Assume the Position

By Cornelia Read


I’m like Alex–for me writing is not Ass in Chair, it’s Ass on Cushioned Horizontal Surface. Mostly here, at the moment:

The monogrammed pillow is from my pal Mags, who got it for me from Land’s End, if memory serves.

The most important thing you need to write in bed are pillows… lots and lots of pillows.

Originally, when I moved into this apartment near the Arctic Circle last year, I planned to write here:

The desk is from IKEA, but the toile wallpaper I bought online. My daughter and I went to a garage sale last summer and they had two sets of large gold letters spelling “LOVE” for sale, for $4 each. I said, “hey, if we buy both of them, we can spell ‘EVOLVE’!” So we did.

I think maybe I’ve written exactly half a sentence at that desk. Finally, I told Grace to use it for homework and now it’s filled with a pile of Grace detritus. Oh well. It looks nice, in the living room. When I close the front flap to cover the Grace detritus.

I miss writing at my friend Sharon’s house. We used to write together at her dining room table pretty much every weekday. I was really productive there, especially for the first ten months when we couldn’t figure out the key code to get me into her wireless service. We would gossip a lot and stuff, but after an hour or so we’d get down to work, and finally I would be so in the zone that I didn’t even hear her kids when they came home, and would finally come up for air, most nights, when the family needed to set the table for dinner.

When I first moved to the Great White North, I thought I’d get a TON of writing done, since I didn’t know anybody and wouldn’t have to fight the urge to go out to lunch with people a lot and stuff. It turns out that talking to people and hanging out and non-writing social stuff is actually excellent fuel for writing stuff. You need to recharge your batteries, and often. That doesn’t happen so much here, unless I drive down to New York and hang out with pals. That’s about a five-hour drive. I go down whenever I get really stir crazy, which has been a lot over the last year or so.

At any rate, even after I got the pretty desk from IKEA, I tried to write at the cool dining room table I got on craigslist:

I got maybe the second half of that first sentence written at the table. But I spent two days painting the chairs dark green. Except for when Sharon came to visit–I got ten pages written then. It was almost as good as living in California again.

I took her to see Portsmouth:

And Salem, Mass.:

Which was fun but not writing.

And we went for a walk along the banks of the Mighty Squamscott, here in Exeter:

Which is pretty great. But not writing.

In fact, my writing–in terms of quantity and probably quality–has pretty much sucked for this past year. My pals try to reassure me that this is because the year itself was pretty sucky. Sharon is especially good at cheering me up this way. She’ll call from California and say, “well, let’s see–in the past year you’ve moved three thousand miles away to a town where you didn’t know anybody, because your daughter needed you; you got divorced; you had to leave your other daughter with your ex because you can’t physically care for her anymore on your own; your father committed suicide two weeks before your original deadline; your editor died of cancer; and you did publicity and touring for your third book; oh, and you tried to mediate amongst all the crazy relatives after your dad died. Look at it this way–you should cut yourself some slack, and you’re never going to be short of material.” This is why I love Sharon. But still, here is what my writing has been for the last year:

Now I seem to have the ball rolling, at least a little bit. Probably going to blow my new October 1st deadline, though. Especially since my Mom flew in on her way home from Greece last night, and wants to go on a roadtrip. I should stay home and write, but I have people here so seldom I kind of want to milk the opportunity for real conversation that doesn’t involve sixteen-year-olds, although the latter is not without charm.

As for methodology… well, no index cards, whiteboards, post-it notes (giant or otherwise, until we get to the copy edit stage of things.) I’m not an outliner, though I had to write a synopsis for this fourth book. My editor wasn’t crazy about my first three ideas for it, and I had so few pages over the last year that my new sweet editor asked if I could summarize what I was thinking of doing for the salespeople. Not sure they’re going to need that, now, as this book certainly won’t come out in 2011, but I guess maybe it was helpful–though the next twenty pages I wrote after the synopsis totally negated the synopsis.

I remember Lee Child once saying at a book signing that he never outlined, and when editors wanted an outline he’d make something up and then write what he wanted anyway. I suppose that’s a lot easier to do when you’re LEE CHILD. But I still raised my hand at the end and asked, “do they make you do that for every book?”

He said they did, pretty much.

I asked, “so since you never write the book that’s in the outline, can you just recycle the outline the next time they want one?”

He said he hadn’t thought of that, but that he’d definitely do it the next time he got asked for one.

I usually start a book with a scene in my head. It’s always something very place-specific, usually with a telling event at the heart of it, though the event may have nothing to do with the eventual mystery.

In A Field of Darkness, the opening is in my old apartment in Syracuse, New York, on the night a building on the next block caught fire for the second night in a row–which actually happened. It’s funny how many little things I just jotted down in the first draft ended up being themes that carried out through the entire narrative: fire, my heritage, and even photography. I said that walking into the next street to see the fire at first felt like a photograph by Weegee, by which I mean an image somewhat like this:

This is actually titled “Brooklyn Children See Gambler Murdered in the Street,” but it’s the kind of late-night spooky crowd scene I had in mind. I believe the description in Field was something like:

I cut across the tar-soft street and between the woodframe hulks facing ours. For just a second, coming out the other side, it was like stepping into one of that guy Weegee’s photos from a forties copy of Life: black-and- white, some police-scanner tragedy back when everyone wore hats and cars were bulbous as the Hindenburg.

I blinked and it was just my neighbors milling slack-jawed, tank tops and stretch shorts bursting with that translucent flesh I always attribute to Kool smoke and government cheese. I stepped in among them and chastised myself: no worse snob than a poor relation.

For The Crazy School, I thought back to the classroom I taught in at The DeSisto School in West Stockbridge, Mass, in the fall of 1989. The walls looked like this, except painted glossy mustard, and the general attitude on campus is well represented by that officious little note next to the thermostat:

In the first chapter, I wrote:


It was an ugly room. Demoralizing. I didn’t want to be in it, either, only you’re not supposed to say that when you’re the grownup.


I talk about mostly real places, in my books. Like the family cemetery on Centre Island, in Oyster Bay, New York:

That’s my favorite gravestone. It says:

Behold and see

As you pass by

As you are now

So once was I

As I am now

You soon must be

Prepare for death

To follow me

I’ve also written about the family camp, in the Adirondacks:

Here’s Dad, sitting on the porch outside the dining room last summer. We all thought that ceramic deer should’ve been thrown into the lake sometime in the Mid-Fifties. It’s fucking fugly.

My fourth book is set in Boulder, Colorado, and opens a day before my twin daughters’ first birthday. I’m cleaning the house (a lost cause) because my mother is due to fly in at any moment. It’s going to be a pretty sad book. The title is now officially Valley of Ashes. Here’s how it opens:

When we first moved to Boulder I was entirely too happy, a state of being so rare in my experience that I found it rather terrifying.

My twin daughters Parrish and India were beautiful, precocious, and brimming with health. My husband Dean was happily successful at his new job and my best, most trusted friend. We lived at the eastern feet of the Rocky Mountains in a cozy old house on the loveliest street of a charming university town. The air was fresh, the sky was blue–our yard a lush and maple-shaded green, our mellow brick front porch banked in spring with a cobalt-and-amethyst embarrassment of lilac, iris, and grape hyacinth.

Everything I’d ever wanted.


Sorrow is always your own, offering no temptation to fickle gods. Fucking joy, on the other hand? You might as well string your heart from the ceiling for use as a frat-party piñata.

Once I get that first scene established–in this case I’m standing in the living room of a rented house at 1913 Mapleton Street with a vacuum hose in my hand, despairing over the ugliness of the orange shag carpeting and the bomb-just-went-off housekeeping–I just hope that the characters start talking to me, or to Madeline,

my alter ego. 

If you’d like to see the house we rented, go here:,+Boulder,+Colorado+80304&gl=us&ei=


Then click on the little pinkish-reddish pointer pin marked “A” and then click on “Street View,” under the little thumbnail photo. It was a pretty great house.

It’s kind of like lowering your face through the surface of a swimming pool and watching a movie, when the going’s good. I see everything that’s happening while I’m typing–the furniture, the choreography of everyone in the scene. I just try to get that down precisely without too many brushstrokes; just enough detail to make it take on three dimensions.

Either it comes or it doesn’t, and boy is it terrifying when it doesn’t, let me tell you.

So here I am, lying on this bed, typing this blog… and now it’s time to try to finish the scene I’ve been working on, at Alice’s Restaurant on the shores of Gold Lake, another 3,000 feet of altitude above Boulder. Madeline has just told a joke to her friend Cary. They’re at a business dinner with Madeline’s husband Dean. Now they have to start talking about arson. They’re both in danger, but they don’t know it yet….

Maybe today I’ll write a little on my sofa, so I can talk to Mom when I get stuck.

That’s a bottle of absinthe on the table. I may need it.

51 thoughts on “Assume the Position

  1. Gayle Carline

    May I just point out that the ceramic deer in the photo with your dad isn't just ugly – it's alien. Honestly, it looks like those people who got off the spaceship at the end of Close Encounters. The "antlers" look like tubes – is it supposed to be a candle holder? Cause that's creepy. Can you imagine a deer wandering around with its antlers on fire? Now we know how that forest fire got started in Bambi…

    Real life – it's why I write humor.

  2. Cornelia Read

    Amen, Dusty, and thank you.

    Gayle, it WAS supposed to be a candleholder, and we all called it the "Fucking Deer from Space." This is pretty much why I hate mid-century design, in a nutshell. Avocado is a perfectly wonderful color. For guacamole.

  3. judy wirzberger

    I know they're only words, bits of letters linked together with spaces inbetween. But you string them to shine like lights on a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

    Miss our occasional encounters….

  4. susan d

    A is for Adorable, which I think the deer is. It has a certain campish charm.

    B is for Boulder house. The 3-window dormer looks perfect for a writing room.

    C is for Consolidated Fabricators Corp. Sound like a perfect name for a Writers' Blog.

  5. JT Ellison

    You have the strength of a lion – don't forget that. Lovely post. I so understand about process out the window. We may have to virtually write at each other's kitchen tables to get back to it. : )

  6. Cornelia Read

    Judy, you are wonderful, and I hope you're going to be at Bouchercon!

    Becky, it's hard. Some of the saddest stuff in my life happened during the 18 months we lived there, and writing about what it was like back before I knew my husband was having and affair and that my younger twin had autism is really difficult–my heart aches for that younger version of me, knowing how much pain she's about to go through…


    D is for DAMN, I can't believe you like that deer!

    Suki, you are awesome and thanks for visiting…

  7. Sey

    Hmm those Deer were always stuffed with little branches and spring flowers or fall leaves –
    What do you think we should replace them with ?? And actually its a great pic of your Dad. If you need more writing material give me a call !!! lots of love !!

  8. Debbie

    'apartment near the Arctic Circle…Great White North…New York…that's about a five hour drive…." Just one question" How freaking fast do you drive??? <bg>

  9. Sharon J.

    I miss our writing afternoons too. There's always a spot at the dining room table waiting for you. And please, whether it's at your table, on your red couch, or in your bed propped with pillows, please please keep going. We all want to read book #4.

  10. Terry Shames

    Cornelia, from what I've read so far your new book is dark and sad–and funny, and absolutely un-put-downable. It makes me feel better to know you've had such struggles. My new (hooray!) agent is flogging me to get the next book written, and so far I've got about 10,000 words that I would happily fling into your blue crap bin. I'm going to try your method of thinking in scenes–but I'm REALLY going to try your method of writing on a multi-pillowed bed.

  11. judy wirzberger

    Corn – Not at BCon – having a knee replacement. I'm trying to write and next door a marching band is practicing and they ain't playing John Philip S. More like – here's a great bunch of drums for a Tylenol ad. If they started at 9 in the morning, do you think they will end by noon – or will I have to play Annie and get my gun?

    I like Terry's phrase Blue Crap Bin – what a great receptacle.

  12. Tom

    Yaa'aarr. If this is how you write when you can't write, Yer Graciousity, then you're worrying over nothing. And it must be amazing to see you going at full-tilt-boogie. No fear, no delay, no hesitation.

    I've read that making a pearl damn near kills the oyster. And then the oyster lives. Surely John McPhee wouldn't lie.

    One last thing – fugly deer need love, too.

  13. billie

    I really love all your writing spaces and the mood you've created in your new place – it is so elegant, yet comfortable, and spare but lush at the same time. (sort of like my favorite writing) I especially love that you bought two "loves" and turned them into "evolve!!

    But it's the absinthe sitting on the coffee table that really nailed it. 🙂

    I would like to echo your friend Sharon – that is one long list of intensity in a year's time and I hope you allow yourself to simmer and absorb and grieve and trust that the work is going to burst forth at some point. Go on the road trip and do whatever else you need to do to take care of yourself. Just keep putting your fingers on the keyboard regularly too.

  14. Alafair Burke

    What an honest post. Thanks for sharing it. The pictures of your place make me want to see the rest of it!

  15. Robin Agnew

    I like the deer too, it's so ugly it's almost pretty. I have a similar ceramic frog with a weird hole in it's back – I just can't dispose of it.

  16. Dudley Forster

    I was going to comment on the deer, but Gayle’s comment was perfect. The image of a deer with flaming antlers running through the forest will be stuck in my head all day.

    I second what Tom said. Just stick your head in the pool, the movie be there and the magic will happen, it has to, it’s evident the magic is part of who you are.

    Tom – You’re a day early. Tomorrow is “Talk Like a Pirate” Day

  17. Cornelia Read

    Terry, thank you. It was so wonderful to have your feedback on what I have to date. I am so excited about your new agent!!!

    Alex, glad I have the Sokoloff Seal of Approval for the bed–another IKEA thing. I am a big fan of the toile, and having a curved padded headboard is really great for typing. Also, my writing group has gotten to know the fabric really well because I usually skype from bed, too.

    Judy, I hope your knee replacement goes really well. Terry's seems like it's terrific, so far (via Skype.) I'll really miss you at Bcon, though!

    Tom, an early Yaaa'aaar back atcha, and that's a very cool bit o' trivia about the oysters. Cheers me up quite a bit. Maybe I should go eat a few of the little beauties…

    billie, I'd like to forward your recommendations to my dear editor. And thank you for your kind words about the apartment. It is a really cool space…

    Alafair, thank you. And thank you so much for your brilliant idea for David T. You are wonderful!

    Robin, maybe we can arrange an ugly ceramic animal marriage? With any luck, they'd run off into the sunset together…

    Dudley, lately I've been thinking I should start writing in a face-mask and a snorkel. Yaaaar.

    Never as fabulous as you, Miss Rae…

    Yea Pari! Thank you!

    Louise, Berkeley it ain't, especially in February or July. The no-sales-tax and no-state-income-tax stuff is nice, though, compared to Cali.

  18. toni mcgee causey

    C, if you're going to post a paragraph that's supposed to be an example of when you're not writing well, could you at least make it a sort of crappy graph so that I'm not over here, banging my head on my desk in depression? Because that right there has me salivating for the book. Hurry up.

    And I love that table. Love. Gorgeous–though I can't write at a table like that with straight backed chairs. I'd been in pain in about three nanoseconds. But I'd love to follow you around on shopping trips.

  19. PK the Bookeemonster

    A friend of mine is a professional astrologer. 2009 sucked big time for me, too. She says there were a couple big influential planets "scrubbing" back and forth that caused all kinds of havoc. I was unemployed for a year, got an infection in my leg, wound up in the hospital, had an allergic reaction to the antibiotic, the antibiotic damaged my kidneys and I had a biopsy, I couldn't walk for four months, discovered my husband is missing the "caretaker" gene (but we're still together), my best friend told me to go to hell and returned all gifts I'd given her and we haven't contacted since.
    From all such experiences, we find strength and what and who truly matters.
    Take your time, we'll be here. And Boulder is gorgeous. Different from where you were before, but gorgeous and so much to do. You could have been stuck in Montana. 🙂

  20. lil Gluckstern

    Love your living spaces, and the pictures of the Boulder house, and environs. Hope to see Book # 4, and the other bloggers are right-take care of yourself, and I hope that writing is a part of that.

  21. Ari Z

    I love the quote from the new book so much I had to repost on my FB page with a link to this. You are a fucking genius. And I'm sooooo lucky that I'm one of the pals you come see periodically to re-charge your (and my) batteries!

  22. Daisy

    Love your writing spaces; wish I could write in bed without invariably falling asleep.*

    If you don't finish the book soon, I'm going to sic a land squid on you. Might take it a while to get to NH, though.

    *Possibly a commentary on my writing?

  23. anonymous

    PK. Where the hell are you? I'm in the SF Bay Area. You sound like you need a drink, Babe. No one should be as miserable as I am! We gotta talk!

  24. Cornelia Read

    Toni, have I told you lately that I adore you? If not: I adore you!

    PK, I kind of miss Boulder, now–though not the state of my marriage while we lived there. It was so SUNNY in the winter. I haven't been to Montana since 1969. We stayed with my babysitter's parents in Missoula, and had dumplings with every meal. I was six and thought that was HEAVEN.

    lil, thank you so much. Everyone here has meant the world to me, over this past year. My virtual spiritual homeland, much needed…

    KD, I'm going to go look at Alex's post right now. Her advice on writing is seriously fucking luminous, and she's tapping into deep, deep stuff. It's like a creative transfusion of Godiva blood or something.

    Debbie, can't WAIT to look at that link, just from the tag-end of the URL!!

    Ari Z, you are my goddess, and the patron saint of this manuscript. To anyone else reading this, Ari solved the most daunting plot problem of the whole thing for me, but I can't give it away because her suggestion is going to be the absolute crux of the whole plot.

    Daisy, your writing is superb, and you know I count on you to channel the quintessence of Douglas Adams from the afterlife. If the land squid is tired enough by the time it gets here, we can put it in the aquarium with Grace's Betta, Pancake. I guess this means I'm also hoping that travel has a miniaturization effect on your average land squid? Or maybe that will drown a land squid? Pancake will definitely kick it's ass, if it gets uppity.

  25. Cornelia Read

    And PK, let us both survive the Scrubbing Planets and have a fucking GREAT remainder of 2010 and live happily ever after. I am really, really tired of Pisces being in the House of Suckbag all the time, not to mention Mercury Retrograde. You are a hero for surviving all of that with your compassion and kindness and humor intact–I applaud you.

  26. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Sorry I'm so late, Cornelia. Beautiful post. Charming, intense, illuminating. You do deserve a break. And time to ponder the experiences, the trauma, of last year. I won't have a book coming out in 2011 either, due to the chaos of life around me. So that's how things go.
    Great blog. Powerful voice.

  27. Marie-Reine

    Cornelia, I'm so late – but just found Murderati – so you'll probably never see this comment. Just have to write it down. You put yourself right there in your writing– right fucking there. And it yanks me right into it… your blogging even – maybe more so. Did I tell you one of my twins is autistc – maybe the other, too… no one wants to say.

  28. Cornelia Read

    Marie-Reine, how bizarre that we both have the twin thing. Is the second-born more autistic? Mine is. Thank you for coming to Murderati, great to see you here!

    Stephen and PK, thanks. And hope to see you both at Bcon…

  29. Marie-Reine

    Yeah– innit bizarre? The younger, my daughter, has the worst of it. Her twin, my son, I know meets the criteria. No one wants to label him, though, since he has actually served as a medic– successfully. Cannot hold a civilian job, however. For some reason the military way of learning and doing worked well for him – glad I use a pseudonym. Somewhat selfishly, not totally… because I love him so much, I am relieved he is out of there. You can guess my politics.

    I am glad I found Murderati, too. Came here to see Karen in Ohio's work space. Geez, you wouldn't believe mine… woulda sent a pic, had I known! Hah!

  30. Marie-Reine

    Oh, and you know what else is weird… that pic you posted of that place on Essex Street in Salem– recognized it right away. Used to walk by it every day!

    Oh, and about being glad I use a pseudonym – my son hates when I write about him, so I mostly don't. He does so well, he doesn't know why he is rejected by almost everybody. He is really amazing, but his ability to interact is mostly where his autism shows. With his twin sister, it is, well… not the most severe, but devastating in that we were unable to help her develop her focus in a positive way. I think I may have expected that to happen – too many movies and… god I don't know… fuck Bettleheim. He was revered when I was in college. I remember having to watch research films of mothers' nurturing styles that were supposed to prove that failure-to-thrive was caused by rejecting mothers… sorry – night.

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  32. Brett

    I second the sentiments of "mens watches" above. Succinct, timely, and totally totally mercenary.

    Meanwhile, writing is supposed to be hard — that's why they don't let the Normals try it as a career.

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