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Counting Sheep

Oh hey, 3:12 AM. I wish I could say it was nice to see you, but, of course, it’s not. I wish you and your pals 2:41 AM and 4:05 AM would leave me alone, but since you won’t—and haven’t for what, fifteen years?—we might as well run through The List. Shall I start with Shoulda, Coulda, or Woulda?

I’ve struggled with insomnia for years, and not the good kind. For a writer, the good kind of insomnia is when she wakes up from whatever decent sleep she’s gotten, moves gently to her writing desk, and, filled with star-dusted insights, spends however many wakeful hours in the middle of night spinning ideas into useful passages. I have the bad kind of insomnia—I call it Demon Visits—in which I awaken abruptly with some horrible earworm of a pop song in my mind, such as this 1993 ditty by Los Del Rio:

Dale a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena
Que tu cuerpo es pa’ darle alegria cosa buena
Dale a tu cuerpo alegria, Macarena
Hey Macarena

A song like this can be used as a jackhammer, digging a tunnel straight to my amygdala—the part of the brain that controls fear and anxiety. And in fact, it is the preferred entry point for the demon-thoughts, the aforementioned Shoulda, Coulda, and Woulda. They’re like Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” in Macbeth or the Fates in Greek Mythology: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. They shuffle around my sleepy head and gather all the worries and regrets and disappointments they can find.

“Did you write that thank-you note? And did you buy cat food?”

“Don’t you think you were a little terse during that conversation?”

“You should write more thank-you notes.”

“Why do you hate the cat?”

“Do you really think the idea for your next book is any good?”

No, but I will. I was and I feel terrible about it. I know. She hates me more. Probably not.

My last four nights.

















This has been going on for so long that I can’t recall a night of really restful sleep. I’ve tried everything imaginable: melatonin, prescription sleep aids, herbal sleep aids, guided meditations, acupuncture, proper sleep “hygiene”, hot baths and cold rooms. For the past decade, I’ve mostly relied on diphenhydramine in doses high enough to tranquilize a very large man. I quit cold turkey two months ago, however, when a physician friend told me that daily use could lead to early Alzheimer’s.

Last week, I started working with a neuropsychologist who administers Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR is a form of psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress resulting from disturbing life experiences. Often used with combat veterans and victims of violence, studies have found that 100% of single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer exhibited PTSD symptoms after only six 50-minute EMDR sessions. We’re hopeful that it will as well work for my insomnia.

I did my second session yesterday, and last night, when 3:12 AM shook me out of sleep, I noticed that the demon-thoughts weren’t worming into my consciousness as they typically do. In fact, aside from being awake, I felt rather peaceful. Perhaps I should count sheep. Counting sheep! What a lovely, calm way to lull myself back to slumber.

One. Two. Three. Oh look at number four: such long eyelashes. She is smaller than the others; it takes her two tries to clear the wooden fence. The fence is sturdy. I wonder who made it? Five. Six. Seven looks impatient, waiting in line. His wooly back is twitching. From the cold? Or does he have fleas? Oh, wow: look at all of them lined up like that. Where did they come from? The fog is low—are we in New Zealand? I have cousins in Dunedin. They’ve invited us to visit. We should visit them, but New Zealand is really far away. Eight, nine, ten. These sheep don’t look pleased to have been summoned to my Demon Visit. Maybe I should dismiss them. Wait, this is starting to feel like I’m writing a novel. This is exactly what it feels like. OK, quit it. Just count the damn sheep and go back to sleep. Number eleven glares at me, then jumps over the sturdy fence dividing the foggy meadow with the aplomb of an astronaut. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Then number fifteen, whose curled horns looked uncomfortably heavy, simply walks around the fence instead of going over it. Sixteen bleats to the others, “Hit it!” And in rousing unison, they all begin to sing:

Dale a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena…





Back to School

Although the air—heavy, barely stirring—would indicate otherwise, summer vacation is nearly finished. Oh, there is still some unstructured time left before the new school year starts: lazy days by the pool, a family trip to Colorado, middle-the-week sleepovers with friends. Nonetheless, my children yesterday went to the office supply store to buy new pens, mechanical pencils, and index cards. They spent a happy hour testing and tossing last year’s markers, restocking their pencil bags, and organizing their backpacks before heading outside to play in the sun. I’m not sure whether they were compelled by the calendar or some internal shifting, but they’re clearly aware of the pull of back-to-school.

So am I. At 15 and 11, my children are less demanding and more independent than in summers past—they walked to Office Max of their own volition yesterday, for example—but I still haven’t been able to construct a reliable writing schedule during these long, hot days like I have when everyone is at school or work. Also, it so happened that I completed a book at the start of summer and needed some time to replenish the wellspring that supports my creativity, so was in no rush to begin my next project.

But I can only go so long without writing before I start to feel twitchy. It’s like an itch that demands to be scratched. I can tell the well is full enough because my dreams have become more vivid. I can almost feel the new squatters moving into my imagination, unpacking their baggage, tapping their feet impatiently, eager for me to tell their stories.

Perhaps whatever inspired my kids to ready their school supplies is what moved me to reach out to my dear friend Lenny Kessler this morning.

Lenny is the author of more than 200 books for children, including my very favorite MR. PINE’S PURPLE HOUSE, which I’ve loved all my life. We became friends years ago when I reached out to him to thank him for that book, and later he even offered a beautiful blurb for my children’s book THE WORD BURGLAR. Every once in a while I like to check in and catch up with him and enjoy his endless, happy encouragement.

He said, “Chris! How wonderful to hear from you! What are you writing?”

“Well, I’m in between books at the moment. How about you?”

“You know, last night at 11 PM I had a new idea, a totally new approach to writing for children—but I don’t want to send it to the publisher, because they’ll buy it and then I’ll have a deadline!” he said, and he laughed. His laughter sounds like champagne bubbles. He’ll be 97 years old this October, about which he says “sounds really very old, but I don’t feel old.” “After all these years, I just don’t want to deal with deadlines anymore, but I’m writing all the time.”

At the end of our wonderful conversation, he said, “I found an old letter from a reader the other day. A young boy. It said, ‘You make words important.’ That made me so happy. I love putting out words. When you write, you’re happy. I know you feel like that, too.”

I do. I love the idea of putting words out, of making them important. I can’t wait to get started again.





Sunrise at Zabrieski Point, taken on my trip to Death Valley National Park in 2014.


Stardust is
the hardest thing
to hold out for.

~Kay Ryan




Roses Are Red

Think of all the words that come to mind when you think of Valentine’s Day. Love, right? Cupid, heart, kiss, like, happiness? How about red, pink, chocolate, XOXO? Also friend, hug, candy, roses-are-red, joy, romantic and perhaps even heartbreak, arrows, and, oddly, fountain?

These and several dozen more were the ideas that my third-grade WITS students came up with last week. Valentine’s Day was a few days away, and I wanted to do a lesson using that theme. They were looking forward to writing love letters to their parents or pets or friends or objects of secret admiration. They were not as excited, though, when I crossed out each of those words on the board and told them they couldn’t use a single one of them. I asked them to add a new word to their writer’s toolkits:

cliché (n.) an overused expression

Once when we were trying to resolve a plot issue in one of our screenplays, my friend Dave warned that we couldn’t use the first thing that came to mind, because it would probably reflect a common trope that we’d absorbed into our subconscious from other movies or stories. If it came too easily, he believed, it was probably clichéd.

When I posed writing a love letter with no love language as a challenge, the students regained interest. We brainstormed original ways to express friendship and admiration, exchanging predictable words and expressions with sparkling new ones. The results were funny, witty, silly and sometimes poignant.

But more than their poems, it was their willingness to reject the easy solutions to a creative problem that inspired me. I am at the beginning of a new draft of my novel THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, which I thought I’d written to the best of my ability. But the story needs something, and to do that, I have to rethink the structure I’d originally envisioned for it and have been unwilling to let go of. It isn’t that the arrangement was clichéd, because it’s not at all, but it was the first idea I had and I thought it was the only possible one. But with the guidance and encouragement of my enthusiastic, talented new agent, Jesseca Salky—not to mention the support of my first readers, especially Tobey—I am going to follow my own instruction and try something new.

Meantime, here are two of my favorite non-Valentine’s love poems by my fearless, 9-year-old students William and Mia.




Мен батыл жазушы екенімді

Fearless writers at work.

When I introduce myself to a group of students I’ll be teaching for a school year or a work week, I ask them if they ever feel nervous when they’re given an assignment. If, when they turn their notebooks to a bright-white, blank page, they feel like they don’t know where to start. Or if they worry that they’re going to make a mistake. If someone–a teacher, a parent, a peer–will read it and think it’s not very good. Gradually, some begin to nod, but subtly–nobody wants to admit they suffer from this fear.

“Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt this way,” I tell them, because they need to know they’re not suffering alone. I always put my hand up first, and highest.

I am always afraid when I confront a blank page. Always. Every single novel, screenplay, article, blog post, letter to a friend, email to a colleague begins with an attempt to vanquish that fear. That it won’t make any sense. That it won’t be any good. That nobody will want to read it. That the people who do read it will hate it and critique me harshly. That all the time I spend working on it will have been a waste.

Most of the hands in the room go up. The few that don’t are either already traumatized or prematurely delusional. I don’t know a single serious writer who doesn’t panic at the sight of all that empty space. But these are children, usually, and so I feel it’s my job to try to cure them of this trepidation before it’s too late.

“Your ideas are safe here,” I tell them. “They can be private. This is different from regular school. There aren’t any grades, there are no dire consequences. And that instrument you’re holding in your hand is practically magic. One end writes, the other erases. If you don’t like what you’ve written, you can change it or start over. And the time you spent wasn’t wasted because it helped you get to the idea you really want to explore, the sentences you really meant to write.”

Of course they know this. But it helps to be reminded. I like to be reminded sometimes too. So I made up a mantra for my first group of students years ago, and I teach it to every new class. (And I try to remember to say it to myself when I need to hear it, which is often.)

“Let’s say it together on the count of three: ‘I am a fearless writer.'”

“Great. Now say it like you really mean it.”

And they do. And it does seem to help. We never undertake a writing assignment without repeating this phrase. If I ever forget, some mindful student will prompt me. Ms. Chris, we need to say our mantra.

Today I gave this little speech to my students at the Dostyk American International School, and told them I hope it will be something they’ll take with them to every writing effort, whether assigned or voluntary, from now until the end of their lives. I hope they do, but I suspect that they–like most of us–will need to be reminded now and again.

Here are my sweet third and fourth graders, saying it loud–in Kazakh. Judging from their writing today, it worked:




From Kazakhstan with Love

Here we go!

The first time I traveled abroad, I was fifteen. My family took a 3-week tour of Europe in honor of my brother’s high school graduation. We visited the UK, where, among other memorable experiences, my brother and I snuck out for a midnight tube ride to the Hippodrome and where I smoked my one and only cigarette with a punk street band called “The Unloved”; Italy, where I bought myself a tiny sapphire ring that I still wear, and where after I was stuck in a hotel elevator alone for an hour, I recovered from the trauma with a Perrier at the bar and fell in love with the idea of traveling across the continent on motorcycle after two pairs of Scandinavian bikers came in wearing leathers and road dust and salty wind; Greece, via ferry, on which my mother, grandmother and I drank too much Ouzo, and where, even profoundly hungover, I couldn’t stop marveling at the ruins of the Acropolis; Netherlands, where I was enchanted by the canals and bicyclists, cheese factories and art museums; Liechtenstein, where I remember having one of the best sleeps of my life on a down-filled bed under a slanted roof.

I’d been starving for those cultures and histories without even knowing it, and at the end of those three weeks, I was utterly transformed by that brief exposure to the world beyond the borders of the United States. I began to study languages (French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Swedish, German, and Latin), began to read books by international authors, began to imagine a life of travel and adventure.

I’ve been all over the world since then, for business and pleasure, education and romance. I studied in France and Spain during college, lived for three+ years in Venezuela as a young expatriate, returned to favorite lands and encountered unfamiliar ones as an adult. Certainly there are people who have traveled more extensively and speak more languages more fluently, but that wide-eyed fifteen-year-old in me is still fascinated by distant lands and different cultures.

So when—via the auspices of my colleagues at Writers in the Schools (WITS), where I’ve taught for the past five years—the invitation came to be writer-in-residence at the Dostyk American International School in Atyrau, Kazakhstan, I could hardly wait. I will be teaching creative writing to a group of young expatriates, who are already well traveled and multicultural. I decided to build a curriculum around the themes of memory and place, because even if they don’t realize it now, someday they will look back on their years in Dostyk Village and recognize it as a unique, and perhaps even transformative, time in their lives.

For every book I have or will ever write, I draw upon the specific details gleaned from those places that live in my memory and in my imagination. I hope that will be true for these students someday, too.

To be continued…




Are You Happy?

Philip Levine

My father stands in the warm evening
on the porch of my first house.
I am four years old and growing tired.
I see his head among the stars,
the glow of his cigarette, redder
than the summer moon riding
low over the old neighborhood. We
are alone, and he asks me if I am happy.
“Are you happy?” I cannot answer.
I do not really understand the word,
and the voice, my father’s voice, is not
his voice, but somehow thick and choked,
a voice I have not heard before, but
heard often since. He bends and passes
a thumb beneath each of my eyes.
The cigarette is gone, but I can smell
the tiredness that hangs on his breath.
He has found nothing, and he smiles
and holds my head with both his hands.
Then he lifts me to his shoulder,
and now I too am among the stars,
as tall as he. Are you happy? I say.
He nods in answer, Yes! oh yes! oh yes!
And in that new voice he says nothing,
holding my head tight against his head,
his eyes closed up against the starlight,
as though those tiny blinking eyes
of light might find a tall, gaunt child
holding his child against the promises
of autumn, until the boy slept
never to waken in that world again.




Summer 2016, Part Two: Sewanee Writers’ Conference


Running Knob Hollow below Green’s View.

I heard about the Sewanee Writers’ Conference when I was on tour promoting Whisper Hollow last year. A bookseller for Parnassus Books in Nashville, who was also an alumna of the conference told me, “You should definitely try to go. There’s nothing like it.”

So early this year, in keeping with my goal of amassing at least as many rejections as I receved in 2015, I applied. To my great happiness, I was offered a Peter Taylor Scholarship to attend, and given a place in my first-choice workshop, led by National Book Award-winner Alice McDermott. I couldn’t wait.

Then I went to Portland for Tin House the week before Sewanee was to begin, burned the candle at both ends and the middle, then went home for 36 hours to do everyone’s laundry, grocery shop, and cook. I was beyond exhausted. In the middle of re-packing my suitcase while my children looked balefully on, I thought, “There’s no way I can do this again. Not this soon.” Then I kissed them goodbye and took off for what would become a twelve-day+ enchantment.

Sunset over the lawn at the Sewanee Inn.

Sunset over the lawn at the Sewanee Inn.

This was the 27th session of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which is located atop a Tennessee mountain-top plateau affectionately referred to as the Domain of the University of the South. According to legend, the Domain is so beautiful that angels dwell within its stone gates. An angel is assigned to you when you enter, and it is that angel’s duty to preserve the spirit of Sewanee in your mind. When you leave, you’re supposed to tap the roof of your car to take the angel with you for guidance, protection and love while you’re away.

When we arrived on campus, the amazing staff—all writers and poets themselves—welcomed us and helped us to our dorms. Right away I felt at home. It was hot and humid and thick with Southern accents. The cicadas trilled, the pine trees swayed in the breeze. Someone hung up a hammock in a poplar’s shade. There was a drawl to the whole affair, an ease and camaraderie that we could slip into like warm lake water. I found a tribe that first evening at dinner at the Sewanee Inn as the sky pinked beyond the lawn: Alyson, Louise, Katrina, Linda, Vimi, Nancy, Paul, Sharon, Mika, Pete, Heather—angels, all of them.

With the lovely Alice McDermott.

With the lovely Alice McDermott.

Our workshop of talented writers met the next day and every other day thereafter, allowing us time to read and prepare between meetings. In addition, there were readings, open mics, receptions, hikes, lectures, meetings with visiting editors and agents, and book signings. The schedule was both full and leisurely, and often ended with whiskey and wine on the porch of the French House until late at night. There was no hierarchical division of talent. Fiction writers and poets mingled with luminaries Alice, Dick Bausch, Randall Kenan, Robert Hass, A.E. Stallings, Andrew Hudgins, Daniel Anderson, Naomi Iizuka, Ken Weitzman, B.H. Fairchild, Sidney Wade, Mark Jarman, Maurice Manning, Jill McCorkle, Steve Yarbrough, Allen Wier, Christine Schutt, John Casey and Erin McGraw.

The twelve days passed far too quickly. I’d gotten feedback on my manuscript that was the most insightful and prescriptive I’ve received thus far. I made friends and memories that I’ll keep forever. I thought to myself the night before the conference ended, “There’s no way I’m ready to leave.” But when I did, I tapped the roof of the bus as we passed through the gates, so I could take my angel with me.




Summer 2016, Part One: Tin House Writers’ Workshop


GCC Quad at Reed College.

“Gossip is the source code of novels.” ~Alexander Chee

This summer, after a 21-year hiatus, I attended not one but two writers’ conferences. (I attended Bread Loaf in 1995, which has lived large in my memory for two decades for reasons too numerous to list.) The first was the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, held July 10-17 in Portland, Oregon.

Imagine 250 adults, all of whom strive in some capacity to connect with others through the written word but usually from the introspective comfort of some coffee shop corner, gathered suddenly together on a college campus. We’re more J.D. Salinger than F. Scott Fitzgerald, most of us, known more for our peculiarities and reclusiveness than our partying-like-it’s-1929. But nothing eases a writer’s social anxiety better than cocktail hour, and the forward-thinking Tin House staff had the bar set up right away—and every evening thereafter. (It’s a worthwhile question to ponder: How much writing gets done at drinking conferences?)


#TeamChee: Dana, Katherine, Dennis, Fran, me, Alex, Hilary, Craig, Michele, Claire, Tracey and (np) Rachel and Cynthia.

I needn’t have worried about making friends. I met Jennifer via the ride-share forum, and what will surely be a lifelong friendship was struck before we even met face to face. (She likes mountains and hiking; I like music and walking in the rain.) My friends Emma and Jenny were there, and it was wonderful to see them in their element. And by the end of our first meeting together, the twelve of us in Alex Chee’s workshop created a bond that we memorialized with matching #TeamChee t-shirts and that became the envy of the other groups.

Alexander Chee, essayist, Twitter maestro, and author of the gorgeous Queen of the Night, led our daily workshop with thoughtful guidance. He sometimes appeared to absent himself, staring for minutes into the middle distance, then would resurface with some unforgettable bit of wisdom like “most literary fiction is a mystery in which we wonder if the main character will ever realize who they truly are” or “sometimes a story doesn’t want to be told.”

Evening reading at the Cerf Amphitherater.

Evening reading at the Cerf Amphitherater.

Workshops were the supposed pith, but equally valuable, entertaining and enlightening were the events surrounding them: panels, seminars, craft talks and readings at the Cerf Amphitheater. Dana Spiotta talked about “The Art of the List”, Jess Walter gave a hilarious and self-deprecating lecture about Robert Coover’s story “Going for a Beer”, my man-servant Steve Almond challenged us to write about our first crushes during his talk “The Lit Crush: When Writing Crashes into Doubt”, and Kiese Laymon read a shattering piece about sexual violence and demanded of us: “What is the responsibility of the American literary worker in this age of terror?” My favorite moment, however, was during a panel with Jo Ann Beard, Antonya Nelson, Chinelo Okparanta and Joy Williams on “The Multi-Tasking Scene.” Joy seemed a little bit…pococurante. When the moderator asked her a question, she just sighed and said, “I hate talking about craft. Craft, craft, craft, craft, craft. It’s like talking about cheese. You should just write or else there’s no magic in it.”

Vollum Hall.

Vollum Hall.

The communal meals, often taken outside in the beautiful, cool weather, meant that faculty, staff, guests and attendees could mingle, usually without that awkward middle-school worry whether the cool kids would let you sit at their table. There we all were, reaching out to the world with our stories and poems, wanting to connect, and discovering each other in the process. By the end of the week, it felt like we’d all known each other forever.

Perhaps we have.


P.S. Steve Almond really is my man-servant–check out my outgoing voicemail message. Then go listen to him and Cheryl Strayed on the Dear Sugar Podcast.




Old Books, New Life

A cover mock-up I drew long ago, just for fun.

A cover mock-up I drew long ago, just for fun.

A writer’s books are like a mother’s children: she loves them all–mostly equally–even when a new one comes along. That’s why I’m delighted that two of my older books have received some new attention recently.

I completed my first manuscript One Last Time Forever (originally called Literally Everything) about the time the market crashed in 2008. It’s the story of a frustrated writer named Fae Truman who is equally stuck in her art and in her life, her well meaning but distracted husband Michael, and the mystical Theodore Ellston who jumps off a bridge in 1768 and lands in Fae’s life in 2003. When this damaged and enigmatic stranger becomes the inspiration Fae desperately needs, it feels to her like fate. For Theodore, it actually is. Steeped as it is in magical realism, One Last Time Forever is a love story that captures those moments of doubt and fantasy in everyday fairytales and the struggles, heartbreaks, and intimate journeys within a marriage. It’s a story of writer and muse, wife and husband, and the bridges that must be crossed to go forward…and back.

My agent tried for nearly a year to find a home for the book, but publishers were especially risk averse in 2009, and though all were complimentary, none felt confident that it would be a break-out debut. By that time, I’d completed another manuscript, so we shelved the first so she could sell the second. It’s been dormant ever since.

But in May, someone shared news that a new prize in fiction had been announced: The Half the World Global Literati Award, a $50,000 cash prize awarded to a short story, novel or screenplay written in English, judged to have portrayed one or more well-rounded female protagonists as the central character.

“According to 2015 research from author Nicola Griffith, the majority of the significant literary prizes are awarded to works written from a male perspective. The Half the World Global Literati Award is specifically designed to put the spotlight on real female characters and positively impact how women are represented in contemporary writing,” said Caroline Bowler, representative for Half the World Holdings. “This award is a natural fit for us, to support the voices and stories of women as well as play a leading role in developing an ecosystem created by, and for, half the world.”

I thought of Fae, submitted the manuscript for consideration as part of my new year’s resolution to apply for everything, then forgot about it. It was a terrific surprise when, few days ago, I was notified that my beloved first book had been shortlisted for the prize.

A panel of judges will decide the overall winner, but there is also a People’s Choice Award, chosen by…well, people. If you’re so inclined, I’d be grateful if you’d cast a ballot in my favor here. (It requires registration, but it’s quick and non-invasive.) Voting is open until July 13, and the winners will be announced on July 15. Thank you in advance for your support.

And my other favorite novel 11 Stories is featured in a Goodreads giveaway from July 1 – 31. If you haven’t read it, please enter below for a chance to win one of five signed copies. If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt of 11 Stories here and see footage from the launch event at Brazos Bookstore here.