I stumbled across novelist Jami Attenberg‘s #1000wordsofsummer challenge about 12 hours before it began on June 17. The challenge? Just as it’s named: to write 1000 words each day for a two week period. Attenberg first conducted this challenge last summer, first as an accountability pledge among writerly friends, then expanding it to include strangers from across the world wide web. Each day of the challenge, Attenberg sends a brief email to her mailing list with words of encouragement; this year, those daily emails include bonus guidance and encouragement from various other authors, including Celeste Ng.

It’s all just what I needed to get through a summer slump where I know what I need to do to work on my novel, but don’t always exactly know what to do next. #1000wordsofsummer makes it easy to decide what’s next on the writing to-do list: Write. Then keep writing. Then do it again tomorrow. (And if you want, chat about it on Twitter or Instagram as you go.)

Of course, I came down with a wretched summer cold on the first day of the challenge. But I have persevered. We’re seven days in as I write this blog post, and I’ve clocked 5847 fresh, new words. They aren’t all for my novel; instead of forcing my sick self to only focus on that one project, I’ve included things like a freewriting session about getting a roll of film developed and a draft I wrote of a conference session I’m presenting in September.

It doesn’t matter as much what I write with those words. The important thing is that I’m flexing my brain muscles and getting into the habit of writing a solid chunk of words each day, even after I’ve written hundreds for my day job writing about personal finance for a website. There’s no editing as I write these words, just movement forward. Onward to week two of the challenge. Oh, and I’m counting this blog post for 326 more words.


Rainy season

The last time I sat down to give considerable time and effort to this particular writing project, it was the middle of North Carolina winter. I was doing my first residency, at the Penland School of Craft, which offers artists the chance to stay as long as a month between its programming semesters.

Every day looked like this:

Which, for a newer Florida resident who hasn’t spent much time “wintering,” was a bit of a shock. Every day was crisp, brisk, and sometimes actually freezing. There was zero humidity and on day three of my two-week visit, I rush to the grocery store in town to get more moisturizer for my face. The change in environment was invigorating, not only in my day-to-day travels around campus, but also as I explored nearby hiking trails and streams with my fellow residents.

Now, I’m spending weekend afternoons at coffee shops as I work on this same project. It’s a different experience altogether — truncated, hyper-focused instead of meandering and contemplative.

And the weather is different.

Last weekend, I sat in one of my favorite new cafes (Flatbread and Butter, which I love because it has coffee and wine) and watched a storm brew up and then drop a torrential downpour on the neighborhood shortly after. The ducks at Round Lake across the street were having the time of their lives, but the other patrons all had a cautious, contemplative eye on the storm (which involved a lot of rain going sideways).

As the clouds cleared and the humidity returned, I had a small but mighty epiphany for my work, which centers so much on the impact of water on a community: There has to be more water. Beyond rainstorm-related flooding and tropical disturbances, I need to provide greater indicators of the seriousness of the impact of water on this story. It’s not just a matter of world-building, of creating a reality that’s understandable and believable. It’s also foreshadowing. It’s a way to gently tap the reader on the shoulder and whisper, “You better get ready for what’s coming next.”

It’s that time of year when you can’t go more than a day without witnessing (but hopefully not getting caught in) a brief thunderstorm. Instead of waiting for them to be over and the sun to return, I’m embracing them as a means of inspiration.


Climate fiction on the rise

I first learned about climate fiction in the summer of 2017, before my current project was even an idea. Climate fiction, often referred to as cli-fi, has been defined as “a genre of literature that imagines the past, present and future effects of climate change.”

The genre has gained popularity in the years since the Great Recession, but it’s works aren’t limited to our years of uncertainty.

Margaret Atwood is a cli-fi writer, as are Barbara Kingsolver and Ian McEwan. Michael Crichton is no stranger to cli-fi. Genre newcomers include Lesley Nnekah Arimah, Kim Stanley Robinson, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Nathanial Rich.

I haven’t read many of the cli-fi titles available, but one I considered recently was Michelle Tea’s Black Wave. The story takes place in 1999, as the protagonist waits for the announced end of the world to arrive in a year. Like in many cli-fi books, the climate elements are subtle compared to some of the rest of the themes of the book; in this case, explorations of love and family, ideas about personal security, and a fantasy element involving characters experiencing dreams together. In the character’s evolution throughout the story, climate events are there to ground the reader in the book’s dystopian backdrop.

But my favorite of all the cli-fi stories (so far!) is “What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky,” the title selection of a short story collection by Lesley Nnekah Arimah.

The girl lowered her eyes to her lap, fighting tears. As though to mock her, she was flanked by a map on the wall, the entire globe splayed out as it had been seventy years ago and as it was now. Most of what had been North America was covered in water and a sea had replaced Europe. Russia was a soaked grave. The only continents unclaimed in whole or in part by the sea were Australia and what was now the United Countries but had once been Africa. The Elimination began after a moment of relative peace, after the French had won the trust of their hosts. The Senegalese newspapers that issued warnings were dismissed as conspiracy rags, rabble-rousers inventing trouble. But then the camps, the raids, and the mysterious illness that wiped out millions. Then the cabinet members murdered in their beds. And the girl had survived it.

If you want to try climate fiction on for size among your reading selections, try listening to “What it Means…” read by Levar Burton (July 11, 2017 episode). It’s a treat.

The featured image for this post is a photo by Jasper van der Meij on Unsplash.


Air Gradia flight 452

For the past five years, when someone has asked for a book recommendation, I’ve always said, “Have you read Station Eleven yet?”

It happened just last week. My friend was looking for a new audiobook to enjoy, and when I asked her the question, she responded, “Yes, I read it the first time you recommended it to me.”

The book haunted me the first time I read it, and has become the most well worn paperback on my bookshelf at home. I recently read Station Eleven for the third time…I think. It might be the fourth.

So it’s undeniable that this book, my hands-down, desert-island favorite, has inspired my writing.

If you haven’t read it, (why not?! Get to it!) Station Eleven chronicles the interwoven paths of characters who have survived a population-decimating virus. One of my favorite passages is when Clark, who is stranded in an airport, comes to realize the true scope of the pandemic at hand.

A final plane was landing, an Air Gradia jet, but as Clark watched, it made a slow turn on the tarmac and moved away from instead of toward the terminal building. It parked in the far distance, and no ground crew went to meet it. Clark abandoned his nachos and went to the window. It occurred to him that the Air Gradia jet was as far away from the terminal as it could possibly go. This was where he was standing when the announcement came: for public-health reasons, the airport was closing immediately. There would be no flights for the indefinite future. All passengers were asked to collect their bags at Baggage Claim, to leave the premises in an orderly fashion, and to please not flip out.

“This can’t be happening,” the passengers said to each other and to themselves, over nacho platters and in angry clusters in front of vending machines. They swore at airport management, at the TSA, at the airlines, at their useless phones, furious because fury was the last defense against understanding what the news stations were reporting. Beneath the fury was something literally unspeakable, the television news carrying an implication that no one could yet bring themselves to consider. It was impossible to comprehend the scope of the outbreak, but it wasn’t possible to comprehend what it meant. Clark stood by the terminal’s glass wall in the Mexican restaurant, watching the stillness of the Air Gradia jet in the far distance, and he realized later that if he didn’t understand at that moment why it was out there alone, it was only because he didn’t want to know.

The book is packed with engaging dialogue, exchanges between characters who do and do not remember the time before, when electricity and automobiles and computers and the internet were everyday conveniences instead of artifacts of a long-missed era.

But it is in these quiet moments of individual reflection that the book transcends cause and effect to convey how each character reacts to a similar chain of events.

Author Emily St. John Mandel, explained in an interview that the airport scenes in Station Eleven were inspired by the events of September 11. When U.S. airspace closed, large jets landed at various modestly sized Canadian airports, leaving passengers to wait and wonder there as the day’s news developed.

As I continue my first true foray into the world of fiction writing, I think often about how shared events can affect people in ways that can be vastly differing, though similar at the core.


Genesis of a story: Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma track

Hurricane Irma’s path as presented by NOAA

When I tell people that the book I’m working on during my Creative Pinellas grant is about global warming, leaving home, and fighting against an oppressive government, they say, “Wow, that’s complex.” But the story was inspired by a very straightforward event: Hurricane Irma.

Irma was my first hurricane, less than a year after I moved to St. Petersburg after 10 years in the Washington, D.C. area. I thought I was ready. I had water, I had granola bars, I had batteries for the flashlight and the radio. Easy, right?

That was until Irma did a jig all over the Caribbean and her path changed seemingly every five hours. The storm was declared a hurricane far out in the Atlantic on September 1, giving us 10 slow-motion days of nonstop weather reports. While I played it cool, documents in plastic zip bags, a “go bag” and cat carriers ready to go at a moment’s notice, the sense of panic was overwhelming.

I didn’t think I was panicking. But I thought everyone around me was. I watched the near-constant weather updates. I waited in a long line for sandbags. I fielded calls and texts from well-meaning family and friends who wanted me to get on the next flight out of Tampa, not realizing how clogged the roads would be or that flights were already getting cancelled.

That panic seeps into your every waking moment, even if you don’t show it. On the Saturday before the storm arrived, I was awoken early by a phone call from my friend whose family had implicitly agreed to adopt me through the storm.

She skipped the hellos. “We have to go,” she said.

And we did, even though Irma ended up zagging east just enough so that the worst of it did not pass over us. But the night of the storm and the days after left me with a sense of wonder, awe at the destruction wind and water could cause, the sense of helplessness that can overcome the most pragmatic of people.  

That Saturday before the storm stuck with me, and from it was born the opening line of Sea Level: “When the water reached the end of the driveway, our mother told us it was time to go.”

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