Sometimes people write to me because they're in an English or Writing Class that requires them to interview an author. I always feel like I should pass it off to someone else, until then I remember: oh, wait. I am an author. And then I settle in and answer their questions, and I simply delight in the joy and the words on the page, in the general joy of being known.
Kim wrote to me last week as part of her graduate syllabus, and I loved her questions. I especially loved that she asked my opinion on the future of punctuation. Only a nerd could love that kind of forecast.
Thanks, Kim, for thinking I'm the real deal, worthy of your thoughtful questions.
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On your web site you describe your young-self to be articulate, and incessantly fond of great pens and paper. Do you remember your first story and what it was about?
When I was six or seven, my mom used to hand me a pen and paper when I got bored in church. I would rewrite the Bible stories I knew, adding point of view and perspective and characters with terrible attitudes and snarky dialogue. Those are the first things I remember writing, and my mom still has them stored away somewhere, with my pencil lines and endearing spelling mistakes.
When I was in third grade, I won a short story contest with my little novela called Monica’s Broken Arm. That’s the first one I remember writing and finishing. I had just broken my wrist rollerskating in my driveway, so I fictionalized it with some plot and details. I guess you could say in retrospect that it was my first foray into creative nonfiction.
You talk about mentoring and the creative process in your profile: do you have any advice about writing, regarding such deep emotions related to tragedy?
Be gentle with yourself if you’re writing hard things. It’s a different process to live and relive losses again in your writing. I have needed to learn to take breaks and let my heart rest.
Is there a difference in your writing from before the tragedy to today, and if so, what is the biggest difference?
Well, before my first husband died, not very many people read my writing. So back then, I wrote whenever I wanted about whatever I chose, and I ran little risk of any critique since nobody cared what I had to say. I simply wrote for the joy and fun of it.
When my blog went viral in the weeks following Robb’s death, as thousands of readers came to my page, as my words spread to five continents, I didn’t even notice. I was too broken-hearted to care about anything but getting out of bed and helping my children through thte day. I wasn’t writing for an audience. I only kept writing because I needed to breathe. It was authentic and raw and without apology. Writing was my lifeline, and I wrote to stay alive.
But since then, as my platform has grown, as I now write for various audiences and columns and publishers and paychecks, my writing is more filtered. I have to pay attention the numbers, and I have to write what interests readers and editors. I still love what I do, but it has so much more structure to it. Sometimes I miss writing for the aching joy of it all, writing just because I love it, not because I have a deadline to meet.
Readers can change your writing, sometimes in ways that are equipping and empowering, and sometimes in ways that are suffocating and silencing. Sometimes I just need to get out my pen and remember what I loved about this craft in the first place.
In your book you say you started writing almost immediately after that tragic night, and against others advice: do you feel it helped you get through and move on?
Definitely. It was the only thing in my life that stayed consistent: I wrote the day before he died, and I wrote the day after. I never stopped. Sometimes the words on the page were the only proof that I had lived another day at all.
There are different stages of grief, was there any stage that you feel was the most difficult?
There are different stages, for sure, but I think it’s a myth to believe that grief is a linear ladder to climb. It’s more like a ball of rubberbands that intertwine and connect with each other over and over again. For me, the most difficult were the setbacks, the not knowing what was coming next. Feeling like I had conquered fear or anxiety or anger or depression, only to get punched in the face by Valentine’s Day or wayward junkmail with his name on it.
While writing and life comes back: did things about your relationship and life appear that were subconscious until you started writing?
Yes, I feel like I learned a lot about my marriage. I dissected it from so many angles as I wrote about the harder seasons of our life together, about those months before he died when we found each other after being lost from one another for so long. I learned so much about him as I studied him objectively. He was somehow more clear to me as a character in my book. I so longed to say to him, “Oh, Robb, you make so much more sense to me. I get you now.”
On your web site and in your book you repeat these haunting words - “you won’t die." Has writing helped at all, or are there some things which will all ways stay with you?
I think this is a both/and question. Yes, writing has helped me, and yes, it will always stay with me.
In your book you express humor in the face of tragedy with “cardigan lady,” do you think humor helped you get through the crazy times?
I come from a family of storytellers, and we lean hard on laughter in difficult times. Yes, laughter is medicine. I’m confident of this.
The book mentions you had a collection of passages, verses and phrases: do you still collet them, which is your favorite, and has the message changed over time?
I do collect them. My favorites come from the book of Psalms, as I’ve learned that there isn’t an emotion I can experience that a psalmist didn’t also encounter and write about. The psalms remind me of who God is, how safe honesty is in his presence, and the ongoing truths of Scripture and writing.
In June of this year The New York Times posted an online article expressing that One of the oldest forms of punctuation may be dying Period: Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style. As an editor and writer what is your opinion, about the written language today?
With the onset of emails and texting, I think punctuation and capitalization are becoming more of a style than a rule. We use capitalizations to abbreviate entire conversations, and we use punctuation to create emoticons. It’s all another way of telling the reader how to receive the information, but instead of telling them when to pause or inflect, we’re showing them to cringe or roll their eyes or blow kisses or be nauseous or some other such ridiculousness. I don’t think the period will ever really go away, but it will break my heart of the semicolon goes out of circulation. I personally will keep it alive out of sheer will; it’s my favorite punctuation! I have the texting dexterity of a fourteen-year-old girl, but I still text in complete words, sentences, and with punctuation, apostrophes and quotation marks. I can’t not.
I have been trying to write my book for the past five years: what advice would you give me on the path to publishing?
Good for you! Keep working on it, and don’t give up. Think about starting a blog to build your platform, because publishers are just as interested in platform as content. When it’s time and you’re ready to move forward, find yourself a good agent whom you trust. Agents make all the difference in the traditional publishing world.
I love the title to your second book, Let's pretend we're normal: adventures in rediscovering how to be a family. How did the title come to be, and do you believe there is a normal?
When the bottom falls out of your world, when everything feels wrong and out of place, sometimes you have to pretend you’re normal until normal finds you. I taught my boys that sometimes we had to pretend we were brave, pretend we were strong, pretend this is what we wanted, pretend we could do this, and pretend we were like other families who hadn’t been torn apart. When you pretend you’re normal, sometimes you can trick yourself into finding your new normal.
Within the two books I noticed you use many lists, things to remember, goals instructions for the day: Do you still use lists, and which is your favorite?
I’m a hard core lister. I make lists of lists. My lists keep my act together. I’ve recently taken to Bullet Journaling, my new favorite style. Check it out on Pinterest.
Colorado is a great state to hike and be out doors. You mentioned you did so with your boys: Which is/was your favorite, and why?
We love to visit Daniels Park in Highlands Ranch. That’s where the story took place in the opening scene of Let’s Pretend We’re Normal.
What’s your favorite coffee to drink?
Starbucks’ Venti Iced Caramel Macchiato, extra caramel. (Generally speaking.)