Goals, Realities, and a Coffee Comfort Contradiction

January passed a mere 5 months and eons of seconds ago. Somehow it’s the sensation of eons that stick. Way back in January your dedicated contributors posted some thoughts about goals. February passed. March. April. May remains, for a bare week more. This is my first post in eons.

I enter every school semester intending to write at least once a month. It feels like a realistic goal. One piece of something—probably a Today’s Author post—once a month. As I end every school semester I realize I wrote less than the semester before and I acknowledge to myself that I defined my goals before I understood the realities of my schedule.

A friend recently commented that my creative self must be screaming. Yes. Oh, yes. And at times—not too often, but occasionally—it screams itself into an outright tantrum that would make a 2 year old take notes. It’s oddly self-defeating, as the internal monologue of “when do I get time for MEEEE” steals the very time and energy so necessary to the creative process.

During this school year I ran into this. I found myself thinking, in the stuttering fashion of the often-interrupted, something along the lines of “I’ll have some coffee while I grade this, then when I get to the end I’ll still have energy to write!” Or, even less realistic during a grading and planning intensive semester, “Coffee now will be smart, then I’ll still be alert enough to write while the kid is falling asleep.” Then I’d drink more coffee, grade furiously, get within one or two assignments, and have to pick the boy up from school or go in and assure him there were no monsters, no real monsters, and wait in his room, twitching—not to get back to writing the monsters away, but to the grading so there was space in my head for monsters to even lurk.

It finally struck me one day, reaching for the dregs from the coffee pot after a short bout of yard work, what a contradiction a strong relationship to coffee can be.

When my son was little, and a determined non-sleeper, coffee was the fake energy I pulled from throughout the morning. He sleeps now, mostly. Yet still I look forward to that first cup, and still I pull the dregs from the pot hours later. And still I expect that humble little cup of darkness to produce miracles.

Here’s the contradiction: it’s a stimulant. It keeps the brain awake even when the brain would like to saunter off into deconstruction mode. Yet drink too much of it and I become grumpy, jumpy, and fidgety – all behaviors that doom me creatively. Then I become tired, yet unable to sleep.

Miracles do occur, by the way. I wrote a poem during the semester. It remains handwritten; I think I know which notebook I jotted it in. Still, I wrote a poem, in the early evening, while my husband read books to our son in the other room, on a day I left the coffee pot behind at 7 am, and taught and graded, and ran errands, and generally juggled the dishes of daily life. The secret to miracles, it turns out, is a peaceful interlude.

Sitting in my son’s room waiting for him to fall asleep doesn’t appear to count, by the way. My creative side flatly refuses to see it as time to myself.

Sometimes I find my goals lay themselves out before me, stepping stones through the chaotic garden of thought. The first stepping stone is to rid myself of my delusions – such as coffee’s usefulness in creating interludes. The next is to find, within the realities of my life, the consistent moments where I am my own person, one where the monikers of “mother”, “wife”, “instructor” or even “woman” do not exist, or at least do not take precedence. In other words, I intend to find and to create peaceful interludes. To do so requires I change, not my space, not the realities of my daily life, but my expectations of my space.

A friend once told me—a writer and instructor like me but with far more experience in both—that summer was his time to reflect and regenerate. Summer has begun for me and so has creative regeneration. I’ll share my writing reflections here this summer.

What’s in a Name?

The recent news that J.K. Rowling was outed as the author of Robert Galbraith’s novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, has me thinking about the importance of having A Name as a writer. I know Ms. Rowling isn’t the first author to have written under a pseudonym, either before or after becoming successful as a writer.  Stephen King comes to mind immediately (Richard Bachman). Nora Roberts (J.D. Robb) is another example that comes to mind. Theodor Geisel is possibly my favorite to have written under multiple names (Dr. Seuss and Theo LeSieg). But why do they do it?

I’ve never in my life seriously considered writing under a pen name.  Partly this is because I mostly like my name and partly I just never came up with a good alternative.  Tucker Spencer? Too southern. Moonblossom Beladosia?  Too hippie.  Vito Lucchesie?  Too 1970’s mobster.  Indigo Maroon?  Too colorful.

I have often wondered why authors would choose to write under more than one name.  I understand the need to write under a pen name when there’s issues of freedom of speech or repression.  I specifically mean situations like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, where they are already successful and choose to write secretly under a different name.  Anecdotally, I’d heard that King wrote as Richard Bachman as a means of trying to figure out if his success was due to talent or to luck, though I’ve never actually seen this statement attributed to him directly. On his webpage, King answers the question pretty clearly:

I did that because back in the early days of my career there was a feeling in the publishing business that one book a year was all the public would accept…

Dr. Seuss wrote as Dr. Seuss when he also illustrated his books, and has Theo LeSieg when someone else did the illustrating. I have always known he was both authors and read his works under both names.

I’ve never read any of Nora Roberts’s works but I understand that she writes under the name J.D. Robb for a specific series (“In Death”) and then at other times as Jill March and as Sarah Hardesty…

J.K. Rowling, now that she’s been found out, said that she wrote as Robert Galbraith because she:

I wanted to see how it would feel to write a crime novel without the pressure that goes along with my name.

I can actually see and have an understanding for this concept of writing under a different name to try something else.  If fans come to expect a certain style or genre from an author, would they accept something different that doesn’t fit into the expected mold?  I can easily see that there might be riots and peaceful sit-ins if I were to suddenly write a story which didn’t include any coffee in it… I mean, it’s what I do, right?

In any event, I’ve mentioned four (or is it ten?) different authors, each with their own reason to write under different names.  But I’m still left to wonder what their real reasons are, specifically Rowling’s reasons.

The media frenzy around Rowling’s Big Secret and the subsequent skyrocketing of sales for The Cuckoo’s Calling have me wondering if it was really all just a marketing ploy, wherein it was always intended that the information would be leaked. Ms. Rowling and her publisher are, of course, denying it and perhaps they are telling the truth.  But still, the numbers certainly tell a story:  The BBC reported that around 1,500 copies of the book had been sold before the announcement and that within hours sales had increased by 507,000%. Another report mentioned that 43 copies of the book were sold in the UK in the week prior to the announcement and then 17,662 copies in the week following the announcement.  Either way, the announcement turned the critically acclaimed book from a commercial also-ran into a best seller, seemingly overnight.

I have attempted to find marketing for The Cuckoo’s Calling from before the announcement of the author’s true identity and I have failed. I, of course, had not looked for anything before the announcement because, well, I’d never heard of the book.  Now – after the fact – all I find is material with Rowling’s name on it.  I also am aware that there were some favorable reviews and that the book was praised by Val McDermid… but again, I had no idea the book existed, and apparently I was not alone in this state of ignorance.  So I’m left with questions:  was the book underperforming in terms of sales because of a lack of marketing?  Is the new-found success it is having due to the “free” publicity it is getting in the media? Does the name on the book really have that much impact on the performance of the book?  Would Rowling’s other book, The Casual Vacancy, have suffered poor initial sales if it had, the name of an unknown, say, Rob Diaz, on the cover?

Fans of an author, or an actor or a musical act will typically buy new material from that author, actor or musical act just because of the name on the cover or in the credits.  I’ve done it myself and I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with supporting the artists whose work you enjoy. So I’m not really upset that this book is selling well now that the name is out there… yet I am still unsettled about it.

Frankly, I can feel my thoughts on this whole situation flying all over the place. I don’t like feeling duped and I don’t like feeling like it’s impossible to find success if you don’t already have success. The whole situation with this book which, in all honesty, I never would have read before but now feel compelled to read because of who wrote it is just making me more confused than ever about what we, as emerging writers, should expect to be able to accomplish in or around this industry.

On the other hand, the acknowledgement that Robert Galbraith’s novel was rejected leaves me feeling a bit less hopeless.  Sure, Robert Galbraith is an unknown, debut author but ultimately he – I mean she – was still J.K. Rowling, an author whose work I admire and enjoy.  If her work could be rejected before it was eventually accepted, then there’s still hope for me, perhaps, at some point down the road.

At this point, a part of me feels like I should send out my initial queries for my next two novels – The Intergalactic Coffee Pot of Rage and Discontent  and Fifty Roasts of Coffee – with the author name of Slade Steele stenciled onto the cover.  Then, after a short time, I can announce that Slade Steele is actually Rob Diaz, the guy who writes about coffee.  Slade Steele may be a strong, highly marketable name, but clearly the public will only trust one author when it comes to fictional tales about superhero lattes.

In all seriousness, I’d like to hear if you have written, or considered writing, under a pen name?  Why or why not and what circumstances might make you change your mind? And what is your opinion – was the whole Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling thing a genius marketing ploy or was it truly an attempt to allow an established author to just try something new and different?

Meditations on Coffee and Writing

I flirt with giving up coffee.  I stock my tea niche with caffeine alternatives: Earl Grey, Irish Breakfast, Jasmine Green.  Perhaps, I seem to think, their presence will tempt me, lure me, from the pot to the kettle.  Perhaps it will bewitch me into forgetting coffee.

Which is just ridiculous.  As with most things in life, my problem isn’t one of choice but of habit and association.  Until I traded my full-time day job and night writing schedule for night classes and day mommyhood, coffee was my wake-up partner and tea was my working partner.  I left coffee behind when I left the house at 7am.  Now I have no such distinctions.  One might say my job migrated to my house.  I work when I wake up: jot the beginnings of a blog post, write directions to an assignment, or argue my preschooler into a decent set of clothes.  It all gets done with coffee.

And coffee, which begins with a deep resonance of peaceful mornings, ultimately ends with me fidgety and cranky.  And, later, energy-less and craving sweets.  It’s all a bad recipe for writing, for that unexpected 20 minute window where the child entertains himself or I discover a lunch break in a working day.

There are some wonderful stories out there about writers and their coffee cups.  All I can say is:  How did they stay in their seats long enough to get words on the page?

I swear I will give up coffee.  It will make me a new woman! A better mama! A reborn writer!  I’ll have energy and spunk and energy.   In the morning, though, tea tumbles out of the cabinet like a bad idea.  Overstocked, ignored, and passed over for one cup—I’ll just have one, I tell myself—of the brew that’s something between bitter and bland.   I drink it near black, so I really taste it when I screw up the grounds.   I suppose I should screw it up more often, but I chalk it up to pitying my husband, the wretch who hooked me on coffee in the first place.

Intellectually, I know coffee has nothing to do with writing.  I used to write with tea at hand.  I used to write in the break room at the office, while it was filled with warehouse workers chatting and making the microwave beep and I had nothing at all in front of me.

What does have to do with writing:  a notebook and taking advantage of unexpected time to myself.

It would be nice, though, to have those moments and not feel my shoulders pulling toward my ears or my fingers wanting to scratch the surface of the couch to make sound and friction or my mind wandering every fifth word to the endless other things I need to be doing.   I could just do one of those other things, so it would drift out of my mind.  But what would drift is the story idea, the poem snippet, that sentence I’ve almost formed about writing the perfect beginning.   Do I have any clean clothes?  No.  Crap.  It will wait!  It’s writing time.   I just need to keep my notebook close, and ditch the coffee.

Soon as I finish this cup.

The Guy Who Writes about Coffee and Triskaidekaphobia

I was talking with someone the other day and the subject of writing came up.  “What do you write about?” they asked.

That might be one of the most difficult questions a writer is asked, outside of “Why do you write?”.

“I write about spaceships,” I said, “or aliens. Interstellar wars and great, long-lasting peace. Sometimes I write about vegetables or pre-industrial societies.”

“Oh,” my questioner said, thoughtfully.  “Well, I meant, what’s your writing like?”

“I, um… well, it’s wordy,” I fumbled. “I often include coffee in it.”

Writers, like other artists, have a style all their own.  We have characters with quirks we revisit over and over, much like a painter might paint similar scenes over the years. We have phrasing we fall back on as we write, much like a rock and roll guitarist might have a unique way of playing musical phrases.  We have favorite themes we revisit time and again in different stories, each time visiting a different aspect of the theme.

Let’s think of some examples.
Melting clockIf I mention the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, what do you think of? Chances are, if you know who he was, you think of melting clocks such as this one I bought for my wife for Christmas. Dalí really only occasionally used these clocks, but he became famous for them and now, whenever someone comes into my house and sees the clock melting over the edge of the bookshelf they ask:  “Hey, isn’t that like those paintings that artist made?”

“Yes,” I say, “it is.”

Similarly, if you know who Al Hirschfeld was, you’d think of his daughter, Nina.  Well, my wife tells me you’d think of her.  This is because in all of his drawings, he included her name somewhere in the picture. It became a challenge for people to look at the images to “Count the Ninas” within them.  It became something that drew people back to his work.

More up my alley, I remember a time in February, 1987, when teenaged me was sitting with a buddy listening to the radio. My friend was quickly rolling across the analog dial on the radio when I heard two notes of a song and shouted for him to go back. I didn’t know why exactly, but when he rolled back to 93.7 FM WSTW I heard the song “That Ain’t Love” by REO Speedwagon. It was a new song I’d never heard, but the two notes of guitar work were enough to let me recognize Gary Richrath’s style and draw me in.

My conversation the other day got me to thinking about what my writing is like. It is no secret that I have a gimmick in my writing these days.  Whether you call it “a thing”, “a shtick”, “a gimmick” or… “annoying”, it is something that has come to be an important part of my writing though I didn’t consciously set out to include coffee and the number 13 in each piece. It just kind of happened.  Sometimes these elements have a large role in the story, other times they are just mentioned in passing. But they are always there. I have written pieces where coffee was actually a key plot element (almost even a character). It has gotten to the point where an editor received a story from me and tweeted:

“Reading Rob Diaz’s story. Wonder when the coffee will be introduced.”

Then:

“Yup, there it is.”

And finally:

“And there’s the ‘13’ – I thought he had forgotten it!”.

I’ve had beta readers tell me that the biggest flaw with a story was that I didn’t include enough coffee in it – that they overlooked the one reference and wanted more. Coffee - my friend and heroI don’t plan my writing in advance so each story just flows onto the page as it comes to me. Characters drink coffee. They meet up in coffee shops. They wield decaf as the massively-powerful, evil-thwarting weapon that it is. There have been stories I’ve written where I didn’t even notice putting coffee into the story at all. It just happened naturally.

Now that readers have come to expect it, I do make more of a conscious decision to include these elements somewhere in the story. It may be obvious: “The 13 coffee cups sat in a row on the counter”. It may be more subtle: “Bob stared at the box containing a baker’s dozen bagels and he tapped his foot nervously as his evil plan percolated.” Or it may be something difficult to find – one story I wrote used the same word 13 times (and yes, several readers noticed).

Obviously, forcing the issue and injecting coffee into a story where it has no business would be a bad idea. If I brewed up a story about un-earthly worlds… what is the likelihood that coffee would exist in that universe? Probably none. Though to be honest, it would not be outside the realm of possibility that this thoroughly alien culture could have a ritual that requires the use of an aromatic infusion of ground up seeds in hot water in order to ensure a successful growing season. Of course, it would have to be shared by the thirteen elders of the village in order for the ritual to be a success.

Clearly I am not yet famous in any circles, let alone as an author. But maybe one day, if I’m lucky, I’ll be at a party or sitting in a coffee shop and someone will come up to me and say:

Hey, aren’t you the guy who wrote about, like, thirteen ways to use coffee to win an interstellar war and bring about universal peace?

Yeah, that would be cool.