Claim 1

“Good afternoon, what is your claim number?”

“Seriously? I already gave it to the computer. Twice.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I need your claim number to assist you.”

She sighs heavily. Repeats the 22-digit string. 

“Was that 4206 at the end there, ma’am?”

“42706.”

“I do apologize, but I am unable to find it.”

A deep breath. “Shall I repeat it a fourth time?”

“Yes, ma’am, I do advise that you do.”

She does. 

“I do apologize for any inconvenience, ma’am. I can confirm that I have now located the claim. How can I assist you today?”

“I want to cancel my claim.”

“All right, I’d be more than happy to assist you with that. I understand that you want to cancel your pending claim for,” a pause while she reads the screen, “a defective boyfriend, remedy sought: breakup, for a claim amount of $2,000. Can you please tell me in a few words why you wish to cancel this claim?”

“I—well, just didn’t need to make the claim. I just want to retract it.”

“Can you be a little more specific, ma’am? I see that this claim was filed 48 hours ago, so it is in the processing queue set to be paid out and the relationship terminated in under 24 hours.”

“I don’t understand, I can’t cancel?”

“Correct, ma’am, unless one of the available cancellation options is selected, at this stage of processing, the system will not let me cancel.”

“I see. Uh, I guess my reason is that I regret starting this process and I want to wipe it from the system.”

“Ma’am, I’m afraid that’s not a listed reason.”

“So there’s like a drop-down list of acceptable reasons to cancel?”

A slight waver of disloyalty in her voice as she admits: “Yes, ma’am.”

“Can you just read me the options and I’ll tell you which one is right?”

There’s a longer pause on the other end now. It tolls the death knell of the sacred secrecy of the drop-down list. But it’s 5:55, and the call center shuts down at 6:00 or when all open calls are closed out, whichever comes first, so she says, a little quieter, “For this category of claim the options are ‘romantic argument resolved (bilateral),’ ‘couple’s counseling scheduled (bilateral),’ ‘flowers/date night/grand romantic gesture offered (unilateral),’ ‘apologies for making a big deal out of nothing (unilateral),’ or ‘sudden death of one or both parties.’”

“Oh, definitely the one about unilateral apologies. That’s it.”

“All right, I can assist you with processing that cancellation reason. Can you please tell me which party initiated the apology for making a big deal out of nothing (unilateral)?”

“Me.”

“All right, ma’am, I will record that. And on which date did you issue that unilateral apology?”

“Today?” she says, as though it’s a question. 

It’s 5:56. “Are you sure you didn’t apologize within 12 hours of the breakup request?”

“Am I…”

“Yes, I’m wondering if you actually apologized within 12 hours of the breakup request. Because if that’s what happened, this claim won’t go on your record and your premium will not increase.” She drums her nails on the desktop.

“Oh, absolutely, you’re right now that I think about it, it was definitely—you know—just an hour or two after I filed the claim.”

“I do thank you for your answers, ma’am. I will be happy to put in a cancellation request on this claim. You should see a confirmation email in your inbox shortly, and a courtesy copy to the other party.”

“Oh, no, please don’t send one to him. I—isn’t there a note in my file? I requested this claim to be kept private, just to me.”

“Unfortunately I’m not seeing that request, ma’am. I’m showing that the other party was copied on notice of your breakup request.”

“What? When?”

“I’m showing that it was sent this morning.”

“Shit.”

The line goes dead. 

She pulls off her headset with her left hand while finishing out the claim with her right. Confirm no email to other party (good luck to her putting that cat back in the bag. That’ll be an old-style breakup in no time, with no compensation. You hate to see it.) Confirm cancellation, confirm cancellation reason in acceptable time window, no penalties. Turns off the lamp. Grabs her coat, steps out into the rain and hurries to the hole-in-the-wall burrito place for some takeout.

Foolproof process.

Many people are asking: how do you do it? How do you write novel(s) and this award-winning weblog while maintaining a full-time job and friendships and other activities?

Well, I say, leaning back knowledgeably in my chair, it’s all about discipline. For example, it’s very important that before I finish this sentence, I open several new tabs to check the news. The news is terrible right now, so it will definitely upset and distract me, which is important for my process. In general, stopping mid-sentence or even mid-word a good deal to change tasks is highly recomm 

And by the way, don’t think that I don’t actually practice what I preach. Look: in the last two minutes, I opened thirteen new tabs in my browser, and had a momentary blackout where I had no idea where I was or what I had been doing before. The system works, people.

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A study in solitude

Coming to you live from this confusing crisis. By the day and the hour it’s expanding while our lives are contracting, staying home if we are able, avoiding our communities.

This isolation is absolutely for the best. It’s also hard, surprisingly hard, even for a confirmed introvert who often craves more unstructured quiet time alone, and whose ongoing bout with walking pneumonia should have made her very accustomed to working from home, resting, and avoiding exposure.

But there’s a problem, reader. I need routine. Badly.

The first day of resting with my pneumonia saw me pulling all the books off my shelves to arrange them in some non-librarian-approved order. This was exhausting. But it wasn’t to last. Before too long, I was binge-watching Love is Blind on Netflix late into the night while my eyes and brain turned to compost, no doubt wondering what they’d done to deserve this fate.

Without a bit of structure, I turn into a listless puddle of a person. I forget to brush my teeth until dinner. I don’t put on real clothes. I play Civilization VI, turn after turn after turn, unable to stop, until I get genuinely depressed.

The self-quarantine we’re all doing will be this kind of structureless time on steroids, and the situation is making me anxious for people I love and for people I don’t even know. The anxiety makes the puddle-self grow even puddlier. If I don’t change my ways, I may achieve many types of victory on Civ, but at what cost?

I need to meet myself somewhere, not just watch myself melt through my own fingers for the duration. However long the duration of this turns out to be.

So. I have a plan. Due to overwhelming demand,* I will be posting something here every day until…someday.

The thing is, in spite of the listlessness and my recent aversion to writing and my general slide into feeling as though I have no bones or muscles at all, I’ve been on a bit of a tear when it comes to ideas. Early this morning I started listing things I want to write about, and there were a few dozen that came up.

An interesting side effect of listing these ideas out, and committing to writing one a day, is that I’m forced to wonder what life will be like 11 days from now, when I might be writing something my audience has been clamoring for (my thoughts on various conspiracy theories.)*

So, watch this space, if you wish. I’ll see you tomorrow. But finally, some words for solitude from the wonderful Henri Nouwen:

Solitude is not a solution. It is a direction…Every time we enter into solitude we withdraw from our windy, earthquaking, fiery lives and open ourselves to the great encounter. The first thing we often discover in solitude is our own restlessness, our drivenness, and compulsiveness, our urge to act quickly, to make an impact, and to have influence; and often we find it very hard to withstand the temptation to return as quickly as possible to the world of “relevance.” But when we persevere with the help of a gentle discipline, we slowly come to hear the still, small voice and to feel the gentle breeze, and so come to know the Lord of our heart, soul, and mind, the Lord who makes us see who we really are.

*’twas I who demanded it

*the clamor is all from me

The blessing of constraints.

There is a nightmare image every writer knows: the cursor blinking at the top of a blank page. Or, somehow worse yet, the cursor blinking at the end of a bit of text, when all the steam has run out and there is no way forward.

Several times before I wrote Book One, I had tried to write novels. I never got very far beyond page 10 or so, because I inevitably ran headfirst into a wall of horrible inertia at the end of the first idea. The rest of the story vanished in front of me like smoke. I could sort of see it, but only if I squinted, and by then it dissipated.

This phenomenon is a bit like the paradox of choice: if the story can become absolutely anything, then the horizon is so completely open that my poor little human brain starts to overheat from all the possibilities and I get a paralyzing case of the vapors.

May I suggest a way forward?

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Me and my pneumonia, walking at our pace

For the last several weeks, I’ve had company everywhere I go (which, for reasons that will soon become evident, has not been many places). Walking pneumonia. Sounding like a cross between an exotic, possibly sentient, plant and some sort of CDC PSA, it’s not very interesting. It’s the sort of illness where there’s not much to say or do about it. You’re just sick for a while. You have pneumonia in your lungs, for a while. You have little energy and little appetite. You have a low fever, on and off, for a while. You cough it out. There’s no cure or secret to it, as far as I can tell.

I keep thinking it’s over, but the reports of my restored health have been greatly exaggerated. It just keeps coming back in the form of unpleasant fevers after a few days of activity. This sends me back to slug mode, barely leaving the house and infrequently putting on real pants.

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Editing.

It’s been quiet here lately. I’ve been up to my neck in editing Book One, in between tinkering with other writing projects and sleeping off a persistent case of walking pneumonia (not recommended).

In editing Book One, I set out with the conflicting ambitions of cutting 34,000 words (85 single-spaced pages), while at the same time fleshing out certain characters and themes. As it happens, I’ve cut quite a lot of words, but I’ve also added quite a lot of words, so it might just end up still being a Large One.

That’s a problem for future me, though.

For now, I’m interested in what it means to be “editing,” anyway. This process turns the book into a Ship of Theseus. If not a single word remains the same from draft one to draft two-point-five or three or wherever we are, is it the same book?

When I started draft two, I set out only to edit draft one, not to rewrite it. I was using software that color-coded new words green, contrasting with the black text of draft one. By the end of draft two, virtually the whole thing was green. So did I write a new book? Or edit an existing one? I think the answer is “yes.”

And now I’m editing again. It’s somewhere on the spectrum between a thorough rewrite and a check for typos. There’s quite a lot of new text, quite a bit of cut text, changed names and revised dates, but the basic book is more or less the same.

If you listen to writing advice, which I often do, you’ll hear that you can never ever do anything with a first draft. Anne Lamott specifically calls first drafts “shitty,” which is liberating, because then you can just write the thing with the knowledge that it absolutely will not be perfect. But my overthinking mind then wonders: if I realized after my first draft that I needed a new section, and then I wrote that section, is that section a first draft of that section? Does it needs its own second draft? Is each new paragraph a mini-first draft, even if the surrounding text is on draft three or four?

Then even every word becomes suspect: let’s say I initially wrote that “Joe smiled,” and then in draft two I struck “smiled” and said instead that “Joe beamed.” The phrase “Joe beamed” is now in draft two, but the word “beamed” is brand-new. Does it need a second draft of its own?

Obviously not. But this is where the mind loves to go.

It turns out that editing is not the process of replacing every word with a different word. It does mean “killing your darlings,” an overused and misunderstood bit of advice that you often have to delete the little phrases and moments that you absolutely love but which are not serving the story or the characters. You might need to get rid of that long, beautiful meditation on the sunset when there’s a car chase going on. For me, this often entails wiping out sentences and phrases that have been echoing in my head for three years but just do not belong in my book.

Editing means writing the book as a reader, and reading it as a writer. Someone in my writing group shared an idea that helped her in moments of overwhelm, when she wasn’t sure she knew how to create the book she had in mind: she looked at a picture of a potter throwing a pot, to remind her that the potter is always bigger than the pot, just as the writer is bigger than the book. It can feel sometimes that the work is far larger than the worker, that it can’t be tamed, let alone perfected. But at the end of the day I’m like that potter at the wheel, shaping bit by bit until the whole is some compromise between what I wanted the book to be, and what it wanted to be.

But at some point, the potter has to fire the clay. Stop shaping it and commit. Likewise, the writer at some point has to stop editing, stop tweaking words and shifting dialogue, and decide that the thing is done.

Two procrastination fixes

A brief post on procrastination, unrelated (I’m sure) to my ongoing attempt to write three novels at once:

I’ve always been a procrastinator. In high school, after I got home I wouldn’t dream of starting my homework before chatting with everyone for a while (this was during the great age of AIM), putting up a perfectly despairing away message, and probably also spending some time surfing the dearly departed pre-social-media Internet. As a direct consequence of this behavior, I would end up having to stay up past my bedtime to do my actual homework, and the next day always started the same way: bleary-eyed at 6:30 with twenty minutes to leave the house on six hours of sleep. Not ideal for a teenager.

Similar patterns followed me all through college, law school, and into my working life, even after the sad demise of AIM. Even if I had a morning off from class, I didn’t think to treat it like work time: it was time for running, rambling, or even watching TV guiltily in my room. No, work time was that brutal late-night race against my body’s ability to stay awake. Later, in my office jobs, the best hour of my day was always the last one, when I felt as under the gun as possible.

(Now, part of this might just be that chronobiologically I’m more of an afternoon/evening type than a morning type, and that would be fine, to the extent I’m not actively sleep-deprived, which I nearly always have been).

I came to think of myself as someone who has some weakness of will preventing her from just doing things at the right time, whose only hope was a tight enough deadline that things would actually happen eventually.

But let’s go back to that first thought: that I’ve “always” been a procrastinator. Logically, “always” can’t start in high school.

I’ve truly always been someone who does things–but only certain things. Things I want to do. I procrastinate only sometimes, on some projects, and only in some circumstances.

I notice: there are things I jump at doing and don’t put off. And then there is everything else, for which I drag my feet.

Procrastination was, I thought, a problem I needed to fix. Simply figure out the right way to coerce myself into doing stuff earlier.

But recently, with some assistance, I turned my attention to the why of it all. Why do I delay some things, sometimes? Why is it that, sometimes, I can get started right away on a task, whereas other times I sit around until the eleventh hour to begin?

The problem of procrastination turns out to be a problem of the assignment itself. I found that I can fix it by tasking myself differently. Two steps here have helped immensely:

  1. Make sure it’s the right task. Is it something I want to do at all? This has been helpful in creative writing. I sometimes think I know what sort of writing I “should” be doing, based on so-and-so’s recommended method, but if I find that I’d rather reorganize my sock drawer than try so-and-so’s method, maybe it’s just not the right task. Is there a way of altering the task so it actually appeals? On the other hand, if the task is something I must do (say, filing taxes, or work for my employer), making sure I really believe in the “why” behind it is helpful for motivation.
  2. Make it small. The smaller the task, the more likely I will be to actually do it. This has always seemed counter-intuitive to me: I think whatever causes my last-hour productivity panic also causes me to chronically underestimate how long something will take. It then seems reasonable to think I could write, say, 2,000 words of a new novel a day. (Note: It is not.) Setting a daunting task like that for myself strains credulity. My brain inherently knows that ain’t happening. So it doesn’t. But if I set out a miniature task, one that seems far too small to even worry about–that will get done. And, to state the obvious, a lot of complete little tasks over time are better than even one incomplete big one.

This is not to say that I’ve got it all figured out, or that I don’t still find myself in a distraction stupor while the day speeds away around me. So when all else fails, well, I’ve made it this far on eleventh-hour panic. I guess that’s good enough, even if I never learn how to fully get rid of the little rebel inside me that just loves to watch me sweat near the deadline.

2020 Goals, writing-related and otherwise

I am a chronic maker of lists. You should see the chaos that is my Google Keep, a mess of immediate and short-term and long-term and unknowable-term tasks all jumbled together with lists of ideas and movies I want to watch.

When things get really hairy, as they did during law school, I find myself making to-do lists that get as granular as “eat breakfast” and “shower.” Even, on dismally rough days, “go to class.” Because there is an unmatchable joy that comes from crossing something off, even if my life is otherwise a dumpster fire.

It has never so far gotten quite as bad as having to remember to “breathe” and “sleep,” but never say never.

There is a push-pull relationship between me and the lists. Part of me delights in writing them down, because in that moment it feels like proof of the delicious possibility of the future. Look at me—I’m going to run five miles and write five chapters of a book after work on Tuesday, after I cook myself dinner! God, I’m unstoppable.

But then, inevitably, Tuesday-after-work shows up, and I’m exhausted from work and also pretty cold and hungry, and I rebel against that taskmaster who assigned me the run and the writing project and the cooking assignment. I eat packaged ramen and watch Netflix and feel both free and kind of nauseous.

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A short story for Epiphany.

Trying something new around here: I had the following idea for a short story this morning. So I wrote it down. Happy Twelfth Night, everyone.


When the wise men set out on the dusty road after the audience with the infant king, their treasure chests were lighter. To their surprise, though, they were lighter only by one measure of gold, one of costly incense, and one of embalming resin. Why hadn’t they given the rest of the tapestries, the rare gems, the stoppered bottle of precious wine?

As it had happened, they disagreed sharply about giving the myrrh. It was in their trunks only because the worst could always happen when traveling. Thieves and murderers tended to lurk around every corner, especially in this restless corner of the western empire. The myrrh was not meant as a gift. It was meant to ensure that, if any of them were to be stabbed to death by ruffians, they would be ready to prepare the body for transport home. So at the solemn moment when they had bowed their heads and offered the gifts (gold first, then incense) to the cooing baby in his mother’s arms, they had shot sharp looks at the third among them.

“Wrong, simply wrong,” the first one hissed at the third one afterward, “to give such a morbid gift to a king.”

“To a baby,” nodded the second, grimacing.

The third had merely shrugged. 

Annoying, essentially unbearable, that it was said that some back home knew him as the wisest of all.

But after they made their goodbyes, they had only the briefest of conversations about how full their treasure chests remained, still heaving back and forth with the donkeys’ every step. They hardly discussed what they would say when they returned the tapestries, the gems, the wine to the storerooms. They avoided agreeing on how they would explain the visit to the homebound many, anxiously awaiting tales of adventure in the hinterlands.

Words failed them, indeed, on all topics.

They could not discuss how they would explain that they had stopped following the star. Imagine: they had come all the way from Persia, even east of Persia, and the star had not failed them for a moment. But when they entered this country, they had thought the better of going straight to where it was taking them, which appeared to be the middle of nowhere. After all, they were united by an uncanny feeling that they were going to a king. It made good sense, then, to go to the palace, didn’t it? Which is when they met the governor-king. But each of them knew, through furtive, discomforted glances—this was not it. This old man, with that evil, thirsty, striving glint in his eye—he was not the one the star had been guiding them to. It had been too late, and too rude, not to answer his many questions. But none of them had liked his reaction to their answers.

And now that they had left the little family in their little house (a poorer house than they had seen in decades; more of a barn, truly, although they did not want to make uncharitable assumptions about the living standards out here) the star lay parked above it, as though imploring them to stay.

They ignored their unease. They did not stay.

They made camp among the kind shepherds, who had insisted on hospitality, and who seemed to be under the rather amusing impression that the men were themselves kings of some kind. That night, they spoke only in significant looks about the strange audience with the king. His parents had been kind, terribly kind, and rather noble of mien, yes, but—in what was essentially a stable. Was that how things were done out here in the ragged west? Where were their attendants, their courtiers, the palace? Where were the subjects? Was he to be a king among sheep only?

But he was unquestionably a king. Far more of a king, somehow, than the old man in the palace. An irrational, unavoidable, conclusion.

And they did not speak at all of the horrible dreams they all had that first night, sleeping rough among the good shepherds. Stomach-turning dreams for each of them, waking up in a sweat. The first saw rivers of blood. The second, an army of the dead chasing him, and his legs wouldn’t run. The third, darkness upon darkness, disorienting and alone, a void, full of screaming. They did not know this, of course, because they did not speak of it, and they did not know as each of them briskly filled his saddlebags the next morning that each had a firm, bone-deep conviction not to return to the governor-king with the directions he’d asked for—a conviction that would have inspired each to travel the hundreds of miles home alone if necessary to avoid that nauseating palace.

So it was with silent relief that they found themselves setting off together the long way, the perilously roundabout way, skirting Jerusalem by many weary miles, until they passed through somewhere called Nazareth, fumbling with the language as they traded for dried meat and fruit and nuts for the extended journey.

And when they arrived near home, they made their quiet goodbyes. Life on the road together had made them closer than family, but they were too wise for many parting words. Perhaps, the first one thought afterward as he plodded alone, they would meet again sooner or later. It might happen again as it had many months ago, when they nearly collided on the road in their distraction at the wondrous new star in the west. 

After all, who is to say what will happen?

“Not a wise man,” he chuckled to himself, and his donkey shook his head as though in wry agreement.

But the star never troubled them again.

They went back to their studies, and to their magic tricks, the only way they knew how to show the masses a glimpse of the inexpressible. All the while the heavens remained silent and ordinary, moving exactly as they always had.

As they aged, and as their sons and daughters grew, in quiet moments they wondered often of the tiny king they had seen. They wondered what had become of him and his brave mother, his kind-eyed father. 

Did they hear the news from Jerusalem nearly three dozen years later? 

Did they wonder if their gold had made his travels easy?

Did they wonder if their frankincense perfumed the space around him, as he taught those who were drawn to him, just as they themselves had been?

Did they wonder if his mother had unwrapped the myrrh, which she in her sad wisdom had saved all the while, and handed it to his friends when they took his body?

Story bias; also, the apocalypse.

I’ve been thinking about stories: how ubiquitous they are, and how terribly important to making it through the winter.

The flip side of this innate bias toward stories is that we turn everything into a story, don’t we? When we’re telling loved ones about our day, we try hard to turn it into a proper narrative with a rise and fall. And especially when we go further back, the episodes we recall the most from our deep pasts are those that have some great punchline or a deep emotional resonance, using the same language and tugging at the same feelings as a good fictional story do.

Is this why I am often fighting my own anxiety about the future? I’m seeing my own future in the same terms as I see the unread bulk of a novel I’m just beginning. In that novel, in those pages that fit in my hand, something is going to happen. Someone made it happen, and it’s only going to go one way. It’s going to turn out one way or another, and then it will be over.

Plus, any novel worth its salt will lay out all the threads of that story early on, and they will twist and braid until they come to an appropriate conclusion.

That isn’t at all what life is. It’s not foreordained to turn out one way or another. It’s not even foreordained to turn out at all, except in the certainty of eventual death 💀 (Oh God, it’s turning dark, stay with me). But until then, there’s never a final word.

So this difference between real life and story life—the fact that one has an author and an arc and a tidy ending, and the other has—who knows what?—it makes it hard for me to remember that stories can actually taint our own view of our lives. It can make us overinterpret the past, picking through like story weavers for the threads that prove why the path we’re on now is the right one and always has been, or was never the right one from the start, or finding proof that so-and-so has always been trustworthy or has always been a rat.

And we overpredict the future, or at least I do: we get a thread going about how it’s set to work out, and then we just think all we have to do is follow that thread until we reach the end of the spool.

And we see signs everywhere along the way, like mystery readers looking for the keys planted by the author about whodunnit.

But life is episodic, not advancing toward anything in particular. It waxes and wanes, and some things happen for no apparent reason at all. To the extent there’s meaning, it’s earned through reflection and by applying lessons learned to our future behavior.


This Sunday marks the end of the liturgical year, for those who use the Christian Lectionary. At the end of the year, right before we go into advent, the readings get into the Apocalypse. They are the terrifying prophetic visions of the prophet Daniel, and a bit from Revelation.

The word “apocalypse” itself, in Greek, means something like “revealing” (and this is why the book “Revelation” is called that: in Greek, it’s “apokalipsis.”) It’s when the curtain is drawn back, and we can see the truth that has always been present, waiting for our attention. Apocalypses can happen in our own lives whenever our patterns are disrupted, whenever tragedies (large or small) strike and shake us. Whenever something forces us to reckon with truths we hadn’t wanted to face.

In ordinary speech, “The Apocalypse” is a single event that some people think will happen, just like an earthquake or a war may happen. But there’s another way to look at it, and it’s one that makes quite a lot of sense along with the fact that the lectionary has us read about it every year at the end of the church year: it’s episodic. It’s repeating. Like the seasons, it recurs regularly.

But recurrence isn’t enough to destroy surprise. Every winter we’re surprised by the cold and dark, and we remark about it in conversation: “I can’t believe how dark it is so early!” Every year, literally like clockwork it happens, and yet we never remember how it feels. It never loses the capacity to shock. It’s just like watching a show over and over. Even though we know the characters will eventually fall in love, say, some part of us can still be on the edge of our emotional seats not knowing if they will-or-won’t.

Likewise the Apocalypse is something we can feel in our own lives all the time. It would be one thing to wait for a single event, a cataclysm that will happen once in time, in someone else’s distant future. But don’t we all feel the rise and fall of our own story lines of our own expectations that are met or not met, or are met in surprising and possibly mindbending new ways? When thing are revealed, and the curtain is drawn back, and we can be so surprised by our own lives. That is apocalypse.

Our lives are all a craving for story, because we crave for it all to make sense. And the beautiful thing about stories is—they do make sense, more than basically anything else. They survive so long, long after the linear events are over. They thrive, and take on new meaning, and keep us warm even in the surprising dark of the longest nights of the year. They remind us of the promise of the recurrence of longer days, of spring, of rebirth, of respite. Of revelation.