The View from the Sauna Porch

I’ve been thinking a lot about trees recently, specifically all the trees in the little mountain dell where I’m lucky enough to live. And when I say all the trees, I mean I can’t look out of any window in my house without seeing a tree or two. Or three. Or more. Douglas fir trees, cedars, maples, alders, hemlocks, silver firs, cherry, apple, two types of walnut, a Japanese white pine, a few sequoias – these are just some of the species that grow on our five acres. And as I’ve watched them grow, I’ve found myself reflecting on them as a metaphor for life.

I was extremely skittish when I first met my husband, and had no intention of setting roots. But one of the things he offered me was stability. My mind shied away from that offer, encouraging me to keep running from my past, something I made central to my first novel, but apparently my heart found it appealing. So I stayed. And discovered that setting roots actually suited me. Helped me grow. Thrive.

So of course, every time I look out my kitchen window, and see these majestic life forms manifesting the power of stability, I can’t help but want to put them in my writing. But at the same time, I feel like the natural world around me touches me on so many sensory levels, I’m not sure I can squeeze all that into just a few sentences. I love trying, because it makes me feel like I’m out in the woods, with the trees, but I hesitate to share because what if I’m not getting it right? I was discussing this dilemma with my friend, Lisa, in Seattle last weekend. She looked at me, with her big, beautiful eyes, and said, “Oh but please keep trying. Because some of us don’t live with trees around us, and the closest we can come is to read about them.”

It was a wonderful, gentle reminder that the reason I write is not just for me, but for those who might read what I write. And it encouraged me to want to share a couple of short pieces inspired by the trees around me. For Lisa, or for anyone who doesn’t get to live in the woods.

The first is a short passage from my new novel, describing the view from our sauna porch after a big rain.

“The storm was over and Joe and Lucy sat wrapped in towels, on the porch of the sauna, zoning on the moisture-laden trees in front of them. It was cold, and steam from their bodies wafted up past the flickering lights of the candle lanterns hanging from the log beam above their heads. The dogs sat on either side of them, their noses occasionally bumping the air above them in the interminable quest for passing scents. Lucy was lost in the drip, drip, dripping of accumulated rainwater coming from a thick patch of spongy moss on the trunk of a burly maple tree, while Joe was focused on the sporadic splashes from saturated lichen on a leaning length of vine maple. It wasn’t that they were seeing what they were staring at in the candlelit dusk of the evening, so much as hearing it. And in their post sauna, meditative states, it sounded like a rainforest rhapsody, with the creek to their right creating a constant bass, and the pop of firewood burning in the sauna stove adding occasional percussion.”

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Moss on the big burly maple tree

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A leaning length of vine maple

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The creek

The second piece is a short poem.

Co-Dependency
Nicola Pearson

Her arms twine tight around you
Like the blackb’ries on my tree
‘Sinuating, thorny vines
That latch tenaciously

I want to snip and yank and tear
To rid you of her brambles
Knowing you will flourish more
When thus you’re unentangled

But when I freed the silver fir
From that which stole its luster
It drooped and paled and fought for life
With all that it could muster

And so I learned relationships
Like berries on my tree
Are not always ‘bout strength and love
But co-dependency


I shared this with my writers’ group and some of them wanted to know what happened to the tree? I’ve only recently gone back to playing with poetry so I can’t profess to know if this is finished or not, but it was an interesting question. I knew the tree had survived, because I see it everyday in my front yard. But until this question I hadn’t really considered that while it’s not as tall as the two other silver firs planted at the same time, it is nevertheless lush, darkly verdant and very healthy-looking. It’s thriving.

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A trio of silver fir trees

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The littlest tree

When You’re Not in the Mood.

I’ve never experienced writers’ block – except that I’m blocked by the reality of not having enough time to write all the things I want to write – but I do have moments when it feels like I’m not in the mood to write. Or maybe not in the mood to write certain things that I feel like I should be writing. Like this blog for example; I’m getting little reminders from the Stats fairies that it’s been “three months since you’ve written a new post” and even though I’ve had three different subjects I’ve wanted to write about in my blog, every time I go to do it, I get that little whine inside me that says, “But I don’t feel like it.”

Maybe it’s because I got distracted by turning one of my plays into a screenplay – a process that I loved. I mean absolutely loved. At first, when someone encouraged me to do that I thought – “No, really? Take on another format that I’m not familiar with? Pu-lease!” But then once I got into it, and discovered that I could describe settings/movement/actions in a screenplay in a way that I can’t in a stage play (directors want to figure that out and not have it imposed on them by the playwright), I decided I really liked screenplay as a format. It felt like it was part-way between a stage play and a novel and since I’ve learned a lot about the descriptive process through writing my novel and my mysteries, I was right at home in that middle zone. Characters, dialogue and one line descriptions of what they’re doing and where – right up my alley.

But I finished that sojourn down screenplay writing lane in the middle of May and found my blog calling to me, reminding me of subjects I thought worth a short interlude (along with the statisticians reminding me of how long it had been), yet still I didn’t find myself in the mood. Of course, writing the screenplay had taught me what was lacking in the stage play so that was pulling at me, telling me – ‘No, do me!’ Although I haven’t yet. I’ve been resisting because I have so many projects in front of that. Like a five-way conversation in the latest chapter of my new novel. I set the conversation up because I thought it would be amusing but it’s been weighing on me, like an unsolved riddle, stealing my mental energy because I can’t quite figure out if I have to include a speech tag for every line of dialogue, to clarify who’s saying what and when, or if I should just throw it all down between inverted commas and let the reader figure it out. I know I should add the speech tags but they bog down the rhythm of the dialogue – not to mention, force me to wonder how many different ways I can say “said” without sounding pompous. So I find myself fussing with this conversation and not moving forward.

And if living with a potter for so many years has taught me anything, it’s that fussing over something you’re creating isn’t necessarily worth it. I’ve heard him tell young artists again and again to “make it and let go,” mostly because when working in clay, the finished product can turn out so unlike anything they’d imagined, that trying to make it perfect before it goes in the kiln isn’t worth the time. Growth, in clay as an art form, is all in the repetition. Which struck me as valid when it came to writing too. We all know that things can get reworded ad nauseam, so write it and let go sounds like good advice. But then, if I’m aware of that, why am I allowing this five-way conversation to stall me and keep me from being in the mood to write other things?

The truth is, that’s not the hold up. I know this because often just the act of writing – something, anything – puts me in the mood to write other things. Like putting on a fetching piece of lingerie. (Well come on, I had to mention that at some point because I know that’s what got some of you reading this post. You thought it was going to be some other kind of mood. In fact, I bet if I’d had a photo of something small, lacy and black, with this title, my statistics would have gone through the roof. But then my husband would have been scratching his head, wondering what in the world I was writing about now!)

So, avoiding the lacy item, here’s a photo of what has really been holding back my writing. My deskThe state of my desk. And my question is, do other writers feel they’re not in the mood when they see a mess like this on their desk? And if so, do they creep downstairs with their laptops and sit opposite the cat, sleeping on the couch, trying to ignore the mound of paperwork calling to them while they allow themselves to focus on their writing? And does it work?

Footnote: While writing this post, I looked up dialogue tags and chanced upon a wonderful little article explaining when and how to use them. Thus proving the old adage that it pays to write something.

Rules of Engagement

A few years ago we were sitting around the dinner table, hearing “school news,” when our then teenage son told us the story of his science teacher accidentally hitting a student in the eye with a cork out of a popgun. Apparently this teacher kept this ‘toy’ gun in his desk and when students weren’t paying attention, he shot the cork across the room at their faces, to ‘sting’ them into alert-mode. And sometimes he would use the gun without the cork in it, to give a student a wake up call with a puff of air to the face. On the day our son was telling us about, the teacher meant to ‘air puff’ a student but had forgotten the cork was still in the gun and ended up giving the student a black (and bleeding) eye with his popgun.

While our son was telling us this story I could see pressure steaming out from between my husband’s teeth as well as from his ears, nose and the top of his head. In our house there are rules associated with gun ownership, strong rules, starting with never point a gun – even a toy gun – at another living entity unless you’re planning to take its life (when hunting, for example). Those rules were bent when the kids played with squirt guns but my husband never wanted them to lose sight of the fact that guns are serious business.

A couple of weeks ago we were in Paris, just days after the massacre at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, and I’ve found myself thinking about rules associated with writing as a result. Especially since I managed to procure a copy of the Charlie Hebdo Journal that came out immediately following the attack, on the back of which there is a series of drawings entitled (my translation), “Front Covers That You Missed.” One of them is a cartoon of a shooter, leaping into the air holding an assault weapon, while an oversized pencil is being speared into his groin. The caption reads (again, my translation), “Our pencils will always be sharper than your balls.”

I liked this because firstly, it suggests that it takes more courage to write than it does to gun down people for expressing themselves. Which is true. Writers have to be courageous. They can’t stand on the edge of life observing; they have to get in the huddle and pick a side. And there are bound to be people who disagree with the side that they picked. Secondly, the cartoon alludes to the power of the pen which, when well honed (or sharpened), can really hit its mark. This is also true, but, for me, this is where things get tricky. I’m all for freedom of expression but if expressing myself hurts someone that I care about, then is it okay? Alf Wight, who wrote the books about being a vet in Yorkshire, England, under the pseudonym James Herriot, was mortified to learn that he had hurt his partner and friend, Don Sinclair (Siegfried in the books) with his depiction of that character. Fortunately his partner, after threats of legal action, moved on to forgive Wight this injury from his pen and I will always be grateful to the friend who gently walked me through some changes to the manuscript of my novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons (inspired by the Herriot books), so as to avoid that very same situation.

Not everyone is so forgiving, however, especially when they think certain words are aimed at them, and I’m sure many writers have found themselves on the outside of a circle they used to be welcome in as a result of their writing. I know I have. As a result, I have some rules that play in my head when I’m writing. They are:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Never talk down to children
  3. If you’re going to write to relatives, try to avoid hitting their soft spots.

I don’t think these really take from my freedom of expression; they just modify its sting. And unlike the teacher in my son’s high school, I’d rather not sting my audience into paying attention. I’d rather engage them instead. So I hear these rules and try to stay within their confines, no matter how quickly and easily my pen is moving.

None of which excuses what happened at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which was an horrific affront to the right to free speech, as millions around the world agreed. Another great cartoon on the back of the Charlie Hebdo journal published after the killings was a drawing of the attackers, up in the clouds, asking, “So where are the 70 virgins?” and a voice answering, “With the staff of Charlie, you losers.” Nicely put.

In case you’re wondering, that teacher that our son told us about, he’s no longer teaching. Nothing happened to him after the incident with the popgun, which shocked us no end, especially since other staff members were aware of the gun and how he used it. But a year after our son graduated from high school, he received a call from an investigator working on behalf of the Office of Public Instruction. Apparently they were looking to gather evidence against this teacher. Boy, did our son have a story for them.

Pop gun

Mothers Who Write.

A frequently asked question by audience members at my book events is when do I write? Usually followed by – early in the morning? some other time during the day? do I write every day? and, do I stick to a schedule? For some writers there might be an easy answer to these questions but I’m a mother. Mothers write, I want to tell them, whenever they can. How many times have I scribbled a good line down on a shopping list when stopped at a traffic light (only to throw the list away once I got home without re-reading the line!)? Or dashed upstairs to my computer mid-dinner preparations to work on a paragraph that came clear to me when scrubbing spuds or slicing onions? The up side to this is that I don’t have time to dither when I write and, as many of us know, dithering can be the curse on a writer. I have never forgotten an article I read as a teenager in England, in my mother’s Woman’s Weekly Magazine, about a writer who said she’d lived in Kenya for many years, with servants to take care of her, but she wasn’t nearly as prolific as when she moved back to England and had three children to raise while writing.

And as a mother with a job – selling my husband’s pottery – I struggle quite a bit with ‘hold that thought’ syndrome when interrupted by customers, which gets exacerbated by ‘oh, now that you’re not at your computer anymore…’ syndrome once I’ve finished with the customer. I see other writers with their lovely studios that shut out the rest of the world and I wince with envy. But I also know that life is the stuff of writing and my desk in the middle of the mayhem can often give me that zing of inspiration I need for my next piece.

So the short answer to ‘when do I write?’ is late at night, when everyone else is in bed and the house is quiet. But here’s an excerpt from the longer answer (from ‘A Day in the Life of’ letter I wrote to a friend) and, of course, it’s much more involved.

11:30 pm: I’m at my computer, working on rewrites to my play, “The Blue Light Zone.” when my eyelids begin to drop. I shake myself awake and realize that I’m really too tired to work anymore. That’s okay, I tell myself, tomorrow I don’t have to drive the boys to school in Burlington so I’ll be here all day. Plus my daughter, Annie, has rehearsal after school for the Missoula Children’s Theatre production of “Hansel and Gretel” until early evening and my son, Reed, is staying down after school to play in the band at a basketball game and attend a movie/pizza party in the band room beforehand. I have dough ready in the fridge for bread and I need to do about three loads of laundry, but that will still give me time to work on these rewrites and maybe even get my desk cleaned up.
With that in mind, I go to bed.
4:39 am: I’m awoken out of a sound sleep by Annie, shining a flashlight in my face. “I’m sorry to wake you, mummy, but I’ve thrown up in my bed.” I put her in my bed and go and change all the sheets on her bed, realizing that my loads of laundry for the day have just increased exponentially. Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t look like Annie will be going to school or rehearsal.
5:00 am: I climb back into bed and sleep until I hear Annie throwing up again about twenty minutes later.
5:45 am: The alarm goes off in our room. “Don’t get Annie up,” I tell my husband and I lie, listening to the radio for five minutes, before getting myself up. I make Reed’s lunch and his breakfast and notice that he is walking around looking glum and holding his stomach a little. I think he’s seeking a day off, so he can hang around the house like his sister, and I tell him to buck up and eat his breakfast.
6:43 am: Two minutes before Reed and I are to head out and meet his ride for the day, he jumps up amid a full-on projectile vomiting attack, throws up all over the kitchen table, then manages to get into the bathroom and regurgitate the rest in and around the toilet.
6:45 am: My husband picks up the vomit covered tablecloth as I pack Reed off to bed and throws it in the washing machine. When he comes out of the bathroom I head back in with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge to clean up the mess and start the first load of laundry.
6:50 am: I emerge from the bathroom feeling sorry for myself and sit down on the wood box opposite my husband. He looks up from his book and asks, “So what’s on your plate for the day?”

And just like that, I heard my first murder mystery.
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