the brim with potential.

Ask: How Many Pieces Do You Produce in a Year?

From Laura:

How many short stories do you write a year?

Dear Laura (and you),

This question is ultimately about production but I also wonder if maybe, just maybe, lying underneath that question is also the one of how much production is enough? Also known more famously as: Am I enough? 

The question of what is enough underlies everything we do, as writers, as humans, and especially as women. If you’re a Type A person like me, then you can just go ahead and double that pressure. 

The short answer to the question is: it depends. And honestly, while I have been writing for years, I haven’t been writing on a “professional” scale (read: hitting the submission trenches) long enough to really have an average number. Last year, I wrote two stories (barely.) That’s because I spent the majority of the year completing requested revisions on a novel that ultimately got rejected. The year before that I wrote three pieces (two that had been started the year prior) because, again, I spent the majority of the year finishing my novel and preparing for query submission. And the year before that when I moved to Nashville, I wrote only two pieces because we were relocating our lives to Nashville. I would say then that my average is looking like two to three pieces a year, except this year I’ve already written six pieces and it’s not even summer yet.

Some years are just more productive than others. Some years you’re not relocating your life. Some years you’re not writing a novel. Some years you’re feeling pretty good. Other years, you’re low in the lowest lows of rejection. Just last November, I was wallowing and complaining to my husband about how I’d had nothing published that year. That was less than six months ago. I’ve had two stories and two essays published since.  I am in the middle of a very good year and I am going to take this year and run with it. I am going to celebrate as much as I can because next year, or even next month, may not be nearly as good as right now. 

The thing about writing is that writing is meant to be read by someone else. At the heart of all acts of writing, no matter how private, is that one day we’ll want someone else to read it so we can say, “See? You see now?” And in order to have other people read our writing, we have to share it. Sharing usually means submitting. And when we start submitting, that’s when things start to get wonky and we forget what it was we liked about writing in the first place. It starts to become more about numbers—how many pieces are out on submission, how many rejections have come in, how many acceptances, if any—and less about the whole point of writing: the communication. 

And yet, the answer still isn’t to just sit down and write and be happy you wrote. Writing is hard. Writing is even harder when there’s no one on the other end to read your work. It’s a rare occurrence to go bounding to the computer with such enthusiasm because the words are just spilling out. Just last night, I told a group of fellow writers that one of the stories I’d recently published had been written in two days with just two drafts and that it was one of the pieces I’m most proud of. The moment that story came to life was almost otherworldly, that channeling thing that some artists talk about. It happened to me. It happened. But of course, ever since it happened, now I go to the page every morning with extra trepidation—will the magic happen again? Will it ever come back? So far, no other pieces have tumbled out quite like that one and the blank page has only become more terrifying when I know there’s no other force to fill it up except for me. 

And that’s just it—there’s no one else here but you. You, with your words and all your other obligations. Your day jobs, your children, your bills, your pets, your lawns to mow, toilets to clean, teeth to brush, and on and on and on. The answer isn’t to sit down and be happy you wrote, but to be happy you sat down and wrote with everything else you have going on. You got up early or stayed up late. You turned down appealing outings. You watched a little less TV, listened to a few less podcasts. The dishes stayed dirty. And for that, you have a story, or maybe just the start of a story. Submit, sure. It must be done. Goals are never a bad thing to have. But we shouldn’t cling to anything we can’t control (which, ultimately, is everything.)

Some days you write the story. Some days the story writes you. Whatever. If you do write anything, you now have something you didn’t have before that came solely from your heart. A little piece of yourself made immortal. Words that will last long after you do no matter where they are. That is what makes it enough. 

 

If you would like to submit a question for a “Dear You” post, please email me at lisa.k.bubert(at)gmail.com. 

 

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How to Build a Public Library

Dear you,

My day begins and ends with some form of writing. I wake up while it’s still dark, make the coffee, and go upstairs. The attic is only partially insulated so in the winter there are blankets included on my chair. The kitten does her own duty—she jumps to my lap as soon as I’m settled and settles herself in her rightful place: space heater, mascot, teeny monster for now asleep. I organize the various slips of post-its carrying seeds of ideas littered across my desk; I choose which document to open on my computer that particular day. I block the internet. And for an hour and a half, I work.

And then, session over, it’s done. I close everything down. Rouse the kitten and carry her and my empty coffee mug downstairs. It’s 7:30 am—time for the other work.

My other work is the library. What to wear today—what will we be doing. Approachable but professional casual for those long days on the desk. My attempt at business professional for the days with meetings. Lately, it’s been jeans and a t-shirt because we are in the process of building a library.

When I got a library job here in Nashville, I was lucky enough to get the librarian spot at the branch that sorely needed a makeover. It’s one of our larger branch locations with some of the highest foot traffic and, to be honest, it was a very sad building. Carpets stained, furniture cracked and beat up from years of abuse. The whole place a dim reminder of the nineties and not in a good way. I loved it, despite its sadness.

I loved it, because for the first time in my library career, I felt a real duty to this community. In all libraries, we are doing the Lord’s work. But in this library, with these patrons who needed help opening email accounts so they could apply for jobs online, for housing, for food assistance, these patrons who just wanted a quiet, safe place, and those children who needed safe people—in this library, the Lord’s work was always close at hand.

It was in the way we sat with them at the computers and assured them that it would be okay, we would get this frustrating thing figured out. It was in the way we talked aimlessly with people who just needed to talk. It was the kids who wanted daily hugs. (In Texas, I had a no hugging policy because I didn’t want it to be misconstrued. That has now changed. When a child screams your name upon seeing you and runs at you with a hug, you have no choice but to comply and mean it.) And all the while, we did this holy work in an old building with bad lighting, with a layout that was outdated, with an aura of dimness. Not for lack of trying by the staff obviously, but it’s hard to fight the environment, something these patrons knew very well.

I had been told when I got the job that they would be shuttering the branch soon to renovate it. After a year there, they finally did. The designer asked us what we wanted to see in the new building. I made my requests—natural light, earth tones, a calming atmosphere, long sight lines, a children’s area that looked like it belonged to children. And then we went our separate ways for the year.

The year away from the branch has been a big one for me—I got to know the system very well, got to know everyone in it. I worked downtown and loved every minute of it. I re-wrote a novel, got addicted to checking email throughout the day to see if it’s a yes or a no (and it was always a no, up until last week.) I bought a house with an attic just for me; I grew my literary life. And now, the year almost done, it’s time to go back to the branch. It’s time to build the library.

I had checked in on the branch during renovation, nodded at the wood framing as the designer walked us through and told us what would be where. I couldn’t picture any of it. It wasn’t until the first day back, everything painted, the furniture in place, and all of us back to put books on the shelves and settle our work stations that I could finally feel it.

The building had been painted in soft greens and oranges. The floor was wood vinyl, with the appearance of hardwood but the noise reduction of carpet. The desks were all dark wood-paneled, the furniture very mid-century/70s modern. I could see from one end of the building to the other where the reading room ended in large, open windows of soft sunlight. The children’s area—my children’s area—was bright, playful, with a well-lit story room and stained glass windows featuring Aslan, the protective lion king of Narnia.

Reader, I cried. And then I set to unpacking the books.

I learned that there is nothing more satisfying than arranging a book display in anticipation of all the patrons who will come searching. I hand picked items that reflected the community, stories I knew they would want to read, covers with black and brown and white faces all smiling, all deserving of their spot in the light. I sat at the desk and envisioned it—the ways the community had changed in the past year, the ways it had stayed the same. The regulars sure to return and those that maybe moved on by now. And I thought again of them all and how deserving they each were of this light, this beauty, this perfect space.

They will come in again tired and bedraggled, some carrying too many bags, some in need of a shower. There will still be children who need hugs, patrons who just want to talk to someone, anyone. But they will do it now in a clean, well-lighted place. They will do it in a place of dignity and beauty, a library deserving of them.

I will start my mornings with writing. I will go to work and put books in the hands of people who need them. I will come home and pick up my own book, one that I need to round out that day and help me write for tomorrow. And then I will go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again.

And that is how we build a public library.

 

To the writers at this write-in

Dear you,

When I arrived here at this coffeeshop early in anticipation of all of you, I feared for a moment that no one would arrive. But like the writers you are, you arrived late.

I am sitting at a table of fourteen other people, none of whom I know, and we are writing. I am at the head of the table because I am supposed to be the head of this thing but you all know what you’re doing. You would all prefer for me to quiet down so we can get to the writing and we have.

I have managed to infiltrate the Porch here in Nashville. They are a fantastic, non-profit writing institute that offers classes, readings, author events, and small things that make my heart go pitter-patter like this write-in. I show up enough that I have been put in charge. That’s how it goes sometimes. I’m not complaining. I’ll show up every time I can and if you know me at all. you know I love to boss.

But right now, I would just like to admire my own dumb luck. I have stumbled into a write-in on a night that promises tornados at a table full of people I don’t know. But I do know them — I recognize the furrow of their brow as they squint at their computers, the hover of their pens and concentrated stares. This coffeeshop just turned the lights down for a mood that no one wants. We are here to work.

Nail-biters. Slight shakes of your head as you hit the backspace. Long, languid sighs. Blank stares that aren’t blank at all. I watch your mouth as you silently read your words, shake your head, and erase them. This is how we do the work.

I was told to offer a prompt before we started. I personally hate prompts. No, I don’t hate them. I just never use them. But we are writers of different stripes — some are here for novels, short stories, a blog — and some are here to extend wings. For those of you, I offered this prompt:

Write a piece in which a celebrity is doing something utterly mundane.

Not being a prompt person, I had to change it for my own purposes. I wrote about all of you doing the most mundane thing you could all be doing. Chewing your lips as you work through a plot. Shifting in your seat as you type faster and faster. Showing up on a rainy night when it is cold and the lights are too low and the kids are out of school tomorrow. Utterly mundane and utterly important. After all, it is the mundane things that matter, the simple act of tearing off a new sheet of paper, of opening a new document on your computer. Nothing about it is slight.

Every morning we sit down to work we are trying again. It’s always the same. There’s the scroll through news feeds, the myriad of ways we can avoid the page. But we get there, eventually. And out of all that — all the typing, the nail-biting, the scribbles, the torn pages — we have our souls. So mundane. And yet, so sacred.

So I am glad to be here, with all of you that I barely know. I am happy to watch your quirks as you type. God knows, I have many.

And now there, I think. I have fulfilled the prompt.

The Relentless Trying Again (or how to fall in love with a home)

Dear you,

We have bought our first house. I am writing this from my very own space—a whole floor!—a not-too-warm in the mornings, hardwood-floored, all-mine attic. I have grand plans for this attic. Whole walls full of large swaths of paper for brainstorming, an isolated dormer with a window overlooking the neighborhood for drafting, a bookshelf with a shelf for publications I and my friends wrote or were published in, a shelf for books of writing techniques and memoirs, and a shelf to hold those things which serve as research or inspiration for whatever I’m working on now. The floor is littered with old family photographs as I warm up for book two and it’s okay that they’re littered on the floor because nobody but me will be up here to be disturbed by it. Did I mention that I painted the walls a pale pink which gives it the impression of a womb which only makes me love it more?

I am, in a word, enchanted. By the beauty of the space, by the possibilities in it, by the whole fresh start feel of all of it. And in being so enchanted, it has been nearly impossible to actually write in it. Even now, once I got through the fun of describing the space, I spent five minutes sitting with a blank stare at the computer.

Buying a house was a dream for us, one that we weren’t sure would come true for quite some time. Wouldn’t we have to win some kind of lottery, or save for many more years, or compromise by buying in a neighborhood we didn’t love as much which honestly wouldn’t feel like as much of a compromise as it did a failing? But no—we found the perfect house, in the perfect neighborhood, with the perfect amount of space for the two of us, and the perfect amount of room to expand into the future. It has been beautifully re-modeled, sold to us by a couple that loved it dearly and did well to make sure we felt welcome and had everything we needed to start our new chapter. The house sits in a historic neighborhood surrounded by other beautiful houses full of wonderful neighbors who make it a point to throw parties and see each other often. I hear Halloween is an incredible affair with literal thousands of trick-or-treaters. If you know me at all, you know how important trick-or-treating is to my fall soul.

Really, Husband and I wake up every day with a mixture of how in the hell did we get so lucky euphoria and the oh god we bought a house panic. I walk around making a list of the things we need to buy or do in a perpetual point of nesting I’m not sure will ever end. Husband rubs his hands over each crack in the wall with a worried stare. We sit on the porch dreaming of the deck we will build. We eye the garden shed with a low-grade phobia of brown recluses. We make plans to finish out the basement, the attic, expanding into additional rooms, studios, a workshop in the back, a yard full of gardens and flowers and trees. We check our bank account for the moment our mortgage payment, the water bill, the electric, all of it go through. It’s not a problem of not having enough to pay; it just seems irresponsible not to continually check.

In short, the past two months have been an oscillation of living in a dream and living in work that will never end. And in between all of it, in living in my dream space, I have not written a word. Two months and no production.

I am being too hard on myself, I know this. Moving a life, even if just a few minutes down the road, does make everything stop. Plus, the attic needed to be painted first (a task I still haven’t totally finished and worry I may never), the house set up to be comfortable, so on and so forth. I was busy at work with program wrap-up. But the program is wrapped up and we are, for all intents and purposes, comfortable enough in the house to get through each day. And still, I sit in my beautiful room, surrounded by old family photos and all the large paper, post-its, and markers I could need to start plotting, and still—nothing.

It occurs to me that perhaps I am waiting for some kind of magic to happen. After all, it seemed like the house came to us via magic—why not the writing with it? I can hear my critique group laughing all the way from Texas.

Another thought, this one much more real and worrysome—do I dare disrupt the dream of what this writing space will be by actually writing in it and discovering it is just as much “dream” as all my other writing spaces were? Because for all the extra room, the silence, the solitude, the morning light, it still comes down to a desk, my computer, and work. For all the dreams come true, will I find that I work no better here than I did there? Green grass abounds everywhere but right in front of me.

Ultimately, the house came to us the same way the writing does—a dream, perseverance through rejection, day after day of going at it again until something falls into place, an acceptance is given. No wonder it feels like magic—it feels like the struggle will never end until it does. Writing is a forever lesson in patience, one I never learned well. But perhaps perseverance outweighs the patience. And that is one thing I have in spades.

So I will sit here, 6:00am every morning without fail, staring at the computer usually, staring at my notebooks always, sifting around in my mind and looking for that thing that will spark, waiting for the magic that only I and a relentless trying again can produce. It’ll spark eventually. It has to. But for now, I will lean back in my chair, admire the way the morning light catches on the windows, and dream.