Hello and welcome (again) to I Have Notes! It means a lot that you’ve elected to spend a little time with it each week, and I’m so excited to get to talk with you—even though technically, officially, I had planned to be on book leave right now.
You were warned that I would chat with you about my writing and reading, two areas of my life that frequently lack the order I crave. Take reading: I’m always in the middle of about 10 books. Every room in my house contains either an overflowing bookshelf or another piece of furniture I pile books upon, despite that furniture being constructed for another purpose. I’ve been putting off going to the post office, because I suspect my box is full of more books—books I wanted—many of which will join the little Stonehenge of stacks on my office rug.
Given all the places where I can and do store books, it might seem like an insult if your debut novel—the one you labored over for a decade before anxiously, breathlessly releasing it into the world—lands on the floor of my office. But according to the twisted locational reading hierarchy under which I live, shelves are for books I’ve already read, or those I want to read but don’t see myself starting soon, while my desk, my kitchen table, and, yes, my office floor are for books I’m either reading or hoping to begin as soon as possible. So if I trip over your book on my way to my desk, it’s kind of a compliment, is what I’m saying? I put it there so I can’t forget about it!
This month has been a tough one for reading, between wrapping up my former job and launching this newsletter. Then there was my truncated book leave, which I’d been hoping to take ever since I sold my second book. It didn’t feel possible or, frankly, important to focus on writing when my mother’s health began to decline last year. It felt even less possible once my kids were home all day, every day, learning remotely—mostly learning that they hated learning remotely. (I might have also sabotaged myself by getting a dog.) Occasionally, a well-intentioned family member would ask, “How’s the writing going?” and I would sit there in awkward, unfurling silence until another family member gently reminded them, “Ah, usually we wait for her to tell us how it’s going … [nervous glance in my direction] … if she wants to.”
I finally made a plan to start my mini–book leave this fall. Once The Atlantic came along, the planned month shrank to a week or so—a magical week, it must be said; I’d never been able to spend eight to 10 hours a day writing, and felt positively drunk on the power and possibility. At the end of each day, I tried to pause when I knew I could keep working—a practice known as “parking downhill” (I wish I could remember where I first heard this term in a writing context! It’s a genius tip)(update: it was Ed Yong, of course!)—so that the next day there was no hour-long staredown with the document, no wild grasping at literally any excuse (“Let me just make some more coffee/brush this dog/outline a totally unrelated YA novel first”) to avoid jumping back in: I knew exactly where to start. I’m feeling better about my manuscript than I ever have, a feeling that almost certainly will not last, so I’m savoring it while I can.
Now I’m trying to turn my reading life around, starting with the book I’ve been toting around for the past few weeks: Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis, by Alice Bell. Most everything I’ve read about anthropogenic climate change has been (understandably) focused on imperatives and dire projections—I’d never read a detailed account of how we got here. While such a history could fill several books the size of this one, so far I think that Bell, a climate campaigner, has done a remarkable job sifting through hundreds of years’ worth of human choices and consequences to build a necessarily compressed but compelling narrative.
She still finds space for plenty of fascinating anecdotes—the chapter I just read, for example, kicks off with the story of the first recorded “tree huggers,” 18th-century villagers in Khejarli, Rajasthan, who sacrificed themselves to protect a grove of khejri trees. As Bell points out, the story of the climate crisis is also the story of our modern world—she’s candid about how colonialism, racism, greed, and hubris contributed to the threat we’re facing, but acknowledges it is no simple tale of “villains and heroes.” I haven’t found this a fast read, because there’s so much to chew on, but it is an engaging and important one.
Two books I finished recently are Robin Ha’s poignant, gorgeously illustrated memoir, Almost American Girl, and Kyle Lucia Wu’s new novel, Win Me Something, out this month from Tin House. (Big fan of the Tin House list, by the way, so let me also shout out The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh, White Magic by Elissa Washuta, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, and Negotiations by Destiny O. Birdsong.) Win Me Something centers on Willa Chen, a young biracial Chinese American woman who is hired as a nanny by a well-off white family, and it’s about growing up and navigating spaces in which you don’t quite fit and stubbornly, sometimes hopelessly trying to learn how to belong somewhere. I read it in two sittings and found it both tender and devastating. (Bonus reading: this craft essay in which Wu reflects on plot, what it means to write “ordinary” characters, and the quotidian yet cataclysmic moments in life that inspire her writing.)
I also revisited a memoir I’d read a very early draft of, Taylor Harris’s This Boy We Made, both for the pleasure of rereading and because the book has changed since I first read it. I told you I would be honest about my biases, so I will now disclose some of my connections to the author: (1) We share a publisher; (2) we were both edited by the great Julie Buntin; (3) we’ve been friends since we met in the restroom at a writing conference in 2013; (4) I love her very much. So I’m not getting hired to review this book in The New York Times.
But I was a Taylor Harris reader and fan before that afternoon when our bladders fatefully synced up (wow, sorry, Taylor); I never missed her McSweeney’s column back in the day, and there is no universe in which this book wouldn’t have moved me. In This Boy We Made, we follow her quest to find the cause of her son’s mysterious and alarming medical symptoms, which ultimately leads to a crucial discovery about her own health. Her writing is beautiful and lucid, brimming with humor over things many people wouldn’t be able to find humor in, but what I appreciate most is how bravely and honestly she confronts the frustration of unknowing—what she calls “the liminal space between symptoms and answers”—and finds not just room to breathe, but something I think she’d call grace.
I want to throw in a dash of advice before we close, because I suspect the advice column is one reason many of you are here, and folks have already submitted such good questions (thank you/send me more!). The next round of advice will focus on family and friendship, but for now, here’s a letter that fits in with this week’s reading/writing themes:
Dear I Have Notes,
I’m a writer of color, an M.F.A. graduate, and a fiction reader for a literary magazine. I’m also a parent to two children, ages 2 and 6. I struggle with time and striking a balance between writing and parenting. I am currently revising a novel. I tell myself that I am doing my best, but I also want to find more energy and motivation to keep going. I don’t know if I am doing enough.
I tell myself that I’ll do more when the children grow older, but that isn’t helpful. I need to be working toward my goals, which are to complete a revision and a draft for another novel. How do I set up realistic goals without feeling bogged down? How do I find the motivation to keep writing without feeling the need to rush and finish?
— Never Enough Time for My Novel
Dear Never Enough Time,
I can relate to so much of what you’ve written; my kids’ early years were not, to put it mildly, my most productive. I used to feel terrible when I wasn’t producing, because I thought of writing only in terms of the active verb: If you’re not writing, I said to myself, how can you call yourself a writer?
Looking back, I can name a few practical things that made a difference. First, my spouse and I carved out protected space for my writing; both of us taking it seriously and sacrificing for it, even when it wasn’t profitable, is partly why it’s my job now. I remember feeling very encouraged when I found a few trusted writers to share work and chat with—a community can’t magically find you more hours in the day, but it might help you feel encouraged and energized. And in terms of concrete goal setting and follow-through, what helped me most was finding a writing accountability buddy.
We didn’t trade pages for feedback; instead, we would take turns sharing a weekly goal—one that seemed both important and achievable—and then check in with each other at the end of the week: Had she finished that chapter? Had I written that pitch? Yes, this was fairly low-stakes, because I knew she wasn’t going to yell at me if I had a bad week. But I grew so used to holding myself accountable to our regular check-ins that it felt easier and more natural to set goals and give myself deadlines, too, while her patience and understanding gave me permission to be kind to myself. So if you know anyone who might be willing to have similar reciprocal check-ins with you, it’s something to consider.
Working on projects you love is of course the best motivation, the steadiest source of energy—when you’re really into a piece of writing, when you feel strongly about it and why you want it to exist, your work is often fueled by the excitement of getting to dive back in. Make sure that whatever goals you’re setting are doable given your timeline (e.g.: “revise that chapter next week” as opposed “revise half the book next week”), because taking on too much at once can further weigh you down. I also like to set up calendar reminders before the actual deadline—if I give myself a deadline one month out, I get reminders two weeks ahead, one week ahead, and a few days ahead, so there’s no way it can sneak up on me.
As for feeling rushed, the need to finish the draft at all costs: That pressure is so familiar, and let’s face it, sometimes it is sheer will that gets us where we need to be. But from your letter, you sound awfully motivated; I doubt you’re lacking in drive if you’re revising one novel and planning another (in the midst of a pandemic, no less!). Perhaps it will help you feel less “bogged down” to remember that you’re probably thinking about and working on your novels in other ways, all the time—a book you’re writing is constant company, after all, even if you’re not in the draft every day. So many things can feed our writing: the conversations we have, the breaks we take, the things we read, the silence of the car or the shower or the meditation space. Good ideas often come when you’re busy with something else and your mind is still circling whatever project you’re working on. Last month, I was walking in the woods when I figured out how to fix a structure issue in my book, and I don’t think it would have occurred to me if I’d stayed at my desk and tried to force it.
When I need motivation, reassurance, or both, I tell myself that my best writing is still ahead of me. That’s why I write—to hone my voice, to better express something true, to become the writer I want to be—and remembering this is what helps me look forward to the next time I sit down to work. Your best writing is ahead of you, too—the longer you do this, the better you’ll get. I know how difficult it can be to find the spark and the space for this work in the cramped corners of your life, to keep pushing toward your goals while also being realistic and patient with yourself, and maybe all of this has felt harder than ever lately. It’s natural to worry that you might not be doing “enough.” We all know this fear from time to time. But if you’re doing what you can, maybe try to let that be enough, for now. Trust that you’ll finish your books in your own time, in your own way.
That’s all for today! If you’d like to send a question for the advice column, recommend a book, or let me know what you might like to see in this newsletter, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again for being here—you’re great, and I appreciate you.