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.