Month: November 2021

Show Me the Way to Go Home

It’s been over a year, and I still don’t feel quite at home in this house. I still think of it as “The Murder House”. Not because of any actual murders—none that I know of, anyway,—that’s just what I called it when we first toured the property.

My son had been born a week earlier and everyone was flipping out about it. My parents, my wife’s parents, and my grandmother were all in town for the birth. We each handled it in our own different ways. My wife and I were hardly sleeping at all, we had to wake up every couple of hours to feed him or change him. I had two weeks of paternity leave from my job, but it wasn’t restful in the slightest. Sleep is a necessity, something I never realized I needed until I didn’t have it anymore, and without it, I was constantly delirious, a stainless-steel travel mug of coffee accompanied me wherever I went. All I could think about was satisfying his myriad incommunicable needs, guessing my way down the list until he could nap peacefully again and we could try to get some sleep ourselves.

It was the second house we looked at, and I joined my parents there during one of his sleeping spells, when I finally felt comfortable leaving my wife to nap next to him. The house was this towering grey monstrosity, a fixer-upper that would cost us less to buy so long as we were ready for the extensive remodeling that would make it livable. I recorded video tours of each floor to show my wife and narrated my realtime thoughts on the place. The basement was the spookiest part, labyrinthine in its many additions and reconstructions over the hundred years or so of the house’s previous owners. Rooms were added without regard to the existing floorplan, yielding unpredictable twists and turns through carpet, tile, and vinyl linoleum flooring.

The main floor wasn’t much better. The fireplace had a tile footer that was missing a whole chunk of corner, exposing bare concrete beneath. The white walls were crumbling away in places, revealing chunks of browned plaster behind it, and all the trim was glossy with layer upon layer of paint. In the dining room, there was a little corkboard for mail above a small square chalkboard that had a single word written on it in white permanent marker like indelible chalk. The word simply read, “Run!”

There were no doors on the first floor, and the second floor doors all had deadbolts at eye level. It was hard to see it for what it could become—bedrooms, playrooms, a study—instead, everything just raised questions. Why were there so many locks? Why didn’t we have keys to them? Why were the deadbolts only accessible from the outside? Was someone locking people inside these rooms? My sleep-deprived mind, always prone to worst-case-scenarios, imagined a sordid tale of imprisonment, torture, and yes, murder. There was an out-of-place deck in the backyard where I guessed the bodies might be buried, if not in the strange walled-off corner awkwardly set in the middle of one of the basement walls.

And yet, it was the best option that was available. My parents decided that the duplex where my wife and I were living was simply not enough space for a growing family, and they had enough capital that they could afford to buy a house for us outright with enough left over to pay a deconstruction crew to tear down the basement walls and a restoration team to strip the paint from the hundred-year-old trim and skim the hundred-year-old plaster walls. Since my wife was completely, physically preoccupied with the baby, I was left to make all the executive decisions about how we would refinish the floor, paint the rooms, and restore the wooden double-hung windows to their former glory. Sweat equity would bridge the gap between the mess we purchased and the home we would build, and I would have a strong hand in the remodel.

My family has built a few houses from the ground up, the first of which was finished shortly after I was born. Together, we built a log house in rural Alabama that would house my parents, my sister, and me, and that house felt like home in a way this one has yet to accomplish. Maybe it was that sense of communal effort, of creative control, and of sheer labor. I still remember cutting all forty-six rafters with a circular saw, placing the responsibility for the stability of the roof in my teenage hands. We built a bedroom for each of us, my parents sharing theirs with each other, as well as an office for my freelance interpreter mother and a music/art room back when I was still trying to be a musician and my sister was still trying to be an artist. The exterior walls were fourteen inches thick, huge logs that were painted brown on the outside but finished with a clear shellac interior. In spite of all our effort, the four of us only lived there together for a couple of years.

We moved around a lot when I was a kid, so there’s not really an archetypal “childhood home” in my memory. When pressed, I consider “home” the house we rented in Decatur, Georgia. It was small enough that my sister and I shared a bedroom until I was old enough to demand my own space and moved into the attic. There was no air conditioning, just a box fan that lived in the window, constantly circulating the stifling southern heat in the summer to give the illusion of cool. When we gathered in our tiny dining room around the little collapsible table for dinner, I felt connected to the space and my family in a way that has been hard to capture since.

We moved from that little rental—barely more than a single floor with an unfinished basement—into a church-sponsored manse provided as part of my father’s job at a rural Presbyterian church in Virginia. That was certainly the oldest and largest house I’ve ever lived in, built sometime in the 1800’s alongside the chapel itself. The space was so massive that everything we moved into it felt small and out of place. There were ten feet between my bed and my computer desk before I even made it to my bedroom door. We had a living room with two couches and a television but nothing else, and the empty space echoed with every footfall. The only part of that house that I liked was the library, a smaller room toward the back of the house with floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves.

My wife and I moved into the duplex when we found out we were pregnant because the one-bedroom unit of a ground-floor apartment complex was certainly going to be too small for our needs. The duplex at least had two bedrooms, one of which could be used as a study for my writing until the baby came, at which point it would be dubbed the “baby study” until such a time as he was old enough for me to move my desk out. We planned on looking for a house to buy for ourselves, but with our meager salaries (I was working as a temp, having recently left my job in tech retail before we discovered we were pregnant) we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford much of an upgrade, and then not for a few years. Until then, we made the space feel like home by picking up a couple of towering seven-foot-tall matching bookcases at a secondhand construction store. When I could see all of my books in one place, I felt like I could comfortably inhabit the space for an indefinite period of time.

Now those bookcases live in the library of the Murder House, a ground floor westward-facing room with no door in the doorframe. The main floor only has doors leading into the bathroom and the basement, otherwise it is completely open. For the longest time, all I could see was project after project after project until the house would be “done” and I could finally look forward to living in it instead of working on it. It’s been more than a year and I’m still finding things to do. The bathroom window needs to be trimmed out. The trim in my study still needs to be treated with Rubio monocoat oil. The fence in the backyard, a horrid red monstrosity, needs to be removed and replaced with something that feels more welcoming.

Our house is a work in progress, and maybe it will take a few more years of settling before I recognize it as a home. But we own it outright, we can make any modifications to it that we want to, that we can afford, and so it’s only a matter of time before the balance tips from looking at the house as a renovation project and being able to enjoy it simply as a living space. My son will grow up with a clear and distinct recollection of what home looks and feels like, even if I never get there myself. I just need a few more years to warm up to it, to see it not as a remodeling project that still needs to be completed, but as the comforting home he’ll remember for the rest of his life.

You can check out our progress here

Current Projects: Winter 2021

I quit my day job in 2018 because I was fed up with how other people were spending my time, and I wanted to see what I would do with it if no one was buying it from me. At the time, I was rewriting a novel I had (foolishly) self-published back in 2016, finishing a second one I started in 2015, and trying to find a way to make writing more of a central focus in my life.

By the end of 2018, I had gotten involved with a local writing critique group, started attending a weekly philosophy discussion series, and volunteered to write for both a charter school and a reused construction materials store. At The People’s Colloquium, I was able to share my works in progress with other writers to get their feedback, and I got to read a lot of other people’s writing to share my perspective on as well.

In January 2019, my fiancée and I discovered that we were going to be parents and had about seven and a half months to get ready. We needed a family car and an apartment that would fit the three of us (plus three pets), so I applied for the fastest employment I could find, through a temp agency. I kept writing and kept attending my discussion groups right up to the week of my child’s birth, but when he was born, everything changed. Suddenly, everything I knew about how to spend my time was irrelevant, and I had to start over from scratch.

My world was already rocked beyond recognition by the time COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March 2020, and when the dust finally settled a few months later, I woke up in a new house with a wife, a son, a gig as a copywriter, and no day job to speak of. My wife’s work is very fulfilling, so she’s still going in 30–40 hours a week while I stay home with my kid.

I have to fight hard to make time to write despite renovations, house guests, maintenance, and all the demands involved with being solely responsible for keeping a toddler occupied, safe, and engaged for twelve hours a day. It’s not easy, and most days I can only manage to eke out my three morning pages, but I’m determined to finish what I started before stopping to figure out what’s next.

With all that in mind, and in the interest of opening the garage, here’s what I’m working on as of this winter 2021:

Morning Pages

Since I left the workplace in August 2020, I have written three pages in my journal every morning. As Julia Cameron recommends, I write a stream of consciousness and try to do it first thing in the morning. Cameron also recommends writing longhand, but I haven’t been able to commit to that. I’m too insistent on digitizing my notes. Before becoming a parent, I would transcribe my handwritten journal into a digital format for archival and retrieval purposes, but in the aftermath of losing all semblance of control over my time, I’ve had to resort to digital.

There’s something special about three pages. It’s between 750 and 1,000 words, depending on how you count (I shoot for a thousand when I’m typing) and that’s just long enough for me to run out of things to talk about when I realize I’m only halfway through. Then, when the noise of whatever ephemera I’ve been documenting dies down, there’s a spark of insight that leads me through writing to my inner thoughts and preoccupations. When I write my morning pages, I’m practicing sitting down to write and tapping into that part of my mind that has something to say. It’s like a morning workout routine.

Everything’s Totally Manageable

It’s been nine years since I started working on the novel that led me to my interest in writing. “Everything’s Totally Manageable” is the working title I have given to a story that started out as an autobiography but has slowly evolved into a piece of realist fiction. I started writing it as something to do instead of smoking cigarettes on my breaks from work, but then some unexpected life events changed the course of the project, and I’ve been desperately trying to finish it ever since.

The story follows a group of college students grappling with the reality of their friend’s suicide while immersed in an undergraduate philosophy program and experimenting with mind-altering substances. Its central questions concern the nature of reality, what constitutes meaning, and whether life itself is even worth living.

Because I was starting with no formal training in writing—only a minor in comparative literature—I could only write by trial and error. My first draft was over a hundred thousand words, far too long for a debut novel by an unknown author. When I rewrote it to a more manageable size, I experimented with getting closer to the true facts of my life before moving farther away from them, tried melding and separating characters, worked through different tenses and timeframes.

Now I’m about ten thousand words into what, I hope, will be the last draft I write without professional assistance. After this, I’m either going to hire an editor or start querying agents. To reach this goal, I reengaged with a new writing critique group born from The People’s Colloquium called The Critiquery, which I’ll address momentarily.

The Critiquery

One thing I wish I knew when I started writing “Everything’s Totally Manageable” was the value of working alongside a community of like-minded individuals. Although I’ve read several books on the craft of writing, nothing has improved the quality of my own like sharing feedback with other writers who are struggling to bring their own ideas to fruition.

I spent the first eight years of my writing life alone. The People’s Colloquium was my first writing group, and I barely got to know them before parenting permanently changed my relationship to time. When I could finally allocate an hour or two a week to a critique group, the pandemic had dissolved the in-person roundtables and produced new video conference rooms.

The Critiquery represents one such development, and they emailed me to let me know they were conducting weekly sessions again via Zoom. I started attending their sessions in May 2021, while I was working to finish the second-to-last draft of my novel.

We meet for one hour every week, late enough that my wife is home from work and can look after our son, and we discuss submissions up to 10,000 words. At first, I balked at such a restrictive limit, but I have since learned to appreciate how it makes me focus my writing on brevity and concision. I look forward to it every week, and I volunteer to moderate the discussion about once a month.

Professional Copywriting

After I left my day job in 2018, I was approached by a former coworker about writing copy for a marketing firm. I hadn’t written to anyone else’s specifications or requirements since I was in college, so I accepted, thinking it would be a good pivot into a possible new career. By the beginning of 2020, I had signed on to write site pages for a new startup in Portland, followed by monthly blog articles and product descriptions for items on their menu.

Every couple of weeks I get an order for a new round of copy and I strive to finish any outstanding assignments before returning to my creative projects. This work still has to fit around the schedule of my primary job—parenting—but my wife helps me dedicate some time to writing throughout the week. I couldn’t do any of this without her support.

The Curious Writer

Lastly, I got an unexpected gift from my sister during a family reunion in early 2019, the same trip my fiancée and I announced our pregnancy. It was a textbook from one of her classes at the University of New Orleans titled, The Curious Writer. Since I lacked any formal education in writing, I was ecstatic to have any kind of guide—especially since my impending fatherhood precluded any possibility for further education for at least another five years.

The Curious Writer aims to teach writing as part of the larger process of academic inquiry, guiding students to ask questions, look for answers, engage with different viewpoints, and reflect on the whole experience. Despite spending so much time writing fiction, I have great interest in learning to get at the heart of my ideas and present them in a compelling way to the public.

With so much else on my plate, I’ll admit that plodding through The Curious Writer is often the last thing on my to-do list, but I still have been making progress and one of the reasons I reactivated my weblog was to have some public outlet for the essays I produce. I’m trying to put into practice what I’m learning as I learn it, and writing essays is something I’d like to learn to do well.

Opening the Garage

Here, let me show you my workbench.

For too long, I’ve been working with the garage door closed, making my machinations invisible to the curiosity of any passers-by. That closed-off outward appearance might even make it look like I haven’t been working on anything at all.

But I have. And I’d like to share some of it with you. Let me start by showing you my tools and—in time—we might see some of the end result.

All of the work starts in one of three places: my bullet journal, an app called Drafts, or another app, Obsidian.

My Bullet Journal

This is my favorite tool, and there was a time when it was the main one I used.

I use a dot grid A5 notebook and a refillable fountain pen for my primary writing whenever I’m writing analog. Over the past several years, I’ve experimented with a modified Bullet Journal Method that combines longform writing with bullet journaling using the gridlines of each page.

Like most of my tools, my notebook is simple and direct. I use an index in the front to keep track of my thoughts, and the notebook comes printed with page numbers for reference. At regular intervals, I would type up this handwritten material on my computer.

You’ll notice that the green notebook, “Volume VI” ends in August 2019. When my son was born, the blue notebook I had started became the journal of his life thus far.

It was then that I had to adopt a more casual and immediate note-taking system. For the time being, I’m letting my current notebook and digital writing be bound to each other only by date, for reasons I may get into later.


Drafts is where most of my text starts because it has configurable actions to send whatever I write wherever it needs to go. Sporadically, I need to look something up on YouTube, sometimes I need to add a reminder to do something later, and sometimes I’m dictating an idea about one of my writing projects, but the thing all those needs have in common is a piece of text in a window.

It works exactly like a sticky note pad, offering a blank screen every time I open it and letting me tear off whatever I’m working on to take to the next tool.

I use three primary action groups. One is just basic iPhone actions like sending a text, adding a reminder, or creating a calendar event. The second is a search bar that lets me search sites like YouTube, Google Images, Wikipedia, Snopes or Amazon with the press of a button.

The third is all about formatting my Draft to act as a digital bullet journal entry and getting it into Obisidian for development and long-term storage.

Obsidian, Ulysses, and Scrivener

I have made Obsidian the main workhorse of my garage for two reasons: it works with plain text Markdown files and is designed with linking notes in mind.

Picture me taking a walk with my toddler and having one hand free when I get an idea I want to use for my upcoming novel. I take my phone out of my pocket, type a couple of lines into a blank Draft, and send it to Obsidian later.

Using links, anything I add to my daily notes page can reference any other document in my Vault. I can generate an outline of a work-in-progress to remind myself what I still have to write. There are also many user-submitted plugins that contribute additional functionality, like a consolidated to-do list. It’s like having a digital bullet journal.

Obsidian also offers some neat visualization options to view the relationships between these linked notes. The graph above is my entire Vault, including all of my digitized journals going back to 2003 and some references to documents that I haven’t had the chance to write yet. I can click on any node to jump right back into the thought or see its connections to related ideas.

Since Obsidian works in plain text and Markdown, I need other tools for finished work, something I’m going to submit to a client or publish to a weblog.

Ulysses loves Markdown, and is by far the easiest way for me to convert finished copy into something submittable. It supports user-configurable export formats, so the same raw text can be turned into a manuscript submission, print-ready prose, or a weblog entry. I use it for anything less complicated than a full-length novel, although I have certainly written an entire novel draft using nothing but Ulysses.

Scrivener, on the other hand, is like its own production facility. Instead of working solely with text, Scrivener will store any kind of media file in a virtual “binder” alongside the prose in progress. It supports linking between documents, annotations, comments, and it has a robust export suite to dial in specific print requirements. I like it for planning large-scale projects that have a lot of moving parts and multimedia inspiration. I’ve even converted some of my writing references like John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story into Scrivener templates to facilitate the creation of new projects.

The Work

Regardless of what I end up working on, my writing days all start the same way: with morning pages. “Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning,” according to Julia Cameron who popularized the term. On average, three pages in my notebook amounts to about a thousand words, so that’s my target when my morning pages take place digitally. Since I type twice as fast as I write and I’m the parent of a young child, these usually take place in Obsidian.

I use my morning pages to get a sense of what I’m going to be working on for the day and what challenges might oppose that progress. They start a daily note page for each day that I’ll add to as the day goes on using timestamps to cross-reference notes that might exist elsewhere, like in my journal.

Most of the time, I’m writing for my copywriting job or working on my novels, but I’ve also been studying personal essays and I think there’s room in my workflow to experiment with some more of those. Since I have this weblog, I’m going to start thinking out loud a bit more and making more of these thoughts public.

This is my first post in a long while, but in the interest of sharing my work with any interested onlookers, I’m going to be publishing something new here every Friday, weather permitting.

Thanks for stopping by to check in, and I hope to see you around again soon.