Why I Write

I have a writer crush on my friend Kidd Redd (that’s a radio name; I know his real name because sometimes he writes professionally for a publication I manage, and thus I have his W9 on file. But I digress…). Anyway, Kidd roped me into writing this post for what seems to me might be the nerdiest and / or most self-indulgent digital chain letter ever. It’s called The Writing Process Blog Tour, and I have no idea who started it. I’m not sure why I’m part of it, other than Kidd asked me to participate and I have a hard time saying no to people I respect.

The Writing Process Blog Tour asks its participants to answer a handful of questions about … yes … their writing process. I’m a little bored by my own answers to these questions, so at the end of this – rather than forward this on to three other writers, which is what I guess I’m supposed to do – maybe I’ll start a whole new “blog tour” involving questions I’d REALLY like to see a few folks address.

Here goes.

Writing Process Blog Tour Question 1: What are you working on?

Writing-wise: Proposals for new products / services I think my company should offer people. (BORING.) A book about happy divorces and maintaining relationships with the people you were close to when you were still married, including your ex. (NOT AS BORING.) A journal I’ve been keeping since fifth grade, largely about all the things I dare not say or write for public consumption. (INTERESTING, though perhaps only to me.) Aside: Would anyone read the divorce book? Also, related: When I first began writing the divorce book, I interviewed some other people who claimed to have happy divorces and positive relationships with their exes. What I actually discovered about these people is suitable only for my private journal.)

Writing Process Blog Tour Question 2: How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure what my genre is. Personal narrative? Self-help? I guess I need to decide that before I can fully answer this question. I think I can say that my writing is, when it’s good, vulnerable. I try to be honest, even when I’m worried how people might respond.

Writing Process Blog Tour Question 3: Why do you write what you do?

I can answer this one. I’m a trained journalist, and when I write professionally, I do it because it’s my job. That’s not to say my professional writing isn’t fulfilling or relevant; I am not the kind of person who could do a job dispassionately. But I say that to offer a contrast to my personal writing. I have been writing here for six years because I wanted a way to talk about some things without worrying about deadlines, editor feedback or – most importantly to me – how many people would be reading. Writing for an audience of, like, six people is far more intimate and far less intimidating than writing for an audience of 100,000. Additionally, what I write about here tends to be addressed to a specific person or group of people. In this way I respond to people in a way I don’t have the finesse, nerve or opportunity to say to them in person. I often wonder if the people to whom I am writing are aware that I am writing to them.

Writing Process Blog Tour Question 4: How does your writing process work?

I tend to chew on things for quite awhile before I put them into writing. Sometimes it’s a conscious “chew”, and other times the chewing is done more from the back of my head. My best writing is a result of the latter. When I’m writing from a sub-conscience conversation with myself, it feels like magic. Many times I don’t realize what I’m trying to write until I’ve written it. I think this is fairly common among writers, and maybe the reason why so many of us are not so great speaking off the cuff. It’s also why even if we need deadlines so we can be productive, we are limited by them creatively. We need to mull.

There, chain letter questions answered.

At this point I am supposed to tag three people to answer these same questions via a blog post of their own.

I’ll do that so as not to be a snob, but I’d also like to add a fifth question: What would you write if you were not at all concerned with what your spouse, children, parents, clients, pastor, employees or employer might think? Be brave.

Tagging ML Philpot (one of the funniest writers I know), Lily Fleenor (my 13-year-old daughter and one of the most thoughtful people I know), and Jennifer Justus (a former colleague who uses food to translate life). If y’all ladies want to participate, just answer these questions with a post of your own, then spread the cheer to three more.

Happy unassigned, non-deadline writing to all.

Death by a Thousand Papercuts

1. The freezer began to make a terrible whirring noise that would have woken the dead.

2. I attempted to fix it. The “fix” involved three hours of me standing in front of the freezer with a hair dryer, attempting to melt the ice that had built up around the fan.

3. Finally, I melted all the ice. (And threw away all the food that had been sitting there defrosting for hours.)

4. The fan was still jacked up.

5. I dismantled the back of the freezer and poked at things – tore shit straight out of the wall – for another hour or two.

6. The freezer still didn’t work.

I went to a friend’s house and drank.

7. The next morning, I shoved a screwdriver into the fan to make it STOP MAKING THAT HORRIBLE NOISE.

8. Then I went and bought a new refrigerator / freezer.

9. They said they could not deliver until the next day.

10. I’ve been sitting here for 10 hours, waiting for the delivery.

11. In the meantime, I’ve tried to vacuum my house.

12. The vacuum is broken.

13. I’ve dismantled the vacuum, gone to the vacuum store, and YouTubed “vacuum repair”.

14. I now have MORE cat hair on the floor than before I attempted to vacuum.

15. I am drinking the last of the hot beers from my broken refrigerator, surrounded in cat hair.

16. Also, today, I called the cable company to cancel the land line and cable subscription that I don’t use. I am tired of paying $182 a month so my daughter can watch Dance Moms one night a week.

17. The cable company would not let me cancel without my ex-husband’s permission.

18. I yelled at the cable company. THIS IS LIKE DEATH BY A THOUSAND PAPER CUTS!

19. My ex-husband came over and called them to tell them it’s fine for me – the person who PAYS THE DAMN BILL EVERY MONTH – to make changes to the service.

20. They told him, “Sure, fine.”

21. He put me back on the phone with them. They told me it would be fine for me to put the cable bill in my name, and cancel the service if I wanted, if I was willing to come to the cable company office TOMORROW (not today, because they’re on vacation), and bring along a copy of my divorce decree, a photo ID, and be subjected to a credit check.

22. I yelled at the cable company some more.

23. I listed my house on Craig’s List. It’s a nice house, and in about a half hour (assuming the appliance company was not lying when I called them AGAIN), it’s a house with a brand new refrigerator / freezer.

24. But it’s too big for me. I am a single mom who shares custody with her ex and avoids being at home whenever I can. I do not need four bedrooms, a dining room, library, home office and big yard. THAT IS RIDICULOUS.

25. As soon as I listed my house for rent, people began to ask if I’d lost my mind or if I was drunk.

26. I am neither drunk nor crazy. Though it is truly a wonder that I’m not.

27. However, I have eaten six cookies, two biscuits, and nothing else today.

28. Tomorrow is another day.

29. In five days I’m heading to the beach.

30. In 40 minutes I’m heading to my friend’s house, who is making me dinner.

31. Another friend has texted me – without solicitation, through what I know is sure intuition on his behalf – to ask if I’d like him to come over with provisions.

32. If life was easy, we’d take it for granted.

33. Cheers.

Unpopular Choices for the Right Reasons

Bravery comes in many forms, but “people who made unpopular choices for the right reasons” is apparently not a common Google search term.

So says my daughter, who – for a family project about dealing with peer pressure – put together a research paper on people who have made such decisions.

Her choices are both historic and very modern.

AND she built it in PowerPoint, which is all the more awesome.

Here it is – with a blog title optimized for the next kid who’s asked to write such a paper.

Why We Miss Our Childhood Houses

Mom and Dad's house, where I grew up.

Mom and Dad’s house, where I grew up.

With a sizable percentage of people under 40 having moved here in the past three years from some other place, I am one of the increasingly smallish number of youngish people who can say I am from Nashville.

Of course, as real Nashvillians will tell me, I am NOT actually from here. I am FROM Mt. Juliet, which is 20 miles to the east of downtown, in Wilson County. Mt. Juliet – known now for rapidly growing mixed-use residential-commercial developments like Providence and Del Webb – is where my parents moved when I was 6 and my brother was 3.

In May, I will have had a 615 area code for 31 years.

My parents are about to trade theirs in. They are putting their house on the market, and they plan to move to Auburn, Ala., when it sells. My mom’s family is in Auburn, and she is going home.

The emotion I’ve felt about this has caught me by surprise. Continue reading

The Inherent Hope of Uncertainty

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Like many in the South, I grew up thinking that faith required conviction, and that uncertainty, or doubt, was what we experienced in moments of duress or weakness.

Like many here and everywhere, the older I get, the more I realize that I (and everyone else, particularly those with the most unyielding beliefs – about religion, politics, how we ought to live, whose football coach is the biggest cheater, whether Coca Cola or Miracle Whip makes a more moist chocolate cake – you name it) am utterly clueless.

I will be 37 next month. My daughter is 12, and every year she can remember, one of the teachers in her public school has asked the class to raise their hand as she reads off a list of Christian denominations. Because teachers when I was growing up did exactly the same thing during history units about “religious diversity” or the Reformation or the Puritans, I believe this is for the most part innocent if not completely ignorant, disrespectful and borderline unconstitutional.

And when she tells me she raises her hand for a different “random” denomination each year because she doesn’t want to feel left out or – worse, be called out – my heart aches because I know exactly what it was like to feel “othered” because, unlike the kids who were unquestionably BAPTIST! or CHURCH OF CHRIST! or raise-your-hand-if-you-are-CATHOLIC!, I went to a tiny Lutheran church where I constantly questioned and even fought against most everything we were taught. Continue reading

Time and the Price of Wasting It

I had a moment of freak-out earlier this week when I received an email from WordPress letting me know that the domain on this blog had expired.

I’d been so busy with my real job that I’d forgotten to do the routine maintenance on the one I do for fun. The domain name is cheap (not a lot of demand for KnightStivender.com; shocking), but my time isn’t.

Whose is?

And yet, unless we clock billable hours, we frequently fail to acknowledge the value of our time.

A colleague told a story today about how when she was a teenager she lost the gas cap on her car, and her father made her drive to the dump and rummage around for it for a few hours. A gas cap costs, what, $12? I’m sure somewhere in this story is a lesson about responsibility, but I think it’s at the expense of productivity.

I wonder what else she could have done in those hours spent searching for the gas cap, and if it could have involved something useful to earn her $12 to buy a new one.

I shouldn’t pass too much judgment on this well-meaning father. I do this kind of thing all the time – robbing Peter to pay Paul with my time, rarely pleasing anyone but often disappointing people.

For example: At the office I tend to push time beyond the last possible second – sending just one, two, three more emails; editing one, two, just three more stories; writing one, two, just three more proposals – at a gain to no one but me in that particular moment but at a loss to the people waiting for me at home, at dinner … in worlds that don’t involve a single one of those last few whatevers I’ve felt compelled to do.

I cheat myself, too, of time. I often do this in late evening, sifting through social media feeds and clicking on news stories when I’d be much more fulfilled reading the novel on my nightstand…

And this has the effect of stirring up bad ideas and weak emotions when I ought to be settling down and drifting off.

And all of that is followed up with time I waste the next morning, after a restless night, hitting the snooze on my iPhone when I’d be much happier awake (as I am, ironically, on the weekends) enjoying a quiet moment alone before the carousel begins again.

Tonight, it cost me less than a minute to email WordPress and ask what to do, and another 30 seconds and $18 to click the link in their response and renew my domain during their – hallelujah – two-week grace period.

In return, I get to keep my name — and so much more.

12 People Everyone Should Know

Here is a short list of the kind of people everyone should know at some point. At 36, I’ve been lucky to know most of them. Some of them in multiples.

1. An eternally pessimistic person. If you are optimistic, as I am, this person will drive you crazy until the one day he says everything will work out just fine. That will be the day you can’t possibly believe anyone but him.

2. An eternally optimistic person: This person will drive you crazy because you won’t believe her when she says everything is going to be ok … because she ALWAYS says that. But one day you will need someone to do something impossible for you, and this person is the person who will figure out how to make that happen.

3. A devoutly religious person who doesn’t care if anyone else is religious: If, like me, you grew up in the Bible Belt, it will be a surprise when you meet this person. Because she doesn’t talk about her faith, you will ask about it. From her, you will learn how to do, which is different than what to say.

4. A thoughtful person who knows practical things: How to put air in a bicycle tire, when to bring someone a casserole, when to change oil, how to sign up for Amazon Prime.

5. A person who levels with you: This person conveys harsh truths in a way in which you can hear and even feel good about them. You go to him for advice and clarity.

6. A person whose life is much harder than yours: Yours are not the biggest challenges in the world.

7. A person whose life is much easier than yours: Chances are good they think of you as some sort of inspiration. See No. 6 and consider how you think of her.

8. A young person: She will make you feel wise.

9. An old person: He will make you feel unspoiled.

10. A person with lots of ideas: She will inspire you.

11. A person with spreadsheets: She will get shit done.

12. A person who remembers in advance that Tennessee liquor stores are closed on Sundays and major holidays.

My Love, Before I Knew Him

We had dinner last night with his best friend from childhood. These two grew up together in a small town, attended college together in Murfreesboro where they played in bands they say no one listened to, and they both remained in Nashville to work in the music business.

They share an inside language of family, music, friends, exes (girlfriends, band members), trips they’ve taken, dumb things they’ve done, gossip, gin and sometimes work.

This childhood friend’s wife is a photographer – quite exceptional with portraiture – and she pulled out some prints she’s made of the two of them, and others in their friend group, from seven or eight years back. This is before I knew him and his circle, when I was married to someone else.

I was afraid of what they might think if I did what I wanted to do, which was inspect and dissect every pixel of his portrait, so I said a polite, “Great photo!” or whatever, and left it at that. But it was beyond a great photo. This is what I saw:

I saw a classically handsome man of 35 or 36, with hyper-animated, expressive eyebrows, a half-smiling snarl in one corner of his mouth, subtly but suggestively jutting hip, black suit. If his friends read this, they’ll tease him, but he looked to me like a celebrity, like if I had seen him out somewhere at that period of my life, I would have intentionally ignored him so I didn’t look like I was staring.

In that photograph, I saw a man a few years younger, cockier, and perhaps even freer than he is now. I saw a man who had already known for a long time how beautiful and sensitive Chris Bell’s music is, who had already read “A Prayer for Owen Meany” 900 times, and who had given copies of that novel and “I Am The Cosmos” to plenty of other creative, sensitive brunettes.

Knowing someone intimately does not necessarily mean you know the details of their life before you were in it. Sometimes those things reveal themselves in conversations with old friends, in photographs, in the context of someone else’s circumstances, or seemingly from nowhere but fate.

Sometimes mystery is best.

I looked at that photograph of him for but a few seconds, felt jealous that I wasn’t in it, then almost as quickly felt the sort of crush I’d felt when we met, when every little thing about him was new.

He will always have years that are not mine, things about him I don’t know. That is wildly sexy, and I hope someone has taken photographs of those moments he was awesome, long before he met me.

Let The Bad Times Roll

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For several weeks now, I’ve been struggling with anxiety around the idea that 2014 is going to be unbearably hard, like worse than trying to hold my awful cats Livre and Lola at the same time.

There are real and real-ish reasons to think this:
– I have an incredibly challenging job leading a startup organization with a new business model, using skills I am still developing. (That is a politic way of saying that while I’m convinced we have a great idea, and I know we have great people, I AM TERRIFIED TO NO END that I’m going to screw it up before I figure it out.)

- My daughter is turning 13. I remember being her age. I was many things. Rational, consistent and even-tempered were not among them. Some closest to me might say I have been rebooting my 13-year-old self lately. Thank god my hair is not my 13-year-old hair.

- Mom and Dad are getting older. I’m not worried about their health; Dad makes more unsolicited comments about their sex life than a 15-year-old boy would about a lack thereof. But I do worry about their obligations to others. They’ve more or less moved in with Mom’s mom (my last living grandparent and anxiety soulmate; related: when I am my grandmother’s age, I expect my daughter’s daughter to soothe me with iced Bailey’s and her handsome boyfriend). Anyway, selfishly, I miss my parents and wish they still stalked me on Facebook like they did the year I was getting divorced. More on that in a bit.

And also right now, it is negative a million degrees outside. It is awfully hard to imagine, at the moment, a day in spring when the 400 bulbs I planted in October will have arrived for the kind of party with sundresses and asparagus dishes that I love.

But to my saving grace, I have been writing woe-is-me stuff since I was about eight. I can pull a random journal off my shelf from pretty much any year and read for very little time before I’m reminded of this amazing pattern: The times I thought were hard – indeed, the times that were the toughest – turned out to be the best.

Take this one, from March 2011, two months after my divorce was finalized:

Continue reading