The Anxiety Quilt – and other brilliant innovations

cool quilt

I was having coffee with a writer friend last Tuesday who is in the process of forcing herself not to write her agent. This can prove difficult. Especially when one is waiting on submitting books. Indeed, I was impressed that she was capable of making sentences – I certainly could not when my book was sitting on the desks of very nice editors.

“He called me yesterday and said that he was so impressed with my sense of calm because he hadn’t heard from me. I didn’t tell him that I have written tons of anxiety-ridden emails that go on for paragraphs and paragraphs, that I just delete and don’t send.”

“It feels good to write it down, doesn’t it,” I said. “Just to get it out and separate from you.”

“It totally does.”

And that got us thinking.

Here’s the thing about this business. It’s worrying. It’s anxiety-provoking. It’s a one-way ticket to cuckoo-bananas-loonyville. I have always been wired for being – how shall we say – a little nuts, but since I’ve been in this work, I am, and I don’t mind you knowing it, super nuts.

Anyway, the thing is? The deleted emails that feel so good to write but you never ever send because god forbid that the people we work with ever get a good glimpse at the depths of crazy that exists in our heads – well, wouldn’t it be fun to do something with it?

I said: “What you need to do is get a printer that will print it all out on bits of fabric and make something with it. Like a worry doll or drapes or a computer cozy. Or a crazy quilt.”

“No,” she said. “Not crazy. An anxiety quilt.”

Unfortunately, I can’t sew worth a damn (or any kind of crafting, really. The only D I ever got in my life was in Home Economics). But I love this idea. That the language of worry transformed into something cool and lovely that can be thrown over the back of a chair or warm the toes on a cold Minnesota winter night. I like the idea of our worries being separate from us. I like the idea that the little knot of anxiety that lives in the gut or the head – all barbed wire and acid and expectations and knives – can transform into something else. A blanket. A doll. Fire in the hearth. A piece of art. A long, thick thread, knotted into a pair of socks. A string of beads fastened around the throat.

Transformations are powerful, after all. If a magician can turn a tin can into a flying dove or an empty hat into a fuzzy rodent – poof! – then really, it should be no trouble at all to transform anything into anything. Your worries could become a flying castle. Or chain-mail coat made entirely of paper clips. Or a dragon so small it could fit in your pocket. Or a post-it note golem. Or a bird made of stars.

When my daughter was little – around five – she struggled with some pretty serious anxiety. One of the parenting tricks the doctor told us was to teach her to have specific times when we talk about our worries. So, when she would start to fall apart, we would say, “I can see this is a really big worry. Let’s put our worries in our pocket for now and then we’ll talk about it at Worry Time.” It was work – you could see it on her face – but she could usually do it. Largely, it was an opportunity for us to teach her how to take her anxiety out of the driver’s seat of her life – to acknowledge it, but to not leave it in charge. At Worry Time, we’d snuggle up with her with a blanket and an ancient, horrible stuffed chick named Bubble, and she would list all the things that she was worried about. Bubble, as it turns out was a wonderful listener.

“It makes me feel better,” she used to say, “just knowing that Bubble knows.”

Bubble became her worry surrogate. Her secret keeper. A transformation from something overwhelming and consuming and amorphous to something with a fat belly, ludicrous orange feet and a flap of felt posing as a beak. Bubble with his glued-on eyes. Bubble with his sour smell from too many nights in a child’s bed. Bubble with his matted feathers that weren’t actually feathers at all.

Maybe it’s the artist’s curse to be naturally wired toward worry, but I don’t think so. I know a lot of writers and many of them are anxiety-prone, but certainly not all of them. Still, I wonder what their anxiety quilts would look like. I wonder about my own.

Here is a patch in the shape of a star with the name of the book that I had to give up on.

Here are sixteen patches in the shape of a heart for the sixteen times my heart was broken. If you press your ear to their soft centers, you can hear them beating.

Here is a patch in the shape of a mouse. That is for a character that I had to obliterate in order to make the novel work.

Here are patches with numbers on them – numbers I like: three, for example. And fifteen. And zero – but only if you say it with a Spanish accent.

Here is the patch for the career setback. Here is the patch for the financial hardships along the way. Here is the patch for the conflict at school. Or the conflict with friends. Or the conflict with other members of my large and complicated family. Here is the patch for the pregnancy that turned scary. Here is the patch for the sleepless nights in school.

Here is my challenge for you, dear readers: embrace transformations. Think about what is worrying you. Think about it transforming to something else – something beautiful, something strange, something with clear eyes and a strong mind, and flying away.

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On Valentine’s Day, we must all read Pablo Neruda. I’m pretty sure it’s the law.

Happy Valentine’s Day, my darlings. I hope it is full of love poems and kisses. And, really, more kisses than poems, because even though poems are wonderful and all, kisses are, admittedly, slightly better.

Anyway, there is no one who does love poetry and the language of longing and tenderness and desire like Neruda. So here he is – from me to you. With imaginary kisses.

I Do Not Love You

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Translated by Stephen Tapscott

 

And if you’re in the mood for a good cry, you can watch Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson read “La Muerta” in both English and Spanish in this clip from “Truly, Madly, Deeply”. That movie, man. It destroys me.

 

On Avoidance, Resistance, and Muddling Through

I have violated my New Year’s Resolution. I erased a third of the novel. Irrevocably. I erased it on my computer, from the emailed copy I sent to myself, from Dropbox, from my husband’s email. Everywhere. Or so I thought.

I had a really good reason for doing this – largely, the general sucky, lousy prose – but I am regretting it now. I mean, I was. More on that in a minute.

There is a thing that can happen in the quiet of the office space. By the clicking of the keys or the scritching of the pen on the paper. That little, itchy, insinuating voice that creeps along the neck and down the spine. It’s bad breath tickles the ear. It has sticky fingers and a grubby face and hair like thistledown.

Really? the voice says.

That’s what you wrote?

No one could possibly like this.

Now, let’s be honest. The voice wasn’t wrong. The pages – eighty of them in all – were pretty crappy. However, the promises that the voice insisted were true – that my agent will never want to speak to me again, and that my editor will cancel my current book because good god what was I thinking, and that booksellers and librarians will, en masse, remove my book from the shelves and throw them in the garbage, and that my husband and children will disown me and that I will never write again, and really, why would I – well. Those are probably not true.

So I selected the last third of the book. And I erased it. And I stared at the screen. For a long time.

And then I did what many of us do when we are facing something difficult. I avoided.

I am an expert avoider. I could get an Olympic medal in Avoidance. Wait. Do they have those? I hope so, because that would be awesome.

Now, in my past, this period of avoidance has been prolonged and deep. Less so now. Now, at least I have learned to recognize avoidant behaviors and resistant behaviors. Now I have learned the importance of muddling through.

For me, muddling through means sometimes working on other things. Yesterday, for example, I was writing a scene that was emotionally exhausting and painful. To keep me moving, and keep me sane, I turned on a timer and opened another document. Twenty minutes working on the scene, twenty minutes writing a goofy, sexy, satirical story about Helen of Troy growing up – ugly and lonely – in that tower with her randy mom and her slutty dad. And it was super fun. I probably will never publish it, but that’s okay, because it got me through that scene – and that chapter.

Another thing that helps me muddle through is to be – shall we say – non monogamous – in my work habits. The book I’m working on was originally longhand, but the version on my computer is so utterly divorced from the original draft, that I can’t even use it anymore. Which means I am stuck on the computer – not a happy place for me. So I have another novel – that I might be finishing today, actually. And that’s totally longhand. And it’s completely different from the more serious novel that I’m currently married to. It’s funny and irreverent and biting. It’s a total departure from everything I’ve ever done. And – like most affairs, I’m told – it gives me the shivers just to touch it. Just to hold it close. But working on both projects allows me to keep both stories fresh, whole, and energized. It allows me to be fully present in both, because neither have gotten stale.

Also: I have a stack of notecards in my desk drawer upon which I write scene outlines, lovely sentences, story ideas, or whole paragraphs. I save these for later.

Also: I wrote a novella – something Not For Children. It poured out of me at Christmas time, and waits, quietly, while I decide what to do with it.

Also: I am revising two Broken Novels to see if I can un-break them. Maybe I can. Maybe I can’t. But the work itself is satisfying. It is filled with notes in margins in red pen and handwritten pages on looseleaf stuck into the binder. Binders full of words. It is a beautiful thing.

There is a theme here. Did you notice it?

Resistance happens to all of us. Avoidance happens to all of us. The only cure for writer’s block is writing. The only cure for bad writing is more writing. The only cure for those nasty voices that show up, unbidden, in our brains, is to write our way to the other side. Whatever project. Whatever it takes.

I discovered that the pages I erased weren’t entirely erased at all. Google Drive. I had forgotten I had done it. I was there last weekend looking for something else, and my novel winked back at me – beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t erase it. I decided to leave it there, untouched, and will continue on my way until I reach the end on this side. Then I will compare the two. It’s only fair.

Today, I have another tough scene to tackle. And I will tackle it. Today, I have a composition notebook that will have new pages with jokes and witches and perhaps a kid with a checkered past saving the day. Or maybe the witch will save him. I haven’t decided yet. Today, I will put more words in the short story about memory and I will fuss a bit more on the Lake Erie novel with shape-shifting dog-men.

Today, I will write words. I will not resist. And I will muddle through.

But first, I will turn on Freedom. Because, good god. The internets, man. So shiny. So devious. In the meantime, I am curious about you folks. How do you muddle through? How do you break down your resistance and get work on the page? How do you quell those ugly voices and tell them to shut up and be done with it? I am terribly curious.

 

“Everyone Else Can Suck It” – thoughts on art, work and making things.

LOOK WHAT I MADE!

One of the things I treasure about living here in the Twin Cities is its astonishingly vibrant, well-populated and deeply talented children’s literature community. I have friends who write YA novels and MG novels and picture books. I have friends who are illustrators and graphic novelists and copy editors. And not to mention the editors, publishers, agents and professors of children’s literature. And don’t even get me started on the librarians and curators. It’s ridiculous. And I adore them all.

And what’s more, it’s an incredibly loving, supportive and dynamic community, all deeply committed to children’s literacy, children’s access to books, as well as infusing the art form with the kind of vigor and wonder and love that it demands. I’m lucky to be a part of it.

The other day, I was at a local coffee shop, working at the big table with a bunch of other authors. We had laptops and notebooks and sketch pads interspersed with coffees and scones and salads. We kept one another on track when needed and offered commiseration when needed and told jokes and even, as a group, did some quick research on the names and types of ladies’ underwear. Yanno. Story stuff.

At one point I showed the folks present some of the preliminary sketches for the cover of my new book, The Witch’s Boy (I wish I could show you. But alas. It’s not ready yet), and I enjoyed the collected ooos and ahs, and I shared some of my feelings of anticipation and apprehension and worry. The other writers and artists assembled nodded their heads sagely. We know, their faces said. We super know.

“But,” I said, “fortunately, I have already pre-written my horrible reviews. So that’s taken care of and I don’t have to worry about it.”

Cue the collective sigh.

“Really, Kelly?” they said. “Why do you do this to yourself?”

And it’s a reasonable question. And I do this to myself a lot. The book I wrote. The book I wrote a while ago. The book I’m writing now. It is so easy to see how someone along the way will dismiss it out of hand. Who will turn a small gripe into a condemnation of the book. Who will not see my characters as I see them, and love them as I love them.

And it is silencing, this pre-bad-reviewing. And it is hurtful. And it is mean.

“Well,” my friend Swati said. “What do you think about your book? How do you feel about it?”

And I looked at her, and I allowed myself a rare moment of honesty.

“I love it,” I said. And I meant it too. “I really love it. And I’m proud of it. And I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve ever written in my life.”

She smiled at me. “Well. There you go. You wrote a book that you love and that you’re proud of, and that’s all that matters. And everyone else can suck it.”

And I told her that I was going to make a sign saying that very thing and put it above my desk, which I have done, and am looking at right now, with total love and adoration on my face.

I turned in my copy edits to The Witch’s Boy last week – it was my very last time being able to touch the paper, to make marks or switch things around or affect anything at all. And I took the time to savor it. I closed myself in my office for days, reading the pages out loud. It was, in truth, like the fiftieth time I have done so – I am an out-loud sort of self-editor. And I read each word with gusto, heft and meaning. I felt each sound vibrating in my bones. And I felt as though Ned and Aine and Sister Witch and the motherless wolf and the bandit king and the dead brother and the aging queen and the grieving father and even the insufferable Brin and Ott and Madame Thuane – all of them, you see, were right there with me. Their hands on my hands. Their breath in my ear. Their hearts rattling away inside my rib cage. And I loved them. And I was proud of them. And I slipped them all into a document box and sent them away.

When we make art – and really, when we do any kind of work that we feel born to do – there is this wonderful sense of non-self that comes over us. Hours can vanish, our real life can vanish, even our bodies and histories and futures can vanish. While we work, there is only the work. It’s wonderful, really.  Our work is not us, it is separate from us. And that is important, because we send it into the world, where it can be loved or hated, adored or abused, learned from, built upon, and, ultimately, transformed. The work changes us, it changes the people who touch it, and it changes in return.

There is something wonderful that happens when we make work that we like. We can hold it in our hands; we can turn it around and around; we can run our fingers through the sheets of paper, and listen to it make the sound of ocean waves whispering on an endless shore; we can linger on the scent of ink and paper and fingerprints. But what’s more – we can say to the world, Look. I made this. And you can love it or you can hate it or you can not care either way, but it doesn’t matter. I made this. And it is for you.

I was at South High School the other day, and I said some stuff about making art and being vigorous and demanding and infusing their stories with the fullness of their intelligence and curiosity and perfectionism. But what I should have said was this:

Make art.

Work hard.

There will be people who don’t care for what you do. That’s okay. And that’s their right. Work hard anyway.

Pour your heart and soul and self into whatever you do until you think there is no more you left. (You will be wrong. There is an endless fountain of you-ness. And there is no limit to what you can make.)

Make work that you are proud of. Work that will outlast you. Work that is your gift to the world. Make work that is separate from you.

And everyone else can suck it.

“Seriously, how can you stand it?” – a meditation on my beloved Minnesota

As I write this, it is -5°F. I think the high today is two. The snow squeaks underfoot with each heartbreaking step. The wind insinuates itself through our coats, into our boots and long johns and balaclavas. It whispers through the walls. The snowpiles on the sides of the road have not melted since November. They are now as dense and cruel as concrete. The streets are narrow and slick. Salt has grayed the edges of the world, uglying what once was beautiful.

This winter has been long, man. A long, bitter slog. And even the most dedicated of winter enthusiasts has found themselves looking at real estate listings in exotic-sounding places like Arkansas or Louisiana or Texas. Swampy places. Deserty places. Places where they close the schools if someone heard one time that it might be approaching freezing. Right now, that sounds wonderful.

I’m just kidding, of course. I am never leaving my state. I love its farms and its rivers and its lakes. I love its ancient granite cliffs in the north and its insanely fertile soil in the south. I love its forests and its massive bogs and its high prairie to the west. I love the rush of spring, the loll of summer, the symphony of color in the fall. And I love the winter. I really do. Even now.

I get a lot of people looking at our weather reports – did you know that some people read the weather reports of places where they do not live. They look at the crazy low temps in Embarrass, Minnesota, and they fan their faces – thrilled, swept away, utterly spent. It is weather porn. No one can convince me otherwise.

Wait, what was I saying? Oh, right. People write to me and say, essentially, HOW CAN YOU STAND LIVING THERE? Their words are kind, alarmed, and urgent. They talk to me the way one talks to a spouse in an abusive relationship. Or a long-term kidnapping victim. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY, they plead with me.

The thing is? Even when it’s cold, it’s still pretty awesome. And there’s something that happens to us in the cold – an intense camaraderie, a joined sense of purpose, a collective pact of survival and victory. We are Sam and Frodo in Mordor. We are the Light Brigade, facing certain doom, and going down fighting. We are the 10th Mountain Division, fighting and  dodging Nazis on Nordic skis. Nothing makes you love your neighbor more than to help them build a glowing, multicolored ice castle in the front yard.

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Nothing makes you love the half-crazed kids in the neighborhood – especially after they descended on your home to play Minecraft and subsequently tore it to shreds, than to see them doing this outside:

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One thing my state does incredibly well in the winter making a lot of social things for us to do in the winter. Because, no matter how cold it is – and yes, it gets frakkin cold – we can still get outside. And we should. Getting outside changes our relationship with the cold. It changes our relationship with the seasons. And it makes it love it – and one another. I have been accused before that perhaps the over-cold temperatures make us high. This is possible. After, all, we do organize kite-flying festivals every year. On a frozen lake. It is marvelous.

And cross country skiing festivals:

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At some point, we simply learn that it’s not the weather – it’s the gear. And it’s the relationship, too. When we dress warm enough, we go beyond simple survival. We become part of the outdoors. We explore; we connect; we wonder. We have this incredible opportunity to fully experience the astonishing beauty of winter – ice crystals and wind, deer tracks in the snow, deep drifts, frosted tree trunks, the utter silence of a frozen forest, the swish of a ski on a well-honed track, the cut of branches holding up the sky. The landscape is beautiful. The people are beautiful too.

Yesterday, we went to the art shanties – twenty-two ice houses-turned-artist installations. There was a shanty turning wind into art, there was a shanty that had transformed itself into a giant music box, there was a shanty where you could write and read people’s letters. A shanty full of polar bear art. A shanty made of salt. A shanty with a Totally Legitimate Elevator. And the people drove out to the ex-urbs. And they parked their cars and they walked out onto the frozen lake. And they participated in the art – they made, they wrote, they danced. They climbed inside a giant, multiple-bike-powered polar bear puppet, and drove it around. And they smiled in spite of the cold, through the cold, because of the cold. And it was good.

Seriously, how can I stand living here?

Seriously, how can I live anywhere else?

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