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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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.

Now We Start Again

Dear you,

After three years of writing a book I had already tried to write three years earlier, I finally finished that book (as finished as I alone can get it), offered it up, and settled in to wait.

Waiting in the form of books read by sunrise, morning meditations, walks. Full, long, self-satisfied breaths. A clean(ish) kitchen. The garden pulled, tomatoes dried.

But waiting is hard, even if the tomatoes taste so good you consume them before you can save them, and waiting is especially hard when you realize how much of your day was consumed by that book, how much it crowded out any brain space for anything else. The mind abhors a vacuum and the space between creative projects is just that—empty. So I put my mind on search, and lo and behold, the next thing was right there waiting for me to finish waiting and notice it.

But of course it’s never that easy, and although the thing grew impatient as I hemmed and hawed over how to start it, my mind couldn’t get over the fact that it has been three years since we’ve been in this position. A large-scale project, mornings as blank as the pages, an image or two to go on but no sense of who or what or why. Like a jigsaw puzzle once all the border pieces are put together—where do I begin?

I have been here before. The start of every project, large or small, comes with this same feeling of walking through a dark corridor, groping for doorknobs, wondering what waits behind the door you’ve managed to find. I vacillate between whether or not this process is harder now than it was the first time around. The first time around, there was no light at the end of the tunnel, no way of knowing what the end would look like it when I got there, if the path I was on was the right one (or not even just the right one but not the completely wrong one.) None of it mattered because no one knew I was trying to do any of it. I had no critique group, no published stories, no friends that knew I was actively writing. I even kept it a secret from my husband. Easier that way, should I choose to throw in the towel.

But I eventually told my husband that I was writing a book, all shy and quiet like he would be alarmed by this news. I went back to the critique group I abandoned years earlier the first time I abandoned the book, slinking into the room, embarrassed for having been gone so long, long enough that only two of them even remembered who I was. I started submitting stories and poems, sharing the acceptances when they came. I made this website, started this blog, little by little identified myself until the title of writer became synonymous with the title of librarian.

And now, here I am—back in the brain space of the genesis of a long project but no longer in the genesis of my identity as a writer. Needless to say, it is difficult to rectify the two.

So how strange that just as it is time for me to start a new book, it is also time to start a new garden. And not just any new garden, a fall garden, something I have never had the opportunity to grow before.

One by one, I had pulled up my plants from the summer, too distracted to think about what should go in their place for the fall. Distracted by the queries I was submitting, the manuscripts I sent in response, stories I was proofing, the interminable waiting for anyone to answer me regarding anything. Much easier to refresh the inbox than to plant vegetables I had only eaten a handful of times before, much less seen in the ground, much less grown myself. But staring at the inbox never made an email appear, just as staring at a blank page never made words appear, just as staring at a seedless ground never made food.

So I went to the farmer’s market. Having procrastinated long enough, I found that everything was already gone, of course, with the exception of swiss chard, collards, brussel sprouts, and some kale all of which I took to plant (exception: kale, because just no.) Not to be deterred, I pulled out my seed collection, my starter pods, and the grow light, and planted everything I wanted—broccoli, carrots, spinach, beets—even if it is too late, even if it comes to nothing. It is a rebellion of sorts to plant when you know it is too late, just as it is a rebellion to start a project before you feel ready. You do it anyway, giving the finger to expected results and celebrating when you are pleasantly surprised.

I nestled these babies next to my desk, the glow of the grow light warm on my arm, same place they were when I re-wrote my book for the third time last winter. The metaphor here obvious and cliche but I swear—there is magic in growing seeds next to your desk when you are growing the seeds of a book on the page.

Every morning comes. Better now because it comes still dark, before the sun rises. I turn on the lamp, say hello to the seeds and give ourselves one halo of light in which to do our work. We are in it together, me and these seeds. I breathe like a tentative footstep and start again.

The Authority to Write

Dear You,

I am writing my book again. This is the third time I have written it and the third year of working with it. In draft one, the story went in one direction, took a turn toward another in draft two, and now seems to be going back to the original idea with some tweaks.

Having spent some time now writing other stories, I’ve come to find that this is a pattern for me. Three drafts is what it always takes (so far) for me to get to the story I am sure I want to write. The first draft is always a mess of spewed words, snippets of images and conversation that won’t go away but don’t seem to have any purpose, all stitched together by sheer will of I MUST FINISH THIS THING. The second draft is always out of left field; I’ve read the first draft, confused myself and what I think I’m trying to say, so I write something that, using sound-ish logic, works plot-wise but reads like shit and leaves all the characters’ needs and wants aside. This one is stitched together by sheer will of I MUST MAKE THIS MAKE SENSE. And after reading it, it never makes sense, ever.

So then we get to the third draft. I have usually let a gulf of time pass, not out of some smart reason of resting or allowing time to help things gel in my mind, but usually because the second draft is such a train wreck, it hurts to have to think about putting another draft back together again. There are always casualties in the third draft. Whole plot lines are re-worked, characters invented, scenes I liked before disappeared into the upside-down to happily never be retrieved again. I know this will happen and because I expect it, I dread it.

But another thing happens after I’ve read the second draft and absorbed the mortal blow of its exquisite shittiness on my level of confidence as a writer and human. The story begins to write itself. Once I get up the courage to actually sit down and do it, that is.

It’s an amazing feeling; one of those times that writers talk about when they say that the characters are telling them the story, that a “muse” is whispering into their ears, etc., etc. It really does feel like magic and it’s the whole point of doing the work because it’s as exhilarating as the feeling of publication or even a comment from a reader saying “I loved this.” It’s hit a nerve and it’s correct and you know it.

While I love the idea of magic and do bask in the feeling of mystical fairy dust when this happens, it’s, sadly, not magic. Or any kind of natural artistic talent finally rearing its head after all this goddamn time. It’s simply the fruits of labor. It’s the recognition of work.

I have spent years in critique groups with writers in various stages of their craft. I have seen heavy hitters come in with work that sings and watched them sweat as we peons flip through their pages. I’ve seen newbies come in excited and confident and seen the little flicker of hurt in their eyes when the critique really begins. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a newcomer ask an old timer, “But how do you do that?” As in, how do you weave in backstory so seamlessly? How do you come up with characters that read readers minds? How do you write a story that reads like a secret being shared only with you?

Hilariously and tragically, the newcomer always think they’re reading a first draft when they ask this question. It’s never a first draft. It might be a first draft of a complete rewrite but it’s not your typical “I woke up like this” draft. (And if it is, then they are in the presence of someone who either has been at the craft diligently for years and have learned to write a draft the way they flex a well-toned muscle OR that mother fucker really is magic.)

What they’re really asking is: How do I gain that level of authority in my work? How do I make it read like I actually know what I’m doing? Like I’m a goddamn literary force to be reckoned with?

Answer: You toil away until it does and you are.

Just like the story that finally reveals itself, gaining that level of authority in writing takes the kind of sweat and tears that must be suffered with time and diligence. It requires taking your dedication to the writing craft from a giddily stupid first draft stage, through that shitty second draft stage which will beg you to give it up, and into the third draft stage where you can come to your craft clear-eyed, seasoned, and ready to work.

And that’s just the overhaul we’re talking about. At this point, I can predict that it will take me three drafts to get a story in the right direction. But it takes god knows how many more to get it just right. And it never, ever feels just right. It feels right enough to send it out into the world.

There’s different tricks to getting the story right, getting the words on the page, discovering what exactly it is you’re trying to say, just as there are different paths in writing careers. One person toils longer than another before feeling validated in their craft. Another feels validated even if they weren’t seeking it. Others never feel validation, even when there are other literary heroes validating their work on a regular basis. And none of it matters anyway; while respect from peers is nice, none of us followed the rabbit trail of a story idea solely because we thought it might lead to someone we admire admiring us. We do it because it’s interesting and fun and we want to.

Waiting for the authority to write, for goddamn literary hero stardom to shine upon you, is like waiting for magic to happen. It might — but it’s faster to simply sit down, take a deep breath, and do the work over and over again. Instead of magic, it will feel like nothing at all. Just another day where you’ve written your words, submitted your stories, until you can look back and see the full breadth of a body of work, and how it ebbs and flows with practice. Maybe you’ll recognize your authority then. (Maybe, but unlikely.) You’re too busy doing the work.

Authority may come, but it will not announce itself. Rather, it will be a sudden awareness, much how a story’s ending is a conundrum one moment and finished the next. It won’t feel like you’ve arrived even when you already have. It will always take longer than you think.