Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Not Marvell’s chariot, but these guys look inexorable. You won’t stop them!

Andrew Marvell’s  “To His Coy Mistress” is one of my favorite poems, especially the line, “For at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot drawing near.” Those wingbeats thrum louder in my ears everyday.

By the end of June, after six weeks work, I’d achieved my goal to abolish fear of the blank page and establish a daily writing habit. I now had an additional 25,000 words to join the hundreds of thousands of words, crammed into my paper and computer files—novels, stories, children’s books, et al. in various stages of completion/revision. Few have seen the light of day. Some of my feeble and sporadic attempts at getting published have succeeded. But too often I’ve given up on my babies before they’ve had a fair chance.

Time to drag the kids out of the drawer, wipe their noses, wash their faces, send them out to make their way in the world. Early in July Project: Publish Before I Perish began.

For the first two months, I decided, I’d go easy on myself. My goal would be to revise and publish, in one form or another, the 25,000 words I’d recently produced. (In the fall, I’d start on all the other stuff I’ve written over the years.) Dividing 25,000 words by 50 working days, 25 each for July and August, worked out to 500 words a day, about two double-spaced pages, which is what Kate Di Camillo’s working stint is.

This didn’t mean I’d end up with 100 publishable pages. Some of the 25,000 words were mere meandering, of no interest to anyone but myself. The rest would need a lot of cutting and tightening. I wasn’t sure how many publishable pages to aim for. Fifty seemed like setting the bar too low; 60 might be more realistic, roughly one a day.

The other question was what constituted publishing. For the summer at least, I decided I’d count posts to the blog, as well as submissions of the Millay proposal to agents and editors—a bit of a problem, perhaps, since it would mean completing the research and writing of two sample chapters, but I thought I could pull it off. Also among those 25,000 words was other stuff I might be able to turn into a query, story, or nonfiction article.

So, no more kidding around. Sixty pages, 15,000 words, sent out to the world by Labor Day. If I planned to be a professional writer—consistently published and paid—before those winged horses start trampling on my head, the time to start was NOW.

Monday, July 25, 2011


It was June 26, and I was coming into the end zone of my six-week Facing-the-Blank-Page project.

Sunday through Tuesday were spent in Connecticut visiting Daughter #3 and her family. Lots of catching up to do. Two adorable grandchildren, whom I don’t see often enough. My seven-year-old grandson’s martial arts graduation ceremony to view. An overnighter to Mystic to tour submarines, eat lobster, and watch my ten-year-old granddaughter shop for her birthday present.

My word count for those three days? Nada. But that was okay.

This vacation from writing and concentrating on my project must have shifted something in my unconscious. As I was falling asleep Tuesday evening, I found myself reflecting on another project of mine, one I hadn’t thought of in months. As I wrote on the train heading home from Connecticut the next day:

I had an epiphany yesterday, thinking about Required Reading.

Little off track here, Joan, aren’t we?

Required Reading is either (take your pick) a YA novel in need of revision OR one section of an adult novel in need of completion. The idea that came to me was a good one, involving some restructuring of plot and deepening of character in ways that would really improve the novel. I wrote 520 words sketching out the new idea—and this on a commuter train, where it’s difficult for me to write.

Was this epiphany a gift from my unconscious for all the hard work I’d put in over the past six weeks? Or was it a sly trick, an attempt to seduce me into dropping the Millay biography for now and get right to work implementing my revelation?

In either case . . . No, no, no. Focus, focus, focus.  File the idea away (not too far away) and get back to it when I finish the Millay bio.

Technically, the Facing-the-Blank-Page project was due to conclude on Saturday, July 2, but I decided to end it two days early, on the last day of June, before the July 4th weekend, when I’d be going away again and so wouldn’t get much, if anything, done. I could now think of my project as 40 Days in the Wilderness of the Blank Page.

So Thursday, June 30, became the day to look back and sum up what I had and hadn’t accomplished. Since May 22, 40 days ago, I’d managed to write at least something on 32, or 4/5 of those days, for a grand total of 25,000 words. This works out to an average of 625 words per day, easily meeting my goal. Even better, on actual writing days, my average word count was 781. Good-O and kudos to me!

One important thing I noticed was that in May, when I’d set myself a goal of 1000 words  a day, I’d averaged 995 on every day I actually worked. In June, when I still aimed for 1000 but decided to accept a minimum of 600, my word-count average dropped to 781 on my working days. Memo to self: don’t be afraid to set your goals high.

Now that I had those 25,000 words, what was I going to do with them? The remaining 760 words I wrote that day comprised my plans for Publish Before I Perish, my project for the next two months.

Friday, July 22, 2011


This week I finally started hitting my stride, at least in terms of word count. On Sunday, the 19th of June, I wrote the 1350-word entry that became the basis of this series of “Facing the Blank Page” blogs. From this point on on I focused on A Girl Named Vincent exclusively.

But I hit a snag here too. Monday’s writing stint began with these words:

The problem now with keeping to my 1000-word-a-day schedule and focusing on the Millay biography is that I’m at the point where I need to do research and take notes in order to have anything to write. But note-taking doesn’t count as writing. Also, I need to start doing some revising. Di Camillo halves her page quota for revision, but I think I’m going to keep my quota the same 600 to 1000 words, since it’s still rough revision and will include lots of new writing as well. 

I may be doing some restructuring as well. Maybe I will call the opening pages the preface, instead of Chapter 1. And leave Millay out of it.

This rethinking of approach morphed into an actual re-writing of the first part of the preface for a total word count of 1300.

Tuesday: 1100 words of good stuff for the preface (or Chapter 1), presenting Millay’s backstory up until the age of 20—who she was, what her life was like, what her motivations were.

Wednesday: a little cheating here. Six hundred words which are really note-taking (but rephrased in my own words) describing Millay’s hometown.

Thursday: real cheating now. One thousand words, but all notes on one of the earlier adult biographies of Millay, mostly on her family and early life.

Friday: researching the turn-of-the century era when Millay was a young girl—650 words of notes on various books about the period. The hell with calling note-taking cheating, I decided. It was what I needed to do now, so it would count.

Saturday: Only 100 words today, a vivid rewrite of the opening of Chapter 1 (or Chapter 2, if I decide to call the preface, Chapter 1) in the interests of heightening the drama, plus four lines of a poem I was working on.

Saturday’s output was small because I had to rush to catch a bus, the first leg of my trek to Connecticut for a five-day visit with Daughter #3 and her family. My granddaughter, who would be turning 10 on Tuesday and whose parents were taking her and her little brother on an overnighter to Mystic for a birthday treat, said she wanted her grandma to come along too. Couldn’t resist an appeal like that. So off I went.

Would I get much writing done? I suspected not. Wisely, I introduced an Orwellian modification to the rules: I would write at least 600 words every day, except when I had or was an overnight guest.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


On Sunday, June 12, with Big D still a visitor, I wrote nothing.

Monday, once more back in my “room of one’s own,” I wrote a 600-word account of our pleasant weekend, which we’d spent mostly walking—and eating. Wong Wong in Chinatown Friday afternoon, so D could have the Peking duck he fondly remembers from his years in Philly. Then after dinner that evening, we'd gone to Smokey Joe’s in West Philly for drinks. Nice place with a circular bar, a good mix of patrons, and a white-haired guy banging away at a piano, singing old show tunes and cracking bad jokes. All of which, naturally, I enjoyed. Saturday had been a trolley ride and a nostalgia walk around Lansdowne so D could show me where he used to live. After a nine-mile trek home along Baltimore Avenue and a much-needed nap, D put up the air conditioner and I made a salmon and salad supper. Afterwards, an outside table at Cocobanana for one of their cold and yummy margaritas. Sunday, we'd watched tourists run up the Philadelphia Museum of Art's famous steps for an a-la-Rocky victory salute, then strolled along the river, where men were teaching their kids to fish, then into Fairmount for pizza in an Italian restaurant called Illuminare, silken flags of every nation fluttering high overhead. Walked home, another nine-mile round trip, and flopped on the couch. Then D had to pack up and start the long trip home.

So, no additions to my word count but, as I wrote:

There’s something to be said for long-distance relationships, as I’ve always suspected. I focused on D all weekend, now it’s back to focusing on work. Two of the major parts of my life satisfied without conflicting with each other.

If Big D and I do ever get to share a home together, however, the famous “room of one’s own” is a definite requirement.

Monday’s 600 words comprised an account of my weekend plus more thoughts on The Social Animal, which I was still reading. I began Tuesday’s stint like this:

I’ve established that I can write 600 plus words first thing every morning except when visiting/being visited. The next challenge is to write words that will coalesce into something ongoing—specifically my writing project, A Girl Named Vincent. I want to start racking up the pages and chapters. It now feels like I’m sloughing that off. 

My mental and emotional focus right now is on two things: reading and thinking about Brooks’ book The Social Animal and my relationship with D. The book is raising all sorts of questions and giving me lots to think about, some of which have to do with how D and I are getting along, but also about the evasions, the slippery slopes and lurking dangers of one’s unconscious mind, along with its green valleys and pleasant streams.

Rereading this I see that books, as well as people, are distractions. Focus is difficult for me. It was hard to write about Millay when I was thinking about Brooks’ book, which means, I guess, that when writing a book I should read only what pertains to it or is too mindless to think about.

The remaining 821 words I wrote on Tuesday were about Millay. I was determined to complete a proposal to send out to agents and editors within two weeks. Wednesday’s entry contained one of my typical, setting-myself-up-for-failure plans. To wit:

In order to send out a proposal by Thursday, June 30, I need to follow these steps:
1. Finish researching/writing first sample chapter.
2. Finish researching/writing second sample chapter.
3. Revise proposal’s chapter outline.
4. Revise proposal’s cover letter.
5. Revise/compile agent/editor list.
6. Revise/send query letter.

Other things I need/want to do in the next two weeks:
1. Poetry class, Wednesday, 15
2. New York for Teresa’s reading Saturday, 18
3. Poetry class, Wednesday, 22
4. Trip to family in Connecticut, Sunday, 26 to Wednesday, 29

1. Post blog entries
2. Weekly records/ pay bills, etc.
3. Email
4. Food shopping

Say what? Luckily I came to my senses as soon as I read this over:

Who am I kidding? It’s that first chapter that needs attention right now and it probably won’t get done in one or two days.

By the end of the week, I hadn’t completed the biography’s first chapter, but I did devote all my writing time to it. Thursday I wrote 1000 words setting out the sort of young adult biography I’m trying to write (one that’s such a good read it can be sold in bookstores, will tempt kids with all the devices that fiction uses to tempt them, and yet at the same time will have the accuracy that teachers and librarians look for)—all good material for my query and/or proposal. Friday I wrote 600 words that approach the first chapter from a different angle: Millay’s mother’s POV. And Saturday I wrote a 300-word character sketch of Millay as a young girl—“a swan among ducklings.”  All grist for the mill.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Sunday, June 5, began Week 3 of Facing the Blank Page. Three weeks is what it takes, I’d heard, to set any habit. I decided to aim for six weeks, just to make sure.

So far, so good. I was in the groove. Sunday, I finished my personal experience piece about my first encounter with black people--1000 words, no sweat.  Monday, I began a personal experience piece on being a non-driver—600 words. Tuesday, I ruminated on my plans for the Millay biography for 760 words, and Wednesday began a personal experience piece on the first time I met Big D, some 28 years ago, for 615.

On Thursday, June 9, I ran into trouble.

The day began badly. My cell phone woke me at 5AM with a taped message from some bank, supposedly, saying my account had been closed: “Press 1 to re-activate it.” Wasn’t I less likely to participate in a scam when I was angry about being woken out of a deep sleep? Or didn’t the scammers, in whatever part of the world they were calling from, not take account of the time difference? Or did they think someone only half awake was more likely to fall in with their scheme?

Whatever. I was now awake, though bleary-eyed, so I got up, grabbed my coffee, and sat at my desk. My euphoria of the past few days was gone. I didn’t feel like writing.

Blame it on the scammers. Or blame it on the New York Times column that sat open on my laptop. I’d planned to write about the pleasures and difficulties of re-adjusting to coupledom after being single for 14 years, with a view to perhaps submitting the piece to the “Modern Love” column in the Times Sunday Styles section. Re-reading one of these columns had seemed like a good idea.

From their archives, I chose the one the Times claimed had garnered the most interest—the famous training-your-husband-a-la-Shamu article. Bad move. I found the article irritating, a large part of its popularity due I’m sure to the way it plays to an underlying hostility toward husbands in the female readership. To me, that eye-rolling view of men as at heart only little boys or animals in need of training is distasteful. But because the author is so skillfully lighthearted in the telling of her tale, my own feelings seemed prudish, which made me uncomfortable.

More to the point, I hadn’t quite finished reading the article the night before, so this morning my eyes couldn’t help but scan down the page. Reading something written in someone else’s voice just before attempting to write in my own was a killer, undermining the whole concept of coming to the blank page fresh from sleep, especially when I planned to write about something personal. I began, but stopped after about 300 words.

Only one way to make up my daily quota: I reaped another 400 words by writing a detailed analysis of what had gone wrong.

Friday, my enthusiasm was still flagging, though I managed to churn out 650 words of journal writing, including an assessment of the book I’d begun, David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which was both intriguing and puzzling me. My listlessness may have been due to the heat, way up in the 90s. Big D, who was due to arrive for the weekend, had promised to put up the air conditioner for me. Cooler air might help, but his presence would be a challenge. Could I continue to write with him here? An important concern, since we were planning to move in together at some time in the future.

I was right to be concerned. Here’s my complete entry for Saturday, all 46 words:

Not much time to write today. D is here for the weekend. This is a good chance, however, to see whether I can keep this up even with distractions.  Even more important, if I can return to the usual when the distraction has gone home. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Snag number 2 in my daily writing program occurred on Memorial Day Weekend, the beginning of Week 2. Early Sunday morning I took Megabus from Philly to New York to spend the day with my friend, Big D—too early to have time for my morning writing stint. For Sunday I chalked up a zero on the chart.

A holiday, I told myself. And I did have a good time, getting a tour of D’s childhood neighborhood, a picnic in Riverside Park, a stroll through a street fair on Broadway, a walk around Chelsea—we walk a lot, D and I—topped off with a sushi dinner—we eat a lot too—before grabbing the bus back to Philly. It was worth it.

Monday I was back with the program, writing 700 words of biography plans. But nothing on Tuesday, and, because I didn’t write it down, I don't remember why. But I do remember a feeling of drudgery setting in, a sense of nothing worth writing. Had my day off Sunday been a dangerous interruption in the pattern I was trying to establish? Was this writing program going to end in a fiasco, as others had in the past?

I pulled myself together, recollecting that the point was to write something, anything. Just write. It worked. On Wednesday and Thursday I wrote journal entries of 750 and 1220 words each. On Friday and Saturday, inspiration still flagging, I was reduced to writing several lengthy emails I’d been putting off, 800 and 650 words each.

Nothing much, but I was writing. One thing I noticed was that I still felt my power drain and a concomitant urge to stop at around 500 words. I once had a regime of long, early-morning bicycle rides. Just as with writing, I’d start out strong, but feel resistance around the five-mile mark and want to quit. Once I pushed past that point, however, my muscles loosened up. I got into the rhythm of the ride and rode effortlessly for many miles more. So with writing. Once I wrote 600 words or so, the ideas seemed to come more quickly and the words to flow with ease.

I’d gotten myself back on track. I was writing, though I wasn’t writing publishable stuff.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


I began Operation: Blank Page on Sunday, May 22, as I’d planned. Having just returned from a biography conference in Washington, I wrote about that—more journal than report. Resistance was strong at first. Reaching my goal of 1000 words was hard; 500 seemed like a natural stopping point. But I managed to push through, hoping that once my subconscious realized how serious I was, it would buckle down and get to work.

The first snag came the next day. I had an overnight guest Sunday and Monday nights. Naively, I’d thought I could continue with the program anyway. But I live in a small apartment. No way to ignore the presence of another person. For two days I wrote nothing. Determined not to let this derail me, I got back in the saddle Wednesday morning and again wrote just over 1000 words, most of it a combination of memoir, plans for future projects, especially my Millay biography, and a paragraph on Millay’s character that would come in useful later. Another couple of paragraphs, on a friend’s book, became a blog post later that week.

I sailed through the next three days, easily exceeding 1000 words a day. I wrote the beginning of a second chapter for a short story I was thinking of turning into a novel. I wrote the beginning of a piece on my first childhood encounter with black people—material I hope to someday use in a book and/or post to my blog. I wrote about my tastes in biography, my aims for the one I’m writing, and further reflections on Millay’s character, all useful material.

I kept a progress chart (numbers in boldface represent meeting my minimum daily goal):

Date              5/22     23     24       25         26       27       28
# words         1057     0        0      1033     1008    1128    1037
Total             1057    1057   1057  2090     3098    4226    5263
Average         1057     529   352      523       620    704      752

All was going along swimmingly. Then I hit snag number two.

[to be continued]

Friday, July 8, 2011


In my poetry-writing class, it was suggested we write our own epitaph. Here’s mine.

Joan Kane Nichols

In a thin pine box beneath this tree
here I lie as you can see
feeding Nature as it fed me.

I found the photograph on Tom McLaughlin’s blog post of May 19, 2007 (scroll down the post). The grave shown is on top of a hill on a long-abandoned farm in Stoneham, Maine. The oak tree shading it, probably planted at the same time as the burial, is dying now, its share of sunlight blocked by the surrounding white pines.

The epitaph inscribed on the slate reads:

wife of Jacob Stiles
died August, 1848
AE 51 yrs 7m

Olive was Jacob’s second wife and stepmother to his eleven children. She loved to walk out to the hilltop to enjoy the view of pasture, woods, and pond. Here, she told her family, was where she wanted to be buried. I envy her choice. Beats the bland, featureless, suburban grave lots on Long Island by a long shot.

Monday, July 4, 2011


The writer’s block thing had gone on long enough. Supposedly I was developing a proposal for a YA bio of Edna St. Vincent Millay. But the two half-finished chapters I planned to include had been half-finished for a year. I live alone and work at home. My time is my own. I’d returned to this project in April. Yet here it was almost the end of May, and I was getting nothing done.

I was writing, I told myself. But I wasn’t. I was researching, jotting down notes, attempting some revision. That was on the good days. Other days, I read books on writing. Or I scoured my email for hints and chat from online writing groups. I was doing everything a writer should do—except write. And although I started this blog, which does require actual writing, it was a hit-or-miss affair. I wrote for it when the spirit moved me. Otherwise not. Obviously some bootstraps needed pulling up.

Then, on the Cath in the Hat blog, I saw an interview with children’s writer Kate Di Camillo (see it here), who was asked about her writing habits. Quite simple. Every morning she gets up at 5AM and, cup of coffee in hand, goes into her office and writes. She sets herself a modest goal, one she knows she can meet:  write two manuscript pages, single-spaced, or revise two pages, double-spaced. Every day. Two single-spaced pages can add up to over 1000 words. Not bad for a couple of hours work.

If Kate DiCamillo can do it, I told myself, so can I. After all, a few years ago, when I had a full-time job, I’d completed a 500-page novel by writing every morning before work. I’d done it once. I could do it again. To insure success I decided to begin with a goal even lighter than Di Camillo’s. I’d aim for 1000 words a day, but would be satisfied with 600.

I gave myself a few simple rules:
I would get to work first thing in the morning, when my mind was most open to the subconscious and its creative power. No checking the weather. No peeking at email.  Grab my coffee and get to work.
This would be first-draft raw material. No worrying about grammar, punctuation, or even style (a difficult rule for a former editor to follow).
Whatever I wrote should have the potential to be revised into something useful—preferably for my Millay proposal. I didn’t have to work on the two sample chapters, not at first. Instead, I could write about structuring the biography, ruminate on Millay’s character, pose questions, devise ways to find out what I needed to know. Or I could write blog entries or scenes for other fiction and nonfiction I’d been working on. Or, if all else failed, I could respond to email or write entries in my journal.

Having heard that it takes three weeks to establish a habit, my first goal was to face the blank page every morning for three weeks before taking stock. Today was Thursday, May 26. I was due to attend a Biographers International Organization Conference in Washington the next day. On Sunday, May 22, the day I returned, I’d begin.

Clearing my computer desktop of all but a few essential file folders tucked away in a corner, I set up a new folder, THE BLANK PAGE, centered so it would jump out at me as soon as I opened my laptop. Inside was a blank document titled, 5/22/11.

Did my scheme work? I’ll be reporting on the outcome in subsequent posts.