Too Much and Not Enough

Pinterest, Peers, and Pastel Ranges

For pennies a day, my husband and I sponsored a child through Compassion International, a Christian organization with charitable projects in third-world countries. This young boy wrote me letters, and I wrote back (inconsistently, I’m afraid). Sometimes, I sent him a few extra dollars for his birthday, and he sent me a Crayon-decorated note to tell me what he bought: a live chicken. For food.

It would help me, in my most shallow moments, to remember this.

But I forget that I already have enough when I’m browsing Pinterest pictures of remodeled houses painted all the right colors. Photos of kitchens with custom-made cabinets and retro ranges that come in a rainbow of pastels. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a nice kitchen. But my kitchen is nice enough.

I forget it when my friend shows me the new furniture in her sunroom makeover. When she fills a Lenox teacup from the built-in single-handle instant hot water dispenser, and I think, I need one of those. Need, my foot.

Clutter and the Need for Less

Recently, I read Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’, a beautifully-written, heart-breaking memoir and tribute to his mother, who “went eighteen years without a new dress so her sons could have school clothes.” And I recall my over-filled closet where the dresses hang so close, there’s no light between them.

Not that I disdain my possessions. I’m thankful for my clothes and furniture and food. I’m supremely thankful for a hard-working, generous husband, because this English Major isn’t exactly a money-making machine. I’m thankful for family members who have given us so much, relatives who grew up with Not Enough.

But for me, the scales between Too Much and Not Enough tip heavily to one side. And holding on to five black skirts, because, well, you never know when you might need five black skirts, is just a tad irrational.

Hobbes has a clutter problem.

A Zero-Sum Game

I’m no different from my little dog who isn’t hungry but stands sentry beside his food, growling, for HOURS, to keep the other dogs from eating it. While Calvin and Ollie are chasing toads and digging holes in the yard, Hobbes is shackled to his metal bowl.

I, too, am a captive of my clutter if I allow myself to be. As they say, everything you own, owns you. If, like Hobbes, I spend my limited time, energy and attention on superfluous possessions, I have less of those resources to spend on more important things, such as spirituality, people, or creative pursuits.

“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds.”  Thomas Merton

If I accumulate stuff motivated by (let’s call it what it is) envy, or a false sense of scarcity (rather than true scarcity such as that experienced in the third-world), clutter will fill all the corners of my home and my mind.

Hobbes, you and I need a mindset makeover.


Writing through Familiarity Blindness

Oak leaves are falling and a few yellow sweet gum stars as well. But the temperature was in the low 90’s (32°C) over the weekend, and it seemed silly to hang my autumn wreath and put out pumpkins on the front porch. The Weather Channel tells me cooler air will arrive next week. I hope they make good on their promise.

I developed a fresh appreciation for the asphalt-melting heat here in Georgia when my family and I vacationed in Seattle a few years ago. It was August, but we shivered as we piled into the rental car and set the heat on High. We drove to Mt. Rainier and marveled at the patches of snow. Even in winter, it hardly ever snows in middle Georgia.

Turns out, other places are different.

They don’t serve grits in Maine. And I didn’t see a shred of Spanish Moss in Arizona. For all its glorious wildlife, alligators don’t live in Yellowstone. And when the thermometer reaches 45°F here in the South, and I shiver and complain because I’m freezing, I realize I don’t know what cold is.

I’ve written before about Writing What You Don’t Know. But writing what you know is not always easy.

lovebugs, photo by Daniel McLendon

How do you describe a place that is so familiar, you take its idiosyncrasies for granted? Sometimes, I’m blind to the details which make my region unique. Peculiarities such as fried okra, syrupy-sweet tea, and lovebugs.

So here are a few tricks that help me write about my home. Maybe they’ll help you, too:

  1. Travel: Visit other places and note the differences.
  2. Take photographs: If you’re having difficulty seeing anything remarkable about your setting, a photo may help. It places distance between you and the real thing. Sometimes you’ll see things you hadn’t noticed before.
  3. Interview people who live outside your region: Ask them what is odd or unique to your home. What is amusing? Annoying? What do they like best? Least?
  4. Interview people who live inside your region: What do they love about their home? What do they like least? What makes them proud? Ashamed?
  5. People-watch: Go to a park or restaurant and eavesdrop (politely). What colloquialisms do you hear? What do the people look like? How do they dress? How do they interact? Here in the South, it’s polite to smile and say “hey” to strangers, but folks in the north eye me suspiciously when I do that.
  6. Research: Read about your town or region. Someone else’s outlook can help you view the familiar through different eyes. One of my favorite authors is Rick Bragg who writes about the South with humor, beauty, and true love.

Bragg’s time in New York gave him a fresh perspective, and my trip to Seattle did the same for me.

When our vacation ended that August, we left the cool, invigorating air of Washington and felt the full force of the Georgia summer upon our return. We landed in Atlanta in the middle of a heat wave, which is saying something. The temperature was over 90°F — at midnight. The sliding doors opened to the Hartsfield-Jackson parking deck, and I can still remember how we groaned when we stepped outside. It was as if we’d hit an almost-solid wall of heat and humidity.

But I’ll take the heat. Like your well-meaning Aunt Martha, who makes the best banana pudding in the world but also makes a habit of buttin’ into everybody’s business, you take the good with the bad. Love, for a person or a place, covers a multitude of sins.

Thanks for reading, y’all.






Flash Fiction: All the Trapped Stars

A few months ago I challenged myself to write a story under 300 words. Here’s the result at 293.


All the Trapped Stars

The day after the tornado fell from a starless sky, and like a mosquito’s proboscis, sucked away her house and life as she knew it, Clare sifted through the debris. She searched for irreplaceable things – photos, keepsakes, heirlooms. Two-by-fours and bricks mingled with soggy books and sneakers in a bitter stew.

“Play on the swings while I look, sweetie,” she told her son. “And Luke, keep Sophie away from the rubble. Too much broken glass.”

With a churning stomach, Clare started in what had been the den. She found the cover to The Three Little Pigs, a carboard page from Good Night Moon, Sophie’s doll minus the limbs. A key to a house which no longer existed.

“Find anything?” yelled Luke. Which meant, did you find my Legos?

“Find anything?” Sophie echoed, playfully.

Clare hid the mangled doll behind her back and shook her head.

In the roofless garage, under crisscrossed wooden beams, lay a purple box – wet, warped, but uncrushed. Inside was Grandma Bett’s Waterford crystal bowl.

The cut angles caught the sun and flashed triangles of color, just the way it had on Grandma Bett’s dining room table when Clare, like Sophie, was five. She wasn’t allowed to touch it, so she’d walk around the table to examine the sparkles from different perspectives. She’d count all the trapped stars.

“Look!” she called to the children as she walked to the patio. “Not a scratch on it!” Ha! What were the chances?

Sophie asked, “Can I hold it?”

Clare placed the bowl in her small hands, and Sophie held it up to the sun like an offering.

Then, with the sound of a myriad celestas, the bowl crashed onto the concrete, scattering the light, freeing the stars.



Empty Drawers and Creativity


Help! I’m drowning…

clothes rack
Photo by Daian Gan on

I have no empty drawers in my house. No empty shelves. No empty closets.

I have too many things. Am I materialistic? As a typical American, the answer is probably yes.

The myriad knickknacks, magazines, and (dare I say it?) even books are suffocating me.

Batteries, business cards, binoculars…

Clothes, candles, cords…so many electrical cords…

Half-dead plants, pencils, papers. An astounding number of papers.

I try to ignore the stacks of stuff when I walk into my den. And my bedroom. And my kitchen. But they dance mockingly in my peripheral vision. The clutter taunts me.

I can ignore a messy room. Until I can’t. Some people have a tipping point. I skip straight to the exploding point. I MUST get rid of some clutter NOW.

Don’t Mess with Creativity

They say that messy people are more creative. That working in a messy environment encourages new ideas. But can it be too messy? Can you have too much of a good bad thing? You know, the Law of Diminishing Returns and all that.

I can’t create while seeing the clutter and knowing that I should be doing something about it — instead of writing.

So, to help my writing — and to help the people I live with and whom I love so much — I will aspire to own fewer things. My new motto? Possess Less.

I will accomplish my goal one junk drawer at a time.

Little steps.

Little steps.

It’s hard to take little steps while you’re exploding.






It’s Hard to be Real

As much as I want to be authentic, I fall short.

It’s not usually intentional, trying to be someone I’m not. It’s subconscious.

Sometimes, I glimpse those fake personas in my heart. Like floaters that come and go, they drift into my line of sight when I’m not looking for them. The more I try to focus on them, the more they elude me.

“Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint…They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems.”

from New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton


1950's velveteen rabbit

I spent years trying not to be an introvert. Years pushing myself to be extroverted and to run as fast as the next person. But I couldn’t keep up. And I undervalued my true nature.

I spent years denying my high sensitivity. Years pretending I could do ANYTHING by  relying on my own strength. By pushing. Turns out it wasn’t enough. When I gave up, I discovered I only needed strength to do what God had called ME to do. Not what everyone else was called to do. It was freeing. And humbling.

Worse yet, I’ve refused to admit to myself my darker feelings — envy, insecurity, bitterness — even as I plastered on a sweet-as-pie smile. Whew. (Of course, that’s not an exhaustive list of my faults.)

Why is it so hard to be real? Any thoughts?

The More Things Change…

Wodehouse A Damsel book cover

“Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people will throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.”

                           A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse, 1919

Note: “picture palaces” = elaborate movie theatres

On Writing Dangerously

Over the weekend, I read Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel without an Outline. No doubt, he’s received criticism for his ideas. But I’m not here to add to that.

image from Pixabay

Smith’s advice runs counter to most books I’ve read. Not only does he recommend writing without an outline, his Rule #3 states that after you’ve finished the first draft, you should not rewrite. Period.

He also says he never rereads his stories after he finishes them.

Yikes! What a terrifying thought! Like choosing a pair of pants and a shirt from your closet with your eyes closed, then leaving the house for a job interview without checking the mirror.

In truth, Smith does reread small segments. His method involves “cycles” of revision. He writes a few hundred words, revises, then writes a few hundred more. He “outlines” as he goes, jotting down a summary of each finished chapter. But he doesn’t know where his story is going. Like Abraham in the Old Testament who left his home “not knowing whither he went.”

Mapping Out the Story

Each day, we live our lives into the unknown. We set goals and make plans to reduce uncertainty, but if we are too dogged with our agenda, we become rigid. Predictable. Boring. And bored.

And this can happen with our writing as well.

I’ve been reading books about story structure, trying oh-so-hard to outline, and using software designed to micromanage my story’s plot, themes, setting, and characters. There’s nothing wrong with approaching the craft this way. It works for a lot of authors.

And yet, I can’t find a compelling reason to keep writing. There’s nothing to explore. I’m bored with the story before I’ve started the rough draft.

Tossing Out the Map

Though I can’t embrace all of Dean Wesley Smith’s recommendations, here are three take-aways from his book:

  • “Enjoy the Uncertainty”

Replace fear of the unknown with excitement, and enjoy the random ideas that take you — and your readers — to unexpected places.

  • “Entertain Yourself”

Don’t forget to have fun! This means playing with a sense of wonder or absurdity:

Your shy, introverted heroine stepped into the bakery for a gluten-free, low-carb, lemon curd Danish, but she robbed the place instead! And the ATM on the corner shot out classified documents instead of cash….

  • “Think for Yourself”

In D.W.S.’s words:

“All writers write differently. And that includes you. My way of producing words won’t be correct for anyone but me. So instead of listening to others looking for the secret, just go home, sit down at your writing computer, and experiment with every different form and method until you find the way that produces selling fiction that readers like and buy. Find your own way to produce words that sell.”

Writing into the Dark is a counterweight for those who advocate extreme outlining. If you’ve lost your creative spark or your enjoyment of writing, this book is for you.