I am just about finished reading Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has Time, and over the course of its pages, I have had many responses, stretching across a broad range of emotions. At the top of all the reactions was, HOLY COW, THIS WOMAN CAN WRITE. Schulte has made me realize why, in this age of disappearing newsprint and byte-sized reporting, a young person might decide to go into journalism. Because Overwhelmed IS journalism, the kind of quality investigation and prose that made me, a person who often struggles with nonfiction reading, continue to pick up this book over the very excellent novel in which I am simultaneously turning pages. And, in one of the very few times I have ever felt this way about a nonfiction book, I am pretty darned crushed and disappointed that this is the only (although hopefully just the first) book that Schulte has published. Because, frankly, I want more of the questions she asks, of the research she collects, and of the exquisite prose she crafts.

Another strong response has been that I am obviously not as cynical as I thought, because–as I read the book–I was beset, over and over and over again, but a heart-compressing, mind-exploding rage. Schulte did thorough research for this project, and she includes a lot of it in the book. Research about law suits that women have had to file, lawsuits about being discriminated against for getting pregnant, for having children, for making family-based choices. Still, in 2014. F*ing still. Okay, logically, rationally, if you’d asked me if this kind of thing were still going on, I’d have said, yes, of course, duh, because I am a cynic. But apparently my heart isn’t. Because I am angry, hurt, disgusted. Yes, the book has been a bit of an eye-opener. I’m not sure what/if anything I will do with this new vision, but it’s better to get it than not. My awareness, at least, has been broadened.

I spent some time while reading and in the spaces between reading thinking once again about Feminism. I am a feminist and, as far back as I can remember, have always been. You don’t grow up a non-feminist when your mother who was one of the first female vet students at UC Davis and your father as a man who considered himself incredibly to have met and married someone who wanted to build a veterinary practice with him, as partners. For me, feminism is a no-brainer. That said, I’m not naive enough to think that everybody agrees on a single definition of the word, or identifies with it in exactly the same way. What I kept thinking as I read Overwhelmed was, do I see this as a work of feminism. I think that Schulte’s primary focus in the book is her research about working women with children and the way in which their lives can and do get out of balance, whether from an outside perspective or their own or both. It makes sense that this should be Schulte’s angle, because it was in this scenario that she found herself basically drowning in, as she calls it, “the overwhelm.” However, I also think that Schulte recognized for herself and recognizes in the book that the overwhelm hits all of us, women without children, women with children who choose to stay home or work from home, men with children and men without children. She delves into work styles of individual and companies; she explores social and individual influences and drivers; she shares her own personal stories and stories of others–men, women, corporations, and governments–all of whom who are trying to find their way. So, yes, I think this book is a feminist book, both with its slant toward the frustration and imbalances still around for women today, but also in the sense that feminism is–at its root–about equality and not giving up on our fights, all of our fights, to achieve it.

And the last big response was the way in which I found myself reading for clues to and ideas about my own overwhelm. Frankly, I think I’m pretty good at leisure. With my reading addiction and my high-level of introversion, I do make plenty of time for curling up with a book and letting myself do just and only that. It’s my recharge time, and I take it. I also don’t have particularly high standards of house-cleaning, cooking, or filling my family’s days and weekends with a long list of activities. And there’s a chapter on play, which adults (women more than men) tend to leave behind with childhood. I’m thinking about this one, but again–my preferred play as a child WAS reading, and I certainly haven’t left that behind. I’m not sure I need to take the trapeze swinging class that Schulte got herself, too, but I can watch for opportunities that make a ping in my brain and see if I want to pursue them. (Seriously, a half-hour or so with Barbie and her camper might do it). So, basically, I’m feeling pretty okay.

EXCEPT…”contaminated time.” I don’t have the book at hand to give you the exact definition, but contaminated time is essentially those minutes (hours?) that we are ostensibly at leisure, but in which our brains are still looping around the to-do list, or future choices we have to make, or questions about whether a past issue is truly resolved and put to bed. And, oh, yes, I do that. Contaminated time is why I go to yoga classes and why I have started meditating and listening to dharma talks. And, yes, the studies Schulte researched do pretty much show that contaminated time is more of a problem for women than for men. Which I believe. Again, I haven’t sat down and decided which, if any steps, I want to take to reduce the contamination of my time. But it’s another place that Schulte has me looking at myself, at my goals, and at what I might want to do differently to achieve them.

When I heard Schulte talk about her book to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, I knew I wanted to read it. But I think I was expecting something like a very well-written, even humorous self-help book. Which I wish there were more of. That is not what I got. And I’m glad. Because Schulte’s research and writing took me out of looking for a quick-fix solution for myself and brought me back into touch with what is such a varied and yet common reality for so many of us. For so many of us women, yes, but also for so many men. She got me thinking in a different way. And that’s always good.


Friday Five: A Good Week

Tallying up the nice things that happened this week:

1. We had one day of rain. February in Northern California is usually The Month of Rain. And wind. And power outages. And trees falling. This was slightly more than a light drizzle, and then it disappeared. I’m seriously torn between wishing we’d get a good storm–because we need it–and totally enjoying this weather that is so Not Winter.

Okay, not completely torn. I am wearing shorts today.

2. I made it to three yoga classes in a row. No, not all in one day, but on three consecutive days. Last night, I tell you, that didn’t seem like such a good thing. I definitely pushed myself into the Overdone-It category. (Who knew ALL THREE TEACHERS would have us do lunges!) This morning, though, after a great night’s sleep, I feel fantastic. And only partly because I have designated today a well-earned day of rest.

3. I got Son reading Chris Moriarty’s The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, which I knew he’d love, and which he IS loving. Now I just have to find somewhere around here that I can buy a knish for him to try.

4. For this week, anyway, I got the pile of to-do’s under what seems to be some kind of control and got time into work projects AND fiction. On schedule today to finish up my secondary characters. Then…How to Turn Your MC’s Mother into a Truly Awful, Yet Sympathetic, Bad Guy.

5. I signed a contract. A book contract.

It’s for one book in a new series from Capstone Press, and it’s my first step down a path I’ve been wanting to get on for a while–writing NF kids’ books for educational publishers. Almost better than signing the contract (okay, not really) has been getting started on the research and outlining–it’s a totally different kind of thinking and writing from the fiction. The best way I can describe it is that it’s  like pulling your own, personal jigsaw pieces out of a pile that someone randomly tossed onto the table. And making sure the pieces are both true and intriguing. And then, yes, creating the puzzle itself at the same time. This may be the place where right-brain and left-brain thinking come together, at least for me.

All in all, an excellent week. What’s been the star in your past seven-days?

A Little Snippet on Writing Nonfiction for Kids

News Flash: I am no expert in this genre. But it’s one I’m trying to stretch myself into, another curve I’m trying to include on my writing path. So you’re going to get bits & pieces about it here, as I work along and figure out the process.

The last few weeks I’ve been working on some samples to send out to one or more publishers, hoping what I write will click with someone there. To get started, I bought a few books of the type I’m trying to write, and I spent some time reading & analyzing, breaking down what kind of information they share and how they deliver it. Then I started writing.

I’ve got the first book nearly finished–I need to come back to it and do some last revision. This book was an animal one–fits into the science category for very young children. We’re talking a sentence or two a page–short sentences. With active verbs and strong words that, mostly, will fit into a young reader’s palette. Challenging. And fun.

The one I’m working on now is a biography, for older kids, which I have to say is my real love. This was the kind of nonfiction I devoured when I was young–the series biographies that opened a tiny window into another life, another time. The kind that had me tying grass on my father’s fruit trees to act out Luther Burbank’s grafting technique (Note that I did not become a biologist.) and “building” phonographs out of binder paper and scotch tape after reading about Thomas Edison (Note that I also did not become an engineer.). Anyway, I had recently read a wonderful grown-up biography of someone who felt like an ideal subject, and I’m now in the process of picking and choosing eentsy-weentsy, intriguing details from that book, ones that will show the big picture about this man to a young reader who, today, is a lot like I was then.

And I’m loving it.

The reading, the research, the weaving is so different from doing the same for fiction. Which, yes, I also love, but…I don’t find particularly relaxing. Researching for fiction seems to be a matter of looking for the information you already know you need–hoping it’ll fit into your plot and then, if it doesn’t, grappling with your plot again to make the reality and the story come together. Or looking and looking and not finding the details you need. Still.

With the nonfiction, I find myself reading in a more open kind of way, antennae out for the thing that makes me say, “Yes! That’ll get them!” The part of the story that is fascinating, that might tie up with something a young teen is already interested in, or that will intrigue them enough to start them thinking about something new. And then finding the word, the exactly right words, to share it with them. It feels a much more relaxed process, at least for me, more like finding the puzzle piece that really goes in that spot, less like trying to press one in that might very well belong somewhere else.

Relaxing. Some people, I know, find the constraints of word counts and vocabulary limiting and restrictive. And I can see that. I don’t know that I could do it full-time, without giving myself the room to go beyond them in my fiction. But…as another layer to my world of writing, I love this puzzle time. I guess it’s something like taking a cookie mold and a huge bowl of batter, pouring the batter into the mold and getting something like this.

With lines that clear and precise.

How about you? Is there one kind of writing that you do most of the time and another that you do less frequently? One that adds contrast and maybe, in some way, gives you a breather from the norm? Leave a comment and let us hear about it.

Reading (and Writing) Nonfiction: Amy Butler Greenfield’s A PERFECT RED

Yesterday, I picked up a book I’ve been wanting to check out–Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire. I started reading, got hooked, and realized something about myself.

I now read nonfiction. For pleasure.

In the past year, between working on the nonfiction sections of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide and doing research for my historical YA, I seem to have undergone a transformation. I was someone who did notread nonfiction (other than memoir) by choice, who figured she’d untrained her brain by immersing herself so happily in four+ decades of novels. And then I was reading to find excerpts for my book and reading to learn more about settlement houses and the suffrage movement and…bam! I was changed.

I picked up Amy’s book for two reasons: 1)I know her from the blogs and love her posts and 2)I thought the subject sounded really interesting. In other words, I chose to read a nonfiction book that had nothing to do with my own work–just for fun.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m still VERY picky and get SERIOUSLY irritated with writers who drone on and on, giving me lists of dry facts and try to show me, in that long-winded academicy voice, that they’ve done their research and they are proving their thesis, so don’t argue with them, please. (Yes, pet peeve, sorry!) But I’m also finding out what makes good nonfiction, like Amy’s. Here’s what I’m seeing that makes me happy.

  • A goal for the book. No, the author doesn’t have to tell me that goal, any more than a novelist has to explain their purpose. But I’d better sense that the author had a REASON for writing this book, that they have a point to make–not just to educate me, but because they care so much about that point, find it so fascinating, that they HAVE to share.
  • A sense of conflict. In a how-to, this means that the author recognizes the problems their readers are facing; that they understand the push-pull tension of that problem and know how badly their readers want to find a solution. In history, this means finding the drama of the past, not just the information.
  • Concrete, specific details. Fiction writers struggle with summary versus scene, telling versus showing. In the nonfiction I was trying to read years ago, most of those authors lost that struggle. In good nonfiction, the author has picked just a few, perfect, strong details to pull you into their world, to make you part of it. In self-help, this may be with a well-chosen and well-drawn anecdote, or a skillfully created exercise that makes the reader feel as though that exercise is for them. For their problem. In history, this skill shows up when the author has waded through a gazillion pages of facts and pinpointed the few that will help them paint their own concise, sharp pictures.
  • The book has a hero and an antagonist. In a memoir, the hero is the author, and the antagonist may be another person, a big event in the author’s life, or the author themselves. In a how-to, the hero is the reader and the antagonist is the problem they face and need to solve. I’m only a few pages into Amy’s book, so I haven’t yet identified who’s who in the main cast, but I know they’re there. It’s too exciting a read for them not to be.
  • Tight prose. A good nonfiction writer gets me lost in their words; a bad nonfiction writer gets me lost in their sentences. I want to be drawn in. I don’t want to start a sentence and have to go back to the beginning three times to remind myself what/who the subject is and play dot-to-dot to connect it up with the rest of the phrases (often four, five, or six of them) that finally take me to the period. One of my husband’s teachers once marked his paper with this note: “This paragraph has no period.” A good nonfiction writer knows to trim, trim, trim.

Okay, you’re seeing the pattern. Nonfiction has to tell me a story, as much as any novel I will ever pick up. It has to make me want to turn each page, make me resist putting down the book at bedtime, and make me procrastinate all other tasks so I can keep reading. This is what I want to read. And, yes, the transformation is working more deeply than that–I’m wanting to write this kind of nonfiction as well. I already have an idea for a picture book about two real women who were amazing enough in their own right, that I have no wish (or need) to fictionalize them in any way. And I want to write that book up to the standards I’ve just set out, the ones Amy shows so well in her book.

I’ll leave you with a little tidbit from her introduction, just to give you the first taste that will make you want more.

It was big news, then, when Spain’s conquistadors found the Aztecs selling an extraordinary dyestuff in the great market-places of Mexico in 1519. Calling the dyestuff cochinilla, or cochineal, the conquistadors shipped it back to Europe, where it produced the brightest, strongest red the Old World had ever seen….

The history of this mad race for cochineal is a window onto another world–a world in which red was rare and precious, a source of wealth and power for those who knew its secrets. To obtain it, men sacked ships, turned spy, and courted death.

This is their story.

Adventure tale, anyone? Dig in!

Voice in Nonfiction

As I was thinking about this post today, I realized I haven’t written that much specifically about nonfiction. Which is odd, since that’s the genre that’s taking up the bulk of my writing hours these days. Maybe I’m buried so deeply in it that I’m not thinking so much about it from the outside.

One thing that’s become extremely apparent to me as I write, though, is that voice is as critical (if not more) in nonfiction as in fiction.  You may not be shooting for the latest in “edginess” or a laugh-out-loud funniness, but you do have to make sure you’re capturing the reader and keeping them hooked.

Think about it this way. A writer of nonfiction, especially of a how-to or self-help book, is setting themselves up as a teacher. Now go back a bit in your memory to your school days–high school, college, grade school.

Think about the teachers with the boring voices. The monotone as they read from a text or recited a lecture from their notes. The voice that said they were up in the front of the room, yes, facing their students, but they could just as happily been talking to rows of empty desks. Got it? Visualizing it?

Okay–where did you want to be?

In a coffeehouse inhaling a big mug of caffeine. At home in bed, sleeping with your teddy bear. In Hawaii. Anywhere but in that classroom.

How much easier was it to stay awake and present for the teachers who were energetic, enthusiastic about their subject, and excited about sharing their take on it with you?

When you’re working on nonfiction, though, how do you achieve this goal? You’re not talking, you’re writing. You don’t have an audience to interact with; they’re all in your imagination. How do you translate your emotions and personality into printed pages?

I think you do it the same way you do it in fiction. Loosen up. Be more free with yourself, with your opinions, your values, and the perspective with which you approach your topic. No, don’t shove your way of doing things down your readers’ throats, as the onlyway, but make sure they know you believe in it. If you’re writing a book about caring for a pet, let your love of animals through. If your focus is accounting, put some energy into “speaking” as a knowledgeable and understanding expert, rather than as a pushy know-it-all.

Be yourself. No, don’t let all the grammar errors which we speak slide through, and don’t let yourself cross the line into gushing or scolding. But relax a bit, remember why you were excited about this project in the first place, and share that feeling with the reader.

They may still take off for Hawaii, but they’re a lot more likely to take the book along!