A Book Is a Web: The Craft of MONDAY’S NOT COMING, by Tiffany D. Jackson

I’ve decided to write some essays on the craft of fiction writing, each focusing on a particular and specific skill, and each referring to a stupendous book that serves as an example of that skill. That way, I get to dive into some nitty-gritty craft topics while also recommending good books.

This post contains some spoilers — though not the biggest spoilers! — for Monday’s Not Coming, by Tiffany D. Jackson.


Today I want to talk about a particular writing skill that, when done well, is often invisible to the reader who isn’t looking for it. That’s because it’s a skill that prevents the reader from being pulled out of the book. It’s a little hard to sum up in a few words, which is why I plan to write several paragraphs about it :o), but my first attempt at summing it up is this: in a masterful book, most building blocks — most aspects of character, most events, most settings, most every single thing that matters — serve multiple narrative purposes at once.

You know that moment when you’re reading a book and you’re suddenly knocked out of the narrative dream because something happens that seems random, arbitrary, or forced? As if the writer has shoehorned something in, and instead of it fitting, it pops you out?

You know when you’re reading a book and suddenly a fact seems too convenient, as if the only reason it’s in the book is because the author’s trying to make something else in the book believable?

You know when you’re reading a book and a character feels more like a list of characteristics, rather than a real person?

When you’re writing a book, problems like these arise constantly. It’s the nature of trying to fit a whole lot of different ideas into a cohesive whole: your first few attempts are lumpy, clumsy. Nothing is connecting yet. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that my first drafts are a big messy pile of events, personality characteristics, badly-placed clues, characters who aren’t comfortable with each other yet, etc., etc., all of it waiting to be fixed. And the more complicated the book you’re trying to write, the harder it is, in subsequent drafts, to weave all the parts together into a pattern smooth enough to soothe the reader into believing your story.

When this weaving works perfectly — as it does in Tiffany D. Jackson’s Monday’s Not Coming — it’s because of intensely hard and skillful work on the part of a writer. A lot of skills contribute to the weaving, but today I’m going to talk specifically about how most aspects of Jackson’s book perform several jobs at once. And I’m going to try to illuminate how the consequence of this is a perfectly woven web, so strong that a few chapters into this book, I relaxed, knowing that I, the reader, was safe. I knew that Monday, a missing girl in the book, wasn’t safe. I worried that Claudia, the book’s narrator, wasn’t safe. But I was confident that this book wasn’t going to drop me.

I’ll start by sharing a little plot to set things up.

In Monday’s Not Coming, after spending the summer with her grandmother in Georgia, Claudia returns home to Southeast, her neighborhood in Washington DC, ready to enter eighth grade, but worried about her best friend Monday, who didn’t write her a single letter the whole time she was gone. This lack of letters is Claudia’s first sign that something’s wrong in the life of Monday, and many more signs follow. When school starts, Monday doesn’t show up. When Claudia tries to call Monday, Monday’s phone has been disconnected. When Claudia asks Monday’s family members after her, they give inconsistent answers — she’s with her aunt, she’s with her father. When Claudia tries to visit Monday, Monday’s mother won’t even let her inside the house. The evidence mounts that something is gravely wrong… But no one will take Claudia’s worries seriously. Claudia is alone, growing increasingly distressed as Monday continues not to show up. The reader follows along as Claudia tries to find her.

At the same time, the attentive reader is trying to solve a mystery taking place on another level. This is because the events of this book don’t occur consecutively, and there’s a mystery about their order. We go back and forth in time, learning about the events that took place before Monday disappeared, then always returning to Claudia’s experience of trying to find Monday. Each chapter of the book has a title that places its events in time for the reader. Four times are represented: The Before; One Year Before the Before; Two Years Before the Before; and, The After. (There are also nine very short chapters each titled with a month name, starting in September and continuing through June, but for the moment, I won’t get into that.) The second-level mystery the reader is trying to solve has to do with the chapters labeled “The After.” These chapters seem consecutively interspersed with the chapters labeled “The Before,” as if they’re part of the same timeline… So the reader starts to wonder, before what? After what?

It’s so puzzling that in a different book, I might have started to wonder if the titles were mistakes, or if maybe it was some sort of strange artistic license that wasn’t working for me (“Time is a beautiful tapestry, la la, who cares!”). But I didn’t wonder that, because the skill of Jackson’s writing was so apparent — largely because of the thing I keep talking about where most aspects of the book performs multiple jobs — that I knew it was leading me someplace good.

Now I’ll finally explain what I mean! Note that the page numbers I reference are in the paperback edition, published by Katherine Tegen Books in 2018.

Okay. Here’s an example of an aspect of this book that performs multiple jobs. It’s one of my favorite characteristics of Claudia: her relationship to color.

Claudia has an unusual eye for color. It’s so unusual that in Claudia and Monday’s first scene together, on page 30, Monday teases Claudia about it. When a low-rider Cadillac creeps by, Monday chuckles and says, “Hey, Claudia, what color is that?” Claudia responds with, “Hmmm… It’s like a mix of rust and apricot with a yellow undertone.” Monday laughs and fondly tells her she’s weird, probably thinking, like I am, that the Cadillac is orange. But when Claudia looks at colors, she sees so much more than orange. Colors matter to her, deeply. It’s an interesting and endearing quirk. And as every student of writing knows, you need to give your characters a few quirks, something to make them feel like more than words on a page.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I’m writing, I assign a characteristic to a character, then, because I’m trying to juggle so many other things in this ##@$ goddamn stupid BOOK, I promptly forget about it. Unless l I remember again at some point, then try to make that characteristic work for me in other ways, it can feel a little tacked on. The sort of thing that draws the attention of the reader, because it interrupts the book’s feeling of authenticity.

Well, Jackson remembers about Claudia and color. Again and again, she reaches for this characteristic, using it to illuminate conflict. To advance the plot. To serve as a metaphor for growth. To demonstrate healing. This is what I was trying to explain above: Any aspect you choose to add to your book will sit more comfortably in your book if you attach it to other aspects of your book. When you decide something about one of your characters? Consider what other ways, beyond character-building, you can make that decision work for you. When you hit a snag in some other part of your book — be it plot, setting, mystery-building, dialogue, pacing, mood — remember that characteristic and ask yourself, could that characteristic illuminate the solution to this problem? Look for places to weave that characteristic into other parts of the book — not too much! But just the right amount — and don’t worry too much about that balance early on, because that’s the sort of thing you’ll work out over the course of several drafts, probably with the help of other readers, but mostly with the direction of your own instincts.

Oh, and by the way? It isn’t like there’s going to be one aspect you need to remember and weave. There will probably be dozens, if not hundreds. It’s okay. You can keep a list! Whenever you’re stuck, you can refer to your list. When you’re not stuck, refer to it then sometimes too, just to remind yourself what your aspects are! And if you feel like you’re constantly about to forget a hundred different important things, don’t worry. That’s one of the many normal ways to feel while writing a book.

But I’m getting carried away. I was talking about Claudia’s relationship to color.

Ready for some examples of color’s multiple jobs in Monday’s Not Coming?

  • Color demonstrates Monday’s affection for Claudia (as shown above), which is really, really important, because the relationship between these girls is complicated. It’s rough in some places and built on some jealousies, selfishness, and lies, but it’s also really, really devoted and substantial. The reader needs to see these moments of affection, to clarify the love and closeness between these girls. 
  • Color also demonstrates some of Claudia and Monday’s mismatches. For example, late in the book, Claudia learns that Monday has always pretended that her favorite color is pink, to please Claudia. It might sound like an odd thing to be devastated about, but not for Claudia. It’s a spotlight on all the things she’s failed to see about her friend, and all the ways she’s never been able to help. On almost the last page of the book, Claudia says to herself, “Still felt a pinch of guilt whenever I saw pink” (431).
  • Because of Claudia’s gift for color, we get a really rich sense of what people look like and how they dress — a richer sense than we get from most books. On the morning of the first day of school, Claudia’s mother wears “her short auburn hair still in pin curls. Sometimes in the light, little specks of gray peeked out behind her rose gold highlights” (7). Also, Claudia’s mother has a great sense of style. I began to look forward to Claudia’s descriptions of her outfits. On page 120, she wears “a sandy-colored long-sleeve dress with her black church blazer.” On page 141, it’s “a rose-colored skirt suit.” On page 383, she wears “a black wrap dress, church heels, and a frown on her face.” At school, we see a range of skin colors — Shayla has a “pretty brown face,” and Trevor Abernathy’s “white button-down shirt [makes] his rich black skin glow” (11). At one point, Monday decides to dye her hair blonde — “Not like white-people blond,” Monday explains. “More like Beyoncé blond” (206) — but when it goes wrong, Claudia almost screams at the sight of her. “Her hair was a violent burnt orange, her roots a rusted burgundy” (207). One of my favorite moments is when “April, enraged, snatched up my collar, pulling me so close I could see the drops of gold mixed in her brown eyes.” I totally believe that in a scary moment of being grabbed, Claudia would notice the gold flecks in her attacker’s eyes.
  • Color is part of Claudia’s psychological therapy, thanks to the research of her father, who’s  read an article about coloring books being calming. “I take my time picking the right shade,” Claudia says. “There’s a distinct difference between periwinkle and cobalt blue” (25). (This is also a moment to mention that color connects her to her father, who’s clearly noticed how much color means to his child, and who regularly finds her new coloring books.)
  • Color illuminates the path to Claudia’s social growth. Before Monday went missing, Monday was Claudia’s only friend. How does Claudia begin to cement her friendship with other girls? She does their nails. “Megan, red with black dots like a ladybug; Kit Kat, pink with silver stripes like a candy cane; Paris, French manicure with a coffee base and black tips” (288). The girls are stunned at her eye and her skill. Claudia can use her facility with color as social capital.
  • Color plays a huge role in the lyricism of Jackson’s prose. Remember those short month chapters I mentioned before? They’re reflective, lyrical passages, beautifully framing and positioning the rest of the book, and every one of them refers to color. Maybe my favorite passage from these is on page 337: “If Daddy was a color, he would be forest green — thick, lush, calm, whispering refreshing wisdom only few could hear. / If Michael was a color, he would be bark brown — cocoa, mocha, chocolate, the color of earth. Quiet, supportive, but strong. A softness that loves grows from. /Together, they are the tree I lean on when I’m weary. The tree I swing from.” This is just one of many moments where briefly, the scary story slows down and we sit with Claudia and feel what she’s feeling. In these moments, we’re also sitting with the mood Tiffany Jackson creates with her beautiful, color-specific imagery.
  • Color serves as part of the tapestry of Claudia’s neurodiversity, her dyslexia, which she’s always ferociously hidden from every single person in her life except Monday. A teacher gives Claudia “a pack of these plastic gel filters, the size of looseleaf paper, tinted in various colors: aqua, coral, celery, and apricot.” (144). First of all, who besides Claudia would ever define the color of a gel filter as “celery?” I love her. But also, color becomes one of Claudia’s main tools for ease of reading. “They’re supposed to help me read better when I lay them over pages in books and stuff. I held them close over my face and watched the whole room turned blue, like we were sitting at the bottom of the river.” Claudia’s relationship with her dyslexia is a huge and important part of this book — so the discovery that color can be a helpful tool really matters. It also feels appropriate, and not the least bit shoehorned in, because color has so many other important roles in the book.

That’s seven examples of the functions of color in the book. As a reader, you’re encountering all of them at once. Can you see how they’re a web holding you up?

I’m not going to try to list all the other aspects of Monday’s Not Coming that Jackson uses as multipurpose tools, because I want you to read this book, and I’ve already given enough away. But as you’re reading, notice what Jackson does with the love and anger (and especially the loving anger) of Claudia’s mother. Notice what she does with the gentrification, racism, and poverty that beseige many of the residents of Ed Borough. Notice the ways that Ma’s miscarriages touch on different parts of the plot. Notice how Claudia’s dyslexia plays into her own character arc, but also illuminates some of the conflicts in her relationship with Monday. Notice all the ways Claudia’s dancing weaves through the book. Think about time: There is so much skillful weaving in this book with regards to time that that could’ve been my entire blog post. Notice the varying tools Jackson uses to demonstrate how differently this story would have played out had a cherished child like Claudia been the one who went missing.

Also, notice how nothing is shoehorned in. Nothing is sticking out at weird angles. Nothing feels random, arbitrary, or forced.

Also also! One of the things that happens when everything is woven together so nicely is that the real, true clues to the mystery — both the mystery of where Monday is and the mystery of what’s going on with the timeline — can rise sparkling from the page. Notice how those clues don’t get lost. You’re not left wondering what matters and what doesn’t, because everything has its clear purpose. This doesn’t mean that as the reader, you won’t miss some clues — I missed clues! And I followed some of the red herrings, just the way I was supposed to. But because of the way the book was woven, when everything finally came together at the end, I was left with that satisfying feeling of Yes, this was always where everything was leading.

I want to add that I don’t know Tiffany Jackson, and I haven’t talked to her about how she wrote this book. I don’t know how conscious or intentional any of her weaving was. I make no assumptions about her process. But I can see the results. And being a writer myself, I can appreciate what an accomplishment it is.

So. For the writers out there, what is the lesson here?

Here’s one way of putting it:

When you’re deciding who your characters are, be thinking about every other part of the book at the same time. If you decide to give your characters a particular personality quirk… Decide why that matters to the story, and weave it into plot. Weave it into mood or setting or dialogue. It doesn’t have to serve 7+ purposes, like color does in Monday’s Not Coming! But try to attach it to some other part of the book besides itself. Also, at the same time, think about it from the other direction. If you’re at a place in your planning where you’re trying to untangle some plot complication… Focus hard on what your book already contains. On who you already mean your characters to be. Is it possible that the solution you’re looking for can come from some aspect of your characters that already exists?

Here’s another way of putting it:

When you’re writing and revising, planning, rewriting, and reshaping, it’s always great to be looking outside your book for solutions and answers. But don’t forget to look really, really hard inside your book too. Find the solutions that create new connections between and among the materials you already have.

Make sense? Writing a book (and reading a book) is a complicated business. It can be tricky to articulate why and how. But I hope this was helpful! Now go read Monday’s Not Coming!

Reading like a writer.


A little housekeeping here at the end, since I’ve been mostly away from social media during the ongoing protests about the murder of George Floyd and police violence against Black people.

Here are some links that have helped me get my mind around what’s happening and figure out what to do to help:

This interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Ezra Klein Show: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7uahcx

This article, called “The Story Has Gotten Away from Us: Six months of life and death in America,” by Betsy Morais and Alexandria Neason, which cuts through the bullshit and clarifies the story of the pandemic and how it intersects with racism in America: https://www.cjr.org/special_report/covid-floyd-protests.php

This Radiolab episode, called “Graham,” which explains the origin of the concept behind “the reasonable officer,” and how this affects the trials of police officers: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/graham

This list on Medium of “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice”: https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234

Finally, it occurs to me that for those of you who aren’t on Twitter, I should mention that I have a new book coming out on January 19 :o). It’s a Graceling Realm novel called Winterkeep, told in multiple perspectives. You can read more about Winterkeep here.

Messy Writing, Mean Cowbirds, and More

Hey there everybody. Here’s a little bit of pandemic distraction for your day. If you’re not interested in messy writing or mean cowbirds, skip to the end for a beautiful piece of interdisciplinary art from Juilliard!

First, I have a project (of questionable success) to share. I’m a left-hander who spends a gigantic proportion of my time writing by hand. In the past few years, as I grow older, the toll on my body grows worse. Arm pain! Hand pain! Shoulder pain!

In hopes of giving my left side a break now and then, I’m finally doing something I’ve meant to do for a long time: teaching myself to write right-handed. I did a little research online, I watched a couple videos (because right-handers hold their pens VERY differently from left-handers!), and then I commenced muddling through.

Every day, with my right hand, I print one entire page of writing on the topic of whatever crap is in my head, using both pen and pencil.

Then I do a page of doodles, based on a penmanship worksheet I found online (with maybe some cursive opining at the end). One of the main challenges is making sure I’m using my fine motor muscles — writing by moving my fingers and hand, NOT my entire arm. It’s tempting to use the arm, but the whole point is to develop control in those little muscles.

After two weeks of practice, you can judge for yourself how it’s going :o). This feels less like a project I’m doing by choice and more one I’m doing out of necessity, so I’ll be keeping this up. If I ever get past this current stage of slow and sloppy, I’ll let you all know.

I bet by now you’re intrigued about cowbirds, right? Well! In case you couldn’t read my writing above… I recently learned (from one of my sisters, who knows such things) that cowbirds are really shocking parents. In fact, they force other birds to raise their children. They never build nests; instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. I mean! Look at this picture.

Picture found on Wikimedia Commons, credit to Galawebdesign. Link to the license. No changes were made.

That’s an eastern phoebe nest with one cowbird egg in the mix. According to my sister, the bird parents who return to the nest to find this screamingly obvious egg interloper often know they’ve been duped, but there’s nothing they can do about it, because the cowbird positions itself nearby, watching. If the nesting bird tries to remove the cowbird egg, the cowbird will destroy the entire nest.

And then!

Do you have any idea how big cowbirds babies are?

Below is a picture of an adult common yellowthroat (on the right) feeding a juvenile brown-headed cowbird. These little birds have to feed these giant galumphing cowbird babies, often to the deprivation of their own babies! I mean, it’s not the cowbird baby’s fault. But it’s pretty ridiculous.

Picture found on Wikimedia Commons, credit to Agathman. Link to the license. No changes were made.

This practice is called brood parasitism and some other birds do it too. In the picture below, a poor beset reed warbler is feeding a cuckoo chick in (ON) its nest.

Picture found on Wikimedia Commons, credit to Per Harald Olsen. Link to the license. No changes were made.

There. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about cowbirds and brood parasitism. Nature is amazing and cruel! But people who take beautiful photos and then make them freely usable online are the best, because the photos are what made this story. Thank you, nice people.

Finally… Some Juilliard students, teachers, and alum came together to create a piece of art for the pandemic. I think they really captured something. I hope it’ll help you as much as it’s been helping me.

On Coping

Seen on my walk yesterday.

Hi again, everyone. This is really hard, isn’t it?

First, I want to plug two services that are working harder than ever right now to save independent bookstores felled by the pandemic. As an alternative to Audible (which is owned by Amazon), please, please consider buying audiobooks from Libro.fm. And as an alternative to Amazon for hard copies of books, please, please check out Bookshop.

So, on the topic of coping. I thought I might describe what my days are like right now, the challenges that arise for me, and how I’ve been trying to meet them. As it happens, I have some special qualifications for meeting some of our current emotional challenges… because I’ve spent the last 25+ years living with and recovering from PTSD, which means that I have a lot of tools and perspectives that are helpful in traumatic times. All around us today, people are experiencing not just physical but emotional anguish that may be traumatic, whether directly from COVID-19 or from the effects it’s had on our lives. And maybe something I say here will help you figure out a new way to cope, or to feel less alone.

I’ve never talked online before about the fact that I have PTSD. I don’t think it’ll be a huge surprise to many of you who’ve read my books, especially if your favorite of my books is Bitterblue. If the term “PTSD” makes you think, oh no, she’s going to tell us a terrible story from her past and I can’t deal with that right now — don’t worry, I’m not. If it makes you think, oh no, she’s going to start telling us what it’s like to live with a terrible mental illness — don’t worry, I’m not going to do that either :o). This post is simply about normalizing the struggles I, and maybe you, are facing right now. It’s also about how we’re more resilient than we feel. Because we are. Believe me. I know.

Okay, so. Here’s a list of some of the challenges I’ve been dealing with recently — in most cases, not because I have PTSD, but simply because I’m a human being :o). Many of you may be experiencing them too.

Irritability. By which I mean my own irritability, which can flare at the slightest provocation. It’s often followed by shame, even if my external behavior is blameless, because I hate discovering that I’m being unfair in my thoughts, and also sometimes it frightens me how close I come to lashing out. How’s your equanimity recently? Do you notice your temper flaring? Have you been lashing out? Are you getting trapped in the cycle of irritability and shame?

The impossibility of having the correct amount of contact with literally anyone. Never being able to be truly alone.… Combined with missing friends… Combined with weirdly too much time interacting with people on my devices… Combined with not being able to bear small talk, or interactions with the millions of people who are always outside when I go for a walk. What’s your version of this? Is it some complicated combination of loneliness and not enough solitude? Is it plain-old, too much loneliness and solitude? Is it too many parenting responsibilities? We all have different circumstances, and most of us are uncomfortable with them these days.

Periods of elevated anxiety. For me, I’ve noticed that this especially happens if I need to go into an enclosed public space, like the pharmacy or the post office. A few of my friends have said that wearing masks comforts them; well, it does not comfort me. Wearing a mask sometimes triggers some setting inside me that tells me that if I’m wearing a mask, it must be the apocalypse and I should be terrified. I don’t know if this message is coming from my brain’s twisted logic or from some physical signal that I’m not getting as much oxygen as usual, or both — but it’s not fun. Do you find yourself spinning into anxiety these days? Have you figured out what your cues are? Pay attention. Notice when the switch turns on and you become convinced you’re not safe. When does this happen for you?

Physical pain. For me, fear and anxiety manifest physically in my body and cause the world’s tightest muscles. Usually, I have the privilege of receiving regular massages for pain, but of course that’s not an option right now. I hurt all the time. How does your body feel right now? Where are you carrying your stress? Are you maybe more tired than it seems like you should be? Are you not sleeping? How is your appetite? In times like this, sometimes I confuse hunger with anxiety. I get hungry and some internal gauge inside me is like, Danger! Danger! This body is starving to death! I think the world is ending, but really, I just need a snack. What are your discomforts lately?

Emotional regression. In recent weeks, I’ve noticed insecurities — resentments — doubts — arising that I literally have not felt in years. Is this happening to you? Where are these long-lost bad feelings coming from? Maybe they’re finding the cracks that are developing in our senses of self as we’re repeatedly drubbed by worry and bad news.

Sadness and grief. This is just a reality right now. It’s a reality for any of us touched directly by COVID-19 or its consequences on our lives and livelihoods, and it’s a reality for anyone capable of compassion and empathy.

Brief and rare periods of epic, anxious meltdown, during which I can think of nothing but my fear, escalate it beyond anything rational, feel like my world is ending, and desperately scrabble to find solutions to protect myself. This is the one item on my list that I suspect is directly about my PTSD, because for me, this tends to happen when something in the news touches on my own personal PTSD triggers. For example, one of my personal triggers happens to be: Narcissists who deny reality because the truth doesn’t suit them, subsequently harming the people around them. As you can imagine, this has been a difficult presidency for me, and unfortunately the BS has dialed up during the pandemic. Another of my triggers: The reminder that I live in a world in which a woman can be forced into a life circumstance that’s 100% wrong for her, especially one involving her own body. A couple weeks back, I had an epic meltdown when news started coming in about conservatives in Texas and Ohio using the pandemic as an excuse to deny abortions to pregnant women. I could not bear what was happening to those women. Another trigger: The fear of losing someone. I think most of us can relate to that fear these days. I hope you’re not suffering from epic, anxious meltdowns. But if you are… you’re not alone. Also, it’s okay. You’re going to be okay. An epic anxious meltdown is something that happens to humans sometimes when a real-life circumstance comes too close to our most fundamental fears. That’s a fancy way of saying it sucks, but it’s pretty normal.


So. Here are some of the tools I’ve been consciously using during this pandemic. A lot of them aren’t going to sound very groundbreaking. But I’ve fought hard to learn some of these skills; I’ve battled against the demons of my past to internalize them and make them part of who I am, and some of them have changed my life. Maybe one of them will turn a light bulb on for you.

Every night, I write down a plan for the next day. It includes as much or as little minutiae as comforts me. It can include both tasks and emotional goals. Here’s what I wrote for today’s plan: “Walk. Laundry. Shower. Make more banana bread. Write blog post. Read. ACTUALLY REST. Stretch. Make a plan for tomorrow.” The last item on my list is always, “Make a plan for tomorrow.” My daily plan centers me and relaxes my mind.

I’ve established a policy of immediately mistrusting my own temper. In the past few weeks, there have been only a couple times when another person has injured me and I’ve been justifiably angry. In those cases, what I felt was good, clean anger, almost relieving in its clarity. Every other time my irritation has flared? That’s my sadness/worry/sense of powerlessness trying to find a vent. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling angry! But acting on my anger when it’s not justified makes me feel TERRIBLE, so I’m working really hard to catch my irritability in a net of compassionate suspicion first, then figure out what to do with it. I actually have a reminder that comes up on my phone every morning at 9 AM: “You are stressed out. Don’t let it make you mean.” Phone reminders help me.

I try to observe my emotional regression with compassion and without judgment. Now is the time for insecurities and resentments to come out and hassle us — that category of emotions that wait until our defenses are down, then attack. I think of these emotions as sad, pathetic visitors that need some attention. They need a hug from me, they need to know that they’re welcome, but it’s important that I resist believing them. A lot of times, these feelings make me laugh. If it’s a feeling I haven’t felt in years, it’s a moment for me to appreciate how much progress I’ve made. I try to treat it as an old frenemy who’s allowed to visit and hang out, but who isn’t allowed to convince me of anything.

I process with friends and/or my diary. I’m a writer. Writing out what’s going on makes me feel, if not better, clearer and more centered — whether or not anyone ever reads it.

I create the boundaries I need. The world outside my house is full of nice people who aren’t doing anything wrong when they try to interact with me, but I’m very sorry, I cannot right now. When I’m walking, I need to be alone. So I put in my headphones and I don’t make eye contact, even if it’s only me and one other person on a long, empty street.

I find something to look forward to. It is really hard these days to have anything to look forward to. Every fun thing is canceled. I’m tired of my devices. It’s hard to focus on reading. TV is too emotional. You know what’s emotional in a good way? Eating banana bread. Every night, Kevin and I have some banana bread, and every few days I make more banana bread. Banana bread is my happy place right now. It’s important to have some little thing to look forward to.

I do familiar things. When there isn’t a pandemic, I have an office outside my house that’s a mile away. My walk there and back is part of my daily routine. These days, I’m working from home, but I still take a daily walk. At first, when the pandemic started, I looked upon it as an opportunity to explore the neighborhoods around my house in other directions. And then I started to notice that my walks were most centering and anxiety-soothing when I took my regular, everyday walk, the one that goes by my office. So that’s become my daily walk again. Too many things are new and unknown right now. When I can, I keep my routines familiar.

I take news breaks and/or curate my news intake. The problem with taking news breaks is that constantly checking the news gives you this frequent hit of adrenaline and (unfounded) hope, then when you stop checking the news, that hit goes away, and you realize how tired and sad you are. But tired and sad is the honest truth right now, and sometimes acknowledging the truth can be relieving. Especially since certain parts of the news are triggering to me. I have very limited capacity for the voice, face, and stupid, asinine announcements of our president. So I put myself on a news break fairly often — or limit myself to news that doesn’t make things worse.

I pursue reasons to laugh. Do you know the newscaster, Andrew Cotter, who has no news to cast, therefore he’s been tweeting newscasts of regular things happening in the world around him? When’s the last time you laughed?

I call my doctor for pain, and I medicate. Even though there’s a pandemic, if you have a medical problem, you get to call your doctor right now. I talked to mine for a few minutes the other day about my pain, and she prescribed me some muscle relaxants. I also have a benzodiazepine (antianxiety medication) that I use occasionally. Benzos can be habit-forming, so you need to be careful, but they are one of life’s blessings on bad days. A note here that a lot of people think there’s something shameful about medicating for anxiety or other psychological problems. In fact, I grew up in such a culture. As someone who’s lived on both sides, I can promise you that this attitude is judgmental and unhelpful. Thoughtful use of medication is a form of self-care. Don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed if medication is one of the tools in your toolbox.

I make Skype appointments with my therapist and I do not cancel them. Skype therapy leaves something to be desired; almost everything about social contact during a pandemic leaves something to be desired. But my marvelous therapist is an important part of my support team, and even if I’m tired, grouchy, hate my computer, and would rather pretend to myself that I’m fine, I am going to call on my support team right now.

I cry. Not everyone can cry when they want to, and not everyone finds crying helpful. But I’ve always been a crier; I’ve always known crying is a strength, not a weakness (as our society likes to make us think). Every few days, I’ve been having a good cry. Remember to hydrate if you’re crying!

I notice/pay attention to anxieties that are new, and remind myself that I’ll recover from them. I’ve noticed that my body has internalized the message that groups of people are dangerous. I am pretty sure that once this pandemic is over and we are allowed to go out in the world again, my body is going to be a little slow to catch on. I imagine Kevin and me driving to a party and having to pull the car over briefly because I’m panicking. I imagine needing to leave the party early. I imagine this happening a few times… until my body has been through it often enough that it can readjust to a new understanding of what is safe. I know from experience that bodies adjust. Until they adjust, it’s uncomfortable, exhausting, painful — it can be awful. But if this is one of your current worries, please know that it doesn’t have to be a permanent cage.

I follow my epic, anxious meltdown to its source. This is the most upsetting step on my list, because here’s the thing: On the rare occasions I have a meltdown, it’s largely because legitimately unjust and terrible things are happening. Yes, part of the reason the president, for example, can cause me a meltdown is because he’s a lot like someone who hurt me a long time ago. This is one of the classic symptoms of PTSD: when shadows of your past trauma arise, the past trauma can come back to you full-force. So maybe this is at play a little bit when the president sends me into a tailspin. But the truth is, this particular symptom doesn’t happen to me that much anymore. I’ve worked really hard to recover from my past, and I’m at a point in my healing where I’m pretty good at separating a present reality from my past. These days, shadows hardly ever cause me meltdowns.

The president is able to trigger me now because he is actually a traumatic human being. I flip out because he is actually dangerous and terrifying. I’m not flipping out about my past; I’m flipping out about him. And he has always been an agent of destruction and hate. He hurts the immigrants we’re meant to be protecting; he incites racist violence; he makes sexually violent jokes about women. Well, now, in this pandemic, he has a whole new way to hurt people. A whole new topic about which to lie, posture, preen, behave like a toddler, make it about him, and not care whom it hurts. If my past experience is contributing in any way to my response to this person, it’s by giving me a crystal-clear view of what he is, and an immediate, gut understanding of how much psychological damage he is capable of.

It’s better to acknowledge the danger than pretend it’s not happening. Unfortunately, here and now, that means acknowledging dark truths. People define trauma in a lot of different ways, and it’s up to the affected person to decide whether they identify as being traumatized. But if you are finding yourself traumatized right now by the consequences of his decisions, that is 100% valid. If you are traumatized by his very existence — because how can someone so damaging be so powerful and be allowed to throw pain around without consequences to himself? — that’s also 100% valid. I also suspect that some people who believe in him today will realize someday what he was and how much harm he caused. That realization — of how badly and how long they were fooled — may be traumatic to them.

The part of my response to him that’s potentially irregular is the anxiety trap. Not everyone who sees a terrible evil is necessarily going to enter a state of physical anxiety so elevated, they can’t figure out how to get out of it. But some people will. Honestly, it’s hard for me to see it as irregular or irrational. Why shouldn’t it be rational to shut down when something is horrifyingly unthinkable? But I do like to avoid a meltdown when I can, because it’s too consuming while it’s happening. Therapy has helped me with the process of learning to deal with this, tremendously. A pandemic is a great time to look into getting therapy :o). Therapy can be expensive; there may be resources near you that make it less so. In fact, one of my loved ones who’s a mental health professional just informed me that some USA insurers are currently waiving co-pays for services including mental health — it might be worth contacting your insurer to see if they’re doing so. In case it’s helpful, here’s a list, alphabetical by insurer, of policy changes during the pandemic.

I give myself a break. There are times during this pandemic when I just can’t. Can’t anything. I need to get under the covers and not think or talk or do anything. I’m privileged to be able to do this; I don’t have children or other dependents, I’m not a healthcare worker on the front lines, if I get under the covers, nothing bad happens to anyone. But whenever you possibly can during this time, give yourself a break. Don’t expect too much of yourself. Allow yourself to be unable to function. Allow yourself to be cheerless and hopeless, if that’s how you feel. Forgive yourself.


I really, badly hope something there is helpful for someone.

One more things before I go. If this pandemic passes, but you notice that you or someone you care for is still struggling a lot… seek help. This situation is creating anxiety, PTSD, and other kinds of psychological suffering in people all around us. Here’s some information about what causes PTSD and how to recognize it. Guardians and caretakers in particular — you can’t prevent the stress of this time from negatively impacting your kids. It’s not your fault if they are struggling with reality, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. But they are going to need you to see their reality, step up, meet their needs, and support them. And don’t forget yourself! Get the care that you need too. Talk to your doctors and schools and look into therapy support around you. Therapy can be expensive, but there are organizations that try to make it affordable; maybe there’s one near you.


Hang in there, everyone. You’re exhausted, anxious, and sad because you try hard and you care. Until next time — ♥ ♥ ♥

Future banana bread.

Just Checking In

Well, hi there, everyone.

It’s hard to know where to begin, isn’t it? I’m just going to dive in, because I want to reach out, share some pictures, be distracting for a few minutes, and hopefully make some of you feel less alone.

I am thinking of all of you, every one of you, and hoping you are okay. Knowing that a lot of you aren’t, and wishing that weren’t the case. I am okay. Or rather, in the words of the immortal Anne (of Green Gables), “I am well in body although considerably rumpled up in spirit.” The people of my life are also okay. Tonight I am dashing off this blog post before disappearing into the kitchen to make some banana bread. Two weeks ago (it feels like months ago), Kevin and I were simultaneously hit with a dreadful and violent bout of food poisoning, and for a week afterwards, all I could eat was applesauce, rice, broth, and bananas. Then suddenly, my appetite returned, and since generally I am not a human who voluntarily eats a banana, a number of bananas have since been growing increasingly offensive in our kitchen. However, I do voluntarily eat banana bread! Unfortunately, the other morning when Kevin made some pancakes, he discovered that our baking powder expired in 2013 (How is this possible? Surely we have baked many times since 2013?). Though I found the pancakes to be perfect, he considered them to be less fluffy than he’d hoped. Knowing that I would be making banana bread sometime soon, I suggested he pick up some baking powder the next time he went to the store. Ha! So naive! Of course there was no baking powder to be had at the store. So I climbed onto a stool and shuffled determinedly through our cabinets. Success! I found some baking powder that expired in 2017. Banana bread is back on the menu. But I must begin it soon, because I no longer have the energy or the emotional fortitude to stay up until midnight.

There are a lot of ways in which Kevin and I are less impacted by this pandemic than other people. He’s an indie game developer, self-employed, and was already working from home; my own writing deadlines aren’t impacted by the pandemic, so I have work to keep me distracted. In fact, I’ve almost finished the final revision of my next book, soon to go into copyediting. I used to be excited for the day I got to tell you all about this book, but now I’m guessing it doesn’t matter much. Though maybe, whenever I get the green light to talk about it, it will make some of you happy to know what I’ve been working on. I would like to be able to make someone happy right now.

I have an office outside the home where I can, in fact, self-isolate, but when the shelter-in-place order came down in Massachusetts, we moved me home. It involved lugging home a table; a chair; a computer; my fancy printer; every size, shape and color of pen, post-it note, and index card imaginable; many piles of crap; and many plants. Inconceivably, this was only two days ago! It feels like weeks ago.

In the interest of comfort and continuity, I even brought home my favorite office mug (from Svalbard) and my office slippers. Every morning, when it’s time to write, I change out of my home slippers into my office slippers. Then I change back again when my writing day is over.


I now write in this window

and do computer work in this corner.

And I try not to check the news every minute. And every morning, I plan my schedule for the day ahead with great strictness, because I have a lot of work to do, but it can be hard to focus. Incidentally, if you live somewhere other than the USA and you are looking at our country right now and thinking, “Wow, their government’s handling of this crisis is a total shit show,” you are correct. Then again, you are probably not surprised. Although one does occasionally think there should be limits to how badly a person can behave and how much he can screw everything up — shouldn’t there? Alas. There are not.

Which reminds me that I also brought home my favorite decoration from the office:

This sublime Emily Dickinson line is from a letter Emily wrote to her friend Elizabeth Holland. The image is a greeting card painted by Pamela Zagarenski.

The smelly bananas are calling! My heart is with all of you, all over the world. Stay well, everyone, and don’t forget: Being brave feels like being scared. Being strong feels like being too overwhelmed to cope. You are brave and strong.

The Dreams I Dream

I have, and have always had, the wildest, most vivid dreams when I’m sleeping. Some of them are hilarious in retrospect and I wake up laughing, then laugh at them all day long. Some of them are terrifying and horrible. I might share my dreams with a few people, but for the most part, I keep them to myself, because dream reports can be tedious.

BUT. I need to share the dream I had last night.

Last night, I had a dream that I had a dream that I had a very dramatic dream I somehow figured out how to record on my phone like a movie, then text to Kevin (my husband), so that he could see my dramatic dream.

Hang on. Let me start over. I’m going to start with the dream inside the dream inside the dream. (I think?)

I have a dream. While dreaming, I record the dream and text it to Kevin. He’ll be amazed! But wait! Won’t he also be confused? It’s impossible to record dreams! Kevin will think this is a movie I filmed, with me as the main character and with clearly expensive production values, without telling him!!! He won’t understand it’s a dream! How terrible, to think of Kevin confused by my text! Wake up!

↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓

I wake up. I realize it was only a dream that I recorded a dream and texted it to Kevin. Of course it was! Because that would be impossible. Phew! I go to the store to buy some stew meat for dinner. They’re out of stew meat, and anyway, I hate to cook, because I get distracted and burn things. Why am I at the store? What am I going to do if they don’t have any stew meat? This is terrible! Wake up!

↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓

I wake up (in reality). I realize that I dreamed that I dreamed that I dreamed a dream that I recorded and texted to Kevin. I have not texted Kevin anything confusing. Kevin is making dinner tonight, as usual. I am safe. WHEW!!!

And that was my dream. Later, when I tried to explain it to my sisters over text, I got confused and realized I needed a chart. I’m pretty sure this is the first dream I have ever had to chart.

I think I’m awake now? That shoveling I did this morning sure felt real…

Happy Monday, everyone :o)

In Which the Author Knits a Winter Blanket

About a year ago, I finished knitting a blanket that was a gift for someone else and realized I missed its pieces piled up in my lap. I decided it was time to knit a blanket for myself :o). Wanting something cheerful for the cold, dark months, I chose this free pattern at Lion Brand…. and got started.

First I collected my colors.

This blanket is knitted in three parts: the reds and oranges in one big triangular corner; the yellows and greens in a stripe across the center; and the blues and purples in another triangular corner.

The pieces are worked in intarsia colorwork. This means that most of the time, I was actively knitting with more than one color, which I admit can become a bit of a tangled headache. Below, I’m knitting the center stripe in three different greens and one yellow, and I have all four colors attached to my needle at the same time.

When I went to a writing retreat last February, half my suitcase was full of my blanket :o)

Below, I’ve knitted the red/orange triangle and the yellow/green center strip, and am just starting the  purple/blue triangle. All five of those purplish balls of yarn are attached to my needle as I work. Constant tangles! But pretty colors.

I had a bit of a hiccup at this point in the process, because after working for MONTHS, I discovered that I’d knitted my purple/blue corner piece much, more more tightly than my red/orange corner piece — which meant it was far too small to fit with the other blanket pieces. Why did I do that? Because I was in the middle of a really difficult revision with a stressful deadline. When I’m relaxed, I knit loosely. When I’m stressed, I knit tightly. SIGH. I had to take it all out and start again. I was so depressed about this that I put the whole project aside for the entire summer!

Then, this fall, I started up again.  
Below, you can see the three completed pieces lined up on the floor.

 I attached them together, then, on the advice of several sages, chose yellow as the border color. All done!

I”m ready for winter.

In Which a Zebra Unicorn Is Creepier Than Anticipated!

This year’s Halloween costume involved less preparation than usual. I’ll be honest, I’m still recovering from the year I dressed up as a library. My goal this year was something creative yet simple to assemble.
I glitter-striped a unicorn horn and made myself some ears…
Then attached them to a Cruella deVil style black-and-white wig.
I figured a zebra unicorn wears something sparkly and striped, right?
Nothing odd about this dress… *cough*
And this is when things got intense. The plan all along was to study the way stripes sit on a zebra’s face, then paint that pattern on my own face to create something magical. But it turned out SO CREEPY!
 Creepy’s okay with me, though.
Click on any picture to embiggen/get a more focused view.
Till next year! :o)

Come to BostonFIG Fest This Weekend!

The Boston Festival of Independent Games, BostonFIG Fest, is on Saturday, at the Harvard Athletic Complex in Allston.

Local people, if you’re interested in the best new indie games, whether tabletop or digital, you should come! And when you do, stop by Kevin’s booth to visit Kevin and his indie game, Starcom: Nexus. I’ll be there too, being Helpful. Come say hi! :o)

The Arctic Circle: Arctic Critters

Nemo was the most important critter on our Arctic journey aboard the Antigua, of course. Here, he’s closely tracking our progress through the Arctic seas.

Svalbard reindeer. In this picture, our guide, Kristin, is keeping very quiet and still, being careful not to spook them. In case anyone is getting the wrong idea, the rifle on her back is solely for the purpose of protecting us artists from polar bears.

This little seal was so curious about our Zodiac and kept swimming around us!

The white crescents in this picture are the backs of beluga whales.

We watched these walruses for a long time… And some of them slipped into the water to get a better look at us!

Oh hi.

Does lichen count as a critter? :o)

What about fossil imprints of long-gone critters?

More reindeer.

Good camouflage!

Here is something we encountered over and over and over again. Tracks of polar bears who’d passed through recently. The prints were shockingly gigantic.

It’s tiring work being in charge.

We also saw a lot of animals that were impossible to photograph, in particular, an Arctic fox. The animal sightings were frequent and always special. Most of the time, I tried to take a few pictures, but then I reminded myself to put my camera down and enjoy. Consequently, this is only a hint of what we saw, but I hope it gives a nice sense of things.

If you’re coming late to my report from my journey aboard a tall ship in the Arctic Circle last fall and want to see more, just search for “Arctic Circle” in the search box on my blog!

Guess Where I Just Was

There were over 245,000 people at this place on the day we were there. Kevin was more calm about this fact than I was.

You could probably take out your globe and figure it out from this picture. If you really wanted to :o).

Two dollars for all-you-can-drink milk. (Yuck!)

Fried pickles. (Fried everything else, too.)

This building is called Sheep. (Subtitle Dairy Goats.)

Standing is hard, guys!

In another building, displays of prize-winning flowers.

Kevin was extremely patient while I took pictures of basically every single flower. I LOVED the flowers!



Have you guessed yet?

Where can one find prize-winning vegetables, and this veterinarian holding a piglet?

You guessed it. Kevin and I had lots of fun Sunday at the Minnesota State Fair.

Hi, my dear readers! I know I haven’t been blogging lately, despite having a lot to share – including more Arctic pictures, from the trip that was almost a year ago at this point! These days, the amount I blog is inversely proportional to how intensely I’m working on the next book. This is good news for those of you waiting for my next book, but I am sorry about the lack of blogging :o). I’ve made a promise to myself to blog some pictures of Arctic critters soon. Stay tuned.