2024 Update! Sharp readers will spot not just my bushes but the wannabe forest across the road that looks A LOT like the yard of a certain tolerated, if not beloved, curmudgeonly hermit. It's practically Phoebe's view ;)
Every day on my Pandemic Walk (a practice I highly recommend if you’re able to), I pass the nine Dwarf Alberta Spruce trees that line our front yard.
Now, as it says right there on the tin, these are supposed to be dwarf trees. Mine have remained true to their names, unlike the ones my mom grows at her house, which are humongous.
She can’t kill a plant even if she tries. As you read this, her snow peas are over six feet tall. Far from a graveyard for the flora, her compost is a place where plants go to catch a little R&R, and then they come back twice as strong. Full on “Feed me, Seymour!”
Before you ask me for gardening tips, I’ll just say—No, I didn’t inherit her green thumb. And no, I don’t know how she does it.
I’m the complete opposite. In fact, I’ve probably killed four plants just by writing this.
“Ah ha!” I can hear you saying. “If you’re so bad at plants, then how are all nine bushes still alive?” Keep your gardening clogs on, there’s a simple explanation. I had a toddler at the time, so my mom helped me plant them. Technically, they’re her trees.
Now, simmer down and listen to the rest of the story.
For the last eleven years, all the spruce trees have toed the same line except for this little lady right here:
I asked my mom about why it happens. She told me that the dwarf trees are still spruces, and that some of them are trying to remember what that feels like.
I know it sounds made up. I know it has to do with genes and mutations and environment. Shhhh...I know. But I’m not going to research it because I like her story.
My mom also said she had one tree that used to do the same thing—throw out an exploratory branch, see what it feels like to dip a toe in the deep end, check to see if maybe, just maybe, they might be something more if they dared to try.
She had to cut her stray branch a few times to get it to stop growing all wonky, but I’m not going to do that either.
It’s a good reminder.
In Which I Give You the Recipe for Those Chocolate Chip Cookies I Mentioned in My First Post Because There’s No Point in Being Coy During a Pandemic
Perfect* Chocolate Chip Cookies
*Listen, chocolate chip cookie opinions are wide ranging and very personal. I agree to recognize your opinions but retain the right to insist that they're wrong.
½ c. butter
½ c. brown sugar
½ c. granulated sugar
1 tsp. molasses (optional, but really gives the cookies a deeper, more complex flavor. I use blackstrap molasses, but any kind would work)
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
¼ c. rolled oats
1 ¼ c. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. of baking soda
½ c. chocolate chips or chopped chocolate bar (I much prefer the chopped chocolate bar because of how you get irregular fragments that melt very differently than standard chocolate chips, but you do you.)
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, (Stop. I know you’re thinking, “I’m not really going to drag out my heavy stand mixer for a cookie recipe,” but this recipe takes A LOT of mixing in the first half. Consider yourself warned.) cream together the butter and sugar until it forms a light, smooth paste, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed.
Feed your seven-year-old a small spoonful of this mixture because it’s his favorite part and God help you if you forget.
Then, cream it together some more. No really, you think you’re done creaming it, but you’re not. This step is important because the sharp sugar crystals are piercing the butter and aerating it which will help give the cookies their chewy but crispy texture.
Probably you should have dragged out the stand mixer because now your arm is tired. I’m not going to say “I told you so” but remember this for next time. Go ahead and switch arms.
Now add the egg, vanilla, and molasses and just when you thought your arms were safe, you’re going to cream the heck out of the mixture again.
Have you switched to the stand mixer, yet? Make sure you dust if off first.
This is not a “cream together until the egg is fully incorporated” kind of recipe. This is a “cream together until the egg and the sugar have completed a complex set of contract negotiations that would make the Disney-Fox merger look like choosing sides for a t-ball game.”
This means that your mixture will get lighter in color, gain a fluffy texture, and eventually start its own streaming network.
Now, for the next part, you’re going to get off light.
Put your dry ingredients in another bowl and stir them lightly with a spoon until they’re evenly distributed. You’re welcome.
Add the dry ingredients to the mixer and mix on low until almost combined. There will still be light streaks of flour in the dough and clinging to the sides of the bowl. Remove from the mixer and scrape off any dough clinging to the paddle.
I know I initially promised you the ease of a stand mixer, but now I’m taking it away.
It’s time to add in your chocolate.
This part is best done by hand as it prevents the chocolate from getting broken up too much and the dough from getting tough by being over-mixed. Also, stand mixers often miss a small portion of ingredients at the very bottom of the bowl, and this allows you to make sure that gets incorporated.
However, the batter is stiff, and if your arm is tired from when you didn’t listen to me before, I guess I’m sorry about that, though probably not as sorry as you are.
Now, scoop the cookies onto greased baking sheets using a #40 cookie scoop. If you don’t have one, you can use two spoons or even your hands to make balls of dough the approximate size of a walnut.
Bake for about 12-13 minutes, remembering the Cardinal Rule of Cookie Baking—Do Not Over Bake.
You’ll think they aren’t quite done yet because they’re still a little soft and glistening in the middle, but they have to sit on the trays to set up for a full minute after you remove them from the oven. The carry-over cooking magic that happens during that minute will leave you with perfectly chewy/crispy cookies.
This recipe yields approximately 24 cookies, but it doubles well. And considering this is a pandemic, and that you dragged out your stand mixer (You did, right?), you should just make the double batch and freeze half the dough in cookie-sized balls. You can bake them right from frozen, just increasing the baking time by a minute or two.
After one minute, remove them from the baking sheet and place on a cooling rack, scoping out the cookie with the biggest pool of gooey chocolate and promising it a swift and merciful end as soon as it’s cool enough that you won’t scald your tongue.
If you make this recipe, I'd love hear about it in the comments. Stay safe, and happy baking!
In November, my back started to hurt. For a few days, I rested, applied ice and heat, and took some ibuprofen. As a regular exerciser, I've had my share of aches and pains. However, this one didn't go away. I contacted professionals. I started the work of getting better. That part is the boring part.
What I want to talk about is what happened during that long holiday season. The fast dark, the biting cold, the world washed in white and gray—they all slowly chipped away at my word count. I was sad. I was in pain. I was only truly comfortable while sprawled on my stomach. And I was stuck.
I've always used exercise as stress relief, as inspiration when I'm stuck on the plot, as a time to refill empty creative coffers. Now I couldn't do any of that. It was as though I was tired and hungry but couldn't sleep or eat.
My brain felt as frozen as the landscape.
And yet, I had a book to write. I also had another problem. I had come to The Chapter I Never Wanted to Write. That's exactly how I thought of it, caps and all. It daunted me. I thought it was the most boring part of the story, and I didn't have a clue how to make it interesting. I had plotted the entire book just so I could avoid writing this one chapter.
And yet, somehow the only course of events that made sense for the plot, that felt right, was the one that led me there, to that blank page. I couldn't avoid it. I couldn't outrun it. I couldn't even outwalk it at the pace my back was progressing.
The story languished while I missed most of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. I whined about it to friends and family. I cried. But nothing put words on the page.
I lay on my back three times a day, every day for weeks and counted off the seconds of each isometric hold or stretch prescribed by my physical therapist like whispered prayers. Eventually, I got bored of being quiet, of feeling sorry for myself, of being in pain.
I got angry.
That helped me find the part of the chapter I could relate to. I knew how to be angry. I could be interested in being angry.
Over 5,000 words later, I finished the chapter. I didn’t just fill it with anger, but with pieces of myself. I was too mad to worry about being vulnerable anymore. It’s probably the piece of writing that I’m most proud of.
I don’t know about you, but my work has suffered again recently. Things are scary right now. Anger, fear, grief, hope—and all the rest. I’m isolated with these huge feelings (and three little kids—but that’s a whole other post!), and they’re getting in the way of my writing.
Do I mean the feelings or the kids in that last sentence? Yes.
And yet, I will keep at it. It’s the only thing I can do. And who knows? Maybe if I find a place for those feelings, some words for them, they’ll be quiet for a few minutes. If only that would work for the kids.
If you’re also feeling a little more alone than you’d like right now, I’d love for you to reach out in the comments on this post. I promise to write back!
Also, if you’d like to be sure you receive my latest posts, updates on my writing, or you want to find out how soon my kids escape from their duct tape bonds, you can click the Subscribe button on my homepage to connect with your favorite Blog Reader program or enter your email to sign up for my Newsletter. I promise never to share your email with anyone else or visit your inbox more than once a month.
If you're anything like me, you're now repeatedly contracting and extending your fingers and calling me a liar.
I’ll fall back on one of my favorite arguments. Bill Bryson said it, so it must be true. I'm currently reading his fascinating The Body: A Guide for Occupants, and it's full of staggering facts such as that nugget.
Our fingers are muscle-free sticks of articulating bones controlled by tendons attached to muscles in the palms and forearms. We’re uncomfortably close to puppet territory here, people.
After I read that fact, and watched my hands ball up a half-dozen times, I thought about how this makes me feel as a writer. If you’d asked me to describe my writing process, it would have started with “brain” and ended with “fingers.” But now that I know that one end of the chain is false, I’m examining my assumptions about the other end.
I’m not prepared to admit to willful characters taking over the narrative or channeling dialogue while in a fugue state.
When I’m stuck in the middle of a chapter, it’s because I’ve learned something new. Maybe the character, the plot, or the world I’m building has changed since I planned that bit.
My brain is letting me know through the not-so-subtle method of the silent treatment, that the planned plot point no longer fits.
It’s the same when the words seem to arrive faster than my poor, weak fingers can tap them out. It’s usually because I’ve planned well, I’ve slept enough, and my three beautiful children are being quiet for a few minutes strung together.
In other words, I’ve done the work to earn the ease.
But, the fingers have no muscles. The strength of what comes out of my fingertips is generated just a step back. And the brain, while not sporting visible connections to the outside world is much the same.
What you love, what you hate, what moves you, what scares you, what you can’t figure out. All those things are the muscles pulling the tendons that flex and uncurl the fingers. Creativity is like your fingers. It’s a tool strengthened by what your brain encounters, not just what your brain dreams up on its own.
Don’t feel guilty the next time you read a book, go to a concert, watch a movie, or take in whatever kind of art you like. You’re not ignoring your work, you’re at the creativity gym.
There's something about being trapped indoors in the bleak midwinter that makes me imagine myself as a nineteenth century authoress, chilblains tingling and blancmange quivering on a plate by my elbow.
I know this is a fantasy cobbled together from a lot more than Austen's works. It's equal parts Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights.
Come to think of it, better throw in Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Heck, English winters aren't even that cold.
Nevertheless, I'm tucked into a parsonage, manse, or cottage, hands warmed by my fingerless lace gloves. I have plans to wander the moors later, but for now I'm sharpening my quill.
The important part, the one that gets me through the backside of winter in Upstate New York, is that last part. In their tradition, I'm getting ready to write myself a bridge to better days.
If I Saw Jane Austen
If I saw you on the subway,
waiting in line at the grocery store,
or watching your friend’s drink as
she spins drunkenly around the dance floor—
I would recognize you.
If I saw Jane Austen,
I like to think that I would recognize you.
I would see in your face the consideration
of what it takes to bring in five thousand pounds a year.
The skill necessary to stalk beasts through the wasteland
required of five useless females,
the middle daughter.
The bite reserved in a hidden pocket you sewed yourself because
society did not trust you enough to provide one.
How right they were.
We would sit in that space,
A family of two, a million strong.
We would know each other’s place.
To see the potentially career-ending faux pas of my first story, see the story of Mrs. Jackson's patience on the side or bottom of this page.
Mrs. Jackson also obviously had a good sense of humor, huh?
I learned a few more things from my second story. Fortunately, it wasn't to write what you know. Spoiler alert: things didn't turn out well for Mrs. Sharp.
What I KNOW is the struggle to teach postmodernism to undergrads at eight in the morning, how to make the best chocolate chip cookies (chop a real chocolate bar and don't over-bake those precious puppies), along with the entire rap to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme. Admittedly, not exactly the most engaging story hooks ever.
Don't abandon those everyday details. Bring them with you.
You should write what you can imagine beyond the limits of your experience. Reach for the strangest things you can think of, the things that keep you up at night, the things that fill you with awe. Then, inoculate the extraordinary with the mundane to give your reader a path just familiar enough that they're able to come along for the ride.
Perhaps the most important thing? Don't give away the murderer in the second line of the story.
I even learned how to type. On a typewriter no less!