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Chandra's Blog


Entries in writing (29)


Finding Another Voice

It has been a little quiet here in the writerland, but I am still constantly tinkering with words. I have been teaching literature and helping students find their passion and voices for the past few years.

In that capacity, I continue to read and edit and hopefully, sometimes, inspire. I am brimming with excitement over my postapocalyptic fiction class in Spring 2017, (#itstheendoftheworldasweknowit255) and excited to tinker with my syllabus for Writing 202--response to literature.



But what about the dawn chorus, and morning writing of my own?

What about creating my own characters, and watching them navigate a plot, and spout dialogue and spin theme and meaning, instead of just teaching it?

At the end of the last semester, one of the students questioned me on my recent publication history.

"Well..." I told him, "I had some foreign translations of my novel published in 2013."

He frowned and asked, "But, what are you working on?"

I listed three projects--a widow/widower love story for the book club set, a coming-of-age story about an elite tier one ten-year-old hockey goalie who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, and a YA novel in a flawed, health-based utopia that my agent insists needs a female narrator, instead of the high school senior boy in the original draft.

(Out of superstition, I don't mention my current work on submission--a twisted tale of two women on either side of the same man.)

"But, so you are saying, it has been since 2011 since you've had an actual book published in the US?" he countered bluntly.

I nodded. The conversation ended.

The truth is, though I am still writing fiction, quietly, I am shifting my focus to creative nonfiction. I am writing more about our dogs and rescue kitten, about horses and our flock of chickens. As they grow and develop their own online lives, I tend to visit the topic of my kids-in-specific less, but still spend plenty of time on the subject of parenting in this strange new age. I am trying my hand at Hoffman's Natural, a lifestyle blog that celebrates the suburban granola family, lessons learned from a simple life during our year on an island, and products that we create, use and love.

If you care to follow me there as I try out a new voice of my own, here is the link: HOFFMAN'S NATURAL

And when there is fiction writing news, I promise to come back here and shout it from the ever-loving rooftop.

* *** *







1 January 2015 -- unfinished business

basement stairs, work in progress

A little less than a year ago, I started a beat-the-winter-blues project of painting our plain wooden basement stairs. I picked tangerine, colbalt, turquoise and cream, colors you might find on Scandinavian folk art ponies. Cheerful colors. I did a combination of freehand and stencil, with my phone on speaker, passing the time chatting with my dad as I went. Somewhere between the third and fourth step was March 28, the day my dad did not call for the Morning Report.


After that, I stopped painting the stairs.

Every time I go down to shake my sleepy new teenager awake, fetch a roll of paper towel or some spare hockey equipment, I see this half-finished project, and it drives me bonkers. So I doggedly move -finish basement stairs- from 'To Do' list to 'To Do' list each week, but the prospect of sitting there painting without my dad's virtual company is too much.


When I look around, I see dozens of half-completed projects from this year. Most recently, the Christmas eve pajamas I was sewing for the guys in my life sit in a flannel jumble, waiting for hems and elastic, right next to the school pants that need a button and the jeans that need hemming. There are my dad's old clothes that I mean to sew into something memorable for my siblings and half-siblings. Come to think of it, I meant to do the same with textiles of my grandmother's, and Cherry's too.

My studio looks like the fallout from a paper airplane dogfight. My laptop and phone both teeter on the precipice of electronic disaster, waiting for me to back things up. And don't get me started on what's going on in my iPhoto, my dropbox, and the junk drawers in my kitchen.


On this blog alone, I have seventeen unfinished posts from the last year. There are those celebrating my boys' transitions to teendom and double digits. Ones about my full-circle return to horses (after a fifteen-year-hiatus, they are back in my daily life), and literature, (via my teaching position at Bryn Athyn College). I wrote one celebrating Piper overcoming her accident last summer and continuing to ride horses, compete, and win. I have several love song posts--poetic tributes to my husband, our beloved Hoffmans Happy Hens, and El Presidente, the feral fat cat we acquired from my dad in April. And of course, I have my attempts at probing into the pain of losing my father--a blog post called Mixed Nuts, with his famous holiday nut recipe, and photos of me unintentionally doing my best grumpy cat, sulking in the back of family gatherings, aching with the gaping lack of his presence.

And then there's one addressing the mentally-unstable woman who mined my old blog posts, and used information gathered there to attack the foundation of our family. (For the record, she didn't even chink our outer walls.) But the experience definitely made me pause before hitting Submit, time and time again, questioning how much of myself I was willing to put out there.

On my laptop's writing files, I have the unfinished manuscript of Wellspring, which went out as a partial this past summer to a very short list of editors. Most of them asked to see it finished, and instead I walked away from it.

And I have the outline of the new story I dreamed that is so close to my heart, so tender and important I'm not even going to share the gist of it or working title. It feels so critical and lovely I remain a little paralyzed at the start gate, hoping my skill is up to the task of its telling.

But 2015 is a blank page, waiting for that story to be written, for my loose ends to find their loopy mates and be coaxed into sloppy, finished bows.

So this year, I resolve to finish the things I have started. No more excuses--oh my Dad died, my husband travels more than he is home, I started a teaching job, I'm riding/working at the barn, my kids play on all these hockey teams and we have practice in New Jersey three nights a week and league games in Long Island, and I have to be home in time to let the chickens in,  and, and, and --BASTA. No more. If I truly want to honor the memory of the man we all miss so keenly, then I resolve to live his motto, and carp them diems.

 * *** *

 How about you? What are your resolutions for the new year?

Christmas Eve, wearing the bracelet, holding on to my figurative daggerboard, and looking ahead to smoother sailing.



Writing the Crazy Quilt

Recently I got to sit down and chat craft with my high school creative writing teacher. We have been sharing work in the past year, and my children are enthralled by her simple, heartfelt and other-worldly stories of the Moon Darlings. She conveys meaning with a sparse prose, ethereal imagery and language that hints of another place while deeply tethering the reader to the characters.

She listened to me explain what I have been working on this summer, a revisiting of a dual narrator novel that explores the relationship between two women on either side of a man. I rambled on with a plot summary, and explained it as a study on natural beauty and its merit, and the moral compass, and undoing the damage of the past and ... I paused for a breath.

Janna nodded. She then said diplomatically, "I think you would do a very good job writing for a television series. Something complex and intricate, that spins out for many seasons. I'm not sure a novel is the right medium for this kind of writing."

Basically, she said again what an agent who was considering CHOSEN told me years ago in a thick, gravelly Brooklyn accent, "You don't got to be so tricky, doll!"  

Janna went on to say that perhaps, this is the outcome of me knowing that I am talented--see all these balls I can keep in the air!--and intrinsically insecure about the actual merit of what I have to say. A 'don't mind the man behind the curtain, now look over here! she's about to get on another plane/in bed with another man/wreck her life in a new way!' Maybe I'm afraid my story doesn't stand on its own, in the same kind of beautifully simple voice that carries Janna's stories, so I heap on layers, and plot twists and funny side scenes, quirky characters, sex scenes and dredge up some backstory. 

I was reminded of my quilting. I don't actually know how to quilt, and I'm not particularly interested in learning. I don't want to be hemmed in by the rules of quilting, don't want to fuss with ironing interfacing to fabrics that don't have the same amount of give or pin before I sew every little bit. I want freedom to use anything I like, slash up and incorporate a fabulous thrift store find, whether or not it will hold up to a washing machine. Because of this, I rely on the medium of the crazy quilt, where my shortcomings and lack of quilting skill can be covered up with another overlap, another layer, some top stitching or embroidery. In the end, I hope that the person looking at the quilt will see the beauty in the midst of the chaos, because I do. 

(You can read about my daughter's Incentive Quilt, here.)
Piper's crazy quilt

Janna's writing advice: step back from this rolicking, wild, plot-heavy story. Tone down the neurotic characters I have woven. Write a scene from this story in simple prose, and see if the heart is there. There is a reason I am stalled out--see if this is why. I'm excited to try. She may be on to something that explains why I keep circling this story, never feeling like I understand the essence of it.

And on the other hand, I'm not sure that my methodology is totally problematic. Instead, perhaps it is simply my style? There are things I am good at in both mediums. It's not that I'm hasty or sloppy or can't write/sew something beautiful. I hand-embroidered thirteen painted ponies for Piper's quilt, with carefully blanket-stitched edges and flowing, colorful manes and tails, and they're lovely. I can craft dialog that rings true while conveying character and moving plot along all at once. I can seamlessly incorporate elements of pop culture that lend verisimilitude to my work.

I don't only crazy quilt because I'm too lazy to iron before I sew--I do it because I am attracted to this style more than perfectly symmetrical calico stars. I feel inspired by the beauty in layering and odd angles and textures and riotous colors. I am drawn to Murano glass, and cherish J's aunt's miniature layered collages. One of my favorite descriptions of our home was 'Pee Wee's Playhouse Grows Up' because of the bright colors and ecclectic mix of styles that somehow ... work.

Maybe this is true of my writing too. I cringe every time I feel myself edited towards chicklit, pat or formulaic writing. I demand that my characters be messily three-dimensional, with ugly, wobbly, secret underbellies and defining backstories and childhood friends and ex-boyfriends and snarky coworkers and things they do when they think nobody is looking. Maybe I write this way because I am attracted to the beautiful chaos of real life? 

I'll let you know how it goes this week.


Ringing in the New Year with a hammer and nail

basement project

Last night I succumbed to the plague that has been circling our family and crawled into bed at eight pm.

Before that, I had made this amazing soup from my dear friend Amanda Gibson in Utila, and there was silliness and a handful of profound thoughts around the table as we attempted resolutions. 

(Max, age 8: I will not burp in my brother's face at the table, like THIIIIIIIISSSSSSSRAWWWPPP.)

(Piper, age 5: I will learn to read meaningful things.)

(Hayden, age 11: I will live a more eco-friendly life wherever I am.)



I fell asleep to the sounds of the new year ringing in with hammer and nail as J and the boys continued the basement framing of Hayden's future bedroom. It feels appropriate, like a continuation of our Utila commitment to circle the wagons, to shift the focus to home and family. That we end this year with a beginning. 

"What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from."

-T.S. Eliot

I dreamed up two jars in my sleep--one where we could put ideas for fun things to do, and a (consequence) job jar. As much as I love alliteration, I renamed the second one the Teamwork jar, since we have been talking a lot as we traveled about our family as a team, and how we all need to work together for things to happen.


We'll see how excited the kids get about this. I can already detect some scoffing. Today, some of Hayden's pals dropped by while I was mopping where I had slopped some water moving the Christmas tree out and the orange tree back into a sunnier spot of distinction. I was mopping away, jamming out to some Usher and Hayden sort of cornered me and whispered fiercely, "Mom, why do you have to be so, so CLEAN all the time?"

In my defense, I haven't mopped in a month.

While I booting out Christmas and other vestiges of 2012, cleaning and scheming, I did some reflecting.

2012 has been a good year. Not the best. Not the worst. Good. If I were writing its report card, I'd give it a B. On the right track! Solid effort; room for improvement...

I also made a handful of resolutions, but the one I feel is most important is my commitment to write words every day. I first made this the year I turned seventeen. I was headed off to college, and it was the only year I fully kept this resolution. Freshman year was not an easy transition for me. I wasn't equipt to live away from home but I was more than ready to leave. I've never re-read the journal I kept that year; it would probably make me pretty sad. But I did it. I wrote every night and most nights in the following year. I even looked forward to it. Some nights it was the only the words, "sad. lonely. tired now, more later." 

In the years since then, things have gotten much, much better. I have needed that nightly paper and ink friend less, especially as writing also became my day job. I have continued to keep journals throughout my adult life, relying on it more at some times than others. J says he worries when he notices I am scribbling a lot.

But this year, it will be more of an experiment. A snapshot in stuttershot frames; a 365 project. Words that simply capture this time. As I lounged on the couch with my eleven-year-old this afternoon we were talking about how time in Utila had a different quality, and I realized I could not remember exactly what I had done on my birthday, only three months ago. I panicked. I don't want to forget this, these days, this lucky life. 

Journal writing is about recording moments in the moment, in their vivid reality, capturing them before hindsight has had a chance to tinge memory with color or sepia. It is about the raw format. The bare bones. I want to be able to remember the structure of this year, the frame, when it is exposed. So that I can look back and remember when it is done. 

Because here is the truth: I have high hopes for 2013. It will answer a lot of questions for me. Just like the basement, I have plans to lay flooring and hang figurative drywall, to dress it up with paint and decorate this year. Unlucky number be damned, I want to record it all. Highs and lows, brief memories and witticisms. Snapshots and watercolors. I promise only to subject readers to the highlights.


I'd love to hear what things you are committing to this year. Let's make it memorable! 





The Ides of March

Sixteen years ago today, my oldest niece Freya was born on the Ides of March, which means soon she will getting her learner's permit and taking to the roads. Happy Birthday Freya--we love you!

Freya at the wheel, 1998

The phone call I got announcing her arrival sixteen years ago makes it easy for me to remember that the same night, J and I had our first date, by which I mean to say, engaged in some drunken dance floor moves at Rumheads Nightclub. I remember Coolio's "1-2-3-4" was played more than once.

Way back when

I'm not sure which is scarier--to think of my niece all grown up at the wheel, or that J and I made a connection that set the course of our future in the bar underneath the World Gym on the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman when we both barely old enough to drink in the United States. Sixteen years ago!


What a long strange trip it has been. In my essay, A Wedding Planner Hangs Up Her Headset, I wrote about the practical applications of our relationship, what love has come to mean to me as an adult and what I wish new brides could know from a vantage point a little farther down the road.

In some ways, we were musing in the shower this morning, it seems like we have always been together, and in others, like sixteen years have flown by. How did we get this far? I made a list of a few things that have made this relationship, which is also a deep friendship, feel easy.


1) we both consider ourselves equally lucky to have each other--by this I mean to say, there is no quiet one-upmanship. Which is not to say that I don't think how damn lucky he is when I tote the garbage and recycling cans back and forth to the curb twice a week, a stereotypically male job. But I also acknowledge how fortunate I am to have a guy who can fix almost anything, who gets up in the frozen pre-dawn stillness on Saturday mornings all winter long to coach the boys' hockey teams, who never lets a day go by without telling me I am loved and desired. 

27 May 2000


2) we take turns holding each other up. And we take turns falling apart. You can let life's knocks break you, or shape you. 

(You can read more about this in the essay about the birth of our son Hayden and our baptism by fire into parenthood)



3) we adopt a teamwork approach. This applies to everything from parenting to yard maintenance to hockey weekends to shaving the dog, which you may see more of in a photo essay called "Shearing Season" in an upcoming dog blog. 


2005 4) he makes me laugh Usually by saying all those things I think but might not say. He tries to whisper them, but he's not a very good whisperer. It runs in the family. Did I mention he also makes both the best coffee and mojitos I have ever tasted?


5) we try to shower and/or have coffee together daily to catch-up. This has been important in keeping us connected during the busier stages of our lives. Sometimes I drive him nuts by bringing notebooks and day planners and agendas to these get togethers. Well, not in the shower. 




 6) we have a commitment to being each other's port in the storm. We make our home a place where people build each other up and expect this of the kids as well. 


7) we travel separately. This doesn't mean I am turning down opportunities for us to go away as a couple in favor of spa weekends with the girls. (Although, wait, that sounds really great right now.) But with three little kids and an enormous, slobbery dog, there are few people willing to take on our brood for extended periods of time. This means that when we need to recharge, we drop each other off at the airport and look forward to hearing via Skype about how it was kiteboarding in the Bahamas or visiting with friends and family in the Caribbean or the Rockies, and checking in on the chaos that ensues when one of us is single parenting at the Hoffstead.

8) he is willing to be married to a writer. This comes up all the time when I am a guest author at book clubs--how does your husband handle your writing? Or let's be honest, people want to know: how does he feel about the character of Dan in CHOSEN? Truth of fiction: Is J the inspiration for the character Dan?

The writer and blogger extraordinaire Julianna Baggott has a standard question in her writerly half-dozen interview about advice for those seeking a long-term relationship with a writer. The answers are painfully, honestly hilarious. Actually, pretty much all of her stuff is great. You should check it out.

For the long answer, you have to invite me to your book club. But the short answer is that J handles it beautifully and he lets me post sappy blogs about how much I adore him (sixteen years later!) on the internet. I also include photos of him doing awesome, sporty things, where he looks really hot. 



9) we have similar passions. Wanderlust, the ocean, family, sports, reading, words and nameplay, and most importantly, a dedication to the nurturing of all things Hoffspring--be they pink or furry or scaled or feathered. See, I said feathered. Don't get me wrong. Things aren't perfect. I'm still working on him about the chickens. 

J and the kids at Barkers Beach, 2012











So there you have them, my off-the-cuff Nine Commandments for 16 Years of Happiness. But I am sure there are more and from those far more seasoned in the game than I am. So I'd love to know: What do you and your partner do to ensure a happy relationship?