Only a Writer or Therapist Would Find the Junk Drawer Significant


“I knew you’d come back for me.”

Luckily for me, I’m both (or at least have been both in the recent past).

I was cleaning out our junk drawer the other day – because we’re getting ready to move, not because I was desperately looking for procrastination excuses – and near the end of my task I glanced down to find it just as it’s pictured here. It struck me as mildly poetic somehow, so I took a break and snapped a picture. Ordinary objects can be fertile ground for writing if you look with the right eye…

In our house, the junk drawer is the catch-all place, where for some reason we keep life’s everyday essentials (scissors and pens) buried alongside the crap we will never, ever use again under any circumstances (year-old soy sauce and manuals to phones I recycled years ago). It’s the one place in the house where hoarding is normal and accepted, even in the tidiest, most minimalist homes. And in my home, which is neither tidy nor minimalist, it’s a place where the crazy really shows. This picture is just the 10% that was left at the bottom.

The writer’s brain is a lot like a junk drawer. We stow things away — both purposefully and at whim — never really knowing if they will resurface, or if they do, if they’ll be useful. An idea that seems essential to our work one minute can become trite and irrelevant the next. Or we scribble something thoughtlessly, only to find it again months later with fresh eyes and find it’s exactly what we need at a crucial moment in a story. It’s a beautiful process of acquiring, storing, and finally (painfully) purging ideas until we have something inspiring or useful to share. It’s good to have a quantity of stuff to draw from, but only when we’re willing to take the time to filter through it will we have the opportunity to see things clearly.

So when was the last time you went through the clutter from your own junk drawer, literally or figuratively? What inspiration can you find at the bottom of your pile — or mine, for that matter? It could be an army guy next to a poignant Taco Bell sauce packet, a mystery key, or a bag of dice. Or maybe an idea that got shelved months ago because it wasn’t ready for the world. Inspiration for a brand new story, or simply texture for a work in progress. Either way, maybe it’s time to revisit something you’ve stashed away, so that you can either toss it aside forever or give it a new life in the light of day.

I’d love to read junk-drawer stories – please link in the comments if you write one!


Cyber Monday and Storytelling

Last week I wrote about gratitude in honor of the warmth of Thanksgiving. Now, with turkey eaten and football watched, we’re several days into the traditional season of consumerism. Many of us stayed up late Thursday or set the alarm for ungodly hours (not I this year, I’m happy to say), only to wait in line for deals, stocking up on gifts for others and ourselves.

Our stated object is to snag a deal on something specific: clothes, toys, electronics, maybe a TV the size of a small village. But the goal is usually something else. It’s not Tickle Me Furby or the 108-inch Plasma TV that makes us want to stand in line for hours, elbowing aside other shoppers and reverting to our primal roots. There’s some other, deeper goal at work: putting a smile on our kids’ or spouse’s face at the holidays, proving our love and thoughtfulness, enjoying the thrill of the hunt, filling the black void in our souls with material things… hey, no judgment here. Whatever that true internal goal is, that’s what really drives us to do the things we do.

Characters in good stories are the same way. They pursue one goal on the surface: solving the crime, getting the guy/girl, winning the epic battle between vampires and werewolves. That’s where the action is. But what the reader really relates to (whether he/she knows it or not) is the internal struggle for something: redemption, self-acceptance, a change in perspective, hope for the future. These internal goals aren’t always positive, just like our own secret motivations for doing things aren’t always saintly in real life. In fact, the internal struggle is often where the real nitty-gritty of our characters’ humanity appears.

A good writer has to understand both goals in order to develop the character’s struggle fully. We have to know why our character thinks she is standing in line outside Target in the middle of the night, wishing she’d remembered those hand-warmers; and why she is really there. It’s all part of what draws the reader in and makes the story worth reading, all the way through to the bitter (or triumphant) end.

Writer’s Challenge No. 7

It’s the Writer’s Challenge – Gratitude Edition! Feel free to respond on your own blog or site and link with a few words in the comments section below. Happy writing!

Writing Prompt: In November, it’s customary to count your blessings (and as often as not, to post about gratitude on your blog, Facebook page and/or Tweetstream). Lovely. But what happens if we take the idea of blessings to extremes? What would life be like if you – or your favorite character – had everything you’d ever wanted? Or if you suddenly had none of the things for which you are grateful? It’s an apocalyptic thought, and a fascinating concept. Write 800 words today about having it all, or losing everything.

Business of Writing Challenge: What are you grateful for when it comes to writing for a living? Is it your natural talent, your tenacity, your friends who are always willing to share? Maybe you’re naturally organized and disciplined, or you have a knack for coming up with ideas that are truly original. I believe we are tasked with using our talents to make the world a better place (the Jewish concept is Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World). Take a moment to inventory and say “thank you” for your greatest assets, and to brainstorm about how you can continue strengthening them in the future.

The Book Market’s Glutted. Why Bother?

Ahhh… After a long day of chasing the kids and ignoring the growing piles of laundry, I sit down to do a little writing. Not, of course, without stopping to browse online for a while. The trouble with doing this before I write is that if I follow the wrong link down a rabbit-hole, not only can I end up lost in the vagaries of cyberspace, but I can make myself downright depressed. Everywhere I look, there are reasons not to write.

Doom and gloom about the e-publishing bubble, discouraging news about authors behaving badly, and so many books and authors vying for attention and readers it’s almost mind-boggling. Every time I go to twitter these days, I find myself saying, Sheesh, is everyone writing a book?

I’m not far off, actually, if you believe the statistic that over 80% of Americans think they have a book in them. Maybe this speaks to the egocentricity of Americans, our love for the written word, or something else altogether. Could be a flawed statistic. But if you’ve been on Twitter lately, it certainly feels true.

If it is true, and you’re hoping to make it as an author, you could have four out of five of your fellow countrymen competing with you for airspace and readers. The population of the US is 311 million, so that’s just under 250 million people.

I remember in high school one of my favorite teachers pointed out that only about 300 people in the U.S. actually made a living as novelists (meaning they didn’t also have to do something else to support themselves). That’s sort of like the NBA of the literary world. I don’t know what the numbers are today. But let’s just say that with the appearance of and the accessibility of publishing (also allowing for some error in his original numbers), maybe it’s four times that number today. So my chances of doing this full time are… let’s see… 250 million divided by 1200…. could I borrow your calculator?… Oh, crap.

If these numbers are anywhere close to correct, and you want to be a professional fiction writer, that’s over 200,000 people competing for one market ‘slot.’ What’s more, the word on the street is that half of self-published authors will make less than $500 and that 75% of the self-publishing revenue ‘pie’ is going to the Top 10% earners.

So what’s a writer to do? Give up and take that job with Uncle Howard? Run around your local Starbucks and ‘accidentally’ spill lattes on other writers’ laptops? (Not recommended. It’s messy. And rude. And illegal. Plus, Sue Grafton already told us that real writers aren’t at Starbucks anyway.)  Hmmm…. Need new strategy.

I have one, actually. It’s a mantra that I’ve begun using every time I follow back yet another writer on Twitter. Every time I come across a book remarkably similar to that idea I had last week that I was sure was totally original. Every time my thoughts are invaded by negativity and doubt and all the reasons I can’t do it. Here it is: Write anyway.

It’s simple. Almost annoyingly simple, actually.

The hard truth is that most of us who are aspiring authors (indie or traditional), well… we’re not going to make the cut, at least in terms of major financial success. Just like every waitress in LA is really an actress, just about every stay-at-home-mom with a laptop is really a writer. And many of us will work our tails off, only to be called back once for an orange juice commercial or, if we’re lucky, becoming this chick, (who I see in every commercial there is). But most of us are not going to be Julia Roberts — or Emily Giffin. And the statistics say most of us will never earn a living at the keyboard.

But just like farm girls from Iowa will always get on that bus to New York or LA, dreaming of stage and screen, we have to try, right?

Unless you have an, ahem, distant relationship with reality, you didn’t become a writer because you thought it was an easy path to riches. If money is your only motivation for writing, I have to say you’re terrible at choosing careers. I am, too, but still…. There are several thousand easier and more efficient ways to make money than being a novelist, including that job with Uncle Howard and the fourteen other suggestions made by your guidance counselor when you told her you were going to be the next Nora Roberts or Stephen King.

But that’s not why you’re here. You’re here because you love to write, and you hope – as we all do – that you have something original to say or a new way of saying it. You want to connect with people, touch hearts, entertain your readers, share your passions or your life experience. You have a story to tell. Now, if you can make a living doing all that, so much the better. And if you’re original enough, talented enough, lucky enough, and hard-working enough, it could happen. You could be one of the 10% the rest of us are grumbling about as we hunker down over our laptops and try to tune out our families’ complaints that we should’ve stayed in law school. Readers are going to buy books. Someone has to fill those top slots. Why not you? Why not me?

But even if that doesn’t happen, I’m here to argue that there is a lot to be said for staying in the game.

Having the dedication and passion just to complete a 90,000 word novel demonstrates a fortitude and self-discipline many people lack. That’s to say nothing of all you will learn through the editing, revising, publishing and marketing process. Grammar, yes. Writing skills and marketing, too. But you also learn to create an identity for yourself and your characters, to accept and incorporate feedback, adapt to changing and uncertain situations. Not to mention demonstrating a level of drive and self-direction over an extended period of time that’s comparable to running a marathon.

Oh yeah, and tons of humility. Truckloads. What business venture, career, volunteer organization or family could not benefit from those qualities?

If you’re a self-published author, you’re also an entrepreneur. When you make the decision to put that book out and hope that someone, somewhere, will like it enough to purchase it, you become the owner of a small business. In some cases a very small business! In their first two years the overwhelming majority of new ventures fail – from restaurants to technology companies. You might fail, too — at least in the sense that you might decide to abandon your efforts for something more lucrative or less time consuming. But once you’ve written a book, no one can ever take that away from you. Your grandchildren will know there’s a writer in the family, and maybe that will inspire them to write, too. No one needs to tell them that you only sold 30 copies, if that’s the case!

Writing is about personal expression, storytelling, and creating something cohesive and interesting where once there was just a blank page. If you’ve chosen this path, it’s because all of that means something to you; and it will continue to do so whether you sell 30 copies or 30,000. So I say, go for it. Read the statistics, weigh the risks, and then throw it all out the window. People don’t look back on their lives and wish they hadn’t bothered playing in that rock band or auditioning for a play — even if they never got further than their high school auditorium. There’s no shame in doing something many people only dream of doing, hoping it will pay off, only to decide later that it didn’t. And if it does pay off, well, you can mention me in your Pulitzer Prize speech.

But you might want to hang on to Uncle Howard’s number. Just in case.