Margot Merrill on modern parenthood and the writing life


Catching Up

The longer one puts off a task, the bigger it becomes. Especially with writing. How can I tell you what's transpired in the last five months? Of course, I've thought about writing. Late at night, when I don't feel right, I craft paragraphs in my head. The language in my head-writing, and here on this site, is not for work, but for me. Most of the time these paragraphs just tumble around, wishing for release through expression. But let's face it here, people. I have two kids and a full time job. There's little time for elaboration.

So here's what happened:

  1. I went back to work five days a week. It's like, game on. I'm trying to figure out how to balance it all again. How can I let work go when I walk in the door of our home, when it's consumed me for more than forty hours a week? I want to do it well, but have it be gone when home, so I can concentrate on my people.
  2. I recovered a little more from that big old dip last year. What did they call it? Oh, depression? Tra-la-la. I'm over you, bitch! (Hold on - I'm supposed to be speaking positively to myself, and letting the darker sides of my emotions "just be." Riiight...Back to therapy. I'm just beginning to get it. I hope.)
  3. We got a new au pair. Another transition. Another story worthy of a post. But not for now.
  4. Raf had a super busy December for travel, but has since been home rocking the house. Hallelujah!
  5. I turned 40 last Sunday.

Out with the old! Wait. I am old. And I'm beginning to like it. Here's a new post about that.



The Dinosaur Bone (what you think you’re no good at)

I clearly remember the moment I decided I couldn't draw.

I was eight. Staring at a massive dinosaur skeleton in the Natural History Museum in Denver. Was it a Stegosaurus? A Tyrannosaurus?  I'm not sure. The view in my memory is of the right side of it. A shape which contained the bone I was to draw.

I sat on a bench in front of the dinosaur skeleton, balancing a sketchbook on my lap. To my left sat my older sister. Our parents had just divorced. To my right was the art teacher hired, apparently at great expense, to take care of us for a short while over summer vacation.

The art teacher was okay. I met her in our tree-dappled backyard in Denver. She was pretty. Natural, though I don't particularly remember her face. We did crafty things at our  house for a few days. (I keep thinking "our" house but it was suddenly our dad's house. Not our mom's.) Not much else I recall about my experience with the art teacher, except that crucial moment.

"Just go ahead and try to sketch a bone," she might have said kindly.

Or, more cruelly, as I've twisted it in my memory: "Impress me. Draw the femur."

I tried. I drew something that resembled a bone. Kinda.

Then I made the worst mistake one can make: I looked to my left. What had my sister done? There, in my recollection, lay a perfect, artistically rendered, completely-to-scale rendering of that goddamned dinosaur bone. Da Vinci, through the hand of my much-more-talented 11-year-old sister, had drawn it. I looked down at my paper, where I saw a wobbly pencil outline and some blobs. And I thought: "There. You see? I can't draw."

I remember the clarity of the thought, and the relief that came with it. I can't draw. I didn't have to compete if I refused to play.  And if I didn't do it, I wouldn't fail.

It wasn't the art teacher's fault. I probably said nothing about it. I just packed up all my drawing fun-times, along with my belief in happily-ever-after, which eroded around the same time. I folded in on myself. I still smiled and laughed and tried to be cute for everyone. But my parents were divorced, and I couldn't draw, and my sister could. And that was that. No problemo.

Thank God somehow I maintained the belief that I could write. And with the help of a great writing coach, over the course of a few years, I wrote the novel. By running that gauntlet, I found myself a writer. I have my craft, and it makes me happy when I do it. Like now.

But I dared not draw until very recently. Inspired by author Dan Roan who gave the keynote at a conference, I started sketching to explain a very complex thing: my job. It helped so much! I published a series of blog posts for work, some of which included these sketches. The sketches were rough, but they helped me communicate. And they made me laugh. Breakthrough!!!

To celebrate, I offer you the following sketch:

my second dinosaur bone drawing

In closing:

May you break any curses and reconsider any blanket-statement beliefs about what you can't do.

May you draw your bone. 

Lotsa love and just a little push,

- Margot

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Dear blog (a word that sounds like something coughed out of a smoker’s lung)

I am sorry, blog, for I have not written.

I have excuses. In short: my job, and our tiny baby children. The job: a new role being defined. The children, aged four and one. Four and one, goddammit. Have you no pity?

Of course not. You're me.

I drive myself crazy expecting perfection. It's a mindset that grants moments of elation. But then the rest of life sucks.

One isn't supposed to berate oneself for being a failure all the time.

I'm totally over that now, blog.  That's right. I write in you because you're supposed to be short and frequent and fun. Not precious.

So there. I'm blogging again. BTW, I HATE the word blog. It's quite unattractive. See the title - that's right, that's what I really think.

But I like talking to you, and to the few real people whom I might reach through you.

Thanks for that, and for forgiving me about the not writing thing. And the title. We're cool, right?  Right.

Love ya,



My First Novel (gag)

My Little Pony My First Novel

I feel shy about it. "My novel," I'd say as an awkward pubescent might say "my private parts." I labored over my love-story-gone-wrong for years. I grew it paragraphy by paragraph. I wrote and re-wrote. I cried and got stuck and fought my way onward. I kept writing, and I finished it. Yes, that I can say with relief: I did finish a novel. And it's not bad. But I'd let it go, and given up on "being discovered" completely randomly. I wasn't working on it. I've had some other things on my mind.

But today my friend Cindy mentioned she'd read the parts of my novel on this blog, and she wanted to know what will happen with Brody and Cherise. I pulled out a manuscript for her. It's the light-blue-covered, bound bastard of a manuscript I had printed at crazy hell hole Kinkos more than two years ago. I don't want to recount the steps it took to get those few copies. I'd buried them in a mental and physical closet after I didn't hear back from the one agent who expressed interest way back when. But, because this good friend asked about the book (thank you Cindy!) I pulled it out. A copy of my novel is sitting, quite cleanly and beautifully, on our dining room table. Of course, I can't really open it.

If I read it I might break apart into a billion pieces. It might be terrible and boring and dumb. It has typos. It will kill me to revisit it yet again.

Why so much emotional drama related to a big bundle of words? I guess I need to clarify: I will be a novelist when I grow up. It's a dream, and what I think I should be doing. I don't know how I'll get there; how I'll ever have the time and space to do it again. But my life will be spent writing stories. Deciding to write that book, starting at age 30, was my first step in commiting to seeing that dream through despite my fear of failure. Whenever people have said that my first novel might not be "the one," I wanted to kill them. Because who would want to keep working on something that might NOT be the one? In the darkest of times I still had to believe it could be a story worth telling.

Maybe it is interesting, or "good." (Though God knows how I'll define that, or how I'll know when I've achieved it.) Maybe it isn't. But it's somethin' as my dad would say.

So here's my big plan: I'm going to publish it serially, online. It'll all written of course, I just need to queue it up and edit down as I go. And hope that people might be interested in a bit of fiction now and then. I have to ignore the fact that my designer friend didn't have time to fancify the site I'm working on for it> I'll just appreciate the conversations she and I had about it, and use a standard WordPress template. At some point I'll also cram my Word doc into a book format to publish it myself, to allow people to buy a paperback if they're interested. All 3 of you people, please do! ;)

The story is done, it just needs to be shared. I so hope you'll read it. More to come,



Oh, Yeah. The Power of a Vision.

On the train on the way home last night, I had one of those moments where my heart swelled with gratitude and I gulped and tears came to my eyes. I'd done it again: envisioned something, worked on it, and then: bam. Got it. It's almost frightening. I'm not talking about getting an "it" really. Not "I envisioned my perfect luxury car, and went out and bought it on credit, yay!" I'm talking about big life goals, big picture kinda dreaming: how to have a happy life?

It's not like I've figured everything out. I get massively depressed sometimes. Awful stuff happens, and the world can seem a chaotic and angry place. But when it's up to me, I can't accept being miserable for long. After wallowing in self-abusive misery for a while, I start asking myself what would make me happier? If I'm super stuck–so stuck I think everything is crap and so am I–I'll ask for help in figuring it out.* Three examples of how it’s worked out when I've invested in defining a vision for a happier life:

At age 29** I recognized I wanted to write the book, no matter how freaky-deaky scared I was to try. Some of my crippling fears before I turned this corner: Most simply put, I was an idiot. The words wouldn't come, and if they did, they'd be utter crap. If I looked inside myself, I'd fall into an abyss. Or worse, find nothing there. My dream of who I should be would be cracked, and to fill the void I'd have to accept working in a laundromat for money and doing something extreme, like hang gliding, for sport.

I took a dorky class based on a book called Creating a Life Worth Living (I already have one! I wanted to scream to the book's author. But for some reason, I was there.) Some of the exercises included writing down activities that made you happy, and how you could look at your time in different ways, to do more of the good stuff. I envisioned my ideal day job, and my future life as a novelist.

At age 30 I started writing the novel (in pieces, a grain of sand at a time), and a billion years later (I'm not really that old), I work at a great place and I'm standing here saying I'm a writer.

Over a year ago, at our old pad in the heart of the Mission, Rafael and I jotted down what we'd want if we moved. In pencil, on a little white square: "Extra room. Space. Light. Backyard. Good school. Easy public transit. Ali can ride a bike." We stuck it up on our fridge with a Guinness glass-shaped magnet, amid some sticky photos and never-used coupons.

The last time I had that contracting-and-expanding feeling of good fortune–other than last night I mean–was when R. told me they'd excepted the offer on this house in Rockridge. I was on an odd little hill in Potrero Hill in S.F., standing outside our car, which was of course parked at a psychotic angle. The sun was shining and I was on top of the hill talking to Raf on the phone, staring at a mailbox, thinking mother fucker, I am so fortunate.

So here we are–granted, a kinda painful year after we decided to move. In this beautiful place. It's even better than we could have imagined. The light more light; the weather softer; the neighborhood friendlier; the whole lifestyle more relaxed; and fruit trees everywhere...We both appreciate being here and are so freaking grateful every day.

I have to ask myself: well, how did we get here? (Talking Heads: the days go by / water flowing under ground...) I think the results of our move had something to do with the broad brush strokes on that piece of paper on the fridge. We weren't studying it, but it was at eye level, and it reminded us what we wanted. It was a vision, a loose outline with lots of positive intention.

Lastly, the more recent event. My awe-inspired moment of gratitude on the train was surprisingly work-related. I found out I'll be able to move from my producer role at Hot Studio to bridge two fields I'm passionate and curious about: Brand Strategy and Content Strategy. I'll get to focus on language, and its integration into our strategies and designs. I'm not going into details about the job here. The point is, this is a significant transition, a way out of something I've long known I'm over. It's the light at the end of the tunnel of a "doing the same job forever, because you've no big complaints and you need money" track.

In a large part this change is happening because Maria, the owner of Hot–imagine her Staten Island accent, and her hands opening a space on the wood table into which I could put an idea–said: "Margot, just tell me what you want to do." With her encouragement and help from my immediate boss and my career-coach sister, I did it. I drafted a vision for a new role, with a plan for getting there. It's mutually advantageous, the approach is approved, and I can just see it all working.

Now for the transition part. Oh boy. Not quite as fun as the beginning and end of the process (the crystallization of a vision and then the shocking granting of your wishes.) But oh so necessary. Oh yes. Learning. Adjusting. Waiting.

Everyday life. It's what we do in between the moments of despair and the ones where we feel like everything's so beautiful we could burst.

* I'm the child of a psychotherapist and an electrical engineer, if that gives you any idea of my polarities.

** The transition from one's  late 20's  to early 30's is a crucial one for the characters in Richland. <weird trance music> Check out the astrological phenomenon called Saturn Returns.


Antidote to the Y.S.Y.D.S. game

In writing the novel, there were moments when something beautiful happened; when sentences appeared onscreen as perfect as pie. And weeks did go by when I was happily obsessed with the secret lives of the characters unfurling. But most of the time it was a just a fuckload of work. I doubted it would ever be good enough to share. That's why I choked at the very end of the process, as I was submitting it to potential agents.

You see, by keeping my story in my laptop and head, I could play this really cool game called You Suck You Dumb Shit …whenever I wanted! (Y.S.Y.D.S.–don't you love it when the acronym is harder to say than the words?) If my book is never published and never read, I reason, I can keep torturing myself by playing out ridiculous fantasies where:

a)   It’s praised as “the voice of our generation,” “a cunning retelling of a classic love story gone awry,” and “San Francisco’s best tale since Tales of the City."

OR (still in my head, that glorious beast):

b)   It’s assessed as “Crappy white girl drivel. Its author should be water-boarded for adding to the piles of typewritten trash in which the world is already drowning.”

If I never share my writing, you see, I can inflate and berate myself at whim! I’m then bound to stay twisted up like a stale old pretzel, unable to produce a word…thereby avoiding all possibility of criticism and failure!

Yes, it’s hard to be such a genius of mental gymnastics.

I spent all of 2009 in a dark and fallow state related to my novel and creative pursuits in general. I crawled out from my cave in December, relieved to see a glimmer of a vision for a future life. I agreed to be here happily in idyllic Rockridge; to go nuts for this beautiful family and life; and to take a risk and just start blogging, even though I HATE that term. Yuck. A blog sounds like something coughed up from a smoker’s lung.

Anyway, Praise Be to WordPress, it’s 2010 and I’m writing again! (God, I do annoy myself sometimes. Anyway–I was trying to be positive.) Through this simple outlet of words on a screen, about whatever I want, I feel so much more…myself. Just happier, period. I’m also getting more sleep this year–but that’s another story.

To conclude this one I just have to say, to whisper in everyone’s ears: take that little bit of time you need. Do something small, another step towards your dream, the one you think is too far-reaching.

I have to remind myself that trying and failing makes for a much better story than never trying at all. We have to believe. We have to try. It’d be too painfully boring if we didn’t!

Thanks for reading,

Your Margot


Writing a novel: why, how, and what now

I've always wanted to be a novelist. Just before my thirtieth birthday, I had a frightening realization: I could be one of those people who never did what they wanted to do! If I didn't start, the story that was in my head wouldn't get written. I'd just keep working for my whole life and feeling like I could be someone, a storyteller, a writer, but never really trying. Hating myself. I did a little speech at my thirtieth birthday party, and vowed to get myself out of the cycle of crucifying myself for not writing, which only lead to more..not writing. You know?

I really hated the idea of simply writing, regularly, the annoying way all of the books told me to. But then I read Jane Anne Staw's book "Unstuck" and it helped me realize how petrified I'd become. I started meeting with her monthly in a beautiful backyard garden. And I started the novel.

"Richland" is the result of hundreds of bits of time I stole on my way home from work. Routine: A train ride with music. Then a cafe. God bless cafes. Sit down. Avoid opening the giant Word doc that was the manuscript. Get another drink. Stare at people. More music. Eventually, I'd start writing. I was a person with people in my head. Something about them would be written. A paragraph. A page. I'd leave feeling like a million bucks.

A thousand (okay maybe six) fucking years later, I finished! It's big, and it's done. I had it edited. (God bless Joanna Yas, whose quarterly journal Open City blows my mind.) Had a baby. Kept working. Then wrote a query letter to agents. I sent a couple of letters out. One rejection–it was awesome! I was so excited anyone responded at all. One positive response. But then I freaked the fuck out, moved, and didn't pick up the manuscript for a year. It felt like a soggy ten-thousand page brick in the truck of my car. And that's the truth, sisters and brothers. 

I've just realized, reluctantly, as I always do, that I can't avoid learning the next big thing. I wrote the novel, and that is significant. Yay Margot, you crazy fucking dog. Parts of it may even be really good. But it could be better. Editing–and I swear to God I can't count the number of times I've already edited–but more specifically, editing with love, enjoying it, is my next step. And also: letting go.

So I'll be "editing with love" (barf - I mean Yay!) and thinking about what to do with this 365 page behemoth, you know, given the death of print. But what I've got is a story, and I think it's gotta be decent enough to put out there for the four of you random readers. Right? Right.

Thanks, mates.