We have a blog!

We have a blog! And it is our distinct pleasure to introduce it to all of you! There has been a real atmosphere of excitement at the Ivory Tower Boiler Room surrounding the creation of this website in general, and this blog in particular. Andrew, who is usually so reserved, has been positively giddy, and Adam, who spent many years being snooty about both podcasts and blogs, is now eating crow. Meanwhile, Erika is grimly determined to share her process as she rediscovers herself as a writer. 

And Mary is going to write her blog posts only after making sure the rest of us are in bed by 9 (but if we take out flashlights to read, she’ll pretend not to notice).

The gist here is simple. We have four regulars on the Ivory Tower Boiler Room—Erika, Mary, Andrew and Adam. There are four (-ish) weeks in a month. Tiffany Sowa has already agreed to sign on as a weekly columnist, and we hope to have more besides. In addition, we will have other members of our writing group joining in whenever they have something to boast or gush or rant about. These are all people whose writing we love, and so we are excited as both readers and writers. 

The main reason we are starting this blog–and this is not an exaggeration–is the comments section. We want to hear from you. 

Happy reading!

-Adam, Andrew, Erika, and Mary

P.S. Any unsigned pieces you see in this space, or on this website in general, are a product of the hive mind that unites the four of us.

Artwork courtesy of Dr. Adam Katz

Caturday Questions

An orange tabby cat looks at his grouchy looking grey tabby companion and asks, “So…I put the dead mouse …next to… them? The grey companion cat replies, “Dude, they think you’re trying to give them a present. It’s funny every time.”

Our friendly felines got some new toys this week. You would think that would mean they allow humans more time to write because they’ve got more things to do, but they’re also now insisting that the treat filled ball actually remain filled with treats. Also, some of the toys have bells. They’ll settle down soon…

We want to know what distracts you most often? What’s your regular interruption? Answer us here in the comments or tag us on Twitter (@2RulesOfWriting, @DrWhippersnap and @WhatTheMamaSaw.) We can’t wait to hear more about your answer. And don’t forget to follow @2RulesOfWriting on Twitter so you’ll get all the latest updates–know when our website launches, keep up with writing from Adam and Erika and other writers who have been featured here, join forums to connect with other writers and share your own work.


Erika writes:

I feel like I blinked and missed out on this whole week. Or perhaps I just haven’t gotten nearly as much done as I’d like to. Whatever it is, I’m making inroads in my battle with the writer’s block I’ve been writing about for the last two weeks. I’m not convinced it’s over yet, but there are ideas worth considering beginning to slide back into my head, and that thought is buoyed by Adam’s comment during a phone call this morning that the story I was telling him should actually be a book. He was right that writing about the writer’s block would let me break through and start writing again (he didn’t mean that I should write an entire essay about writer’s block… just that in order to stop stressing about the process of writing and just get back to the actual writing. I did get back to writing… but not until after traipsing through my thoughts on writer’s block.)

I also had the rather incomprehensible experience of realizing I’d probably written somewhere around 10,000 words already this month and am likely to write somewhere between another 10 and 20,000 by the end of the month. That’s not counting things like Facebook/Twitter/email, or any work on non-blogging projects. To keep me company while I write all those words, I’ve been confusing the algorithm on YouTube Music again. Back again to Brandenburg Concertos (although not the usual recording that I go to online,) along with a little Paganini, the Gossec Gavotte and Dvořák’s Humoresque. There’s also been a lot of revisiting the (non-classical) music of my own adolescence. Crash Test Dummies, Suzanne Vega, Indigo Girls, Aimee Mann, lots of REM. I found myself particularly thinking of this Edie Brickell song though, and about managing the expectations of others while still honoring myself.

I finished watching the new season of Big Mouth this week. For the first time, anyway. Now that I’ve watched the whole thing, I’ll go back and watch it again, I’m sure, and not binge it this time. I’m looking forward to the premier of the spinoff “Human Resources,” and I’m sure I’ll give the entire series yet-another-viewing just before the premier. If only they would announce the date already!

YouTube this week has entertained me with a slate of various social hygiene films. I found my love of these short films as a viewer of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and I still find them enjoyable. This one circa 1961 from Sid Davis about the dangers of homosexuality is one I’ve seen many times.

I’m still buried in WordPress documentation, but when I look up from that, there’s still plenty to read. There was a fantastic post on the Substack “A Drop of Blood Like Mustard” which discusses traditional laws surrounding niddah (Jewish ritual purity surrounding menstruation) in a contemporary context with queer/feminist voices and lived experiences. I’ve also unfortunately been reading a lot of articles relating to sexual assault. Alyssa Milano’s article about childbirth as an assault survivor reminded me of many of the things I worried about (and of yet another time I had to have the uncomfortable conversation about my own experience with rape,) when I was preparing to give birth to my own children. The poor handling of things at Liberty University and in Charlotte NC (and in other school districts across the USA) have also been on my mind. If you’re as angry as I am about those kinds of articles, you might like this one, which talks about how we need to reframe our thinking and conversations about sexual assault

I’ve been captivated by the tale of two Dutch politicians, Rob Jetten and Jesse Klaver who look at each other the way peanut butter looks at chocolate. They’ve been a part of both watching and reading this week. This TikTok video is a good example. There’s also a ton of fanfic here and here too about them, which has just been fun to read–even the poorly written stuff. The whole thing has made me glad that I speak both English and German, which enables me to puzzle out a lot of Dutch, even though I don’t actually speak any Dutch.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I had a little back and forth chat with Ben Yehuda Press (home of the Jewish Poetry Project) this week. They mentioned in their Twitter feed that their book Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image and Jewish Identity was on sale, and so I snapped up a copy, because I’m that kind of book nerd. The $4.12 I spent on the book was definitely well spent. In fact, it would be worth it to me to spend more than that on the book. While I’ve read some pieces several times, the one I keep going back to most often has been a piece called “I…I’m Sorry” by Jina Davidovich, which concludes with the lines:

But what did you expect when you made me the mother of all living things?
Living things need to moan
To take pleasure in the rise and fall of our breasts
To feel fireworks explode like orgasms in our minds.
To live under the yoke of apology
Could this be what God intended when
She made this body in Her image?
So I must go.
Leaving a life filled with I’m sorrys.
Maybe one day they will become stars
In a galaxy
Where each woman is a master over
More than a garden of apologies.

Freely yours,


There’s someone who has been on my case to stop apologizing for certain things and to start taking up space… and this poem kind of got into that same space in my head. Good thoughts for me to meditate on over the weekend and while I work on preparing for the launch of our new project. (FYI- I bought my copy of the book and have not been compensated in any way by Ben Yehuda Press for the review.)


Adam Writes:

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about Tchaikovsky. It’s weird how the Wikipedia article on someone is often a really good place to start (I’ve become a donor recently; it seemed the thing to do). In this case, it clarified something for me that I’ve been confused about.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 has this amazing, dramatic opening statement. You’d probably remember the melody if you heard it. The thing is, a sonata doesn’t just present a melody. It stretches it, bends it, manipulates it, plays it again but higher or lower, or with different rhythms. So typically, the first melody you hear in a piano concerto–or any piece written in sonata form–comes back in different forms throughout the movement. But this one doesn’t. It serves as an extended introduction (we hear it maybe three times in succession, interrupted by runs and other showoff-y passages on the piano) and then we hear a few echoes of it later in the piece. It’s truly weird. No other concerto I know of works this way.  Anyway, I finally found out why, and it was as simple as reading the aforementioned Wikipedia page.

A performance by Martha Argerich. This one has ads, which is infuriating… but she’s just so fast and plays with such understanding.

You see, Tchaikovsky was among the first professional composers in Russia. Previously, Russian musicians had gone elsewhere to study and often to perform. Russian nobility would import composers and performers all the time for special appearances, and there were folksong traditions and amateurs and the church, but there were no conservatories and no full-time Russian composers. Tchaikovsky may have come to fame later than some well-known  names–Aleksandr Borodin, for example, and even Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, four years Tchaikovsky’s junior–but Tchaikovsky was the first of his generation, to work full-time as a composer, and one of the first full stop. All of the others had day-jobs, and Tchaikovsky was the only one to be conservatory-educated. Anyway, there was a controversy at the time. Tchaikovsky agreed with the other Russian composers that Russian folksong should be an important influence on the new Russian classical music. But Tchaikovsky also wanted to write in European forms–Sonata form, in particular–which the others scorned. And it turns out that those long, sensuous folk-melodies (of the kind Tchaikovsky has remained famous for both borrowing and composing) are really difficult to adapt to the sonata form. So it’s possible that the first movement of the first Piano Concerto was one possible solution to this problem: write a long, sensuous melody… and then get on with the sonata form, starting with new melodies that are more conducive to the kinds of rhythmic and tonal manipulations typical to a sonata.

I’ve also been rewatching The Dragon Prince. I’m not sure how popular this position is but I really like the show. I like the different sides of the characters. Nobody’s all one thing. Viren is powerhungry and manipulative… but he seems to believe he’s doing it all for the greater good of humanity. Claudia is cute and silly and like dumb jokes… but she’s perfectly cold-blooded when it comes to killing innocent creatures and juicing them of their magic like oranges. I also like that the governments are organized into monarchical systems, but there might be 2 queens on the throne. Or a mixed race couple. The show doesn’t shy away from representation. 

Anyway, still reading Dune. It’s very good. But what I’m looking at this time around is how it sucks the reader into its world. The author has this amazing gift for writing characters. Each one feels like a more-or-less real person, and each one acts as you’d expect, given the situation. And of course the world feels lived-in, perhaps even more so than Tolkien’s world, and without inundating the reader with constructed languages.

Adam and Erika are leaving at the end of the month. Make sure to follow us to 2RulesOfWriting.com as soon as it’s operational for more hot-takes on culture, old and new.

London Letters #6: A Tale of Two Pianos

By Adam Katz

Playing piano is one of the main reasons I am surviving the pandemic. If we recognize (and if you don’t, I have some news for you) that the mind is part of the body, and so emotional health is physical health, then it shouldn’t be surprising that within a few weeks of the lockdown (so… we’re talking April 2020) I started practicing every day. The last time I had given the piano such regular attention was the first year of grad school, a decade earlier. The first thing I started to do was to relearn the very same piece I had committed to memory in 2010-2011, Mendelssohn’s “Albumblatt,” Op. 117. It’s a gorgeous piece of music and a lot of fun when I want to sit down at the piano and let the fingers fly faster than the mind can follow, so that in an odd way I feel like a spectator at my own performance. I don’t have a recording of myself playing it because when I turn the camera on, I start making mistakes like crazy. C’est la vie.

You’ve seen this photo before. It’s me in front of the reconstructed Globe Theater. Part of this story takes place on the same day.

In May or June of 2020, I decided to start learning Chopin’s Ballade in g minor, Op. 21. It’s a beast of a piece, far-and-away harder than anything I’ve ever played; harder than anything I’ve even attempted. Did I know I could do it? I would be lying if I said I did. I’m still not sure, a year and a half later, that I can do it. It was such an undertaking that I talked it over with people before embarking, including, of course, Anuja. Anuja was, at the time, safely in India, having seen the writing on the wall and made hasty preparations to fly from England to India and spend the duration of the pandemic with her family. We did not know in those naive early days just how long the duration would prove to be. I guess we still don’t. Her flight left only a few days before Modi’s government put out an almost-universal travel ban that would have kept even her, an Indian citizen, from returning home, at least temporarily. Or so she feared. 

At least for the purposes of spending time with her on the phone, I prefer her in India to England. India’s time difference is 9-1/2 or 10-1/2 hours ahead of New York; England’s is 4 or 5. So when she’s in India, her evening is my morning and vice versa, so we can easily check in twice a day, once when we’re making preparations to start our day and once when we’re making preparations for sleep. I feel closer to her when she is in India than when she is in Europe, despite the fact that the latter is half the distance away. It was during one of these crepuscular chats that I broached the topic to her. Her response was the expected combination of practicality and emotional sensitivity: it’s good to dedicate yourself to something. Even if you can’t do it. You’re going to learn so much just by trying. I don’t remember the exact words but it was something like that. Concise, illuminating. She wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t known already, but sometimes we need that little bit of reinforcement; I do, at any rate. I had started learning the piece a day or two earlier but with that conversation I kept at it, newly determined.

At some point during that first pandemic summer, I was listening to different versions of the Ballade at least once a day and practicing for about half an hour. I was listening to it while writing, while trying to sleep, while eating or going for a walk… apologies for dusting off a cliche, but I lived and breathed that piece. And of course as my fingers trod the same pathways over and over and over, seemingly ad infinitum, a curious change happened. They got faster. They got more precise. And the same sorts of things I imagine a runner tells themselves–you can do it, just a little bit more, just adjust a little bit and you’ve got it–I was telling myself while I tried, a little bit further every day, to scale this mountain of a piece.

The next bit gets a bit repetitive, but it follows approximately the following pattern. The piece is 12 pages long. On average, I was able to learn one page per month. Some pages took longer, especially ones with difficult rhythms and big leaps in the left hand. Finally, I got to the coda, or as I call it, the polka of death. There’s no way, I thought, that I’m going to get to the end of this. But I did. And when I thought to myself: this is starting to sound good, not just note-accurate, but with the beginnings of expression and a sense of the overall narrative of the piece, it was August of 2021 and I was a month away from going to London and seeing Anuja for the first time since the pandemic started. I had become so dedicated by this point, playing at least half an hour a day and listening to all sorts of things for inspiration—Beethoven, Chopin, but especially Bach—that my mom made a joke-that-wasn’t-a-joke about taking my electric piano with me, all 88 keys, to England. I said that not only would the cost be sufficiently ruinous as to make it easier to rent when I got there, but I didn’t know where I was going to be living and it would just make more sense to do without. Besides, Anuja’s best friend in London had a piano so it wouldn’t be like I was going a whole month without playing.

A few days later, I over-did it on practicing the polka of death and my wrists started hurting. Badly. I had to take a few days off practicing and then ease myself back into the discipline. Suddenly, a month’s respite from the instrument didn’t sound like such a bad idea, loath as I was to admit it.

I arrived in England at the end of September 2021. The very first weekend we were supposed to go over to Anuja’s friend’s house and I was supposed to help him test out his new piano. But that meeting ended up getting postponed to the following weekend. So I was piano-less for a week, nursing the pain in my wrists as it grew less and less. I’m sure lugging my suitcase didn’t help.

It’s interesting how something that is a ubiquitous part of my life, day-in, day-out for eighteen months can drop out completely and I can be ok with that. But that’s exactly what happened. I didn’t play piano all that week; barely even thought of it. I had other things to think about. Anuja was taking me on a tour of all her favorite egg-poaching establishments. We were making snarky comments about how the British museums had managed to acquire so many beautiful Indian and African artifacts. And we were just hanging out, rejoicing in each other’s company. I was getting to cook her breakfast for the first time since forever; I was getting to curl her lip with bad jokes; we finally had each other’s shoulders to cry on for all of the grief of the last eighteen months. In a way, I didn’t need the piano anymore because the piano had been the replacement, well-meaning if not that effective, for all that I lost when Anuja took that first plane to London in early 2020, and then (after her plans changed… after all our plans changed) that subsequent plane to India.

The piano was been where I had poured my heart out. Where I had received positive feedback. “Keep trying,” it seemed to say to me when I had practiced a particular phrase for the twentieth or fortieth time that day, the two-hundredth time that week. I don’t say that if-and-when Anuja and I share an apartment once more, I will stop playing piano. I don’t think I will. The last time I gave up playing piano, it was because of a wrist injury I sustained in in 2011, and it would take something like that to make me give it up again.

Anyway, we went to the friend’s house in the eastern suburbs of London. We had lunch at a local bar. I ordered the fish-and-chips. Anuja made fun of me. In fairness, I hadn’t tasted fish-and-chips since the previous evening, and I was starting to miss it. After lunch, we went back to his home, where the piano was waiting. We talked and joked the whole way, but when I got to the room with the piano, I just sat down and started looking for how to turn it on. That done, I started warming up by playing easier pieces. I’m the type of person who’d rather ask forgiveness for playing a piano than permission. So I sat at the piano and explained a few things about what to look for in a teacher; about what constitutes good technique. I had Anuja’s friend sit at the piano and immediately noticed that his wrists were viagra-stiff. I explained to him how to correct for that. I may have harangued him a bit, but I did, after all, have a double wrist injury that ended my piano practice. It was a decade ago, but the memory is still a bit tender, and so are the ligaments.

Plenty else happened that day and we had a lovely afternoon, but this isn’t a story about that. A week or so later—the same afternoon, in fact, that featured in London Letter #2 (which was about what an electric feeling it was just to walk past the reconstructed Globe Theater) I found myself in the center of London, right near the Thames. Anuja had some business to take care of. We were to meet up late in the afternoon, walk across the Millennium Footbridge, past the Globe Theater, and on through the Southwark district to where we were meeting friends for dinner. But all that lay in the future. In the present, the Museum of the City of London was closed on whatever day of the week it was, and I needed to find a place to wait for her arrival, and I needed to do it indoors because it was raining. After a bit of searching, I found a cafe that was off the side of a church. I went inside, and immediately my senses had to take in the scene. The room was beautiful. Old wood rafters held up a high, slanted ceiling, with stained glass windows here and there letting in the afternoon light, such as there was. A bookshelf on my immediate left sold Christian devotional literature, with C. S. Lewis being the most prominently displayed. To the right was the coffee bar and around the room were tables where people sat, maskless, partaking of their coffees and pastries. In the far corner of the room was a piano. I continued to look at the bookshelf, and, below the C. S. Lewis, something darker caught my eye. Is God Anti-Gay?, read the cover. I was curious. I skimmed the book for about 10 minutes. The upshot, at least according to this shoddily argued book, was yes. I put the book back on the shelf, then picked up The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’s epistolary satire in which an elder demon advises a younger how to be the stereotypical devil-on-the-shoulder.

These are sloe-berries. They have nothing to do with the piece; I just like them. Photo by Adam Katz

I was really frustrated by what I read. A work like Is God Anti-Gay is genuinely dangerous. It contains ideas like ‘praying the gay away’ and resigning one’s self to a sexless lifestyle rather than giving into one’s supposedly sinful desires. Meanwhile churches around the world, built with the stolen treasure of imperialism, harbor pedophiles with impunity. At the very least, such a book speaks to a dangerous misalignment of priorities. If the book contained an appendix on things that are much more important than worrying about whether people’s consensual sex is sinful or not, I would relax my animus towards it, but I did not see such an appendix.

I crossed the floor to an empty table, sat down with The Screwtape Letters, and started to peruse. It really is a remarkably funny, witty, wise work—like much of Lewis’s writing, be it fictional, devotional, or scholarly (or all three, as in the case of one of my all-time favorite works, his later novel Till We Have Faces). But there was something bothering me about hiding in that place, even if it was just to get out of the rain. It’s a cheap trick putting C. S. Lewis front and center and having cheap homophobic pamphlets next to it. A person could be tricked into thinking that these books are on the same level, when they are no more on the same level than an observation-deck and a basement. I say this not knowing what Lewis’s sexual politics were. But not really caring. The purpose of Lewis’s books, as I understand it, is to open minds and hearts to love; the purpose of a book like Is God Anti-Gay is to close them. It’s hard to read when you’re constantly being distracted by such thoughts. And I kept looking over at the piano.

I wonder if I was right to keep such thoughts to myself. Civility is a subtle drug. I wonder what I would do if I’d seen a racist or antisemitic work of literature for sale on that shelf. It occurs to me now that shouting denunciations in a crowded places is exactly the kind of thing these people, with their street-corner evangelism would have understood. But I didn’t do that. Part of me wishes I had.

If I hadn’t seen that hateful book, this might be a slightly different story, but I did, so it isn’t. I stood myself up, and, calmly, quietly, without asking anyone’s permission, walked over to the piano and sat down to play. I’m not really sure what I was feeling, but I can try to piece it out. Certainly I reacted viscerally to reading that book. Certainly I was feeling grey and gloomy on that grey and gloomy day. But part of it was that it had just been too long since I’d seen a piano and if I asked permission and they said no then I wouldn’t get to rest my fingers on the keys. If I played one chord and they said no after that, at least I would have gotten to do that much. I’m sure I had fleeting thoughts in which I imagined that I was adding to the ambience of the place, but unfortunately I know better. Some people (myself included) are pleasantly surprised when someone starts playing piano in a public place—a bar, the lobby of a hotel, the student lounge of a university, etc. I don’t mean when a professional starts playing; I mean when someone sits down and starts practicing or running through pieces inexpertly. I like hearing that sort of thing. I’m sure I’m not the only one. But I have few illusions as to the idea that most people feel that way. Nevertheless.

I started with Bach. I figured they couldn’t object to Bach. Unfortunately, the only piece of his I have memorized is Prelude 1 from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. So from there I went on to other short pieces I know. Someone came over to me and asked me to lower the volume. I acceded to his request by pressing my left foot firmly down on the damper-pedal as I kept playing. About five minutes later, he came over again and said I was disturbing the people in the offices—he pointed to a row of windows on one wall that I hadn’t noticed before, behind which it appeared there were some cubicles. I shrugged and stood up.

“Can I buy you a coffee,” he asked, by way of apology.

“No thank you,” I said, and I put The Screwtape Letters into my bag, without paying for it, and walked out of the shop.

Writer’s Block: Bad Days are Easier

By Erika Grumet

I’ve been staring at blank pages for days, deadlines lurking right around the corner on my calendar… wandering between in a funk because I can’t think of what to write about and Kermit-arm-flailing panic that the words are never going to come back. I don’t exactly think of it as “writer’s block” because for so many years that phrase meant I felt like I couldn’t write, whereas this is different. This is me knowing that I can write, but not being able to find the right place to start. When you read you begin with A-B-C, when you sing you begin with do-re-mi.  Where do you begin when you’re a writer who can’t figure out what to write about?  

I’ve had a really productive year as far as writing goes… to go from not writing at all to producing the amount of content I have. It was bound to catch up with me eventually. I just didn’t expect it to be quite as abrupt as it was. It’s been one of my biggest fears: that the words would stop again. The last time they stopped, I chose to stop them. Writing was something I made a deliberate choice not to do. Even during all those years, when I’d have a thought about something, I’d think “I should write about that,” and then I’d chase it out of my head, squashing it and running away–the way I remember doing with the first conscious inklings of my own queer awakening. I stopped writing because I had a boyfriend at the time who was getting his MFA in creative writing, and I listened to him when he told me that I was worthless, that I was a terrible writer, that my stories weren’t worth telling, and that his work would always be better than mine. I heard it enough, and I began to believe it, and eventually I embraced it and I stopped writing. I wonder sometimes about what I might have done if I hadn’t stopped writing. Would I have pursued it with the kind of intensity I do now? Would it have become a casual hobby? Would it even be important at all? I wonder if maybe the work I was producing then was good… for a person at that age, in that part of my life, and with the experience I had. I don’t know where it is now. Hiding in a box, gone forever. Does it matter whether it was any good?  It won’t give me back the time I avoided doing something I loved. Dwelling in the past like that doesn’t get me where I want to go, though. I have to acknowledge that experience as part of what shapes the writer I am now, to honor the way it has both helped me and held me back. But right now, it seems like the words are frozen. Maybe not the words, so much as the themes. I mean, I’ve written these essays, thousands of words at a time, over the last six months, and all of a sudden, I stare at my screen, and I haven’t got a clue about where to start. It’s not the words that aren’t coming now… it’s the ideas.

I’ve compared writing and knitting before. At the beginning of a knitting project I pick the pattern, I pick the yarn, I find the right size needles, and then cast on and begin. When I write, I start with a theme or a topic, an idea, a quote… there’s something, and then my own words begin to spill out, until I craft something. This time, I can’t find the beginning… it’s like I have this gorgeous yarn but I can’t find the right pattern for it. So as a knitter… what do I do? I pack it carefully away in my stash, but if I leave it for too long, the knitter’s nightmare–moths! I have the same fears about writing now that I’m doing it again–that whatever the writer’s equivalent of moths will happen to my writing.

We haven’t quite reached moths yet–right now it’s more like the part where your yarn and your pattern are just a mismatch for each other. I’ve still got words and I still want to write, but I just can’t seem to make any kind of a topic jell enough to write about it. If I were writing an assignment for school and someone had told me “write about this topic,” I probably would be able to write something. It’s not that I have absolutely no strategies for getting unstuck either. I’ve gone through pages and pages of writing prompts and college admissions essay questions as I’ve searched for inspiration. I’ve listened to songs–poetry plus music, right? I’ve gone through photos hoping that something might inspire a topic, an idea, a story, a memory… something. I’ve gone to my favorite YouTube channels for visually inspiring things. I’ve been watching a lot of videos created by a YouTuber in Svalbard, Norway where I look at stunning vistas, a cute dog and occasionally polar bears. And of course, I read. A lot. 

I read essays and novels and articles. I read short stories and poems… lots of poems. I talk about what I’m reading, sharing about it on Facebook, sometimes Tweeting about it. Sometimes I find myself laughing with Adam when our discussions come to conclusions like “women need more orgasms to get rid of demons,” and making fun of my own stream-of-consciousness style, pointing out that I am no James Joyce (and how glad I am for that). I share embarrassing anecdotes about my own reading, like the way I used to confuse the stories “The Girl with the Green Ribbon” with William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”

The changing weather, the changing time, we all know how that can throw us out of sync. It left me with a few days of more-pain-than-normal. (even a good-day rates about a three or a four out of ten). I felt like things were collapsing… the physical pain plus the stress I’d been feeling about writing all came crashing down, and I went through a lot of anger and a lot of tears and I threw myself a little pity party. That’s not my usual way of doing things. Living with the pain and the chronic illness and disability stuff is part of what makes me into the writer that I am… and maybe I’d still be writing if it weren’t for that, or maybe not. I don’t know. I’m not being visited by Dickensian ghosts, nor is my life a game of Chrononauts where I can go change the timeline for different outcomes. 

The thing is, bad days are easier to deal with than good ones. Bad days are predictable. I may not always know when they’re going to happen, but I do know how I might feel, what to expect and how to take care of myself. I’ve got things prepared for bad days. It’s the good days that are hard. They’re scary and unpredictable. I never know how long good days are going to last, or how much energy I might have. Worst of all though is not knowing how long feeling good might last. I end up feeling stressed and anxious over the good days more than the typical-bad ones. It’s Sunday night. I’m staring at my screen, filled with words that I’m feeling kind of lukewarm about. I’m feeling hopeless, and sad and frustrated. I’m thinking about giving up, at least for the moment. Not all together. I can’t imagine giving up on writing again, at least not right now. 

And then it occurs to me. It’s not writer’s block. It’s fear. I’m giving in to fear again. Fear, which has controlled so much of my life, and I’m letting it happen again. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of disappointing the people around me who are investing their time and energy in my work and in my success as a writer. And there’s even a little bit of fear of my own words and the power they have. The more my words are out there, the more people read them. The more people who read them the more room there is for criticism (which I expect,) and the more room for people to dissect them and try and tell me I’m wrong about my lived experience (you may think that’s a reach but that’s life as a queer person and as a disabled person). Fear of the unknown. I don’t know what comes next for me as a writer… as I seek new mentoring experiences, search out opportunities for publication, look for ways to grow. I’m afraid. 

I’ve spent a lot of time learning to trust myself…when trust is shaken as mine has been, sometimes the questions become overwhelming. Finding the comfortable space between giving too much and closing myself off. When I started writing last year, I was closed off. There was so much I didn’t want to write about. The holes were poked in that rather quickly, and when I was willing to let go, writing got easier. It may have also gotten better. It definitely felt better. Part of growing, though, is reaching new barriers, and I’m there right now. I need to figure out how to get over, under, around and through this next set of obstacles.

I know there are all sorts of memes and quotes and things about what’s more powerful than fear–hope, love, faith. That fear though is the same as the fear of my good days. I need to learn to appreciate and not fear the days when my body feels good, and to learn to do things on those days that I am avoiding or that I enjoy but sometimes deny myself because I’m frantically trying to get through the things I have to do. And as a writer, I need to learn to embrace that fear as part of the process. Sometimes it will hurt. Not everyone will edit compassionately, thoughtfully and with the eyes of an educator so that I keep growing. Not every landing is going to be soft, and even the ones that are mostly soft may still involve a few thorns. I keep coming back to how transformative this year has been for me though. My only goal was to become a better writer, and I’ve done that, but I’m not finished. I have more growing to do. I’ve got people who believe in me when I don’t. I’ve got people helping me find the tools and the skills to continue to meet that goal of better writing. I’ve spent two weeks writing about writer’s block because I was in my own way, but also because I can. Because now that I’m a writer, everything becomes raw wool for the writing. Even writer’s block. Now that I know that I was in my own way–and why, I think it’s time for me to pack my first aid kit, figure out how to listen to the more important voice, and prepare for the bruises while I learn how to get out of my own way. 

Curious Caturday

An orange tabby cat, Big Cat sits on a pillow, looking down at a grey tabby cat, who is also lounging on a pillow. Big Cat says “Little Cat, you seem to be in a bad mood. Is there anything I can do?” Little Cat replies, “I am? Crap. You’re right. I am.”

Big Cat and Little Cat have both been trying to help me out today–the bad weather has left me very sore. I appreciate their effort. They’re definitely trying to help out….

And speaking of helpful things…our Caturday question is about tools. I found myself expressing serious appreciation for my thesaurus this week and also the “did I really just Google that?” So, other than your pen and paper or computer or whatever you choose to write with…what are the other tools you find yourself reaching for? Someone you call on the phone? A favorite librarian? A reference book? What tool helps you with your work?

Answer us here in the comments or on Twitter. Use #CaturdayQuestions, and make sure you tag @DrWhippersnap, @WhatTheMamaSaw,@IvoryBoilerRoom and don’t forget to add @2RulesOfWriting so that you can keep following us as we transition to the new site!


Erika writes:

I’ve had an interesting week battling something like writer’s block and keeping an impending migraine at bay. Hints of the writer’s block accompanied the candy fumes of last week, but I wasn’t prepared for how awful it would make me feel when it actually arrived!

Hours of staring at blank screens, often with a cat perched on my shoulder (and stealing my pretzels,) while trying to write something has meant about the same number of hours of listening to music, searching for ideas, inspiration… something! I’ve been through so many favorites this week. Johnny Clegg as a solo artist, along with Juluka and Savuka were on my lists for the first time in quite a while.


My playlists would confuse whatever algorithm is being used to make suggestions this week. I’ve cycled through so many different things. I went back to some things that had been favorites since junior high when I put on REM, went into some high school and college favorites with Pink Floyd, and flitted about with a lot of recent things like Vampire Weekend, Florence and the Machine, of Monsters and Men.

Harpsichord music seems to always make me feel better, too, and so I’ve been listening to that. I’ve referred to my never ending quest to get Adam to listen to viola music without complaining (while I gracefully tolerate his viola insults,) and shared with him one of the Brandenburg Concertos. He surprised me by exploring more and responded back with the comment that this particular one involved “epic harpsichord.” He’s right, and it’s a favorite so I went back to it this week.

Halloween wouldn’t be complete without a viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While there are uncomfortable things about consent and trans stuff that can’t be ignored, the influence it had on so many queer people of a certain age also can’t be ignored…and I’m one of those people.

In addition to that, the new season of Big Mouth premiered this morning on Netflix, and while I’ve watched a little of the new season, I did spend part of this week re-watching the previous four seasons in preparation for the new one. The nerdy side of me has been fascinated by Baking Impossible, which I watched the last two episodes of. Of course right now, my week wouldn’t be complete without the most recent episode of The Great British Baking Show, too. Some of the nicest things I’ve watched this week have been YouTube videos about life in the arctic, in particular in Svalbard, Norway. I’ve dreamed of seeing Aurora Borealis since I was a kid, and this video is rather lovely.

And what better way to try and combat writer’s block than reading? While it’s not the only thing I read this week, it was a lot of technical stuff about working with WordPress, and when I wasn’t reading that, a lot of what I did read was depressing or anger-inducing. Things about Liberty University mishandling sexual assault, or about the culture of academic hiring and how it allows professors to engage in various kinds of sexual misconduct and rugsweep it as they go through job searching. And I’ve also been reading about how the NHL and the Chicago Blackhawks have mishandled what happened with Kyle Beach, too. Not exactly cheerful topics, so here’s a much better story. Earlier this week, I was exchanging messages with Adam to arrange time to work together on something later and said to him “I’m either going to be reading Ben Jonson or writing about writer’s block like you suggested.” We went our separate ways and reconvened a few hours later, at which point I mentioned Ben Jonson again and was met with a surprised “I didn’t know you were serious.” (While I read a great deal of poetry, probably more than most people, it’s usually modern or contemporary poetry, and not seventeenth century poetry–Adam, on the other hand, wrote a dissertation about it.) We worked, we chatted, eventually we parted company, Adam went to bed, I made another phone call, and then went to bed myself, but not before leaving a message with a final thought about the poem for Adam–that the particular poem I’d been reading is one of the earliest uses of the word tribadism in English texts. I woke up, did a few things, and then dozed off again, only to be awakened by the “ding” of a message coming in…and snapped from my light doze into analyzing the lesbianic tone of the text… women, orgasms, demons… what better way to begin your day, right? It’s a shame I’m still not over my writer’s block though.


Adam Writes:

Trust Erika to write like 800 words about having writer’s block. Anyway.

I’ve been listening to Bach this week because if I didn’t I’m not sure it would qualify as a week. It’s interesting to me that I had such a break in my life where I didn’t listen to Bach. Like any kid who grew up around a piano, I played some Bach here and there–a minuet, a gavotte, a prelude. I don’t think I ever actually made it all the way through one of his fugues, though I definitely sight-read a few. And one of the foundational moments of my life, in some ways, was singing a tenor solo in Bach’s Mass in college. But I never really listened to Bach just to listen; it was always because I was studying one of his works and wanted to hear how the experts interpreted it.

Now it’s different. I still listen to it as a musician–how could I not when Bach puts the composition of his music so far to the front? So many of his pieces you can tell right away are in a certain dance-stye; or written as a fugue, a canon, etc. Until this year I didn’t appreciate Bach’s emotional range. He’s one of the few composers who has pieces that make you want to cry, but also pieces that make you want to jump up and dance.

Anyway it’s been a hard week. And when it’s a hard week, the Bach comes out. And when it’s not such a hard week, the Bach comes out, too. Not to give the impression I only listen to classical music, but my biggest departure from Bach this week has been into the territory of Beethoven. I sat down with my Mom and Stepdad and we listened to Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto on period instruments.

Interestingly, Beethoven doesn’t ordinarily get performed on period instruments. And so I was trying to hear how different it might sound. The modern orchestra gives a fuller sound, certainly. The piano is bigger and bolder. There are more instruments in the orchestra, including those bass clarinets and contrabassoons that increase the richness of the sound. But what is lost thereby? The 19th century-style piano is more delicate, and you need that delicacy sometimes.

I have also been reading Dune. Yup. Jumping on the bandwagon. Hadn’t read it since age 14 or so. It’s excellent. It rereads really well. I’ve been really connecting with it as a neuro-atypical person because those shades of meaning that the Mentats and Bene Gesserit obsess over during conversations… that feels a lot like how I process conversation, too.

A Few of Our Favorite Things: LGBTQ+

After a year of podcasting and six months of writing and editing essays for this website, Adam and Erika are leaving the Ivory Tower Boiler Room at the end of November.

Adam and Anuja sitting by London’s River Lea.
We could talk about what this photo has to do with the theme of the article, but it’s enough to say that it’s nice and we thought you’d like it.
Photo by Adam Katz.

We’re sad to go, but also eager for whatever comes next. This is not the end of our adventure in writing, of course. You can still read our existing pieces right here on the blog, and you’ll be able to read our new work once we get our new project up-and-running: 2RulesOfWriting.com. (We’ll mirror our favorite pieces on the new website, as well.)

As we pack our bags and say our goodbyes, and as we reflect on the first six months of blogging, we thought this would be a good time to revisit some of our favorite themes and some of our favorite pieces.

We are proud to have brought you a lot of content related to queer themes–allyship, coming out, the queer experience across generations. Today, we’re bringing you a belated LGBTQ History Month celebration with some favorites from among the pieces celebrating queer themes.

In June of this year we brought you Erika’s reflections on the fortieth anniversary of the first reports of “pneumonia” which we would eventually know as HIV/AIDS. The history of HIV is deeply intertwined with Erika’s experience growing up as a queer Gen-Xer. It provided her with safe ways to explore and understand her identity as a queer person. It guided her career choices. HIV helped her learn about passion, authenticity, activism, community and more, but some of the most important lessons were about role models and becoming the kind of role model she wished she had had growing up.

June also saw Adam share with us a story of confronting his own internalized homphobia and his journey to genuine allyship. Adam’s take on the true meaning of “Love is Love” and of nourishing all the kinds of love around you is precious, fragile and beautiful.

In October, Adam shared with us a frightening tale of sleep walking. What does this have to do with queer content? You’ll just have to read the piece.

To close out this “Best Of,” we invite you to take a cross generational look at queer history (especially the bisexual experience) with Erika, and what that means to her as a queer adult now, and as a parent, as kids around her come out and she reconsiders what it means to her to be a role model.

We hope you enjoy revisiting some of our favorite pieces with us over the next few weeks. If you’ve got a favorite you would like to see us highlight–or if you have a reaction to one of our pieces, let us know.

London Letter #5: “Somewhere Beyond the Sea”

By Adam Katz

Yeah. I’m not in London anymore. I’m not even in England anymore. But I’m still writing these because there are aspects of my trip I look back on, even at the remove of only a few days, with a warm sense of delight and tranquility and joy. And there are parts I am haunted by. One of the things I noticed right away is how similar London is to New York (except that London has a better mass-transit system; thank you Robert Moses for bollocksing that up for us). Everywhere I went, it felt like I was looking at a version of a New York neighborhood or park (more likely it’s the other way around). Part of the reason is that the two cities have interacted a lot over the course of some four centuries. And part of the reason is that we share a language, easing communication and the exchange of ideas even further. And part of the reason is that newer cities just tend to resemble each other, no matter where they are. London, thanks to a certain fire in 1666, is a newer city. But a big part of the reason why London and New York resemble each other is that they are two centers of Empire and, as such, their physical plant is naturally going to reflect their similar priorities. Why am I thinking about this? That’s the magic—and the privilege—of visiting a foreign city. You can see things in a strange city that you can’t see in your home.

This is a hedge. Not a tree in a haunted forest. A hedge. Photo by Adam Katz

I know people don’t read travelogues for detailed meditations on the history of imperialist exploitation. Most people, anyway. So. Ok. I’ll make you a deal. If you stick with me to the end, I’ll tell you about some sweet moments from the last few days Anuja and I spent together.

An example of something I saw in a new light in London, but that I’d taken for granted in New York, is the ethnic diversity. I grew up being proud of the fact that New York was the most diverse city in the world. In the last few years I was contemplating moving to India and one of the things that bothered me about living in an Indian city is that, although there is diversity from within the subcontinent (in one city-block, nay, at one dinner-table in Bombay, you might hear native Telugu speakers from the South and native Urdu speakers from the north) there are few visitors, and fewer still transplants from around the world the way you would find in New York. It wasn’t exactly a downside; it was just something I was going to have to take in and get used to. I am still glad I live in (or even next to) a city where bilingual street-signs are the norm rather than the exception—Korean on one block, Chinese on the next, Russian the one after, and so on. But I see the darker side as well. These people didn’t come to this city to make my life richer and more multi-cultural. For that matter the first of my own ancestors didn’t come here for anyone else’s benefit. Immigrants come to New York, no less than to London, to escape the ravages of imperialism; because it is safer in the eye of the storm than on the edge.

I keep going back to what Anuja said when we were just walking around the countryside near our bed-and-breakfast in the Shropshire Hills: “Why is this village so modern? We’re out in the middle of nowhere but there’s laundry and plumbing and electricity… oh right. It’s because they took the money from my villages [in rural India] and spent it on their villages.”

Photo by Adam Katz

My mind has also been dwelling on something else; something that has no direct relationship to the wild hedges of rowan and sloe and holly or the spotted faces of the cows and sheep or to spending a few precious moments with Anuja before getting on a plane or even to the kindness and hospitality of our hosts. No, what my stupid, stubborn mind has been returning to is a discussion I got into in Social Studies class in 10th grade—some twenty years ago. We were learning about the age of imperialism (ok, ONE OF the ages of imperialism) and the textbook included an excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.”

Take up the white man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile 
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

The textbook did not contain the rest of the stanzas of the poem. But from reading this excerpt, I was convinced it was satire. I smile that I was so naive. But what was I to do? I loved Kipling. I had been raised on the Jungle Books and the Just So Stories (my mother had omitted the n-word from “How the Leopard got his Spots” and so had the reader of the audiobook we had taken with us on car-trips. So I was working from incomplete information on two counts when I thought that Kipling—my Kipling—couldn’t be a racist. It’s a remarkably naive thing to think about any 19th century British man. But there it is.

In a larger sense, I also associated beautiful writing with a more general greatness of soul. I hadn’t yet learned to think critically about the great authors—their political and economic connections, in particular, that led them to blindness on certain subjects; the supposedly great authors’ strings of ex-wives and (surely unrelated) misogynistic depictions of their female characters. Looking at you, Steinbeck. Always, always looking at you. So I thought that if a person wrote well, they had to be a decent person. And to an extent that is true, at least in the reverse. Pettiness makes you a bad writer. Steinbeck would have been a better writer but for his misogyny; Conrad, Pound, etc., but for their racism. And so on.

So there I was arguing with someone in Social Studies class about how this poem had to be satire. It had to be. And looking at that tableau from the outside, I’m sure I open myself up to the accusation of mansplaining: forcefully arguing my point, despite imperfect knowledge, against someone who knew better (not the teacher in this case, but another student, one who was on or above my intellectual level, and someone who had taken the rather necessary step of reading the whole poem… I probably hadn’t even known there was a whole poem to read). And yeah, ok. I’ll plead guilty to mansplaining in the first degree. But I think its important to talk about where that kind of regrettable behavior comes from, if only so we can root it out, and in this case, it was that something important to me was threatened. My sense of identity was partly founded on those books and the beautiful language and imagery I had learned from them. Some of my best memories with my parents (we are, thank God, still making memories, but those early ones are hard to supersede) involve curling up together and reading those books. I didn’t want to believe that one of the authors I was fondest of—one of the people who, in a real sense, raised me—was defending the murderous and lecherous excesses of the American imperial adventure in the Philippines. So to an outside observer it might have looked like I was just talking nonsense from a place of ignorance; and I was. I absolutely was. But from the inside, it felt as though I was trying to glue the two halves of my broken self back together and it just wasn’t working. 

I don’t want to say something like ‘to my credit, when I read the rest of the poem and listened to my classmate’s arguments, I accepted that my childhood hero was racist.” I don’t think that’s “to my credit.” I think that’s the bare minimum. I COULD say “to my credit, I did the bare minimum.” 

There’s a reason I remember that episode some two decades on; and why the most vivid part of that memory is not where the teacher was standing or what anyone was wearing, but only where the girl I was arguing with was sitting as she and I traded arguments, and how upset I was at the possibility (I was certain I was right; I really was; but nevertheless there was that possibility) of those books I cared about coming from such a place of ignorance and callousness. But perhaps there was something else. On the level of its music, “The White Man’s Burden” is as beautiful a poem as, on the level of its meaning, it is ugly. It’s really enchanting and exciting to read, in addition to being horrifyingly objectionable. So the question arises: what other ugly poem had I been enchanted by? What other work of literature had seduced me with its melodies but, upon further examination, would reveal ugly contradictions like these? Poor fool. I hadn’t even yet read Heart of Darkness or the various early modern plays about Jews and “Turks”—Tamburlaine, Selimus, The Jew of Malta… all that lay ahead of me. In some ways, that day when I was futilely debating “The White Man’s Burden” was my first day of school.

There’s a reason I’m going back to that debate, and it’s because, just as the agony of that moment remains with me, the clash it represents, between cultural ideals and economic realities, very much remains with us—with all of us. England is still rich off the resources it plundered from India and Africa (not unlike the United States). Many of those treasures are on display in the British Museum, where admission is granted free of charge but the cost of air travel and accommodations are not. But most of those treasures are on display in the fact that out-of-the-way English villages have running water and electricity and internet, while out-of-the-way Indian villages do not. Or in the fact that the most educated and sophisticated people, not just from England but from around the Commonwealth, still speak with versions of British accents. In fact, the more British you sound, the more sophisticated you are and vice versa. Why is the British accent the most sophisticated? Because the British told the rest of the world it was? At gunpoint? Is that the best system for picking a favorite accent?

I’m not picking on a given PoC who has cultivated a British accent, by the way. You do what you need to do to survive. I myself sanded off the edges of my Long Island accent around the time this memory takes place. I am simply arguing for a sense of awareness of the forces that shape our world, which is not a particularly original thing to argue for. But it’s what I got at the moment.


Tiny strawberries. Photo by Adam Katz

Ok. Here’s a cute story. So Anuja and I were tramping around Stokesay Castle, which is a lovely little landmark about fifteen minutes’ drive from where we were staying. Stokesay Castle looks like a town-house from one side (with beam-and-plaster construction) and like a castle form the other side with a huge, defensible tower. Surrounding the whole thing is a moat, long since dry, with apple trees growing up out of it. We spent maybe 2 hours walking through the rooms and listening to the guide tell us what each room was meant for; what each part of each room was meant for, and so on. Then we went outside and walked around inside the moat. I climbed one of the apple trees and picked apples from the topmost branches. And that’s when I noticed the mistletoe. It was growing directly out of the tree, as if it had grafted itself to one of the branches. It was visible from the ground, but I didn’t know what I was looking at. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (and other movies set around Christmastime) aside, I had never really seen mistletoe; certainly not up close. I broke a branch off and we kept it in the car as a good-luck-charm for the rest of the trip. 

But of course that got me curious. What is the deal with Mistletoe? Anuja had some questions, but I (not having grown up Christian or European or even Pagan, and not having any Jewish traditions surrounding the lil parasite) had precious few answers. So one day I went down the Wikipedia rabbit-hole and found out:

-Mistletoe is viewed as a fertility-charm in European-Pagan contexts. The conjecture is that it’s because the little white berries resemble semen. Now that’s a thing you know.

-When you hang mistletoe from the ceiling for a Christmas party, couples are supposed to seek it out and kiss under it; it’s not just that whoever happens to meet under it is supposed to exchange an awkward peck on the cheek or whatever. You may have known the rules to this game, but I certainly did not; it’s amazing how hearsay leads to these little inconsistencies. I shudder to think how much apologizing and explaining I’d need to engage in if, before learning this tidbit, I had ever been to a holiday party at which mistletoe was present.

-Mistletoe is actually good for trees. I had heard it is a parasite (and it is) but it also attracts birds to the area which then pollinate and propagate seeds, both for the mistletoe and the host-tree. Scientists have basically gone around counting, and the biodiversity of both birds and vegetation is higher in environments that contain mistletoe.

-Mistletoe is the golden bough that grants access to the underworld. Some species of mistletoe are green, and remain that way their whole life, just a-photosynthesizin’ away. Others grow to the point where they are securely latched to their host-plant and then they rely on the host’s photosynthesis and their own withers away. These types of mistletoe turn golden-yellow, like leaves in fall. So when the Sybil tells Aeneas (in Book 6 of the Aeneid) to find a bush with one golden branch, she is talking about mistletoe. How cool is that?

There’s more cool stuff about mistletoe but let’s pivot here, shall we?

Anyway, the second-to-last day we were in Shropshire, we had to give the car back to the rental company, and that meant emptying it of our possessions: a waterbottle, a pair of shoes, an iPhone cable… and this little sprig of mistletoe, considerably drier than it was when we first put it there, but still bright green. So we transferred it from the car to the coffee-table and thought no more of it until the next day when it was time to leave. On a whim, rather than throw it out into the yard, I used its forked branches to hang it from the curtainrod at the entrance to the apartment, so you would have to pass beneath it when you entered and left. I thought it would amuse our hosts to see it hanging there. I don’t necessarily believe in good-luck-charms, but I firmly believe that making people smile brings good luck. 

So what I didn’t know (because I was wrestling with a suitcase in the driveway at the time) is that my little gesture had its intended effect rather immediately. One of our hosts came into the living room to see us off, noticed the mistletoe, and started laughing and said: you two are too funny. I asked Anuja, with more than a hint of urgency in my voice, if she told to our host that the only reason I put the mistletoe up there in the first place was so that she (the host) would find it funny and that she had thus fallen into my devious trap.

Reader, I regret to inform you, she did not.


If you enjoyed this one, I invite you to browse my other London Letters:

Read London Letters #1: I’m Having a Great Trip

Read London Letters #2: “O, for a Muse of Fire”

Read London Letters #3: “The Rain, it Raineth Everyday”

Read London Letters #4: “That Serene and Blessed Mood.”

Real Isn’t How You Were Made, It’s Something That Happens to You

The other night, while I was trying to get some writing done, and really struggling, and had gone through all of my usual techniques for getting my head into the right place, I took a break, and stuck this little note to my keyboard. 

I’ve talked a lot about not being a “real writer.” I’ve never actually been able to define what a “real writer” is in my mind though. A year ago, when I began this writing journey, I expressed to Adam the very vague goal of “become a better writer.” I was clear about a few things. “Real writer” didn’t have anything to do with payment or publication and those weren’t goals I had in mind at the time. I didn’t have a genre in mind, I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a story or a character or anything. All I had was time, and an interest in writing.

 He gave me two rules to follow. “You must make mistakes. You must finish something.” There have been plenty of mistakes over the past year. Whether I’ve finished something or not depends on what your definition of “finished” is. I’ve written one or two poems that are at a point where I could submit them somewhere if I found the right place… I honestly haven’t done much looking yet. I’ve written a bunch of narrative essays, some of them very, very personal, which have been released to the world and some of which I’d consider submitting somewhere…if I found the right place.

I spent months arguing that I wasn’t really a writer. Six months ago, I finally stopped arguing about it and began tentatively using the label sometimes. A few months after that, “poet” crept into conversations when I talked about my own work. I dabbled with a few short stories, but found myself returning again and again to the narrative essays I share here and poetry as the places I’m most comfortable, and told myself that I don’t have to keep trying to force myself into writing things that don’t feel right… and there are all kinds of ways that things don’t feel right sometimes. Sometimes it’s a poem or an essay that I’ll start and it’s just not working. It took many, many months though, to convince me to just file these unfinished projects away for later, and not to just delete or destroy them. To me, they were signs of failure–of all the ways I’m not really a writer. But they’re not emblems of my failures as a writer. They’re lessons in finding my voice. They’re lessons in how to listen. When I learned to knit, I had to learn how to find a dropped stitch and repair it, carefully using a crochet hook to follow the pattern to make sure that knits went where knits were supposed to go and purls went where they were supposed to. Until I could do that, it meant a project had to wait until someone who could do that for me was available…or I had to frog (rip back) the whole thing until I got to the mistake and did it over again. Some of the things I’ve started are just resting until they can be fixed. Some will languish like my “naughty knitting pile”–the projects I’ve started and just can’t finish for some reason… the pattern bores me or it’s poorly written, or it just no longer suits the kind of knitting I want to do… and one of these days I’ll take the things in that pile, yank the needles out and frog the projects, salvaging the yarn I can salvage, putting the needles away for other projects, and carefully collecting the stitch markers to use again. And some, I’ll fly right through, beginning to end, with a few breaks in between to rest my hands or to correct a mistake or buy more yarn or the right buttons or something. A long time ago someone taught me the difference between a process knitter and a project knitter. Process knitters knit for the experience of creating something, for learning new techniques, figuring out stitches. Project knitters knit for the beauty of the finished object. They’re about casting on their projects and seeing them all the way through to the end. I’ve always been a process knitter. I’m in it for the experience of creating something, for how it works, for new ways that I can do things. I love the finished objects I turn out, but that’s not nearly as exciting as the process. Writing has some of the same process/product dichotomy, and I’m working on learning to appreciate both the process and the product….because whether or not I finish pieces, I’m learning from writing them. 

I’ve taken a cheesegrater to my soul a few times over the last year… and written openly about some difficult things. I’m glad I’m able to be that vulnerable in the words I put on paper, but it’s very scary. I have no idea who might read it, who might misquote it or misunderstand it. I have no idea what criticism might be levied about it. When I wrote about my experience as a rape survivor and why it’s important to me to use the word rape I was prepared to experience some backlash… the typical victim blaming type things about things I should have or could have done differently. I wasn’t expecting to have someone Tweet at me and tell me that what I wrote was pornography. That was yet another learning experience along the way. There’s nothing more that I can say about that. I shrugged, shared the Tweet with a few people and said, “Well, I can assume that this person didn’t actually read the piece.” For a negative response that was a pretty mild one… not bad for a first experience, and good practice for harsher criticism that will undoubtedly come as I share more work.

Some days writing is hard for me. Some days the words don’t flow, or I don’t know what to write about. I’ve been persistent though… there have been very few days in the last year where I haven’t written anything or at least tried to. Some days I can’t hear my own voice. It’s really surprising to me that the one thing I don’t remember feeling at all is “I don’t want to write.” Sometimes it’s “I don’t want to write right now,” during time I have blocked out for writing, but even when I’ve been dealing with major pain flare ups or fibro fog, it’s not “I don’t want to write.” There have been days when I couldn’t write and those days are emotionally painful (whether or not they’re also physically painful,) and frustrating. I feel angry and sad at the way that some things are difficult or impossible at times because I’m living with several chronic illnesses, but it doesn’t make me want to do those things any less, (nor does it make the fact that I do the things I do any more inspiring; I’m not here to be your inspiration porn). 

A year of persistence, thousands and thousands of words, and I’m no closer to defining what being a “real writer” means than when I started. I have found a voice I didn’t know I had–one that has allowed me to participate in the process of editing my own work and standing up for the choices I’ve made sometimes, knowing that some of my choices are very deliberate. I can give better feedback to other writers whose work I’m reading. I do a lot of editing for my brother now, too, but when I do, the kind of things I look for, the suggestions I make have changed as my own writing has changed. The feedback I get on my own writing is different now, too. When I first started writing, there were often so many more pink squiggles and comments. There are fewer squiggles now. I would have predicted that the difference in editorial feedback would make me feel something positive. Instead, it makes me nervous and takes me back to my “not a real writer” headspace, right back where I started. So many things take me back to those feelings of being a fraud, not just the times when I’m struggling to get words on paper or to find the thread I need to pick up so that I can keep writing. I journey back to the place where I was overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. When writing becomes difficult, those feelings of not being a real writer, a hyper awareness of all of my own inadequacies come flooding back. I feel ghostly grey-green fingers of fear prying my hands away from the keyboard, and like Blofeld in a James Bond film or Dr. Claw in an Inspector Gadget cartoon, the fingers come with a voice–in my head it sounds a little like Scar in The Lion King telling me that I’m failing at my task, that I can’t do it, that I’m not a writer and I never will be. Surprisingly, the biggest lesson I’ve learned from telling all these stories in the last year isn’t about how to be a writer at all. It’s about how to take up space. The first place I have to take up space is in my own head…learning to do that makes me a better writer, a better editor, a better advocate for myself 

I’ve learned to wrestle with the voice and win often enough now. That’s not the whole entire match though. I know that in order to keep growing as a writer, I need to keep taking risks, but I just don’t know what’s next. I wonder sometimes if uncertainty about what comes next is part of the problem. Am I feeding those haunting voices with my uncertainty?

I’m doing what I can to build a team that will help hold back those voices…it starts with me in the lead and seeking out an expanded circle of mentors and guides. I’m looking for opportunities to connect with other groups of writers who can help me grow. I’ve submitted a microstory for publication so I can get the very first rejection out of the way… and when I figure out where to send things to, I’ll send out more, and I’ll try and focus on the idea that my words might have a positive impact on someone, that they might help someone learn about an issue they didn’t know about, change their mind about something, find peace or comfort with something painful. I want my words to do something good. In order for any of that to happen, I need to find ways to set the words free into the world…and not to be too scared of the results.

I stuck that little reminder onto my keyboard to keep myself focused, because it’s easy to become discouraged sometimes. I rest my right wrist on it, and often, my elbow on a cat. If I remember what the Velveteen Rabbit says, “Real isn’t how you were made, it’s something that happens to you,” I don’t need to know what it means to be a “real writer.” I need to keep my eyes on the goal I started with–”to be a better writer,” and to remember the rules from the very beginning: “You must make mistakes. You must finish something.” If “real writer” is an actual destination, instead of just moving goal posts… I guess I’ll know it when I get there. 

Caturday Questions

Two cats sit together on a bed. The Big Cat, an orange tabby, sits in the foreground looking down at his companion, Little Cat, a grey tabby. Big Cat asks, “Little Cat, do you think angels are real?” Little Cat replis, “I hope so, Big Cat. They sound delicious.”

Even Big Cat and Little Cat want treats for Halloween. Fortunately they leave mine alone, unless you count the times that they have tried sitting on the chocolates I’ve placed next to me, melting them and sometimes getting bits of chocolate on their fur.

And what would Caturday be without a question? Leave your answer here in the comments, or Tweet us @DrWhippersnap and @WhatTheMamaSaw along with @IvoryBoilerRoom. Today’s question is about plots…

One of the basic plots (seven, nine or some other number depending on who you ask,) is “Overcoming the Monster.” As writers, no matter what our genre, there’s always a monster to battle–as a writer of mostly essays and poems, my own personal demon is my own confidence. So tell us about your monster-real or imaginary, and how you defeat that monster. And enjoy the rest of your spooky weekend.

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