I was preparing an update to my January 25 post about resolving to read all forty-seven of Anthony Trollope’s novels in 2021. I worked all day yesterday and all day today (with time out to play Candy Crush and Scrabble Online while waiting to think of the next word).
The post was intended to be both light-hearted and erudite—the erudite part was the reason for the Candy Crush time-outs, because although when I was in graduate school I was, at times, extremely erudite, I’m a little out of practice.
And it takes a lot of words to be erudite. The piece kept getting longer and longer, with no end in sight.
So I did what I do. I scrapped it in the interest of a post with no erudition at all.
It begins with a cat bite and ends with a poem.
William the Cat had dental surgery last month. He’s twelve years old and overweight and diabetic, and I spent the day before surgery crying because I was afraid he would be anesthetized and never wake up.
However, he woke up and came home looking just as disgusted as he’d looked when he left home. In the interim, he’d lost five teeth, but he didn’t seem to miss them. In fact, he was downright perky.
Before surgery, David had to lift him onto the bed, where he spent his days monitoring squirrels and sleeping. Now he trips right up those kitty stairs and plops himself down any time he pleases.
He pleases when he smells coconut oil. I rub it on my hands at night for a moisturizer. He licks it off my hands. Sometimes he chases me onto the bed. Sometimes he gets there first and I have to wrestle him out of the way.
Being catlicked feels icky, but he’s elderly and determined, and I tolerate it, up to a point. The encounter usually ends in his getting a head, ear, and throat rub, followed by a tummy rub, accompanied by a rumbling purr (his). Sometimes he then walks across me, threatening to crack a couple of my ribs, to get to the other hand before succumbing to the tummy rub. Then he leaves.
But sometimes he bites. He’s always been a biter—lunge, chomp, lunge, chomp—as part of play. My fingers are toys. But where coconut oil is involved, he becomes the foe—adversary, attacker, assailant. Backbiter.
I’m not talking nips or little love bites. I mean he’s going for a mouthful of flesh and possibly some bone to go with it. And a few puncture wounds.
That’s how I know he still has his fangs. And that they’re in good working order.
Fortunately, the recent dental cleaning has kept me from having to visit the urgent care clinic for antibiotics. A little Neosporin and band-aids have sufficed.
I know about cat bites. Years ago, a stray cat named Perceval (I’d sort of adopted him) bit me when I gave him a tummy rub (not his fault; he turned belly-up, and I thought he wanted a tummy rub, but he’d been down the street chasing other stray cats and was still hyper). I ended up with cellulitis up to the elbow. “My gosh,” said the doctor, “we used to put people in the hospital on an antibiotic drip for that.”
More recently (six years ago, to be exact), while being worked on by a vet tech, William scraped my arm with a fang. Within twenty minutes the scrape was surrounded by a red circle two inches in diameter.
I went to the urgent care clinic. Then I went home and did what writers do: I wrote a poem about the experience.
But before I can talk about that poem, I must talk about another one: Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me.” It’s one of my favorites. To wit:
Jane Carlyle, wife of philosopher Thomas Carlyle, was a quiet woman. She did not show strong emotion. But one day when writer Leigh Hunt, who had been very ill, arrived for a visit, Jane jumped up from her chair, ran across the room, and kissed him. Surprised and delighted, Hunt memorialized the event in a poem.
Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.
And that is how I came to memorialize the scrape William gave me at the veterinarian’s office:
William bit me at the vet,
Didn’t like the aide’s assistance,
Used his claws and fangs to set
On the path of most resistance.
Say I’m teary, say I’m mad,
Say that pills and needles hit me,
Say my arm’s inflamed, and add,
William bit me.
If we are fortunate enough to have our health and our jobs, we are grateful but still struggling to create a new normal for ourselves and our families. So many of us now have kids finishing their semesters through online school while we’re working full time. Many of our touchstones and daily routines have been upended. We are doing our best each day, although the definition of ‘our best’ also changes on the daily.
Andy Boyle is here to help.
You see, his book, BIG PROBLEMS, was released by Penguin on March 31st. He is one of many authors who has found himself promoting a new book in the middle of this pandemic. Today, Andy shares what he learned while writing BIG PROBLEMS and offers advice on how to keep moving towards our goals—and why taking a break is not only fine, but necessary.
LO: First off, congratulations on your new book! Can you share a bit about the life experiences that culminated in your writing BIG PROBLEMS?
AB: Thank you so much! I’ve been a journalist for about 15 years, and it’s impossible for me to look through things without that lens. So after my first book, Adulthood for Beginners, came out, I was trying to find a meaty subject to sick my teeth into, something that would allow me to use myself as the storytelling and thematic vehicle to explain a big topic. But also, in the end, hopefully help people, which is one of the reasons I became a journalist in the first place.
And the topic I chose is, well, at its heart a mystery. How come a person like me—allegedly well-educated—managed to get so fat, just like millions of others? And then, to add another mystery, how come I was able to lose so much weight (and keep it off), unlike most people?
That led to the pitch for BIG PROBLEMS: A Former Fat Guy’s Look At Why We’re Getting Fatter And What You Can Do To Fix It. My agent liked it, my publisher liked it, and voila. I would research the macro and micro levels that led to myself—and others—getting fat, told through that journalistic lens, while also including quite a bit of levity and humor throughout.
I rewrote the book multiple times to get it right. At one point, I went back and redid about 50,000 words, replacing entire portions of the book, adding in more research, doing more journalism. It was a lot of work. It was a lot of running and weight-lifting and sweating.
But, in the end, I’m quite proud of the end result. I even narrated the audiobook! And I even had a director for that. The entire time I kept complaining about how “the guy who wrote this should’ve done a better job with these sentences.” The joke never got old.
LO: Do you find the habits you learned are harder/easier to stick to in this particular time of being in a pandemic?
AB: I think everything is harder for everyone right now, and folks who are saying it isn’t are, uh, perhaps misstating the facts a little. So, everyone needs to first cut themselves an incredible amount of slack.
But for me, the same habits that led to me losing weight, staying productive, and pushing myself toward healthier decisions, are the same habits I’m using now, which were all focused on certain goals. (For me, objective goals work best. Write 1,000 words a day, eat 200 grams of protein a day, read 90 minutes a day, that sort of thing.)
The only difference is, with everything going on, I’ve changed my goals substantially. Before my book came out, my goal was to be able to bench press a certain amount (225 pounds) for 5 sets of 5 reps, and deadlift 405 pounds for 5 reps. That was what kept me going to the gym regularly, following my strength program, eating properly, everything. When the gym practically disappeared from my life (when I was 10 and 30 pounds from my two goals, respectively), I decided my goals needed to change. With nothing heavy to regularly lift up and down, how could I have that kind of objective goal?
Now it’s much more simple: Workout four days a week (that’s mostly consisted of running 3-5 miles, with the occasional body weight/cables-attached-to-my-door strength training), hit a certain caloric and protein goal and get a good amount of sleep.
I’ve got a full-time job at the Chicago Sun-Times, plus I’ve been promoting a book, plus trying to plot out a novel. So my artistic goals have changed quite substantially, too. I just try and set aside 30 minutes a day now for my non-work projects. That could be spending 30 minutes learning a card trick. Or 30 minutes outlining my novel. Or 30 minutes writing up a character sketch. For me, 30 minutes is quite achievable after my normal work day, and it often ends up being longer than that. If I were a full-time writer, I would definitely have bigger goals. (For instance, when I was drafting my book, my goal was 1,500 words a day, which usually involved the research/interviews/etc., which wasn’t exactly easy when I had a full-time job. But hey, I did it. Somehow.)
Another important point: I don’t beat myself up if I don’t hit my goals. The idea is to try to hit them. If I only exercise three days a week, I still exercised. If I only write 500 words a day, I still wrote. Having goals helps you push yourself toward whatever you’re trying to get done. (Making daily lists of TO DOs helps with this immensely, especially for my day job. It also gives me a sense of accomplishment after I check each one off, even if it’s as simple as “Answer Laura’s wonderful questions she emailed you.”)
LO: Many writers consider themselves introverts, so working in isolation may not be a huge adjustment, but what advice do you have for the more extroverted among us? How are you adapting?
AB: I can walk between both worlds, but if I had my choice, I would be a hermit who lived on a plot of land in my home state of Nebraska with beautiful prairie vistas. I value my private time, especially when I am being creative. But I am also quite adept at putting on “The Andy Show,” to quote a former girlfriend, when I am around other people, AKA being entertaining and fun and Mr. Life of The Party. So, my Nebraska home would need to be like a five-minute drive from a hangout spot at the very least.
As a writer, being around people is great because you sometimes hear random idioms and turns of phrases, which you can then squirrel away into your phone in the NOTE you have titled “COOL DIALOGUE.” It’s also great to be around others because it reminds you how people react to one another, how people dress, how they smile, how they laugh, how they move their hands when they’re nervous, so many things. Just like reading helps to make you a better writer, being around humans helps to make you understand humans better—and as writers, we mostly deal with humans. Win-win.
I have most definitely missed my occasional coffee get-togethers with my writer friends. I’ve been hopping on video chats with people, reaching out more via text. My writing group had a video get-together to critique a draft of a novel of mine, which was lovely. I also held a Zoom “book launch” event the day my book came out, and about 25 people came. It was lovely.
However folks are getting through right now, though, is the “right way” to get through it all, introverted or extroverted. But one thing I’ve learned in my life is, if you’re ever in doubt of whether or not you should email an old friend or text someone to just say hello, just do it. Those connections are important, especially as you get older.
LO: How do you get your mind into a creative space right now? Or is that an unrealistic expectation during this time?
AB: I do it by making the time for it. That sounds like such a cliched thing, but I’ve never been a person who writes because the muse has spoken to my soul. Or because I have been struck with fantastic inspiration and have the entire writing project fully realized in my head.
No, I write because I’ve made a goal of writing XXX words a day, or for XX minutes, or whatever. And then I will usually schedule the writing time in my calendar, and then I get the message that says “10 minutes until WRITE 1,500 WORDS appointment,” which is enough time to go oh shit oh shit I am hungry I need to clean my entire home oh my cat needs new toys oh I should text my girlfriend oh shit oh shit AND NOW I am writing.
It’s work. And just like you gotta show up to your job to do your job (or at least now, log into your computer while wearing sweatpants at home), you gotta show up to do your creative work. And you make time for the work and make an appointment with yourself that you’ll do the work.
I used to be (still am?) a musician. Went to music school for my first two years of college. Studied vocal music performance. (Maybe 18-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to make such decisions.) What that taught me about creativity is you gotta make time to sit down, practice scales, try work that stretches your brain and skills (also known as: is hard), and just do the work. You make time for it. Over time, you get better. But it’s still work, and it sometimes still sucks and you can’t tell that you’ve gotten any better.
Mozart and Beethoven didn’t just go “Huzzah, I am going to write a piece of music that shall change the world!” (Which probably would’ve been in German.) No, they created a habit: They will try and write something during certain periods of time, probably while cursing in German. (Das ist Scheiße!). Sometimes the work sucked. Sometimes it was Beethoven’s Ninth. Regardless, they followed their process and the work followed.
I’m currently outlining a novel, a method I’ve never really had much success with before. (And you may be wondering, Andy, how much success have you had with previous novels? As I’ve only gotten non-fiction published, that should tell you a lot about my fiction success.) But I sit there for an extended period of time, legal pad in hand, and I just jot down ideas. I make little timelines and draw when events could occur, which lead to some of those ideas I jotted down.
I have to show up by putting my butt in a chair. The creativity happens somewhere while you’re doing the work. And, when you’re actively working on a project, you’ll be out on a run or sitting watching TV and you’ll get a great idea—WHAT IF THE LOVE INTEREST FROM HIS PAST KILLED HIM???—and then you jot it down into your phone’s NOTES tab under COOL IDEAS.
But that’s for me. I always am in need of a project. If you’re juggling 900 things and just trying to keep your head above water right now, you may not have the mental bandwidth for any sort of creative outlet. And that is completely fine. Anyone who says otherwise is probably a charlatan trying to sell you something or make themselves seem amazing in comparison. Which means they suck.
Sometimes the most creative thing you can do is let your mind get bored through the drudgery of everyday existence.
Q: What is it like, having a book come out in the midst of a pandemic?
It is a weird time to be promoting a book, especially when folks can’t walk into bookstores, check out the “New Releases” table, pick things up, be sold because of the back cover copy or the front cover artwork. It seems like now, more than ever, word of mouth is one of the best ways to promote books.
That means you should be regularly telling your friends books that you’ve loved, in the hope that they will buy them. And then you should also give links to your friends of the independent bookstores they can order the books from.
And this is me, your new internet friend, telling you to pick up my book. And then to tell everyone about it. And then also get Laura’s book. And tell everyone about it. And then tell everyone about another book you’ve loved that they should read.
Andy Boyle is the author of Adulthood for Beginners and an award-winning journalist and technologist. His work has previously been featured in the Chicago Sun-Times, Axios, Esquire, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and on NBC News. His work was cited in the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. He was also the runner-up in the 2019 Hugh Holton Award through the Mystery Writers of America’s Midwest chapter. A native of Nebraska, he lives in Chicago.
Laura Oles’ debut mystery, DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN, was an Agatha nominee, a Claymore Award finalist and a Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice nominee. She is also a Writers’ League of Texas Award Finalist. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including MURDER ON WHEELS, which won the Silver Falchion Award in 2016. Her most recent short story, “The Deed” was included DENIM, DIAMONDS AND DEATH: Bouchercon Anthology 2019.
Before turning to crime fiction, Laura spent two decades as a photo industry journalist covering technology trends for a variety of consumer and industry magazines. You can find her at https://lauraoles.com