Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hobby Vs. Job: Should there be a distinction in fiction writing?

I wrote this post some time ago, after graduating and floundering a bit with what new project to begin. I never finished it and found it when I was culling my posts this week. 

Every so often I find myself at the beginning again. Like life - and especially this writing thing - is a big circle that just keeps spinning. If it weren't so darn frustrating, I'd look at it as a chance to start fresh, be anything I want to be, write whatever I want, make a new name for myself.

I have nothing locking me into adult literary fiction. I could write serial middle grade. I could write young adult. I could try a mystery series or focus on short stories for a while.

The obvious question is, what do I feel passionate about writing?

Except maybe that isn't the obvious question. Maybe the obvious question is what sells?

Ah, the rub for those of us whose inclinations are not towards sparkly vampires and serial killers and other editor-salivating tomes.

Jolene Perry wrote a blog post last week [okay - a long time ago by now!] about writing the book that is calling you. I completely agreed with her - that one should write the book you feel inside is demanding to be written. You should feel passionate about it. That love shows through, right? Makes for an irresistible book?

Well, maybe I agree that that is the best way to enjoy being a writer.

On the other hand, I keep coming back to the same dilemma every time I round the corner of the circle again... Is writing a hobby or a job for me? Does that distinction matter?

Book Riot had an article Tuesday [again, a few months ago!] titled, "Ten Things You Didn't Know About Authors You Had to Read in High School." One of those things? Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women for the money. And it made her miserable. Yes, you read that right. She didn't want to write Little Women and Eight Cousins and all those other books that made her famous and a favorite author to pass from mother to daughter. She wanted to write "lurid pulp stories of revenge, murder, and adultery." Or, as Book Riot so elegantly says, "smut and violence." But she needed money. So she wrote what sold.

And heavens to Betsy, it made her famous and beloved.

And miserable, according to Book Riot, but let's leave that phrase alone for a minute.

(Also, as an aside, let me muse on the idea that if she lived today, she would probably make much more by writing "slut and violence" than chaste family stories...)

If Alcott had written pulpy indulgent stories, we probably wouldn't have those in our libraries. Her name would never have become known worldwide. I would not have grown up with an entire bookshelf devoted to her books that used to by my mom's. 

The fact is, if we are writing to make a living, to put some money in the bank or shoes on the kids (I love when my family plays any game with dice, my husband always shakes the dice and yells really loudly, "BABY NEEDS NEW SHOES!" before throwing them. Just a random thought...)... if we need to make money, we have two choices:

We can write what sells, or we can sell what we write.

That makes it sound simplistic. We really have to do both. But hopefully you get my drift. Because I wrote like three other paragraphs trying to explain what I meant and then erased them all because - seriously - three paragraphs to explain 12 words?? Ugh!

In short, tons of people go to jobs every day that they hate. Tons of people go to jobs that they love and still have to do things they don't like that much. If writing is a hobby, I have a right to want what I'm writing to be fun and come naturally. But if it's a job - if I want to treat it like a real profession - does that mean I need to let go of seeing it as just what I want to do and the heck with the readers and agents and publishers and what they want? Do I need to try to write what sells?

But then, who the heck knows what sells? Not every big seller is a YA book, although the movie industry might have us believe that.And not every sparkly vampire book is a best-seller.

I don't want to be miserable, of course. I wonder sometimes what made Louisa May Alcott decide being miserable but writing and selling was better than not writing but doing something else that made her happy. And I think in the end, if we write what we hate, most of us would end up with pretty crappy books.

For now, I'm plugging away at a novel that I have no idea whether or not will garner any interest. It won't end up a trilogy or some other big money-making creation. I won't end up writing any others like it. It's a Christian, murder, literary fiction book. Where in the world does that even get shelved?? My biggest fear is not that the writing in my book isn't good enough. It's that the story isn't good enough. That the story I want to tell is just not that interesting to enough people to make it marketable... to an agent, a publisher, to a large enough audience of readers. What if I shoved it more readily into a genre? If I went all full-on Christian with it? Or made it more a crime thriller? What if I crammed that book into something I really don't want it to be?

As many times as I've turned that over in my head, I keep coming back to this: I need to finish this book the way it's screaming to be written, the way I write, and sort the career thing out later. In the meantime, I'll keep stacking those more marketable ideas up in the folder. Maybe one day I'll try my hand at one of those.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Girl Who Was Hungry

A little less than two years ago, my sister came to visit. We are both type 1 diabetics, and there's a sort of sad hilarity in our conversations at dinner.

"I'm out of reservoirs for my pump. You have one I can borrow? I need tubing, too. And maybe an insertion set if you can spare one."

"How many carbs do you think are on that plate? I bet I can calculate the carbs on this table faster than you."

"Yay! Food with lots of fat! Fat slows the absorption of carbs! Fat is a diabetic's best friend!"

"This entire side of my abdomen is now over-saturated. I've run out of places to put the needles that will still absorb; I think I'm going to have to start sticking the needles in my feet."

"Your pump is purple! That is so cool!"

"Your pump is blue! I love it!"

"Did you hear about that celebrity that was diagnosed with diabetes and claimed it was type 1 and that she cured herself by not eating sugar? Bahahahaha!!!!"

Yeah. It's pretty hilarious. Sometimes it's like a code no one else at the table gets.

Two years ago, though, she pulled out a new drug to shoot up before dinner. Something called Symlin that her endocrinologist told her every T1D should take now. I'd never heard of it.

"What's it for?"

"It makes me feel full. I never felt full before. I used to just stop eating because I saw other people stop."

That was the oddest thing I'd ever heard. She never felt full? How could you not feel full?

After she left, her words stuck in my head. In the afternoons, I realized I was always famished. Like eat a horse and the saddle with it kind of hungry. I'd eat lunch, and feel like I'd eaten nothing. The entire day from lunch to dinner was a struggle not to shove everything in the house into my mouth. I'd been that way for so long, I thought that was normal. Wasn't that everyone's afternoon? Isn't that what vending machines in office buildings are for?

But now I was thinking about it. And I realized that when I put dinner on my plate, it had nothing to do with how hungry I was, but how much I thought a reasonable portion should be. I didn't get seconds most of the time because I didn't think I should. But I rarely left the table full. I mostly left the table thinking I could eat an entire new plate of dinner if someone placed it in front of me. Or not. But probably I could if it were there.

And slowly I realized... I was hungry all the time. And I realized that maybe wasn't how everyone else felt all the time.

It's easy to think we are always at the pinnacle of science and medicine. Sure, we don't have a cure for many diseases, but gosh look how far we've come! Look how much we know! I thought we knew everything about T1D except how to cure it. In reality, we are still, every day, learning things.

Just a decade ago, the thought was to cure T1 diabetes with pancreatic transplants. If diabetes is caused by the pancreas breaking down and not working, you just replace it, right? When the transplanted pancreases also stopped working, some smart scientist discovered that the pancreas doesn't just break down... it is attacked by a person's own immune system. The immune system, for some unknown yet reason, sees the organ as a foreign object and attacks it. Put in another one, and it'll attack that, too. The problem isn't even the pancreas... the problem, it turns out, is the immune system.

In light of this sudden awareness that I was hungry all the time, I began researching this new drug my sister was taking, and I found out something mind-blowing. A scant few years ago, scientists discovered that the pancreas, contrary to popular belief, actually makes TWO hormones... insulin, and something called amylin. This second hormone, amylin, is the hormone that helps your body use the insulin it produces better and more effectively. It keeps the liver from dumping excess sugar into the bloodstream and helps keep the glucose from the digestive track from building up in the blood. Beyond that, though, it slows the digestion of your food and sends the signal to the brain that you feel full.

Mind. Blown.

When type ones lose their beta cells, they not only lose the ability to produce insulin, they lose the amylin as well, and over time, like a frog in cold water set to boiling, you forget what it feels like to feel full. Food goes in the mouth and through the stomach like water, barely stopping to fill it up. You brain doesn't get the signal that your stomach is full. And all that glucose from the food (not just sugar foods, but everything from milk to vegetables have glucose in them) rushes straight into the bloodstream, where the insulin cannot possible work fast enough to catch up.

This is all so complicated. Much more complicated than it sounds, because everything is connected.

Type 1s don't make insulin, so they have to take it in the form of shots (or through a pump). That insulin, over time, makes many diabetics gain weight. (This is controversial, unfortunately. Science has shown it to be true, just ask the NIH, but insulin manufacturers and many doctors and websites resist this idea.) The more weight you have, the more insulin your body tends to need. The more insulin you take, the more weight you gain. It is a vicious circle that I've found screamingly, cryingly, depressingly true.

Add into this not being able to feel like you've gotten enough to eat.

Over the past five years, despite a five-day-a-week gym membership for two years, despite walking miles a day for the others, despite kettlebells and zumba and small-portioned meals, my weight kept going up.

And here... suddenly here is the key.

A synthetic hormone called symlin that mimics your natural amylin, that will make me feel full, slow the glucose into the bloodstream so that the insulin I take has time to work, makes the insulin work better and blocks the liver from dumping glucose so that I take less insulin, so that I can finally lose weight, so that my blood sugars are more even and low.

It sounded like a miracle.

Do I hear angels singing?

I began hounding my endocrinologist. My endocrinologist was frustratingly resistant to symlin. He didn't think it was effective. He didn't think it worked. He thought it was far too expensive. He told me if I wanted to lose weight, I should walk more. He told me my blood sugar averages were fine, even though they'd gone up above the acceptable range. He disregarded my research. He wouldn't listen to my reasons. He shooed me out the door.

This went on for a year. Finally, last May, I parked myself in the chair and said, "I want Symlin. It is my money, and my body. I want the chance to have what your body makes naturally. I think I should have the chance to at least try it, and see if it works. And I'm not leaving until I get it."

So I got a prescription. And a healthy dose of skepticism.

Three months later I went back. I'd cut my insulin use by a whopping 30%. My blood glucose averages (taken by a test called an HbA1C), which had peaked at 7.5 - a whole point above what is considered decent control - were down to a near-non-diabetic 5.5. I'd dropped 17 pounds. My doctor was speechless.

I feel fantastic for the first time in years. I have energy. I am not falling asleep at 2pm every day in the middle of work or struggling to stay awake while driving. I hardly ever have to correct a high blood sugar reading.

I am not hungry. I didn't even remember what not hungry felt like.

I feel like... like me.

Today is World Diabetes Day. It is Type 1 Diabetes Day. We, as type 1s, are suppose to help others know what it is like living with diabetes.

Yes, it is shots. Yes, it is counting carbohydrates and being careful of what we eat. Yes, it is the danger of heart disease and kidney failure and amputations and blindness, but less and less of that as knowledge increases and medicine catches up. Yes, it is pricking my fingers ten times a day to check my blood sugar. It is all of this.

It can be feeling hungry. All the time. Not because we have no self-control. Not because we crave the foods we shouldn't have. It is because we don't have the hormone you have that tells us we are full. It's because we don't have the hormone that let's our stomachs fill up as we are eating.

I may not be a celebrity who is able to somehow, miraculously, reverse the damage done to the pancreas and make myself not diabetic anymore. But a little science on my side goes a long way to making me feel like I am.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Why NaNo's Not for Me

This is that time of year people lose their sanity and sign up for the monster novel writing rush of the year. Kudos to you! The idea that one could, during holiday season nonetheless, write something like 2,000 words a day - every day, unless you want to heap the extra unwritten words on the next day - frankly astounds me. you, you crazy writers you, you amaze me.

But it will not be me.

Not last year, or the one before that, or the one before that. Not this year, and not any future year, unless I am invaded by the soul of Stephen King or Danielle Steele or some equally prolific writer.

Before anyone else asks me whether or not I'm up for this, here are my reasons why I won't be NaNoing.

1. I write consistently on a normal basis. I think NaNo is a great motivation for people who don't write all the time - who need some external push, something to strive for and a community to write in. It gives a reason to sit the butt in the chair every single day. We all need challenges sometimes. That's why I recently did one with a few of my writing group friends. I need the challenge that comes with accountability to push forward when I am letting my fears keep me from going forward. But mostly, I am a writer. All the time.

2. I write slowly. Honestly, every other reason somewhat hinges on this. Some people are fast writers. Some people can be fast writers for a short time, if they need to be. I can never write fast. Never. If I manage 2,000 words in a day (I think I've done that three or four times in my entire career), it is because I had hours and hours to write. And I pretty much knew what I was going to write. But on average, 1,000 words is a really great day for me. And I've discovered that those days add up if there are enough of them strung together.

3. Stress is not something I need more of. My life is already more stressed than I want it to be. I am going in more directions than I'd like. I like being busy, and I like having purpose, but I don't like when that starts interfering with being the best me and mom I can be. Having an artificial deadline hanging over my head is something my blood pressure doesn't need, especially when the daily goals are already beyond my abilities.

4. I have a job now. I know, I know - probably the majority of people doing NaNo have a job. On top of parenting, I mean. I have been spoiled for the last fifteen years. Raising my kids has been my number one job, and that takes up most of my waking hours. Writing is something I consider a job, but not one I have to answer to anyone about other than me. Now I am adding 20-30 hours of work, and I think I am not as talented as the rest of you who have figured out how to juggle parenting, writing, and a job. I bow to your awesomeness. I don't know how you do it.

5. It is November. Hello? Short month, six weekdays off for my kids and husband, still high school football/marching band season, holiday in which we are hosting not only extended family but also half the British embassy. I'm not sure I'm going to make it even without the NaNo.

6. I would be setting myself up to fail. I am a slow writer, I am busy and stressed. I am a pathetically slow writer. All this is established. The thing is, I can look at this kind of challenge and know that I am defeated before I begin. If I missed one or two days, making those up would become utterly unmakeupable. And there is no way I could not miss one or two days.

7. I am on the eighth or ninth draft of this novel. I do not need a ton of rough pages. I need some really, really good ones. Ones that will be the last I write on this novel outside of very minor edits.

This is not to say I don't enjoy a good challenge. On Sept. 15, Brit challenged me to write 100 pages in 45 days, and I wrapped that up yesterday with 107 new pages for my now well-under-way novel.  It was about half what NaNo would be, with 15 more days to write. But I did it - every day at least a little. And 45 days later, I have some pages I am really proud of.

So I won't be NaNoing this month, but I know what it takes to do that, and I am impressed by those taking that challenge. I can't wait to see what you come up with, how this month challenges and changes you. I hope you get a novel out of it. Or the start of something good anyway. Check in every now and then, when your eyes are blurry and your fingers sore, and let me know how you are doing. :)

Monday, October 21, 2013

To Star or Not to Star... The Goodreads Dilemma

I've read some books I really didn't like lately. Even one I put down. For good. I almost NEVER do that.I'm not sure if I'm becoming more critical or my tastes are changing or I'm just not good at picking out what I think I'll like to begin with.

In the past, I've kept a running list of the books I've read online, mostly at Goodreads, but I'm finding myself conflicted now about how to do this. I am both a reader and a writer, and while I know the value of a good, honest review, I also know how much a writer pours their heart into their books and how subjective opinions are.

I used to give good, honest reviews. Ones I would have liked to have read if I was wondering whether or not to buy a book. I was never harsh or personal about an author, but I didn't flinch from saying a book was definitely not for me because of the way it was written.

Then I was published, and that brings a burden of its own. I don't want to be the writer that is critical of other writers. I hate when authors bash each other, publicly calling each other out as phonies or hacks or undeserved millionaires. Jonathan Franzen and Stephen King have earned poor reputations for publicly denouncing the quality of other writer's books.

(Which made me wonder if semi-famous writers like Ann Patchett or even lesser-famed but well-established and talented writers like Therese Fowler review books in public forums? Certainly they read!)

I also realized how sensitive some writers are about low ratings, and how mean people can be about something that maybe just isn't their own taste.

If I don't like science fiction, but I try one because everyone is raving about it, is it fair to give it only two stars because I think the plot is outlandish? If I have a pet peeve about casual sex in books aimed at thirteen and fourteen year olds, is that fair to hold that against the book?

Harder yet, reading books by people I know. Between the faculty at school that I adore, the great students I studied with that are putting out their own books now, and you great blogging peeps, I am reading more and more books by people that are personal to me. And not all of those books are up my alley.

I've sat more times that I liked to admit staring at the Goodreads screen wondering what to do. Do I just unlist a book I didn't like, so I don't come off looking like a critical nincompoop? Do I just mark it as "read" but give it no rating or review? Do I give stars but no review? Do I lie?

I have done all of these. Not outright lying... I can't do that. But I have fudged. I have said what I loved about a book - all true - but not mentioned that the things I didn't like overshadowed what I did. I have said, "This wasn't for me, but there are things about it I can see others loving." It's both honest, and lying by omission, but right now it seems the best option.

I don't know if I'll come to a resolution I like, but I'm curious about you. Do you review books publicly - on your blog, Amazon, Goodreads, Library Thing, or some other site? And what do you do about books you don't like?

And, as long as you're here, what's the best book you've read lately?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Do the Work. Even if It's Work.

 I now have a few hundred tutoring sessions under my belt, and I can say that I am pleasantly surprised at how much most of the students really want to learn. Where my instinct is to just correct and edit, I am required to actually explain and work through examples with the students, and I thought they might balk about it, but mostly they don't. They really do want to know WHY a comma should go here, but not there.

On the other hand, there are the students who come who don't want to work. Who want me to do the work for them. And not just on editing, but on the actual writing.

I can't tell you how many times I've said, "I can help you generate ideas and clarify your position. I can help you outline and develop a strong thesis statement. But I can't actually write this for you. You have to do that hard work yourself."

And it is hard. I know that. For some people, having ideas are very different than putting those ideas down on paper into words that flow and have meaning and structure. But still, that is their job as a student. Do the work. Even if it's hard.

I've come to a part in revising my novel where I've hit a snag between the old version and the new. The old version is one point of view, the new is two, and trying to shift some of the story into someone else's eyes has gotten tricky.

Yesterday I realized that the chapter I was writing in a new point of view had lost all the magic of the first version by putting it in another character's eyes. All the zing? Gone.

My impulse was to just ditch the idea of alternating chapters and let the girl take this one, even though she had the last chapter, and the chapter after it. Or make on long, long chapter with her. I wasn't looking at that as the easy way out... I just thought it would work better.

But it didn't feel right. It felt like I was reneging on a bargain I'd made myself when I began revisions.  I closed the computer and began to turn it over in my head. How can I keep this chapter in her POV without losing the need for alternating POVs?

If I kept this chapter as it was, I could add another, new chapter, in the boy's POV before it. That's a seemingly easy answer, of course, except there isn't anything that needed to be said between the last chapter and this. Time-wise, they bleed into each other.

I couldn't just throw in something random. It had to mean something. The whole point of the male POV is to offer the reader pieces of the puzzle the girl doesn't have. Something the audience knows that is important, but that she doesn't. A tension thing, really. So this newer chapter would have to have that. And what else could I throw in that wouldn't seem like I was just throwing it in?

I twisted so many things around, my brain hurt. It felt like work, this figuring things out.

But I did. Finally. After hours, I figured out a chapter for him that would throw a huge wrench in the plot - and strengthen a part of the book that was already a bit weak.

Win win!!

Could I have done something easier? Absolutely? Was taking the harder task on of fixing it right worth it? I sure think so right now.

Sometimes, I have to tell my students, "Do the work. Even if it feels like work."

It's good advice for me, as well.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Family That Reading Saved

 (This is a photo from Humans of New York. It melts my heart!)

My teenage son and I were standing outside an audition room earlier this month with another mom and son, waiting for orchestra placement. My boy was talking up a blue streak about what the audition had been like, what they'd asked him to do and how he'd bumbled through some parts and aced the others, and what he'd do if he made it and what he'd do if he didn't, and his words came out like this sentence, in long, unstopped, unpaused thoughts, and the mom looked over at me and said, "Does he always talk this much?"

I had to laugh, because the answer to that is yes. And I have two other kids that do the same. Talking on top of each other sometimes, so that I have to hold my hands up and say, "I know I have two ears but I can only make out one of you at a time!" There is a constant stream of conversation in our house that doesn't even end when I turn out the lights and say, "Goodnight! I'm going downstairs now!" Sometimes they keep talking, even louder, so I have to yell up the stairs, "I'm downstairs. I can't hear you anymore. Go to sleep!"

The mom sighed a bit and looked over at her not-a-word-said-yet son. "I can barely get anything but one word answers from him."

It's a blessing, I know. This conversation overload in our house from two teenagers and a pre-teen is not the usual fare in a lot of homes, and I soak up every minute of it.

There was a period where that wasn't as true. When my son was in fourth grade, something shifted in our relationship. It was no longer cool to be close to your mom, to hang out with her and act like you liked her. He developed more commonalities with my husband, and I could see the guy thing edging me out. While I knew that was normal, was indeed preferable, I didn't want to lose him altogether. So I handed him a Harry Potter book.

Harry Potter is my thing. My husband has kindly gone to the movie with me as they came out, but that was really an act of selfless love. He didn't read the books. He didn't care about the movies. When I gave my son the books, and he devoured them like I did, we had something in common no one else in the family did.

While I made dinner, he sat at the counter and talked about the books with me, excited about the triumphs, sad about the losses, in awe of the magic of it all. By the time the sixth movie came out, he'd finished the series and went to the movies with me in place of my husband. When the last movie came out, he was invited by a friend to go to the midnight opening show, and I heard him say on the phone to his friend, "That sounds awesome, but I want to see the last one with my mom. It's kind of our thing."

We've had lot of other books since. He skipped the YA books altogether and jumped into my old reading list: early Michael Crichton, the entirety of John Grisham, the Left Behind series, Animal Farm. Ender's Game. Fahrenheit 451. With each book, he sat at the counter at dinner and talked to me. When carpooling got quiet, I'd ask about what he was reading, and that would start a flood of conversations.We talk about the stories, but also the issues they bring up. Justice and politics and faith and science.

In middle school, my daughter entered that phase of "I don't really have much to say." I handed her Harry Potter. Then, The Hunger Games. To Kill a Mockingbird. Animal Farm. The Princess Bride. A Wrinkle in Time. And the same phenomenon happened. We talked. All the time. And even now, when she gets quiet and withdrawn into that 13-year-old self-conscious world, all I have to do is talk about a book, and she is back.

Once, in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I sat in a college room full of students from all over Virginia discussing why we read. And one person said something I'll never forget: "We all come from different backgrounds, different schools. We love different things. But we ALL read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade. That is something we all have in common."

There are a lot of reasons why we should read, but this is my favorite. To connect to others.

I worry sometimes that if I take time to just sit and read, I am neglecting more important things that need to be done. The laundry, the dishes, meals, shopping, volunteering at the schools, cleaning. But then I remember how books saved my relationship with my growing kids, and I think, What could be more important than that?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

When Words Are Dangerous

It is banned book week. I'm not sure how widely this is known outside the writing/library circles, but within that community, it is definitely shouted about. Which is why, even as an author, I tend to stay quiet on the issue. It occurs to me that when there is a lot of shouting, there is not a lot of listening.

Lately I've been listening more. And thinking.

This is what I think: we have become a society in which we scream a lot about free-speech and tolerance and acceptance, but in reality, we only want free-speech and tolerance and acceptance for the things for which we agree.

People like to throw the word censorship around because it is a heavily-loaded word. It reeks of Nazi Germany and book burnings and the red-scare McCarthyism that kept so many Americans from speaking what might be controversial. We pride ourselves on freedom; that is what this country was founded on - what our flag stands for - and to say that there is somewhere here a censorship on books seems entirely un-American.

But censorship, really, is just drawing a line in the sand. It is saying there are things that are right - either beneficial or neutral, and things that are detrimental or dangerous. I think nearly everyone draws a line somewhere. The problem is that we don't all draw it in the same place.

The thing is, words are powerful. They can be dangerous. They can offend. They can enlighten. They can rouse a person to do something he never thought of doing before, to say things they might not otherwise have said. People don't like to admit this, but it's true. The power of words is both good and bad. Let's be mature enough to at least admit this. This is why books and authors and poets are banned in other countries - because their words are powerful enough to cause others to rise up against the government, against the status-quo. This is why teens are committing suicide after posts on social media become reality in their heads.

Words matter, and no one should know this more than writers.

I've read two article this week that have been banging around in my head. The first was this one about an author whose YA book Eleanor & Park has received some pushback by parents over the language and content that they called "pornographic" and "sexually explicit." I haven't read the book, so all I know is what the article said.The author of the article says that the real profanity in the book is the B-word and P-word: Bullies and Poverty, that we need to read these themes, even if they are ugly, because they are real.

The other article is this one, written by the author of the American Girl of the Year books in 2005. He wrote, without the language and the "sexually explicit" content, about a family living in what is a well-known, dangerous neighborhood that wants to move to give their daughter a better place to grow up. This author was hounded by journalists and politicians because he shed a light on the more unsavory side of Chicago inner-city.

Both of these articles are well worth reading. And thinking about. And comparing.

In the meantime, I think it's also good advice to stop the screaming just a minute and listen to someone else. Really listen. And think about where they've drawn their line, and why. And maybe, just maybe, if you listen to them, they'll listen to you. And then there might actually be a conversation.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sometimes You Just Need a Marriage Counselor

"We are like a married couple who has been through the gauntlet and need to return to simpler times to fall back in love. That's us with writing. We must fall back in love. We were in love before for a reason....let's find it again." (an email from Brit Lary)

Brit was one of the first writers I ever "met." She was in an online writing group I joined right after I began writing in earnest, and I knew right away she had a gift far above the average level of talent in that group. We eventually broke off and created our own group with a few other fabulous writers we met online, and have been together as both writers and friends through the last six years.

Those six years have brought a lot of changes in our lives. Our writing has ebbed and flowed, other pressing needs have crowded in, personal tragedy and huge life challenges have carved new paths for both of us, but we have remained steady friends. 

And this week, when I was struggling with writing and melancholy and the ever-cliched writer's block, Brit was there to listen. When I wrote to her and said, "I don't know if I can keep doing this... Maybe this has just been a hobby all along," she reminded me that writing is suppose to be a love affair. That I need to stop listening to the voices in my head telling me to do it this way or do it that way, that the market is looking for one thing and publishers are demanding another. Just... fall back in love with writing the way it was when we both started.

I have been considering "stripping" my writing....instead of worrying about what sales, what doesn't, who are less talented and successful ... and just write. Strip the rest away. 

Get our groove back. Don't study statistics, or the latest trends, or the Amazon rankings or NY Bestselling list......just write what you love to write. You, and I, will find ourselves happier...looser.....relaxed.....and that is when the best stuff happens.  

She isn't the first to tell me that. It probably isn't even the first time she's told me that. But it was what I needed to hear at exactly the time I needed to hear it.  

And she is right. I've been "married" to writing for a long time now, and I've lost that loving feeling. I've gotten tangled up in the hows and whys and technicalities of it, and I've forgotten how to just "be" with it.

She offered me a challenge - a 30-day, write-and-read-a-thon for both of us, to find our love with writing again. To write without thinking about how awful or cliched or crappy or hackneyed the writing is. To write without wondering if it will sell or how it will be critiqued. Just to fall back in love with writing.

Both of us writing, reading, keeping each other accountable day after day.

2 pages a day until the end of October (we revised it to a 51-day challenge), 20 minutes of reading a day (the kind that's just for fun), and - as an extra incentive to our mental-health - a bit of exercise thrown in for good measure.


I'm excited, actually. It all feels possible again. Write the words. All of them. Make them better later.

I am so incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by so many great people - friends and readers and fellow writers. I have a gigantic support group if I'd reach out and ask, and I am so grateful for that. Yesterday, it was Brit who was the one who saved me, who brought me from the brink of giving up, who has, as she always has, believed in my writing, believed I should not give up. She is like my writing marriage counselor. :)

You know how Wikipedia defines challenge? A thing that is "imbued with a sense of difficulty and victory."  I love that! 

What are you challenged by these days? And are you seeing how victory is there waiting for you at the end?


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Imagine Amazing

Today, the kids tromp off to school again, freshly sharpened pencils and neatly stacked paper and backpacks that have yet to be scarred and dirtied by the dragging through buses and shoving in lockers. They have new clothes, shorter hair, bright eyes. It's the best thing about the first day... everything is new.

I'm not one of the parents jumping up and down about school. I love so much about summer. I love not getting up at 5:30am. I love not packing lunches. I love lazing around a pool or floating in the ocean or long family car trips. I love late nights and family movies and Wii bowling tournaments. I love not having to harass anyone about homework. I love the lack of stress. Mostly, though, I love having my kids home. I love taking them places we don't have time to go during the school year. Seeing museums and zoos and hiking through the woods with them. I love the way they talk to me about what's on their minds. And talk. And talk. And talk.

I grieve a little when they go back to school and I lose them for almost all of their waking hours.

But I thrive with schedules, too. I loved being up early this morning and having everything done by nine, and getting to sit at my computer to write and tutor. I love being able to tutor for hours at a time, instead of a small chunk here and a smaller chunk there. While I miss my kids and all the busyness they bring to my day, I do like having quiet time to write again. It's been so long since I've worked on my novel!

Maybe the thing that I love about this fall is that everything is not new. For the first time since my oldest started kindergarten, we have the same school schedule as the year before. The kids are involved in all the same activities, mostly on all the same days. Rather than the pains of learning a new routine, we are sliding back into an old one... something comfortable. They have new teachers, of course, and I have new tutoring and editing jobs, but overall, the broader things are like slipping into a favorite sweater.

Last night, as I kissed each kid goodnight, we mused about what possibilities the year would bring. How can they possibly imagine what amazing things might happen in the next ten months, what amazing people might be in their lives?

It's not that different for adults. Who is to say the kids get all the amazing chances and changes? I hope in the next ten months I am finally finished with this novel - finished, polished, off to an agent. I hope I meet new people in the blogosphere to call friends. I hope I get another short story published. I hope God does something huge in my heart. I hope I am important in someone else's life. I hope I make a difference somewhere.

It's true that every day is the start of the rest of your life. It doesn't have to be the beginning of school, or a birthday, or New Years. It can be any day. It can be today.

What amazing thing do you hope will happen this year? I'll bet whatever it is, something more than you can imagine is on its way.

Monday, August 19, 2013

She plans to dream...

When I was a little girl, I used to sneak into our attic and curl up on my sleeping bag under the rafters with a pad of graph paper and draw my future home. In my head I had pictures of it: a stone-front mansion perched on the cliffs of Maine overlooking the Atlantic ocean. The inside would be cavernous, all high-ceilinged and warm-wood.

I drew floorplans, where every room took the shape of a rectangle, where the second of three floors consisted entirely of a library which I envisioned as one of those magical, two-story rooms with mahogany shelves and ladders and spiral iron staircases and a massive fireplace to read in front of and leather couches with white fur blankets slung over them to cuddle up in on cold night.

Looking back, I can see how utterly uncreative I was, that house all boxes and 90 degree angles. But I had my priorities right. And as I grew older, that library grew to be my writing room, a large mahogany desk taking center stage by the windows overlooking the cliffs and outstretched ocean. There would be a typewriter on that desk - one of those old black manual ones with the mother-of-pearl keys - and a banker's lamp, because nothing seemed cooler than a green-hooded lamp.

When I met the wonderful writers that became my first critique group, we talked about flying in from around the globe to meet somewhere, spend a weekend in a writer's heaven. It was a grand dream... grand enough for my Maine house. So that became our running joke - that we would meet there, at the Maine house. We'd write all day, and in the evenings we'd sit around and drink wine and talk about books and writing and all the things the people we saw everyday only vaguely understood. And I knew I'd need to put a porch on that deck for us all the sit out and enjoy the fresh air. So I imagined that porch into my dream.

More than a home, my dream became being with those writers, somewhere away from the traffic and superstores and raging suburbanites. And then I went to residency at Pacific. And I realized it wasn't just a dream. At least, not the house.

Every night, every lunch, every walk across campus I'd revel in the conversations of other writers. Late at night, we'd sit in our dorm living room and talk about oxford commas and diagram sentences and argue the value of certain writers. We talk about our writing, about careers, about dreams and dream crushers. It was a little slice of paradise.

A friend recently posted a poem on facebook called "Plans," by Stuart Dischell. If you want to read it, you can find it here. It begins:

She plans to be a writer one day and live in the City of Paris,
Where she will describe the sun as it rises over Buttes-Chaumont.
"Today the dawn began in small pieces, sharp wedges of light
Broke through the clouds." She plans to write better than this
And is critic enough to know "sharp wedges" sound like cheese.
She plans to live alone in a place that has a terrace
Where she will drink strong coffee at a round white table....

It made me think of my Maine house, and of my dreams, some of which have come true and others of which are still waiting for their day. Maybe I will never own that stone home on the cliff overlooking the ocean. Maybe I will never have a library that looks like something one would find at Cambridge. But it never hurts to dream it could still happen.

And in the meantime, I'll revel in the fact that I have what is most important about that dream: the friends who will gather with me - around a fireplace, a dorm room, or an email chat group - to drink a little wine, debate the merits of grammar rules, discuss books, and commiserate about how awful/awesome it is to be a writer. But mostly, how awesome.

Monday, August 12, 2013

My Kingdom for a Well-Placed Comma!!

(I stole this picture from the Grammarly facebook page. They have hilarious literary posts! They also have a cool website where you can paste in your document and it will check it for spelling, grammar, punctuation, better word choice, repetition, plagiarism, and a ton more. I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because I didn't want it to end up as the punchline of one of their facebook pictures!)

Since I graduated, I've been doing a bit of freelance work on the side, mostly editing other writers' manuscripts, but also tutoring college students with school essays. It's been enormously fun. I think I'm actually a much better editor and tutor than I am a writer, and the vast array of material is fascinating. The college students, especially, don't come with literary pieces. They come mostly with essays from other classes, so I've helped students with papers on streaming digital ciphers, Heidegger's theory, nuclear weapons, genetically engineered foods, and struggles with differences in race and religion. These people are smart people.

But most don't know how to use a comma.

In fact, they often start off the session asking me to help with that. "Can you check my work for punctuation and spelling?" They understand their content. They are medical students and engineering students and theology students, and for the most part they know how to write an intelligent paper. What trips them up are the little things. Things like commas.

It doesn't surprise me. I wrestled with commas in my own writing for a long time, and even now I will pause over one, wondering whether I should put it in or keep it out. When I taught junior high English classes, I struggled with helping kids learn the rules for commas. It seems like comma use is a bit hazier and random than other punctuation.

I think in my own youth I was taught to "put a comma where you'd take a breath." I think that is still taught. Could there be a hazier, useless guideline? Where I take a breath might not be where you'd take a breath, and what about all those people who talk non-stop without taking a breath at all?

Looking to things already published doesn't work either, because no one follows the rules there, either.

When my book was being copy-edited, the editor pointed out that I almost never used a comma between the two independent clauses of a compound sentence. "That's a rule," she wrote. I so doubted her that I spent an hour trying to find one website that said otherwise. I couldn't. Every list of comma rules out there says, in no uncertain terms, that compound sentences require a comma. 

I challenge you to find a published book where that rule is uniformly followed. (Except mine. In mine, it is uniformly followed. Because my editor was sticky that way.) 

There is a rule that you should put a comma after an introductory phrase, but if that introductory phrase isn't too long, you can omit it. There's no rule that states how long is too long.

Appositives are almost always set off by commas, unless the writer determines the appositive is necessary to the understanding. Then the writer can choose to omit it. At least until an editor comes along and says it's necessary.

You should use a comma to set off a sentence that shows contrast (The wind was warm, not cold.), but it's okay to decide to leave out the comma if you use the word but (The wind was warm but chilling.). However, if you want to put a comma before the word but, that's okay, too.

No wonder writers of all ages are anxious about how to use commas. 

In one paper I was editing, I was marking out half the commas and putting in a bunch of others, and my student said, "Boy. I either put in too many, or put in too few, but I never do it right." I told her I'd give her a few websites that had the rules for comma use on them and give her some tips, and she nearly cried with thanks. "That would be so helpful!"

I wish it was as cut and dried and helpful as she wanted it to be. 

One of the top websites on comma rules - an educational one at that - said in several of the rules, "If there is ever any doubt, use the comma, as it is always correct." Then, the very last rule was, "Use Commas with Caution. ...The biggest problem that most students have with commas is their overuse."

I'm banging my head on the keyboard now.

Maybe the best advice is this: know the basic rules. You can find an easy list here and here. When in doubt, though, use a comma when you need it to avoid confusion. Like the example above, no one wants to cut up a bunch of kids. At least we hope not.

(I should disclose that Grammarly contacted me with an offer to "sponsor" this blog post, which I was already writing. Usually I don't take offers like that, but I've been a fan of Grammarly for a long time. They offer a quick check of your text for free, but that only gives you a list of problems found. If you want the full service, it costs (after a free trial membership). Of course, this won't be for everyone, but I think it's very useful for students or people who are self-publishing, or writers that are getting ready to submit something to an agent or publisher and just want to make sure it's clean without paying an editor.)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Snaps for Vacation

 Our vacations haven't been going so smoothly over the past year. Case in point, last year's vacation of DOOM.Anything that can go wrong, has been. While we've managed somehow to stay away from emergency rooms, the vacations have still been a little less than relaxing at times.

We make the best of it. We have a family that laughs a lot, that can find something funny in just about everything, that loves being together, no matter where we are.

But just in case the location was jinxed, we thought we'd go back to where we know we love.

We've had a beach we're crazy about in Florida, but finding a hotel room there lately (there is only one hotel) has been difficult. So, we decided to get almost as close as we could, and try a new hotel a dozen or more miles down the road. Nothing but beach and sand and ocean and relaxation, right? And a hotel that came very, very highly rated despite its reasonable price tag.

 If only reversing a curse were that easy.

Halfway between Virginia and Florida, I realized that, despite my obsessive worry and second-checking, I'd forgotten a key piece of diabetes equipment: the small plastic double-sided needle that gets the insulin into my pump. I had insulin. I had a pump. I had no way to get that insulin into me.

Ensue panic.

I went over all the options I could think of, which involved calling my dad to break into our house and find the needle and ship it to me overnight. Or call my sister, who also has a pump, and ask her to overnight it. Problem here is that it was Sunday, and they wouldn't be able to even get it in the mail until the next day, which would mean Tuesday before it would get here. Which would mean I wouldn't be able to eat until Tuesday.

I thought about calling my doctor (on Monday) and having him fax a prescription to a local pharmacy for a regular syringe, which I thought might be able to work. Then, once in Florida, after hours of panic, I realized that I didn't think you needed a prescription at all for needles - the AIDS crisis bringing needle-sharing health to a crisis point. So we swung by a CVS, and the pharmacist asked me a lot of curious questions, which I think defeated the point of helping out drug addicts who need to not share needles, and I walked away with a 25 cent syringe that worked like a charm.

(This is long, I know. Bear with me. We're getting to the snaps.)

Off to dinner, happy I was. We stopped at a favorite restaurant down here - a quick-stop burger joint. We'd just spent 13 hours in the car with only one stop. We were tired and thirsty and hungry - especially me, since I'd spent ten of the last hours envisioning not eating for three days.

I cannot over-emphasize how poorly run this restaurant was. We waited fifteen minutes before a waiter even came by to get drink orders, then another fifteen before he brought the drinks. We needed refills for another ten before he came back, and it was at least another hour before we got our food, which was burned. It took us two and a half hours to get out of this place that is a semi-fast-food service restaurant. We'd missed the sunset at the beach. We were all grumbly.

In complaining about dinner and the horrid service, I said, "Well, he did always at least get our drinks right. Snaps for getting the drinks right."  And I snapped.

Which no one got.

So then I had to explain the clip from above from the movie Legally Blond (2), and how, when one is tempted to gripe about something, instead one can find something good about it, and then snap. Kind of like mini-applause.

So we snapped for the waiter getting the drinks right.

Then we found our new hotel. I'll tell you right now, I will never look at online reviews and trust them again, even if there are 408 positive reviews of them. This hotel is next to the worst I've ever been in, and that's saying something since our Vacation of DOOM hotel was no picnic.

I won't even go into all the details of the hotel. It is very, very old. Looks like a prison. The pool is miniscule. The rooms are sub-par. The bathroom might as well be an outhouse. You can hear everything through the walls. And they "upgraded" us to a "beach view," which consisted of being on the beach side of the hotel, only the beach is blocked by the nightclub which blares live rock music until 2am. Which, of course, we can hear all too well.

Finally, after talking about just packing up and going somewhere away from the beach, or heading home, my husband said, "At least the rooms are clean. For a beach hotel, there isn't any hardly any sand on the floors."

And we all said, "Snaps to the cleaning lady for no sand on the floors!"

And so began our tradition.

I'd like to say things got miraculously better, but only marginally. What has gotten better is our ability to laugh about it all, and to find the little things worth complimenting.

Waiting another hour and a half for food to arrive in another restaurant and missing another sunset and having the food arrive cold? "Snaps for the pretzel bread, which was unlimited!"

Getting horrifically sunburned despite having SPF50 painted on us liberally? "Snaps for it not raining!"

The list goes on, but for every bad, there is a snap, and that keeps us laughing. We are together, at a beach, where I do not have dishes or laundry and my husband does not have all the politics at work and 4am wake-ups and my son does not have summer school (which we just found out he got an A in! Snaps for the brilliant son who got an A in advanced Spanish over the summer so he could take more science classes during the school year!). We have swum hours and hours in a perfectly clear ocean, rode the waves, watched the fish, had great service at one restaurant that we absolutely didn't take for granted. From the balcony of our room (which is, I promise, much more glamorous sounding than it is, since we share it with three other couples who smoke profusely and it overlooks, as I mentioned, a bar), I can reach out and touch a palm tree laden with coconuts.

And we did finally get to see a sunset. Snaps for a beautiful sky!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What Sucks About Being a Writer

I'm not talking about the hard work of writing. Writing itself has its frustrations and difficulties, like any job, but I'm not talking about the putting of words on a page.

I'm talking about being a writer... being in this business of publishing. If you ask around, I think most writers would say the rejection is about the worst aspect, and I wouldn't disagree that rejection stinks. No one likes to have someone say no to them. But before the no, there has to be the asking, and that is what I hate the most.

The begging.

Let's face it, that's what it is. We beg agents to take a look at a manuscript. Beg literary magazine to deem our work worthy of page space. Beg publishers to offer contracts, beg reviewers to take the time to read and rate our work. We beg fellow bloggers to participate in blog tours, beg fellow authors to blurb us and tout us. We beg fellow writers to read and critique our novels, even when we know how precious their time is and how much time it takes to do that. We beg friends and family to buy our books, to spread the word, to give us stars on Amazon.

Some people have PR to do that work, but there is still begging done on the part of the author, and that reflects on them.

It's as though we are standing in the midst of a swirling storm of talent asking others to find us worthy.

Maybe this sounds melodramatic. Some of you love the marketing aspect of publishing. Some of you are really good at it. I am not. I think it's because I always know there is someone out there with a better plot, with a more poetic way of writing. There are so many great writers, great books out there; who am I to say, "Pick me!"?

A friend of mine has just published a book. I found out that a mutual author friend is feeling a bit badgered by her PR, to read, to blurb, to promote. He doesn't have the time to do that, and he resents the pressure to be her cheerleader when they aren't really great friends, when he doesn't love the book, when he himself is overwhelmed by deadlines. I feel for him. But I feel for her, too. I know how hard it is to get a book out there.
I actually don't mind the rejection (when it's polite, of course, because no one feels good about getting torn apart for what they do!). I don't mind someone saying, "This just isn't for me."  I get that. We don't all have the same taste in reading, and if someone doesn't like the way I write, doesn't like my topics or my characters, I'm okay with that.

It's the asking I hate, the way it makes me look desperate to be loved and accepted, as though having someone say "yes" to my writing is the only thing that validates it.

There's no way to get around this, of course. We write to be read, and we can't be read unless people know it's there to read.

The first obstacle, of course, is to having something for people to read. :)  In that endeavor, off I go to write.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Way It Feels to Walk

That's my smiling mug. Cap and hood and crazy-armed gown. Officially done.

I'm so glad I made it to the official graduating ceremonies. At the end of January, my thesis done, my diploma in the mail, I felt like the program was over. I'd done everything I needed to do. But the last six months have felt a bit aimless, and I think part of me was worried I'd have trouble separating from college life, the way I did when I "graduated" undergrad but never walked across the stage.

But arriving on campus for the last days of residency with the other flood of January grads, and I felt like I was done. There's a sense of completion I needed here, to know I don't belong on that campus anymore, at least as a student.

I also loved the invigorating feeling about being around writers still excited about writing, about that community that is so alive it is like a visceral buzz that resonates through my whole body. I sat through a few craft talks and readings, and I suddenly wanted to write again. Better yet, I was suddenly able to throw off all those voices in my head and just write. Just me. My own voice again. Only better. The voice that is purely me, but all the great things I learned somehow seamlessly incorporated. If I was wandering, I have found my road again.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Life after an MFA

This week I climb on a plane and head to Oregon for the last time. Even though I officially finished in January, my thesis presentation over and my diploma in the mail, the cap-and-gown hooplah isn't until this weekend.  On Saturday, despite having my Masters for over six months, I will finally walk across the stage.

It's a strange place to be in in my life, this place between finishing and graduating. I will walk across the stage and get my hood along with all my other January cohort, but also with those who have spent the last few days giving their presentations, just now finishing. They are excited and on the thesis euphoria, the way I was in what seems like so long ago. I, on the other hand, have long ago come down off that mountain high.

A few months ago a prospective student emailed me, asking about the program at Pacific, about the teaching and the students, and, finally the money question: "What do people from Pacific do when they graduate?"

I told her the truth: Anything they want to do. Everything, really. Some go on to write novels and travel on book tours. Some go on to work on literary magazines. Some actually start their own lit mags. Some publish stories and poems, some go on to get PhDs, and some go back to their jobs as computer programmers and teachers and retail clerks.

I don't know what I thought I would do. Slip back into my pre-school life, I suppose. Go back to writing the way I had been before. Finish the novel. Submit some of the stories from my thesis. Blog more, catch up on publishing news. Just... the same stuff.

Instead, I slid back a decade, to those years before blogging and writing, when life was consumed by being a mother and wondering how we'd make ends meet. I did laundry by the ton, scoured the bathrooms, cleaned the floors, filled the pantry with food, cooked new recipes, went on field trips with my fourth grader, watched TV and made crafts with the kids, took them on hikes through our county parks, explored our woods, took the dog to the river every day to swim. I fill my days with full-time motherhood.

And a few hours a day I pour over employment options. The kind that comes with a paycheck. With student loans looming and the government sequestration and cuts affecting our family, I need an income a little better than the floundering writing world provides.

It is, in equal parts, invigorating and soul-sucking.

I am exhausted by not writing, by the lack of sense of purpose that comes from putting words on a page. It breaks my heart to not be able to write: to stare at the page and wonder if the story in my head will be worthy of the education, will do justice to my advisors, will provide an income. To have those worries and stresses freeze the words before I can put them on the page.  It breaks my heart to worry that time spent writing is time wasted, time I should spend doing something more practical.

I miss most the community. I'm afraid that if I say, "I'm not going to write now. Now I'm going to tutor college students and edit other people's novels," that I am letting down a host of people who believed I could write. I worry what I will do with this blog. I worry about how I will tell everyone who knows me as a writer, who views me through that lens that says, "She is part of my writing circle." If I have spent not just the past two years but the past seven years of my life identifying as a writer, will people know I am still the same person if I don't focus on writing now?

A friend was joking with me about the coming graduation speech. "I hope," she said, "they do not go on and on again about how important and in demand a degree in humanities is. I hate the way they always say CEOs have realized people with good communications skills are more valuable than any other degree." She's right. Maybe companies with good paying jobs do want someone who can communicate well, but they still want that business degree, or math, or engineering, or graphic design, or heck, even a degree in library sciences. I have yet to see a job description pleading for someone who can pen a novel.

One of my advisors warned about the post-MFA funk. I laughed at him. I said, "Why would there be a funk? I still am reading and writing. I am still in constant contact with my friends from Pacific. I still get to email you. All I'm missing now is the stress of deadlines."

But it's not the same. And he knew that. And while maybe not everyone goes through this, not everyone who graduates finds themselves adrift in a sea of indecision and lostness, I, despite my best intentions, find myself lost and without direction.

And somehow, this is okay.

I am redefining my life, and that's always okay. I will always be a writer, but that itself isn't what defines me. I am a mom. A wife. A child of God. This is what more defines me than anything else. Where writing fits in is maybe still left to be seen.

And while some might wonder if a writing degree then was worth the money, I still say yes. A resounding, reverberating, screaming yes. Because this two years was more than just writing. It fundamentally changed who I am, who I know I can be. It gave me experiences and friendships I could never have otherwise had. These things are priceless. 

So this week I will graduate. I will fly to Oregon, I will hug my friends. I will don the cap and gown, walk across the stage in heels I bought eight months ago just for this event. I will bend at the knees so they can put the hood over my head. I will get pictures of me in the trappings of graduation. I will toast with champagne. I will know that I most certainly will write in the future, but maybe not in the ways I thought I would. Or maybe in the ways I hoped. I will know that who I am is much more important than what I do, and this two years has helped make me who I am.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Something Hard and Glorious"

I stumbled upon this article by Andre Dumas and thought it worth passing on to all my writing peeps.

This road is hard. It is wonderful, and we are so lucky to do it, but it is often hard. This putting of words and our hearts on a page, of creating life from nothing, stories to tell and plots to weave and then sending it out to a world already oversaturated with stories and ambitious writers, and hoping and praying and crossing fingers that someone will read what we have written and love it, and often being faced, instead, with discouragement and rejection.

Dumas reminds us not to focus on the publication as a measure of achievement. The achievement is the writing, the finishing. Anyone who has ever typed "the end" onto a manuscript knows this is true, but oh! how often we forget!!

"A first book is a treasure, and all these truths and quasi-truths I have written about publishing are finally ephemeral. An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them which becomes a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer's own blood, and with the occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes or longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk; and when a writer does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and, more dangerously, despair, convinced that the work was not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer's soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement; and if, in public, it is the widow's mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed."

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Muse is Not My Mascot

I saw this on Pinterest the other day. Putting aside that the nerves in my teeth tingle at the lack of apostrophes, it made me stop and think for a few minutes.

I read this on the internet all the time. That inspiration and passion for writing a story is more important than anything else.

Let's define "Inspired," shall we?   
       Verb : aroused, animated, or imbued with the spirit to do something, by or as if by supernatural or divine influence

You know what I hate about this? That the need for inspiration as a writer (or as any artist) is really out of our hands. We can only do it so long as the muse is whispering in our ear. When the muse stops, so does the ability to create anything worthwhile. 

I will also add, although this isn't in the definition, that there seems to be an understood element of ease in being inspired. Like the muse is speaking the story and all you have to do is keep up with it.

There are certainly writers who can sit down with a story burning their brains and pound it out in a few weeks. It seems like some people are only hindered by how fast their fingers can fly on the keyboard. I hear this, anyway.

Which makes me wonder what is wrong with me. Writing sometimes feels less like inspiration than constipation. Yes, I just said that. Because isn't that true? It's not that there isn't a story inside me. I have a dozen of them. I can sit at the keyboard and know EXACTLY where the story is going, what the character is going to do. And yet... I just can't get it out. It's like I have some writing dysplasia.

And sometimes I have NO IDEA where a story is going. I'll finish one chapter and think, "Now how the heck am I going to write myself out of that corner?"

If I ever finish this novel, it's not going to have anything to do with inspiration. It's going to be plain, hard, hair-pulling, scream-inducing effort that gets me there.

Which is why, when I found this quote almost immediately after, I had to chuckle.

I wonder why artists - writers and song writers and painters, etc - have this requirement or inspiration thrust upon them. An accountant doesn't have to be "inspired" to fill out tax forms that maximize a person's return. A lawyer doesn't have to be "inspired" to come up with a legal strategy that either convicts or exonerates a defendant. A construction crew doesn't have to be "inspired" to fill a pot hole or build a house. A gardener does not have to be "inspired" to layout a beautiful landscape. An ad agency does not have to be "inspired" to come up with a great marketing ploy. A designer doesn't have to be "inspired" to decorate a room. What they do need is a lot of knowledge and an ability to mold that knowledge into the situation at hand. And work.

Just once, I'd like someone to say hard work, just a lot of hard work, is all it takes.

And for the sake of the keyboard, I'll leave the glitter for the tooth fairy.

Friday, April 12, 2013

It's Friday; It's a Good Thing!

I used to do this thing every Friday where I listed things I was grateful for, or "good things" in my life. I loved doing that. Then I went back to school and couldn't think of anything.

Just kidding.

I just stopped writing on the blog almost entirely, so the Friday posts just sort of died off.

But now they're back. Because what is a more awesome way to end a week and begin a weekend than remembering the good things in life?

So here it goes.

1. Sun and warm weather. This stinkin' March has been SO COLD!! Below freezing, snow on ground over spring break kind of cold. And frankly I've grown a bit weary of it. So this week, when the sun came out and suddenly it was warm enough to walk around in short sleeves and I could feel my fingertips again and type without bundling up under a comfortable, I felt the angels singing.

2. Longs walks in our woods. We are so blessed to live on five acres of woods that back up to more woods. This week, the weather was nice enough to take the dog on a few very long walks through those woods. The best part for him was no leash - just running like a maddog - and a river at the end that he could swim in until he had a heart attack. Bliss.

3. Benadryl. The leaves are coming out. The allergies are in full roar mode. I've taken about every allergy medicine on the market and the only thing that works is Benadryl. Okay, so it leaves me feeling like I've just stepped off a Twirl-And-Whirl, and like I must sleep or I might DIE... but my nose clears up and my eyes stop itching, and sometimes, I am just so grateful for that.

4. Cherry Blossoms. I love going into DC to take pictures every year, but the pictures can't even begin to show how ethereal and magical it feels to be under their canopy. They are like truffula trees mixed with cotton candy mixed with pink air. They are so fragile. They last only a few days, and a mild wind and showers can blow them all away.The best part - everyone in DC to see the blossoms is under their spell. Everyone is kind. Everyone is polite. Everyone is happy. It's very weird. But in a really, really good way.

5. Possibilities. I have several short stories out to lit mags. I have several applications out to jobs. I have a house-builder who is creating workable plans to expand the living space over our garage so our three kids don't have to share a bathroom and my husband and I can have a closet bigger than a telephone booth. None of this may work out. But for now, they are all possible. I love that.

6. Coffee. Cliche, I know. But I'm just so darn thankful for it. Without it I would not be the charmer I am at 6 am.

7. My son's science teacher. Who is the source of much education and entertainment at our dinner table conversations. And also, the source of many "EWWWWW!"s. And some great YouTube animal videos.

8. My Nook HD. I can now read in bed without the light on. Which allows my husband to sleep. And me to keep reading. Which keeps me up too late. Which makes me need lots of coffee in the morning. Which brings me back around to #6. Don't you like things that are circularly good??

9. Uniball Signo Pens, micro fine tipped. Sometimes I make lists just so I can use one.

10. Doctor Who. My kids and I discovered this series a few months ago on Netflix, and are now cramming them in anywhere we can get them. We are somewhere in season four, I think, and we are all obsessed about different aspects of it. I look forward to the next episode like I look forward to coffee in the morning. More even. If there's anything more fun that loving something, it's your kids loving it along with you.

So I leave off this weekend with this video, which is from I don't know where. Looks like some kind of British Saturday Night Live skit. They are people from Doctor Who in it, but you don't have to even watch Doctor Who to think it's funny.

Have a great Friday, and if you're feeling inspired, share what you are thankful for in the comments!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Changing the World (a comma at a time)

You know what comes after grad school? Grad school loans.

You know what doesn't pay off grad school loans? Writing.

This is true. I didn't graduate with my finished novel, like I'd planned, and while I am so, so happy with the choice I made to work on short stories, it means my loans are going to come due before my book is ready to go out into the world. And now, it's time to put that MFA to work somewhere.

I've been looking at tutoring jobs online. It's a flexible job that allows me to be home for my kids, to choose hours around my own schedule, that allows me the time to still write (unlike teaching, which has all those planning and grading hours not factored in). It doesn't pay great, but it works perfectly for what I need right now.

So this weekend I set out to apply to a few places, and one of them had subject tests as the first part of the application process. I get it. They want to make sure I can actually teach the subject - especially on the fly when a kid, who is paying by the hour, logs in and needs an answer right away.

Then I started thinking about that. Kids, in middle and high school, possibly college, logging in and asking me about stuff I don't know. It's been a decade and a half since I taught middle school, and even then I was sometimes only a step ahead of the kids in the curriculum. If they ask about literature, what if I haven't read the book? No one can possibly read all the books that all the schools in the country are teaching. What if there's some part of speech I've never heard of? What if they need help writing an essay and I don't really know how to write an essay? What if I've been just winging it all these years on a little bit of talent and a lot of gracious teachers?

I had myself so worried I couldn't pass that I avoided that website for a few days before finally taking a deep breath and sitting down to do it.

You can only fail once. I figured if I failed, at least I'd know what the test was like, I could study and retake it.

I chose to start with the middle and high school English. The website said the time limit on the test was one hour. The put a ticking clock in the corner of the screen. You could miss two questions. Go.

I took a breath, looked at the test.... and realized I knew it all. It was grammar, punctuation, diagramming, literary devices... all the things I love. I mean, as I went through the test, I was madly in love with it all. I felt warm fuzzies when it asked me to tell where parts of a sentence would fall on a sentence diagram. When it asked me to finish the analogies, I almost hugged the computer. The questions where you had to identify which sentence was punctuated correctly (and there were semi-colons!!) I nearly did a jig. I love this stuff.

I finished the entire test in about ten minutes. I went back over it to make sure I hadn't been tricked, and submitted it.


I decided to take the essay writing test.


I decided to take the college level writing tutor test. It was billed as a two hour test. Thanks to my recent experience with essay writing and MLA bibliographies and works citing... 20 minutes later - CHA-CHING. Another 100%.

And I realized how much I really love this stuff. This grammar and punctuation and writing organization. Not just because I understand it, but because I really, truly think this stuff is important. I really do think knowing how to write clearly and cleanly makes a difference. That a person that can use words and language well - not just to tell stories but to do anything - has the power to change the world.

Think about the great speeches in history that have swayed public opinion, caused people to rise up and revolt or rise up and come together. Think about the legal contracts and laws that govern your lives. Think about advertising and news, well-written ads and articles that have changed your mind or convinced you of something or opened your eyes to something you didn't know. Think about the poets and journalists and memoirists who have changed the way we see the world - have often changed the course of the world - because of the way they have written.

It was, for the first time in a long time, a realization that I do think what I do is important. That I'm passionate about it because it matters. It doesn't matter to the world in financial terms. Heaven knows even the tutoring websites are clamoring for (and pay more for) physics and calculus and accounting teachers, not English. But it matters equally as much in the scheme of humanity and politics and faith. Maybe more.

This is silly, I know. This whole post. This realization. Most of you probably already feel this way. But I live in a world - the outside DC, triple-income-family world - where people make a lot of money. They buy expensive houses and eat at expensive restaurants and take extravagant vacations. What I do will barely pay the student loans and put away money for my kids' colleges. Doing things like part-time tutoring and struggling with a novel are not real jobs.

I live in a place where there is a lot of pressure to be successful in a way that loving language will never make me. I've felt "less than" for this for a long time. I've felt weird for being passionate about things like proper punctuation and good grammar. It's something  people can laugh at, post memes about on facebook for you, but really is seen as mostly quirky.

But it's not, I've decided. It's more than a quirk. It's the way the world is changed, for the better or the worse. And isn't that something worth being passionate about?