Why I Write

I live a fairly quiet life. I go about my business in small ways, connecting only with a small number of people. I don’t feel limited by this smallness in any way. Instead, my life feels safe and manageable. But every so often, my small, quiet life becomes larger and quite loud, which is what happened this past year with the publication of my first book. 

Tweets. Facebook posts. An online interview. Visits to bookstores, conventions, and schools. It felt as if my life grew three sizes overnight. No, it wasn’t the Today Show or NPR, and thank goodness it wasn’t because that would have probably left me balled up in a corner somewhere. “And next, we have Mandy Davis author of Superstar,” Terry Gross would say. “Wait…is that Mandy crouched under the snack table, stuffing her face with Cool Ranch Doritos?” Three sizes, I could handle. Thirteen, I could not.

It’s all about small steps—just like with writing. You don’t write a novel in a week or do a complete revision in a month. Well, maybe some people do. But I am slow. I need time to think and adjust and get comfortable. Someone once told me the publishing world moves at a snail’s pace, and thank goodness for that. Maybe the slowness is one reason why I enjoy this whole being-an-author thing so much. 

But the slowness isn’t why I write.

I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about why I do things and the question of why I write is one I return to over and over again. For a long time, when someone would ask me this question (or when I would explore it myself), the answer would come, not in words, but in the form of a feeling—a standing-on-top-of-a-mountain feeling or a sitting-around-a-campfire feeling or a staring-up-into-a-perfectly-clear-night-sky feeling. I knew what it felt like but hadn’t yet found the words to describe it. 

Enter Brené Brown.

And Oprah.

It was August 2015. My mom and I had driven down to Nashville for Brené’s Rising Strong day, and oh what a day it was. The presentations. The insights. The meet and greet where I totally got to invade Brené’s personal space and pretend like we were besties for the slightly blurry photo op above. (But I mean, blurry or not, that’s me and Brené, people. ME AND BRENÉ!) Little did I know the real magic of the day would happen after my mom and I had returned to our hotel room. We talked late into the night, then finally agreed that if we didn’t get some sleep, we’d never be able to stay awake for the long drive home the following day. 

But I couldn’t sleep, not with my brain and heart buzzing like it was. I felt open and receptive and ready. For what? I wasn’t quite sure. But I knew it wasn’t sleep. 

In the bag we’d been given at the beginning of the day was the most recent copy of O, The Oprah Magazine. My mom used to subscribe to O, and every time I picked one up, I always began at the end with Oprah’s “What I Know for Sure” section. So, when I opened the magazine all those years later, that’s exactly where I went. This month Oprah wrote about the power of storytelling. It felt as if she had written the article specifically for me. I won’t recount it all here, but it ended with this gorgeous sentence: “That’s the power of words—of a story told so well, you’re enlarged by its meaning.”

Enlarged by its meaning. 

Those were the words I’d been waiting for, the words that would help me set a purpose for all my future writing projects and work (including the one you’re reading right now).

When I was growing up, I looked to my future, and like so many other bright-eyed idealists, I decided I wanted to change the world. Back then, changing the world meant helping people (by changing them). Through no lack in trying, I’ve learned that you can’t actually change other people. You can offer support and kindness and even guidance if you want to. But people will always make their own choices. We only change when we’re ready. And even then, making specific changes can be extremely challenging. I have quite of bit of experience in this area.

A single experience (or piece of writing) rarely changes my life. What it can do, though, is expand my world view. And depending on what I’ve already experienced, a single moment may be the key that finally opens up inside me a different way of thinking, feeling, or being. That’s why I love the idea that words have the power to enlarge us. For me, writing something with the power to affect someone, to enlarge someone, is a much more manageable (and meaningful) goal than trying to change the world. 

The amazing thing is though, whenever we’re affected by something on a deep level, seeds are planted. When enough of these little seeds mature, we do begin to change. When enough of us have changed, the world begins to change right along with us. 

When I started grad school and began working toward my MFA in writing for kids, I remember mentioning to others how I believed that the purpose of books was to teach young people lessons. As a former teacher, I tended to see books as vehicles of learning. I felt so naive when other more seasoned writers explained that as authors our loyalties must lie in the story itself, not with its eventual outcomes. So I focused on craft and process, lessons which definitely have served me well. But after almost a decade of writing, even though I am still fiercely loyal to the integrity of my stories, I’ve once again grown to see my words as vehicles of learning. 

When I write anything, a book or a blog post or a speech even, I endeavor to feel the story at every turn. When a story is grounded in human emotion, the experience of reading becomes elevated. We’re not just reading anymore; we’re experiencing. We’re sharing these deeply personal moments as we accompany a character or narrator on her journey. And soon we realize it’s not just her journey anymore. It’s ours, too. 

Along the way, we definitely learn things. About the world, yes. But more importantly, about ourselves. We feel things too, and come to see ourselves in another (and see another in ourselves). And by the time we come to that final sentence, we are enlarged.

Almost every time I sit down in my quiet little room, in my quiet little corner of the world, and spend time with my words, it happens. I develop this sense that I am somehow more than I was. The act of writing does that for me. 

And my goal, my mission, my hope is that in some small way, my words will do that for you, as well.

The One Who Retreated

I hiked alone today. Not alone alone. There were the people who threw a stick in the river and the dog who jumped in after it. The woven-poncho wearing twenty-somethings who were disappointed they couldn’t actually enter the old abandoned mine. The grandma, the granddaughter, and the little girl’s young mother who never stopped talking. The girls carrying fluorescent hula hoops. The couple in galoshes. The man with the country music blaring from his backpack. I wasn’t exactly alone.

But I was.

Today was the second day of my solo retreat at Turkey Run State Park, a retreat I’d planned in an attempt to get a bunch of writing done on my novel, and to, you know, fix my life and stuff. I’m not exactly sure what wisdom or clarity I expected to gain in a day and a half, but whatever it was, I wasn’t getting it. I didn’t feel any better at all. In fact, I felt the same. Or maybe even worse. And if I wasn’t feeling better here, if getting away from regular life wasn’t fixing my problems, then what was the point in staying? I should probably just pack my stuff and leave early, like first thing tomorrow morning.

Forgetting to Wear Pants (and Other Scary Things)

The other day Tony and I were talking about a woman he used to know who reminded him of Lorelei Gilmore (from the show Gilmore Girls). He described this woman as both looking a little like Lorelei and possessing her same breezy optimism.

“I wish I had breezy optimism,” I said.” You know, instead of…debilitating fear.”

We both burst out laughing. If you’ve ever thought much about humor, you know that juxtaposing two starkly contrasting ideas can be funny. So can being unexpectedly blunt—especially when what you’re saying is absolutely true.

What I Do with It All

I’m never prepared for January. After coasting through the holidays, sugarcoated and filled with the warmth of familiar movies, game nights, and a twinkle-light-covered world, I blink my eyes and January’s suddenly upon me full of all this newness and possibility. I’ve heard that some people actually find this time of year exciting. And sometimes, I follow them onto the resolution-making, goal-setting, this-is-gonna-be-the-year-that-I-finally-____________ bandwagon. But I don’t usually stay there long. January is too cold and too dark and too sad a month to be moving forward so quickly. So, I end up back on the couch wrapped in a quilt (or two) and petting a cat (or two).

January isn’t an inherently sad month for most people. But for me, the middle of January holds the memories of a death and a life I once shared. His name was Ed, and over the course of his time on earth, he was many things. A computer programmer. A gamer. A stargazer. A martial artist. A son. A brother. A dear, dear friend. And for a time, he was my husband.

On Special Needs Squirrels and Characters

 

A couple of months ago, a new squirrel came around. He was a bit larger than some of the teen squirrels we had darting about our yard. He moved more slowly too. Then, I saw why. There was something wrong with his left, front paw. It hung there, bent and limp, as he hobbled across the grass.

I immediately extrapolated his life out about three months when there would be a foot of snow on the ground and weeks at a time of subzero temperatures. Minnesota winters are not kind to anyone, much less a squirrel with special needs. I wanted to help him. But what could I do? If I put out food for him, the other squirrels would get it first. I couldn’t bring him inside because of my cats. (And because my mom told me that it’s not a great idea to keep wild animals as pets.) So, I stared outside, knowing that life was only going to get harder for this little guy.

All the Good

Last night, I didn’t attend an election party or sit glued to the TV watching a map turn red and blue. Uncertainty is especially hard for me, and by now in my life, I know how much I can handle. So, I spent the evening doing normal Tuesday night things. By about 9:30 though, I needed to know something. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the news I was hoping for.

I wanted Hillary Clinton to be our first woman president, but that wasn’t why I voted for her. From her tweets to her speeches to her very life itself, it seemed evident that her main goal was to make life better for others, for the people and populations she served. I know it’s a vague sentiment—making life better for others—but this outward focus of good is something that never seemed to be as important to the man who is going to be our next president. Instead, he focused on the idea of America becoming great again, as if there was some moment in the past when we were great but now we’ve somehow failed in the greatness department.

When I look at America, I see a country of people who are sometimes struggling and often afraid, but I also see a country of people who are doing the best they can in the best ways they know how. Like I am. Like my friends are. Like my family is—both the Clinton and Trump supporters alike.

A Cover for Lester!!!

Meet Lester! He’s a smart, funny ten-year-old kid with big ideas and an even bigger heart. And in the summer of 2017, he’ll be coming to a bookstore near you.

I first met Lester about a year and a half ago, which feels weird to say because at that point, I’d been writing his story for over six years. But until that snowy January morning when I received the initial cover art, I hadn’t ever really seen his face.