Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Something is Better than Nothing

This saying has been floating around Pinterest a lot lately, and every time I see it, I stop and think how true it is. And how I am often the one on the couch I need to lap.

Since the surgery, I've been necessarily couch-bound, and I'm so out of shape and tired of being that way. Honestly, with the last two-year-pressure-cooker of school, I've been out of a consistent work-out routine for a while. And I can feel it.

So the doctor okayed me to start walking. Nothing strenuous, but just walking.

I had no idea it would be so exhausting to just walk. And I am a walker. I am a fast walker - all the time. I probably walk faster than most people I know. And when I went to the mall last week to pick something up, people were passing me. PASSING ME!! I don't remember that ever happening!!

So now I am bound and determined to get back in shape, even if it is just a little at a time. Which it has to be.

There's no Biggest Loser 10-hour workout marathon for me. I can walk. A little. First up and down stairs, and then the mall. Now I'm walking outside. Each day a little farther than the last, with no expectations other than to make it. One step at a time.

Today I walked 2.6 miles up and down our very hilly neighborhood. I am equally thrilled with this progress as I am frustrated with how hard I breathe and how slowly I go. But I am doing it, and I keep reminding myself this. I am lapping the person I was on the couch last week.

It's true about writing, too. My writing muscles got weak over the last two months, and while I'd love to jump back into writing 1500 words or more a day, diving into a novel full force, I'm finding myself a bit winded with the process. But I'm letting that be okay.

I'm writing some flash fiction, which I've never done and which I'm finding fun, and satisfying. I've started a novel I'm pecking at slowly, trying to get it right rather than charging ahead into a messy vomiting of words.

Some days I get hardly anything written. But I write something. Every day. Because something, I remind myself, is better than nothing.

Some people will say this is setting my standards too low, but I'm not one of them. I know I will get back to that place - both in exercise and in writing - when I'll be charging ahead full steam. But if I expect that now, I'm just setting myself to fail.

And I want to tell you, whatever you are challenged with in life - you don't have to do it all right now. Do something. Anything. Even if it's just a little bit. Because a little is more than something, and life isn't a race against that guy running down the beach in the picture at the top of this post. You aren't racing him, or anyone else. You are besting yourself, the person who isn't doing what you think you should be, or doing enough. Doing something, anything more than what you are doing, is better than nothing.

Just a step. And then another. You're really your own competition.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Stealing Words

(Edna St. Vincent Millay)

The more I write, the more I'm convinced novels are the easiest form to master. Sure, they take a lot of time, but all that space! All those pages to wander and figure things out! There's a lot of forgiveness in 300 plus pages. You can get some of it wrong or sloppy or ugly and readers will forgive it if the majority is still pretty good.

Short stories - those are harder. It requires a lot more focus and precision. Flash even more so.

But poetry?  Every single word counts. Counts twice, I'd say. We all probably have written poetry since elementary school. "Roses are red, violets are blue..." Something like that. And every angsty teen thinks they can write poetry. But I'm not sure writing as therapy counts as great poetry. Great poetry... is hard. It is a sock to the gut.

In school we joke that us prose writers have to steal lines from poetry for our titles, because poets can say something in just a few words in a way that evokes emotion and interest. Our titles, on the other hand, are prosaic and flat and feel like a brick on your head.

I've been reading more poetry lately, in an effort to write better prose. I like it all - the old stuff, the new stuff, the traditional metered rhyme and the modern avant garde. I love lyrics. If you're a writer, it's good to slow a minute and really sink into some evocative imagery and emotion, some powerful use of rhythms and repetition. If you're not a writer, it's still good.

Today is Edna St. Vincent Millay's birthday, one of my favorite poets. I can never stumble on her writing without feeling like her words trip something in me. A great writer - both poet and prose - can make you see yourself in their words, can sometimes take your breath away with how close they hit to your heart, and Millay does that for me.

So in honor of her birthday, here some of her words I love the most. I hope you see something in them that touches you, too.

“Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide!

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,--so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, 'There is no memory of him here!'
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!”


“My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.”


“There is no shelter in you anywhere.”


“And what are you that, missing you,
I should be kept awake
As many nights as there are days
With weeping for your sake?

And what are you that, missing you,
As many days as crawl
I should be listening to the wind
And looking at the wall?

I know a man that’s a braver man
And twenty men as kind,
And what are you, that you should be
The one man in my mind?"


“The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by."


“When you are corn and roses and at rest
I shall endure, a dense and sanguine ghost
To haunt the scene where I was happiest
To bend above the thing I loved the most”


“And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.”

(are not those lines crying to be titles of a book???)


“Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand.
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!”


"What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight..."

(also, it's not all poetry. Here's a few of my favorite gems of hers.)

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.”

“You are loved. If so, what else matters?” 

“I love humanity but I hate people.”

“I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”

“A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Recuperating - Book Style

I had surgery two weeks ago. Nothing major and I'm just fine, but my orders were to spend a good amount of time on the couch recuping. I laughed, because, as a writer, that's pretty much what I do all day anyway. Me and my laptop, recuping for the last five years. :)

I had great expectations for these weeks. Mandatory time on my bum, no laundry, no cooking, no running errands or carpooling kids. It was like a prescription for productivity! I was going to come home and write up a storm.

Only it hasn't worked out that way. At first, I blamed it on the anesthesia and pain meds still floating around. Foggy brain. The first few days I slept, and then graduated into reading, and then, as my head cleared, opened the computer.


Still foggy.

So I blogged a little. And read. And when my brain cleared all up and I stopped being tired all the time and my fingers were ready for typing... I still couldn't write. There's stuff in my brain, but it's like a jumbled mess of puzzle pieces. Too much work to put together.

So I read some more.

I've read a lot.

And I've decided I'm not really recuping from surgery. I'm recuping from school.

Some people call it a post-MFA funk. But I don't feel funk-ish. I'm not depressed about school being over (well, not too much). I'm not fearful I'll never write anything again. I'm not totally sapped of inspiration or ideas or motivation. My brain just needs a bit of recuperating... of filling up what was depleted through the intensity of the past two years.

I've been mostly reading books that didn't fit on my reading list - reading whatever strikes my interest. I read A Stolen Life, about the Jaycee Duggard's kidnapping and life in captivity. I followed that with Escape, the also true story about Carolyn Jessop's time in the FDLS and an abusive polygamist marriage and her escape. Cheery stuff, no? 

I kept in my non-fiction trend and read Devil in the White City, which is a book I bought my first residency at the urging of a friend and never found a place to put it on my reading list. So glad I finally got to it! Fascinating story. I've talked so much about it my family feels like they've read it, too.

As a Penn Stater, I've been eager to read the new biography of Paterno that came out right before my thesis was due, and I spent the later part of last week reading that. I don't know what I was expecting about that book, but I was surprised by it. It may be about a football coach, but I took away a lot of lessons about self-motivation and focusing on what is really important in life and career. I actually read this book with a highlighter in my hand. If I were still in college, I would have written these quotes out and hung them above my bed with my other motivational sayings.

I just finished Thirteen Reason's Why, my first fiction since I got home. I'm thinking maybe I'm just too old now for YA books. I want to like them, but I just don't get why people flock to this book and give it such high ratings. I get that it tackles the popular and sensitive topic of suicide, and to an extent bullying (if that's not too general a term for what the main character goes through), but I think there must be much, much better books out there on this. It's a unique and grabby hook, I'll grant you that: suicidal girl leaves behind tapes naming the people who pushed her over the edge, and what they did that caused her to kill herself. But I didn't like the execution of it, and it was painful to finish. I so wanted it to be better.

I'm now reading Gone Girl. I hear it's fantastic. Or totally awful. Depending on who you are. I've been told I have to get to the last chapters to decide for myself. I kinda hate that... that a book can be great until the end, and then have an end totally blow it for you.

I'm also reading Tenth of December, a new book of short stories by George Saunders, in hopes that my brain mush will regenerate into something more akin to a writer's. I'm thinking it's about time to just force myself to write, even badly, just to get in the habit again.

And no, self, blogging doesn't count anymore. :)

What are you reading?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

An Every Day Kind of Love

All through high school and college I wore black on Valentine's Day. True story.

When I got engaged to the love of my life, I begrudgingly added tiny black heart earrings to my holiday wardrobe. After the wedding, I bought little red heart earrings, mostly because my husband was so outwardly enthusiastic about expressing his love and I didn't want to look scroogish about my own love.

Then I had kids. And Valentine's Day became a blur of red and pinks, of heart-shaped pancakes in the morning and chocolate hearts painted on the inside of their milk glasses and pink-frosted sugar cookies and cupcakes and lots of kisses and "I love you"s.

I suppose we could psycho-analyze why I almost never said "I love you" before I met my husband, why I wore black on the day of expressing that love, but really, who has the time or stomach for that? The thing is, I grew up in a great family, had good friends, an occasional boyfriend. I wasn't love deprived. I wasn't stingy showing love. I just didn't say it.

But now... I'm realizing there are all sorts of love, and lots of people to say it to without having it involve romance. It started with my kids, showering them with hugs and words, but now... well, the more you love, the more you love. It kinda grows and sneaks up on you and all of a sudden I've become overwhelmed with how many people I truly, deeply love.

I love my husband, madly, passionately, can't-breathe-without-you kind of love. I love my kids in the how-could-I-believe-I-ever-lived-before-you kind of way.

I love my Pacific friends, who are all amazing in unique and wonderful ways, who have laughed and cried and stressed and listened and complained and rejoiced and walked on the beach and drunk coffee at Maggies in the morning and wine at night with me. I love my advisors, who invested so much of their time and selves into me and my work. I love the directors of the MFA program, who are never without a smile, an answer, an encouraging word.

 I love my friends here who spend hours with me over coffee or lunch, spilling their tears, trusting me with their deepest heart's cry, filling my day with stories that make me laugh hours later, letting me be a part of their lives in that same way. I love the bloggers I've met online but never met in person, who comment and email and sometimes even call, who have become personal to me despite the most impersonal way of meeting.

I love the people in my small group at church, who open their lives and hearts and love Jesus and pray with me and for me.

I used to think saying I loved lots of people - in all these different ways - diluted love, watered down what it meant - but I've come to see it only makes it more powerful.

I was beyond fortunate to get to read a manuscript this winter of a book coming out in 2014. It is, in essence - a love story. It is the story of a man and woman who meet, fall in love, think they will have the perfect life together, and then life around them falls apart. But their love remains.

It isn't a romance. It's just... their life. But there were places I was so overwhelmed by the power of love in it that I found myself unable to breathe, my chest tight, my heart pounding, feeling as though if I read one more word I would explode into a million pieces. I had to put it down a few times, get up and walk around, find my breath again. But I could never stay away for long.

Life should be like that. Overwhelming, breath-taking, unable to contain kind of love. I think sometimes the only reason it isn't is because we don't let it.

And don't think for a second that this black-clad pessimist isn't the most surprised by this realization.

Happy day today - not just because it's Valentines, but because you are loved, every day.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Finding Your Place

 (My daughter in her younger days)

My daughter is currently struggling through her pre-teen years. While my son seemed to sail, untouched, through middle school, my daughter is like the poster-child for stereotypical made-for-movie 7th grade. There are cliques and popular kids and snotty kids and bullies. There's name-calling and gossip and enough meanness to make the bus ride your proverbial hell.

She craves belonging. She wants the right clothes, the pretty hair, the perfect skin, the athletic ability and smooth social skills that make it seem so easy for everyone else. I can't tell if she wants to stand out in a good way or just blend in, but what she doesn't want is to be a target. She doesn't want to be different. There are times in life when uniqueness is prized, but not in middle school. Not among her classmates, anyway.

She can't believe that I understand this, that I, too, struggle with this same thing. Since finishing up school, I've begun looking for a home for some of my stronger short stories. Lit magazines are something I've never really explored before. Until the last two years I probably had never even cracked one open.

But now I am reading, both the fiction in them and the guidelines for submission. Nearly every one says, "Get a feel for what we publish before sending in something. Make sure your work fits in. We strongly suggest you read a few back issues of our magazine before submitting."

I get it. You don't want to send a horror story to a family-oriented parenting magazine. But lit mags... I mean, mostly they just publish run-of-the-mill literary short stories.

What does it mean to fit in? Do I have to stop writing like me, in my own voice and style, and start conforming to the masses? Okay, I've read a bunch of stories now and what I can tell is that none of them - across the board - are like mine. I find them snoozy, mostly. Lots of narrative, little action, little dialogue. There are a few truly unique ones out there, but not just a little unique - I mean radically experimental.

But none like mine.

And shouldn't that be good? Shouldn't it be the way agents for novels are crying out for unique voices, for something that sounds different?

So why isn't it?

I don't have the answers, anymore than I can answer my daughter why it isn't okay in her school to be unique.

What I tell her, every day, is to be true to herself. Not to be what others want her to be, but to be who she is, wholly and entirely.

It's good advice for life. I hope it's good for writing, too.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Club Skypes and Other Humbling Things

Years ago, when I was writing Some Kind of Normal, I dreamed of what it would be like to be a published author. To say the least, those dreams were unrealistic. Hitting bestseller lists, traveling on book tours, seeing my book on every bookstore shelf - maybe even in the hands of a stranger in an airport. Being the book of the month for some big book club.

I knew they weren't realistic dreams, but they were fun, and sometimes, in the grueling, lonely long hours of writing when nothing on the page seems to come out right and in those long months of rejections by agents, dreams are what you need to keep you going.

Life as a published author hasn't been quite the way I hoped - at least not continually - but it's certainly had its moments. I hit a bestseller list on Amazon for a few weeks. That was a buzz! I signed books in Barnes and Nobles. I saw my novel on a shelf recently in a bookstore a few miles from my home. I've had strangers approach me in public places or email me to say they've read it and loved it. I've had book clubs choose to read it.

And this past month, I was asked to join a book club in Canada via Skype. I can't even begin to say how cool that was.

So last night blogging friend Lynn Simpson Skyped me from her group in Alberta, Canada, and we chatted.

I'd like to say I felt like a rock star, but really, I felt like myself - a bit overly-talkative, embarrassed, and completely inadequate to be a part of their night.

They asked great questions, seemed like a great group of people... I wished I was there with them, talking to some other author via Skype.

I'll make a confession - it's been three years since my book was published, and just that long since I've read it. The editing and proofing process made me sick enough of my writing at the time that I haven't had the heart to go back and read it again. And I realized, as I was getting ready to chat with the book club, that I had forgotten some of the minor character names and minor plots. So I took out the book and read it.

And cringed.

Three years, a graduate school degree, two more novels and a handful of short stories later, my writing has really changed, and I could see all the weakness of this writing, could see why agents rejected it, could see places that were just rough.

I felt almost apologetic about them reading it.

I didn't hate the whole thing. There were places I really loved, things I did really well that I haven't since done as well. I cried through most of it. I marveled at a few turns of phrases and scenes and dialogue. I love those characters with all my heart.

But still... if I wrote it today, it wouldn't be the same.

And I have to be okay with that. I certainly don't want my first book to be my best - for my writing to go downhill from here. I want to get better. One lady said, "That was really great for a first book," and I loved that comment because it is how I feel. It's not some literary groundbreaker, and I won't win big awards for it, and I hope it's not the best thing I'll ever write, but it's pretty good for a first book.

But what I did realize talking to them is that I loved writing that book. I wrote it because I was passionate about it. I was passionate about diabetes and stem cell research and finding faith when it seems like questioning God isn't allowed. Just answering their questions, I found myself excited again about all those things.

And that is what I've been missing. Writing from that place of passion. I can love my characters. I can love my story idea. But it hasn't been that same level of passion that makes me stop people, corner them and talk to them for hours about how the real world could be changed by what I'm learning as I write. I'm not sure how to get back to that place, but I'm working on a new novel now that I hope will be that way.

For now, I'm loving the women in that book club who took their time last night to talk to me, to tell me what they loved about the book, the characters they fell in love with, how they'd guessed where I'd drawn the line between fiction and real life, who read so carefully and treated me like a honored guest. To me, they are the rock stars.