On Rules and Breaking Them

In writing and in life, there are rules. The words “creative” and “writing” don’t always coexist, even for fiction writers. Yes, it’s creative to come up with a great plot full of surprises and twists and insights, but in setting that plot down on the page, there are constant rules. Sentences! Spelling! Grammar! And so on.

Genre writers have even more rules. Happy Ever After for romance writers. The criminal will be captured and made to pay in mystery. Those are the biggest rules and there are so many more that, should you be lucky enough to find an editor or agent to read your manuscript, you’ll hear them all. There are also books and workshops and classes and blog posts that will give you the rules as they understand them. Many writers will attempt to abide by these rules because they want to be published.

Yet something strange happens if you adhere too closely to these rules as a writer. You lose the creative impulse that spurred you on to write in the first place. You paint by number. You give your publisher and your readers more of the same, book after book. Readers expect it. Publishers demand it.

The art of creating something new is the thrill and now it’s gone. But if you persist in your specific vision, if your work is both original and compelling, it might win you acclaim, prizes and money. Or not. So following the rules as a creative writer brings risk, just as, recently, gathering in public is a risk. Certainly if you are not wearing a mask, you pose a risk to others.

I hate the mask, but I wear it because I try to live by the rule of “First, do no harm.” If you are out in public in a crowd without a mask, you may be doing many people harm. I used to suffer with my mask and become annoyed, even angered, by those who went without. Why were they being so selfish? Didn’t they understand that the mask is not only to protect themselves, but to protect others?

There are several answers to this question of why people do not obey the health guidelines to wear a mask in pubic. There’s not a thing I can do to change a single one of these folks’ minds. I wouldn’t even try. So I simmer in anger and bitterness, which I dislike almost as much as the mask.

The Buddhists have a solution, of sorts, to my anger at people who refuse to wear masks in public. It’s not easy, but it works. Anger and other negative emotions are the perfect opportunity to practice compassion. The practice goes like this: you find yourself angry because the person is not following a rule, you recognize you are angry, you turn your anger into prayer for this person, and for all persons like them.

It’s akin to the Christian rule to love your enemy. Turn the other cheek. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” said Jesus on the cross. “May all humans be free from suffering,” loosely translates the practice of turning your own anger into compassion. For a person not wearing a mask in a crowded public space, the prayer might be “May this person (or these people) awaken to the need to protect their brothers and sisters from this virus.”

On this Memorial Day, I give thanks to all the women and men who have lost their lives fighting wars for our country. And I honor all of those who have lost the fight against this virus. Namaste.

Trouble in Paradise

Al and I had our first big fight last week. Lasted all day. It was stupid, too. Not insignificant, but I had to look back in my morning pages to remember what happened. The day that should have been happy (I got my first edits! I was excited to dive in!) ) started out wrong. I just wanted to get to work but I got an early text from a friend in dire need of whatever advice or comfort I could muster. It was pretty heavy stuff, not mine to share.

But it was there, inside me, weighing on my heart. I was just going to have to take my heavy heart into the guest room, where I’d set up shop for editing…but first Al needed some information from me. Just a password and user name. We’ve both applied for our retirement paperwork down here in Florida and that might not have been so smart. Everything has to go USPS to our home in Michigan then forwarded down to Florida.

Who knew this would be so difficult and inefficient? Me, that’s who. I’d heard from friends how easy it is to do all this stuff either online or in person. I wanted to do it last November! Al said not to worry, he had it all covered, he’d been to see the benefit rep at the plant. I pretty much put it all out of my mind. Then the paperwork began. Almost immediately, things went wrong. All along the process, we did our usual thing of saving names and notes from phone calls, new passwords from websites, doctor and drugstore names and numbers, we had it all and we filed it.

Except I misfiled one password that Al needed right that minute. He was online and he had to pay a bill. I looked in the files. Nothing. I tried to log in. Nothing. I tried a few other things. Nope. This system had never heard of me although I’d spent the day with them quite recently. After about an hour of searching, I gave Al the bad news. He was tense and his short fuse blew. At me. How could I not save an important password? Etc. I gave him one final sheet of paper with a unique user name and password.

“It might be this,” I said, sure I’d found the correct way into the system. I couldn’t resist reminding him of the benefit rep’s words: “Don’t worry about your wife, it’s you we need to get set up first” (which turned out to be incorrect as I am a couple months older than Al). Before he could retort, I held up my hand like a stop sign. Then I went into the guest room where work awaited. I took those inflammatory words “Don’t worry about your wife” in there with me. I’m not as healthy (mentally or physically) as Al, and my delicate constitution absolutely requires worry, upset and medication.

Would we ever get our retirement life settled? I popped half a Xanax before anxiety and anger spiraled into fear and tears. There in my temporary writing room, with my beloved things around me (books, laptop, phone, notebook, pen, desk with beautiful chair) I piled pillows and propped myself on the handy bed. I checked the time. Not yet noon. Perhaps the day could be saved. I checked email. And Facebook. And Instagram. Also Twitter. Since I don’t tend to spend a lot of time on those sites, I felt like I’d accomplished something. Everybody knows writers need to use social media. Why? Hmmm. Not promotion, exactly. Just to keep in touch. Especially in a pandemic.

Then, all caught up online, I read a little bit from the Regency romance novel I was then enjoying. (I have been on an absolute Mary Balogh binge for months now.) There was no joy. So I tried to take a nap. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t even meditate. Naturally, all I could think about was Al not worrying about me. Ever. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I hadn’t even looked at the document I was supposed to be annotating. And I hadn’t eaten anything.

I sailed through the living room where he was reclining on the sofa, perusing his iPad, and into the kitchen. Dirty pots and pans and plates and bowls and coffee cups lay on every surface. Really? He couldn’t even do his own dishes?! I grabbed a yogurt and went back into the guest/writing room. We didn’t speak. I didn’t even look at him. But I was seething. After yogurt, I decided to get down to work. Then I noticed it was getting on to 4 o’clock when my dear Nicolle Wallace reports the news on Deadline White House.

We have a guest room television, but somehow it was already a little after 4 pm. and her opening monologue is my favorite part of the show. And we only tape shows in the living room. So I went out and happily Al had gone on his daily walk. I sometimes go with him, but no invitation had been forthcoming on this day. He probably thought I was working. Earlier in the week, he’d moved my desk into the one room in the house he had no reason to enter. He knew I’d gotten my edits, he knew I had a plan.

A plan that had been thrown a curve. Plans have been doing that a lot since the onset of the 2020 great lockdown. I watched Nicolle. She was wearing one of her colorful tops. Even in her basement, she is brilliant, pithy, and impeccably detailed. She cracks wise at appropriate moments to ease the tense news of the day, smiling wide. When the world seems like it’s falling apart, Nicolle will make you think things are maybe going to be okay again someday soon. Meanwhile, here are the facts and don’t forget we’re all in this together.

After the news, I went back into the writing/guest room and opened my document. I worked on it for a few hours, and Al peeked his head in the door. “David?” he asked. That’s what he says when he wonders if I’m ready for the national news. David is David Muir. I like to compare how cable news and national news report the stories of the day. It’s amazing how much David leaves out, but he faithfully reports the bullet points.

“Okay,” I said. We walked down the hall toward the living room. “Do you know what I was doing today?”


“Yep.” I said. “What did you do about the payment?”

“Oh that. I mailed it.”


I went into the kitchen for a glass of wine. Which I felt I had earned. The kitchen was spotlessly clean. I pulled together some cheese and crackers and fruit, too. Of course I made enough for both of us. First fight as a retired couple in-a-pandemic-with-edits-due over.

PS I finished my edits the next day and got them to my editor. She said they look fine. Our next round will be in a few weeks, when we’re back in Michigan. And I have a real writing room.

Living with Uncertainty

It’s almost comical, the way Al and I made a two-year plan for when he retired. He really had it nailed–or most of it. Then came coronavirus. Is there any area of our lives have not been affected by this disease? No. There is not. It is the same for you. The “stay home” part of the plan to beat this virus is not difficult for me. Writers already know how to spend long periods of time in isolation. Time collapses when we write.

I’m not writing now. Well, yes, I blog and scribble morning pages, but I’m not starting my next novel. I’m not yet editing the novel to be published this year. I WILL do the edits and all the other book actions when they come. Writers are the original work-from-home people. We’re used to it and we like it. Except it’s all different now, isn’t it?

My anxiety about a loved one catching the virus is not unique. That every one of my soothing and pleasurable routines in the world has been minimized to what I can do inside this little condo is the same for everyone the world over. I’ve almost adjusted my anxiety to going with whatever comes next. The parts of life where I can’t make any plans with certainty. Still we talk about our retirement, how we can reconfigure it this way and that. We both know none of it is up to us. It is all up to the virus.

The only control anyone really has is over their mind, their speech, and their actions. My mind can feel wild as a jungle. My speech, well, I could do better sometimes. Some of my actions are questionable at best. The Buddha says “First, do no harm.” So I stay home, wear a mask when I must go out, wash my hands when I return. Those are all right actions. I try hard to do no harm.

But what about my the harm I do my own self? I have been an emotional eater since I quit smoking 35 years ago. I’ve made many attempts at controlling this behavior that feels so good but has done a fair amount of harm to my body. Also, I often choose to read rather than go on a walk with Al. Even though there are 23 other hours in the day when I can read to my heart’s content. Reading comforts me, but I go too far. My body needs fresh air and a walk every day weather permits. I feel guilty about how I have overlooked it.

This morning I cued up “Here Comes the Sun” and did a series of sun salutations. That’s treating my body right.

Al has been so patient and kind with me. He also painted the kitchen. My words to him are kind…most of the time. But my actions reject his attempts to help me help myself. And my anxious mind is so out of control even daily meditation doesn’t remove the need for medication. I bet walking would help. And eating more vegetables. Some scientists recently discovered eating vegetables make you happy. They kick up the endorphins. They feed the mind and the body.

So, when it feels like everything is out of control, take a breath. Are your thoughts, speech and actions in alignment with what you know in your soul is right? When you can’t control anything else, remember, you can, with practice and patience, control your speech, thoughts, and actions. Take an internal inventory. For example, I’m not buying any more dairy free ice cream. I thought I needed and deserved sugar in these impossible times. But I didn’t. I just wanted a quick fix. Better to work on the best action, which is helping my body turn away from diabetes and to take that daily walk.

Heard From Editor

True to her word, I heard from my editor last week after delivering my manuscript of Jane in St Pete in early January. I’ve second and third guessed myself since then, but she said it was a “treat” to read and my characters were “quirky and interesting.” She’s sending it to the senior editor with a recommendation for a contract!!!!

There will be edits but nothing big, nothing like I imagined in my head. I am so relieved and pleased. Another piece of good luck landed last week, too. My Michigan chapter of Sisters in Crime wants me to lead a workshop in June. I’ll be the opening act for our star, Jane Cleland. What an honor. And if the virus still holds us captives in our homes, we will do it online.

My editor says it will take about two weeks to hear from her boss, so in that time I’ve been reading mystery short stories and trying to glean anything I can about writing the mystery short story. I have written a few. My vague plan is to dig out “The Charming Criminal” which formed the base upon which I built my secondary characters, Barb and George.

I am not a plotter, not really. I let the story take me where it wants to go. If I’m floundering in the middle of a long work, I step back and determine what needs to happen. Jane Cleland has a very good piece of instruction about how to deliberately plot a mystery and that helped, but still, my story tends to go its own way. I hardly know what I’ve done until it’s over.

However, my favorite part of teaching has always been planning the lesson. So my plan is to take “The Charming Criminal” apart to figure out how I put it together. Because I can’t find any books on the internet about how to write a mystery short story. Although, as a start, I’m reading the best ones published last year.

(OMG Joyce Carol Oates “The Archivist” from this collection is so good. Chillingly so.)

Some writers sneer when another author says their books write themselves. One guy said to give that answer about how you write is to be disingenuous. Nope. One example is the way I ended the book. My editor really liked it. She said it wasn’t the usual pages of monologue where the murderer tells all about his crime. Well, at the time, I was just going by intuition.

I did have to rewrite that last scene from scratch a few times. I tend to know (not always, but mostly) when things in a narrative don’t work. So I just keep trying until I get something that feels right. No idea my ending was at all unusual until my editor admired it for that very reason.

There will be edits and other writerly stuff to take care of, but for now I’m bursting with pleasure on my own little cloud of happiness.

Where I'm Writing From

This is a new writing spot in the same tiny winter condo I share with my newly retired husband, Al. Well, he retired January 1, 2020. Since then, it’s been a journey. We came almost immediately south to our winter home in St. Petersburg, Florida. Since we bought this place, this is the longest Al has been here. Since we’ve been married, this is the longest time the two of us have been together all day every day.

At first, Al had lots of activities and so I was able to comfortably keep most of my beloved habits and routines. I could write in my notebook every morning, spend a good part of Monday writing a blog post, go to dance class, yoga class and writer’s group. Al golfed, went to the gym, and took up shuffleboard. He was thinking of joining a poker group that meets at the clubhouse. Those were good times.

You know what happened next. COVID-19. Al and I have been mostly at home without much interaction with others for one week. My mother back in Michigan has been isolated for two weeks. It took us a little longer to get the memo that staying home is what we should do. Al stopped golfing. The gym closed. All my activities here on the Bayou closed, as did Al’s shuffleboard. We’ve heard people are still using the pool, but I’ve never been one for pools. I prefer beaches.

All our 35 miles of lovely white sand beaches have closed. Our Michigan family has canceled a trip down. That was wise, the right thing to do. You want to be in your home state where your doctors are when a pandemic hits. Our doctors are in Michigan and we are just moving in the Medicare so we really hope we don’t have to visit any doctor here. Most people who get this evil disease won’t have to see a doctor. We are older, but we’re healthy, so we’re optimistic. Speaking of healthy, I taught Al yoga. I miss my yoga teacher, though. She was really, really good. I just do the basics, like the series of poses called Sun Salutation to “Here Comes the Sun.”

We had a dance party, just the two of us, one night, with the help of Alexa, our non-human helper. Mostly she plays songs for us and tells us the weather in Michigan. We used to feel smug about that…now we just ask so we won’t pack up the car and head north too soon. For one thing, my dad is here. I hope to talk him into coming home with us (not working so far). The other part is our house there is much bigger, although really I finally have Al where I’ve always secretly wanted him, close by my side all day every day. Except when I want to read or write.

We watched the new ZZ Top rock doc on Netflix (I’m not a fan of their music but I love a good story about creative people making their dreams come true and this one was excellent). Also on Netflix, we’re watching The Stranger. It’s good, too. I see that the new Emma is coming to video straight from the mostly-closed movie theaters. I’m torn. $14.95 seems way too much to pay. Maybe for my birthday. Until then, we’ll just go on as we have and hope the sky doesn’t fall.

Things are quiet. We see walkers and people playing tennis, but we prefer to keep our social distance. At first I didn’t even want to take walks, but since Al did yoga, I have to now. Other than walking along the bayou nature trail, we have been to the grocery store, and my dad visited last Tuesday. That’s the extent of our activities outside staying in this little condo together. Which is why I moved my desk into the bedroom. The bedroom has become my refuge for reading and writing as Al pretty much watches CNBC (or as I call it “the money channel”) from opening bell until close of market. It keeps him (mostly) calm and busy, so I’m not complaining.

We live in Pinellas County, where there are currently 38 known cases of coronavirus, the virus that causes the disease of COVID-19. That’s low and we’re lucky. Most people in Florida (70%) are retired and don’t work anymore. We’ve saved all our lives for a little slice of year-round sunshine. Our lives have been upended, sure, but we don’t have many of the problems the rest of the country struggle with. Not yet.

It’s those people here and elsewhere on the globe, who have been on my mind. I’m worried for small businesses, for the service industry, for the paycheck-to-paycheck folks. There’s a great tradition in St Pete for small businesses. Downtown is mostly run by entrepreneurs. We love that. I see I am speaking for Al now. It was bound to happen. I’m surprised at how good we get along in this small space. I’m surprised how little I watch the second television that everyone said was essential when a spouse retires. But then, I am a reader and a writer.

I am also about to turn 65, the magic number for people who want to get into grocery stores early, when everything is freshly sanitized and shelves are fully stocked. You can see how that really won’t matter to us here where almost everyone is 65 and older. It will be a mob scene, but at least a clean one.

I had big plans for my birthday. A new business in St Pete, Book + Bottle was supposed to open last week. They sell books and wine. I love the whole concept. So I was going there, dragging Dad and Al because it’s my birthday and I get to say where we go and what we do. I also planned on visiting Frida’s bakery and cafe, another wonderful local business, for my dinner out, because I never cook on my birthday. Also, they have flourless chocolate cake and great food. I went there with writer friends before the enemy virus hit, and thought Al and Dad would like it there, too.

Just like almost everywhere in America, those two places have mostly closed for business. I hope our local small businesses can keep it together until the crisis is over and we get back to normal. It feels sometimes like things will never be normal again. Or there will be a new normal. Both Book + Bottle and Frida’s have curbside service, so we may just hop in the car and go out to support those businesses from afar. I’ve never ordered a book or a bottle of wine as a carry-out before. Since it’s my birthday, I can insist!

It’s a whole new world out there. I hope you are doing well. Until next week…