The Fine Art of Visiting

Sharing points of view politely, just like Grandma taught me. Now that we're visiting, join in the conversation!

Sit around my campfire for a spell

It’s funny—I came here today to write about gathering, only to realize that I’d shared the same thoughts here last year. Anyone else feel like they’re caught in a hamster wheel?

I suppose if we were snakes we wouldn’t care one wit that we’re spending so much time apart. Snakes are solitary animals, typically leaving the “nest” within one week after birth. But humans crave connection. We reinforce our bonds by living in pods, and when that unit eventually disperses, we enjoy reuniting and catching up. Sometimes, the only way we can think straight is to hear our thoughts and beliefs reflected back to us by trusted others. Not to mention that we are biologically programmed to benefit from touching one another.

Sometimes it can feel like Covid is punishing us for being human. But if you were writing a story you hoped might be publishable, you wouldn’t cast the virus as a mustache-twirling villain plotting evil deeds; he’d be the hero of his own tale, trying to ensure his chance to live out his best life. Are you living your best life, as well? If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that we might be living on a tighter deadline than we once thought.

Thanks to our gloriously complex brains, humans are also highly adaptive creatures, which is what has kept us at the top of the food chain. We figure out ways to do what we need to do, even if that means gathering during a pandemic. Last Christmas, my family orchestrated a “Christmas hike” and a quick present exchange behind my younger son’s house. It was fun, but not destined to be a tradition. This year, trying to stay a bit warmer, we relied upon negative rapid Covid tests and gathered indoors.

But as a writer, I need more than my family. I need others of my kind. I’m sorely missing my weekly writing get-togethers at a local grocery store, that over the years saw all eight participating writers move forward in our careers by getting agents or MFAs. All of us got published. To rekindle that magic, we decided to meet up a few times in one of my favorite ways—around a campfire.

Outside, with proper social distancing enforced, my writer friends and I were still able to share stories from our contained, Covid-controlled existences, and felt less alone. We’ve talked through psychological stumbling blocks, story plot holes, new creative directions, marketing challenges—writing may be a solitary pursuit when it comes to putting words on the page, but by god we writers need our people.

Are you writing a novel? How’s it going? If your writing is languishing without social support, or you need craft guidance while working on your novel, or accountability to get it finished, I’m once again putting together a small group of writers for my Your Novel Year program. Check out the brochure and see if it might be for you. This will be the program’s fifth year, and because I know it works on so many levels, I will keep accepting applications until it fills.

For less than you’d spend on a developmental edit, and for way less time and money than I spent accumulating the lessons I’ll share, you’ll get a full year of guidance and support while you draft, revise, or rewrite your novel. You’ll share the important structural aspects of your story with others on the same journey without being burdened by having to read their pages. You’ll learn (or hear afresh) craft that you can immediately apply to your current project. You’ll receive feedback and insider tips from an experienced developmental editor and published author.

Come sit around my campfire. So okay, the campfire is virtual—we’ll be meeting via live videoconferencing—but the storytelling will be great, and you won’t go home with your hair smelling like smoke.

We’ll start classes as soon as possible but I still need a few more writers to fill the group. If you want to make 2022 YOUR novel year, I hope to hear from you soon!

A season of gathering

It is logical to think that writers are particularly well-suited to thrive during a pandemic. Give them an internet connection, a laptop, and a room of their own and voila!—that novel will practically write itself!

Yeah, not quite.

I’m going to set aside obstacles like the fact that the writer may no longer be home alone. Or that he’s trained his muse to adhere to routines now disrupted. Or that writers on the whole are a sensitive lot who are keenly in tune with governmental strife, cultural mayhem, and the suffering of increasingly massive numbers of those who have caught Covid-19.

Today I want to focus on writers like me, who thrive from social stimulation and accountability.

Throughout my twenty years writing fiction, I have somehow taken that whole “writers must be introverted” thing and bent it to my will. I have insisted that writing be a social sport.

From hosting summer writing retreats to offering winter Craftwriting sessions, from leading formal writing organizations to facilitating weekly drop-in sessions at a local grocery store; I’ve had one predominant battle cry: “Don’t make me go up in my office and write all by myself!” My bio contains a trail of social crumbs: of all the places I could choose to be a monthly writing blog contributor, I chose for its strong sense of community. The developmental editing business I started 14 years ago is called—where my motto has been, “You don’t have to go it alone.”

These activities are not distractions; this is how I’ve focused my life around writing. Because just as Thanksgiving (in better years) is all about the way gathering nurtures us, so has gathering with other writers nurtured me as a writer, by strengthening my craft and holding me accountable.

Now, gathering like-minded writers—safely, through online videoconferencing—allows me to give back.

Do you have a novel that doesn’t seem to be writing itself? If you could use craft guidance in getting it effectively structured, and social support in getting it finished, I offer a one-year, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year, that just might be for you. 

The focus of the program is to deliver (or remind you of!) the craft you need through live video-conferencing workshops while motivating you to meet page turn-ins every six weeks. If you keep up a pace of one page per day, you can have a solid draft of your novel completed (or rewritten, if that’s the case) in one year. 100% of the 2020 participants met that goal!

Unlike writing workshops that require you to critique pages from other writers, our discussions will center on big-picture issues that will keep everyone’s writing on track. I’ll be the only one reviewing pages, allowing you to focus on your own work.

Over the past three years, I have been blessed to work with such sensitive, astute, and deep-thinking writers that now, as the program heads into its fourth year, I can’t wait to see who will end up on my virtual doorstep. And soon, I will—the application period for Your Novel Year 2021 is now open!

Apply by Dec. 20; program begins in January. Brochure contains the details, testimonials, and my qualifications. Only six writers will be accepted. 

Barbara Linn Probst, whose 2018 Your Novel Year manuscript, QUEEN OF THE OWLS, was published in April, wrote: “Kathryn makes every moment count, keeps the energy humming, encourages without coddling, and really knows her stuff. She’s always well-prepared, yet eager to seize the ‘teachable moments’ that are often where the best learning occurs. Her handouts are concise and practical, she’s accessible and responsive between sessions, and her feedback is deftly aimed at pushing us toward becoming better and better writers. An outstanding experience!”

So: will 2021 be YOUR novel year? Check out this brochure and let me know if you have questions!

Writing a novel is a challenge in any circumstances, let alone during a time when the publishing industry is suffering steep economic challenges. We need our people to help us create our best possible work. Please consider letting me be your people.

And if the program isn’t a good fit for you at this time, and you made it this far, here is my wish: that you are well, being good to yourself, and finding something to be thankful for in this season of challenged gathering. 

5 Reasons Great Stories Don’t Age

When is the best time to discover a novel? It depends on who you are.

Those who consider themselves influencers of public taste scramble to read new novels before they are released. Such readers enjoy the thrill ride of early discovery, and we authors count on them to create buzz around the novel through social media posts, reviews on Goodreads, and posts on book blogs.

Publishers want their new releases discovered in the first three months, before they are replaced by newer titles on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Books that underperform in this time frame will not likely see further promotion.

Those who discover books-by-library are often at the mercy of wait lists.

Book club discovery is often a lengthier process. From a constantly replenishing tide of new titles that promote rich discussion, clubs can only choose 6–12 titles per year, and often schedule those titles a year in advance. Word-of-mouth recommendations, offered after other clubs have read the book, are key. This can introduce a significant lag time in discoverability.

Outside of these specialized groups, though, readers continue to find great stories in a timeless fashion. Just today I heard from Caroline Eliasson, who created a wiki titled “10 Fantastic Novels About Different Kinds of Families”—and placed THE FAR END OF HAPPY, my 4-1/2-year-old novel, on that list. Check it out!

This got me thinking about why so many novels never lose their relevance.

  1. The snail’s pace of social change. Racism is a still an issue today, almost 60 years after the publication of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which is currently experiencing a revival on Broadway. Women have yet to come into full equality, which is why Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, THE HANDMAID’S TALE, published in 1985, still rings disturbingly true in the #metoo era, where it has gained new life through the Hulu television series.
  2. Persistent problems. Many great historical novels have addressed the horrors of insane asylums (Ellen Marie Wiseman’s WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND, for instance), and the questionable reasons for committal. We are lucky to be rid of them. But one need only check the daily headlines to know that our country has not developed the resources to protect the public—or family members, even—from the potential violence of the mentally ill. Exacerbated by America’s love affair with guns, this problem is at the heart of THE FAR END OF HAPPY.
  3. Our common humanity. Themes of love, death, coming of age, corruption, survival, and heroism were just as riveting to William Shakespeare in the 16th century as they are to today’s novelists. The window dressing may change, but throughout the ages we’ve all been framing the same big ideas.
  4. Society’s building blocks. Simple adobe and modern high-tensile steel do not create the building blocks of society—families do. The fact that humans cannot thrive on their own is such a basic truth that those who are separated or outcast find a way to create new family, like Billie Letts’ wonderful character Novalee Nation did after giving birth in a Wal-Mart in the 2001 novel WHERE THE HEART IS. Such stories are at the heart of some of my favorite novels.
  5. We still seek hope. That TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was recently voted America’s best-loved novel says that racism is a knot in our society’s fabric that we still care to iron out. Novels may not give us all the answers, but they raise all the right questions. They place us inside perspectives we may not have previously considered, and by doing so, they make us bigger, more empathetic people.

Novels won’t cure all of society’s ills. Suicide is always a tragedy. THE FAR END OF HAPPY will not change the end of that story. But if by shining a light on the rugged terrain of such a loss I can show a family who has emerged to carry on in hope, it will have done its part.

And that will be true whenever it is discovered.

Will 2019 be YOUR Novel Year?

YOUR NOVEL YEARThe results are in! Your Novel Year 2018—my first time offering a full-year novel mentoring program to a small group—was a great success. I offered this in my home in Doylestown, PA and it was not only enlightening for all but it was so much fun. I hadn’t foreseen the way the participants’ imaginations would latch onto each writer’s project. The personalities and interests of those involved bent the course material to their will, co-creating a custom workshop experience. Each writer went home from the full-day workshops with notes they were excited to apply to their manuscripts.

I’ll let them tell you about it in their own words.

“Of all the writing workshops out there, Kathryn’s is hands-down one of the best. She makes every moment count, keeps the energy humming, encourages without coddling, and really knows her stuff. A terrific teacher, she’s always well-prepared, yet eager to seize the ‘teachable moments’ that are often where the best learning occurs. Her handouts are concise and practical; she’s accessible and responsive between sessions; and her feedback is deftly aimed at pushing us toward becoming better and better writers. An outstanding experience!” —Barbara P.

“Kathryn is an excellent teacher, who has the gift of being able to break down complex story structure techniques into digestible, teachable bites. Her critiques are dead-on insightful, but served with humor, and honesty about her own writing challenges. And because of that, I felt like I could admit my struggles too. I came into Kathryn’s course at the beginning of a major re-write on a manuscript, and found the structure of the full day workshops, and turn-in deadlines really supported my process, and created a manuscript that finally worked! I would highly recommend this course for all the reasons above, but mostly, because it was a gift to be able to devote time for my dream, in a supportive group of writers, with a teacher dedicated to quality and success. —Teri G.

“The year-long program was just what I needed to kick-start a novel I had sitting on the back burner for too long. I loved the full-day sessions on craft—and the rigorous schedule of turn-in dates has kept me focused in a way that I was unable to do on my own.” –Dianna S.

“Kathryn Craft’s Your Novel Year is truly the best thing I have done for my writing career. It is both writing workshop and personal mentorship. Kathryn provides the technical tools to move a novel forward, all the while guiding you through your personal story journey. She does so with knowledge, care for her craft, and frankly, a good dose of fun. In the end, if you let her, you might just come away with the heart of your story. I can guarantee it.” —Nicole C.

“I can recommend this without reservation. It’s not a traditional workshop. It’s like small group instruction with a personal trainer. You bring your unique skills and stumbling blocks, and get insightful analysis plus the benefit of seeing how others move through their own challenges.” —Margaret D.

I’m so jazzed about the success of the program that I’m adding an online option this year as well. If you have started a novel (at least 40 pages) and are interested in learning more, write to me at and I’ll send you a brochure with all of the details. Let’s make 2019 YOUR novel year!

Max Recommends a $1.99 deal


I have been missing Max something fierce lately. Just looking at this picture I recall the special connection I always felt when I looked into his eyes. He was a playmate to my sons, the charming secretary who greeted my clients, my stalwart companion through the events of my first husband’s suicide. My walking partner, after, as we put one foot in front of the other to heal.

He is also one of the few real-life characters in my novel THE FAR END OF HAPPY, based on the bones of my first husband’s suicide standoff as three fictional women—his wife, his mother, and his wife’s mother—struggle to make tough decisions, face shameful secrets, and cling to hope as they await word. That twelve-hour gauntlet changed us all. Including six-year-old Max, who could only shiver in fear beneath the thwomp-thwomp of the helicopter overhead and watch as his humans disappeared from the house, one by one, under the guard of policemen who would eventually return to take over his house and ignore his needs. From that day forward we were inseparable.

He was looking into my eyes, just like this, when eight years later I had to make the torturous decision to put him down. He was in so much pain, and I’d made this decision before with other animals, but how could I live without my Max? Yet once I finally made the decision he looked right into my eyes as if to forgive and tell me it was all right, I would be all right. After all, he’d had the final say when I’d “vetted” my second husband; he was leaving me in good hands. And as the drug that would stop that sweet, generous heart entered his system, Max sighed, lay down, and moved no more.

It’s been ten years since Max died. There have been times since then that cuddling with a four-legged friend would have been just the thing, especially last fall when both my mother and my aunt died, but I never got another dog. Turns out that I, too, am fiercely loyal. I had a bond with Max that I do not want to test against new possibility. He was the one who saw me through the greatest challenge of my life and together, for each other, we were brave.

He is with me still, and lives again in the pages of THE FAR END OF HAPPY. We hope you will download a digital copy at Amazon, NOOK, or Kobo. For today’s remaining hours it’s only $1.99, but I hope you’ll agree that a story inspiring us to find hope when facing one of life’s toughest challenges is a good buy on any day, at any price.



Today I am writing to ask all of you on Twitter and Facebook for your help—and it won’t cost you anything but a little bit of positivity.

After October 20, 1997—the day my husband chose death over life—“choose this day” became my mantra. Each day, no matter how sad or horrified or frustrated I felt by his suicide and the emotional mess it left behind, I chose life—and with this simple daily act, my sense of empowerment grew.

On Tuesday, when The Far End of Happy is officially released, I will have completed a 17-year arc by seeing my novel based on his suicide standoff through to publication. I told that story through the perspectives of the three women closest to him because these women are changed by the day—broken by it, yes, but also capable of healing and making a difference in the world.

Now I want to make a difference.

I want to write inspirational messages and cast them into the wild, random Twitterverse. I want people to be more aware of signs of depression and suicidal behavior. I want to share resources where people who are truly hurting can find help.

Will you join me?


On May 1, I am asking everyone I know on Twitter to post an empowering, positive message or quote using the #choosethisday hashtag. Why May 1? Two reasons: because “mayday” is a distress signal, and because “May Day” is an ancient celebration of renewal. Both play into the notion of positivity and suicide awareness that I hope to advance.

I’m hoping, through a massive number of retweets, to keep this going throughout May, and end with a Twitter event after Memorial Day that is still in the planning stages.

Might you add your voice to #choosethisday? Share your spirit with those who are hurting. A favorite inspirational quote. A small confession of what makes you come alive.

If you don’t yet follow me, please do so @kcraftwriter. I’ll follow you back. If you’re not on Twitter you can still play—I’ll happily accept #choosethislife quotes on my Facebook Author Page as well, and look forward to sharing in your inspiration on May Day and beyond!

Class Acts You’ll Want to Follow

If you are an avid reader, this post is for you.

Last week my debut novel, The Art of Falling, turned one year old. Since then my life has been like one long gratitude-filled surprise party and I wanted to share some of my experiences here. Watch out—I will be naming names!

Fan mail

I have to admit that until I became one, I had never written to an author before in my life. Granted, I became an author in an era when author contact is now much easier, thanks to websites, Facebook author pages and Goodreads. But truly, shame on me. I had no idea what incredible joy a short note would bring.

This excerpt is from my favorite note so far, because the reader was so far outside

I went through the library’s new release section and left with a pile of books, having chosen yours without even reading the back. I just liked the cover. When last night I couldn’t fall asleep I reached for the nearest book, yours, to help me along. It did not have the intended effect.

I was up most the night reading. Every now and then you read a book so true you just want to stand on the rooftops and shout to the world about it. I felt that way about The Art of Falling. Thank you.

My husband couldn't stop reading The Art of Falling even after the power went out.

My husband couldn’t stop reading The Art of Falling even after the power went out.

Facebook Likes, Amazon Reviews, and Newsletter Subscriptions

These are so incredibly important to an author! Goodreads reviews are super to create buzz for a title, but think about it: someone impressed with a review at Amazon can purchase the book with one additional click. If you only review on Goodreads, considering copying and pasting your review at Amazon as well. I have way too many to thank for doing this to single anyone out, but you all have my undying gratitude! And even if you follow your favorite authors on Facebook, subscribing to their newsletter means you won’t accidentally bypass an important post.

Street team support

These days authors rely upon “social influencers” to help them spread the word about their book, sometimes even organizing what they call “street teams” to help them in this regard. So how cool is it when you have some readers who so love your book, and so want to help give it wings, that they assume this role on their very own?

Yes, Nancey Brackett, I’m talking about you. Until my final road to publication, I only knew Nancey because her husband bought a motorboat from me. Then suddenly she became my greatest champion, and such a good friend I wonder what I would have done without her. She told all her friends about my book, once ferrying a buyer across the lake right to my dock. She held a dinner in my honor and invited friends she thought would like the book. She recommended it to her book club (and other clubs!) and hosted me as a guest when they discussed it. Nancey’s been invaluable.

Another lake friend, Amy Van Kirk, had no book club—but that didn’t stop her! She told some dozen friends they would love my book, ordered in enough copies to her local Barnes & Noble so they could buy and read it, then held a high tea for me in her house in Syracuse, NY, so we could gather and discuss it. That was so much fun!

Published author support

We authors can support one another in similar ways. Internationally bestselling author Catherine McKenzie, for instance, was a woman I’d never met until I read her book Hidden this summer. It was great, and I wrote a Goodreads review and a glowing post on Facebook about it. Next thing you know she had purchased The Art of Falling, consumed it in a day, and posted reviews to Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon. She then went on to include it in her Huffington Post article, Ten Books You Might Not Have Read in 2014 (But You Really Should Read in 2015). Then reprinted the same list in her author newsletter. And then she ran her own giveaway of all those books on her Facebook Author page! Catherine is a dynamo and her support, for which I am so incredibly thankful, was a huge, delightful surprise.

Ann Garvin, founder of the Tall Poppy Writers <link> cooperative of women’s fiction writers I belong to, helped me add “Likes” by going to my Facebook author page and then, from among her own friends shown at the top, picked some she thought would like my work and invited them to also like my page! I hadn’t even known you could do that—she off-handedly said she did it while watching TV one night—but what a wonderful way to support a writer you like! All of my fellow Poppies, especially Sonja Yoerg, have helped spread my news through Facebook shares and retweets, along with so many other women’s fiction enthusiasts.

Joint (ad)ventures

From Meet the Author events on a Skaneateles Lake cruise boat to a signing in a tasting barn at a Thousand Islands winery, I had a lot of fun this summer cooking up schemes with fellow NY authors Therese Walsh and Ellen Marie Wiseman, women I knew only from Facebook yet who I now call good friends. Ellen invited me to share her table at the Lyme Community Days in her hometown of Chaumont, NY. That town may be tiny but they love Ellen! Fans of The Plum Tree had her second title, What She Left Behind, flying off the table all day and with each purchase this gracious author said, “Here’s my friend Kathryn Craft. Let her tell you about her debut novel.” Therese, author of The Moon Sisters, which I adored, invited me to join in on a retreat on top of a mountain north of lovely Asheville, NC with Catherine McKenzie and New York Times bestselling author Therese Anne Fowler, where I was able to complete my copyedits in peace by day, and in the evenings, steep myself in real-life publishing industry scenarios from women farther down the path than I.

Have you ever loved a book so much that you wanted to help the author in any way you can? What other ways have you found to do so? If you haven’t yet thought to do so but would like to, these are some class acts you can follow.

My Life as a Grand Bitch

This week at the lake (and God help me, perhaps next week as well), I’m visiting with an adorable, four-legged bundle of joy, eight-month-old Xena, while her person, Marty, is off on vacation.

Since Marty is my son, I am Xena’s grand bitch. This week I’m learning more about what that really means.

As those who follow me on Facebook already know, Xena is cuddly and full of personality. I mean, look at her here with Marty:

Xena and Marty

Wouldn’t you want some of that action?

The thing is, that’s the action she’s used to—and as a writer, I need my alone time. In a story, we’d say that this character set is well orchestrated for conflict, and indeed, I’ve met few of my writing goals since Marty left.

But since my grandmother, to whom this blog is dedicated, would have wanted me to speak only kindly of my guest, I shall.

Xena wants to tell me, in a most excited fashion, whenever she sees…anything. Life for Xena is one long eye exam, and she wants me to know her vision is excellent. She barks at anything moving outside the camp, and thanks to my awesome architect, Doug Gallow, we have a lot of windows (now covered in slobber). “Look, Grand Bitch! I can see Charlie Van Kirk raking leaves! [She’s not yet inured to the fact that Charlie rakes compulsively.] Oh no, Grand Bitch, some people are venturing out onto the water—danger! Oh—another moth! And what’s this, Grand Bitch—another neighbor is pushing a growling machine that’s eating the grass!”

I can’t ignore her because she’s also gone to the window, barked, then pooped. Deciphering can be tricky. I must be vigilant.

Xena wants to interact with me. A lot. Sometimes, consumed with Zen-like patience, she’ll let me type an entire sentence before sitting by my chair to look up at me imploringly. Have you ever tried to write while someone is staring at you, while wriggling, from just inches away?

Xena imploring

Then she goes and gets her rubber chew toy.

That’s because I had to hide the braided pull toy. In our first days together, when I insisted on working, Xena would jump up behind me, put her paws on my shoulders, and drop the knotted braid onto my chest, where its puppy slime and associated scent could not be ignored. So I’d fling it away (screeching may have been involved)—and the games had begun.

Those games had to stop.

Her only recourse now is the rubber chew toy.

Xena chew

She brings the toy over and chews it on my lap, “accidentally” nipping at my thighs now and then to make certain I know she’s there, until I give in and try to grab it. Then she pulls back with it and growls. If I go back to typing? Repeat last sentence. She growls until I leave my chair and try to grab it from her, which she lets me do, and then I throw it, and she races around the house with it as if it’s a grand prize. I can get in one more sentence, if I’m lucky, until the cycle begins again.

Xena has her own ideas about how to use furniture and camp features. If it’s quiet but a moment, she’s no doubt doing something…creative. Which I must snap a picture of, of course, for evidence.


Xena loves long walks. She is having more fun than I. Nose to the ground, Xena resurfaces road and shoulder like a late summer Zamboni.  During a one-mile walk she has co-starred in a hundred epic tales featuring frogs, snakes, birds, raccoons, and deer, simply by snuffling up olfactory remnants of road kill. Whereas I, the one who cares to use words fancifully to tell a story, has simply been saying, “Heel. Heel. Heel.”

(Of course I’m trying to use up some of her boundless energy, but when we get home and my position at the computer signals that it’s time for storytelling, she wants to sit beside me and share her version. This morning she barked for five minutes straight.)

Part of me wants to give up and let her roam on these walks—I’m a grandma, I have the right to indulge her youthful fantasies!—but although she’s svelte, she’s also pit-bull-mix strong. Teaching “heel” is the only way I can protect myself from her constant yanking.

Indeed she has turned me into the person that I, even before becoming a full-on grand bitch, have mocked through the years: that gray-haired woman who insists she is still strong enough to train a willful puppy. Look at that fool, I’ve thought, being pulled herky-jerky fashion down the road, all of her joints at risk, while she lamely mutters one word over and over. She’s going to hurt herself.

No longer will I be such a grand bitch toward my fellow dog walkers. From now on I will see such a woman as blinded by love, whose novel isn’t getting written.

And perhaps she is desperately counting the minutes until her son gets home, as is Xena.

Xena waiting

A visit from the fire company

What a difference two hours can make.

At 10:30 last night—after scant sleep the night before and a couple of glasses of wine with good friends at dinner—I shut down the house for the night and thankfully climbed into bed.

At 12:30 I woke up to a smell like burning plastic. (If you want to know how I know what burning plastic smells like, let’s just say it has something to do with my son, a stovetop burner, and a Rubbermaid pitcher.)

No detectors or monitors were beeping, but I flipped on a few lights to check for smoke. When I got to the stairwell the smell was truly sickening, and I did venture down one floor to look around.

But then, like any self-respecting, intelligent, independent-minded, problem-solving women’s libber would do: I went to wake my husband.

I do feel kind of  bad about that. He’s had a bad cold for a month and is now on antibiotics for a sinus infection, and while I’d only gotten three hours sleep the night before from his persistent cough, he hasn’t had more than three hours straight for more than a week. And I wasn’t even so sure he could help, even without his nose so compromised—I’m often sensitive to smells he never perceives. So when I woke him, and he immediately said, “What’s that awful smell,” I knew we had a problem.

We spent the next hour looking everywhere. But the smell was so pervasive by that point, and our respiratory tracts so raw, we could no longer tell where it was strongest. Dave, a retired safety man for a gas utility, suggested we call 911. I, who have not surrendered my preference for denial in the absence of empirical proof , argued against it.

We sat with our non-emergency, dumb with lack of sleep, propped up by adrenaline, afraid to go to bed for fear we would never wake. At 1:30 a.m. Dave finally made the call. The operator told us to wait outside our home.


Within ten minutes a bunch of first responder SUVs arrived, lights flashing, along with the fire chief and assistant fire chief. Two big fire trucks we’d heard scream through town had parked outside our address and lit up our row of town homes like it was daytime. Eventually we entertained almost a dozen fully outfitted firefighters with oxygen tanks on their backs—roughly the same number of writers who had attended my afternoon workshop just twelve hours before.

Their procedure is to set an orange cone at the bottom of the steps and hook it onto the railing—each firefighter wears two tags on their gear, and when they enter a building they clip one of them to the cone so if someone doesn’t make it out, the others can figure out who’s missing.


As each of the firefighters tried in vain to wipe the snow from their boots before entering the house, I thought of the writers who had arrived that day in the snowstorm and asked if they should remove their shoes to save our pale carpets. Now, I just wanted to save our house.

The firemen searched the whole house, as we had. Using thermal imaging devices to look for hot spots behind walls and in other spaces unavailable to the naked eye, they double-checked their work inside and out, including the outsides of our neighbor’s houses. They tested the air inside for toxins. Every now and then they came outside so they could return to their search with a fresh olfactory perspective. But one thing impressed me: All of them took this quite seriously. Better safe than sorry, they said.

I recalled seeing a piece on TV where Gavin de Becker, the author of The Gift of Fear, said that most of us know when danger is present—then talk ourselves out of it. In his book he urges us to trust our gut instincts, and I’m glad we (ultimately) did. One of the firefighters told us how detrimental such denial can be: one homeowner called 911 only after their carbon monoxide monitor had been going off for five hours. The purpose of their call was to see how on earth to turn it off.

The cause of the harsh scent, the firefighters finally came to believe: our refrigerator. They unplugged it and pulled off a back panel to look for fire, which they did not find, but once it had been unplugged for a half hour the smell started to dissipate. Their theory was that something inside of it has burned out. In the first photo above, sitting at the top of the stairs, is a fan they’d brought along, but when the air tested safe they packed it back up and left without using it.

Sleep cycle now hopelessly skewed, Dave was wide awake by this point so stayed up to watch on TV a live Grand Prix race he had planned to watch taped today. I couldn’t get to sleep because my feet were so icy from standing out in the snow for an hour so I microwaved a sock full of rice and tucked it into the bottom of the bed to warm them. Then, after cracking the bedroom window for good measure, I eventually was able to catch a few hours of sleep.

As for our stainless steel side-by-side, it’s one of the few aspects of our home we never liked anyway. It doesn’t work wedged into a corner as it is, because we can’t open the door wide enough to get into it without a fair bit of contortion. We’ve chosen to fridge shop rather than see about repairing it. Anyone interested in the old fridge let me know within a couple of days—but consider yourself forewarned!

Have you ever chosen denial over gut instinct—and regretted it? I’d love to hear your story.

How Collecting can Change the World

Do you believe your child can change the world?

Do you believe you can change the world?

My stepdaughter, Silver, recently sent me the link to this wonderful, upbeat Sesame Street video, “Change The World.” She wrote, “If only parents, teachers, and society continued this message to all kids. Even if they believed it at five, I suspect if you polled a bunch of thirteen-year-olds many would no longer believe this.”

She has a great point, so I wanted to extend the conversation here. The incoming messages during our teen years do tend to signal a disturbing change from “Anything’s possible!” to “Who do you think you are?”

One way our children gain in personal power is through encouraging participation in activities that capitalize on natural talents. It occurs to me that there’s another way that doesn’t require quite so much running around.

I allowed my children to be collectors.

Collecting doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. When I was young I collected postcards my relatives found on their world travels; butterflies I caught, identified and preserved; and sea shells my parents brought back from various trips (I had never even been to the ocean). I then became obsessed with “anything little”—the tinier the better—and collected anything from worry dolls to miniature bottles to tiny Sunmaid raisin boxes.

Surrounding myself with items that struck my fancy, I learned that my interests and passions could change my little corner of the world and reflect my presence in it. I was the magnet that brought these items together.

My children funded their collections with their allowance. Since our move a few years ago, these collections found a new home in our basement. The minerals my older son bought languish in their plastic drawers; my younger son’s Beanie Babies slowly smother in a plastic trash bag. Not usually one to want anything to go to waste, this doesn’t bother me at all. They’ve fulfilled their function and earned the rest: my older son is pursuing a career in opera, and my younger son works part-time as a traffic engineer between gigs with his hardcore band that have allowed him to travel the U.S. and abroad. They are connecting with audiences and living what is important to them and, in their own small way, changing the world.

I can provide a longer case study. These days I collect books. And one year from now I will add one to my shelves—The Art of Falling—that carries my name on the front. The book will reflect a decade of consistent work on my part, and more than a year of work on the part of the publishing team. And it will reflect my chance to change not only my little corner of the world, but the little corners in which my potential readers sit—and it will be my honor to do so. Check out the cover, revealed today at The Blood-Red Pencil!

Then pop back here and tell me: what did you collect? Did you ever think about the fact that you were the magnet that drew these items, experiences, or people together?