Category Archives: for writers

post about the craft of writing and the writing life

excerpt: Get Lucky

Get Lucky comes out in less than a month!

(And if you live in Houston, save the date for Saturday, April 10, 5:30-7:30: A cocktail-hour book launch party at Brazos Bookstore!)

Here’s how it begins:

GET LUCKY: A Novel — Chapter 1

First:  I got fired.  For emailing a website with hundreds of pictures of breasts to every single person in our company.  Even the CEO and chairman of the board. Even the summer interns.

Looking back, I may have been ready to leave my job.  I’d like to give myself the benefit of the doubt.  Sometimes the crazy things I do are actually very sensible.  And sometimes, of course, they’re just crazy.

I knew the company had just lost a high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit for some very big money.  I knew we were now enforcing our zero-tolerance policy.  I knew somebody somewhere in the chain of command was looking to make an example.  But I didn’t think about all that at the time.  Here’s another thing I didn’t think about: I’d just nailed the ad campaign of a lifetime, and I was finally about to get promoted.

In my defense, it wasn’t like these people had never seen a breast before.  In fact, our whole agency had been awash in them for months.  We’d just finished a national campaign for a major bra
company, and I’d led the creative team.  I’d even come up with the concept—ads directing women to do all sorts of crazy things with their chests while wearing one of these bras.

“Dip ’em,” one ad read, while our push-up-clad model leaned into a swimming pool, dunking her boobs in the water.  “Scoop ’em,” read another, while she pushed her boobs up toward her chin with two enormous ice cream cones.  “Lauch ’em,” ordered a third, as she arched her back up to the sky. And on and on: “Smack ’em,” “Mug ’em,” “Wash ’em,” “Flush ’em,” “Flash ’em,” “Love ’em,” “Lick ’em,” “Leave ’em.”

I’d spent innumerable hours with those boobs—weekends, nights—working my butt off to turn them into the most famous cleavage in America.  Which, by January, they’d become.  No small feat.

The model for the campaign was nineteen years old and profoundly anorexic with the most enormous augmented chest you can imagine.  I didn’t even know her name, actually. We just called her “the Tits.”  She was a petulant teen who spent all her time between shots wearing earbuds and drinking lattes and then asking people for gum.  The question “Do you have any gum?” will forever take me back to that summer.

She was a pretty girl, though the freckles, bumpy nose, and squinty eyes would have required retouching.  If we’d used her face.  In the end, we zoomed in so close that her face didn’t even come into the shots.  When it came to bras, who needed a face?

That’s really how I used to think.  I’m not exaggerating at all.

If I sound crass here, that’s because I was.  If I sound unlikable, that’s probably true, too.  I was, at this point in my life, after six years in advertising, a person who needed a serious spanking from the universe.

And don’t worry.  I was about to get it.

I was proud of the ads.  They were saturated with color, eye-catching, naughty, and delightful.  Everybody was ecstatic, and I was strutting around the office like a diva. The Boob Diva.  That was me.

But something was off. Being the Boob Diva wasn’t as great as I’d expected.  I’d been so underappreciated at that job for so long that when appreciation finally came, it felt false.  Maybe I’d built up too many expectations.  Maybe all the pep talks I’d given myself about my coworkers being idiots were finally kicking in.  Or maybe external validation is always a little disappointing, no matter what.

The books I’d been reading weren’t helping, either. I had a whole stack by my bed that chronicled the ways advertising was making us all miserable.  Who knows why I kept buying them?  It’s a chicken-egg question.  Did I hate my job because I was reading the books?  Or was I reading the books because I hated my job?  Either way, I couldn’t get around what they had to say:  That an economy based on buying stuff needed to keep us all dissatisfied and miserable, needed to keep us focused on what we didn’t have instead of what we did, and needed to convince us that things like happiness and peace and beauty could be bought.

Not the greatest water cooler chitchat.

Later, it would occur to me to wonder if advertising in general was screwing over the entire world or if my firm in particular was screwing over just me.  I certainly wasn’t paid enough.  Or recognized enough.  Or appreciated. But questions like that are a long time in the making.  First, I had to have a little thing we might call a breakdown. Or an epiphany.  Neither of which was my intention.

Here’s what happened, to the best of my recollection:  The night before our big final presentation, my sister happened to send me an email link with the subject line “Boob-a-palooza!”  Because I was too wired about the next day to go to bed, I clicked on it.  And there, I found miles and miles of mug shots of anonymous breasts belonging to real women. No faces, no bodies, just breasts.  Breasts au naturel. Breasts in the wild. Breasts as Mother Nature intended.

My sister just thought it was funny.  But I had a different reaction:  I could not stop scrolling through.  I’d seen a lot of breasts on TV and in movies and on magazine covers in my life.  Who hasn’t? But I’d never seen anything like these real things.  The variety was spellbinding.  High ones, low ones, flat ones, full ones.  Close together, far apart.  Lopsided.  Droopy.  Walleyed.  Googly-eyed.  Water balloons.  Bags of sand.  Jellyfish.  Cactuses.  Bananas, prunes, and pickles. And this was the eighteen-to-thirty-two-year-old category. These were boobs in their prime.

Under each photo there was a caption written by the owner of the breasts.  And each caption read something like this: “These are my breasts. They’re pretty droopy (or lopsided or small or dimpled or ugly or embarrassing or pickle-shaped).  Wish I could fix them.”  The comments ranged from vehement hatred to mild distaste, but nobody, absolutely nobody, said:  “Here are my boobs. Aren’t they great? I find them delightful, and hallelujah!”  Nobody.

I was slated to hit the office at nine the next morning in my stilettos to present the “Boob ’em!” campaign to everybody who mattered.  But instead of getting to bed early, as I’d planned, I stayed up until three in the morning browsing the photos.  Something about the
realness of the pictures on the site underscored the fakeness of the boobs in our ads.  Something about the dignity of the real things made our hyped-up things seem ridiculous.  The whole campaign suddenly seemed brash and loud and stupid and just plain rude in a way that I couldn’t ignore.  How had I never thought about this before?  We were about to put a picture of a woman’s cleavage getting branded on every bus in America, for Pete’s sake.

I thought about all the normal women who had taken off their bras for the cameras.  I thought about the bravery of stepping forward with your own imperfections to help others feel better about theirs.  And all at once I felt ashamed of being part of the problem. I scanned the site until the images and the words bouncing in my brain became a cacophony of women’s dissatisfaction and despair, building louder and louder to a crescendo that I could not shush.  That is, until four a.m., when I clicked Forward on my sister’s email, selected the company-wide distribution list, and hit Send.

I sat back and nodded a little so-there nod.

Then, in the quiet that followed, I realized what I’d done, sat straight up, choked in a little breath of panic, and started looking for a way to unsend that email.  Knowing all the while that there wasn’t one.  That’s the truth about emails:  You can’t take them back.

In effect, I fired myself. Though the guy who actually did the firing—discreetly and several hours after our slam-dunk presentation—was a VP named J.J. who everybody called “Kid Dy-no-mite.”  Even though he wasn’t dynamite at all, just another ad guy at Marston & Minx.  A guy I’d started with six years earlier.  A guy who’d been promoted over me based on work we’d done together.  A guy I’d slept with back in the beginning until he called me a workaholic and broke things off.  Now he was married to a girl who wore pink Bermuda shorts when she brought him lunches in a picnic basket at the office.  But I guess I was even less dy-no-mite than he was, because I wasn’t married to anyone, nobody ever brought me lunches, and now I was out of a job.

J.J. said, “I’m sure you know that email was inappropriate.”

“Was it?” I said.

He gave a short sigh.  “People were pretty offended. Yeah.”

We were standing in the now-empty meeting room where our “Boob ’em!” campaign would later win promotions for seven people on our team.  We were surrounded by enormous blowups of bra-clad breasts in every direction.  Breasts larger than our bodies, in full color.  Valleys of cleavage the size of La-Z-Boys.  The “Steer ’em” ad showed boobs wrapped in barbed wire.  “Munch ’em” showed them resting on a giant sub sandwich.  And “Whip ’em” had a close-up of a whip just before impact.

“J.J.,” I said. “Look around.”

He looked around.

I said, “What does stuff like this do to real women?”

“Real women?” he said, cocking his head.  “Real women are overrated.”

Then he gave me a flirty smile, patted me on the shoulder, and told me the case was closed.  It was lunchtime.  He had a meeting. “Be graceful about it,” he advised as we headed out.  “And if you upload your own photo to that site,” he opened the door with one hand and pressed the small of my back with the other, “shoot me an email.”  Then he added, “You’d totally win that contest.”

“It’s not a contest,” I said.

“Everything’s a contest,” he told me, and then he walked away.

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art for Mom 2.0

It’s been a long month of sick kids (and parents) at my house.  And even though I knew there would be many, many, many of my favorite people at the Mom 2.0 Summit last weekend, I had to scramble pretty hard to get there.

But I made it.  And it was so good in so many ways.

Something magical happens when you get so many amazing people in one place.  And watching my video up on the big screen at the opening of the conference was pretty magical for me, too.

I love like crazy the theme of Mom 2.o this year:  What You’re Doing Matters.  Partly because I wrote it (and felt so honored that the Mom 2.0 Girls chose it as a theme), and partly because I SO believe it. And seeing the art show, with all those ordinary mom moments from daily life in a place of honor up on a wall in a gallery — it was powerful stuff for me.

Here’s the art I contributed:

I Mod-Podged old dictionary pages on a canvas and then wrote the words with a paintbrush and black acrylic.  It’ll be sold at the Mom 2.o online art auction (proceeds go to Haiti), and I’ll post the link when I have it.

By the way, here’s the piece of art I meant to contribute to the Mom 2.0 art show:

But after I finished it, I was kinda looking at it, thinking, “Not bad!” — when I noticed that little upside-down bird above “brave.”  And, yep:  Turns out I painted the words on an upside-down canvas.  Oops.

But I also contributed some other art!  I painted on the women who came to the art show.  Anybody who wanted one got a word — or several — on her body.  Here’s the beautiful Laurie Smithwick‘s arm:

All to say, it was a heck of a weekend.  And that — really and truly — is not even the half of it.

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defining a movement

My friend Laura asked me to make a video for the Mom 2.0 Summit art show that’s coming up in February.

And here it is!

Many thanks to Shutter Sisters for allowing me to use photos from the site.  And many thanks to the amazing photographers:  Karen Walrond, Jenny Lawson, Tracey Clark, Sarah Ji, Kristin Zecchinelli, Irene Nam, and Meredith Winn.

And here is the essay that I wrote for the video:

WHAT I WOULD TELL HER:  (If I knew what to say.)

You are a miracle.

And I have to love you this fiercely:  So that you can feel it even after you leave for school, or even while you are asleep, or even after your childhood becomes a memory.

You’ll forget all this when you grow up.  But it’s okay.

Being a mother means having your heart broken.

And it means loving and losing and falling apart and coming back together.

And it’s the best there is.  And also, sometimes, the worst.

Sometimes you won’t have anyone to talk to.

Sometimes you’ll wonder if you’ve forgotten who you are.

But you must remember this:  What you’re doing matters.

And you have to be brave with your life so that others can be brave with theirs.

The truth is, being a woman is a gift.  Tenderness is a gift.  Intimacy is a gift.  And nurturing the good in this world is a nothing short of a privilege.

That’s why I have to love you this way.  So I can give what I have to you.  So that you can carry it in your body and pass it on.

I have watched you sleep.  I’ve kissed you a million times.  And I know something that you don’t, yet:

You are writing the story of your only life every single minute of every day.

And my greatest hope for you, sweet child, is that I can teach you how to write a good one.

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something we got right

I spoke on a panel last weekend at the Texas Book Festival with the very charming Jancee Dunn, who has a baby.  Fellow panelist and Houston author Gwendolyn Zepeda and I wound up giving her parenting advice.  And while we were talking, I heard myself say something very true.  It can be so easy to second-guess the parenting choices you’ve made — but there is one thing I know for sure we got right: Audiobooks.

As babies, both my kids hated the car.  Like, any time I drove anywhere for the first two years of their lives, they cried.  It was awful.  It made me completely crazy.  ‘Cause Houston is a driving town.  If you don’t drive, you just stay in the house.  So that was my choice: total isolation or baby torture.  

Until I discovered quite by accident that my infants found Garrison Keillor‘s voice soothing.  Which is not surprising, really, because I myself find it soothing.  One day in the car, I turned on his audiobook Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, and the crying stopped.  

From that moment on, we have never been without an audiobook in the car.

Now, at 4 and 6, my kids are audiobook champs.  They prefer us to read to them, but they’re perfectly happy with audiobooks, too.  It’s how I make dinner every night–them in the living room, playing trains and listening to the Chronicles of Narnia, or Katie Kazoo Switcheroo, or The Magic Treehouse, and me in the kitchen, listening to NPR

After all this time, I have some favorites for the 3-and up set.  Here they are, my Top Five kids’ audio books — though they are just as good for grown-ups.

5. The Tale of Despereaux

This story is totally spellbinding — and way better than the movie.  Because, as with so many books, it’s not what happens that really gets you — its how Kate DiCamillo tells the story.  And the voice of the story, the way it reveals itself, is magical.

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4. Little House on the Prairie Series

I was raised on the 1970s TV show, so it’s hard not to picture Michael Landon as Pa.  But I’m very glad my kids are starting off with the real thing.  The books are warm and dramatic and very engaging.  My kids love hearing about life in the Olden Days, too.  And Cherry Jones, who narrates, has the most wonderful, buttery voice…

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3. The Cricket in Times Square

My son used to be obsessed with this one.  Every time we got in the car, he’d say, “I want Cricket in Times Square by George Seldon!”  And I totally get why:  it just makes you feel good.  The voices are fun and engaging, and the story is sweet-natured.  And children of the ’70s will appreciate that narrator Rene Auberjonois used to star on Benson.

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2. Harry Potter, Books 1-3

A little on the scary side at times, so depending on your kids, you might stop at Book One.  But absolutely, completely addictive.  We read the books first together, and then listened to the audiobook of Book 1 on a car trip.  The kids were mesmerized, and so was I.  Shoooowee, that J.K. Rowling can write!

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1. James and the Giant Peach (and also pretty much every single thing Roald Dahl ever wrote.  Except The BFG is a bit too scary for little ones…)

What I particularly love about James and the Giant Peach is Jeremy Irons doing the voices of all the insects.  He makes it better than it sounded in your head when you read it as a child–and better than you could do now if you were reading it out loud.  Sorry, but it’s true.  There are so many different insect characters that it can be hard to keep them all straight.  But when Irons reads the book, the Earthworm has a thick, deep, earthwormy voice, and Miss Spider has a prim, spiderly voice.  Not to mention Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker!  It’s beyond great.  I never, ever get tired of listening to this one–and I’ve probably heard it a hundred times by now.  At least.

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gorgeousness

Last spring, the amazing Mary Swenson took these photos for me in response to a quote I sent her from Everyone Is Beautiful.  She broke the quote down by sentences, and took a photo for each one.  Then we ran the photos in sequence and made a video.  But the photos are so amazing, they deserve a place of their own.  In the video, they disappear fast and it’s on to the next image.  I’ve been meaning to put up these luscious stills for months, and now that I’m finally doing it, I am completely knocked over — again — by the rich colors, the movement of the light, and the variety of tones in each picture — and how they enrich and play off the words.

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And here is the video.  Somehow, the photos lost their crispness in translation.  But it’s fun to see them in action… 

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writing wednesday: life with kids

Here’s a Writing Wednesday about life with kids.  The question comes up over and over:  How do you do both?  How do you get it all done as a mother and a writer?  And almost every mother with little kids I know struggles with some version of this question.  How do you get it all done?  How do you take proper care of your children and yourself?  (And here’s a spoiler for the video:  I have no idea.)

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Filed under for writers, random, Uncategorized, videos, WRITING WEDNESDAY

favorite quotes

A reporter asked me last week to put together some of my favorite quotes from Everyone Is Beautiful for a story she’s doing.  And so I did.  I’ve been writing new stuff, and blogging, and goofing off with my kids this summer–and it had been a while since I’d spent any time with Everyone Is Beautiful.  It was fun to go back and visit all those characters again and sift through the story to find some favorite moments.  

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So here are some of my favorite passages from Everyone Is Beautiful:

•••

People are always beautiful when you love them.

•••

Taking Amanda’s card, I knew that within twenty-four hours Baby Sam would find it in my purse, put it in his mouth, chew on it until it looked like a wad of gum, and then leave it on the floor where I’d step on it in bare feet many hours water on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  But it was okay.  I wouldn’t have called her anyway.

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Here’s what I need to confess about Peter and me:  We were not exactly in love anymore.  After fifteen years and three children together, we were often other places besides in it.  We were under it, sometimes.  Or above it.  Or against it. Or in arm’s reach of it. Or in shouting distance of it.  Or rubbing shoulders with it.  But not in it.  Not lately.  Not since Baby Sam was born.  Baby Sam was, you might say, the straw that broke the Love Camel’s back.  And now that camel was lying in the baking sun. All alone and very thirsty.

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At the end of the evaluation we had learned many things about me:  I had a strong back, biceps and calves.  My “areas for improvement” included my triceps, hamstrings, nonexistent stomach muscles, and pretty much everything else.  We had also learned that I had a tendency to become sarcastic in the face of intimidating physical challenges, and that my positive attitude was questionable.

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She did not know what it felt like to be challenged by a child, or overwhelmed, or unsure of what do to next.  It’s easy to be smug when you’ve had it easy.  I would much rather have been judged by a mom who’d had some challenges.  But, of course, a mom who’d had challenges would know better.

•••

Within a certain range of acceptability, we were all just doing the best we could—and, really, given a basic foundation of love and some Richard Scarry books, kids would be okay.

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I suddenly understood what it was, exactly, people longed for when they longed for their youth.

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Years ago, in college, I remember reading a statistic about women.  Asked if they’d rather gain thirty pounds or be hit by a bus, 75 percent of them chose the bus.  I was one of them, for sure.  I remember thinking that, truly, if I gained thirty pounds, I might as well be run over anyway.  Because I’d have no reason to live.

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It couldn’t be love, I told her.  It was too horrible. 

“That’s exactly love!” she said.  “Love is exactly that horrible.”

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It was so easy to come up with solutions to other people’s problems.  To watch them struggle through parenting and believe in a self-satisfied way that if you were in their shoes, you’d have it all figured out.

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“I’m not interested in taking your picture when you’re acting beautiful,” I said.  “I want to take your picture when you’re being beautiful by accident.”

“Nothing beautiful is an accident,” she said.

•••

It only hit me at this moment:  It had been a tough five months for my mother.  She needed to do some things for herself.  And I could relate to that.  I could really relate to that.

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At that moment, I suddenly loved us all the more for our flaws–for being broken and human, for being embarrassed and lonely, for being hopeful or tired or disappointed or sick or brave or angry.  For being who we were, for making the world interesting.  It was a good reminder that the human condition is imperfection.  And that’s how it’s supposed to be.

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