Friday, February 29, 2008

When I Carpe'd the Diem

Hard to believe it's been twenty years, but on the last weekend of February 1988 I got to live out one of my dreams. As far as dreams go, it wasn't a big one. I didn't change the world or anything, although I like to think I might have changed someone's world. At least a little.

The event? The Penn State Dance Marathon. Affectionately dubbed:"The Thon."

My very good friend, the inestimable Philip Pastino, danced my freshman year, and when I went to cheer him on and I saw all the hundreds of people dancing all night and the little kids they brought in during the wee hours, the ones with no hair and brilliant smiles, I remember thinking, I need to do this! Here was something bigger than myself and my small little college world. It became my dream. It was one of the first times I remember wanting to do something that seemed beyond me, deciding I wanted it badly enough to overcome the obstacles, and then seize the day.

Here is me, living the dream:

I don't remember what time this was taken, but I smiled the same after 48 hours. Deliriously so, but all the same, I was livin' the dream.

Of course, you have to have a partner, so I dragged along my unwitting and enthusiastic friend Shawn. He, however, was not smiling so much at the end. It is a miracle to this day he is still my friend.

The Thon is a 48 hour dance marathon in which hundreds of college students cram into a gym on a Friday night (after a full day of classes) and dance, or at least keep moving, until Sunday night. Everyone that dances goes through an application process and raises money to help families with children with cancer. When I danced, it looked like this:

This year, 708 students danced to raise money. They're dancing in a much better facility. I don't know how much more has changed since I danced, but this is what I remember:

1. You cannot sit down. Or lean. They roped off the perimeter with police tape to keep us from escaping, or from leaning on the walls, but if they spotted you taking a rest against a Gatorade table you were politely but firmly told to get your keister up and dance.

2. You had scheduled bathroom breaks... like one every eight hours or something insane like that. And they sent you in in groups of six: the same number of bathroom stalls. You had three minutes. And if you didn't take all that time you came running out and slid down a set of blue gym mats and people dragged you to the end, threw baby powder all over you (I thought because it felt good, but probably so they didn't wretch at the stink of us) and gave us a massage until the three minutes were up. Heaven!

3. Every two hours or so we did a line dance that had been made up specifically for this Thon. Our was to Train in Vain by The Clash. It was great fun at the beginning. You know, the first twelve times. After that it was really, really annoying. Now hearing that song just makes me my feet hurt.

4. We had organized party games, like Duck Duck Goose and Wheelbarrow races. These are hilarious when you are punch drunk giddy from fatigue.

5. Hallucinations. Serious ones. Ones that even today, although my head knows they are hallucinations, I am still not completely convinced they aren't real.

6. We all knew when it was 2 am because people poured in after the bars closed to watch us like animals in the zoo. If they brought dry socks or candy we forgave them for smelling like beer and being all perky and awake.

7. We "carbo loaded" for a week before, eating every morsel of pasta we could find in effort to prepare for the energy that would be required. I still lost seven pounds that weekend.

8. When they brought the kids in on Sunday morning, their favorite thing to do was squirt water in our faces. We loved it, not because it woke us up, but because the smiles on their faces when they got us were priceless.

It's a remarkable event. There is nothing like it, and if Penn State were in the vicinity of... well... anything, I'd tell you to stop by some year and see it for yourself.

It is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Twenty years ago we raised over half a million dollars, an astounding amount that smashed all previous records. This year the Thon raised over 6.6 million dollars for families with children with cancer. It benefits the Four Diamonds Fund in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and over the years cancer survival rates for children at the Pediatric Cancer Pavilion at the Penn State Children's Hospital have gone from 30% to almost 90%. The history of this marathon is phenomenal.

Being a part of this was one of my proudest moments, for doing something I really wanted to do, seizing the day and the dream, and helping, in some small way, to make a difference in the world.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

So many stories, so little time

When I began writing "the book" several years ago, I didn't see quite past the end of that first work. After all, I'd never finished a book before. I wasn't even sure if it could be done. But about halfway through, after I realized that I really liked writing, that the end was in sight, and that, given great leeway by my family I might actually like to make a go of the writing thing, I began amassing book ideas. After all, agent blogs touted the idea that agents like to see that you already have something else in the works. I guess they like a regular paycheck too.

I began to write ideas down everytime I thought of something that might make a good story and stuff them a little blue index card filing box (enough adjectives for you? I could add that it was faded blue...). I think some of them are intriguing ideas. Some would be amazing if I could figure out how to flesh them out. Some are already dated. And some of them are plain trash. But there they are, all ready for their time in the sun.

January I wrapped up the rewrites, sent my plea out into the world, and marked February 1st as the day to start researching my next attempt. Did I go to the box full of ideas? No. I had this great idea that grew out of a game my kids made up. I watched them and thought, that would make a great series of books for kids! As a bonus, it would be shorter, less intense, and much lighter fare than my last writing. Fun, in short.

And it has been. Fun, I mean. I get to read lots of kids' books, and books about pirates, and eavesdrop on kids conversations, and uncover a whole different world of agents who deal primarily with middle grade and YA books. Different is always fun.

Except when it isn't. Fun, I mean. Because, as it turns out, I'm a bit lost on this project. I'm full up on enthusiasm. I've got my kids and husband throwing ideas out at every turn. I have piles of books with great information. But I can't write. While it seems like it would make a great story, when I sit down to outline it, it's all foggy. I can write the words, start the story, but where it's going is beyond me. And though I think it should be fun, though I want it to be fun, it just isn't.

Of course, I can't let it go. I am obsessive that way. I've gotta finish what I start. But in the meantime, another book has taken hold of me. When I am driving, shopping, watching TV, pretending to have conversations, this book is writing itself in my head. It is adult. It is content heavy. It is going to hit close to home. But it wants to be written.

I don't think I can write both at the same time. Time constraints, for one. But also, they are very different books, and I kind of live in the world of my writing, and to have a leg in both of those worlds wouldn't leave me with a leg in my real life. So which do I abandon? Do I force the one I've started, or leave it by the wayside to pursue something which will no doubt take longer to write and a little piece of my soul?

I wish I had the answer. I'm a bit afraid if I say I'm going to finish the first of the series, my deeper, more important story will somehow fade and be gone when I come back for it.

And to think, neither of these is in my little, faded, blue, index card filing box. Obviously those ideas aren't going to see the light of day anytime soon. Except when I open the lid every day to stuff a few more in.

Did I mention I'm obsessive?

And as a complete aside:
Some interesting stats:
My completed novel, according to MS Word, has a reading level of 5.8. (I think I know why but I won't comment on that now.)
My newly started upper middle grade has a reading level of 10.7.

Go figure.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Place Where Dreams Come True (and apparently it isn't New York City)

Our family was watching a movie last night and one scene went something like this:

Main character 1: I'm going to Atlantic City.

Main Character 2: Why?

Main Character 1: Because that's where dreams come true!

At which point my four year old snorts loudly and says:

Dreams don't come true at Atlantic City! They come true at Disney!

So thanks, Disney. Your branding is working well!

Friday, February 15, 2008

What's a writer to do when there's no writing to do?

I'm not writing these days. It's amazing how hard that is. Once I got in the flow of the routine, the writing every day, the scheduled time in the library with the computer in front of me humming away as my fingers clicked over the keys, the lines of dialogue ringing in my ears everywhere I went as I repeated them over and over until I could find a place to get them on paper, it is terribly difficult not to write.

I want to write. More than anything. It is killing me. And I don't mean blogging, or emailing, which I have become woefully behind on, because that is not the same. That is jabber... the boring, me-centered kind of writing that is exactly NOT what I want to be doing.

So why, you may ask, am I not writing?

Because I am not ready to write.

This seems like an imbecilic answer as I type it, but it is the truth. My first novel is done, the good or the bad of it. I find I am rewriting it over and over just to have something to write, and I've got to stop that, because now I have to keep a list of what copy I sent to what agent so I will know which version someone did or didn't like. Really, now, that is one good way to make you insane. So I have stopped (for this week anyway, and for as long as I can resist the temptation).

But I am not ready for the next book yet. I am plotting, planning, reading, researching, devising, getting to know my characters. What I do not want to do is to give in to the desire to just start writing without knowing where I am going. I did that on my first novel, which led to extensive rewrites and perhaps not the tightest or purposeful story unfolding. This story, or rather series, I need to have planned out. And to plan it I need to do research. And research includes reading. A lot of it. And reading takes a lot of time.

It's driving me mad. Truly. Sincerely. I turn on the computer and feel the keys under my fingers the way a drug addict might finger a crack pipe. I miss it. I want it.

But then I look at the last writing I did, and I think, Do I want to get to the end of this book and wonder if I did everything I could to make it irresistible? No. Definitely not. And not just plot wise, but as a work of writing, if I can learn to write it better by reading a few books about the process, isn't that worthwhile?

So at the library I am pulling out piles of books, about writing dialogue, great opening lines, lively plots, pirates, privateering, the revolutionary war, history of North Carolina, and countless other books that I might glean a better book from.

Normally I love reading. I read about forty books a year, which I realize isn't enormous compared to some people but is still a pretty good haul for me considering my other time commitments. I have been know to hole up on my couch for hours and hours at a time, ignoring every need around me, to finish a good book. But now, I can't focus. I read a few chapters and then turn back to the computer.

Even now, as I write this, I have four books in front of me, all intriguing in their own right, but I skimmed a few pages and I am back at the computer trying to scratch the itch.

There is a sense in which I feel a bit hollow now that my baby is done and into the world. It's a bit of the empty nest syndrome, I think, and though I have more than enough things to keep me busy fifty hours a day, I still find myself a little aimless, a little sad, a little restless.

I know that the only way I'm going to fill that void is to write again, and the only way to write is to do the grunt work beforehand, so I suppose I'd better get to it. Really, though, all this prep is killing me!