The Other Folder*

In preparation for my mother’s visitation and memorial service this week, my sister gave my daughter two folders of my mom’s writings to put together in an album.

I knew that my mom had written many short inspirational pieces for religious publications in decades long past. As my daughter emptied the first folder these were there, in their published form.

But my daughter began to empty the other folder and read to us from those pieces. General short stories. Autobiography. Poetry. Character-driven fiction. More poetry. Some appeared to be final drafts while others were overlaid with her hand-written edits. Mixed into these drafts were typewritten submission copies, and at least one rejection letter.

I thought that my work was pushing well beyond where she had gone, but as it turns out she was exploring much further afield than I realized.

In a culture that idolizes individuality, it is easy to see ourselves – our passions and positions – as a result of self-designed, self-made outcomes. But this is rarely the case. We are often navigating pan-generational trajectories. It is valuable to proactively identify these so that we can knowingly add to a legacy or, conversely, take intentional steps to break free of destructive ruts.

In my case, I’ll continue to write. 

But with a greater sense of the forces that drive me to practice my craft.

*In memory of Marlene Joyce Schaiper Marsh Crump | 1937-2019

Waiting Work

A key skill in publishing your debut novel is the ability to wait well. There’s a lot of it. Waiting seems to be most of what is asked of you.

But what I’ve discovered is that waiting is not the same as doing nothing. In fact, waiting well is about not wasting time – perhaps the most valuable time you’ll have.

Since mid-October I have been waiting for the publisher of my debut novel (tentatively titled) The Confessions of Adam (Bold Vision Books, 2019), to complete manuscript edits and initial cover art. During this time I have not been lying on the couch eating cookies and binge-watching The West Wing. Instead, my focus has been on waiting work. I have (in order of importance):

  1. Read The Confessions of Adam, hardcopy, with pencil in hand, 3 times – once aloud.
  2. Completed and submitted for workshop the 6th draft of my next novel.
  3. Alerted my writerly and readerly network to the anticipated release.
  4. Scheduled and sat for my author photo.
  5. Altered my 2019 planned schedule in anticipation of release activities.
  6. Began building my book release email list and started investigating mass email platforms.
  7. Started to arrange book release readings at two venues.
  8. Investigated how to add a book release splash page to my website.
  9. Given notice to several book clubs of the upcoming, albeit yet undated, release.

For the casual observer, waiting work is hard to differentiate from routine work. The difference is that waiting work anticipates what might be needed while routine work follows a defined plan. Both are essential. Waiting work is no less critical to your progress. In fact, it can make the difference between routine work that is on-time and that which is rushed to completion or delivered late.

So, wait well and get to work.

Tossing the Lasso

I live a life of daily, lusty, creative pursuit. I alternate between quiet hours of writing the next draft of my second novel, reading one of the fascinating books from the stack by my armchair, and sculpting clay at my workbench in the garage. I fill hours each day neck-deep in my art. I do have to pause occasionally and turn to the pedestrian tasks of Gmail or getting a haircut, but the core of life is spent in refining my creative process and reveling in the fruits of my labor.

Here ends the dream. My precious, imagined reality.

My life reads a lot like your life.

At the office Monday through Friday, an 11.5 hour-a-day-commute-included hard-switch between one task and the next. 90 minutes some evenings and 60 minutes others to share between what I might write and read before grabbing a late dinner, cuddling with my wife, packing my lunch, looking at Outlook/Slack, setting up the coffee maker and hitting the pillow for seven-ish hours of sleep before the alarm goes off at 5:30AM. One weekend a month, where there is not some demand on my calendar or the not-to-be-ignored-any-longer need to catch up on personal email, household tasks, and other life-admin, I write and read for stretches that sometimes border on the (dare I say it) luxurious. I will say that I’ve made it a priority to make war with my muffin top by jumping rope or going for a walk once in a while, but I’ve come to grips with the fact that the cause of death on my certificate will read “out of shape.”

No one lives a life where their creative work is central and all else orbits*. Creativity is always pushed to the edges. We’re always tossing the lasso, trying to ring and pull our pursuit back toward the center.

So it goes. Keep the dream alive. Your soul pleads for it.

*For a timely example:

What Were the Questions I Was Asking?

Earlier this month I asked myself why I wrote my debut novel, The Confessions of Adam (Bold Vision Books, 2019). I realized that I’d thought quite a bit about the ‘themes’ of the novel – the guiding concerns of the work – but I’d never written them down.
So I did. Here’s the list.
Central concerns/questions that drove me to write The Confessions of Adam:
What actually happened in Eden and after? I was drawn into the Hebrew narrative. I was a reader first.
How does personal memory work? Is even the most trustworthy of memories trustworthy?
How might Adam have defended himself – long after the events of Eden?
Why is this narrative so unexplored fictionally in this form?
So what are some answers that I came to while writing?
Here you go:
Reading the narrative of Genesis 2-4 was the greatest driver to writing it. If I hadn’t found it compelling as a reader I could never have written the story. There is also a creative event that happens quite early in the writing of something like this. You come to believe what you’re writing. Of course you know it’s fiction, but you come to believe that whatever happened, the telling you’ve settled on is closest to the unknowable facts.
Our memories (what and how we recall events) is a complex calculus. Our memories are shaped by our biases and reshaped each time we revisit them. Like putty, we pull at certain aspects of our memories and repress others. All memories are flawed and not to be trusted blindly. All memories need interrogation.
We know there is the defense, the reaction, that pops up in the moments immediately following a failure. There is also the entirely separate series of defenses that are riddled out in the weeks, months, and years following the event(s) in question. These short and long-term defenses are arrived at very differently. I wanted to look at these side-by-side with Adam.
The primary reason is because it is so familiar and hard to get at. A passable construct has to be put in place in order to peel back all the familiarity and gaze afresh on these events. And putting together such a construct isn’t easy.
What questions will my readers have after they finish the novel?
Those are the more interesting questions.

What Happened to December?

I read The Confessions of Adam out loud.

On November 28th I went to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, with my friends Jim and Rita to hear a reading by the current US Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith. The reading was excellent. While there I reconnected with my former professor and friend Greg Schwipps. We were catching up regarding the planned publication of my debut novel, The Confessions of Adam (Bold Vision Books, 2019).

Not far into the conversation Greg became very serious, as he does in his wonderful way, and shared with me a lesson learned from the publication of his terrific Indiana-based novel What This River Keeps. Greg told me that now is the time to ensure that this novel is as good as I can possibly make it. I told him that I’d read it twice, in hardcopy, pencil in hand and had identified several edits. He shook his head yes, as if to say ‘of course you have.’ He then looked me square in the eye and said there was one thing I had to do – read the manuscript out loud.

Suddenly I remembered this tool. Reading out loud. I’ve used it for short fiction for years. I swear by its effectiveness. Yet somehow, when it most mattered, I’d forgotten all about it.

So what happened to December? I read The Confessions of Adam out loud, 8-10 pages each day to my wife – she on one side of my writing table and I on the other. She heard things, I heard things, and upon these things I made yet more marks with my pencil.

Indeed, I forgot you for a month, dear blog reader, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me. For the novel you will read later this year (my sincere thanks in advance) will be better for my absence.

And thank you, Greg, for this most timely reminder!

Keep Trusting the Process

A few weeks ago I printed the first 30 pages of my forth-coming novel, (tentatively titled) The Confessions of Adam, grabbed a pencil, and began reading and marking the manuscript. It has been two years since I’ve read it and I know that in January I will be getting an edited copy from my press. Adam and I need to reacquaint ourselves.

Well, I am now 180 pages in and my writerly, drafting instincts are in full gear. I’m ready to do what I’ve always done with this manuscript – write another draft!

Then I remember – er, my wife reminds me – 

This time it’s different. Joelle Delbourgo, and my publisher, Karen Porter, have both said that this manuscript is wonderful. So have my early readers. I must now trust a new editing process. And at this stage, the process has moved beyond my desk to the editing process of my editor. Sure, I can go through it, read it, and mark it up, but a rewrite before January would be foolish. What is happening is all part of the process. It’s just part of the process that I’ve not seen before. Our experience is rarely the first measure of reality. This is a process that’s produced millions of novels – the author/editor relationship. My team has grown. The process is now collaborative.

Let the process continue.

Cover Art

On October 3rd I had no publisher in sight. My agent, Joelle Delbourgo and I had been searching for a publisher for a year and a half. I was beginning to think that I’d written a good and unpublishable manuscript. I had begun work on another novel. I had not read the novel we were trying to sell in two years.
Then it happened.
On October 4th two presses came forward to publish.
On October 20th I signed a book contract.
On October 30th I was asked for my ideas on cover art.
Wait, what? Cover art?
Given my nonexistent novel, on October 3rd I would have laughed at myself for thinking about what I might imagine for cover art. I would have thought it somehow presumptuous. My job was to write. What a waste of time to imagine some detail as vain as a book cover for a book that may or, more likely, may not ever exist.
On October 30th I was wholly unprepared. I had no idea. I am grateful that Joelle made a suggestion – the suggestion that I might have made had I been ready to do so.
The lesson learned is an old one – prepare for success. I’m not saying you should put hours into devising the perfect cover art or that you should commission artwork. But, give it a little thought. Be ready to respond with something.
Then get back to the work that no one else can do – writing.

Thursday Morning, October 4th 2018

Delta 2660 landed in Baltimore a few minutes after 11AM. This was the first time I’d ever landed in Baltimore. I took my cell phone out of my pocket and off of airplane mode. I had a voicemail from my agent, Joelle Delbourgo. There was only one reason Joelle would call instead of send an email. I texted my wife and told her I had a voicemail from Joelle. I pulled up the beta voicemail transcription. It was far from perfect, but it was enough. Apprentice House Press of Loyola University, Maryland – right here in Baltimore – wanted to publish my debut novel. I was stunned. Hunched over in the aisle waiting to exit I flipped over to my email. Joelle had emailed, too.
Once inside the terminal I forwarded Joelle’s email to my wife and called her. I told her to open her email. It was happening. That thing that I’d thought so much about, too much about, was no longer pent up in my imagination.
I called Joelle. She told me to email Bold Vision Books, another publisher that we knew was planning to take the manuscript to committee. The response was back in under 30 minutes. They had taken the manuscript to committee that very morning. They too wanted to publish the manuscript.
Two presses and it was not yet 1PM. The following morning, Joelle and I made the decision that the second press, Bold Vision Books, would be the best press for this work – and future planned projects.
After a year and a half of proposals sent from Joelle and myself, when it seemed most unlikely that any press would show interest in The Confessions of Adam, two presses came forward – while I looked down on the clouds.
Nothing happens until something does.

What Is Writerly Success?

What is the measure of a writer’s success? Is it placement of a short story in a lit mag? Obtaining an agreement with an agent? A book deal? Is it less than these? Is it finishing a draft? Starting a draft? Developing a character or finding a plot turn? Is it simply finding the right word or sentence or voice in a snippet of dialogue?
I suppose it is all of these things – depending on the day and the ebb and flow of our work.
But for me these days, with all of life crashing in, success in writing seems to be simply sitting down each day and doing the work. Actually spending time writing each and every day. This is success.
So, let us not put undue pressure on ourselves. We are successful simply by producing sentences each day. And in this way we are successful should we never get a piece placed or a book contract. And let’s be clear, should those things come, we are not more successful. For our grandest arrivals don’t come independent of the steps taken along the way.
The crafting of sentences is our writerly success.


We just spent a week in India visiting orphans in such places as Bangalore and Puliangudi. During the trip I wrote in my travel journal about what we were doing and seeing. I attempted to process the place and the people. And language fell short.

It still falls short.

How do you describe orphan boys squeezing your arm and pushing on your skin in fascination with your color?

Creamy brown fingers tickle my pale underarm. Giggles erupt.

How do you describe the traffic patterns?

It’s not driving, it’s dance.

How do you describe the Indian hospitality of a home-cooked meal in the kitchen of an orphanage?

We sit at her table as she brings roasted chicken and rice and ice cream. And she waits till we’re done to eat.

How do you describe driving through your hometown when you return?

All the buildings are laid out as if planned. The grass is green and without litter.

How do you describe a place like India?

It must be seen to be believed.