The Summer I Washed My Daughter’s Clothes by Hand

julie-johnson-uCr6VI7Kwfk-unsplashIt’s been one year since the summer I washed my daughter’s clothes by hand. I was a brand-new mother then, with a soft, bulgy belly, and hips that were still too wide to fit into shorts I’d worn easily the year before.

My heart moved frequently between heavy and light(because I needed more reasons to feel exhausted), and my breasts felt foreign to me. Too big for my chest, too delicate to sleep on, they ached at certain times of the day and no longer belonged to me.

I was without a washer or dryer temporarily, but I had my stainless-steel kitchen sink, a bar of laundry soap that smelled of cypress oil, and I had my clothes rack, the kind that folded into itself, that I would set outside in my backyard on laundry days.

I loved to sit on the stairs that came out of my kitchen’s back door—my baby in my arms, still too delicate to hold her head up and look out into the world—and watch her clothes hang there in the sun, tiny, colorful promises of big joys to come. I never thought laundry could look so cute.

I felt anything but cute.

My hair was still lush from pregnancy, but my body felt deflated and enlarged at the same time. The swelling in my hands and feet had gone, but I still felt like the whole of me was swollen. I had been thrust out of the celebrated realm of mother-to-be—to this strange reality of am-now-mother, who’s supposed to know how to be. I had nine months to prepare for this day, but I felt disoriented and unaware of who I was, or who I would become, with this new feathery weight on my arm.

I’m mother, I heard my heart say on the steps of my kitchen’s back door, as I watched my daughter’s onsies, white and pink and yellow and blue, play in the wind. An image of her playing in this backyard one day, wearing those same colors, conjures before me. I see her but I can’t see her face. I wonder what she will look like, just as I had wondered what she would smell like when she was still doing somersaults in my womb.

My womb feels like a bruised grapefruit.

I feel like a fallen tree.

I’m happy, I tell myself, watching my baby sleep.

I’m alone and it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, probably. I don’t know, I don’t check the time these days. I’m happy, I say again to my heart, as though it needs instruction. There’s no selfie here and no social media to prove my feelings to. There’s no one who calls to ask if I’m happy. I think my friends are giving me space. Others, I think, don’t know what to say. I’m too busy, they must think. Too busy being a mother and being happy.

I sit and watch my daughter’s clothes, shine then fade, shine then fade, as sun passes through clouds.

The days pass this way, slowly, but when I look at the calendar and see my return-to-work date, my heart panics—so I push the date from my mind and think of the weeks that stand between us.

My hands sting from laundry soap, even though it’s supposed to be gentle on the skin. I need gloves, I think, and suddenly I have a mission. I will go to the store to buy washing gloves. My ankle pops as I stand up but my baby doesn’t wake. My breasts throb, and I think, I should wake her. Or should I? Aren’t you supposed to never wake a sleeping baby? (My motherly intuition is still growing its roots; I urge it to hurry up.)

I feel milk leaking into my bra, which doesn’t fit me right. I haven’t found the right bra yet. Nothing fits me right, or is it me who doesn’t fit right in anything?

People come over to hold my baby. I don’t put eyeliner on for these occasions, but I put on earrings. Earrings make me feel pretty.

They stroke her sleeping face, softly, with their fingers, and my insides scream. Please don’t touch her face, I want to say, but I decide to wait it out and be polite. Later, I run a damp wash cloth over her cheeks (as she still sleeps).

Everyone told me to get ready for no sleep, but my daughter sleeps so much; it’s all she does, all day, she sleeps. Sometimes, I sleep too. Other times, most times, in the silence of the day, I watch her sleep. I google questions, which lead to other questions I hadn’t thought of. I watch movies. I drink so much water. I wait for my husband to come home.

My dog wonders why we don’t walk together like we used to. I try not to think about it because I don’t have it in me to consume the sadness.

Washing gloves… I’ll walk to the store to get washing gloves. I’ll take my daughter and my dog. But my daughter, she’s so new and the sun is so hot. What if she gets thirsty or too hot and she can’t tell me? What if I trip and fall while crossing the street and the stroller goes rolling out of my hands? What if it starts to rain?

I decide to stay home. Her laundry is done anyway, and her clothes are probably dry. I go down to inspect the tiny colorful things. I’m happy, my heart tells me again. The clothes are dry and I’m happy.

I look down at my daughter and memorize her eyelashes, her nose, the dip in her upper lip, her chin. I try to remember what it was like when I didn’t know this face, when I was so eager to know it. The wind is warm and it’s blowing a little too strongly. The rack shakes and threatens to fall, but instead of grab the clothes I retreat inside with my daughter (still asleep).

You’re happy, aren’t you? I ask her, and for a moment I imagine her replying, Yes, I’m happy, mother, because I’m with you. Can’t you see? You’re the only person I’ve ever known and the only place I want to be. You’re perfect for me. (I hope that I am.)

I’m inside now, away from the wind. I settle into my nest of pillows and throw blankets on the couch. Yes, my daughter is happy, definitely. She’s content. I feel a bubbling in my heart because I know this to be true, and the sureness of it and its simplicity puts me at ease. I kiss her nose and hear the soft thud of the clothes rack fall outside in the grass, but not a drop of worry accompanies the sound.

If a Blog Were a Creature…

Blog is a funny word, isn’t it?

If a blog were a creature, I imagine he’d be something like a slimy amoeba, but very jolly, and the only thing he would be able to say is: “Blog, blog, blog.” He would crawl his way through life saying “Blog, blog, blog.” He would look at birds high up in trees and say, “Blog.” He would stare with bubbly eyes at enticing ice cream cones in children’s hands and say, yearningly, “Blog.”

He’d be a really friendly dude but he’d have no friends because he’d keep scaring everyone away with his constant: “Blog, blog, blog.”

If a blog were a creature, he’d spend his days sitting in a fishing boat waiting for fish to catch his bait. He’d sit in his boat for hours, confident at first that fish would come, then by hour five then six then nine he’d start melting in the sun, that at that point would be setting, and by night fall he would be a bubble at the bottom of the boat, and he would disintegrate as he uttered, out of desperation to be heard by someone, anyone: “Blog.”

Overnight, in his sleep, he would regrow into the big healthy blog that he knows himself to be, and begin fishing again, eager because of the hope of a new day. He would greet the sun as though it never set on him the night before. “Blog,” he would say, happily, as he threw his line into the water. “Blog,” he would call out to the fish.

If a blog were a creature, he would sometimes feel insecure about his appearance because as a blog, he wears no clothes and has no face or shape. He has no body so no clothes would reasonably fit him. He has no lashes to apply mascara, not that he knows what makeup is. He worries that people will notice how horrible he looks, but he also worries that no one will notice him at all.

If a blog were a creature, I would invite him to dinner. I would ask him why he chose to be a blog, to which he would respond, “Blog.” I would ask him, why do you appear to be so happy all the time, and he would tell me his secrets but I wouldn’t understand him because all he would say is: “Blog.”

That’s why nobody likes you, I would say, frustrated because the dinner I’m paying for is expensive and the conversation is stale, and I’m realizing as the night progresses that a blog doesn’t eat because he has no teeth and no esophagus and no stomach either. He is a blog, he is but himself, a creature that exists for the mere sake of existence, but also, though no one seems to understand him, he has something to say.

“Blog, blog, blog,” he says, as I press on about why he lives the way he does.

“Blog, blog, blog,” he responds, when I say I’m just trying to help but it appears as though he could care less.

“Blog,” he says, finally, when I ask for the bill, and I eye him curiously wondering, if I don’t understand him, is it possible that he doesn’t understand me either?

“Blog,” he says again, as we exit the restaurant. I look at his bloggy face, his bulging eyes and mouth that resembles the outline of a number eight without the line in between. I think I see a trace of eyebrows but it’s just slime seeping downward; I think he is sweating but it’s hard to tell. He has no feet, he simply slides along the floor beside me. He’s usually jolly but tonight he seems sad. I don’t like this look on him.

“Blog,” I say.

“Blog,” he says, his eyes lighting up.

“Blog?” I say again.

“Blog,” he says, even more enthusiastically.

And finally I understand. I understand his language. I understand what he’s been trying to tell me, what he has been trying to tell the world. I understand because I realize he is an echo, and he is simply speaking my mind.

“Blog,” he says, relieved that I finally understand.

“Blog,” I say, back. “Blog, blog, blog.”

“Blog, blog, blog,” he says.

And so we finally begin to converse.

And in this moment, our moment, unscripted as it was, a stranger walking by slows down upon hearing our strange exchange, recognizing something in us.

“Blog?” says the stranger, looking up from her phone, curious.

Are we a déjà vu? An unearthed memory? A reflection? The words she’s been trying to find? The sign she’s been waiting for?

“Blog!” we cry happily, calling her to join us. We recognize her too, though we’ve never seen her before.

“Blog, blog, blog,” we sing together in the night.

The Importance of Doing Nothing (Sometimes)

I made a peanut butter banana smoothie earlier, and the blender, emptied of its contents, is waiting for me on the kitchen counter.  I can’t see it because I’m in my living room right now, but I know it’s there.

The plates from lunch are also there, waiting. And there may be a block of Swiss cheese under one of them that I forgot to put back in the fridge.

My baby’s bib is crumpled up on her high chair, also in the kitchen. Just another item in the long list of things waiting to be cleaned. It’s one of those long-sleeved full body bibs that has saved me from having to wash her clothes after every mealtime (we do baby-led weaning, which is extremely messy). The bib, however, as I’ve just noted, needs cleaning, so really there is no escaping constant washing and cleaning when you have a child.

My baby is finally asleep and I haven’t picked up the toys strewn upon the living room floor (that my dog lazily assesses from the couch). And I haven’t folded the clean clothes that have been sitting in the laundry basket since last weekend (today is Saturday).

I’m sitting here with my dog contemplating all these things I have not done, and these things are making me feel claustrophobic. I start to get up… then I decide to ignore them and do nothing. (How glorious!) My dog is quite the expert at happily doing nothing, so I’ll just take my queues from her tonight. She never judges—she understands.

Here are some things I did do today though:

I went to a car dealership (didn’t get the car I wanted but it was a cool learning experience).

I played with my baby. Marveled at her as she crawled—everywhere. Watched her raid my bookshelves and very much enjoyed the entertainment she provided removing every book and tossing it on the floor.

I watched a weird kids movie called Gnome Alone. Not sure how I feel about it. Wasn’t the most intelligent kids movie I’ve seen.

I fed my baby, bathed her, told her I loved her as I kissed her toes.

When I first sat down after she finally went to sleep, I felt guilty that I didn’t accomplish any of my chores that I had set out to do when the day first started. I felt guilty for sitting down instead of turning to the next thing that needed my attention.

Something always needs my attention. (The books she tossed on the floor? Still there.)

But sitting here doing nothing (well, now I’m writing) is bringing me a peaceful kind of joy.

And joy needs nurturing.

A blogger I follow tends to say “being present is being productive” when she talks about motherhood. I really like this mantra, especially on Saturdays like today, when I spent so much of my afternoon just being with my baby instead of putting her in her playpen so I could run around the house doing chores.

Saturdays—weekends in general—are the holy grail of “when I’m going to get things done.” But sometimes Monday comes along and I look back at my would-have-been productive weekend and I sigh and push everything to the next weekend.

In the midst of doing so many things=, all the time, on high speed, on auto-pilot, or on copious amounts of caffeine, it’s really good for the mind to do nothing sometimes. A healthy dose of not doing can help you achieve balance when you spend so much of your time doing. Self-care, self-preservation, protecting your sanity—whatever you want to call it and whatever that looks like for you—doing nothing should be a necessary part of the week.

The dirty blender and plates in my kitchen? I know they’ll greet me tomorrow morning. The clothes in my hamper? Sure, they may be wrinkled, but at least they are clean. The toys on the floor? They will be played with again tomorrow.

All is well. All is okay.

I simply can’t do everything all the time.

Sometimes, I need to do nothing.  I need to. And as my dog would agree, it’s a perfectly fine way to pass the time.

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Reflecting on ‘The Power of Meaning…’ by Emily Esfahani Smith

I just finished this book by Emily Esfahani Smith: The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. I don’t read nonfiction very often, but once in a while when I find a topic that intrigues me, curiosity pulls me in, and this book certainly did. It investigates how we can find meaning in life, on why a focus on meaning rather than happiness is so critical to our ability to thrive. The book was published recently, in 2017, so it includes all the latest research on this topic, which was definitely interesting to read about.

Our Obsession with Happiness

It’s true—happiness seems to be the goal we’re constantly aiming for in life. We make plans and buy things and pursue paths because we think it will make us happy. And for a brief moment it does. Ask anyone what they want out of life, and they will probably say “I just want to be happy.”

We use happiness to justify our actions, our means to our ends. Do what makes you happy, society says. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, America declares. We all just want to be happy!

And I get it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. But I’ve always believed that happiness isn’t the point of life. I don’t believe I was put here on this earth to be happy. Happiness to me is a fleeting emotion, and at the same time, a wonderful gift. (Also, how egocentric of us to think that life’s ultimate mission is to find our own personal happiness.) Happiness, I believe, is a by-product of how we choose to live and perceive our lives.

The Desire for Meaning

Enter Emily Esfahani Smith. This wise young author presents in her book the idea that meaning—not happiness—is what we’re all truly seeking on an innate level. And it makes sense if you think about it. Money and fame and success and all those traditional triggers for happiness don’t bring their recipients any lasting joy or fulfillment.

People live in gilded cages feeling empty and lost. Our obsession with buying more and more stuff stems from this desire to fill that void, to refuel that happiness tank that can never stay full. It can never stay full because it’s simply not the point. We’re chasing the wrong goal.

Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics; when people say they want to be happy, they mean they want to feel a sense of meaning in their lives. That’s life’s big question after all, the GREAT MYSTERY: What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? What is the point of it all?

To answer these questions, we must either find a source of meaning or create meaning for ourselves. Only then can we lead meaningful lives and find that sense of fulfillment.

The Pillars of Meaning

Using research in psychology and neuroscience, and insights from philosophy and literature, Smith illuminates the four pillars of meaning—belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence—that can help us lead more satisfying lives.

Each pillar has its own chapter in the book, and all throughout we’re introduced to people, both ordinary and extraordinary, who are working to build meaning in their lives using these pillars. We meet astronauts, survivors of trauma, entrepreneurs, people facing impending deaths, a zoo keeper, and everyday people trying to make sense of their lives.

The stories entwine with fascinating research and scientific findings—from how awe affects the sense of self to the strange relationship between happiness and suicide, and to the factors that make some people more resilient in the face of adversity than others.

The beauty of these pillars is that they are accessible to everyone. Both with and without religion, individuals can build up each of these pillars in their lives. They are sources of meaning that cut through every aspect of existence. ~ Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning

I read this book for a book club, and it was interesting to hear, during our meeting, how the pillars resonated differently with each person. Not surprisingly, one of the pillars I gravitated towards was the pillar of storytelling.

Storytelling is one of the oldest traditions in human history; it’s how we connect with ourselves and others, how we make sense of the world and our place in it. This method of discovering meaning through narrative is not just about the stories we share or hear, but about the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. These stories of the self can either lift us up or oppress us, depending on the perspective we choose. There is great power in the story and it’s ability to shed light, provide context, and promote healing and understanding.

It was interesting to notice, also, how many of these pillars already exist in many aspects of my life and the lives of the people I know closely. The more I read about each one the more I made connections with how certain people in my life arrive at meaning, whether they realize it or not, through one of the pillars.

With transcendence, for example, where you connect with something larger than yourself to find meaning, I saw how my tendency to seek out nature—the peace and tranquility of forests or the overwhelming majesty of the ocean—is my way of achieving a transcendent state, to recenter myself amidst the chaos of everyday.

It’s by recognizing these pillars that we can work to cultivate them more intentionally in our lives, and thus achieve a deeper sense of meaning for who we are and how we want to live.

There’s More to Life Than Being Happy

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fast, easy read, well-written and well-researched. I had never heard of Smith before but I’m glad we are now acquainted, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak at an event next month.

Intrigued? Check out her TED Talk “There’s more to life than being happy”—and if you end up reading her book, let me know what you think!

Introverts Are Not Quiet People

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Photo by Tina Floersch

There is a difference between introverts and “quiet” people. It may be safe to say that most quiet people are introverts. BUT, not all introverts are quiet people. Introverts are often painted as these reserved quiet souls who would rather sit in a corner with a book and a blanket than talk to someone. This is not the universal truth of introversion.

It may be true that I prefer the company of a book and my dog to most people most of the time, but I do still crave and enjoy the company of other people, and—GOOD conversation. After all, we are humans before we are introverts or extroverts, and humans are social beings.

As an introvert, I’m just able to enjoy my own company more than an extrovert might be able to tolerate that same time being alone. Introverts value their alone time; we GUARD it. It’s a sort of survival mechanism. But we also value time with friends and the people that we love. We want to connect, and we seek meaningful interactions to do so.

Introverts sing on stage. We rally up crowds. We work in professions that demand performance, as teachers, lawyers, motivational speakers. We run for elected positions. We run companies and organize protests.

We are not all quiet people.

Being quiet is a personality trait, not a prerequisite for introversion.

As Erykah Badu sang, I pick my friends like I pick my fruit. If I’m going to expend my energy on something or someone, it better be worth it to me, because engaging with others takes a bit more effort. It just does. It doesn’t mean that I don’t value you, it just means my energy reserves are more easily depleted, so I have to use them more wisely. That’s my cell makeup, as an introvert.

Introverts go to networking events, but we may not go to the after-party if the event used up all our energy.

Introverts will talk to you on the phone for hours, but we may not want to talk to anyone right after we hang up, because all that mental energy needs rejuvenation.

Introverts go to parties and stay out till dawn. But we may not want to hang out the following few days or the next weekend.

Our alone time is simply our recoup time. It’s like when you work out. Your muscles are sore the next day so you need some time to rest before you go back out there.

Introverts just need time to rest.

And this alone time, or rest time, does not always involve being strictly alone. Being alone with certain people we love—that silent company that can exist between lovers, best friends, or close family members—that can also count. And it’s probably the most beautiful overlapping between introversion and extroversion. This ability to be both together and alone at the same time. It takes a special kind of relationship to be able to achieve this quiet harmonious way of being. Every introvert has at least one person in their lives that they can do this with (hopefully).

Introverts have things to say. We are not anti-social hermits. We have passions, and the people that we forge close bonds with, we love them deeply. We engage with the world, and love discovery and exploration just as much as the next person might. But we have a battery that needs tending. By taking some time out, we are not rejecting you, we are simply doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves.

Book Review: ‘The Namesake’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

Spoiler-free zone.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a marvelous writer. With her beautiful, precise prose that take you sailing into her stories, she’s one of those authors that makes you forget that you are reading. I loved her two short story collections, Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies, the latter of which won the Pulitzer prize, so I was excited to read her novel The Namesake, which also won the Pulitzer. I was not disappointed.

As with many of her short stories, The Namesake tackles themes of family, identity, culture clashes, and the theme she is perhaps most known for: the experience of American immigrants and their first-generation American children. Lahiri writes with such empathy and insight. Her characters are complex and, whether or not you agree with their decisions, you come to understand them.

The Namesake is told from varying perspectives. We’re engulfed in one character, which leads us to another, then another. It’s a seamless story that unravels into many, only to come back in the end as one.

The narratives of the different family members weave together not for a larger plot, but for a larger picture. Literary fiction at its finest, this intimate portrait of a family and their different experiences assimilating into American culture is moving and deeply insightful.

This is the story of the Gangulis, a Bengali couple who immigrates to America. We witness the couple become parents and raise a family in a land that is foreign to them. At the novel’s center is their first born, a son, whom they struggle to name.

The story of their son’s name is both interesting and thought-provoking. It emerges throughout the novel in different ways. As he grows, we watch his name affect his identity at various life stages, how it shapes his experiences and relationships with himself, his heritage, and his family.

“He hates that his name is both absurd and obscure, that it has nothing to do with who he is, that it is neither Indian nor American but of all things Russian. He hates having to live with it, with a pet name turned good name, day after day, second after second… At times his name, an entity shapeless and weightless, manages nevertheless to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear.” Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

What’s in a name? This book will surely tell you.

Lahiri has a way of capturing life’s moments between moments, those that are so subtle yet so significant in defining one’s journey and identity.

If you’ve read Lahiri’s short stories, you will enjoy her novel The Namesake. And likewise if you’ve read this book you will enjoy her short stories! Her writing is elegant and exquisitely detailed, but most of all, her characters will linger with you long after you’ve finished reading.

Have you read The Namesake?

How to Begin the Writing Process in 4 Easy Steps

Step 1: Consume coffee.
Or any caffeinated beverage of your choice. (Alcohol, optional.)

Step 2: Procrastinate for as long as needed.
This step is crucial, so don’t skip it (ha, of course you won’t). For example, you can ask yourself existential questions. Draw sketches of your next tattoo. Compose an email that doesn’t need to be sent. Google different ways to end the email because “Best” is so boring and such a cop out and never felt complete to begin with and what does it even mean? Best what? It’s lazy, that’s what it is. Or you can post a status about writing to make yourself feel like you’re at least doing something writing-related, even though writing a status does not count as writing but don’t tell yourself that because trust the process and this step is so crucial, did I mention that? (Do you feel the caffeine?)

Step 3: Stare at your document and try not to panic.writing is
(Easy.) Try not to do this all day, though. Step 3 is like quick sand so keep your mind strong and whatever you do, do NOT leave your chair. The blank page may hypnotize you, it may give you hunger pangs, it may speak to you in a foreign language inside your head. Let it. Be brave. Practice breathing exercises. Feel the words tumble in your head. Gather them like chalk in your hands. This is your arena. You were made for this. Blood will be shed. (Metaphorically, of course. Calm down.)

Step 4: Write something. Anything. Just start writing.
The magic will happen but only if you start. Remember, the first draft is about giving yourself material to work with. You can’t mold your creation if you don’t have clay. Those first words to fill up your page are warm-up words. Don’t criticize them, celebrate them, coax them out. Those first words are the first logs in a fire pit. They will catch fire, but you have to add more, you have to keep going. Write first, edit later! (Note: Writing “Blah, blah, blah” is acceptable, but only for the first minute, or so, give or take, depending on the day, and the temperature in the room, and whether or not you had breakfast. Also, stop biting your nails. No need to be a savage.)

Step 5:
There is no step 5! Stop trying to skip steps and go back to Step 4!

(Also, stop putting so much pressure on yourself; you’re not writing the next Game of Thrones episode. But man, wouldn’t that be fun?) (Note: Do NOT write the next Game of Thrones episode, unless you are still on Step 2, in which case… carry on, then, and send me a copy.)

~ Mad Girl Writing

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Letters from Oahu, Hawaii |Part I

February 28, 2017

The Ocean and Ourselves

As I write this I’m sitting on the sharp rocky edges of an island, a six-hour plane-ride away from the closest continent. It’s the furthest away I’ve ever been from mainland, but I feel free, not isolated. Or perhaps it’s because I have only been here a few days. (Oh, the magic of novelty.)

The ocean is royalty here. The waves move in and out, methodical and hypnotic, an expression of peace and power. The ceaseless whooshing a lullaby, an orchestra, a narrative that tells the story of existence, if only we could comprehend its language. We try; we listen. It fills our senses—I am like a sea shell. Clouds kiss the horizon, reflections on the water.

The water—so much water. We were whale watching earlier, from the shore. From where we stand their tails are tiny. If we’re lucky, we see the subtle movements in the waves, the way the puffs of water spray upwards from their breaths, a reminder that we’re not so unlike them. Water and air is life for us both.

The ocean is a reminder of the breath in your heart. As the civilizations of modern man churn on, the ocean rolls on; it just is. A treasure of a billion secrets, so trust-worthy. Nothing humbles me like the ocean. Perhaps we are each one of us a teardrop of the ocean. Our veins are mini-streams and currents—trapped. And so we yearn for greatness, for the grandiose body of which we were once a part; we are constantly drawn to that which we can never hold in the small palms of our hands. The great tragedy of our yearning.

I will miss this sound. I know I will come back to it in daydreams. The breathing of the waves, like a thousand distant showers, endless exhales; they vibrate in my soul, clear out all the useless noise, wipe clean my mind’s pathways.

I think we are drawn to the ocean because we are made of water. How simple a conclusion! Seventy percent of our body is water and 100 percent of our life is dependent on water. And so we see the ocean as an extension of ourselves. Of the power we hope to someday achieve. (We have yet to conquer the ocean, and ourselves.)

When we see the ocean we recognize something in ourselves in all of creation—an alignment suddenly clicks. The answers we seek lie somewhere in the depths, we can feel them. (Are they destined to remain unknown?)

Somehow knowing they are merely there brings us peace, even if we cannot touch them, and so we watch, we listen, from the safety of the shore, from the semi-safety of our boats. We bob on the surface of life’s great mysteries and inhale the grains of salt and wind; oh majestic fear of the unknown; we wrestle with wanting to jump in, and not wanting to disturb the beast.

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The Stalling Before the Writing (Or, the Tragic Plight of My Poor Nails)

Your deadline is a headlight zooming towards you on a dark road. It’s speeding, angry, coming at you with music blasting, yet you find yourself standing there, in the middle of the road—shocked into a dumbness, unable to move, hypnotized by the light that’s getting brighter by the minute. You can see the crash happening, so why don’t you move? Why don’t you write?

Or maybe you don’t have a deadline. An external one, I mean. Maybe your deadline is simply internal, self-imposed; the usual tug of war between the procrastination troll that lives inside the crevices of your ears and the discipline fairy who’s ironically a pretty lazy fellow considering his purpose—he comes and goes as he pleases; he’s never there when you need him and when you don’t need him he’s hanging out on your shoulder, legs dangling, cracking jokes and eating grapes.

You sit yourself down to write but a million and one things are not right with the state of your work space. A million and one minuscule things that don’t matter at all. You begin to think of all the people you know and wonder why you haven’t reached out to so-and-so, and maybe you should send them an email, so you do. You’re so thoughtful.

You paint your nails (if painting your nails is something you do) to prevent yourself from biting them (if biting them is something you do) because the waiting and the stalling makes you ache with anxiety. You hate that you bite your nails (if that’s something that you do) and wish that you would stop, as you’re doing it. You wonder if this is what crack feels like. You start a story with a crack-addict antihero then stop before the first paragraph is finished because… it’s a crack story.

You check a few more emails. You eat a cookie. You decide you’re still hungry even though you ate a meal not long ago, and just ate a cookie. You start writing a blog post (ha). You check your phone for notifications of any kind. You’re mad when there are none.

This is the stalling before the writing.

But at least you’re in your place. At least the page is in front of you. At least you know what you have to do.

Why is it so hard to begin sometimes? Is it fear? Is it your over-caffeinated brain? (You over-caffeinated because you thought it would help jump start your writing. But it’s been exactly one hour and thirty-four minutes since you sat down and all you’ve accomplished is managing to stay put in your writing chair.)

But at least you’re in your place. At least the page is in front of you. At least you know what you have to do. At least.

You breathe. Try to harness your thoughts. You put tape over your nails to keep from biting them. You can’t type with the tape on your nails so you rip them off and feel disgusted with yourself. When did this nail biting habit even start? You dive into a google search. How to stop biting your nails. Why do people bite their nails. What do sloths eat.

You pull up your page again and suddenly the whiteness becomes a halo. Suddenly, you’re in a trance; you start seeing your words dancing… they’re inviting you to join them. You’re transported. You finally hear the music. You finally found the portal—the portal to the writing. The stalling has ended. The stalling has ended. You rejoice, but not too loudly lest you become distracted again. The writing begins. It’s happening!

But now you have to pee.

What Does an Editor Actually Do? (Insights & Tips for Writers)

editing-quote

As a writer, I know that editing is a crucial part of the writing process. Also as a writer, I’d like to say I know a thing or two about editing because naturally, I edit as part of my own process. But “edit” is a vague term. Everyone knows its general meaning, but what does the process exactly involve?

I attended a workshop recently (“So You Want to be an Editor?”) that shed some light on what an editor actually does. Learning about the editing process from an editor’s perspective was insightful for two reasons:

  1. It helped me better appreciate the role of an editor.
  2. It helped me understand the lens through which an editor edits.

I learned about the different levels of editing, the kinds of services an editor can provide, and the proper way to prepare a manuscript before sending it to an editor.

So read on for the insights! I’ll be sharing from a fiction writer’s point of view.

Editing in 3 Parts

  • Part 1. Developmental Editing – big picture

Developmental editing happens while the manuscript is being written or directly after it’s been completed. Developmental editors make critical evaluations of the content as a whole, asking questions like: does the story work? Is it believable and satisfying? Are there holes in the plot? Does the story make sense from a reader’s point of view?

It’s in this stage that major revisions take place and cuts to the word count are made. Does this section move the plot forward? No? Cut it. (So as you might guess, it’s in this stage that a writer might cry tears of pain over lost darlings, or challenge the editor on revision suggestions all together, which can make this process strained and difficult depending on the stubbornness/ receptivity of the writer.)  

Developmental editors work hand in hand with the writer to transform the manuscript into the best version of itself that it can be. Developmental editors play a vital role in the writing process, especially if a writer isn’t trained on the craft.

  • Part 2. Copy Editing – mechanics

Copy editing happens after the content has been finalized. It’s often referred to as line editing because it deals with improving sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It’s concerned with coherency as well as style consistency. Copy editors fact check if the writer requests it, but that usually comes at an additional cost (unless it’s already built into the editor’s pay rate).

  • Part 3. Proofreading – final check

Proofreading happens after the book has been formatted. It’s the polishing phase, the last chance to check for errors before the manuscript is sent to the printer. Proofreaders do the final read-through, they iron and wax the final product, checking for errors that may have slipped past the copy editor. If you’ve ever seen a typo in a novel, it’s because the proofreader didn’t catch it. (They’re only human after all!)

Other Services an Editor Might Provide

Most editors will specialize in only one of the above levels of editing. Or if they do all three, they will likely charge a separate fee for each one. Below is a list of other services an editor might provide:

  • Writing coaching
  • Manuscript evaluation
  • Ghost writing
  • Research
  • Fact checking
  • Indexing

Apparently an editor will rarely work on book design and formatting. That’s the role of the publisher.

Standard Publishing Protocol for Manuscripts

When you’ve finally settled on your book’s final draft and are looking for an editor to review your work, it’s good to know that editors expect the following:

  • Your manuscript should be in Microsoft Word, 12-point Times New Roman font, and double-spaced.
  • You should know how to use Word’s Track Changes feature because that’s what editors use to perform corrections; it’s the primary method of communication between writer and editor during the back-and-forth feedback process. Some editors will agree to teach you how to use Track Changes, but the lesson might not be free.

Other Good Things to Know:

  • Editors use the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a standard for spelling and the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style for style (unless a style guide is provided by the writer). In some cases, depending on the kind of book, the editor and writer work together to create a style guide.
  • A novel manuscript should be at least 40,000 words. Anything below would make it a novella or short story. Manuscripts over 140,000 words (with some exceptions, depending on the kind of book) are considered too long. It doesn’t mean an editor won’t work with you, it just means your manuscript will require more time and work—and your word count will experience some major cuts in the process.

Do Writers Need Editors?

If your goal is to publish, then the short answer to this question is yes.

But editors cost money, and unless you have a day job that pays handsomely, I’m guessing your bank account isn’t bursting at the seams because, well, you’re a writer. So you might ask yourself: do I really need an editor? If money is an issue, you might say you can manage without one. You might have a trusted friend who can review and provide feedback on your manuscript, or you might commit doing the editing yourself.

There is one inherent problem, however, with the business of editing your own work: it’s your work, so you can’t help but view your work through your lens as the writer—and the whole point of editing is to critically examine the writing through the lens of the reader.

Regardless of how skilled and talented you are as a writer, you need an objective perspective on your work—someone without any emotional attachments to the words, someone who can lend a fresh pair of eyes on words you’ve practically memorized by now.

As a writer, your ability to be 100 percent objective is nearly impossible. You know all the ins and outs. You know your own intentions. You know all the “hidden” meanings. You think your symbolism is ingenious and your metaphors all wonderful and perfectly clear.

Writing Is Hard (and Editing Is Hard, Too)

As if writing wasn’t already difficult, sometimes editing can feel even more so. Why? Because it’s the process of dissecting your hard work, of holding it under a microscope and prodding it until the loose parts fall out (even if those loose parts are your favorite).

You don’t want to prod. You hesitate to change the words because you worked so hard to get them on the page in the first place. It hurts to have someone tell you (someone you may have only just met, someone who may have only just met your story and who therefore doesn’t “get it”)—that your story needs some alterations.

A writer needs thick skin like a polar bear needs thick fur.

In the workshop, they talked about “difficult” writers (usually fiction writers, by the way). Difficult writers are the writers who aren’t receptive to feedback, challenge the editor too much, are too defensive, too sensitive, too overly attached to the original version of their manuscript, too unwilling to see the greater vision. So another lesson I took away from the workshop is that a writer should learn to trust their editor, and keep an open mind during the editing process.

Don’t be a difficult writer.

And don’t despair, either. As the writer, you hold the power to make all final decisions—a good editor will always respect and adhere to that.

Bottom Line

If your goal is to publish, your goal is to be read. That being your goal, it’s important to keep in mind, throughout the editing process, that your editor’s goal is to transform your book into the best possible version of itself that it can be—to make sure your story ultimately moves your reader.

That’s right, even though the editor technically works for you, he or she actually represents the reader, like a lawyer represents a client. But at the end of the day, the end-goal of both editor and writer is, or at least should be, the same. The end-goal is for the work—the story—to come alive.

Because the story, as you know, is its own entity. It always has been, from the moment it was first planted in your brain as a tiny idea with gigantic potential. Sure, your story is a reflection and an extension of you; but once you release it into the world, it becomes a reflection and extension of the world, and of every person who reads it. And how magical is that?

I hope you found these insights helpful. Do you have any others you would like to share? I would love to know!