Q is for Quick and Dirty

quick and dirtyMy apologies if you were hoping for something steamier, but that’s not the kind of quick and dirty I have in mind. I’m talking about the shortcuts, the cheats, the tricks and tips that are good to employ when time is short but obligations long.

Such as the obligation to post something every day but Sunday during the A-Z Challenge, when you are already wrung out from L-M-N-O-P, but are about to leave for a few days of hiking.

One of the reasons I took the Challenge was to become better at a daily writing practice. When I am not actively avoiding writing, I dither and agonize. I like to write on topical events, but by the time I get around to it, the events belong to ancient history. I need to stop overthinking everything, write faster, and stop trying to weave together a million disparate threads to create a beautiful word tapestry that nobody understands.

I need to write quick and dirty.

Mark Trautwein, the editor of KQED’s Perspectives, wrote a wonderful essay a few years ago for the New York Times on what it is like when your AIDS death sentence is commuted by the advent of protease inhibitors. An editor he knew at the Times had called and asked if he’d like to contribute to their special anniversary feature.

“Yes, of course—but when do you need it?” Mark inquired.

“Yesterday,” came the reply. “But get it to me within six hours.”

Deadlines, as we know, sharpen the mind. Mark told me he wrote faster and better because it had to be quick.

I don’t know about better in my case, but the Challenge has definitely helped me write faster, not to mention more often.

I’ve come to view quick and dirty not so much as a guilty cheat, but as an absolute necessity. Apparently I’m not alone: There’s a whole website devoted to quick and dirty tips for just about everything. One of my favorites for writing is Grammar Girl.

And then, of course, there’s the #1 Quick and Dirty of All Time—Wikipedia. Where would we be without it?


What are some of your favorite Q&Ds?

L is for Listen to Your Mother

LTYM badge-2015Listen to your mother:  Good advice, unless your mother is the toxic sort, in which case you should ignore what she says.

But no matter what kind of mother you have—or are, or even know–Mother’s Day is coming! And so is Listen to Your Mother, a national live performance event coming to a place near you (if you happen to live near one of this year’s 39 venues) in the run up to Mother’s Day

LTYM is the brainchild of writer and founder Ann Imig. Its tagline is “Giving motherhood a microphone,” and it does just that to local writers sharing their stories of motherhood from the heartbreaking to the hilarious. Some of the writers have been published before; some labor in obscurity; some have never put pen to paper before they submit to LTYM.

There’s no better topic than motherhood to spawn perpetually fascinating stories and a perpetually fascinated audience. When LTYM first debuted in 2010 before a live audience in Madison, Wisconsin,  almost 300 people laughed and cried as a dozen women shared stories about every aspect of motherhood.

Since then LTYM has mushroomed—not just to this year’s 39 live performances (all produced by volunteer producers with the help of local sponsors),  but to thousands of videos, and now even a book collecting some of the best stories from LTYM shows. A portion of the proceeds from each show is donated to a local charity supporting families.

I first found out about LTYM in 2012, when someone in my writing group put out the word that LTYM San Francisco was holding auditions. Late to the party as usual, I submitted a short humorous piece at the 11th hour, auditioned via Skype, and was selected! (You can watch me sharing one of the guilty secrets of motherhood live at LTYM SF 2012.)

It was incredibly fun meeting my fellow cast members—we were 11 women and one man in all—at our two rehearsals and of course for the event itself, in San Francisco’s historic Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater. Our producers, Kim and Kirsten, who met at BlogHer, epitomized kindness and grace while never seeming to break a sweat as they pulled a million details together. (Of course—they’re mothers.) Our stories ranged from the poignancy of having no mother to listen to after she dies to the comedy of persuading young children that yes, their gay grandmothers can get married even though they never wear dresses. (It turns out that as long as there’s cake, it’s a wedding.)

Now, several dynamite women of the Write On Mamas, to which I belong, are producing this year’s LTYM SF, May 9 at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco’s Mission District. It promises to be a wonderful show. You might even want to bring your mother.

I just bought my ticket, and you can buy yours by clicking here if you’re in the SF Bay Area, here if you live elsewhere, and here if you want to buy the book–far more meaningful than flowers or chocolate for a Mother’s Day gift.


Do you listen to your mother? What’s the best and worst advice she ever gave you?



A is for April Fool

At least I feel a bit foolish committing to a month of daily blog posts with only Sundays off. When it comes to describing my writing practice, A words like avoidance and ambivalence spring to mind. A few years ago when I cut back on my work life to devote more time to writing, and people asked how it was going, I had to confess, “Well, it turns out I’ve freed up more time to avoid writing.”

Not only am I undisciplined, I have also made a sad discovery: The Spirit—the one I rely on to speak through me as if I am just taking dictation rather than toiling away —also suffers from writer’s block.

But rather than throw in the towel, I have thrown myself into the A to Z Blogging Challenge. I’d heard about it a couple of years ago from my writing friend Claire, who participated. Then last year, the Write On Mamas, to which I belong, participated in the Challenge in a kind of round-robin way, with the members each contributing a letter. (Mine was E is for Empty Nest, which I reveal here with some trepidation in case I want to recycle it for this year’s Challenge. On the other hand, recycling is a conscientious choice for a planet threatened with environmental degradation, so if you see it here again in a few days, it is not because I am ambivalent and avoidant—aka lazy—but because it is the ethical thing to do.)

As part of our writing group’s effort, I also wrote a post on my own blog called A-Z: A Writer’s Alphabet. I was not yet ready to take the plunge, but I could at least come up with a line pertaining to writing for every letter of the alphabet. I had gotten into the habit of writing one line, a far less daunting task, with my friend Mary’s encouragement.

Then the aforementioned Claire said, “You really ought to do the A to Z Challenge! It’ll be good for you.” (Actually, she said “A to Zed,” because she’s British, which makes everything she says sound persuasive.) So now I am trying to think of writing as just a bunch of lines, strung together. One line upon another building into a paragraph, a post, an essay, an article, even a book. Or at least a month of daily blogging.

As you can see, my blog is called Shrinkrapped. It’s not about therapy, but I am a therapist, so psychology suffuses my world view. I’m particularly interested in how the personal, the political, and the psychological come together.

Some of my current favorite obsessions include: Motherhood; The Empty Nest (and, since my daughter has recently moved back, the not-so-empty nest); Politics; Psychology; Friendships; and Ruptures in Women’s Friendships. Plus, since everything is copy, one unwelcome obsession: What I’m calling my Cancer Detour, a new muse that showed up in my life in September 2012 (I’m fine now).

I hope you enjoy Shrinkrapped. Let the Challenge begin, and please chime in!






Empty Nest Projects

Picture of nestFrances McDormand, speaking recently at City Arts and Lectures about Olive Kitteredge, referred to the HBO miniseries she stars in and produced as her empty nest project. Already mourning her son’s not-quite-imminent departure when he was 14, McDormand cast about for something to take his place. She bought the rights to Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, shaped it with screenwriter Jane Anderson and director Lisa Cholodenko­­­, and insisted that Richard Jenkins be cast as Olive’s “tyrannically cheerful” husband. When McDormand’s son left for college, she left for Gloucester for three months of filming.

I, too, dreaded my kids’ departure long before they left home. My empty nest project was writing. I had dabbled in words before, but aside from churning out a clever holiday letter every year, my oeuvre was pretty non-existent. Writing was the one thing I looked forward to, not just to fill the void, but as something just for me after years of tending to others–my consolation prize for the planned obsolescence of motherhood.

It was also good therapy, as writing usually is. I poured my anxiety and grief onto the page. “Soon we’ll be leaving the emerald hills and spring-soft skies of the Bay Area to visit faraway New England colleges, icy sirens that entice my baby away from home,” I began. This turned into my first Perspectives piece. Like most things that well up from the heart, the words came spontaneously, easily. They struck a chord for many listeners, though one felt compelled to write that my daughter was lucky to escape my neurotic clutches!

Olive Kitteredge was accused of much worse. But where would be without our neurotic clutches? They are the wellspring of creativity. Equanimity does not hold one’s interest for long. Nor does it provide good copy. The bulk of my personal essays are about the empty nest—anxiously awaiting it, grieving it, then enjoying it. I knew I was through the mourning process when I began to tire of writing about it.

On to new things. Now that Emma has moved back home after being gone for so long, perhaps my next endeavor will be the Boomerang Project. And looking forward to seeing what comes next for Frances McDormand.


How have you transformed your struggles with creativity?

Muse on Strike

On Strike signSince everything is copy, we writers appropriate everything—conversations with friends and colleagues, snippets from eavesdropping, news, movies, domestic and geopolitical dramas. Sometimes this habit of appropriation tempts us into being inappropriate.

Mothers who write, especially those who find their children to be a reliable Muse, face even greater challenges. Such as, “How do I mine all this rich material without leading to (a) lawsuits; (b) children needing to be in therapy all their lives; or (c) children writing another Mommie Dearest, assuming they’ve benefited from all that therapy and have inherited a knack for writing and retribution?

Caution is the watchword, at least once your child learns to read. Just as adorable nude shots of your toddler must be removed from photo albums before dating commences, so, too, must the experience you co-opt not be too embarrassing or revealing. Remember, just as some zealous Walgreen’s clerk might misconstrue your innocent pictures and report you to the child pornography hotline, so, too, may your writing land you in trouble.

Long ago I acquired a fig leaf of maternal decency by asking my daughters how they felt about my writing. Emma said, “I don’t care what you write as long as I don’t have to read it.” Ally, always the go-getter, said, “I don’t care what you write as long as I get a cut.”

I took that as full license. Exercised with great sensitivity and familiarity with libel laws, of course!

Recently, though, Emma remarked, “I read somewhere that you should never write about your children.”

A better mother might have responded, “Oh? Tell me more.” Or, “How are you feeling about my writing (which you never read) these days?” Or even, God forbid, “OK, I’ll stop.”

Instead I cried indignantly, “You’re changing the terms!”

Looks like it might be time to renegotiate the contract with my disgruntled muse before she walks out on me altogether.


How do you handle writing about your kids? And what’s it been like to read about yourself in someone else’s writing?

A-Z: A Writer’s Alphabet

MomsCover_v3.inddMy writer’s group, the Write On Mamas, has an anthology coming out in late April: Mama’s Write: 29 Tales of Truth, Wit, and Grit. (It would make a great Mother’s Day gift, by the way, and I would say this even if I didn’t have an essay in it.) As part of our anthology’s kick-off, we’re participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge, where more than 2000 bloggers post every day except Sundays for 26 days, until they have run through the alphabet, letter by letter. Our group is cheating smart–blogging in a relay fashion, where one WOMer takes one day, then passes the blogging baton onto the next, for the month-long marathon. Today’s official WOM entry is here, but I thought I’d cheer along from the sidelines by jotting down a quick and dirty Writer’s Alphabet. Join in with your own entries!

  • A is for Avoidance, which is the most time-consuming aspect of writing. It also leads to . . .
  • B is for Binge Eating, which is one of the worst ways to avoid writing.
  • C is for Children, as in, “Please go away so I can write about how much I love you.”
  • D is for Deadline, without which I would never get anything written. Or done.
  • E is for Everything, as in “Everything is copy.” (Thanks, Nora Ephron’s mom!)
  • F is for Friends, who will (a) buy your book; and (b) stop being your friends after discovering that you’ve used random bits of things they’ve done or said in your writing.
  • G is for Grammar Girl, a handy online resource, particularly if, like me, you were too young to protest the Vietnam War so instead boycotted Miss Dubinsky’s attempts to brainwash 8th graders into parsing sentences.
  • H is for Huffington Post, a to-die-for publication venue whose compensation plan may lead to actual death should you depend on HP income for your livelihood.
  • I is for Internet, which you should turn off if you hope to get any writing done.
  • J is for Journaling and wondering whether or not you should arrange for your journals’ burning or publication upon death.
  • K is for “Kill Your Darlings,” the process of eliminating your precious verbiage to which you are erroneously attached. (Not to be confused with actual acts of sometimes-tempting violence that could land you in prison.)
  • L is for “Like Me” on Facebook. Or as my friend Julie said when asking everyone to go online to endorse her son’s entry in some competition, “Thank you for ‘Liking’ Michael’s project. And if you don’t like it, thank you for lying.” Oh, and by the way, please “Like” the Write On Mamas at https://www.facebook.com/WriteOnMamas.
  • M is for Modesty, which you must overcome enough to do the social media thing, but not overcome so much that everyone hates you.
  • N is for Nattering Nabobs of Negativity, by which Vice President Spiro Agnew meant the anti-war press. But all writers know the real meaning of NNN: those damn voices that live in our heads.
  • O is for O Magazine, an in-my-dreams submission venue.
  • is for Procrastination. Try to make it productive procrastination so you at least have a clean house.
  • Q is for Query Letter, as in, “Dear Editor, If I put in ungodly amounts of time and energy for this fabulous idea, will you pay me in actual cash rather than in the opportunity to build my platform?”
  • R is for Rewriting. You can’t do enough of this, unless we are talking about your first and only sentence, or if you suffer from severe OCD.
  • S is for Social Media. About which I still know too little.
  • T is for Twitter. About which I still know nothing.
  • U is for “Under-commit, over-achieve,” my favorite bit of writing (and life!) advice from writer and teacher Leslie Keenan. Another favorite is from Joyce Maynard: “Pretend every word you use costs $5.”

  • V is for Village, as in “It takes a Village”—to which the creators of our anthology, Mamas Write, can attest!
  • W is for Walking, a crucial step in writing! Clears the cobwebs, gets the juices flowing, coordinates left and right brain hemispheres, and helps the puzzle pieces fall into place—or at least ameliorates the effects of B.

  • X is for XXXing out, which “Track Changes” will magically do for you. (Caution: “Track Changes” may also make you want to shoot yourself.)

  • Y is for Youth, which is wasted on the young but might eventually make its way into your memoir if you were far-sighted enough to keep a journal.
  • Z is for Zyzzyva, a literary magazine. When you google it, as I just did, you will also discover that Zyzzyva is a genus of tropical American weevil and the last word in many English-language dictionaries. Hence Zyzzyva’s tagline: “The Last Word.”

What’s your last word (and first 25) for your alphabet soup of writing?





Friend Me


I never thought this day would come. But there it was on my timeline:

“Hi, Mommy. Let’s be facebook friends finally.”

The last time I had been privy to Ally’s social media life was when she was 12 and let me look at her MySpace page for a dollar. Reading about her Harry Potter crush was no different from hearing about it face to face for free. I wondered why I had wasted my money, and quickly lost all interest in cyber-sleuthing. My children were born and mostly raised before technology made childrearing a living hell, so this is not as negligent as it sounds.

Now Ally is about to turn 23–independent enough to no longer need to prove her independence.  And so she’s accepted my Friend Request, sent so long ago I’d forgotten I’d ever committed the faux-pas of asking in the first place.

“Mom,” both daughters had protested when I first got on Facebook and naively proposed that we become friends. “Are you out of your mind?” I think they may have phrased it more diplomatically, but I am skilled at discerning the subtext behind polite demurrals.

What is the subtext behind this sudden confirmation of my Friend Request? (And when will my daughter Emma follow her sister’s lead?) Ah, I get it . . . Ally, an aspiring writer, is trying to build platform. As an aspiring writer myself, I know that’s what I should be doing, too, inviting everyone in the world to be my friend and “Like” my page (which I have yet to create). Somehow, though, I can’t get past thinking of platforms as 70s shoes to be avoided, and the time in college someone stole my wallet on the platform at the Philadelphia train station. Perhaps I could have chased the thief down had I not been wearing those damn shoes.

Now I can communicate with my new friend about how to set up my writer’s page. After all, what are friends for? Not much, I’m afraid, at least not the eye-rolling daughterly kind. My preliminary request for help resulted in Ally’s telling me I could figure it out in five minutes if only I would google it.

At any rate, I’m not sure how I feel about being Facebook friends. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was terrible policy for the military, but it turns out to be pretty serviceable as parenting advice for those with older teenagers or young adult children. So far I’ve been relieved to find that Ally’s Facebook life is about as racy as her MySpace page. Do corporations really pay people to troll through prospective employee’s pages looking for embarrassing and illegal revelations of youthful folly? If so, they are not paying them enough.

The real problem is that now I have to think about my posts and whether or not I want Ally to see them. Since all I post are political petitions and my writing, I’m not too worried. Except that Ally is the child who said, when I asked if she minded what I wrote, “I don’t care what you write about me as long as I get a cut of any money you make.”

What price, friendship?


Are you friends with your kids on social media? Pros and cons?


Best Laid Plans

Water spill

I sit down to write after watering and fertilizing the droopy, yellowing plants. I have been in a bit of a drought myself lately, but rain is in the offing, and today is the day I have promised myself to move from avoidance to the keyboard. I have deliberately left the Internet off so I won’t be tempted to fall down the rabbit hole of email, Facebook, and depressing headlines. I have put five discs in the CD player, hoping to feed myself with music instead of the crackers and tea I obsessively consume to fuel my procrastination and self-doubt. I have set the kitchen timer for just an hour, following the advice of a writing teacher: “Under-commit, over-achieve.”

On my way to the computer, I see that water is streaming from the saucer of the pot I have just doused. It pools on the oak surface before cascading down the bookcase, onto the books and framed pictures— Ally’s 18th birthday party, the professional shots of my daughters at their most beautiful. Only the photo of them as little girls in the bath together remains dry.

Shit. If I catch the spill now, I can prevent the rot and warp of delay. So I mop it up hastily, removing a few books, swiping at the glass protecting my daughters, hoping the water has not seeped into too many hidden places.

Fetching another towel for a final sopping up around the edges, I am tempted to throw in the towel on the morning’s writing. I try to convince myself that the rot and warp of delay, the seeping into hidden places, is the fertilizer of writing. Which it is. But it is also the avoidance that takes me too often into a parched landscape where nothing grows.

So I write this before the timer rings.


Anybody else have days like this? Anybody not have days like this? How do you recover?


Line a Day for Five Years

One Line a Day, Five-Year Memory Book

Of the many kindnesses bestowed on me during my cancer detour last year, one stands out. My friend Mary, also a therapist who aspires to write, brought me a small aqua book with “ONE LINE A DAY” embossed in gold letters on the cover.

“This way you won’t be overwhelmed by the blank page,” Mary said.

We had often commiserated over our tortured relationship with writing: our avoidance of it, the ways in which life intervenes, how hard it is to find just the right groove between feelings so raw they burn a hole through the page and one’s psyche versus feelings so repressed our attempts to capture them in words are devoid of life. We shared feelings of fraudulence, futility, fatigue. We knew the misery and mercy of dinner to be shopped for and prepared, the wish to turn off the computer and drown ourselves in West Wing reruns. We knew how to rally one another, to persevere with a slim thread of belief in our own gifts and dreams because the other believed so whole-heartedly in them.

“Just one line a day,” Mary continued. “Anyone can do that.”

But what jumped out at me was the volume’s subtitle: “A FIVE-YEAR MEMORY BOOK.”

Five years! If Mary believed I had this kind of time ahead of me, I could begin to retrieve myself from the choking fear that cancer evokes of being dead and buried.

Since then I’ve written every evening in my aqua book. Mostly just mundane stuff—how my neuropathy rated on a scale of 1-5; Obama’s poll numbers; the little things I’d accomplished (or not) that day. There really wasn’t enough space to go any further than that. But restriction brings freedom, as my yoga teacher always reminds us when she urges us to open up a little more space by breathing through a constricted pose. The same is true of writing—being confined to a line a day freed up space to write more than I’ve written in a long while. The foreshortened time cancer threatened also brought an urgency that freed my mind from neurotic clutter.

And so I have lived, a line a day, breathing in each new morning, writing it out each night. “Five Years” permitted me to envision a future I feared I might not have.

Last night I closed out Year One. Tonight I begin in the second spot on the page for October 29.

Year Two. And then more to come. What a gift.