Make/take time to write, part 1


I have been invited to give another talk at the New York Society Library, in November. This will be my third. The first, in 2011, was about giving and receiving critiques; you can read the substance of that talk here, in a three-part post (part 1, part 2, part 3). The second talk, in 2013, was about preparing a book proposal; you’ll get to read a lot of that in an upcoming post.

This fall I thought I’d like to talk about the problem of finding time to write. That’s a recurring issue for many writers, including the members of the Girl Group: Geralyn, Barbara, Ali, Lynda, Melissa, and Jennifer, all of whom you’ve met in previous posts. These are women with lives just as full and complicated as yours, with jobs, families, partners, homes, workouts, volunteering.

In the end, Carolyn Waters, who organizes the “Writing Life” talks for the NYSL, suggested a different topic that I liked just as much. But the making-time theme kept bouncing around in my head.

If we’d decided on the Making Time talk, I wanted to call it “Making Time for Work: Learning to Say Yes to Yourself and No to Others.” I knew what I meant, but the title gives the wrong impression. For one thing, it sounds a little scary: can you simply learn to say NO to others in the service of saying YES to yourself? How comfortable are we–most of us–with saying a polite “no” when other people insist on having our attention?

For another thing, I didn’t really mean “work.”  I meant “writing.” Work isn’t the issue; writing is the issue.  Work, even when it’s fun, may be many kinds of activities, most of them non writing, from the money-earning kind to the other kind–like child care, cooking, making repairs, doing laundry, cleaning closets, mowing the lawn, helping parents and friends, shopping for groceries, and on and on. The list is endless, difficult to curtail, yet the items on the work list usually seem essential, required, unavoidable.

Writing, on the other hand, doesn’t usually present as essential, required, or unavoidable–unless we’re talking about essays for school or assignments for a magazine, which we’re not.  We’re talking about elective writing, the writing you do because you’re a writer and you want to be writing. That kind of writing often seems to fall to the bottom of the To-Do list.

Even when you say to yourself, I love doing this, I want to be doing this, it’s my life’s work, I’m a writereven when you have all that mental ammunition, it’s still difficult to MAKE TIME and to TAKE TIME.

Because that is what “making time” amounts to: taking time. We have to wrest time away from all the people and things that need us so much–need us more than we think we need our own lives.

It’s tempting to imagine that this is a women’s problem, and frequently it is. However, it’s not only a women’s problem. Men suffer from the same No-Time Syndrome, though the difference is that historically more men have felt entitled (and been allowed) to forgo housekeeping and child care when they want to write (or paint or compose or play poker).

The reason I’m so interested in the making-time topic should be obvious: I have trouble with this issue myself. And what I know is this: If I really want to write, I can say no to a lot of demands on my time. If. If. If.  Today, in fact, I had finally finished all the chores that had to be done, and I’d settled in with my MacBook Pro and was bounding along–when friends called and asked if I wanted to go out for a drink.

I love Annie and Brodie, but I said, “Thanks so much, I’d like to, but I just got into my writing and I don’t want to leave it yet.”  And then I realized what I was writing: a post on learning to say yes to me and no to them.  Bingo. “Well, you said no very nicely,” Annie laughed, “so now you should go back to work.”

The sky did not fall in; my friends still cherish me; there will be another opportunity to go out for a drink. Nothing bad happened. Something good happened: I made a choice to keep writing.


PLEASE READ Make/take time to write, part 2




 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Brazos Bookstore, Houston, TX

Prairie Pages Bookseller, Pierre, SD

Book Nook, Ludlow, VT



At Tenafly Junior High School we had a club called Future Teachers of America. This piece in the NYT, “Read to a Tiny Baby? Yes,” ought to be the first flyer for the Future Readers of America. One great bit from the story:

Reading is a habit best formed early. A child who is read to from infancy is a child who has never known a world without books and one who associates reading with the pleasure and comfort of home.

And another:

 Read early, read often. That’s a message every parent ought to hear.

Amen to that.


Greg Small is a Hollywood screenwriter and–full disclosure–I’m proud to say he’s also my cousin. After he read my three-part post called “Giving and receiving critiques,” he wrote me an e-mail that makes a perfect companion piece.


I have enjoyed the blog, particularly the entries about constructive criticism.  I love constructive criticism, because often, as a Dreamworks executive once said to my partner and me, writers get in the bubble where they can’t see the project objectively anymore. And, for a short while, others who become involved in a project are outside the bubble, but then they too get subsumed inside. So, then, to get any dependable criticism, you have to look elsewhere. The problem is that most criticism sucks.

People seem oblivious to how hard it is to start from nothing and come up with anything and are stunningly terse and presumptuous. Worse, of course, is when people have crappy ideas, which is usually the case, and others in power think they’re right. Then we end up having to rewrite something incorporating the stupid idea, just so the myopic executive can discover how shitty the idea was to begin with.

And of course that doesn’t even include the people who have ulterior motives to torpedo you, which is regrettably not unheard of in Hollywood.

Buuut, when somebody has smart, insightful, well-intended criticism…hallelujah!

Then there’s the other side of the coin, when I’m asked to read something. I hate to admit it, but I really try to avoid it, because it rarely ends well. Most scripts, like most criticism, are crappy. And then you end up trying to offer constructive criticism, but the wannabe writer often believes so vehemently in the greatness of his/her work that they won’t hear it, and often end up pissed at you.

Here’s one of the more memorable, from a guy who started talking to me at the gym, and one thing led to another and suddenly I agreed to read his horror screenplay. It was a horror in more ways than genre. I tried to be patient and give him some pointers, but our contact quickly descended into hell. Here’s an excerpt from his last e-mail to me:

Ok, you obviously didn’t understand it on its strongest levels, though, you pinpointed out some technical things I do appreciate. But I must say, you have a real bad attitude about generalities, and how you percieve [sic]…life. this is what has brought you your bitterness. Try not to have such a quitter mentality and you might get somewhere, but don’t try to project it on me.

Now I rarely read other people’s material. It’s a drag, because I want to. I want to find that gem. I want to be helpful. I did recently read a script by a Trader Joe’s employee who helped me with some heavy stuff to my car, and, there again, it just wasn’t any good. But at least she didn’t threaten me. In fact, she took my criticism in the positive light it was intended, and now is always cheery and appreciative when she sees me in the store. 

Whew. In the course of a couple of decades of private editing, I’ve worked with loads of gracious writers–good and bad–but I’ll never forget the handful of bad and angry writers who attacked me for even my gentlest attempts to show them where the problems were.  

Here are Cousin Greg’s bio and credits:

Writer/Executive Producer, untitled mini-series (Lifetime Network/SONY TV, 2015); JODI ARIAS: DIRTY LITTLE SECRET (Lifetime, 2013); PLAYING DIRTY (spec sale, 2012, Millennium Ent./Mandalay Pictures); SOMEONE IN THE DARK (spec sale, 2009, Dreamworks/Gavin Polone, Producer); Writer, THE RUN (LightWorkers Media/Arenas Entertainment, principal photography 2015)

And here are a trio of columns he wrote for the Hollywood Journal:

How to Fail in Hollywood  and Hollywood Skin Care Secrets and From Mr. Rogers to Mr. Blonde.


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

A Capella Books, Atlanta, GA

Country Bookshelf, Bozeman, MT

Talking Leaves Books, Buffalo, NY

Reader’s diary: classic children’s books

Most dedicated readers start young: if you grow up with books, you keep reading. Some of us were lucky enough to have parents who bought books for us or introduced us to our local libraries–or did both, the best of all possible (book) worlds.

I grew up in Tenafly, NJ, a small town not too far from New York City. The Tenafly Public Library, at the far end of Main Street, was a little bungalow that had once been someone’s home. That was comforting, because you still felt the homeyness of it even though the rooms had been emptied, fitted with bookshelves, and gradually filled with books.

The windows of the TPL were ordinary windows; the wood floors were scuffed and dusty; the air was hot in summer and chilly in winter. It was a place not in the least intimidating to a child; instead, you had the sense that when you went to the library you were visiting an old friend.

The Tenafly Public Library was part of my life from the day I was old enough to read simple books and to print my name on a little yellow children’s library card. Second grade, I think. By then I was also old enough to ride my bike to the library, a fifteen-minute trip, and go straight to the Children’s Room to return my already-read books and search for five new ones to check out and put in my bicycle basket to take home.

So much pleasure–choosing books, anticipating a new story, then reading. And there was double-delight in almost every book: words and pictures.

My young parents didn’t have a lot of money, but books were high on their must-have list. They bought books for me and my two brothers, and they encouraged me to join a book-buying program that my normally unprogressive elementary school offered. So I had books of my own, lots of them: The Boxcar ChildrenThe Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Madeline, Babar the Elephant, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Make Way for Ducklingsand Flood Friday, to name a few.

Kiki Dances convinced me that I could be a ballerina–though that didn’t happen. And Now Miguel made me yearn to be part of a large Mexican-American sheepherding family. Also not in the cards.

The Hundred Dresses and The Color Kittens were the books that helped me imagine being an artist–which I was, for many years. In the end I’ve become a writer, and I blame it on a childhood abundant with books.

Quite a few of those books are cited in an impressive article-cum-list-of-children’s-books called “Old, But Not Forgotten” compiled by Carrie Silberman, Head of Children’s Library at the New York Society Library. (Don’t miss the secondary link to an even longer list of children’s books.)

Ms. Silberman writes, “For many of us, nothing evokes more vivid memories of childhood than revisiting a favorite book…If any of these titles are new to you, I invite you to pick one up and experience the magic of a great old-fashioned tale.  Enjoy…”

Please share the titles of your favorite children’s books in the LEAVE A REPLY section below.

SIDEBAR: The New York Society Library is one of my recommended links.  It’s a private library, but anyone can become a member.  Be warned, though: that library is addictive. 



 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Argo Bookshop, Montreal, Quebec

Books of Wonder, New York, NY

Let’s Play Books, Emmaus, PA


If you’re one of the lucky subscribers to the New York Times Premier digital edition, you may have noticed a three-part story called “What Makes a Great Editor?”

I am not a Times Premier subscriber, but I do have a loyal friend who lets me know when there’s a don’t-miss piece by the Insider Staff at the Times. And guess what? You can google the piece and link to it.

Let me save you the trouble: here are links to all three parts.  And note that though these reporters are writing about newspaper editors, all good editors have much in common.  So do bad ones.

What Makes a Great Editor? Part 1

What Makes a Great Editor? Part 2

What Makes a Great Editor? Part 3

First day of summer: the subject was…



Summer on Shelter Island

For your viewing pleasure, since we can’t exist on words alone.



Thanks to Michael Rubin & David Kamp



On June 16 I posted a link to an article from Esquire magazine about getting yourself unhitched from Amazon and shopping the independent brick-and-mortar bookstores instead.

Today a writer friend sent a link to this wonderful June 18 piece from the website/newsletter of Parnassus Books in Nashville: How This Indie Bookstore Stocks Its Shelves (Algorithm-Free).

This is a bookstore I look forward to visiting. Recognize it? It’s the indie owned by Karen Hayes and writer Ann Patchett.


Letter to Girl Group: coming unglued and getting unstuck

You met the Girl Group on Blog Day 1, but I’ll remind you that they are Geralyn, Barbara, Ali, Lynda, Melissa, and Jennifer, and that I call them the GG in solidarity with the Motown GGs, not because these accomplished women are girlish.  Never that.  When I write to them I always address them as what they are: writers.


Hello, writers–

I wish we could ditch the label “writer’s block.”

This is an allegedly serious condition in which writers can’t do their work. No work possible! Progress halts; paralysis follows. Two problems there: First, what happened to painter’s block?  Or chef’s block?  New mother’s block?  Shoe salesperson’s block? Writers don’t own paralysis. And second, assuming the writer (painter, chef, mother, shoe guy) isn’t in need of immediate medical treatment for clinical depression, writer’s block is just another name for getting stuck.

What feels like BLOCK is almost always STUCK. Stuck is a much less dire condition, and that’s probably what you have if you’re having  the world’s worst time trying to get your work going or growing or even onto the page.

And getting stuck, even badly stuck, even badly stuck for months, is an inevitable but temporary occurrence for most writers at some time in their writing lives. You can slap a little drama onto it and go around wailing about how you can’t write a word and you’ll never write another word, but what a waste of time that is. You’re likely to end up doing a chatter, chatter, chatter about the stuck without making any progress toward ungluing yourself.

This is not to say you shouldn’t talk about the problem of being stuck. But talk about it in our writing group, a good venue for getting information and reassurance.  And keep in mind that you’ve been stuck at some other time(s) in the past and you’ll be stuck at some other time(s) in the future–and by definition that makes your stuckness temporary.

What is stuck about?

Stuck can be about resistance: You’re edging close to something deep (or scary or sad or disturbing) and you don’t want to go there. You’ve taken on something complex and you don’t know how to solve it. You’re sure it’s much more important for you to be gardening or going to the movies or getting a tattoo.

Stuck can be about flatness: You’re bored. You’re tired. You just don’t feel like tackling the work. There’s too little going on in the piece and you can’t seem to get interested enough to add more. You’ve rewritten it so many times that all the oxygen has gone out of it.

Stuck can be about being overwhelmed: You’ve run out of ideas and you’re panicked.  You don’t know how to make the plot work. There’s too much going on in the piece and you can’t figure out how to control it.

Stuck can be about writing something you don’t want to write: You started it and now you feel you have to finish it. You hate the characters. There’s another story bouncing around in your head but you think you can’t take it on until you finish the one you’ve already put six months into. You promised yourself you’d write this essay, but…

Stuck can be about being distracted: You’re worried about something that has nothing to do with your writing. You’re constantly being interrupted (by kids, parents, relatives, friends). There’s too much noise or too much silence.  You can’t get your to-do list out of your head.  The phone keeps ringing and the e-mails keep coming.

All these reasons for being stuck (and there are lots more, including self-limiting self-criticism) amount to the same thing: your work is temporarily going nowhere.  For this we have options and remedies.

Let’s back up a little: Our group is a writers’ group.  You’re in it because you want to be writing. After all this time, the content of our meetings can’t be whether you should write, but what you should write.  You’re writers.  You write.

So I’ll remind you: if you’re stuck in one area, one chapter, one section, try another.  Rewrite the middle. Write the ending. Pick one scene and make it better. (You’ve all, now and then, reassessed what you’re writing, changed direction, explored different approaches.) Don’t wait for inspiration: inspiration may happen, but it has nothing to do with the job of writing. Writing is work; do your work.

Except when you actually need a break.

There will be occasions when stuck means “the best thing I can do for myself today is to get away from my work.” Your unconscious is telling you that you’re trying too hard, that you need to back off, get some air, get some perspective, and give your brain a chance to rest. You can’t force yourself to solve a writing problem, but you can take a step away from the work so your brain has time to shuffle your ideas around and show you a better solution.

Here’s another reminder: none of you is a one-trick pony. If you can’t make progress on this thing, write a different thing. Write a short story. Write a character sketch. Write a one-act play. Write about something that happened to you last week. Write a cycle of letters between a parent and a child, or a dead parent and a child. Write about whatever or whomever you’re angry at. Write about your best friend, your dentist, your lover, your therapist. Dip in, dip down–find the topic that gives you energy, and abandon (perhaps only temporarily) the topic that drains your energy.

Changing lanes may at first seem like an annoying interruption–as if making a change is unacceptably off the track. But getting out from behind whatever gigantic psychic truck is slowing you down or stopping you is exactly what you must do. Once you’ve gotten a little distance from Big Truck, you can get back into your original lane and speed ahead. If you want to. You might find that you actually prefer to be driving in some other lane. Take the risk. Good writing is about risk. It’s also about doing the work.

Best trick of all: Leave your work not quite finished when you stop for the day. When you come back to it tomorrow, you’ll have a built-in starting place.

This is the sign I have above my desk: Life is short. Write hard.


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Wellesley Books, Wellesley MA

The Twig Bookshop, San Antonio TX

Arcade Books, Rye NY



Are you, like Stephen Colbert, feeling truculent about Amazon?  You’re not alone.  Read this, from an Esquire magazine blog.

You’ll find a list of three indie bookstores on every standard post on The Book Under Her Bed.

new feature for the book under her bed: reader’s diary
can you be friends with someone who reads dickens?

I mean, what if your best friend loves Dickens and James and two-inch-thick biographies of Matisse and Robert Oppenheimer?  And you read contemporary short stories and have an embarrassing passion for Alice Munro?

What if your other best friend reads the intellectual giants, and you’ve never managed to get through a single Philip Roth (except Goodbye, Columbus, which doesn’t count), never read Pat Barker or J.M. Coetzee or Borges?

And what if your other best friend loves Gary Shteyngart and George Saunders and other snappy with-it contemporary authors who make you feel old?

What if your other other best friend reads history and archaeology and books about Europe and Africa and Asia, and you’re rereading Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the third time?

What if your other other other best friend has been reading poetry for so long that you’ll never catch up to her, and all you can do is trot along behind reading the poetry she tells you to read?

What if your two best guy-pals are voracious consumers of contemporary nonfiction and love David Sedaris, and you aren’t and don’t? Can you still be friends?

Yes, you can. For quite a long time I thought I couldn’t be friends with anyone who hadn’t read Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House and didn’t agree with me that Death Comes for the Archbishop is the Great American Novel.  I got over it; I’d rather have friends.

reader’s diary  will be a repeating feature, with guest bloggers.  stay tuned.