Friday, December 21, 2012

Great is Relative


Two days ago marked the fourth anniversary of the death of my friend Jean. I am constantly shocked by the impact of her death on me. Maybe it was because she and I were so tightly connected for our teenage years. Maybe because we'd just had lunch together, and had plans for another right after the holidays. Maybe because her life was cut so short. Likely, it's because a brutal murder is something you never see coming.

On the anniversary of her death, I woke determined to make the day good. Not to wallow or be depressed or think about he murder, but think about her life, about taking advantage of the time and relationships I have right now. I ignored the chores calling me and spent the day baking cookies and singing with the radio turned up, making crafts with my kids and teaching my youngest new piano songs. I made it to the end of the day feeling pretty good.

But while the 19th is the anniversary of her death, she didn't die on a Wednesday. She died on a Friday, on the last day of school before the winter break. Her son came home from college and fell asleep on the couch as she set off to the school to take pictures of the choir kids at their holiday concert. It was, in every way, a day before Christmas break.

And today, as I woke the kids, armed them with gifts for their teachers and told my youngest I'd see her at school for her holiday sing-a-long, I tried not to focus on the fact that this was exactly how Jean's day began four years ago.

I turned on music. I made dog treats for my neighbor, packed a few special gifts for special friends, patted my dog on the head and said, out loud in the empty kitchen, "Today is going to be a great day."

And no sooner were the words out of my mouth than I remembered those were the last words Jean spoke to her husband before he left for work, and I wanted to call the words back. To not have a great day. To not feel like the day was full of possibility in the way Jean did, with all the horrid irony it contained.

I texted my son to let him know he'd have to let himself in if the sing-a-long ran late, and remembered that Jean left the house that morning with her son home alone, asleep on the couch. He was the first killed. I wondered if I should stay home, as if my being home or him being home alone would influence what our own day would hold.

Today, it turned out, was the harder day of this week.

Christmas Day is not wrapped up in mourning for me, but the day before Christmas break is... the sweeping of cheer and anticipation and joy and relief pulled by a vague sense that it's all a fragile hope easily popped, that the worst of the worst can happen right when joy is at its height.

We are not meant to live in fear, but God knows sometimes we get stuck there.

Tomorrow, though, it will be Saturday, and this day of "last day before break" will be over and for me, the imminent fear of evil will fade to something more akin to a small ache. Today I am thankful for a dear friend who listened to me tell the story, who didn't tell me I was crazy for clutching my mouth the minute I said it was going to be a great day, who allowed me to feel like maybe it could be great, could be full of joy, free from something crushing that.

For that, I think I'll turn the music up a little more, and sing, even if only to my dog.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Binding the Wounded: Triumph and Tragedy


The Triumph

Thursday I sat in an operating room, my surgeon armed with a needle and a sonogram, seeking out cysts and systematically collapsing them. It was all good news - this collapsing of cysts - but there were still no answers to my original symptoms, and this hung over us. As my doctor moved to a new section of tissue, searching for the other suspicious cysts, he hovered over a section that appeared only grey and grainy on the sonogram.

"Stop there," he told the technician. "Zoom in." Then, "That's it!"

There, in the grey grainy screen was a grey grainy mass, perfectly circular, perfectly solid, perfectly hiding right in plain sight. The tumor that managed to avoid detection on a mammogram, an MRI, and three previous sonograms suddenly was right in front of our eyes.

My doctor's demeanor changed. Everything changed. The calm in the room changed to a flury as instruments were switched out, anesthesia was given, a scalpel produced, and the next thing I know, he is cutting the thing out.

"We have it," he said, pressing down on me to staunch the blood flow, which has poured over the side of me. "We'll send it to the lab, but I'm very optimistic." He smiled at me. "We finally found it."

Indeed, after more than a month, we had an answer.

He left and the nurse bound me up, tape in the place of stitches, followed by chunks of gauze, followed by an ace bandage so tight I could barely breathe.

"Keep this on," she said. "At least 24 hours. The compression will help you heal."

The Tragedy

A little more than 24 hours later, I was sitting in our church watching my children in the Christmas concert, reminded by the day's tragedy in Connecticut how precious these moments are.

Our music pastor began the concert with these verses from Isaiah, and I pondered them as the orchestra played.

"Bind up the brokenhearted."

What does that mean?

The day before I'd been cut open, had part of my body taken out, and bound back up. I was in pain, even now. My skin had turned hideous shades of maroon and black and purple. There was still dried blood under the wrappings. I could not, for even a second, forget the constant ache in my chest.

But I'd been bound. And I was healing.

Tragedies like mass shootings make us ask difficult questions. Where was God when this happened? Why didn't He stop it?

I don't propose to have all the right answers, but I think we have to accept that having free will to make our own choices comes with two sides of a coin. We want to be in charge of our own lives, to make our own choices, but we want God to stop others who make bad ones. He doesn't say, "I'll let you make decisions, but only up to a point." He lets us - all of us - decide for ourselves what path we will take each day.

What He does promise is that he'll be there for us, no matter what we choose - or what others choose that impacts us.

He will bind up the brokenhearted.

Like my own bandages, it doesn't take away the pain. It doesn't stop the bruising. It doesn't reverse what happened. It doesn't keep scars from forming.

But it helps keep out infection from bitterness and anger. It helps heal. If we let Him, He will heal us.

He promised to turn our mourning into joy, our despair into praise, if we ask Him. Maybe not today. Maybe not next week. But eventually.

And that, my friends, is called Hope.



(Background watercolor by Valeriana)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"This place looks like a butcher shop," and other things you don't want to hear your doctor say

When we last left our damsel in distress (that would be me), the doctor was prancing around singing arias about breast centers and proclaiming me "probably" cancer-free. If I had been smart, I would have left with that upbeat proclamation and not looked back.

Unfortunately, I left with a business card for a breast surgeon who seemed way too eager to fit me in the next day. The day before Thanksgiving, of all days. My school work was done, and it being the holiday season and having only three kids in activities, what else would I do with all my free time?

Walking into this office I realized that every doctor and specialist has its own feel. My primary doctor? a waiting room full of sniffles and sneezes and haggard looking people my age. My ob/gyn? a waiting room full of young 20s women with toddlers and car seats in tow. Also haggard looking. My podiatrist? a crammed room of 80+ year olds with walkers and wheelchairs.

The breast center... Well, it wasn't as though I had time to stop and think about what it might look like, but it didn't take a step in the door to realize it also has its own feel. Pink, for one. Everything is pink. The file folders, the baskets, the pens, the ads for pink plaid Scottish kilts and matching fleece for the Walk for a Cure team they are sponsoring.

Also, very plush. And quiet. Hot tea and coffee. Comfy chairs, not that they keep you waiting long enough to sink into them.

And honest to goodness, every single woman who works there has training-bra-sized boobs. It's as though when they hired they said, "We don't want to flaunt anything in the face of people facing mastectomies, so A-cup size only need apply."

If you need to spend time in a doctor office, this isn't the worst place to be.

And also, in the two minutes I was waiting, a woman bounded out of one of the rooms to the person in the chair next to me (obviously waiting for her friend) and said, "It's benign!" And the glow on her face was enough to make a hardened criminal cry.

This is no flu and cold and stumped toe clinic here. It seems the only people here are either on cloud nine that they are fine, or facing the climb of their lives.

I'm the rarity, I think. The one who falls in neither category, who still has no idea what's going on. It's not so much the "probably" that pokes at me, but the uncertainty of diagnosis.

Not for lack of trying, of course. That first visit I had a sonogram that lasted the good part of an hour. The sonograms I'm used to are the ones where you see all this grey fuzz and then suddenly there is a baby there, like some mutated alien, sucking his thumb or stretching her legs and waving. There is a whoosh-whoosh sound of a heartbeat. There is amazing.

This one.. not so much. For one, aside from a baby, I have no idea what I'm looking at on a sonogram. And since there's no baby in my chest, mostly what I saw was grey fuzz. And then these monstrous looking black holes. Which, I can tell you, look ominous even if you have no idea what they are.

I have two doctors at this office - one the sonogram kind of doctor, and the other a surgeon.  The first visit was the sonogram doctor, who told me my original symptoms (the whole reason I went to the doctor in the first place) now took a back seat to these black holes.

"Are those bad?" I asked.

"Well, they aren't good," she said. Cue first thing you don't want to hear a doctor say.

She kept going back to one in particular, and finally said, "I think we need to get an MRI. It's not overly concerning, but we need to make sure."

"Overly." "Probably." Why must doctors speak in such wishy-washy language?

"Is this causing my other symptoms?" I asked.

"Probably not. But let's figure this out first, then we can look at the other."  Which is, I take it, code for, "We found something worse."

Seriously, people, can nothing be simple??

So I left this office a lot less trippy than the one where the doctor pronounced me probably cancer-free. I'm going to say it's just this office, that what they deal with on a daily basis is pretty serious, and a lot less fun than bringing babies into the world, and also, she can't pawn me off on someone else because I am now her job. But when you go to a specialist and they still have no good idea what's going on, and then they find something new, well, let's just say I didn't do a dance on the way to the car.

I could write a lot about the MRI. It was my first experience with one, and I discovered that I'm not nearly as calm and logical as I appear. Part of that may have had to do with the fact that, as I'm sitting in the "holding" area waiting for the techs to clean up from the last patient, I hear one guy say, "Wow. This place looks like a butcher shop."

????????????!!!!!!!!

Is there a lot of blood? Because that's what I think when I hear the words "butcher shop." And why is the lady before me bleeding all over the place? Does this magnetic thing make you explode if you forget you're wearing a toe ring or have silver fillings you can't take out? Are they slaughtering people in there? I considered maybe it was an array of knives, but you can't have any metal in the room with the MRI machine, so it couldn't be that.

My blood pressure was probably on the tad high side when they finally brought me in, but the room looked... clean. Sterile. White. So crime scene cleaners, I've got some referrals for you.

I never considered myself claustrophobic. Looking at the machine, I thought, "How can someone feel claustrophobic in this? It's not that big, it's got big wide open circles on both ends. There's a hole where your head goes so you can look down."

That was before they slid me in. And I panicked.

They really should just give people a valium when they sign in rather than expecting people to predict this kind of panic attack. And the little panic button they gave me didn't help, because there was no way I was going to admit I was hyperventilating and have them pull me out.

I managed. Lots of deep breathing. I did discover that all of the breathing techniques and ideas to help you through child birth pain are no match for claustrophobia.

Back to the breast center. Sonogram doctor comes in and says, "There's no sign of anything malignant."

So... yay? But she is STILL not looking happy.

"We're going to do another sonogram, and then you can get dressed and the surgeon will come in and discuss your options."

So getting dressed - good thing. Options with a surgeon? Maybe not so good, because if they don't see cancer, I have no intention of going under a knife.

Sonogram starts, and cue second thing you don't want to hear a doctor say: "This looks much bigger than last time you were here."

Um... last time I was here was like six days ago.

Finish the sonogram and she says the next thing you don't want to hear a doctor say. "Don't get dressed after all. We'll have the surgeon do another sonogram just to make sure."

So I wait, in my pink paper drape, for the surgeon to come in. I'm not going to give his name but I had visions of him as an elderly, white-haired short guy.

He looks like he stepped off the set of Grey's Anatomy.

Cue the clutching of the paper shirt and the rush of stupid words. "Are you old enough to be a surgeon?"  And also, you are way too cute to be my doctor. But thankfully I didn't say that out loud.

I'd like to say, "And then he looked and declared this entire process a misunderstanding and sent me home."

But he didn't.

He also seemed... concerned. But not in a "rush thee to a hospital" kind of way. I think his exact words were, "If this was something random that came and went, I'd say let's just watch and see. But I think in this case we really need to be proactive. Let's get to the bottom of this."

And yet, I STILL KNOW NOTHING!!!  It is still probably not cancer. Although the surgeon said its possible it's in such early stages the MRI couldn't pick it up.  Which, if true, is good news. Not as good as not cancer at all, but still - catching it this early would make getting rid of it much easier.

But I don't think it's cancer. I really don't. Not in the very least. I think it will all end up being nothing at all, and I will have wasted hours and hours and much money on tests and doctors to find out, "Hey - looks like all is good. You just have abnormal boobs."

Which, really, would not surprise me at all.

I can't tell you how many bookcases I could have bought with the money I've spent on co-pays in the last month. This is what kills me.

Tomorrow I go back and get biopsies on some of those black holes. That means there will probably be another blog post. Hey - I'm not likely to ever write a memoir, so this is as close as I get. And if you've read this far, thank you. And I'm sorry.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In Which I Find Out I (probably) Don't Have Cancer

I know, I just gave away the ending. I (probably) don't have cancer. As a writer, I realize this is bad form. Why read on now? I've sucked all the tension right out of this post. But I care for you, dear readers. I know many of you would worry if I strung you along, so I'm putting the ending first to ease your mind. And now you can just enjoy the journey.

Also, I apologize in advance for any TMI. Usually I am so private about this stuff, but I found it impossible to write what's happening without actually writing about what's happening. 

***********************

Without going into too much detail, let it suffice to say two weeks ago something happened that sent me googling odd symptoms. It will surprise no one who's ever googled anything medical to hear that I found out I was clearly going to die. And not just on WebMD, that bastion of "everything boils down to cancer."  Every site I went on said, "Get thee to a doctor!! Fast!!"

I am not one to jump on doctor appointments. Not because I hate them, but mostly, it's just so inconvenient. I don't have time. And I feel fine. I mean, to go to a doctor means I am in serious pain and the Motrin just isn't cutting it. And right now, I feel just fine. Normal, for whatever that's worth.

But there was enough on the internet to convince me to call my doctor office and talk to a nurse. Based on past history, this is what I expected to hear: "Huh. Yeah. I don't know. You should come in. Our soonest appointment is in a month." I even checked their online appointment schedule and found out the soonest appointment available was in a month.

But I called, because the internet told me too. The conversation went like this:

ME: Hi. I'm having these weird symptoms and I thought I should check to see if I need to come in. I have an appointment in three weeks anyway, so maybe I could just talk to the doctor then. But I thought I should ask. Because the internet says I should.

HER: Can you describe what's going on?

ME:... (describing in as few words as possible, in a very light, nonchalant tone...)

HER: You need to come in. Now. Can you get here today?

So apparently she also reads WebMD.

When I got to the office, I was shuffled back immediately, without the usual wait in the waiting room while watching all the harried moms with their teething toddlers. When the nurse came in to take my blood pressure, she asked, "Are you nervous?"

Um... no. Should I be?

She asked this FOUR times!! Which I thought was odd. Because I really wasn't nervous at all. I honestly felt totally fine, and a bit silly for having driven 20 miles to see a doctor I knew would tell me I need to stop reading WebMD.

Lesson One: Don't rely on one article of clothing to make you feel good. She told me to get into a papery shirt, and I knew I'd approached my fashion completely wrong. See, I tend to wear jeans and sneakers. A lot. Most of the time. But I dress it up with pretty tops and fancy sweaters and scarves. I'd worn the CUTEST sweater that day, and a totally adorable scarf I'd just figured out how to tie in a new way. But suddenly I found myself in just jeans and sneakers... and a paper top. Boo. I should have opted for the skirt and kicky boots.

Lesson Two: Reconsider reading options. So now I'm sitting in the room waiting, papery top rustling with every move, and trying to read a book. I'd brought a funny book. One I couldn't read without laughing so hard I was crying; one which occasionally I've laughed so hard I snorted. I figured it would be the perfect thing to get my mind off sitting half-naked. Except, as it turns out, when you are waiting for bad news, funny things are not so funny. I feel like I wasted some perfectly great chapters in that room. I apologize to the author.

Lesson Three: It is not good news when your doctor walks in, shakes your hand, and the first words out of her mouth are, "So who in your family has breast cancer?"  Not, "Hi." Not, "How are you feeling today?" Not, "Do you have a history of cancer?" No. She asks, "Who in your family has breast cancer?"

Hello to you, too.

Lesson Four: (Here comes the TMI... if you're a man, you might want to avert your eyes...)  Mammograms mean nothing when you have dense breast tissue. Nothing. Do you know that they hide cancer 60% of the time? I'd JUST had one... my first one.. that's a whole other TMI post... and the radiologist said I was fine. In fact, she showed me my films and said, "See all that white? That's dense tissue. I'm just telling you because your report will come back saying you have dense tissue and I didn't want you to worry. It doesn't mean anything. It's very normal."

What she should have said was, "See all that white? It means we have NO IDEA what is in there."

So there is you PSA for the week. If you have dense tissue, don't assume everything is fine.

Lesson Five: Surprising your doctor can actually be a good thing. She discovered that what was happening to one breast was also actually happening to the other. I just didn't know it. (I'm being purposely vague here... there is only so much one wants to expose in a blog. The fact that I wrote the word breast earlier is already a milestone for me in the personal exposure bag.)

So at the end of this, she says, "The fact that this is bilateral is good, I think. It means you probably don't have cancer." And her relief was palpable.

And it wasn't until this point that I realized everyone in that office - the receptionist, the nurse, the doctor - all thought I was going to leave with a breast cancer diagnosis. Which, frankly, is pretty sobering. And also, at the same time, like some crazy acid trip because I find out in the same sentence that I not only probably DID have cancer but that now I probably DON'T.

Which I hope forgives the moment later in the day when, walking through a grocery store and some stock boy asks how I'm doing, I blurted out loudly and with great enthusiasm, "Great! I probably don't have cancer!"

But with this good news came other confounding news.... my doctor had absolutely no idea what the problem was. And so, she says, I need to go to the breast specialist.

ME: There's a breast specialist?

HER: Yes. That's all they do.

ME: Isn't that what you do?

HER: No. We pretty much just stick to vaginas here.

Yes. And this is why I love my doctor.

And also because, when she described how big and beautiful the Breast Center was, she spread her hands out wide and sang, "AHHHHHHH" like a choir of angels.

So now I have a breast specialist. And we have no idea what's wrong. But I feel fine. And I (probably) don't have cancer. And that last part is all I'm clinging to now.


I do want to say I'm not worried. So you shouldn't be either. I've seen my new doctor, and I'll save that for the next post. She seems concerned, but I think that's her job. Really, all she does is diagnose people with breast cancer, and that can't be a fun job. She's also confounded, but says nothing looks "overly suspicious," but I've had lots of tests and an MRI scheduled for next week, and I suspect it will turn out to be much ado about nothing.

I'm mostly thankful all this happened after I turned in my thesis, because really, I couldn't juggle all of that at the same time. So if there was a good time to see a doctor a day, this is it.

Okay. I think that's all the personal I can handle today. This is what I want you to know: I'm not worried. You shouldn't be either. And if you have dense breast tissue, ask about an MRI or sonogram.

My work here is done.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thesis... Done.

This, my friends, is the rather unpretentious, unimpressive first page of the culmination of two years' work. I am unabashedly thrilled.

Yes, the thesis is done. Yes, I can stop using words like "thesis" and "grad school" and get back to normal conversational words. If I can remember them.

Can you believe it's been two years? Me either. On the other hand, I can't remember what it was like not to be in school. Which is what my kids think when I say, "That two years went fast," and they reply, "Was it just two years??"

The last five months writing this thesis have been crazy. Head in laptop, eyes blurred, four-hour-a-night sleep kind of crazy. Non-stop writing and revising and crying and despairing and tiny leaps of hope followed by roller-coaster freefalls of doubt kind of crazy. But here it is... five short stories I've become mightily attached to.

I don't know what will happen from here. We're into the holiday season, so I suspect there will have to be some non-laptop time that involves cleaning and shopping and decorating, but I don't know how to function without a laptop calling me constantly. I keep wandering back to it, opening it, staring as though something important will leap out at me.

I have two novels rolling around in my head that I suspect I'll get knee-deep into before I return to Oregon in January. One is an old one I think I finally have a good direction for, and another is a new one that's more a seed still growing roots in my brain.

I feel both huge relief... and a little lost. Glad to say goodbye to stress of school, but depressed at saying goodbye to the promise of residencies, friends, letters from advisors, and that learning high that makes my brain feel like it's exploding.

Now to figure out what life will be from here on out...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Frankenstorm... less fun than the name implies.


This Monday showed up just as they said it would... rainy, windy, cold. Frankenstorm is moving into Virginia, and even though we're on the southern edge of the worst of it, we're hunkering down for the next few days.

The kids are home, and even the federal government shut down, so the husband is home. Last night was fun - movies and finishing off the ice cream in the freezer and enjoying a late night knowing we could sleep in today.

We're scrambling this morning, though, to do last-minute things in case the power goes out. Showers and coffee and laptops charging. Tubs are filled with water, a few meals ready to throw on the grill, coolers with ice and fridges cleaned out. My stories are printed out in case I have to revise old-school, and my fingers are crossed that I don't have to.

We are either way over-prepared or smart. I tend to downplay events like this, cynical of the weather reporters who clearly love the hype a good storm brings (and the revenue). But I feel better if I'm a little in control, and if nothing comes of this but some wet weather, at least I have dinners for the next three days already done!

This would be great time to curl up with a book!! Unfortunately, I'm still having to curl up with revisions. Boo.

I imagine with the large size of this storm, quite a few of you are under it as well. Thinking and praying for all you in more direct path of this storm. Check in and let us know how you're doing if you can!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In Transition

I wrote a blog post earlier today and decided to delete it. It was long. And boring. It was about revising and rewriting and the thesis. Did I mention it was long? And boring?

I've been re-thinking my blog - about what I want it to be. Heidi the Hick posted her 7th anniversary blog post last week and it got me thinking about all the years that have passed here at this blog.

When I started, it was a way for me to connect with other writers, to not be alone in this journey that can be so isolating. It was a great place for us - all of us - to share what we struggle with, what we learn, when we meet success.

There was always a splash of me, too. Adventures in family vacations and experiences with diabetes and the occasional what to do when the pellet stove guy takes all day. But mostly, it's been writing.

I thought when I started grad school I'd be here all the time sharing what I was learning, but it didn't work out that way. Part was time, of course. I ran out of it. But there was a greater part where it felt strange writing about that - as though I were saying "This is the way to write well!" when really, I'm still just stumbling along like everyone else.

Now that I'm winding up school, I feel like a new phase is starting - of my writing, of my career such that it is, of my life. I'm not sure what I want this blog to reflect, but I don't think I want to be a blog for writers specifically. I really want it to be for people. Anyone.

So there may be changes here. Same me. But new format. Maybe a new look. I don't want to give up blogging, but I feel the need to shake it up a little. I hope you that read will still stick with me. :)

Monday, October 1, 2012

I'm Not Impressed... Yet


Two years... read eighty books and write one. That's the tag line of an MFA program, and here I am, on my last book. And... like McKayla, I'm not impressed.

When I first started the program, I had to come up with a reading list, and so I asked all of you. What great books are out there I must absolutely know about and read?

I asked my crit group, and the first book one person suggested was A Prayer for Owen Meany. I looked it up on Amazon and saw that the book ran 642 pages and wrote her back, "Are you trying to kill me??"

But I've had many people since then tell me to read it, rave about it, tell me it's their favorite book ever. And since I've read books like Cutting for Stone, Edgar Sawetelle, and the behemoth doorstop A Soldier of the Great War (weighing in at 727 pages), what's one more long book?

So I started it this week as my last book. And I have to say... I'm not feeling it yet.

Okay - I'm not that far into it. About 50 pages, which isn't that far in a book this size. But something my advisor and this program have tried to pound into me is starting in the action, keeping a story in the action, moving things along and not letting the story linger too long on things not imperative to the plot. And this book is just meandering right now, and full of details that don't at all seem important.

I take it it's a character driven story, and since Owen just killed Johnny's mom with a foul ball, I'm guessing things are about to amp up. But still... there's just not the language I love to stew in or the plot compelling me forward. I'm hoping it will get better. I'm expecting still to find some gem in it.

I wonder if all the ravings about it raised my expectations too high? I've found the books I come to with huge expectations of greatness nearly always let me down, and those I don't know or expect much of are the ones that blow me away.

I'll keep plodding on. Maybe by the end of today I'll have totally and completely fallen in love with it. Maybe it will be one of my favorites, too. I'm hoping.. because 652 pages is a lot to not like.

If you've read this book and loved it, what is it that impressed you?

And why does Owen Meany talk in all capitals??

Tell me, blogging friends, have you been disappointed in books that others have hyped up to you? Do you prefer to come to a book with high expectations or none at all?

***UPDATE: I finished Owen Meany and... I'm still not all that impressed. I admit the ending did make up for some of the earlier aspects I didn't love, and it was a more tightly-knit story than it appeared to be during the first 400 pages. But this is not a book I'll be thinking of years from now and want to pull out and read again, I don't think. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The End of Hiding Out



Almost two years ago to the day I received a call inviting me to join the Pacific University MFA program.

Two years. It's been both a blink of the eye and a lifetime ago. I remember getting the call and thinking life was about to get crazy, change drastically. I remember thinking that two years, 80 books read, a book written, five residencies seemed like an eternity away.

And here it is. Almost done. I've only one book left to read. In six week, my thesis will be signed off on and off to the binders. I will have plane tickets to my last residency, where I'll walk through the Portland Airport one last time, check into the hotel by the ocean one last time, see my amazing friends and writers and faculty members one last time.

It all makes me feel sad and panicky inside - like something truly fantastic is coming to an end.

What will life be like after?

I realized this week that I've used this program in exactly the way I intended to - as an escape from the publishing world for a little while. Funny, you'd think a writing program would put you more in the publishing world. For some, it has. For some who have only written as a hobby, it has opened their eyes to things they knew little about before: query letters and agents and submissions and publishing stats.

For me, I knew all of that. Been burned out by it. Tired by it. Frustrated by it. Disillusioned. There is, at the beginning of a writing career, a dream. Reality is, as it always is, harsher. Still great, but great in different ways than you expect, and not as great in ways you never saw coming.

I needed to get out of that. Needed to stop thinking about publishing and statistics and competition so much and think again about writing.  In a really tough time in my life, I needed to remember why I do this, and give myself a jump start into a new phase.

So I hid out in the program, and poured myself into writing... just writing. Falling in love with writing again. With stories and characters and ideas and the feel of the words on the page. It was hard. Sometimes I didn't love it as much as I thought I should. Growth is like that. Growing pains are... well... painful.

But I've realized lately, especially as I think of this coming to an end, that I love writing like breathing. It has become every fiber of me. It is what I most want to be doing. When I'm not doing it, I wish I was. When I hate it, I still love it. When I am struggling to get it right, it's because I love it so much that I struggle.

Each story I send to my advisor I say, "I really want to get this one right. This one's important to me." And I expect him to write back and say, "You say that about all of them." But he doesn't, and I suspect that's because he feels that too - that every story is important to get right. Every story hits close to home in some way. Every character is part of your heart in some way and deserves a story worthy of them.

And now... now the end is just about here. And it's time to leave the cocoon I've made for myself. Time to get back into reading blogs and articles about publishing and find out what's going on in the world again. It is an entirely different publishing world than I knew two years ago. Big publishers are less in favor, ebooks are sky-rocketing, self-publishing is much more acceptable a path to take, and authors seem to be grabbing control of their destiny more than ever. It boggles my mind. There is so much new to learn - more decisions to make in terms of what I want to do with my writing.

So on that note, dear bloggers, tell me what I've missed. What blogs should I be reading? What news should I know? What are YOU thinking of this evolving world of publishing?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Burnings, Technology, and Paying to Write

FAHRENHEIT 451 - ONE BOOK: THREE THOUGHTS

1. From our first long car trip, I've been packing books on "tape" for my kids. Yes, that's how long it's been. We started with tapes. Arthur the Aardvark, Magic Treehouse. They love them, and since I get carsick reading, it's a great way to pass the time and still get reading in.

This month, before heading out on 23 hour trip to the Keys, we stopped by the library and picked up a few books on CD - ones that were more grown up for my more grown-up kids, and ones I hoped I could also count towards my reading list for school. A double bonus!!

So we nabbed The Adventures of Huck Finn and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, classics that are both literary and kid friendly. (Well, Huck had some dialectical and time-driven language that made for interesting conversations...). But it turned out, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde had seen better days, and the CD was unplayable. So the return trip home had NO BOOKS!! Oh no!!!

Enter... technology. I have a phone. I have a library card. My library now has an electronic resource center. In a matter of minutes, I'd found a book and downloaded it onto my phone and played it over the speakers in the car.

BRILLIANT!!!

The book... Fahrenheit 451. A classic I actually own but have never read. And one which, later, I was thankful my kids decided to not to listen to and instead put their own headphones on and read their own books, because they don't get carsick reading, and were currently engaged with Harry Potter (my youngest), Hunger Games (my middle), and John Grisham (my oldest).

So it was just the hubby and I who got to listen to Fahrenheit 451. And we both were totally taken in.

2. Have you read this book? It is FREAKY!! EERILY relevant. Crazy, absurd relevant. I felt the same I'd felt when I'd read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and realized Jules Verne wrote about submarines before there were submarines. Except this wasn't about machinery so much as society.

I've always thought of this book as "the book burning" book. That's what it's about, right? Book burning and censorship? But no. It's really not. In fact, as we listened to the afterward, Bradbury says that's not what it's about at all. It's about technology and media and how people want to be entertained and have no attention span, and how they get their news and knowledge from headlines and sound bites and pieces of information taken out of context and without context.

The characters walk around with earbuds in their ears, listening to radio and music all the time. They sit in their living rooms and watch wall-size TVs in which there is a false sense of interaction with the outside world. They only tune in to the things that please them, the things they agree with. They eliminate that which makes them uncomfortable or that which they don't fully understand.

Holy heck... this was written in 1953!!!! Blew my mind!!

If you haven't read this, you should. It is a book lover's book. A writer's book. If you want to fall in love again with the power of books, the power of the written word, with authors and imagination and knowledge, with what books leave to the world, read this book.

3. At the end, there's an afterward in which Ray Bradbury writes about the process of writing this book. This is essentially what he said:

I was a dad of two little kids. I had no place to write where they couldn't find me and bug me. I tried the house. I tried the garage. They still found me, pounding on the windows, begging me to play. I got nothing done.

So I discovered one day the library at UCLA had typewriters in the basement. For a dime, you could use the typewriter for 30 minutes. So I'd put my dime in the slot, and type like mad for 30 minutes. Then I'd take a break, and walk around the library, running my fingers over the spines of the books and drinking them in, and then I'd go back and put another dime in. 

(If you read the book, you'll see how the fact that he's in a library influences the story.)

It took $9.80 cents to write the first copy of that book.

I wonder, if we had to pay to sit at our computers, if every word cost us to write, would we be more efficient? Would we be producing more stories? Would we be more focused?

Just a thought.

So that was what I got out of Fahrenheit 451. Out of the vacation, I got some time away, a tan, a few pounds (courtesy of Key Lime pie), a new insulin pump, and a shaking away of the cobwebs.

Time to hit the keyboard again, and see if I can make it worth my dime.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Vacation of DOOM


Every year we spend a part of our summer at the beach. It's our family wind-down time. The only week, really, in the entire year that we get away from all the crazy schedules and activities and stress of our lives and just hunker down as a family together. Just us, a sandy beach, and the ocean.

This year we decided to venture away from our traditional beach and try out Key West. We had visions of it, the Hemingway-tropical-beachiness of it all. If there was anywhere to kick back and relax, surely Key West was it.

It wasn't until we started looking at hotels did we realize there really isn't much of a beach in the Florida keys. No, really, there isn't. It's a tropical island with no sand. How the heck does that happen?

But there are reefs! And we love to snorkel! So we set out on a 1250 mile car trip south with a stop in Savannah, Georgia, where my son and I discovered the TROLLEY OF DOOM. Yes. That's what they call it.



We walked around all night, saying in a spooky voice, "the trolley of DOOM! the trolley of DOOM!" and laughing our heads off.

And then he ate fish and got food poisoning and we spent all night up with him sick. :(

And thus began our VACATION of DOOM.

Once recovered, the family found a beach near Savannah to get our sand fix and headed out. We are used to calmer waters than Georgia, apparently, because my son decided to just wade into the shallow water a little, and along came a wave and BAM threw him to the ground, stealing his glasses and taking them out to sea. So we spent the next three and a half hours - nearly the entirety of our day - in a Lens Crafters trying to find a pair of glasses that fit him and get his prescription faxed and waiting for them to be made.

Goodbye Georgia.

Florida will be better, right? 

Well, the hotel... not exactly what the internet said.

Sure... the service was great, the place relatively clean, great breakfast, free wi-fi and parking, and a beautiful pool:


But the "hotel" was really a motel, and the rooms... well, let's just say that calling them a room was a euphemism for "closet." Which, by the way, the room didn't have. No closet, no floor space... just two full size beds, a sink for one, and a bathroom so small one had to stand on the toilet to the door shut behind you.

This was where 5 of us slept.

It was a miracle none of us killed each other. We had to sit on the beds to let someone pass, and to pass you had to crawl over suitcases. Fun times.

But there was still snorkeling, right?


Ahh... Peace.

Usually I spend a good amount of beach time sitting on the sand reading. Especially this year, I needed this time to catch up on reading if I wasn't going to be writing. But there was almost no sand. Just woods and rocks and then, water. And it was hot. Africa hot. Hot with a humidity that beat even Virginia in August. There was no way I was NOT going to spend the entire day in the water.

I get in after I've gotten all three kids geared up in snorkels and fins and as I'm wading in, my youngest swims up and tugs at my swimsuit. She pops her head above water and says, "You're still wearing your pump."

AAARGH!!! I scrambled over the rocks like an idiot, trying to get out of the water. My insulin pump, which keeps me alive, is "dunk proof" but not water proof, and there were some scary moments there were I thought I'd killed it.

But I didn't. Phew.

Then, two days later, we went on a boat trip out to snorkel the third largest reef in the world.


I jumped off the boat. With my pump on.

And I killed it. My $4,000 pump that I need to wear all the time ... was dead.

I swear. You can't make this stuff up.

After getting back on dry land I called the pump manufacturer and they informed me they could have a replacement to my hotel by morning. All I had to do was give myself shots once an hour for the next 18 hours. That was fun. Especially the "during the night" part.

STILL  - They DID get a pump all the way from California to Key West in a matter of 16 hours (earlier than promised) and I was still alive. So yay!!

Friday we woke to head home and my husband's knee blew out. He's now walking like an 89 year old man with bad arthritis, and in a lot of pain. We stopped on the way home in Georgia to break up the trip, went to dinner and my youngest promptly threw up.

DOOM, I tell you. DOOM.

It seems logical that I'd be dying to get home. But right now I am tucked in a beautiful hotel, with more room than my family of 5 can use. There is carpet on the floor and big fluffy duvets on the three beds. My husband is drugged and pain-free for the moment, and asleep, along with my youngest. My two oldest are watching Pirates of the Caribbean and staying up way too late, and I've gotten on the computer for the first time in over a week. I've not thought about the story I'm working on in a week, and I'm hoping the time away has shaken loose the shackles that are keeping me from writing without fear.

We are safe, all five of us, together, having ended our day with a ton of laughing, a week's worth of memories we will never forget, and some great stories.

And really, can you ask more of a vacation than that?



Friday, August 3, 2012

The Light at the End of the Tunnel Might Not Actually Be a Train



Wow! Where did the last month go? I am constantly shocked at how long I go between posts these days. It seems like I put my head into a story and when I look up my kids have grown a foot, the pantry is empty, and I've neglected the blog!

Today I have a story to tell you.

Once upon a time, I was at my first MFA residency. I was crazy-excited. I was high on everything. The people, the classes, the ocean, the workshops. I had in front of me two years to do nothing but read and write -  to read great books and write my novel, with the help and guidance from some brilliant authors.

One of the first nights I met a graduating student. As soon as I found out she was graduating, I got all teary. "Aren't you so sad?" I asked. I couldn't imagine why anyone would not be sobbing uncontrollably at the thought of leaving the program. This was my dream. Even at the start, I knew it could never be long enough.

Her answer: "No. I'm ready."

What???? How could that be? I would NEVER feel that way, I knew. Come my graduation, I would be the one sobbing and feeling as though with the end of the program came the end of the most perfect era of my life ever.

(Seriously. Have you seen my pictures of the wineries? The bonfires? The ocean-view workshop room? Have you read my updates on staying up all night drinking wine and diagramming sentences and discussing the Oxford comma and great literature? If that is not some sort of literary heaven I don't know what is.)

Fast forward to this semester. I now understand.

I realized today, trying to juggle my son's marching band schedule, two girls spewing craft supplies all over a house I was trying to clean for a guest tonight, sitting in a doctor's office hearing that something I worried about is indeed worth worrying about, getting my blood drawn, making appointments for radiology, stopping by one store to by snorkel gear for our trip to Florida and stopping by another to buy a birthday gift, making breakfast, then lunch, then dinner early for my son and the later for my daughters and even later for my husband, and eating my own dinner at nine o'clock on the way to pick up my son across town, all the while trying to figure out how to finish a story due the day after our planned vacation without me spending a week at the beach in my hotel room with a computer... I realized I wished I were a 50s housewife who could spend the day just cleaning and cooking and taking care of the kids.

When did it all become so stressful? I sometimes think life in the MFA must be no different than it was before. I read, I write. That's what I did before. How is this so different?

I know I wasn't this stressed before, though. If I needed to drop writing for a week to just be a mom, I could. Whatever I wanted to write, I could. Without the thought that I was writing something a very specific person with a very specific style would read, and critique. I wrote for myself, and now, to some degree, I am writing to please someone else.

That is the kicker. Trying to please someone else. Everything I write I end up viewing through my advisor's eyes, and then trashing it and starting over. Merging my voice with his advice... it's killing me.

There are people in this program who work full time outside the home. How they do this I have no idea. I'm in awe of them.

I love writing. I do. I love this program. I am so incredibly lucky that I get to do this.

But I am tired.

And every now and then I think, I'd like to be a full-time mom and wife again. Have a clean house, an organized schedule, cook good meals that take more than 10 minutes thought and 20 minutes throwing together. I'd like to give my full attention when someone is talking. I'd like to sit down and do crafts with my kids, teach my youngest how to knit, my oldest girl how to sew. Bake with them. Make bracelets with them. Play games with my son. Heck, I'd like to just keep them in underwear that fits. And maybe not make them go hunting for the clean ones in the dryer. A girl can dream, right?

Our family mantra right now is "In five months!" The kids are looking forward to that day. My husband is looking forward to that day. And honestly, sometimes, even I am looking forward to that day.

But before I get there... six more stories to write and rewrite and rewrite and revise and revise again, and then polish.

I'm sure there will still be sobbing, though. It is, after all, still me we're talking about.

Friday, July 13, 2012

It's Friday: You're Good At Things!!


During workshop last residency, one of my workshop leaders handed out an article about this book. Yesterday, while going through my critiques during my revising I found the article and read it again. And laughed.

I shared it with my friend, who right there on the spot went to Amazon on her ipad and bought it.

Then I thought, "I want this book. Why haven't I bought it? And so right there, I went to Amazon and bought it, too.

Then we had such a great time talking about it, I put it on my facebook page, and three more people almost immediately said they bought it. In the span of three hours, the Amazon ranking of this book went from 500,000 to 28,000.

Social media win!!

So what is this book? It's exactly what Andy Selsberg's title says it is: a checklist of things you are good at.

This is the description:

You may be suffering from unrecognized awesomeness!

* You have the uncanny ability to always notice when someone has gotten a new haircut.
* You can make the last half-ounce of toothpaste last for a month.
* You're a genius at getting stores to let you in even though it's closing time.
* You're a wizard at resisting the urge to eat all the cheese right after grating it.
This book is a celebration of all your secret skills and unheralded abilities. It calls attention to the way you're able to give your kids names that will never appear on key chains at gift shops, and cheers your talent for wrapping presents using very little tape. In your own way, you're a master, and the world should know it. Because let's face it: YOU ARE GOOD AT THINGS!

I love this idea. The idea of looking at what we are good at in life. Not the big things. Not like singing Opera or taking gallery-worthy photos or raising great kids. Simple things. Uncelebrated things. Like walking through a bra section of a store non-chalantly while your ten-year-old son says, "What is THAT thing??"

So this is what I think we should do today, my dear blogging friends. We should think about what we are good at. I'll start.
  • I'm good at staying between the lines when I drive.
  • I'm fantastic at getting my kids a Kleenex before the snot reaches their upper lip.
  • I'm good at not swearing.
  • I'm great at whipping up dinner at 7:00 when at 6:50 I had no idea what we were going to eat.
  • I'm good at leaving laundry in the dryer for a week at a time, and then getting the wrinkles out by tossing in a wet towel and drying another 10 minutes when I need something to wear.
  • I'm good at wasting an hour on facebook.
  • I'm good at writing a first line of a story, then erasing it, then writing another, and erasing that one. I can do this for days.
  • I'm good at ignoring voice mail.
  • I'm good at keeping the fridge fairly mold-free.
  • I'm good at listening to music.
  • I'm great at listening to a kid's CD over and over and over, for months on end, without strangling anyone.
  • I'm good at tucking my kids in.
And You? You dear readers are good at:
  • loading your own dishwasher the right way.
  • honking when drivers in front of you are not driving correctly.
  • noticing the weather.
  • being sarcastic.
  • being friendly to cashiers.
  • filling in the quiet spaces with the voices in your head.
  • drinking out of a glass without spilling much on yourself.
  • finding good books, reading them, and passing them on.
  • wearing headphones.
So that is my list. I'd love if you added your own in the comments. What are YOU good at?
And if you are so inclined to continue the social win experiment, buy this book. Or post it on facebook and twitter. Give it to a friend who needs to be told they are good at things. I don't know the author or have any stake in this, but it's fun. :)

Have a happy weekend!! Go be fabulous!

Monday, July 9, 2012

MFA Monday: I'm Back and My Head Didn't Explode!


My fourth residency is over, and I didn't blog a single day. I don't know why every time I go, I think I'll find the time. Time is something there is not a lot of at residency!

I admit my third residency back in January was a bit rough. I can't explain why, and it wasn't that I didn't learn a lot, or have great time with friends. It hardly rained at all - a miracle for Seaside! We even had a bonfire on the beach! But it was hard. Made me rethink writing, and my abilities, and the decision to shell out money for a degree I might not be very good at.

Last semester, though, I buried my head and worked my tail off. Harder than I've ever worked before on writing. Not just longer hours, although that too, but I worked harder to get it right. To learn and absorb more about writing, to implement it, to craft a story well and then hone it. Characters, setting, pacing, dialogue, abstracts, tension, conflict, revision, word choice, ideas... I tried to take it all on. Not all with success, but I can say I've never grown more, faster. Painful, but worth it.

(If I could draw what my brain felt like in May, it would look like this. Only less blue. And I wouldn't have the mischievous smile on my face.)



BUT: I didn't end my semester feeling great about everything. I produced a lot of less-than-stellar short stories. I made the mistake of working to please my advisor, of secretly harboring hopes that he would send my work back with the MFA equivalent of an A++ and say I'd managed to master it all. This, even as I knew I'd picked him specifically because I didn't want that, because he is tough and demanding, because I wanted to grow more than I wanted my ego massaged. There were a few weeks I felt like giving it all up - that I'd never make it.

But I came out of that hole in time for residency #4, mainly because my friends there ramped up the excitement shortly before we went, and in the end, I'm really just a hopeless optimist.

And this time around, it was amazing again.

I got more out of the classes. I made time to get coffee every morning and sit in the library and write some. I wrote every day. This is the first residency I've ever done that, and I loved it.



(This is the library at Pacific. Isn't it amazing?? I sat by that big window, behind the stained glass, in big comfy chairs with my feet propped up on coffee tables. I wrote 30 - 60 minutes a day here.)

I was sitting in classes three to four hours a day, in workshop an hour and a half, in faculty readings about an hour and a half, and graduate presentations about an hour a day. 

I roomed with some of my favorite writers in the whole world. (Aren't they beautiful? Every time I think about not seeing these people every six months I cry.)


We had a little apartment and stayed up late drinking wine and diagramming sentences and talking about commas and watching My Drunk Kitchen. Only writers could dub this a perfect night.

We did our share of socializing, too. We weren't entirely geekish. We went out to parties in the dorms next door and talked about commas with whole rooms crammed with drinking people. Because, while on the whole there are a lot of near-alcoholic writers, they all STILL care about commas.

We went to wineries...



...where there was a nearly unlimited amount of wine and blackberries.


And other stuff. But who cared about anything except the blackberries? Not me!

We toasted. A lot.


We ate and drank and laughed and talked. A lot.




We listened to Ann Hood read a piece she'd written in honor of her daughter who died, and we all cried. We listened to Craig Lesley read from his memoir Burning Fences and we all laughed so hard we cried.

We left. Our work here was done.


(Wait! Is that a blackberry on the table?? Someone should eat that!)

I went out to eat at a bunch of great places I don't have pictures of. :(

The first day I went to a place called "1500 Subs" and they only had 15 subs. What a rip off!! (Okay - it actually was a good sub sandwich, and I laughed so hard with Katie while eating it, I didn't care how many were on the menu. Also, I got massive blisters walking there in sandals and spent the rest of the night walking the campus barefoot.)

I also ate Tai food (with one of my past advisors), Middle Eastern food (a special going away dinner with my roomies), Pub food (to celebrate/cry over graduation with my graduating friends), and pizza at my favorite joint - Pizza Schmizza - with two of my favorite newer friends.


(Some of my favorite graduates. Don't get me started. I'm crying just thinking that they won't be back.)


(And some of my favorite "sophomores" and Pizza Schmizza fanatics. Stolen from my friend Katie, because her picture was better than mine.)

I had a fantastic workshop group, with the best leaders and best readers, and I walked away feeling like I actually could write - and knowing how to do it better. I wish I'd taken a picture of that group of people. It was my last workshop ever at Pacific, and it was a heck of a way to go out.

There was EPIC karaoke, in which we stayed up WAY WAY WAY too late and sang a lot and had a blast. 

There was, like always, major stress around advisor pairings. There's no guarantee that who you want as an advisor for a semester will be the one you'll get, and while it always feels huge and critical, it's nothing like THE LAST ONE... the advisor you get for thesis seems so important. Well, it IS important. And rumor was that this was the most difficult pairing ever - that a huge amount of students wanted the same few advisors, and we all sweated a little over it.

But in the end, everyone I know got who they wanted, even me.


So those two good-looking and talented men are my workshop leader (Jack) and my thesis semester advisor (Pete) (again). Seriously, I could not have gotten any more fortunate than to work with them.

So after the pairing there was a lit magazine party that went long long long into the night in which everyone celebrated on an outdoor patio lit by candles and scattered with wine and chocolate truffles. It's a rough life.

And after that, everything was downhill until graduation.

Ah, graduation. Where a million tears were shed. Mostly by me.



 
So many of my friends there in cap and gown, on to bigger things in life. Hard to believe next year that will be me!

And what does one do after graduation, you might ask?

Party!




(and get each others' text number to stay in touch!)


And pretend like this is not the last time things will ever be like this.

 

So...

It appears there was much wine, eating, and partying.

There was. But also, a TON of learning. But I can't put everything in one blog post now, can I? :)

For now, I am home, with five months to gather my writing wits and produce enough quality work to bind into a leather-bound-by-monks thesis. I am loving writing again. I am missing my friends like crazy.

And with a little luck, I'll be back on this blog later to tell you more. :)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Residency #4: Here I Come

Less than 19 hours until I leave for my fourth residency.

Fourth. How did that happen?? How have I already completed three entire semesters?

I thought I would get better at this. The first time - ya know - I didn't know anything. And I'd broken my foot and gotten the flu and hosted Christmas for 14 people. So of course I was running like a crazy person (only metaphorically running, not running, literally, because of the foot thing).

I feel like an old geezer, walking around with a cane and my wobbly old voice saying, "I remember when I was just a young whipper snapper getting ready for my first residency, having no idea what to expect and scared and excited and wondering what I'd gotten myself into." (This is much better if you actually hear this in your head with an old, high, wobbly voice.)

And now. Now.

I am STILL frantically trying to figure out what clothes to bring on the day before the flight leaves. I still have nothing in my closet but black. Black! Like I'm some emo artist with goth eye liner. How did this happen?  Oh yeah.. black is slimming. That's why...

I am STILL thinking I can spend ten hours and completely overhaul  my house, finish laundry, pack suitcase and backpack, fill the fridge with food for those left behind, write a list of the kids' schedules and the dog's eating habits, vacuum out the car...

have I forgotten anything?

Probably.

Oh yeah. Homework. I still haven't finished critiquing my worksheets for this residency, which is scandalous because I always finish those WAY early and then have time to go over and over them. And this time I'm hoping somehow I can get them done and printed before I even leave, but that's not looking likely.

And I didn't finish my newest short story. Or the book I was reading.

It will all work out. At least that's what my husband says. I suppose it will. Funny how, two years later, I am still struggling with the same pre-residency issues: letting go. If I end up learning anything in grad school it's this: I cannot do it all.

I'll try to keep this blog somewhat updated with my goings-on there. No promises, of course, but I'll try.

What I'm looking forward to:

  • FRIENDS!!! These are people I only see twice a year, and they are like family to me. I cannot wait to see them, hang out with them, room with them, get coffee in the morning and wine at night with them. There will probably be screaming in the airport. I'm not embarrassed about that.
  • Laughing.  I've never laughed so much in my life as I laugh at residency. Hoping that trend continues.
  • Craft Talks: Cramming my head with an insane amount of knowledge that it will take years to synthesize and incorporate it all. And all the laughing that happens in them, too.
  • Vineyards: There is a night at the winery again. Wine, food, author readings... does a night get any better than that??
  • Karaoke: Okay, if a night could get better than the winery, the karaoke night is it. There are plans under way that may or may not include me singing. It also may or may not be Bohemian Rhapsody. It may or may not be epic. I'm thinking yes.
  • Ten days of not cooking and cleaning. Shallow, I know, but that alone makes it like a vacation.

So blogging buddies, I'm off. See ya on the flip side!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Even Going Backwards Is Sometimes Going Forwards




Patti Nielson posted a great blog post this week about writing - and how her brain feels like it's going to burst trying to incorporate everything she's learning, and learning so much at one time she wonders how she can implement it all. I know the feeling.

Honestly, sometimes I think writing was easier when I didn't know anything. It feels like the more I learn, the harder it is to sit and write because my head is full of all this stuff I need to remember to do, and I can never remember to do it all. At least not at the same time. Or in the same story.

I focus on getting rid of backstory, and my tension goes downhill.

I get tension higher, and my characters fall flat.

I grab hold of my characters, and suddenly there's no real plot.

My advisor last semester is a great swimmer and has coached swim teams before. When I wrote him that I was frustrated that I kept forgetting stuff - that as I mastered one skill I seemed to be dropping all the other skills I'd learned - he wrote this, and I thought it was brilliant enough to pass along to you:

It’s a lot like when I coached swimming.  You’d have these pretty decent swimmers, who’ve been practicing for years, and you’d have to tweak their stroke.  So, suddenly they’re concentrating on the pull of their right arm.  And they’d just fall apart.  Forget to kick, forget they have a arm, hell, forget to breathe.  Then they’d get the right arm thing and the rest would start to come back. 

Totally.

That is where I am so often... concentrating on getting one aspect down, and forgetting the other things I either am still learning or even those I've previously mastered. So suddenly I look like I have no idea at all how to write a story. 

But the more I learn and practice, the more I can incorporate this new learning into something that comes more naturally, and eventually the old skills kick back in.

I've come to have more peace about this process. Maybe because I'm now practicing on short stories, which allows me room to goof up more without completely wrecking an entire book.

But when I feel like I'm losing it - losing any thing that made me a decent writer to begin with - I go back and look at the stories I wrote before - a year ago, three years ago - heck, even six months ago. And am I better? Heck yeah. I almost cringe at my old writing.

So even though I'm stumbling sometimes through this learning process, I have to remind myself that I am still going forward, and when one aspect of my writing starts to slip, it's probably because I'm learning something else. And when I get that one new thing, the other things will come back, and I'll be that much better.

At least, I'm holding out hope it will all come together again.

On the other hand, I also hope I don't stop learning. :)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Jubilee!



I love that word. It's so... jubilant. It's hard to even say it without smiling.

With Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee celebration going on in England, the word has been floating around much more than normal these days. In its simplest form, Jubilee just means a joyful anniversary.

The first time I ever heard the word, though, was on a Michael Card song many, many years ago. And to this day, that Jubilee is the one that sticks in my head. Lately, especially, the true meaning of it is swimming in my head.

I'm no historian or theological expert, but this is what I understand about Jubilee:

When God created the world, he ordained that six days would be for work, and the seventh would be for rest.

When the nation of Israel was formed, God ordained that six years would be for work - sowing and harvesting - and on the seventh, the people and the land would rest. No farming, no working in the fields. He was asking His people to have faith in Him, to trust that He would provide for them. During that time, debts were forgiven. It was a time for everyone to start fresh.

Taking this pattern of sevens, the 49th year would be a sabbath year, but the 50th year would be a Jubilee. Not only would there be still no sowing and harvesting and debts would be forgiven, slaves would be set free, and the land ownership would go back to God.

Radical, eh? I imagine for those who had much, it was hard to let go, and for those who had little, it was a year of great celebration - and maybe a bit of fear. Starting over, even if in a good way, is sometimes hard. Trusting God to provide is not something that comes easily.

Yesterday I finished a book titled The Harbinger. I have mixed feelings about the book itself - the way it's written and the implications of it - but it is definitely thought provoking. In it, the idea is put forth that America is suffering judgement for not following God, and has, in essence, had a "forced" jubilee - the fall of Lehman Brothers and the collapse of the economy.

I think one reason the idea of a Biblical Jubilee has been playing in my head is because taking a "Sabbath," or time off, is something I fight against. It's something Americans in general fight against. This country was built on "work harder." Many businesses operate 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Many people work far more than 40 hours a week.

My graduate program, unlike traditional colleges, runs year round. There is no long summer or winter break. But there are a few weeks between the end of one semester and the beginning of the next, and traditionally in that time I've taken time to let go of reading and writing and just focus on the family and holidays and the things I neglect when I'm buried in school work.

But this spring I've increased my work, and my expectations of myself. Rather than taking time off, I've put more pressure on myself to complete more work. To restructure my novel and rewrite the first half of it, to revise all of the short stories from last semester, to write a new short story, and to get a good jump start on my reading for next semester so I'll have more time to write in the summer. My mind is working on the next story even when I'm not at the computer - on weekends, at the pool, in church, out to dinner with the family.

Write more; sleep less. My motto of last semester continues.

And I'm worn out.

My creativity is dry. My brain is like the Sahara.

You know what fascinates me? As hard as it is to leave the ground fallow for an entire year, it's good for the ground, and in the long run, good for the farmer. It's not just the farmer that needs the time off - it's the ground itself. It needs time for the minerals to be replaced, so it can in turn feed its crops better.

Are our brains like that, too?

I resist this idea with everything in me. The idea of stopping for a time, letting ideas rest - and not just some ideas, but the whole of trying to create - is abhorrent to me. Like I'm being lazy, or not working up to my potential. Or that while I'm "resting," some harder working writer is going to pass me.

I sympathize with the Israelites, who stopped doing their Jubilee and pressed on in an effort to build a stronger, richer nation. I'm sure there was a great part of them - like me - that justified that hard work as something noble and honorable.

In the end, though, it's really a reliance on myself and not trusting that God will provide. That the accumulation of pages and books is not the ultimate goal of my life.

I'd like to say I've conquered this struggle, and I'm officially off writing for the next week, and I'm happy and jubilant. But I'm not. I will probably close this blogging window and open my Word document and keep pushing on. Or maybe I'll walk the dog first, and listen to music instead of plotting. Little steps, right?


Friday, May 25, 2012

Making A Mess of It


Being the mom of three kids, I'm no stranger to messiness. Not just the clothes-on-the-floor or food-on-the-face variety, but in everything. My kids love art projects, and I struggle not to roll my eyes when they dive into the art cabinet and begin pulling out markers and play-dough and construction paper and glue. For me, the mess is the price I pay to let them explore their creativity. For them, the mess is part of their creativity.

A few weeks ago, I was reading an article in The Writer's Chronicle (a publication of AWP - The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) entitled "Where do you get your ideas?" by Alice Mattison. The article was not so much about coming up with ideas as it was how we as fiction writers invent stories - from the first idea all the way through the end of the story. How we create.

I'd love to print the entire article here for you, but here is part that spoke to me, especially where I am right now in this writing journey (which is a journey for everyone who writes, no matter how little or how much you are published):

How do we invent? The answer I want won't be simple; it's not a set of instructions.... There is some process we have in common – not a dignified one that could be given the pretentious name "craft," which suggests a number of things that rarely lead to good writing... but a sloppy, embarrassing process involving fooling around, moving haphazardly from whatever we began with, in the general direction of something else.

Craft is something you can do in public and explain in public, while good writing is more like taking your clothes off when that's not appropriate – something that may even do harm or make our friends and family ashamed of us. And "craft" suggests control, while a good book requires surrendering control, at least at times.

There is so much more to this article, things I may come back to on this blog, but right now I'm sitting on this. I am in the sloppy, embarrassing process of creating.

I'm discovering there is craft – which I am learning in school – that is helping my writing get cleaner and more focused, and there is the process of creating, which is messy and embarrassing and often confusing. I disagree with Mattison's idea that craft rarely leads to good writing. I think it's critical to good writing; it just isn't enough on its own.

I think, maybe more accurately, we should say there are two aspects to writing well: one is craft  and the other is the creative process. If craft is defined as the tools and skills that can be learned, the creative process is the artsy, personal side. It's what we as writers have to muddle through on our own, in our own way, which may actually even differ from story to story. The process is something we have to discover and rediscover.

I don't like messiness. I like things to be clean and neat and orderly. I like there to be answers to problems, a clear path from bad to good with a set of instructions to go along with it. But most of good writing isn't like that. It's a big fat muddy mess sometimes.

Maybe this is no revelation for you, but this has been a big revelation for me in some sense, in that I couldn't understand how I was getting so much better at the craft part, and still feeling like my writing as a whole was floundering. I am currently mired in my own creative process muck.

I'm still trying to find ways to make that process less messy. Jolene Perry recommended the book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to me, and even though it's about screenwriting, I am finding in it terrific tools. But on the whole, I think I'm just going to have to accept that not all of writing is clean-cut. Not everything can be learned from a book or a class or even a brilliant mentor. And that even though some parts of my process are messy right now, doesn't mean other parts aren't making great strides.

Where do you thrive? In the disorderly, creative part of writing, or in the things more systematically and concretely learned?



Monday, May 21, 2012

The Reading List


The semester is over and I lay panting on the floor under a pile of books. The first two semesters I tried to keep up a running review - a once-a-week go-over of my favorites and what they meant to me. But this semester has been more intense, and I've been less online, and here I come to the end with hardly a word said about them.

I'm not sure how many people who read this blog will be interested in these books. It's been a more "literary" semester, one with far more short story collections and less books off the bestselling list. But just in case someone is in need of some titles, here they are:

Short Story Collections:

Refresh, Refresh (Ben Percy)
Night Swimming (Pete Fromm)
Jesus' Son (Denis Johnson)
Ship Fever (Andrea Barrett)
The Pugilist at Rest (Thom Jones)
American Salvage (Bonnie Jo Campbell)
The Fireman's Wife (Richard Bausch)
Where I'm Calling From (Raymond Carver) (ebook)

Novels:

A Soldier of the Great War (Mark Helprin)
Geek Love (Katherine Dunn)
Run (Ann Patchett)
City of Thieves (David Benioff)
The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway)
In the Lake of the Woods (Tim O'Brien)
Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer) (ebook)
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) (ebook)
Animal Farm (George Orwell) (ebook)
The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak) (ebook)

Non-Fiction:


Indian Creek Chronicles (Pete Fromm)
Hooked (Leslie Edgarton)
Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maas)

There's not any in here I would not recommend, although I love some more than others.

The Book Thief, if you haven't read it, is a must. Amazing read. My son and I read it together - he for his school and I for mine, and we both were in awe. It's narrated by death, during World War II, in a small town that borders Dachau. So... yeah. Incredible.

If you don't mind a little experimental writing, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is also well worth your time. Even though it takes place in post-9-11 New York City and the narrator is a boy whose father died in the World Trade Center, it is really a story about a boy trying to find answers when there are none, and instead, finding that he isn't alone. Very touching.

If you like memoir, or books about surviving in the wild, Indian Creek Chronicles is a book I will not soon forget. I burned dinners while reading it. I got grumpy when my family demanded things like clean underwear and food. Pete is my advisor this semester, though, so I have both a face and voice to put with the story, and that might have colored my reading some. I also am a huge fan of survivalist memoir. But the writing in this is truly beautiful.

You can't go wrong with anything by Tim O'Brien, and if you haven't read him, you should. He will spoil you for any other war books. 

I found Maas's book to be very basic and simplistic, but good. I don't think there was anything revolutionary for me in it, and it seemed a little overhyped in the idea that if you follow these rules you can become a best-seller, but it's a good beginner primer for writing novels.

Hooked was a little better, although it leaned too heavily on movies, for my tastes. I underlined a ton in it while reading, but a few months later, I can't remember what it was I thought was enlightening. I guess I should go back and look at that again.

I still don't get short stories. I can enjoy them, the way I enjoy a good poem, but I don't get how they work and how they're put together. The entire list of ones I read this semester were brilliant. There wasn't a one on there I didn't like. Fromm's, again, were probably my favorite because they resonated with me the most, but all of the others were also very well written.

So now I'm onto my next semester books. The tentative list is done and turned into school, but I imagine that might change over the semester as this one did.

I know you all read a wide variety of books, very different than the ones I've been reading, so tell me: what are the best books you've read in the past five months?