2021 To-Done: writing through a pandemic

In the first stages of the pandemic, we saw everyone “taking the opportunity” to learn new stills and take on new projects “to fill the time.” Everyone loved to say how “Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine.”

I had been doing research for a new story, but no new ideas for how to actually shape the characters and plot were coming to me. So then I tried revising an old rough draft, but again, I stopped cold. And at first I thought it was just me, and of course the internalized shame that comes with writer’s block set in.

As the expected two weeks at home dragged out into months, think pieces and tweets started pouring forth about what the pandemic was doing to our brains. Neuroscientists reassured us that we weren’t alone: of course we were all feeling anxious, constantly on edge, or swinging like a pendulum between numbness and total breakdowns. We were  all living in survival mode.

And survival mode is supposed to last for a few minutes, until we can get away from the saber-toothed tiger. It’s not supposed to last for weeks, months, or years. When our brains are in survival mode, higher functions—like complex problem-solving, emotional regulation, and creativity—shut down. I was so relieved and comforted to hear it wasn’t just me; artists of every medium were struggling, too.

So instead of trying to push through it, I used what tools I had at my disposal. I decided to focus on all the things that aren’t technically creating new stories but are still necessary for a writing career: research, sending query letters, typing up old handwritten story notes, brainstorming, attending virtual conferences and workshops, networking, organizing and goal-setting, etc. I filled two NaNoWriMos with not-quite-50,000 words’ worth of that stuff.

And I kept track of all of it.

Early on in the pandemic, I talked to my therapist about how I felt my current method of bullet journaling wasn’t quite working for me anymore. Eventually I transitioned into using two main platforms: Habitica and Notion.

I use Habitica for my action-based stuff: tasks, habits, and daily/weekly/monthly to-dos. I like the little dopamine hit of reward (XP, gold, damage in boss fights) you get for accomplishing something. I like trying to collect every pet and mount in every color. It was so useful, I even created a second account: one personal and one professional. My company had better not decide to block Habitica on work computers because they would be blocking my access to my brain; I use it to keep track of all my recurring duties, projects, and tasks.

I use Notion for my information-based stuff: links to articles I want to read, shows and movies I want to watch, music and books and podcasts to check out, researching furniture and vacation destinations and dog breeds, crafty projects I want to make: pretty much lists of every description for every avenue of life.

I also use it to keep track of my various writing projects and the next steps for them all. This is where I duplicate my to-dos, just for writing. In Habitica, I get the XP and gold, but then the task goes away. In Notion, I get to keep that satisfying little blue checked box and grayed-and-crossed-out task for as long as I want. In this way, I kept track of everything I accomplished towards my writing career in 2021. Here are some screenshots:

(All the emojis are purple because my Notion is color-coded in a rainbow theme. “Peopling” = pink, “Bettering” = orange, “Aesthetics” = yellow, etc. Welcome to my brain.)

When taken together like this, I can look that inner critic that says “You’re not doing enough” right in the face and call BS. I am absolutely doing enough. It just feels like I’m not doing enough when taken one step at a time (and, to the outside world, looks like nothing at all).

Inch by inch, row by row / gonna make this garden grow

And somewhere in the past two years, I’ve found small ways to unlock my creativity again. Little by little, I’m reclaiming my process and rebuilding the structures that keep me moving forward.

Wherever you’re at in your survival, I hope you find ways to honor all the work you’ve done, even when it’s invisible. I hope you find ways to reconnect with what matters to you. We’re all figuring this out as we go along, which is pretty much all adulthood is anyway.

20-tens Retrospective

Ten years ago I was living in Orange County, CA. I loved being close to my mom and sister and getting to spend a lot of time with them. I loved my job working the front desk of a dance studio and getting to know the young dancers and their families.

A selfie from 2009 (before I knew the word “selfie”). I have chin-length hair and am wearing an orange T-shirt. In the background, two pictures taken from a calendar hang on the wall. The bookshelves are filled with toys, stuffed animals, and various trinkets and knick-knacks.

But Orange County wasn’t a good fit for me, and I had heard good (i.e. weird) things about Portland, where my closest friend from my high school days had settled. When my mom had to move for work, I saw it as an opportunity to get out on my own for the first time. I decided to move to Portland without ever having been there, because it just kinda…felt right. When I visited to go room-hunting, I knew it was right. It felt like home immediately.

Mid-2010, laughing in a bed surrounded by new friends. I’m wearing a purple butterfly-motif T-shirt, facing left. To the left, a friend in a lime-green shift, face cropped out. To the right, a friend in a black shirt and red skirt, face cropped out.

In 2009, I’d been having “story dreams” for a while, but November 2009 was my first attempt (and success!) and NaNoWriMo, or at writing a novel at all. The fact that the novel in question is still a terrible (like…so, so bad) rough draft gathering dust along with a few hundred pages of research is irrelevant. I had accomplished something I never dreamed of in high school when I was convinced my career would be acting. I’d ignored writing after high school until it forced me to acknowledge it again. I have no idea when I made the transition from “crap, I think I have to turn this idea into a novel” to “I want to be a professional novelist,” but I don’t think it happened all at once.

I found it in NaNoWriMo. I found it in my newfound ability to finish what I’d set out to do (I have quit more half-hearted first attempts at hobbies, projects, and careers than I care to remember). I found it in the story dreams that just kept coming, even when I was writing all the time.

NaNoWriMo badges: 2009 winner, 2011 participant, 2012 winner, 2013 participant

I found it in the Writing Center at Evergreen, when I made it all of one semester into college before realizing what I’d set out to study was yet another poor fit. I found it in the mentor who saw the specialness in me right away, in the colleagues who learned to depend on me, in the student writers who inspired me, in the pedagogy that every voice is important and everyone is a writer.

A large window with “Welcome to the QuaSR & Writing Centers” written in glass paint on the top portion, magenta and orange flowers painted on the bottom portion.

I found it in my studies at Evergreen, in the deep learning I was absorbing with each class, in each new technique and revelation and idea and collaboration. I found it in looking back and realizing that—unlike with acting in high school—all my hard work was paying off, and I could see my work improving.

I found it in my first writers conference, tentatively stepping into the business side of writing and coming out with fresh inspiration and new writing friends in my genre. I found it the next year in the validation of being chosen as a finalist in the conference’s writing contest.

2016: I’m wearing a black-and-white top and a white nametag with a black “Finalist” ribbon. I’m pointing at my name among many other names on a large poster board.

I found it in the times that I volunteered in an elementary school library and worked in the children’s section of a bookstore, feeling more at home than I could express. I found it in that soaring, weightless feeling of being surrounded by stories, in the magical moments of connecting with readers to give recommendations and find hidden treasures. I found it every time some eight-year-old would come to the register with The Tale of Despereaux, and I would light up and tell them, “This is my favorite book in the whole world!”

Left: Me with author Kate DiCamillo. I’m wearing a gray-green top and gold scarf and holding my copy of The Tale of Despereaux (closed). Right: I’m wearing a purple coat and holding my copy of The Tale of Despereaux (open) to show the personalized autograph.

Two weeks ago, at the 2019 PDX Jolabokaflod, I found it in the first money I ever made for something I wrote. I think I’m going to frame that $10 bill.

I’m sitting at a table at a book fair, other table beside and behind mine. I’m wearing a dark green shirt and a gold necklace and holding a cup of tea. On the table are copies of my comic, a tip jar, a sheet of paper, and a stack of business cards. The tablecloth is sage green brocade and held down by large, chunky crystals.

I struggled a lot after moving back to Portland in 2017. I slept on a friend’s couch for ten months and lived paycheck-to-paycheck in retail jobs for two years. I began working with a fantastic life coach and friend, and it became clear fairly quickly that what I needed was to find a job with a regular 9-5 schedule that paid me a living wage and left me with enough mental and emotional energy in the rest of my life to focus on my writing. And in August 2019, that’s exactly what I found. If the past decade has been any indication, this one will bring even more miraculous discoveries, magical friendships, and the rewards of hard work and hope.

Background: snowy Mt. Hood against a clear blue sky. Middle ground: the Willamette River, the Ross Island Bridge, and the buildings of OHSU’s South Waterfront campus. Foreground: Autumn trees in various shades of yellow, green, and red.

Why I stay to watch the credits

First, I’m lucky enough that Fernie Brae exists right here in my own Portland, OR. Second, thanks to a new friend connection, I was lucky enough to score a last-minute spot to an event that made my heart soar. Two nights ago, Fernie Brae hosted a Q&A panel with artists who worked on the incredible new series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance: Design Supervisor, Toby Froud (yes, The Toby Froud), and artists Maeve Callahan, Ben Adams, and Elsa Dye. There were Thra-ian? Thra-ish? treats, the making-of documentary playing in the background before the panel, nerds galore, exclusive photos from the design studio and filming set, a lot of laughs, and immeasurable magic. I came away with a lovely new brass and paua shell ring, a copy of A.C.H. Smith’s novelization of The Dark Crystal film, signatures and words of encouragement from the four panelists, and more effervescent inspiration than my cup could hold.

I am smiling at the camera, holding a book, standing in front of a wooden sign that reads "The Fernie Brae: A Magical Gallery"

I’ve been unsure whether to connect or draw a hard line between the two worlds of what I write: Middle Grade and Young Adult novels on the one hand, my blog about Muppet songs and my Fraggle Rock comics on the other. Inner Critic/Monkey Mind/whatever-you-want-to-call-it says, Serious Writers who are trying to get their novels into the world through Traditional Publishing don’t write fanfiction or fan blogs. Serious Agents and Serious Editors in Serious Traditional Publishing automatically dismiss such nonsense and such nonsensical people.

Well, Inner Critic can eat my Fraggle tail, because we know this isn’t true.

Remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, spin-offs, sequels and prequels of old favorites—The Dark Crystal, Star Wars, She-Ra, Twin Peaks, every superhero movie ever, even the Archie comics for crying out loud—are so abundant that it’s hard to keep up. Reviving old fandoms sells, and industry professionals are well aware of this. And in every single case, someone has to write them.

When these revivals are written, produced, and crafted by true fans, it shows; nowhere have I seen it show so brilliantly as it does in Age of Resistance. The artists I saw on Friday confirmed: everyone working on this series was a genuine, awe-filled, geeky, dedicated fan.

In truth, there is no hard line to be drawn between serious art and fanfiction; as Reddit and Tumblr have taught us, many works we consider classics are fanfiction. There is no hard line I can draw between the stories and characters that come to life in my head. Gaudiloquence, Wembley, Jacinda, Deet. It’s all the same, all worthy of my time and attention and love.

When I asked the panelists how someone can transition from scribbling fan comics at home to working on The Real Thing™, their advice was mostly the same: keep going, keep making more, keep putting yourself out there, keep networking (“keep believing, keep pretending…”). Isn’t that how the advice usually goes?

Q: You make art! I make art, too! How do I art?
A: Art more.

Reading this sentiment in an interview online makes me smile and think, “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks, I needed that.” Hearing it in person from Toby Friggin’ Froud makes me dance my way home while I listen to covers of Fraggle Rock songs.

When I see an incredible movie in the theater, one that makes me laugh and cry and cheer and believe, I stay to watch the credits. I go from reading each name to letting them wash over me, letting the scrawl overwhelm me with humbled awe and appreciation. How many human beings it takes, all working in different ways on different pieces, yet with the same vision in mind, to create something so extraordinary! 

And if they, why not me?

So be prepared for website updates as I fully integrate all that I write, all the stories that come bubbling out of me, into a more cohesive picture of what writer Beth Anna Cook has to offer.

How Do You Know?

[When I started drafting this post, I switched from my regular writing station on Pandora to my Christmas station, and the first song it played was the one with my heroine’s name. The Latin version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” sings Gaudé, which is Gaudiloquence’s nickname. I take this as an excellent sign.]


I’ve going back through Gaudiloquence and the Frozen Story, reading it aloud to a dear friend. It’s one of the sweetest sorts of intimacy, letting someone I deeply care about see my heart made verbal. I melt every time they laugh or ask me to keep reading.

I’ve read through it several times on my own since I began querying, not to revise or look for flaws, but just to enjoy the story. I think that’s a good sign, when I still love reading through my favorite scenes (the forest of magical creatures, and the temple of the patron saint of breakfast) and ache with empathy for my heroine on her journey. And each time I’ve read through, I’ve felt confident in all the work I put in—another huge thank you to my friend and unofficial editor, Cecilanne—and believed it was as good as I could make it, apart from catching and fixing the occasional typo.

This time, however, I began to see patterns. I’d think, Oh, I should fix that sentence, no big deal. But then I’d think the same thing later down the page. And then again on the next page. And the next.

I don’t know if it’s just the clarity that comes with time and distance from the last time I edited it, or if I’ve learned more in the meantime, but probably both. I can do better.

It’s a strange feeling: knowing there’s a chance that one of the Thanks But No Thanks I’ve gotten could have been a Yes if I’d sent my manuscript later, after this new round of editing I’m undertaking. There’s frustration, certainly. And something similar to regret, but not quite, because I can’t regret any part of my process when I’ve done my best each step of the way.

The prevailing feeling is one of hopeful opportunity. It’s easy to lose confidence when the rejection emails keep coming in. But this perspective helps me know that not only am I a good enough writer already, I keep getting better. I will keep getting better as long as I keep writing (and reading).

This year, two of my writer friends have decided that they’re done with pursuing traditional publishing, and both will be self-published authors by the end of the year. I find this tremendously inspiring, and I admire their tenacity and talent more than I can say. And, naturally, it makes me question yet again whether traditional publishing is the right path for me or if I should follow my friends’ example and get Gaudé out into the world through self-publishing.

Much like the question of How Do You Know when your manuscript is ready to query, the question of How Do You Know if you should self-publish is rarely, if ever, clear and simple. I don’t know how I know that I should keep editing and querying for a while, just that it feels like the right next step. Much like the little thrill of hearing my heroine’s name sung in a reverent and ethereal song, I trust that feeling.

What it feels like to be writing again

Escaping the August heat by inching my way into the cold waters of the Quarry to float on an inner tube. Connecting with new and old friends in the water. Knowing I might get sunburned but not wanting to leave to reapply. Talking in British accents for no reason.

The strawberry sencha is finally back in stock at the Montavilla Townshend’s (oh btw I I moved back to Portland).

Moving back to Portland.

Planning my dream bedroom, perfectly furnished and color-coordinated room, but also knowing how long it’s going to take me to actually create it, investing in one piece of real grownup furniture at a time. Thinking it can’t be that hard to spray paint a mirror frame gold. Hoping my cat won’t claw up the purple bed canopy.

Go-kart racing where I’m not trying to win, I’m just not trying to crash into the bumpers and wondering how bad it is that I keep hitting the bumpers but having too much fun to really care.

Being surprised at how I do actually feel a little bit better when I make the bed.

Carrying around my little green-and-gold notebook from a dear friend, ready to capture magical thoughts that float by.

Confronting my fear of cooking without a recipe, just trusting my instincts, tastes, and culinary school training from a lifetime ago.

Making myself do my physical therapy, even when I have a severe case of the Don’t Wannas, because I love myself enough to invest in my future health. Still listening to my You Got This playlist even after PT is over.

Finding a box of treasures I’d forgotten about or never knew existed.

Why did I start a Muppet blog?

I haven’t been “writing” in the traditional sense much lately.

After getting Gaudiloquence as good as I can get it (for now), I knew it was time to once again tackle the long, difficult process of revising  one of my rough drafts. I chose Princesses in the Trees, a speculative fiction about 12-year-old Jacinda who gets sick of being a street urchin in the city and join a group of girls who live in tree houses in the forest and call themselves princesses.

And I got stuck at every. Single. Turn.

Big-picture plot. Worldbuilding. Character development. Research. Everything had me freezing up in fear of failure, of getting it wrong, of not being good enough.

Except blogging about the Muppets.

I’ve had this idea for years—to blog about the songs of the various Henson projects, providing lyrics and analysis and general silliness—but I never acted on it until recently. Princesses in the Trees wasn’t getting me anywhere, and I figured if I still have this idea and it won’t go away, and if still no one else seems to be doing it, then I’m the one that’s supposed to do it.

And somehow it’s the easiest thing in the world. I get to watch my favorite movies and shows. I get to obsessively pick at them to get the lyrics exactly right. I get to talk about why I love it all and what it means to me.

I’m sure it would seem a frivolous, childish waste of time to a lot of folks. But, for whatever reason, this is what’s allowing me to write right now. I forget the fear of writing and remember the joy. And I’m grateful for that.

So if you feel so inclined, come check out Our Melody.

Going Forward

At the PNWA conference this summer, I attended a presentation called “What to Expect When You’re Publishing.” I asked the presenter a question that’s been gnawing at me for years…

How do you know? We’re told that you should only start querying agents when your novel is as good as it can possibly get. But we’re also told that, if it gets picked up by an agent and an editor, you’ve got to be on board with making both big and small changes to your manuscript. But if changes need to be made, then it wasn’t as good as it could possibly get, was it? So how do you know? How do you know when it’s ready?

She replied, “If you ever figure that out, please let me know.”

This morning I sent my manuscript to the (so far) few agents who’ve requested the full thing. It was terrifying, and I probably should have paused to eat something more substantial than sixteen ounces of Earl Grey and a granola bar. But I think it’s a good sign that as I was going through, trying to pick out any remaining typos, I got caught up in the story and reread my favorite scenes for the millionth time.

In my I-actually-get-paid-for-this world, my job at the Writing Center at Evergreen sent me and a few of my amazing colleagues to the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing. We attended dozens of fascinating presentations by folks from college writing centers around the country, handed out a couple dozen copies of the latest Inkwell, and came back brimming with ideas for our own Center. I meant to write about that experience sooner, and at greater length…

And then the election happened.

I won’t post solely about politics on this blog, but I’ll say this: our politics are deeply personal because they are a reflection of our values. As a writer, my work is also inextricably linked with my values.

As a writer and a human being, this is my promise to you: I value social justice above my own personal feelings, or even my career. Where I hold privilege, I will listen to those who are marginalized and try to use my privilege to amplify their voices and protect their human rights. Where I am marginalized, I will prioritize self-care and ask for help when I need it.

I promise I will never stop learning or trying to do better.

Making Something: “Solidarity in Fiction”

Yesterday, I was halfway through facilitating the second and final day of our annual staff retreat when the new Inkwells arrived. I forgot how exhausted and stressed out I was; instead, I shrieked and pranced. Finally.

Inkwell is the annual publication written and edited by the staff of the Writing Center where I work. This is my third Inkwell article, but each year that excitement of seeing it in print for the first time is like Christmas morning. And each year I’ve been more proud of my new article than the one before.

The process of creating Inkwell, from brainstorming to holding the finished product, takes an entire year. But this article had an especially long percolation period before I was ready to put these thoughts on the page. I also tried out a hybrid writing style that was new for me; this nonfiction exploration of fiction-writing as a person with privilege is interspersed with bits of fiction that I hope one day make it into my retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Once during the writing process when a friend mentioned my article from the pervious year, it took me several frightening minutes to remember what the heck that article had been about—I’d been so deeply absorbed in the work of writing this new piece that my brain simply couldn’t access that old file. (I eventually did remember—I’d written about the passive voice. And zombies.)

I hope someday soon I’ll be able to share a PDF of this new article. But my boss insists it needs to go beyond Inkwell, get picked up by a bigger publication, and reach a much wider audience. I glow when she says that.

In the meantime, here’s a tiny glimpse of the shiny new feather in my cap!

Update, 2/11/17: Here’s the PDF of “Solidarity in Fiction,” finally!

PNWA 2016

I knew I’d go back to the PNWA conference again this year. I didn’t have an agent, so I needed to pitch my book again. I wanted to make new friends and reconnect with the ones I’d made last time. I missed the electricity of three wonderful days in the company of hundreds of fellow word nerds.

And then I learned I was a finalist in the literary contest! (cue prancing and cavorting)

I spent way more money on the conference and hotel than a broke girl with two jobs should, and I didn’t regret it. I wore the finalist ribbon on my name tag with pride. I hugged my friends. I got blisters from my new shoes. I handed out business cards. I networked on behalf of a friend who couldn’t make it. I learned about edit letters, ARCs, blog tours, and other industry jargon. I learned how to find the right contests and podcasts. I heard my query letter read aloud by a panel of agents, and when they praised it I glowed and whispered “oh my god oh my god oh my god.” I got fifteen new Twitter followers. I stayed up to help my friend and hotel roommate brainstorm edits for a piece that would be due in two days. I lay on the couch in the cool, quiet bookstore to rest my injured back, and no one looked at me weird or asked me to sit up. I sipped chardonnay and mimed silliness at my friends beyond the glass wall while I waited for the awards dinner to begin.

I thrived in my element and came home fully charged with optimism, determination, and passion. Thanks for everything, PNWA.

For Give

A lot can happen in seven months. When I last wrote in September, I went away for five blissful days at my summer camp for grownups. When I came back, everything changed very suddenly and painfully.

During the months of recovery, I tried a few times to get back into the habit of writing every day—sometimes with success, sometimes not. Every time I swore it would be easier; I’d already gotten into the habit once, so getting back into the habit should be easy, right? Nope. Every time it’s like trying to move rusty gears that let out a high-pitched scream: No, don’t make me do it! It’s scary!

And I can’t berate myself for that fear. I can’t shame myself for letting the need to write fall by the wayside in order to take care of my other needs, which have far more obvious and immediate ramifications if I don’t.

Please read this beautiful piece, Writing Begins With Forgiveness: Why One of the Most Common Pieces of Writing Advice Is Wrong. A friend sent it to me a while ago, and I keep coming back to it whenever I need it. This morning, I really needed it. I’m letting it begin with forgiveness.

I’ve never really liked that word, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, but I can come up with a different word later for what you do for other people who’ve wronged you and aren’t sorry.

For now, I’m just embracing this word that I don’t like and breaking it down: for give. Fore give? Either way, it’s the give that’s important. Let it be a gift. Your old self is feeling guilty and you give her a gift that says It’s OK. I love you. I’m going to take care of you. Come along with me, please. I can’t do this without you.

What is that gift? What does it look like? I suppose it depends on the situation. It might be a vacation, or a third cup of tea, or something pretty you’ve been wanting, or a nap, or a love note, or a terrible movie you secretly love. It is not a push out the door, at least not for me. There’s a time and a place for tough love, and this isn’t it. The gift comes first and is purely love.

Then comes the hard work.

That’s the push out the door, the getting up at 6:00, the morning yoga, the two pages a day. The hard work can only be done after the forgiveness. After the gift. It’s like trying to move ahead in a relationship in the middle of the fight. If you continue churning along at full speed, there will be only resentment. Stop. Give the gift. Remember love. Rekindle tenderness. Reconnect. Then do the hard work.

So what does the hard work look like for me? Writing. Camp NaNoWriMo should help me finish this revision of Gaudiloquence and the Frozen Story. With the help of my Passion Planner, I’ll break down my larger goals into smaller, more manageable ones. Bit by bit. Bird by bird.