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Ellen’s Messy Desk* and how it got that way

“What’s for lunch, Mom?”

“Air sandwiches and wind sauce.”

Although I only recently got serious about writing fantasy, I’ve lived with words and imaginings all my life.

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My father and I share the Sunday funnies. Judging from the locale, I was about two.

When I was growing up in coastal Massachusetts, my next-door neighbor was a writer who kept a dragon in his attic. He was not at all surprised when my friend Tina and I discovered that my front wall had fairies living in it.

Our house had no attic and therefore no space for a dragon. But we liked words and used a lot of them. I was on a regular diet of “wind sauce.” When I was mischievous, my father called me a “rapscallion,” a crunchy word that I was sure he’d made up.

Actually, someone else made it up, probably in the 1600s. It comes from “rascallion” which comes from “rascal” which comes from Old French. I learned that from the Oxford English Dictionary, which can suck you right in if you like words. In fact, while looking up “rapscallion” I just wasted several minutes reading about rascal-related words such as “rascabilia,” which is an old word for a whole bunch of rascals.

This was the perfect background for a budding writer, but I was a procrastinator. Never once in my childhood did I complete an assignment until the minute it was due. Picking up my room could take an entire sunny morning—my mother learned to listen for silence upstairs, then stomp up and confiscate the book I’d stuffed under the mattress.

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Words being spoken, loudly. I’m four-ish at this point.

Just now, I watched a ten-minute scene from an old movie on Netflix instead of writing the next paragraph. Trouble is, the next paragraph never goes away—it has to be written sometime. So now I’m back, and here it is:

I read books whenever I was allowed to—which was most of the time—but also when I was supposed to be doing something else. The flashlight under the covers at midnight, The Secret Garden tucked into the waistband of my Bermuda shorts when my mother forced me outdoors, Nancy Drew under the arithmetic book—these were my strategies for living.

Early on, it became clear that writing was the only thing I did well. I guess I liked it better than arithmetic. (Anything was better than arithmetic.) But writing quickly became what the grown-up world expected me to do. It therefore was work, and therefore was something to put off until somebody made me do it.

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With my friend Tina (right) in front of the wall with the fairies in it. The brown house to the left has a dragon in the attic.

Nowadays, I often meet kids who write for fun. I envy them. They don’t know how lucky they are. They will be lucky adults, too. I just spent several minutes gazing out the window and thinking about how my life would be different if I had buckled down earlier.

When I grew up, I decided to write for a living because that was what I knew how to do. I sort of thought it would be kinda fun to maybe Be a Novelist. Inconveniently, I had no desire to write a novel.

So I went to work as a writer and editor for colleges (and one newspaper) in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Then I did corporate newsletters, same location. Then I moved to Maine with my partner, painter Rob Shillady, and started writing and editing for weekly newspapers, which was a hoot and still is.

Twice in the early 1980s—once in Rhode Island and once in Maine—I tried to quit whatever job I had at the time and Be a Novelist. Both times I got bored and took any excuse to get out of the house and away from all those blank pages. The second time, though, I did manage to write a dreadful first draft of a book for children called Medford and the Goatman, which sat in a drawer for eighteen years.

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On deadline, Providence, Rhode Island, just before we moved to Maine. My friend Shelly was up from New York to accompany me to Block Island for a weekend of sun and fun, and I had procrastinated so much beforehand that I had to pull an all-nighter to get my work done in time to leave. This is the morning after.

I was happily employed in 2003 when, for reasons I still can’t figure out, I took a fiction-writing workshop with author Cynthia Thayer. I found that I was having a good time writing out of my head, which was a big shock. I decided to try the novel-writing thing one more time, and I gave notice at my newspaper job.

I figured that eventually I would see reason, hire someone to kidnap my successor at the newspaper, and ask for my job back. To my surprise, however, I had a great time writing a brand new version of Medford and the Goatman. I even had a great time rewriting it five times in three years to turn it into something Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Books would publish. It’s now called The Unnameables.

“Good time” and “great time” should not be confused with “fun.” Writing is not fun. It is, as I feared, hard work. Remember when you had a loose tooth and when you pressed it the pain felt good and you couldn’t stop doing it? That’s what writing is like. It’s easy to dread and even easier to put off, but once you’re sitting down at the keyboard it’s …well, a great time.

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Off deadline, Brooklin, Maine.


Subsequently, I had a great time writing Small Persons with Wings, the book I was supposed to be revising instead of writing this.

Putting off one task by substituting another is an advanced form of procrastination, not for the beginner. In my youth, even I could only procrastinate in one direction at a time.

What does any of this have to do with my messy desk? Well, duh. I was supposed to clean my desk before I revised Small Persons with Wings.

*That is not a stunt desk in the photo behind the type. It is my actual desk just before I swept everything off its surface to look for a missing program disk. Which I found. On the desk.