FAQ

I’ve done a number of Q&As like this one, for the National Book Foundation, and this one for talkSTEM, and this one for the Chicago Public Library. But I also get a lot of questions from kids and aspiring writers. Here are some of the most common questions I’ve gotten:

What was your childhood like? What kind of schooling experiences did you have growing up?

I grew up in the 1970s. My sister and I ran loose all over the neighborhood, playing Little House on the Prairie and Kick The Can. At night, all the kids would get together to play Flashlight Tag. There were no cell phones, so the only way my mother could tell us she wanted us home was to ring a cow bell. When we heard the cowbell, we knew it was time to run home. It wasn’t always safe — there’s a lot of not-so-safe stuff in the world — but we did have a lot of freedom.

Where did you receive your education and do you have any degrees?

I went to Grinnell College in Iowa, and I have a Masters in Public Administration from Baruch College, the City University of New York. I don’t use that MPA anymore — at least not professionally. It does give me a better understanding of the news — especially stories that relate to politics.

What are your hobbies when you’re not writing?

I have two rescue dogs — an Australian shepherd and a little brown mutt, both of whom I adore. I read a ton, and I almost always have multiple books going at once. I’ve recently learned a few chords on the guitar. I also like spending time with friends, though when you’re a grownup and a parent, you don’t get nearly as much time with friends as you like.

What would be some characteristics of your writing style?

When I write, I’m kind of scattered, I write things out of order, and I use a lot of post-its and index cards. I look around for things that interest me, and I try to follow them wherever they lead.

What is your family life like today?

Chaotic! I have two kids. They are very busy, and I try to spend as much time with them as possible. I’m married to a guy named Blair, who I met in high school.

What are your favorite writing resources?

Here are a few of the resources I’ve personally found helpful:

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. This is is the best, most valuable kick-in-the-pants a writer will ever get. While you’re visiting his web site, I also highly recommend getting on his email list. His weekly tips are terrific.

The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard. Apparently Dillard called this book embarrassing. I disagree. Although I’ve always loved the language and ideas, this work took on new meaning once I’d written a book or two.

Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Elizabeth wants you to trust the universe and do your work…and she’s right. Also check out her TED talk, and her Magic Lessons podcast.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott — if nothing else, read the chapter Sh*tty First Drafts. Then write a sh*tty first draft. Then tear it to shreds and build it back up again.

I’m struggling with my writing project. What advice do you have?

There’s a very good chance that at the very moment you’re reading this, I, too, am frustrated and despairing in my writer’s cave. It’s not for the faint of heart, this writing gig. The best advice I can offer you is this: keep going. Writing is murky. You don’t have to see a clear path to a finished product yet: you just need to know a single next step. By the time you’ve completed that step, chances are good you’ll see another thing that needs to be done.  For the record, when I was finishing THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, I was so frustrated with my own ability to get it right, I literally walked around holding a pencil between my teeth in order to stay positive.  So maybe try that. Oh, and that thing you’re afraid to put in there? The thing that you think will never resonate with anyone? The thing that makes you feel super-vulnerable, like you’re standing in your middle school hallway in your pajamas and everyone is laughing at you? That, right there, might just be the heart of your book.