The Story of the Shells


On the left hand corner of my desk in a small, glossy, eggshell-colored bowl, rest a pile of shells. These shells are remnants, pieces of larger shells, worn down fragments that tumbled and swirled along the ocean floor for months, years, decades maybe. They are flattened like Play-Doh, smooth like stones. They are striped in layers, like sedimentary rocks. I picked them up where other shell seekers had left them in the sand while they searched for the pretty, the unique, the whole.

But I love these pieces. The smooth remains of something beautiful and broken.

I hold them, rub their grooves, warm them in my palm while I puzzle over a problem in my writing. They jingle in the bowl as I search for the right one. The one that might unlock the solution. The cat sometimes paws them, enjoying the sound they make against the bowl. Occasionally he succeeds in sneaking one out and over the side of the desk skittering it down the hall with Pelé like precision until I rescue it once again.

I work my stories, scenes, characters over like these shells. I smooth them, reduce them, expose their layers, until the stories, the scenes, the characters are beautiful and broken for the reader. Or at least I hope I do. That is the goal. To take what was once a whole and living thing and whittle away until I find the one truth of it that can fit in your hands and rattle in your pocket.

The whole shells are beautiful. They are treasures and worth our admiration, awe, display. The whole shells are our whole lives. Complete, perfect in their living.

But the truth of our lives lives in the details. In the nicks, the chips, the strange colors, and occasional barnacle attached.

I’m in search of those fragments, those bits of shells we shed or hide or try to forget that hold the lessons the oceans teach: rest and let go. Let the ocean carry it to a safe place, polish its edges, expose its layers, deliver it to the shore. Then wait for someone to pick it up, admire the flaw, and tell the story.


The End

I typed the words “The End” in the middle of a page with blank space below it. No new chapters. The words were done. The story complete.

Well, complete for now. Step one, rough draft? Check. Notice I call it a rough draft, not even a first draft yet (not even close). Now the hard part beings. The part where I figure out what the book is really. Friends and family ask how the work is going and what the story is about and I hem and haw and keep it vague. It’s not literary, I say. It’s women’s fiction, I proclaim. It’s about four women at various stages of life, I babble. It’s still a work in progress, I defend. But truly I don’t give a clear answer because I haven’t really been sure. And that’s scary. Really scary. Keeps me up at night sometimes scary. Should I know? Should I have a goal, a meaning, a more defined story arc while writing? Who knows? This is the first time I’ve ever done this and I’m learning as I go. I’m making mistakes and finding what works and what doesn’t. The next step is all about going back. Figuring out the key ideas and making them sing. Cutting those darlings and polishing the real story.

I’m excited about the work ahead. It feels like the real work. What I’ve been doing for the last several months feels more like laying tarp, washing walls and taping off molding when you paint. It’s tedious and takes time and all you want to do is get that new color on the wall to see the completed job and enjoy the difference. But, if you don’t do the preparation work correctly, you end up with a sloppy mess and no one is happy. For the story, now comes more in-depth character study and analysis, setting development that evolved as I was writing and has finally become a clearer picture in my head, continuity checking, additional story fill, and deleting all the overwritten, trite and boring prose and dialogue that I slogged through and might be weighing down the story but helped me springboard into a more productive day of writing at the time.

But I’m trying to take a little space – not a lot, but a little – in an attempt to have some perspective on the story. It’s the last week of school and there are parties and preschool graduations and teacher gifts and other time commitments. I know it will be smart for me to simply take this week for me and the boys. To truly enjoy this time as we wind down into summer. But I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit to the pressure of knowing the next four days boast the only truly free hours I am guaranteed for the next 10 weeks.

And that’s when the fear and anxiety and doubt started to creep in. That doubt, she’s a bitch. She’s sneaky and second guesses everything I do. She laughs when I post on Facebook I finished a book, relishing the moment I’ll have to tell all these wonderfully supportive people in my life that offered their congratulations and words of encouragement that I am really a fraud. That sure, I wrote something that will never sell, never see the light of day, never amount to anything but a giant file on my laptop. She’s the one that is attempting to take up residence, snickering at the dream nearby, teasing it, taunting it, whispering to my logical self that I should start scanning the job boards for PR work now so I can have a “real” job by fall. She makes the dream hide, cowering behind practicality, hoping nobody notices it for a little while.

The thing about doubt, however, is I’m on to her. That’s why I’ve been so public about what I’m doing, the journey I’m on, the lessons I’m learning. By posting about dreams and sharing my tiny accomplishments with my friends both in person and online, I create a chain of believers who believe in me, who speak louder than doubt’s whispers, who hold tight and prop me back up when I attempt to sit down. And those moments have been invaluable on this leap of faith.

So it was with added joy that an envelope was waiting in my mailbox for me Saturday afternoon. Enclosed was my very own flower from a dear friend who has offered the kind of moral support I can never begin to thank her for. Her words are always spot on and impeccably timed. She was a coworker of my husband’s. Then we both had boys. Then she moved. Far away. And somehow, this strangely tangential connection fostered between cubicle walls and a third party has strengthened to a bond that I’m not quite sure either of us understand, but I think has been mutually beneficial to both of us as we navigate motherhood and big questions about careers and personal definitions of success. On a day when doubt was threatening to get louder, she sent me a dreamer flower.


(If you aren’t familiar with Fellow Flowers, get familiar. I’m not a runner. Trust me. But the message this organization imparts to women goes so much deeper than running, so don’t be scared off by the running background.)

The dreamer flower description states:

“Dreamer. To show grace and courage. To embrace the challenge and welcome new beginnings. Putting yourself out there. Doing it scared. I will run through the fear to feel the joy.”

Just what I needed, just when I needed it. My aunt congratulated me for completing the book by saying that “The End” was only the beginning. So true. We are all diamonds in the rough, formed by the pressure of life and challenges and accomplishments and successes and failures, that we now must polish into our best selves. Just like I’ll do with this book. We are all works in progress. Rough drafts.

Now the hard part begins.

And I couldn’t be more excited. I’m putting myself out there. Doing it scared. And that makes it feel even better. Because today? Today is the next beginning. And I can’t wait to get started. Again.