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?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Little Conflict is Good

I  had an eighth grader write me last week and ask, "What is it publishers are looking for when you want to get published?" 

How can you narrow this down? They want good grammar and clean punctuation. They want correct spelling and Times New Roman and double spacing. They want a lack of -ly adverbs and purple prose. They want crisp dialogue. They want characters they don't mind hanging out with for a few hours. They want something they've never seen before. They want something that will sell.

All of this, of course. But maybe more than anything, I think they want conflict. They want something to happen.

"Ask yourself this," I wrote her back. "What is it your character really wants, more than anything? What is keeping him or her from getting that? What does he or she do to overcome those obstacles? If you can answer those questions, and your reader can, too, you've got yourself the start of a good story."

One thing that used to drive my last advisor up the wall was the way I ducked out of conflicts. Every time some big problem would bubble up between characters, one would leave the room. An argument would break out, they'd leave. A crisis would arise, they'd rush away from it.

"Stop it!" He told me more than once. "This is where it's just starting to get good!"

It was hard for me to write through those scenes, keep a character in the place where the heat was high, because I don't know how to do that myself. I am the one who ducks out of conflict. I avoid confrontations. I deflect conversations that start to get hot.

Over the past weeks my husband and I have been trying to figure out what to do about my graduation. I chose to go to a school all the way across the country. I chose to begin and end that school in January, meaning I finished up my thesis six full months before graduation ceremonies.

The plan was for our whole family to go out for graduation. This was the plan when I started - has always been the plan. I wanted my kids to see the reward for the last two years we ALL have sacrificed for. I wanted the family picture to hang on the wall. Graduation - the whole cap and gown and hooding and pomp and circumstance - is utterly important to me. I missed my college graduation when I got a job and moved cross country. I was not going to miss this one.

But finances are tight, and five airline tickets and hotel rooms are not cheap. In the last few months we decided the kids wouldn't go. It would be just me and the husband. Until we started crunching numbers for that.

He keeps bringing up the topic. Do I need to go? Does he need to go? As important as it is, is it worth the thousands of dollars it might cost to fly out and stay for a few days for a simple 30-minute ceremony and dinner after? When we begin to get down and dirty about the details, there is always something else for me to do rather than hash it out. The dog needs walking. The kids need putting to bed. I need to get dinner going, or the dishes done, or a phone call made. We can recheck airline prices tomorrow; they might go down. I'll call around for cheaper hotels tomorrow.

I don't want to answer this, because the answer is yes. It is that important to me. And how can I say it is important enough to spend money we don't have?

And the answer is also, I don't know. Because many of my friends won't be there, having already graduated last June, or having new jobs now that won't allow the time off. What if not even my husband is there; is it still worth walking across the stage? What if we spend the money only for me to feel more lonely being there than not being there?

Last night, we sat down, the dog out and the kids in bed, the dishes done. I forced myself to stay in the moment, the way I now make my characters stay in theirs. Talk it out. Address the problems.

I wish I could say we came to a good solution, but this story isn't finished yet. We came to the decision that we had a little more time before needing to make the decision. I'll hunt down more information. We'll crunch numbers some more. We'll go through this all again.

What I've learned is that conflict may make a story more interesting, but I'd take some easy answers in my life a little more often. And I'm okay with happy endings.