Clearing Away the Clutter

My condominium is 859 square feet, according to the various bits and pieces of paper I have in my files. When I first looked at the place 20-plus years ago, it seemed quite large. Well, it was empty when my real estate agent and I unlocked the door. I remember thinking, wow, all that closet space!

Of course, all the rooms, and the closets, are now full. As my cousin Susan says, stuff expands to fit the space available, plus two boxes.

So the condo feels small now. But it really should be adequate space for me and a bunch of cats. After all, the cats don’t take up that much room (unless they all decide to sleep on the bed with me).

It’s the stuff. Too much stuff.

I’ve been cleaning my office as long as I’ve lived here. At least that’s what it feels like. I have a lifetime accumulation of books and assorted knick-knacks. Some of these have sentimental value, such as books that have been signed and personalized to me. As for the knick-knacks, they have sentimental value, too, such as that vase that belonged to my Great Aunt Flora.

Then there are those files of newspaper clippings, saved because they that might possibly find their way into a book. They sometimes do. I once clipped a small article from the San Francisco Chronicle and kept it tacked up on my work station, vowing that I would use it, some day. And I did. It wound up as an important plot point in Bit Player.

I’m such a paper magnet. Through the years I’ve written down story ideas and notes for plots. I still have all those pieces of paper. If I ever get writer’s block, I’ll know which file folders to mine for material.

At least I got rid of the old bank statements that went back years. The old contracts for books that are no longer in print? I think I’ll scan those and shred the paper.

Letters, remember those? Missives written before the advent of email? I save letters. The ones from my grandmother are tucked away in a folder, and they are important to me. So are letters from my mother.

What do I save? And what do I throw away? That’s a question Jeri Howard asks in Bit Player, as she sorts through old letters written by her grandmother to solve a decades-old mystery.

And that’s just the office we’re discussing. The dresser drawers? The closet of clothes I haven’t worn since I retired? Well, I’ve started a donation bag. That’s a step in the right direction.

I have reached the stage of life where I want to downsize. All that stuff I have feels like it’s dragging me down. I want to have less stuff.

However, getting rid of stuff is not a matter of opening a large garbage bag and sweeping the offending stuff into the bag. For me, at least, clearing away the clutter is a very personal thing. It involves going through the stuff to decide what to keep and what to throw away. Sometimes the answer to that conundrum varies, depending on the mood I’m in at the time. It could be, “Why am I keeping this?” Or it could be, “Maybe I’ll need this someday.”

I’m not at the “Hoarder” stage yet but sometimes I wonder. At least I got a short story out of the subject. It’s a cautionary tale, called “Pack Rat.”

The Writer’s Office

I don’t tend to look around at my office very often.  Its walls and drawers and surfaces are like an exhibit of  my past. And I don’t want to think about my past when I’m “at work.”

When we first moved to this house about three years ago, I set the room up the way I wanted it then and have rearranged the furniture once—a couple of weeks ago. But the walls are pretty much the same, and the elements of each surface have stayed the same. My computer is on the same desk, but the desk has been moved to a side wall. My printer is on the same shelf, my catchall roll top that I repaired and refinished is at my back.

Now that I’m thinking about it, this room is almost a museum. The walls display my sister’s wedding, a photo of my sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew from at least thirty years ago, my parents’ wedding picture, a family photo taken at my niece’s wedding. But my own wedding picture, taken just a couple of years ago, is on the piano in the living room.

I have a poster of the old Minneapolis North Side, where I grew up, that includes the Homewood movie theater, the deli, and a fiddler dancing on the roof of the Plymouth Avenue streetcar. And near that, for no particular reason, a poster of Marlene Dietrich. When I look up from my laptop, I see a photo of the Minnesota Daily office from 1960. There’s a guy lying on the copy desk I don’t know, but everyone else in there was a close friend. The typewriters are as ancient as the Royal I have displayed on a living room table. Four book covers, framed, a Sylvia cartoon Nicole Hollander did during a class she took from me at UC Extension. A self-portrait our dear old friend Luigi drew and sent to us. He no longer has any hair. A self-portrait of me, in oils, that I painted from a photo Luigi took of me.

And a Certificate of Merit my father earned at the Twin Cities Ordnance Plant for a suggestion he made that was adopted by the Federal Cartridge Corporation that “aided the nation in its war effort.”

It’s been a while since I took the time to look at these pieces of my DNA.




by Nancy Means Wright

Would you like to have tea with Emma Bovary? A tete-a-tete with Hamlet’s Ophelia? That is, before Emma gets involved with the manipulative Rodolphe or Ophelia drowns. Maybe you could warn Emma about feckless men or keep Ophelia from falling into “the weeping brook.” Maybe you could change the whole outcome!

Woody Allen’s fictional character, Professor Kugelmass, had his chance. In Allen’s short story “The Kugelmass Episode,” the protagonist is bald, aging,  and desperate to begin an affair to enliven his humdrum life with a humdrum wife. He meets a magician named Persky, and the astonished professor soon finds himself walking through a cabinet door into Yonville, France–and into Emma Bovary’s passionate arms. He has made sure, of course, to return to his real life before page 120 when she “hooks up with this Rodolphe character.”

For months he has a thrilling time. Until one day…  Well, more about his story anon.

My own experience at living inside a book–other than the writing of it–begins with Shape of the Sky by Shelagh Connor Shapiro, a beautifully written novel about a small Vermont town called Resolute, which is trying to raise money by hosting a rock festival.  A few days before the fete is to begin, a female music fan is found dead in the woods. And the discovery of the young woman makes state trooper Kozlowski grieve for a favorite sister who disappeared when he was a boy.

The trooper’s ruminations about his sister reminded me of the time my 9-year-old daughter went missing in the woods for 24 hours; the whole town joined in the search, and a dozen deadly scenarios beat through my brain. So I couldn’t stop turning the novel’s pages to discover a killer–and to anticipate a sibling reunion. The author was careful to fully develop her characters and to raise question after question–then let events come to a slow, dramatic resolution.

I had been twice interviewed on author Shapiro’s Write The Book radio show for my Wollstonecraft mysteries, and was delighted with the public’s warm reception of her debut novel.  Wanting to share my enthusiasm with the world, I wrote blurbs on social media and talked up the book to everyone I knew. I felt so close to the characters that I wanted to be in the book.  I wanted to see the trooper and his missing sister together again, just as I’d been ultimately reunited with my lost daughter.

I had my chance to live in someone else’s story when my grandson, Connor,  a freshman at Middlebury College, was accepted into the celebrated all-male, a cappella Dissipated Eight singers. Founded in 1953, the group, now twelve men, is highly popular, adding new members as seniors graduate. They’ve sung with the Yale Whiffenpoofs, Princeton Nassoons, and have released a dozen award-winning albums. They sing blues, folk, barbershop, Beatles and Grateful Dead tunes, and do all manner of antics like breaking into crazy dance or piling onto a giggling spectator’s lap.

I wanted a local audience for the group, so I promoted the event in print and on radio and more than 150 music lovers braved a January ice storm to come to our Unitarian Universalist church to hear the young men sing. My  talented grandson got a laugh from the audience when he unexpectedly leapt off the stage to drop to his knees and sing a love song to me, his old granny.

And I was seized with a Kugelmass moment: I was living in a book! I was back inside Shapiro’s novel, Shape of the Sky, when crowds converge on tiny Resolute to hear the rock music,  I was about to see, I hoped, the heroic cop reunited with his long lost sister–praying she would not be the dead music fan.

Fortunately, I was able to walk out of that sanctuary-turned-music hall scot free and exalted. But poor Kugelmass’s adventure in a book had a more somber ending. Trying one last time to re-enter the cabinet after a blissful weekend with Emma, he tossed in a copy of Portney’s Complaint, rapped three times on the box–and there, alas, was the magician Persky doubled over with a heart attack. Kugelmass entered the cabinet just before it burst into flames, but to his horror, he was not in the Roth novel, but inside an old textbook, Remedial Spanish. And there he was: running for his life over a barren, rocky terrain as the verb tener (to have) raced after him on its spindly legs.”

So enjoy your  favorite book–read it over and over. But keep in mind Dante’s warning about the nine circles of hell: “All hope abandon ye who enter here.”

Tough Day in the Scriptorium

By Wendy Hornsby

This morning, I found myself stuck in what seemed to be an inescapable plot mire. I had done it to myself, of course. And because the deadline for this book in progress hovers on the near horizon, instead of patiently going back through the manuscript to retrace my steps and find the correct path to story salvation, I panicked, I fumed, tore at the hair—not literally—cursed my idiocy, and otherwise got nowhere with a solution for the problem. What to do? I opened the door of the Scriptorium, my office at the bottom of the house, pulled on gardening gloves and went out into the yard.

Our house was vacant for quite a while before we bought it. The yard was overgrown and needed, I thought, taming. I love to garden and Paul is a good sport about helping with the heavy parts. He’s also better than I am about knowing our limits. He called an arborist to trim the trees when I started shopping for a chain saw. Altogether, his was the better solution.

We live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Mother Lode country, an area that has two major garden problems. The first is drought, the second is voracious deer. When we first moved in, about a year and a half ago, I set about pulling weeds and clearing space to plant a garden and freshen the landscaping. Vegetables have to be enclosed by an eight-foot fence. Ornamental plants must be drought resistant and deer resistant, preferably native California plants. Fortunately, the deer don’t eat most herbs, so they can be incorporated into the landscaping.

Last year, our first year here, was a year of plant experimentation, discovering what grows and what doesn’t. This year, I’ll know better than to plant zucchini, will plant more cucumbers. Currently, I have an abundant bed of garlic and shallots that were planted in October and will be ready to harvest months ahead of schedule; we never really had winter this year, so they may be confused. The poppies I carefully planted and tended in the flower boxes around the little porch outside my office door did nothing last spring. Not one bloom. This year however, those old seeds seem to have been carried by birds or the wind out of the tidy planters and, completely on their own with no help from me, have rooted all over the back yard. I’m weeding around them and leaving them to see what happens. A carpet of poppies would be lovely.


To me, the yard is full of surprises, and sometimes magic. When I’m writing and get stuck, or just need to stretch my legs, the best way I know to get unstuck and unkinked is to go outside and pull weeds, prune something, or plant something. I always find something interesting. The previous owner had several kids, so sometimes I find bits of broken toys; a few Hot Wheels left in the crotch of a tree, a Hackysack under the hawthorn, various doll parts, and ideas for new stories.   One of the little girls must have had a big collection of plastic beads that got spilled because it’s rare when I go out into the back yard that I don’t find a bright bead or two. I put them in my pocket and later dump them onto a corner of my desk. A little treasure chest.


Among the best finds, however, are the missing parts, or broken parts, of whatever I had been writing before I threw up my hands in despair. This morning, while pulling up a patch of nasty, invasive thistles, distracted from the snit that had sent me outside, it occurred to me that if I went all the way back to a scene in the third chapter and added three lines, then the problem I was having in chapter twenty would be resolved. I could not have figured that out if I had stayed inside and stared at the computer monitor. I also found a green and a red bead and yet another blooming daffodil. Once again, rescued by the garden.


Marching into Madness

For many years late March was my favorite time of the year. It meant March Madness—the NCAA basketball tournament—and it also meant spring training for major league baseball teams. Even when Daylight Stupid Time was shoved back into March, I compensated by focusing on the culmination of the college basketball season and the beginning of the baseball season. Hope seemed to be surging up like the crocus and daffodils in my front yard. Admittedly no 16th-seeded team ever beat a top-seed (as of this writing, a few days before the start of the tournament), but a few 15th-seeded teams had knocked off their 2nd-seeded opponents, so (almost) anything seemed possible. And before opening day, who could say that my beloved Atlanta Braves wouldn’t win another division title and grab that elusive World Series ring?

This year, though, everything feels different. I view both the NCAA tournament and the opening of the baseball season with utter indifference. This is coming from someone who watched hundreds of Braves’ games in the years when they were the mainstay of Ted Turner’s TBS superstation and who has lived and almost died with the Duke-UNC rivalry. Do you remember when UNC was 7 points behind with 17 seconds to play and tied the game (before the advent of the three-point shot) on a half-court shot by Walter Davis, then went on to win in OT? Do you remember the “bloody Montross” game? Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough (“Psycho-T”)?

I remember those moments and many more. My older son and I were both Braves and Carolina fans. My son tried to copy Dale Murphy’s batting stance and hated Duke so much he never wanted them to win anything. I appreciate Dale Murphy because he responded to my request to send my son a birthday card. I could tolerate Duke winning, as long as they weren’t playing Carolina, because I have degrees from both places. But Carolina blue trumped everything.

This year, though, neither of us watched the two Duke-Carolina games. I even forgot to check the score the next day. I assume both teams will make it to the national tournament, but I no longer care if they do or how far they advance. Why not? you may ask. Maybe you won’t ask, but that’s what this blog is about, so work with me for a minute.

I’ve known for years that college athletes weren’t really student athletes, but until recently there was a least a pretence that they were going to go to school for several years and would be taking classes. Schools like Duke and UNC even touted their graduation rates for athletes. Today it’s clear that many of the young men wearing those college/university colors are playing for a year only because they have to before they can get into the NBA.

The University of Kentucky seems to be the worst offender in this regard, but, sadly, Duke and Carolina have joined the club. Last year Duke had Jabari Parker for one year. This year everybody knows Jahlil Okafor will be gone at the end of his one season in Durham. In the few brief moments that I have watched Duke or UNC on television this year, I’ve had no idea who any of the players are. Kentucky has a whole cadre of such players. Some commentators refer to them as an NBA practice squad.

Such players have to attend classes during the fall semester to keep up their academic eligibility, but once the spring semester starts, classes become irrelevant. Even if they fail a class, the basketball season will be over before that grade is turned in. Unfortunately, some of the “classes” they attend aren’t even real classes. My beloved UNC recently had to admit to major offenses in that regard. So, I’m done with college basketball.

In baseball the issue is money. I grew up in an era when Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford had to find jobs in the off-season to support themselves because they made so little money playing ball. After winning the Triple Crown (batting average, RBIs, home runs) in 1956, Mantle made $75,000 in 1957. Miguel Cabrera was the next player to win the Triple Crown (in 2014). His contract calls for him to make $292,000,000 over ten years.

Pitcher Max Scherzer recently signed a contract which will pay him $210,000,000 over seven years. That’s $30,000,000 a year! Thus far in his career Scherzer has averaged about 210 innings pitched in a season, so he makes roughly $140,000 for every inning he works. If he were to get three outs on three pitches, he makes $140,000. That is simply an obscene amount of money. The people who expect it and the people who are willing to pay it have lost all connection with reality. It’s more than I make in a year of teaching. In 1958 Whitey Ford pitched 220 innings and made $35,000 for the entire season, a sum that was ridiculous to the other extreme, but not as obscene as today’s salaries. The Roman satirist Juvenal complained that athletes and musicians made more in a day than a teacher did in a year. Nothing has changed in 2,000 years. So, I’m done with major league baseball.

I’ll probably miss following my favorite sports, but at least I’ll have more time for writing and gardening and maybe my blood pressure will go down. And this may all just be the bitterness of a 70-year-old guy who has watched the stock market batter his retirement funds for the last few days.

Power Strips, Spiders, and Cords, Oh My

My office is a small room. One of three bedrooms, two of which were meant to be for children.  The dogs prefer to join us in the master, rather than have their own bedrooms, so one kid room is my office and the second is a library/guest room.

I have a window that looks out onto the driveway and our end of the cul de sac. My computer desk faces it, because I like looking out onto the real world when I’m composing my make-believe one. But it doesn’t actually look out onto anything because for most of the day, the sun blazes in and I’m forced to  keep the blinds closed. So I sit here, facing a solid wall of wooden slats.

For three years. And when I need light, it has to be electric.

Why haven’t I done anything about this dumb state of affairs?

I’m sure I could manage to peel the books and papers and assorted crap off the tops of the desks and bookcases, and move the furniture around to accommodate actual use of the window. But then what would I do? I have two, possibly three power strips and one octopus-like object (spider?) that holds one plug to the back of the computer on one side and four plugs of various kinds on the other side. I have no idea where those wires go. Behind the tall bookcase/desk/ printer shelf thing, where they disappear. There’s another power strip  between that desk and  the one on my right, the roll top whose roll is hidden somewhere in the room. Don’t know where those cords go, either.

And then there’s the power strip under the computer desk. Also stuffed with cords of various colors and thicknesses that wander off behind that desk in the general direction of the tall bookcase etc. Which would have to be emptied entirely to move.

I finally decided that the way to do this is to get my computer guy to come over, unplug everything and then plug it all together again once the furniture is moved. Because I’m sure I would go insane if I tried. So I called him, got an appointment, and started moving stuff off the surfaces. Into the guest room. And then he called me and said he couldn’t make it. He’d thrown his back out and couldn’t drive. Not to mention crawl around on the floor tracking cords and plugs.

So here it all is, a week later, half a mess, half denuded, and still no window.















Lea Wait, posting from still-snowy (but never snow-bound) Maine. And, no, this post is not about animal cruelty. It’s about editing.

Because “weasel words” are words that are wishy-washy. Not exact. The sort of words that pop up all too often in first — and even second or third — drafts. They sneak in, sometimes in large numbers.

And they must be killed.

Every author has their “favorite” weasel words. (One of mine is “just.” It pops up an incredible number of times in my manuscripts, even after I’ve edited multi-times.)

The good news is that most computer programs now have a “search” function that enables writers to hunt down inexact, boring, nondescript, vague words and replace most, if not all, of them with specific, precise, words that clean up a story and push it along instead of bogging it down.

I’ve been collecting those words for a while now. Some (like “just”) I use too often. Others, like “wondered,” don’t usually pop up in my work. But every time I have a close-to-completion manuscript I spend several days searching for these words, and eliminating as many as possible.  (Okay – you caught me. “Many” and “possible” are both on my list. See how easy it is for weasel words to sneak in?)

So – because all of you who are writers probably have your own lists — I hereby share mine. If I’ve skipped any of your favorites, please share them! The goal is total extinction.

Just    Some    Maybe    Probably    Possibly   Could be    Generally    Usually    Really   So    Often    Nice   It is/it’s  Too

Most    Very    Thing    Guess   Estimate    Fairly    I think    I guess    Might    Pretty much    Sort of   Kind of    There is

There are    There was    It was    I knew/know    Clearly    Well    But   Wondered   Nodded    Smiled   Sighed   Quite   Felt

If you’re feeling particularly murderous it’s not a bad idea to search for “ing” verbs. They’re probably passive. Replace them with active verbs.  Kill adverbs; especially those “ly” ones. Use stronger verbs.

This exercise, I  might add, is best done with a thesaurus at hand. My favorite is  Roget’s Super Thesaurus. I also have the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus on my desk. Some days my brain needs a transfusion.

Onward, on the quest to produce a cleaner manuscript! And a better reading experience.


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