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Bad Writing Day. In All Its Mundane Glory.

August 14, 2020

I posted this link on Twitter the other day.

Thomas, a fellow scribe and Twitter buddy, left a comment, asking me: Why don’t you write about what a bad writing day really looks like? The devil is in the details.



Challenge accepted.

Bad Writing Day: In All It’s Drudging Bromidic Mundane Glory

Cold mugMy bad writing day begins like every other writing day: with coffee and a power-walk, the latter fueled by either country music or a podcast. By and large, this puissant combination – one part drug (caffeine), another part a jacked-up hodge-podge of thought-moxie and mediation – works like a charm. That is to say, its efficacy is inconsistent, but somehow the ritual has become indispensable to me. I believe it will help conjure the muse…whether it does or not.

By the time I decamp in my office – wet hair, laptop on thighs, butt depressed into my sapphire blue sofa, my dog, Barney, nestled between my ankles – I already have that sinking feeling. The one that makes me think today isn’t going to be one of those writing days when my keyboard is smokin’ and I float into the kitchen at the cocktail hour like I’ve just had a night of great sex.

It’s not that the words don’t come. I’ve got friends who can find themselves staring at a blank screen for hours, an imaginary, grinding, wow-wow siren sound growing louder and louder in their twisted minds until they just…just…[get drunk, weep, bake excessively, kill a neighbor – ok, maybe not kill, but definitely rip a new *sshole]!

That’s not the way my bad writing days roll. With me, the words come, but they just aren’t necessarily any good. And that wow-wow siren? More of a deadly silence. One that lingers like a fart, as my words trip and teeter onto the page pretending it was someone else who cut the cheese.

(slightly embarrassing excerpt from work-in-progress “Of Sand and Bone.” Book 2 of the “Breath” series.)

As we shadow Cornelius P. Neville into the Southern cemetery, (is there a difference between the Southern and Northern cemeteries? If so, does it matter?) I explain to Ripley about the necropolis we’re entering. Over a thousand years old, it is, in fact, a massive burial ground that is home to the graves of Cairo’s most illustrious and historical elites, as well it’s most common of commoners (should I mention who?). It is also, to a growing number of Cairo citizens, a place of residence. ( or a place they call home. Too alliterative?)

We pass by a group of children kicking a ball made of twine and singing a popular children’s song that my mother used to sing to me: “There is No Night in the Land of Sun.” The ball hits the door to a mausoleum, and a woman in a headscarf peeks out, castigating the little rascals.

“It used be that just the gravediggers and tomb custodians lived here,” I tell Ripley. “But with Cairo growing so quickly, others have begun to move in as well. Bakers, servants, and the like.” (tour guide-y?)

Hmm. That is a bit expository. I mean, I want to explain what the City of the Dead actually is, but I don’t want to get too in the weeds…it’s boring and slows the plot. How much of the–


Deep breath.

A freckled face peeks in through my office door, eyes all doey.


“Barney peed. Earlier, I mean. When I was eating breakfast.”

Barney looks up, then puts his head down again. He knows we’re talking about him.


“Near the door.”

“You think maybe he was trying to tell you he needed to go out?”


“Ok, clean it up, sweetie.”

Heavy sigh.

“What do you want me to do about it?” I demand ask.

“I don’t know where the clean-up spray is.”

I narrow my eyes.

“I mean, I looked for it – I did.”

“If I get up and go to look for it, am I going to find it in under a minute?”

“I’ll go look one more time.”

Where the hell was I? I know I was in the middle of a thought about the balance between exposition and action, and I think I was about to have a breakthrough insight, but now I’ve forgotten my train of thought. @#$%^*#!!!

Re-read what you wrote, girl, it’ll come back to you (I’m talking to myself, now). But it doesn’t come back to me. And I’m liking what I wrote less and less.

Time for some inspiration. I’ll get on YouTube and do some mental traveling. Research. If I infuse some color into the words, fill in the world I’m building, maybe it won’t sound so studious?

City of the Dead, Cairo 1950, Henri Cartier-Bresson | Henri ...

City of the Dead

Another sentence down. Then another. Pretty enough, but are they contributing to the story? I cringe at over-wrought descriptions almost as much as gratuitous exposition, yet when done right (think Kundera, Gabaldon, Martin, Marquez – not that I’m comparing myself to them), it paints a new universe. One with a fourth dimension.

Founded in 642 A.D., the City of the Dead has had its ups and downs – its “up” having been largely in the Malmuk era, some four or five hundred years ago (does a reader care?). It’s having something or a revival now, and has been growing exponentially in the past few years, as Cairo’s growth has gone positively mad and people other than grave diggers and their like have begun spilling into the necropolis.

Reads like a term paper.

The further we go into the oldest part of the necropolis, (the city, the cemetary?) the more it feels as if we’ve stepped into a Cairo that’s more legend than true history. Like a painting based on an artist’s macabre imagination. Yet strangely, Cornelius P. Neville seems as if he belongs in this place. As if he belongs in any place of times past, where the dead and the living exist side by side. (Is there a specific physical movement he makes that might communicate this?)

Most of that last bit’s alright, I think, but the music isn’t quite there (that’s writer-speak for the way a paragraph flows from one into the next).

Maybe I need a break.

Check emails.



Make a cup of tea.

Say a prayer?

Clearly, I’ve reached the bargaining stage of creative grief, so I close my eyes and fold my hands. Breathe like a yogi.

Dear God,


Oh, God.

“Hi, Mama.”


(in Czech accent) “I need help to take the things from my car that I buy.”

“Mom, I told you not to buy anything at Sam’s Club. We have what we need and don’t have room for another 20 pack of paper towels.”

“It was on sale.”


“It’s in my back seat.”

I nod.

“And the laundry detergent is in front seat. It’s heavy.”

“You just bought some last week!”

“I do laundry.”

“94 loads? That’s how many loads are in one container.”

“I do laundry. Is good.”


I do as she asks, mmm-hmming my way through her stories about breakfast with Sandra (at Panera – the only good de-caf in town), and their trip to Sam’s (they made her go back to her car and get her mask, which she hates wearing because it messes with her make-up).

Some twenty-two minutes later, I’m able to slip back into my office. Before re-installing myself on the sofa, I take a little Byzantine icon from my mantel, and listen at my door for a few seconds. All quiet. It appears my sacred space is safe for the practice of artistic voodoo, and I sit down again, begin my prayer anew.

Icon - Wikipedia


First, thank you. For my family, my health, my work, my dog. I’m struggling today. I have limited patience for the people I love because they keep interrupting me and I’m writing badly. Please help me clear my mind and not act like a b***h every time someone enters my office. And excuse my French.

I blink open my eyes and set the icon on my belly. Focus on my computer screen. Damn. The words have gotten blurry, which sometimes happens as the day progresses. I’m going to need my stronger reading glasses now, but those give me a head ache. And they’re on my desk and I don’t feel like getting up, since I’ve just cozied-in again.

I make the font larger.

Although somehow, reading my work in gigantic font makes it weird and difficult to get into. Kind of like watching high-definition porn, where you can actually see things like razor-burn and stretch marks (from the reading I’ve done). Groaning, I get up, swap out my reading glasses for the stronger ones, and return to my sofa, nudging Barney over and disturbing his sleep. Even my dog is getting sick of all this.

Barney ready for close up

(One hour elapses. Ok, perhaps two)

And, well, I think I’ve got something here. Maybe nothing that’s going to win any awards, but not bad. Workable. Stuff like this:

We try to remain a good distance behind Cornelius so as not to be spotted, at least not quite yet, but it’s difficult to keep him in our view with all the tall tombs and headstones about. The further we go into the oldest part of the necropolis, the more it feels as if we’ve stepped into a Cairo that’s more legend than true history. Like a painting based on an artist’s macabre imagination. Yet strangely, Cornelius P. Neville seems as if he belongs in this place. As if he belongs in any place of times past, where the dead and the living exist side by side.

“Looks like he’s going into that mausoleum,” Ripley says. “You’re sure people actually live in those?”

“They’re better built than a lot of the newer houses in center,” I say, shrugging. “Made of stone, with walls as thick as the trunks of oak trees, and grand wooden doors that keep out or invite in the sun; I imagine that once one gets past the idea of sharing a living space with a few corpses, the prospect of sleeping in a tomb isn’t so bad.”

“I suppose you’re right. Not like I haven’t slept in my share of tombs. Par for the course when you’re the son of an archaeologist.”

Ripley cocks his head and squeezes my hand, which I realize he’s been holding all this time. I feel a very warm rush from the top of my head to my toes and watch him pull me gently along, concealing us behind a rather weathered series of tall tombstones. Ones engraved with an illegible Arab scripture that has been worn down to almost nothing over many hundreds of years.

The mausoleum Cornelius entered belongs to a once important Moslem family, it would appear. By its decaying grandeur, I would guess it is a family that died out some time ago. It is at least as old as a millennium and has windows with wooden shutters that look as delicate as spider’s webs. Ripley and I sneak closer and try to look through the slats in one of the shutters. Inside, there’s a large stone tomb of the sort that could fit several cadavers. There’s a mat and blankets in the corner, a small table with unlit candles. It’s definitely inhabited.

Full days’ work. A single page. Better than nothing, I guess.

  1. Yup, you nailed it. Excellent.

  2. Reva Parks permalink


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