One Decoder Ring, No Cereal Required…

My late husband used to say: “Don’t ask a question unless you actually want to hear the answer.” I forgot.

See, I’ve been writing. And yesterday when I checked out some Dictionary apps, a ‘Dream Dictionary‘ showed up in the search. I downloaded purely for kicks, a few laughs… like reading a horoscope. ZERO percent of me believes in astrology (especially since ghost-writing a BOOK on it once!) but stripped of their power, horoscopes sometimes amuse me… and I thought of this ‘dream decoder’ in the same (entertainment-only) light.

In other words: sheer fool-aroundery this morning, zero serious intent.

I forgot. I forgot to factor the difference between a ‘Virgo-blurb’ and a dream; namely, that MY brain created the dream. True, the off-its-rocker-crazy-Crayola part of my brain authored it… but even that bit of the brain is working with the raw materials of MY thoughts, experiences, feelings.

In other words: don’t ask what someone said about you (even ‘someone’ within yourself) unless you actually want the answer.

My therapist is going to LOVE this. Here’s the dream I wrote down this morning:

I’m standing on an interstate with all the traffic entirely stopped and drivers just standing around waiting. Every vehicle is a truck; I’m surrounded by trucks; some are even stacked up like Lego bricks. I’m strolling around pretending to chat with all these truck drivers, but I’m secretly searching for the Bad Guy in a yellow shirt who has created this standstill. An apprentice-agent appears and I send her scouting uphill through the woods to find a cell tower.

Total garbage, right? I know, I know—and I opened the Dream Dictionary expecting a hearty, self-mocking laugh out of the whole thing:

  • Stopped Traffic: not progressing where you want to go. [Well duh. That one’s barely even a metaphor.]
  • Truck: carrying a heavy load or difficulty. [Ouch. That’s, um… Heavy, actually. I did mention ‘therapist’, right?—We’ve been working through my husband’s suicide and some bad shit. ‘Stacked trucks’ pretty well describes it.]
  • Yellow clothing: Anxiety. [Seriously? Why did I know the Bad Guy wore a yellow shirt? But yeah, Anxiety has definitely snarled up the traffic of my ‘truck’-loads.]
  • Uphill: an undertaking or project.
  • Woods: your mental space or unconscious.
  • Tower: a refuge, a place of strength.

Well shit, I got robbed of my laugh. Unless you want to count laughing at myself because I had to do some Thinking instead. Whether or not I consider those dream-definitions “real,” that particular decoder-ring painted a pretty plain picture of my whole Therapy.

Ha, the irony! It was the endless freight-train of Nightmares that goaded me into therapy in the first place. I think it was the morning that I woke myself by hurling a coffee cup at the wall… Picking up the pieces {no metaphor there, cough cough} of my favorite mug, I decided to enlist some help with my Thinker.

I’ve deleted the Dream Dictionary… But maybe I’m listening better to my Mind.

Ready, Set… Oooh! More Research!

My mom, who lives a couple miles from my son’s college dorm, reported this morning that he came over for dinner and laundry last night, but left after only one NCIS episode because he “had some writing he wanted to do.” I’m grinning just writing that. (Christian hasn’t spoken to me in five years, but [sorry, Kid!] he continues to be very ME.)

She noted that he does a lot of research for his fiction, which made me grin again: I spent all of yesterday surrounded by untidy piles of books and my “nerd notebooks” (indexed and topic-tagged!) of information collected for my own piece of fiction. See, Research is part of the FUN! (You did catch that part about being a nerd, right?)

For my story set on a whaler, that means unearthing my sailing manuals; whaling novels, histories, biographies, and news stories; whaling films; websites of whaling museums, historical societies, rigging diagrams, weaponry… I just sent off an email to a model-ship-builder whose website engrossed my attention for two hours last night…

some of the stuff from my (messy!) end of the couch

I know perfectly well that of all this stuff I’m soaking in, maybe only ONE detail will end up on my page.

But man, will that ever be an AWESOME Detail!

And man, do I ever enjoy a good mind-wind tangled through a themed thread of Research. I guess that’s the thing: this Quest is recreational in its own right. Even if I never wrote a word with it.

This evening’s project? FACES! I’m collecting faces. I’ve got a whole ship-crew of blank paper dolls needing features, and I’m pretty sure this is what Pinterest is FOR!

from my “faces” folder on Pinterest…

Between the Covers

Hey, take your mind out of the gutter!

BOOK covers. I’m between the BOOK-covers of one of the hilarious social commentaries novels penned by Charles Dickens—and this particular copy of this particular book has me thinking…

I really do love the heft and the presence of a real paper book. BUT. Because I don’t have the shelf-space for a thousand books; and because a thousand books are portable on the iPad; and because I pick up all kinds of books for a couple bucks a pop from the Apple bookstore’s “sale bin;” and because I can look up, with a touch, anything I become curious about; and because I can read in bed without keeping a light on when my husband is sleeping; and… Well, because of lots of “becauses,” I do almost all my reading these days onscreen.

Still, when a mention (in another book) of this book prompted me to pick it up, I definitely went for the paper version. Because for this book I have a copy that belonged to my great-grandpa.

Charles Dickens Our Mutual Friend copy printed 1897
Great-Grandpa’s copy, “Our Mutual Friend”

As I turned the pages I got to thinking (in that rabbit-trail manner with which my mind works) about what age a work of literature gets to be before it begins to merit designation as “a Classic”—and that, then, got me wondering what age this printed copy of this classic might be, given what I did know of its provenance.

An easy answer was not forthcoming. Nowhere on the book could I find a publication date, edition number, or any other reference to the year. (Fitting, I suppose, for a novel that opens, “In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise...”)

Ultimately,I ran down my answer in a history of the publishing house, which went belly-up in 1898—the year after printing its run of Dickens novels. Huh, I thought, that’s kinda cool. (I mean, I knew it was Great Grandpa’s—but age-wise, that only guaranteed its birth-year preceded mine.)

Considering the hundred-and-twenty-three-year age of the book in my hands, my mind jumped next to pondering how new the novel itself was, when this copy of it went to press. (Did I mention a propensity for looking-stuff-up?) The answer, to frame it differently, is this: when this book printed, Our Mutual Friend was the same age of Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games NOW. Or Robin Cook’s Outbreak. Stephen King’s It. Fried Green Tomatoes. The Whale Rider. Mrs. Doubtfire. Where’s Waldo?

Where's Waldo joke cartoon

Imagine a Dickens novel being even a relatively recent piece of pop culture! What a shift in perspective, to think of Dickens in any light but “Historic”…

In my own mind that word—“Historic”—used to mean “before ME.” And when I was young-ish, that was a pretty decent working definition. But closing in on my own half-century mark, I acknowledge that the boundary line, the one delineating “History” from “Regular-Stuff-That’s-Familiar-to-ME”… Well, it’s moved. In fact, that line scoots right along, keeping pace behind me like a stick tied to a string tied to my belt loop, all the time converting some portion of Regular Stuff Familiar to Me into that “Other” category I think of as History. (Did I think only other people’s lives slipped into Historic rear-view? Did I think that regardless of how long I might live, my entire life would feel to me like “Now”?)

This book imparts an unexpected lesson of… Perspective.

As in… It Doesn’t End Here.

As in… I am not some grand culmination of everything History was building up to; in fact, I rank merely as “someone else” to everyone else in the world.

As in… What shall I DO with this role of “someone” in everyone else’s History?? It’s lovely to imagine, in 120 years, a great-granddaughter enjoying a book from my shelf. Better yet, from my pen. Maybe even, by then, “a Classic”?

I’m enjoying the book. Though I do miss the built-in Definitions I’m accustomed to summoning with a touch. (Because I don’t care how great your vocabulary is—Dickens requires a dictionary!! …Terpsichorean?? Anyone? Anyone? Beuller? …Nah, me neither. I’m gonna go look that up.)

Victorian era dancers being funny for a photograph

“and stuff like that until she died.”

How’s THAT for a strong finish? Thus ended my first book.

Back when “book” meant folded sheets of gradeschool writing paper (blue dotted lines to guide the letter-heights) stapled within a construction-paper cover, illustrated ala Crayola. Come to think of it, “Annie Ant” also became my first published work—-a result of living in a town so small that its news-starved local paper printed the contest-winning, 12-sentence text of a first grader’s “novel.”

My seven-year-old self suffered from no excess of modesty—and so, as easily as that, I assumed my place as A Writer. Not even doubting my right to the title. By Third Grade my self-published works included “Other-Books-by-this-Author” pages. (Not even joking.)

Through all the permutations of things-I-want-to-be, and four decades’ worth of things-I’ve-BEEN, “Writer” remains firmly embedded in the mix.

HOWEVER. The rapid story-wind-up I quoted above does point to a detestable Deficiency in my Practice. I skimp on Editing. No, let me be even more shamefully specific: I am LAZY about Editing.

Annie Ant” shot its wad in the set-up: a girl (named for myself, naturally) found an orphaned ant and named her and carried her around and made her a house from a shoebox and then… “She went to school and stuff like that until she died.” Wait, what?! I mean… I know First Grade didn’t cover “story arc” or anything—but that there is just plain LAZY storytelling.

mug with pens
Printed & ready to Edit…

This week I set myself the task of EDITING my own unfinished novel. For reals this time. Printed pages and actual red pen and all.

Five pages in, sufficiently horrified by how MUCH red pen they required, I admitted to myself that I’ve read those same pages several dozen times without improving anything. Lazy. If I’m not willing to make the most of what I actually write, I may as well just slap a wrap-up on the back end and call it done.

(Oh, I have a good one: “And stuff like that until she died!”)

I should get back to Editing.

White Space

Junior High Journalism class first impressed the term “White Space” on my mind.

In the context of a yearbook page, it’s just what it sounds like: the portions of page with nothing printed. But White Space took on a life of its own as we created layouts arranged around the White Space Statutes as stated by our instructor. Mr. Bromley (bless him!—the man who put Jane Austen in my hands! ) laid down Layout Law… almost all of which revolved around what one could (or couldn’t!) do with White Space.

For example. Never “trap” White Space in the interior—it always needs an “escape.” Which pretty much means you don’t want a boxed-in block of EMPTY in the middle of your page. Like what I’m doing here: THIS is what you never do. The emptiness in the middle of the page draws the eye away from the content it’s meant to be looking at.

trapped white space diagram

At the time my 14-year-old mind never pondered the prospect of being trapped BY White Space. But I am recognizing it now: White Space has never had a consideration for MY rights on a par with the efforts I have made on behalf of ITS freedom all these decades…

Nothing paralyzes my brain more quickly than a blank page.


A blank screen.


A blank whiteboard.


colored pens and pencils

Case in point: I opened the screen for this post over the weekend, and let it loom in all its BLANKNESS for two days while I tinkered with themes and photos and settings on the blog, all the while studiously ignoring this one browser tab. [Can I call it “studious” when I’m NOT attending to it?]

I’m certainly not the only writer with this particular hang-up, though I maybe carry it to extremes. As I do with most things. I think it’s why I gravitate so strongly to color. I’m no artist, but on my desk I keep mugs full of rainbowed pens, pencils, highlighters, oil pastels, brush markers, Post-its.

I paper my planners with stickers and doodles, color-code my lists, collage my office door with cards and decals, decorate my desk with washi tape, paint with stencils on my wooden furniture.

You won’t even find a white wall in my house. I have vanished every one of them, so WHITE SPACE never overshadows me.

If you think that takes a literary conceit a little far, well, I just won’t invite you to sleep in my turquoise guest room.

Truthfully, I wasn’t thinking of pages when I painted. But also truthfully: White Space traps me if I let it.

And MOST truthfully: I recognize the only true escape from the empty page… WRITING on it.

white board writer's notes
The only “White Space” left in the house: my office closet door…

The 2020 Sailor’s “Gam”

As a kid I often imagined my bedroom into a boat. I planned to sail away in solitude and self-sufficiency…

I would stockpile “important” things in my room—often things I wasn’t allowed to have in my room (food!)—in preparation for my imaginary cast-off, and I would invest quite a lot of thought into (and derive quite a lot of pleasure from) this made-up scenario of having everything I wanted within reach at once. Before the word “Prepper” was even invented, I was practicing it with my play.

Fast-forward some decades, and I get to play “Boat” for real. Setting aside for a moment the horrifying reason why FOUR BILLION people are Playing Boat, I’m kind of acting out a kid-fantasy here. And—Bonus!—the invention of the Internet in the interim makes it even easier to “nest” contentedly in my home.

I feel that same sense of harbored hideaway–though the “important” items have shifted in form.

Forty years ago I was curating a different set of belongings, a different perspective of priorities–though with some definite overlaps. Back then I gathered up my teddy bear Toots, my blanket Pinky, my Nancy Drew collection, my diary, “Mr. Sketch” scented markers, flashlight and sleeping bag, Fisher-Price medical kit, a Triple-A “triptic” flip-book of maps, the contraband snacks… The Lutheran hymnal (filched from my parents’ shelf under the misapprehension that this was the “holy-and-important” church-book)…

My Kodak Instamatic camera and our Fisher Price tape-recorder (because even though I didn’t yet know the word “journalist,” I wanted to document my expedition)…

And stationery. I intended to write home.

Why am I reminiscing about this? Because suddenly we are living in the 2020 Pandemic, and we are SUPPOSED to Play Boat, all of us. Stock up with whatever you consider “essentials” and stay self-sufficient while hunkering down at home. We “go ashore” to provision (properly masked, gloved, wiped, and sanitized) and then we stay aboard our own boats. With only our own shipmates.

Toilet-paper jokes abound: this has been THE “panic purchase.” Inexplicably.

(By the way, that plaque was in my bathroom before the Great TP Privation of 2020. Just think: we can tell our awe-struck grandkids how toilet paper used to be so expendable we’d festoon teachers’ whole yards with it!)

Fortunately, I do have TP. And coffee. And laundry soap, eggs, deodorant, coffee creamer, kitty litter, prescription meds. Mini “Cutie” oranges. We haven’t been to the grocery store for more than two weeks, so the bananas are gone. And I’m out of Diet Dr. Pepper.

But we do have a new electric teapot, and we’re trying different teas. We have two-player games. I walk, in increments of time measured by “Outlander” episodes (I promised I’d ONLY watch when I’m on the treadmill!—Yes, I bribe myself). I have a “puzzle mat” to roll up an in-progress jigsaw and preserve its pieces from our cats. I’m working my way through archives of New York Times crosswords and a cache of logic puzzles on my iPad.

And hey, Toots is still aboard!–>

And LOTS of books.

No stationery, perhaps, but still an urge to write.

I’ve been posting blurbs on FaceBook every day, jokingly labeling them as entries in a “Captain’s Log”— carrying on my game of imagining my home into a boat. (An anchored boat, to be sure; my Google Maps cheerfully reported I traveled six miles in March.) It’s a string of the little goofy observations about Isolation Life (Day Twenty-Seven, by the way)….

Like trying to swipe open my grocery list at the store but my phone’s “facial recognition” doesn’t work with the mask. Or that our 2020 Home Projects list is unexpectedly done—so now what? Or how my mom & I exchanged pics of our propped-up feet and TV screens, watching the same Netflix show “together.” Or that my daily social life consists of greeting the mailman and UPS guy through my glass door. Or which is the more important protective gear when we took the motorcycle to the store: the helmet, or the mask? Or the difficulty of conveying an emotion with the “masked” emoticon. Or What the hell DAY is it? (With the follow-up: why would it matter?)

On the high seas of the nineteenth century, a cry of “Sail ho!” on a whaleship often augured a GAM–a social ritual of pulling alongside another ship to exchange news and mail.

But what is a gam? You might wear out your index-finger running up and down the columns of dictionaries, and never find the word. Dr. Johnson never attained to that erudition; Noah Webster’s ark does not hold it. Nevertheless, this same expressive word has now for many years been in constant use among some fifteen thousand true born Yankees. Certainly, it needs a definition, and should be incorporated into the Lexicon.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

These days, of course, you can find the word in twenty seconds on Dictionary.com or practically any glossary short of UrbanDictionary’s. And if you pause there with your hand on that mouse… You are, in fact, possessed of the mechanism of the modern gam. (Possessed by it, perhaps—but that’s a whole different conversation.) That’s right, let’s hear it for Zoom gams, because my boat-ride could feel a lot more isolated than it does.

Setting Sail: the Launch of a Serial Novel

I’ve been writing “creative nonfiction” for years–-my Master’s thesis in poetry, essays (for introspection), freelance articles (for pay), and  this blog (for joy)… But I haven’t touched fiction-writing since I was a schoolkid.

Until last summer, when I did.

Not sure exactly why, but this person called Gayla wanted to go whaling, so I let her. And she turned out pretty stubbornly not to fit in to the century in which I’d placed her, so I threw in a little time travel to explain her. She’s a whaler wearing a sports bra instead of a corset—an anomaly in more ways than one.

Time & Tide by Kana Smith
She’s still growing, and I’m still writing her journey. I’ve been releasing one chapter at a time to a small circle of friends and family who have been reading along (and keeping me writing!) and I got to thinking that it’s the READERS who really make this art form work. If I’m writing in a “black hole” by myself, I’m not going to last for long–and that would be a bummer, because I’d never find out what happens with Gayla.

So I took it into my head to publish as I go, rather than waiting (for what?) to finish this whole tale. Charles Dickens published many of his works as serial stories in the newspapers of his day… I’m no Charles Dickens, but I do have this great medium we call the internet. So here we are.

And I have an idea that blogging about the book as I write it (and as readers receive it) might provide some interesting introspection into my own writing process–so I’m hoping this becomes bigger than just the book.

All that said… I’m launching this book. Before it’s anywhere close to finished. As of this writing I’m at 67,636 words–and I’m not posting all of those today. But I’ll start with Book One and a teaser to Book Two, and I’ll invite you along for the ride. Along for the read.

And none of this is set in stone (I go back to edit as I get to know Gayla and her story) so I very much welcome critique and feedback. In fact, I’m more interested in what doesn’t work than what does–because that’s what’s useful to a writer. I’d love to see my online community function like a larger version of the “workshop” classes I took for my Creative Writing degree. I’d love to grow in my craft and become a better writer. I’d love to see where this story takes me. Will you sail with me? It’s a free book… if you have patience to wait for an ending!

Time & Tide

whale tail