Friday, December 30, 2011

The Next Door Boys...Loving a book is rarely this easy!

(I will preface this by saying I'm really getting sick of seeing my own mug on this blog. For years I didn't post any picture of me and lately... well, ugh. But I have this thing about books by people I know. It's important to show I have the book, I own it... I'm so excited to hold THEIR book in MY hand. It's become tradition. So here I am again.)

The Next Door Boys by Jolene Perry.

I'll tell you a true story. I've read 48 books this year, all literary fiction and memoir, and felt buried under the weighty stuff of school for the better part of the last 12 months. People recommend fun books, I put them on my Goodreads list and make a mental note to come back to them in another year. But there's no time for just fun stuff now. If it's not on my reading list, it pretty much doesn't get read.

Until I was chatting with Jolene late, late one night (I live in Virginia and she in Alaska, so it was probably not that late for her), and we got talking about her books. I am a huge fan of Jolene's blog - she makes me laugh like crazy - and her emails crack me up. I am a huge fan of Jolene. But I'd never read any of her writing, and she offered to send me one of the manuscripts her agent was shopping.

I told her sure, send it on, and I'll try to read it at the end of the semester, when all my other books were finished. I absolutely could not read it right now...

So she sent it with the words "whenever you get to it is fine," and I opened the document just to peek at it - to make sure it came in readable format and all that - and then I caught the first sentence... and couldn't stop. I finally finished it around three in the morning, bleary-eyed and surrounded by tear-filled kleenex. I wrote her back and said, "You HAVE to get this published!! There are people I NEED to give this to!!"

It was, and remains, one of my favorite books I've read this year. Sadly for you, that book is not available yet. :(

Luckily for you - her first book IS! And it is equally hard to put down!

The Next Door Boys is about a girl named Leigh who, coming off a year of cancer and the resulting treatments, escapes her parents' overly protective home to attend college and find her independence again.

Leigh struggles with the same things we all did at that age: finding our own self, transitioning from child to adult, learning that as much as we want to stand on our own, it's okay to need others. But she does it with the perspective of someone who has touched death, giving this book a sense of depth unlike so many other young adult books I've read.

Jolene does a fabulous job with characters. They feel entirely real and fully dimensional... there's not a flat cardboard character in this book, which is chock full of characters. especially Leigh, who wants her independence and normal life back so much that she puts her own health in peril. There are a lot of nice people in this book, which is, frankly, refreshing. The fact is, nice people can add complexities to a situation as well, and Jolene's cast of characters bring their own well-intentioned but nevertheless frustrating roadblocks to Leigh's desire for a normal life. Besides her own housemates, Leigh has to contend with the "next door boys": her watchful older brother, a handful of boys with crushes on her, and a tattoo-laden guy with a past and the secrets that go with it.

I liked that faith was also an integral part of Leigh's story. I think faith is important to a lot more people than books tend to show, and Jolene manages to make Leigh's faith so seamlessly a part of this story that it doesn't feel like an added element, but rather one the story could never have been written without. In fact, the importance of family in the LDS church plays a huge role in how Leigh sees herself and her future, knowing the cancer has robbed her of the ability to have children.

This book is both fun and heart-wrenching, and impossible to put down. While I would say it was an easy read in the fact that I fairly flew through the pages, it was also definitely thought provoking, and the kind of book that stays with you long after you finish. And as a young adult book, I was thrilled it had no language or sexual content that would keep me from giving this to my kids to read.

I highly recommend this book, and any other book Jolene writes. I, for one, will be the first in line for the next one!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Workshop Letters Are In! (and other things)

You know you've found the right grad program when you literally leap for joy when you get homework.

We wrapped up last semester in mid-November, and since then I've transitioned - at least activity-wise - to holiday mode. I've gone to Christmas parties with my husband at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum:

I've gone to Christmas concerts with my mom in Williamsburg:

I've spent an incredible weekend in DC with friends, walking around downtown and going to the Army/Navy football game:

I've attended band and choir concerts of my kids:

I've baked dozens and dozens of cookies, two batches of fudge, five batches of Chex Mix. I've decorated and cleaned and shopped and wrapped.

What I have not done is read or write. Which isn't to say I haven't been thinking about those things... and missing them.

So last week, when emails starting flurrying around that the administration had organized our workshop groups for January residency, I was a little more than distracted. I think it's possible I hit "refresh" on my inbox more than when I was waiting for query responses.

And this week it finally came. And I couldn't be more thrilled.

For one, I know almost everyone in my workshop, which is pretty darn cool. It means I'm not so much a newbie anymore. And the writers in my group are phenomenal. Which leads me to hyperventilate and worry about my own submission a bit, but I try to ignore that part. I'm just glad I get to be with such talented people... that can only be good for my own writing.

And the workshop leaders are AMAZING. Pete Fromm, for one... whose book How All This Started blew me away when I read it a little over a year ago, and was one of my top books of the year until I read his next book, As Cool As I Am. I'm not one to fawn over writers, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I get a little speechless around him.

And Katherine Dunn, my other workshop leaders. She wrote Geek Love, a National Book Award finalist that I've been mulling over for a year or two. It's dense and disturbing and utterly unique... a masterpiece. The fact that I get to even sit in the same room as her is astounding to me.

In two weeks I will be winging my way to Oregon again, to my own little oasis of writerly heaven. Before then, I need to read and critique my seven new workshop pieces, finish reading a book, revise a chapter in my novel that's been bugging me. And, oh yeah, celebrate Christmas.

Life is good.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Something Both Literary and Festive, and the Contest Winner!

I saw a picture on the internet of something like this and loved it so much, I thought I'd try it myself. It works better if you can build from the floor up, and have a lot of room, but I used my MFA reading list, a stack of Shakespeare books, and a desk. It's not that elegant, but I LOVE it! What's more festive than a Christmas tree made out of books?

As for the My Memories Suite digital scrapbooking contest, the contestants were thin, but worthy! I am so proud to announce the winner of the software as Lynn, from "Connecting Stories" and her photography blog, "LPS Designs." Lynn is both a fabulous story teller and an incredible photographer, so she is the perfect person to have won this, and I am so excited to see what she will do with it! Congratulations!!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Interpreting Facebook:What Do Those Cryptic Updates Mean?

Facebook is such an individual thing. Everyone uses it differently, which is, when not annoying, pretty cool. For some, it's their political soapbox. For some, it's the place to show off cute cat YouTube videos. Others use it to brag about their kids or to crack inside jokes no one will get other than that one tagged friend.

And some are personal.

Sometimes, frankly, too personal. I'm all about expressing your individuality, but when you need to detail the progression of your diarhea, I'm hiding you for a few days. No offense, it's not that I don't like you... I just don't want to hear the amount of trips to the bathroom you're taking, and what your poop looks like.

And no, I'm not making that up.

But hey, if you feel the need to detail that, I'm not going to criticize you for it. It's your page. Write what you want.

Some people feel the need to post every move they make, every action they take.  "Went to the thrift store and dropped off my old computer monitor and then went to Target and bought a red ribbon for my mailbox, a box of diapers because my four year old won't sleep through the night without wetting the bed (still!), a pack of two 9-volt batteries for my smoke detectors, and nail files because my thumb nail is all ragged. Then I came home and took a two hour and ten minute nap."

I'm not making that up, either.

I'm less.... specific. It's not that I don't want you to know me. I just don't think you care about all of that. 

But if you do, here is the translation to a couple of my recent posts... just so you can know what I really meant when I wrote them.

Update: They should call Chex mix what it really is: puppy crack-cocaine.
Translation:  I am making Chex mix because my daughter promised her teacher I'd make it for their party, and the puppy decided it was really his, knocked the bowl over, and now I have Chex mix all over the floor and have to go out to the store to buy more cereal because I used the last of the Wheat Chex. Also, the puppy is deliriously happy about this development and is frantically running around licking at the floor, his tail knocking over the plant in the corner. Now I also have to vacuum. And repot a plant.
Update: The best part of having to go out in the cold-enough-to-snow night? Bun warmers. Have I mentioned how much I love bun warmers?
Translation:  I am running errands after dark. This sucks. I should be at home with my family, eating dinner, watching The Grinch That Stole Christmas, but instead I am freezing my tail off running my kids back and forth to music practice that is more indicative of a professional Nutcracker performance than a church sing-a-long. But I have bun-warmers in the car. So don't say I don't find the silver lining when I need to.
Update: Went outside to walk the pup and wondered why I could hear the sounds of the ocean. It's the creek in our backyard. It totally sounds like the beach. Which is both cool.... and scary.
Translation: It's been raining freakin' 48 hours straight. I get it. I need to build an ark. And up our flood insurance. I'm rethinking the fact that we bought a house with a meandering creek behind it. That creek is now a raging rapids. And also, I'm walking the dog in the freakin' rain. So I am cold and wet, and rethinking having a dog.
Update: We have coyotes in our yard.
Update: I caught three snakes in the house.
Update: We trapped five mice in the basement in two hours.
Update: A bear was sighted in our neighborhood!
Translation: I may live in the woods and work by myself from home, but don't think I don't have reinforcements if you show up on my door trying to rob me.

(Translation: I have no idea how to end this post, and I have one more thing to share that is semi-related but I can't find a way to make it sound like a natural follow up)
Here's a Christmas Facebook video I love. Maybe you've seen it, but I thought it was good enough to share. 
Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Christmas Giveaway: My Memories Suite Digital Scrapbooking Software!!

I don't do giveaways very often on this blog. Not that I don't love y'all, but it's just not my thing. For one, I'm terrible at mailing stuff. It requires showering, putting on makeup, wearing decent clothes, getting in my car, driving 20 minutes to the post office... and all that is only if I manage to get whatever I am giving away in an envelope, address it, and stamp it.

Yeah. Not likely.

But when My Memories asked if I wanted to offer my blog readers a digital download of their scrapbooking software, I thought, heck yeah!

I did a lot of scrapbooking years ago, but I admit that in the last five years or so I've done almost none of it because I don't have room or time to drag all the papers, scissors, stamps, embellishments, templates, brads, markers, ink, etc, out. I'd start a project and the dining room table would be a mess for the better part of a month or two before I'd have to put it all away unfinished so we could eat again.

Also, all my photos are digital, and getting them all uploaded to some photo site and printed was not happening. Not when I take 1300 photos at Disney, 600 at the beach, 300 on Christmas day.

A few years ago, I got a digital software program for doing scrapbooks on the computer. I thought the idea was brilliant. No more having to print up all of my photos! No more having to figure out how to make a 4x6 print fit a 5x7 space, or a 3x3 space. No more dining room messes. No more buying expensive papers and embellishments. Perfect!

Except it didn't work with my Mac and I rarely got on the desktop we keep in the basement. Also, my pictures were on my Mac, not the desktop. It just didn't happen.

So when My Memories Suite contacted me, I decided to try theirs out. It works on a PC or a Mac, comes with tons of pre-made templates that can be used exactly as is or completely customizable, works with any free papers and frames and embellishments I download off the internet, and can be used for any size project - both in height and width, and in pages.

Here's a few things I played around with:

(a quick note - I took screenshots of them rather than upload the full-sized pages, and so some have the dimensions in the corners. Obviously this is not what shows up in a real album!)

This is from their pre-made template. I just plugged in my own photos.

On the second one, I added the quote - their program lets you choose from any size and any font on your computer, any color, any layout you want, including adjusting the space between the lines - and I changed the photos to black and white. It was so easy peasy. This album is pages and pages of this same look - the red and white and simple block photos. I just picked two to give you an example of how easy and beautiful it is.

Here's another set:

In this first one, I just chose a classic layout that worked with the photos I wanted to put in. The two smaller photos were bigger than the template, so I changed the size of them to fit. The snowflakes were something I'd found for free off the internet.

In the second one I thought I'd add background paper. I chose a textured blue one, but it was a little dark for me, so I changed the opacity on it to 50% to lighten it up.

This is another example of creating my own page:

There are infinite kinds of background papers. You can choose any of their pretty good free selections that come with the program, buy more (they have a TON of great kits), find ones you like from online (there are thousands of free and for-sale ones), or just choose a color (any color at all). You can change the opacity of any of the above, so it can be as bold or as subtle as you want.

I made of collage of some of my cherry blossom photos - something that would have been very hard to do with prints, because I would have needed lots of different sizes.

 As you can see, I like things pretty clean and simple. I like straight lines and not a lot of fluff. But that's just my style. You can certainly bring your own style to it. Like this:

 The above is one of their templates. I plugged a photo in and saved. Less than ten seconds. The one below is made with a free packet off the internet that I found. There isn't a template here - I just mashed a bunch of things together.

The program is really easy to figure out, too. It didn't take much time for me to be zooming around in it. The layout looks like this:

It's not just for scrapbooking, though. You can make photo books, cards, videos, add music, etc. I initially hoped I could make blog headers and banners with it, but I couldn't figure out how to do it, although it would be simple enough to make an entire blog template. I have a feeling there are a lot of things you can do, though, that I just haven't had time to figure out.

Here's the great thing: My Memories has offered a $10 off code through this blog, so if you want to buy the software, you can do it at a steal of a price by clicking on the banner below and using the code STMMMS14934 in the checkout.

OR.... You could win it!

I am offering one person a FREE DOWNLOAD of the entire digital scrapbook software - a $39.97 value. Just click on the My Memories banner below, browse the kits and leave a comment in this post telling me which you like best.

For extra entries:
  • tweet about it (1 entry)
  • post on facebook (1 entry) 
  • +1 this on Google+ (1 entry)
  • or all of the above! 
You can do all of these by just clicking the buttons at the bottom of this post.

Make sure to put all of your entries in the comment section!

Next Monday (December 19, 2011) I'll post one winner. If I don't already have your email, make sure you leave that as well, so I can get back to you!

Good luck!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


"My happiness is so great at this moment I wish I could die...because in the midst of happiness grows a seeds of unhappiness. Happiness consumes itself like a flame. It can't burn forever; sooner or later it must die. And that knowledge destroys the joy for me, right at its peak."  

from A Dream Play by August Strindberg

When I first read this play in college, I thought it was so depressing... and yet so wise. Or maybe just insightful, because the older I get, the more this is how I subconsciously think. When I am the most happiest, I am the most aware of how happy I am - of how grateful I am for the people and things in my life, of how blessed I am - but also the most aware I am of how fragile those things are, and how quickly they can be taken away.

It's been three years this month that my friend died suddenly, brutally. This week, I got news that a dear man who has greatly influenced our oldest daughter, died Sunday morning. Another beautiful, amazing woman who taught my youngest daughter in pre-school and attended Bible study with me was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer. Another mother I adore got word that her daughter has not long to live.

It was a rough weekend.

And in their pain I am acutely aware of my own happiness - of my family, my kids that are my whole world and my husband who is the love of my life, the every breath I take. My parents who make aging look easy and graceful. My friends who stick by me through everything, who encourage me and love me. My opportunity to go to school, to write. The feeling of being healthy and pain-free. The pile of presents under the Christmas tree.

In the store today I saw an elderly couple shopping together, lovingly bickering over cuts of meat and loaves of bread, and my heart broke for the incredible woman who just lost her husband this Sunday and now faces a future that does not involve growing old with him. And the thought of the possibility of not growing old with my own husband makes my heart clench.

There is a part of me that thinks this is ridiculous of me - to spoil joy with sorrow that isn't even real. And  yet, another part of me thinks this is how it should be - how it must be. To not be aware of how every day is not a given, every tomorrow is not destined, is to not fully appreciate how miraculous life is. It's not really that I am letting loss taint my happiness, so much as great happiness comes at the price of acknowledging the possibility of loss.

That's my philosophizing for the week. This is the kind of thing my mind rumbles around when I stop writing. Too much living in the real world and not enough in the imaginary one, I suppose.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Birth of a Story

I always love hearing  how writers come up with the things they write. Some people seem to have endless ideas gurgling in their heads and not enough time to write them all, and others seems to have one really necessary story to tell, and then must work to come up with more. I admit I've felt like both ends of that spectrum.

Currently I have a folder of ideas on my computer with more books than I will probably ever have time to write. But those ideas are all novel ideas. Stories that are too big to be told in a few pages. And this past month I needed to write a short story for school.

Enter the joint brainstorming of my husband and I while sitting in traffic one day.

Me: I need to write a short story but I still have no idea what to write about. I want it to be fun to write though. My current novel is bumming me out.


Me: Once, in a writing class in college, the professor said in order to get a great conflict throw a few very unlike characters into a place where they can't easily get out and make them interact. You know, like Speed where all the people are stuck in a bus. Which was pretty smart of him, because that was before Speed even came out.


(You might be noticing that my conversations are sometimes a bit one-sided.)

Me: Where could I trap people? A bus was already done, and for that matter, the cruise ship thing in Speed 2 also.

(Can I take an aside here to say that while writing this conversation I've just come up with FOUR more story ideas?? Trap them in a mine! A carpool lane with an accident blocking the road! The line for a bathroom in a mall! A city tour!)

Me: Also, the people would have to be fun to write. What kind of great characters could I throw together?


Me: And I'd need a really catchy title. A fun one.

Him: How about So a Priest, A Rabbi and a Prostitute Walk into a Bar?

(See???? He may be a man of few words, but he is BRILLIANT!!! Who would NOT want to read that story???)

Me: That is BRILLIANT!! So why are they there? I mean, why would those people end up in a bar, and why can't they get out?


Me: What if they are escaping something? Something terrible is going on outside the bar and they use the bar as a place of refuge from it.


Me: What do you think about the Occupy movement? Maybe the characters are all downtown for different reasons - some protesting, others not, and then they are thrown together when the police come in and the protests end up in violence and chaos!

Him: That sounds like something you'd write.

Me: I could tell it from the four different points of view!

Him: The four?

Me: Yeah - the priest, the rabbi, the prostitute, and the bar. Okay, the bartender.

Him: Or a beer's.

Me: I think I'll stick with the bartender.


Me: But I don't know much about rabbis, so that might be a really hard voice to capture. 

My Son: (yelling from the back of the van) What's the title Dad came up with that you're laughing so hard about?

Me: ummmm...

Him: Maybe you should change the title.

Me: Nooooo! The title is the best part!

Me: Hey, if the rabbi comes into the bar unconscious because he got hit with something in the protests, I wouldn't have to have him talking. That would solve that problem.

Him: So the others carry him into the bar to get him out of danger?

Me: YES!

And that, my blogging friends, is how "A Preacher, a Rabbi and a Prostitute Walk into a Bar" was born.

I broke the story into four points of view, each person's story picking up where the one before let off, so there is a general story arc as well as four sub-stories. Of course, I ended up still having to do the rabbi, even though he was unconscious the entire time.

I have no idea how the story will be taken at school, but I'm proud of it. Not in the "I'm sending this to a magazine to get published right away because it's so brilliant" kind of way. More in the, "I wrote and revised (five times) a short story in less than a week" kind of way. And also, because I did what I set out to do: have fun writing it.

While I never loved short stories before, and would much rather write novels, I can say it's so fun to try something new and risky, to branch out and do something I'd never spend a whole year and 350 pages doing. I got to incorporate a bunch of techniques I've learned through school that weren't applicable to my novel. And did I mention how fun it was?

So all the credit goes to my husband, who came up with the title that made the story fun.

Have you tried anything risky lately? Come up with any good ideas in weird ways?  And do you have any more ideas of how we can trap characters in a small space with no way out??

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

When Good Enough Takes Time

I've been writing this novel of mine for nearly two years now, and there are days when that seems like 18 months too long. Writing friends have finished two or three, even more, books in that time. And yet I still struggle along.

Patience has never been my virtue. There have been several times I've decided, this is it. This book is done. I've tinkered with it long enough and it will never get better than this.

And then it does.

So I keep tweaking and deleting and rewriting and reorganizing and polishing. And then I do all that again. And again.

I was heartened my first semester when my then-advisor told me he'd revised his award-winning novel 17 times. I was heartened again when I had a discussion with my now-advisor about prologues, and how she'd initially written a prologue for her book, then changed it, then scattered parts of it through the book, and then eventually did away with it altogether.

And then last week I read Edgar Sawetelle, by David Wroblewski. This is the pedigree for Edgar Sawtelle:

David Wroblewski is the author of the internationally bestselling novel The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle, a 2008 Oprah Book Club pick, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the 2008 Colorado Book Award, Indie Choice Best Author Discovery award, and the Midwest Bookseller Association's Choice award. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was selected as one of the best books of 2008 by numerous magazines and newspapers around the country, and has been translated into over 25 languages.

Not too shabby, eh? I'm not typically a fan of Oprah-endorsed books. Clearly she and I have very different tastes. But this book was everything the awards say it is. Sublime, lovely, gorgeous, haunting.

But what I love love loved about my copy of the book was that it had an extensive author interview. I love author interviews!!  (And as an aside, I totally fell for David in it. Despite all the acclaim and publicity he's gotten, he seems very humble and down to earth and somebody I'd utterly love conversing with over a cup of coffee.)

What impressed me most in the interview was a question about putting some of the chapters from a dog's point of view. David's answer was inspirational to me, not because it gave me some great insight into point of view, but because it revealed that he'd worked on this book for years. Years, people!! Two years in his MFA program, and then years after that, when he finished it, changed it, revised it, altered the entire point of view (which originally had been first person but ended up being mostly third).

It makes me realize that sometimes, the really good stuff only comes with time.

I don't think taking longer on my debut book would have helped. I still think that book was ready to go after nine months, and although it may not be the book I'd write now, it's the book it needed to be.

But this book - this current work in progress - needs time. I won't be rushed, because I don't want to throw it out there until it's really ready. Something I can be truly proud of. Right now it's not. And I'm okay with that, mostly because the more I work on it, the exponentially better it gets. (Which isn't to say it's great, mind you. It started out pretty stinky...)

What about you? How long do you think you'd be willing to work on something - not just writing but anything - before saying, "That's enough. What I have now is going to have to be good enough"?

Monday, November 14, 2011

It's Not What You Think It Is

Twenty years ago I got a harsh lesson in writing: an author is not in control once the writing has left her hands.

I was in a poetry class in college at the time, and had been doing very well. The professor loved me. The class took to my poems well. Until one of the last assignments, when I turned in a poem about a relationship with my then-boyfriend, written as an analogy to a carousel ride. The poem was metaphorical, to be sure, but not cryptic. There were lines that made very clear - or so I thought - that this was about a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship about to end.

And the professor and half the class thought it was about sexual abuse of a young girl by a father.

Even as I write this, I am laughing, because that idea was so preposterous it left my head spinning. They sat in class for 30 minutes discussing this poem and the deeper meaning to it, when I could find NOTHING within the poem itself to lead someone to believe that was what it was about. When, at the end, I told them it was not about that at all, they STILL didn't believe me.

I got an A+ on that poem, and resolved never to write poetry again.

One could hope fiction stories are different. Most are not cryptic, nor do they lend themselves to requiring people to seek deeper meaning in them. But if I've discovered anything in the last year, other than the fact that I write pathetically slowly, it is that a book is not the sum of the words on a page: its meaning lies, to a great extent, in a combination of what the author brings to the page, and what the reader brings.

This is a hard truth for writers.

We want to be in control of what people are reading, of what they are thinking as they read. Mystery writers especially try to control the thought process - throwing in hints here and clues there while all the while also writing glaring neon arrows to lead the reader down the wrong path in hopes of surprising them.

But most writing does this to some extent. Water for Elephants, for example, deliberately sets the reader up to expect one ending and then delivers another. Authors like Suzanne Collins and Chris Cleave set out to write books with a message on war or immigration or the harshness of life.

But no one book is ever read the same, because no two people come to that book with the same experiences and perspectives. What resonates with me in The Things We Carry may mean nothing to you. What grabs my interest in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time might not carry any significance for you. I read and love Mennonite in a Little Black Dress for probably very different reasons than my Mennonite friend will.

And what I've learned is that this is okay. It is okay to write a story and let that story take on a life of its own. How great is it that people can read my words, and find themselves in it?

I am currently working on a short story for my residency in January, and it contains four different characters with radically different political points of view. It is just a story to me. I wanted to write something that stretched me, that put some controversy between characters, creating conflict. I remembered a teacher once telling me long ago that the most interesting stories often are where very different people are trapped together and have to deal with each other. So that's what I did. I threw four radically different people into a room with violence ensuing outside while a person lay dying inside, threw a little politics and religion in the mix ... and waited to see what would happen.

I expect some of the critiquers in workshop will be able to see this as merely a story and not a political statement. It is just a story to me. I really am not making any point at all in it.  But some, I suspect, will focus on just one point of view that supports or attacks their own point of view and take issue with that. Some will see themselves on one side, some will see their own angry debates with friends or family, some will identify with the hopelessness, some with the rage, some with the loneliness, some with the compassion. Some will make rash judgements about me and what I believe.

For once, I'm not just begrudgingly accepting this. I'm embracing it. I'm writing for it. "Come, read," I want to say, "and find yourself in here somewhere."

As long as they don't think it's about child molestation, I'm okay.

Monday, November 7, 2011

MFA Monday: Books!!!

My reading for the semester is done. Here's what I read:

1. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Tom Franklin)
2. Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)
3. A Separate Peace (John Knowles)
4. Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
5. State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)
6. Heartsongs and Other Stories (E. Annie Prouxl)
7. Too Much Happiness (Alice Munro)
8. Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen)
9. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Jamie Ford)
10. The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs)
11. The Optimist’s Daughter (Eudora Welty)
12. Abide With Me (Elizabeth Strout)
13. Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
14. The Murderer’s Daughter (Randy Susan Meyers)
15. Little Bee (Chris Cleave)
16. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Rhoda Janzen)
17. Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski)
18. Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories (Tom Hazuka)
19. That Old Cape Magic (Richard Russo)
20. The Modern Library’s Writer’s Workshop (Stephen Koch)

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. I LOVE that Pacific University allows us to make our own reading list. There is a certain amount of responsibility that comes with this. I assume if I peppered my reading list with genre fiction (which I'm not writing) my advisors would nix the list. But I work hard creating a good list - books I both want to read and books I think I should read. I gathered a long list of titles, most of which were suggested to me by people I respect (like YOU all), went to amazon and read the synopsis and first pages to see if I liked them, went to goodreads and read the reviews, and then chose the ones I liked the best.

Also, I tried not to weigh my list with books that were 800 pages. 

Let's face it, if I have to read these books and not put them down and move on if I hate them, I might as well pick ones I'll like, and ones I'm not stressed I'll finish on time.

Of course, some of these I loved more than others. I was not at all a fan of Love in the Time of Cholera. The reviews are great, but the book seemed slow and sluggish, and to take me forever to read. And I was unsure why I was supposed to connect with a main character who declared he'd had 600 affairs, some with girls as young as 11, some married, but declared he was really a virgin because he didn't love any of them and had "saved himself" for the one girl he did love (saved himself from what, I'm not sure).

But all of the others I thoroughly enjoyed.

I put a lot of short stories on this list because I wasn't as familiar with short stories as I feel like I should be. Most people in this program write short stories, and it's been ages since I'd done that. What I learned is that I still am not a huge fan of reading collections of short stories. Not that I don't enjoy them. Olive Kitteridge was fantastic, and Interpreter of Maladies was superbly written. But it's much too easy for me to put a short story collection down and not feel compelled to pick it up, because each story is self-contained. There's nothing calling me back to the book because if I've finished one story, that's the end of that character's journey.

Of all the books on this list, the ones I most highly recommend, ones that I absolutely loved, are State of Wonder (ironically a retelling of Heart of Darkness, which is the bane of my existence), Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (a book I just didn't want to end, and whose end was immensely satisfying), and Little Bee, which I wrote about here.

I also love the Writer's Workshop book. When I first read it, it seemed to lack the kind of practical advice and organization I crave, but it was so full of wisdom I couldn't help but underline half of it. I've continued to go back to that book over and over this semester. One of the best parts of it is where Koch talks about "climbing Mount Probability." Meaning, essentially, it doesn't matter if what you write is possible (or realistic), only that you can make your readers believe that it is. This is a whole post unto itself!

Now I've got two weeks to come up with a new reading list for next semester. I have 16 books so far, and need 4 more really great ones. So I come to you, again, asking for help.

What should I read next semester? What have you read and loved?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What The Heck Does One Do with an MFA?

I get asked this all the time. In various forms. Sometimes it's just as simple as, "What are you going to do when you get your degree?"

The answer is, I have no idea.

The obvious path is writing and publication, but while this program has definitely made me a better writer, we all know a writing career isn't as simple as just writing well. There's a little luck, a little timing, a little connections, a ton of perseverance, some creative magic.... it's just much more complicated than writing a book, even if the words on the page are good ones.

I could teach, of course. That seems to be the other obvious way to go. I think people assume that the only good any liberal artsy masters does is open the opportunity to teach at the college level. And I've considered this. A lot. I taught for years before having kids, and always thought teaching college would be a great challenge that I'd like. But I don't know that teaching positions open up that often, and within commuting distance of where I live, and in writing specifically. It might be easier if I got that degree in English, and then I'd be qualified to teach Chaucer and American Lit and all those classes that are considered English but not creative writing. But I didn't. Because I don't love that. I love writing.

I could edit for a publisher or a magazine. I could tutor.

After that, I start coming up with ideas like Walmart Greeter and McDonald Fry Technician.

And actually, I do know people who got their MFA in writing and kept working at Walmart or kept driving public transit... because they said those jobs offered not only a decent reliable salary and benefits, but also gave them tons of material to write about at night. Maybe the best jobs for writers put us in contact with real people who are characters.

I don't know what I'm going to do once I move my tassel from one side to the other. I hope I'll write. Preferably books. And get paid to do that. Isn't that the dream?

But if a great book deal doesn't fall in my lap (ya know - after lots of blood sweat and queries) and pay off student loans for the next ten years, I'm okay with working a different job, even if that something else isn't related to my degree.

I will keep writing, because I can't imagine not writing. I hope I keep getting better. I will never regret the two years and pocket full of money I spent on this degree. I have loved every minute of it. I am a better writer and a better person for it. I am blessed to have had this opportunity to do it.

But my happiness doesn't depend on following a certain path. Whatever God has planned for me, wherever he places me, I will find peace and joy in knowing I am where he wants me. Right now, that's in grad school. In two years, who knows?

For now I'm content to take one day at a time and cherish it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

It's Friday: It's A Good Thing - People Taking Care of People

I used to do a gratitude thing every Friday and I've gotten myself off blog habits lately. Maybe it's just been enough trying to write every now and then so you don't think I've completely disappeared. But I always loved doing these posts, and especially now when all the political drama in this country is focused on what we don't have, it's good to remember the good things.

And in the spirit of "It isn't all about me," this post isn't about what I have that I'm grateful for, although indirectly, it does shed light on that as well.

Last week, our local ACTS food pantry, a non-profit charity organization in our community that provides food for about 4,000 individuals a month who otherwise would not have food, shut down for the first time in years. Their shelves were bare.

This is the picture from the video they took when they sent out the announcement that they were shutting their doors for two weeks, hoping to acquire enough food in that time to reopen.

ACTS stands for Action in the Community Through Service. And that is what happened.

In a flurry of social media, word spread. Within hours, businesses like local appliance stores and organizations like kid swim teams and churches began collection sites for food. Before school let out for the day I received calls from my kids' elementary and middle schools asking for donations. You could literally sit and watch facebook or twitter and see the action taking place.

In less than three days, over $60,000 and 12,000 pounds of food had arrived at their doorstep. So much that they didn't have room for it all and had to use an empty tractor trailer to hold the extra.

The outpouring of relief came so fast and furiously, ACTS had to put out another plea for help: volunteers to help stock the shelves and bag food for needy families. And that, like the money and food, came all too willingly as well.

In less than a week, the pantry re-opened with $120,000 and 30,000 pounds of food donations.

Did the government do that? No. The people of this community did that. Individuals and small businesses. Kids. The elderly. Students. People with a lot to spare. And people with just a box of macaroni. People who couldn't spare food, but could spare their time.

Today, in my community, people are eating who otherwise would be hungry.

I'm overwhelmed by this. But not surprised. Because I think most people are really generous at heart, really do want to help people, but often don't know how. I think, when no government will step in, the people do.

(As an aside, my husband, who works for the government, dryly commented that if it were up to the government to fill the food bank, it would have taken six months of red tape and bureaucratic wrangling to make it happen.)

I could make a political statement out of this, but I'll leave it at this:

Last week, the shelves were empty.

This week, because of the generosity of hundreds of people like you and me, they are not.

Because one person gave one box of mac and cheese, one child will not go to bed hungry tonight.

And the person who gave that food had benefited in ways that will never show up in a checkbook.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

More Ways to SAVE time by Wasting It!

I'm not always the first to jump on a bandwagon, or the first to even hear there is a bandwagon, but I like to pretend I'm a tiny bit tech savy. You know, for a liberal arts person.

So I'm a bit embarrassed that I only JUST TODAY found out you can get apps for your web browser.


Who knew?? (And if you did, don't rub it in my face!)

Just like on your smart phone or your itouch, you can download apps (many for free) for your computer. And, like the phone apps (sometimes EXACTLY like the phone apps), they can be helpful or just fun.

Like Angry Birds. You can wile away hours and hours on your computer hitting pigs by hurdling birds at them. While you write. (Up til now I've only done it in the car waiting at the bus stop.) (Which brings me to think I'm not that smart because if I wanted to hurl birds at pigs, my phone is completely portable which means I could take it to where I'm at my computer and play it there.) (Although then there is the question of why I'm on the computer at all, if all I want to do is play with birds and pigs and I can do that on my phone.)

I found this out by stumbling on this website: Ten Google Chrome Apps That Will Make You A Better Writer. (You wouldn't be wrong if you guessed Angry Birds is not one of those.)

Aside from the fun ones, there are some interesting apps that could be useful, some of which require you to be using Google Chrome, but others of which also are on Firefox apps (Yes, Firefox also has apps, which I found out about 15 seconds after finding out Chrome has apps). (I have no idea about Safari or other browsers, but I'm guessing they do too).

The most promising ones are the White Noise App, which is much better for blocking sounds than plugging my ipod in my ears and listening to music which tends to then drive the mood of my story rather than the mood coming from the story itself.

 There is a "Stay Focused" one that cuts off your time-wasting webpage browsing when you are supposed to be working. Ouch! I'll waiting for the "Hand that comes out of your screen and slaps you" app.

There are a few writing apps that black out your screen so all that is there is a black background and your writing, so you can write without distractions. (Check out Write Space; it works off line and saves with every keystroke, so you don't lose anything!) That's pretty cool in theory. Now if only it could also black out the room, the dog, the kids, the pile o' laundry, the dishes, and the bowl of popcorn.

The top ten list doesn't highlight all the good ones though. There's a timer one I like, which also could be pretty cool for managing how much time I spend on blogs or facebook or emails. You can set it for any amount of time and then the buzzer goes off. I can see using that to focus my writing (20 minutes of pure writing and then I get to check emails...) or facebook (10 minutes of facebook and then it's BACK TO WORK for you young lady!!) (That is totally what the buzzer should sound like, by the way.)

There's Quicknote, too, which is like the old yellow legal pads I love so much. You can type notes and add pictures and such on it. I love that idea as opposed to taking notes in Word, because... well, it's a legal pad. I love legal pads. They are so yellow. And lined. And remind me of college (although in college I used lavender and sky blue legal pads, which are much cooler but harder to find).  Also, it's easy to tell the difference between my notes and my actual writing that way. It also allows you to save them online so you can access them from anywhere you have internet - like when you are at the bus stop playing angry birds on your phone and suddenly think of a great idea for chapter four.

In relation to my love of legal pads, there is also a sticky note app. Who doesn't love a good sticky note? And this one lets your choose your color, and they don't accidentally fall off when you aren't looking and then you can't find it when you really need to remember that outstanding idea you had for your elevator pitch that would have agents crying and begging for your manuscript right this instant. Ah yes... if I had this app years ago I'd be a female James Patterson by now.

I could go on and on, but if you are interested, just head over to "the store" and browse around. But get the timer first, otherwise you might be there all day!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ha Ha Ha H ---Hey... Wait a minute!

 I saw one of these on Facebook two days ago. Yesterday I saw the other one. Now there's an equal opportunist cartoonist!

Monday, October 10, 2011

MFA Monday: Blast to the Past (Incorporating flashbacks without your agent hating you)

If you're a writer and you've been around the block a while, you've probably heard the advice to nix the backstory in your stories. Flashbacks stop the forward movement of the narrative, slowing down the reader and bringing the action to a screeching halt. It's considered bad writing, and I've heard agents go so far as to say they won't read more of a manuscript if it has backstory in those first pages.

But rules are meant to be broken, right? The trick is to learn to do it well.

A few years after I started writing in earnest, a friend game me The Friday Night Knitting Club, and as I read it I felt like banging my head on the wall. This whole book is a series of flashbacks! How did she get published?? I screamed in my head.

This semester I've read a number of other books that rely heavily on flashbacks as well. Russo's That Old Cape Magic is a story where the real story is in the character's past, one he distills through his present. Cleave's Little Bee is another where the important events of the past unfold in the present. In Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, the characters' history are far more important than their present. All of these books have at the heart of their plot and structure personal history influencing a character's modern life.

Two weeks ago I read Elizabeth Strout's novel Abide with Me, and although the story itself takes place in the character's present, Strout used extensive flashbacks to fill in the details of how the characters had arrived at this place in their lives.

So I did what I've been doing lately in my program and stopped to figure out how Strout, along with all these other authors, was breaking the rules so successfully. If everyone seems to be saying we shouldn't include backstory, why do we do it anyway, and how can we do it well?

So in short, this is what I've come up with.

First off, what's the difference between backstory and flashback? 

A flashback is an interjected scene that takes the reader back in time to a point before where the current story is taking place.

Backstory is the history of characters or elements that underlie the situation that currently exists.

Sound confusing? Look at it this way: backstory is like telling, where flashbacks are like showing. A flashback will give you the backstory by putting it in a specific context through actions or dialogue.

When should you use flashbacks and backstory?

Backstory should be included when it adds historical and emotional context or develops character, enlivens the narrative with specificity, and knowingly controls the pace (by slowing it down), but it is most interestingly doled out through flashbacks - scenes or mini-scenes. Those flashback mini-scenes can be as short as just a line of dialogue, or as long as a chapter.

In the book Abide with Me, the story is about a pastor whose wife has died about a year before the story starts. The dead wife is as much a character as her husband, but as she's dead, the only way to know her is through flashbacks. One very early one is when the pastor looks down and notices the frayed cuffs of his dress shirt - a detail that brings out how neglectful he is of himself now that she is gone. In noticing them, though, he reflects that they "had reached the point where his wife would have taken it for herself, cutting the sleeves off midway and wearing it with her bright pink ballet tights that had not feet."  A mini mini scene! This is one of our first glimpses of his wife, and in just that short memory we get a feel for the kind of free-spirit she was.

How do you include flashbacks without jolting the reader?

The most seamless way I've seen it done is by association. In the above example of the shirt cuffs, Strout used one physical object in the present (the frayed cuffs) to bring to mind a memory of another (his wife wearing his shirts with ballet tights). If you read that chapter, you'd find that flashback continues for several pages, describing a confrontation he had with her once about how her wearing his shirt reflected on her as a pastor’s wife, and how she had hated the restrictions that imposed. Then, just as easily, Strout slips the narrative back into the present day as Tyler asks his housecleaner what he should do about the cuffs.

 My brilliant advisor also taught me something she calls "the secret of once." By using the word "once," - or a variation on that which shows a specific time period - the writer can slip mini-scenes in without hardly slowing the narrative down at all.

In one of my own recent chapters, my character Kat was standing watching her brother fall apart after the death of their parents. It was the perfect opportunity to reveal some of her backstory:

Kat leaned against the wall watching her brother. She wanted him to turn the sound on, let the monotonous roar of the game drown out the silence that filled the house – and her – but instead, the quiet grew.

Once, just a week after he was born, she’d done this same thing, leaning against the door jam to his nursery and watching his tiny chest rise and fall, the room smelling like baby powder and Dreft. Her mom had found her there and shooed her off. “If you wake him, you’re the one holding him until he goes back to sleep,” she’d said crossly. Gladly she’d have held him, if anyone had let her.

She took a step towards him and waited to see him turn and acknowledge her, but his eyes never left the screen. 

Orient your reader with the words. Indicate the time shift by verb tense. If you are writing in the present, flashbacks will be in the past, but if you are already writing in the past tense, indicate the flashbacks by use of the past perfect form of the verb (had found, had worn). If it's a longer scene, just use the past perfect very at the beginning and end of the flashback, kind of like parenthesis cordoning off the passage as something from the past.

Flashbacks are not evil. They are such a powerful tool to enrich your character's lives and add depth to a story. They can even become the story. The trick, like all writing, is to do it well. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. Love What You Do.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. ... Stay hungry. Stay foolish."

I never felt like I knew Steve Jobs. He wasn't family, or even someone whose face I saw often. He wasn't a movie star or recording artist I saw or heard on a daily basis like an old friend.

And yet I did let him into my life, in a greater way than any celebrity.

Every day, I wake up and turn on my iphone before I get out of bed, check the weather on it to see what to tell the kids to wear to school, peruse emails quickly to see if I missed something important in the night. I kick on the ipod to listen to music as I shower and get dressed and fix the kids' breakfasts and pack their lunches. Once they are out the door, the rest of the day I sit with my MacBook attached to my lap.

I have written three entire novels on my mac laptops, and uncounted partial novels, flash fiction and short stories. I have sent tens of thousands of emails. The first laptop I wore all of the letters off the keyboard. Literally, it's now like typing on it blind. You better know where your fingers go, because there's nothing there to guide you. And yet, nearly eight years later, that ibook still runs fine, hums without a care in the world, no viruses, no popups, no sudden freezing. I love that computer more than I should love an inanimate object.

When I sit at Starbucks with a friend who tells me about a new great song that she loves, I can download it right there and listen to it. I can find the carbohydrates in the coffees and pastries with my carb app that allows me to keep my blood sugar even. When I am waiting in the car at the bus stop for my kids, I can play angry birds and scramble and Sudoku. I can read a book on the phone. When I am lost or trying to find a restaurant, my phone will help me get there. When my children were babies - before my youngest was even born - Pixar changed the way we watched movies as a family. It gave us something to watch that my husband and I could love as much as the kids. Toy Story and Finding Nemo shaped our language.

How Steve Jobs has changed our lives cannot be overstated.

In 1980, when our phones were still tethered to the walls and envelopes with stamps were the only way to write friends, he imagined taking the hulking computers out of universities and businesses and putting them in the home, in a package small enough to put on a desk. He visualized every one being connected by that computer, in ways that hardly any one at that time could wrap their heads around.

Steve Jobs did not follow the trends, he set them.

"It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

How true is this of writing? If we are constantly running after the trends, we will be missing them. There was not a wizard trend before Rowling. There were few sparkling teen vampires before Meyers.

I don't know a lot about Steve Jobs as a person. I never met him or saw him live. I haven't read a book about him. I only know his products, and his work ethic, and the values he talks about in speeches. I know that his products are dependable. I know he was passionate about what he did, and that love showed in what he made. I know he was occasionally humble, even when he shouldn't have been. I know that, even though he made a lot of money, money didn't drive him. I know that he worked hard and loved what he did, and was grateful every day for being able to live that kind of life. I know that he wanted to make a difference.

I know that his work wasn't always easy. He didn't find immediate success. He didn't stay successful, but he didn't give up. He was compared to other CEOs, his products and company compared to other products and companies, sometimes favorably but often not. People laughed at his vision.

But he kept at it. A lesson for us writers, and parents, and artists, and business people.

"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle." 

The road is not always easy, but I am always so thankful to be on it. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Am I Confusing You?

I don't get around to blogs as nearly as I want to anymore. If I hit them all once a week I'm doing well these days, but I had to check out Patti Nielson's post today entitled "The Phone Call." And while it wasn't a phone call from an agent, it was a great blog post posing the question, how much information is necessary to dole out to a reader right away?  If you want to know how that relates to a phone call, go read the post!

I've been thinking about this lately because in one of the packets I sent to my advisor this semester, I included a prologue to my book. I know that prologues are not in vogue with agents these days, but they do always say, "Figure out where your story really starts and begin there," and my story really starts ten years before my character comes back to her home town. And also, I wanted to avoid the opening scene being a girl driving back into town reminiscing.

So I started the prologue by dropping the reader into a scene, just like I've seen agents say readers want. There is immediate conflict, immediate action, immediate drama. I liked it.

I sent it off to my advisor with the question: Does this work as a beginning to my story?

Her answer, because she is just this wise, was "I can't tell you that." And then she proceeded to ask me all sorts of questions to help me answer my question myself. It's a Socrates thing, I guess. Which is totally working for her, because the things she ask teach me - not just about this particular book (which is what would have happened if she just said, "Yes. By all means make this your prologue!"), but she's made me think about beginning any book, and what needs to happen in those opening pages.

While she does say the scene absolutely needs to be in the books, she also pointed out that it didn't necessarily need to go first, even though that's where it fits chronologically. (I'm learning a lot about this from her... how to fit all my character's history in with vivid scenes that don't feel like backstory.)

But also, you not only have to hook a reader in the opening pages, you also need to not lose them.

Don't introduce too many characters we can't keep track of.

Release information on a need-to-know basis. Only include what is necessary to know; don't clutter the scene with information the reader might think is important that actually isn't.

On the flip side, if the reader needs to know something, give it to them! Don't drop them so suddenly into a scene that they don't know where they are or what is happening. Not that you should take away the suspense factor, but you shouldn't leave them confused either.

This is what she said:

"You want your prologue [or first chapter] to pull the reader in by raising questions that we really want to get answered....What you don’t want it to do is leave us wondering, sentence by sentence, what is going on here? In other words, you should be in control of what questions will arise in the reader’s mind."

I think for me the only way I can check if I'm doing this right is asking someone else to read the pages for me, and then asking them, "What do you think is going to be important here? What do you wish you knew? Were you confused by anything you wish I'd clarify?" 

It's a delicate balance, I think, between giving the reader enough information that they aren't confused, but little enough to entice them to read more.

As a reader, how much lack-of-information are you willing to tolerate at the beginning of a book, and how long will you read before you need the blanks filled in?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It All Started with a Closet

Our closet is small. I admit, we almost did not buy this house when we saw the closet. I also admit that we are spoiled, because even my first apartment, which was about 600 square feet, had a nice walk-in closet. The first house my husband and I bought had two huge walk-in closets, as did every other house we've bought since. Until this one.

This one has one closet in the master bedroom, and while it is technically a walk-in, meaning you have to walk through the door to get the clothes, there is no room for you and the clothes both when you get there. I have to choose my clothes before doing hair, because once I walk in, my hair is a lost cause. I've given up keeping my shoes in there, because I can't bend down to get them without knocking off a row of hangers.

So this past weekend we finally - after years of talking about this - went to look at closet organizers. We found some we thought would be perfect, and once I started actually getting excited that I'd have room to both keep my clothes hung up and find them, my husband says, "We should change the flooring first. If we're going to replace the carpets we need to do that before putting in the organizers."

Which means... never.

Or at least a very long time away.

But as we were leaving, me wondering why in the world we were even shopping if it wasn't a possibility to fix yet, we saw a dresser. A beautiful white perfect girlie dresser... for my youngest.

My youngest is currently using the dresser we bought before her brother was born 13 years ago. It is a diaper changing dresser. It has enough room for a small batch of baby clothes. She is eight. The bottom of two of the three drawers have fallen out and been nailed back in repeatedly, so that often she can't close the drawers. There isn't enough room in them so she also has several rubbermaid bins for less-used clothes. (I swear we are not poor! It's embarrassing admitting this, although in our defense, my daughter is totally emotionally attached to that dresser and does not want another one, even one that easily opens and closes and holds all her pajamas and sweaters.)

So we might not be able to fix our clothing situation, but we could fix hers! Hurray!

Until we started sizing it and realized it was about twice as big as the baby dresser, which would mean rearranging her room, which would mean taking some things out and putting them in our storage area.

Except our storage area is tiny, and it packed to the gills - floor to ceiling - with boxes. Boxes of baby clothes and toys I can't get rid of, of teaching materials I used ten years ago, of files and mementos and holiday decorations. There is no room for anything else. Frankly, like our closet, there is no room for me to even get in to find the stuff I need.

So off we trudged to the shelving department, where we found shelves to organize the storage room.

And that is what I've been doing for the last four days. Pulling every single box out, going through it to determine what needs to stay, what needs to be tossed, and what needs to be donated. I am determined not to be the next desperate case on the TV show Hoarders, so I am tossing with great abandon. The house looks like a cardboard explosion has taken place. The trash can has been packed every night. The car has been loaded and deliveries made more than once. There have been several trips to the store to get more Sterlite containers. There have been more than a few trips down memory lane.

And that is where I am now. In the middle of a mess that is bigger than it was to start with, with no closet organizer for my own room and no dresser for my youngest. And trying to keep up with school work, which involved a big packet due yesterday.

This is not unlike my writing. The last set of revisions I sent my advisor followed this same path. I'd see one thing that needed to be changed - just a small thing - something totally fixable. And then I'd spend four hour tweaking the following pages to accommodate those changes. It's crazy how taking out one stinking line can cause three hours of head-banging repairs. The idea of cleaning up one awkward piece of dialogue suddenly entails dragging all the characters and plots out into the open, laying them out and asking, "What here is necessary to keep, and what now do I toss?" One thing leads to another, and before you know it... I am buried.

So that's where I am, where I've been when I've not been blogging the past week. I apologize for not getting to all of your blogs. I miss you. I'll be back, I promise.

Once I find my way out from all this stuff.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What You Can Do With a Book (besides read it)

Someone passed this on to me and I was so in awe, I thought I'd pass it on to you.

Someone out there is making sculptures out of books. They are then left, anonymously, at libraries as a gift.

Mysterious paper sculptures

They are left with beautiful tags that say things like,

It started with your name @byleaveswelive and became a tree.… ... We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words.… This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. a gesture (poetic maybe?)

And there's this one:

Mysterious paper sculptures

There are lots more. A veritable literary/artistic mystery. My favorite is the tea cup with the tea bag and cupcake.

Go see them here. Be touched. Be awed.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Do this! Or.. Not!

It's less than two minutes of your life you won't regret spending. And I won't even clutter it up with more writing you have to read.

Your welcome.

Monday, September 12, 2011

There Are Two Sides to a Story...

I have a confession. I sometimes annoy the heck out of my husband.

It's true.

The first time was early in our dating relationship, when we entered a tourist store on the Santa Monica pier. We had a question about some piece of artwork and the salesman was RUDE. Downright, undeniably rude. Dismissive of us, snippy, ignoring. We walked out without buying a single thing, and my husband was riled up.

I casually mentioned maybe the clerk was having an especially bad day. Maybe he'd gotten in trouble with his boss. Or his wife just left him. Or he'd been diagnosed with cancer that day. Or had his car stolen.

My husband turned on me and said, "Are you seriously taking HIS side?"

Of course, I wasn't taking anyone's side. I was just trying to SEE all the sides. All the possibilities. Would any of those excuses make it okay that the man was rude to us? No; but it might make me feel less upset about it.

One of the things I like about writing is that I can see life from all kinds of perspectives. I can be the woman who steals a husband from his wife. Be the mom who becomes addicted to drugs or abuses her kids. I can be the the person who forgives, or holds a grudge. I can, for a time, climb inside someone else's head and see life from their point of view.

Good fiction will help us as readers do that, too.

I recently picked up Randy Susan Meyer's The Murderer's Daughters. I don't remember where I'd heard about it, but the title alone caught my eye, and the description of the book hooked me.

Two young girls witness the murder of their mother by their father, and then, essentially orphaned by his imprisonment, they spend the rest of their childhood being shuffled from one unloving home to another.

The book follows them for thirty years, each girl dealing with the murder in drastically different ways, one acting as though her father doesn't exist while the other keeps him close. Both live in fear of the day he will make parole.

There are a couple reasons this intrigued me, the first being it's about girls who go through life with the identification of being the murderer's daughter. It's a powerful name, and one which haunts them each in different ways.

The second reason I wanted to read the book, and the thing which ended up being the reason I think this book is so fantastic, is that it is told by the two sisters in their own point of view. Switching POV in alternating chapters, the reader gets to be inside the heads of both the girls, who, having witnessed the same event, take it to heart in entirely different ways.

I read this book for school, so as I was sitting at my laptop writing the reading commentary for it, I had to ask myself, could this book have been written in just one point of view? The answer to that is both yes and no. Yes, of course one could write a book about a girl who watches her father murder her mother. But no, that book would then not be this book. Because this book is far more than that.

This book is about how two different people can come from the same place, be in the same circumstance, and see it in entirely different ways.

I love that the sisters don't get each other. Lulu can't wrap her head around the idea that Merry visits their father in prison, that she brings photos of his grandchild and keeps his letters. Merry can't understand why Lulu has essentially disowned their only living parent, or remember the good time they had with him. Lulu desperately wants to be out on her own, while Merry desperately wants a family to love her. There ends up being irony in that, but you'll have to read the book to find out why.

Because the point of view switches, the reader gets a chance to see things from the eyes of each of the sisters, to walk in their shoes, so to speak. It is like reading two versions of the same story.

On the surface this book is just a good read. It's fast-paced, engaging, unique. But more than that, it's a lesson that goes beyond the story of two girls living in the shadow of their criminal father: it's the story of how people can see life through different eyes, and both be right.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Going Back or Moving Forward

This weekend is the 10th anniversary of 9-11, and for months much ado has been made about it. There is a new memorial - including a park and a new World Trade Tower being dedicated in New York, and here in D.C. it's hard to get away from it, too.

This past weekend I took my kids to two museums in the city. On Friday we headed into the American History museum, because that's what they wanted to do with their last day off of summer vacation. There was a new exhibit open, a 9-11 room in which items recovered from all three crash sites were recovered. Pieces of airplanes, cell phones, dolls, clocks that had been knocked off walls and frozen in time, doors from crushed first-responder fire trucks. It was sobering to see the pieces of people's lives - the casual, everyday things that belonged to people that most likely were no longer alive.

At the end of the exhibit was a table with paper and pens so that people could write down their reflections and post them on a huge wall covered in corkboard. We didn't stop to read many of them, but one caught my eye as I passed. It read, "I miss the days after 9-11 when this country was united. We all knew we were on the same side, and proud to be there. Now all we do is fight amongst ourselves."

Wow. How sobering that sentiment is, because it is so true.

On Monday our family went to the Newseum, one of my favorite museums in D.C. There are six floors to the building, and on each floor there was at least one 9-11 related exhibits. A wall of newspapers from every country and state the day after. The cell tower off World Trade 1. The engine off one of the flights that crashed into the towers. A video biography of a photo journalist that died in the falling of the towers, leaving his camera as a record of the last moments of his life.

The terrace on the sixth floor overlooked the Canadian Embassy, which was cloaked in a huge banner saying, "Canada Remembers."

In an article in Entertainment Weekly this week, a quote was highlighted on the page: "The question [we] asked then – 'Why do they hate us?' – is a reminder of how naive we were."

I laughed at that - not in the funny way but in the "are you kidding me" way. Why do they hate us?? Look at our country - we hate ourselves! We hate each other. We hate our politicians that we elect. We hate our media that we continue to watch as though it has the answers to all our questions. We cannot hold a civil debate on facebook among our own friends.

On the news this morning a reporter stood outside the Pentagon asking an official if all this memorializing each year was good for the survivors and victim's families, or whether it just continued to rip the scab off their wounds. He said it was both. It's important to remember, but it sometimes keeps them from moving forward.

How do we do that, though? Remember but move forward?

I tend to think the answer lies in the note tacked on the museum wall. "I miss the days after 9-11..."  I don't miss 9-11, but I do miss 9-12. I miss the flags and the patriotism and the feeling that we all really wanted the same things: a safe place for our kids to grow up, to pursue their dreams. I miss thinking that despite all the differences of opinions we have, and the problems with our political system, we still have each others' backs. That humanity is more important than politics. That behind each bumper sticker is a real person who is not that different than us, and deserves respect, a friendly wave, a smile.

I miss the days when bumper stickers were not so antogonistic.

Some people will argue that 9-11 changed us forever. Maybe. But maybe not so much. Maybe it just changed the way we live. Security is more intrusive. Fear and distrust is more prevalent. More flags are sold. More people are active in politics. But internally, there is still all the hatred and anger and "I'm right and you're not" attitude there always has been. We don't need terrorists; we are destroying ourselves from the inside.

I'll watch some of the 9-11 events this weekend. I'll remember, not because I want to remember the terrorism but because I want to remember the hope we felt the days after, the fleeting unity of Americans, and indeed the world, that we as human beings are not enemies of each other but partners in this journey we call life.