Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A New Game Plan

We are in the throws of winter here in Virginia, and despite all the predictions for a warmer-than-usual and snowier-than-usual January, it has been brutally, arctic-ly cold, and not at all snowy. It's not at all what I expected, and I find myself wistfully thinking of green trees and warm sun, even while knowing when Spring comes, I'll be longing for snow.

The fact is, even when you know a season is coming, it isn't always the way you envisioned. It's true for meteorology, and it's true for life.

About nine years ago I began writing again. I didn't know what was going to come of it --quite possibly nothing--but I envisioned a future here. At the time, that future looked like novels and agents and a big publishing house. At least, that's what I wanted it to look like.

Everything was different then. Blogging was big, especially among aspiring writers who found it a community to connect with each other, to dream with each other, to gain knowledge from each other. Agents were gods. There were no ebooks, no ereaders, no way to publish your own book for less than an arm and leg and your firstborn. There was little pride in self-publishing.

My kids were young, and of the age where I had them all gathered in at night, eating dinner together, stories before bedtime, lights out before nine.

I somehow thought that season of my life would be longer. All of it: the writing, the blogging, the community, the dream, the dinners, the quiet nights. Maybe until the kids even left for college.

I went back to school, thinking it was more like a vacation to the bahamas during a snow storm --something lovely and different, but not something that would change the season itself.

But somehow it did. Or the season around me changed while I was away.

The kids grew, and life is immeasurably more hectic. I have a job that requires hours out of my day that used to be hoarded for writing. Blogging seems to be flailing among writers who have little time now for community that moves at the pace of paragraphs.  I have a novel that is twisting me in knots, and unable to let me go. I rarely come here, but I long for it.

Life is just...different. Not better or worse, but different. And I'm trying to figure out how to fit my dreams into it, how to file the edges of the dream into something that fits where I am in this season.

Nine years ago, novels were the only form of writing on my radar. When I went to Pacific and met all these wonderful people churning out short stories, I admired them, and said I would never do that. It just didn't at all appeal to me. Then I worked with Pete. And all that changed.

The fact is, I'm not sure novels are a thing of possibility for me anymore. Right now, anyway. I love them, but they are exhausting and time-intensive. My life has demanded a shorter view finder these days, and the shiny new ideas that are coming at me are short story ideas. They are smaller gems that offer a greater ability to flit about, try new things, be in different worlds and times and inside different souls. Something that feels incredibly freeing after being locked for so long in the main character of my current novel.

Even more freeing, the release of the pressure to find an agent. Release from the pressure of finding a publisher. Release from the idea that to be successful as a writer, I have to hard sell myself and market my writing.

Short stories... I don't know. Maybe I'll send them out, if they are any good. Maybe not. Maybe I'll just keep writing, tucking them away until a new season where publishing becomes more important.

I never wanted fame. I only want to write. So... why not? Why not just write? And then... see where that takes me later, when I have time to find out.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Cost of Sacrifice

The other day, my daughter was talking enviably about a girl who'd made it big as a performer. She's been on TV, in music videos, commercials. We've had these conversations before - nearly every time she watches the Olympics or sees someone break big on America's Got Talent, or hears a story of a teen who publishes a book. It is always the sort of wistful, why-can't-that-happen-to-me kind of talk that leads to me talking about discipline and hard work and commitment.

This time, though, the conversation was ripe to talk about sacrifice. This kid who is now famous, I told her, gave up pretty much everything in her normal life years ago. She stopped going to school and having friends so she could spend all of her time in a studio and at lessons and traveling. She gave up free time on weekends to work. She gave up eating whatever she wanted. She gave up privacy. Just a few years ago, her parents divorced because one supported (pushed?) this fame agenda and the other just wanted her to grow up a bit more like other kids.

Would you be willing to give up all of that to be in her place, I asked. Would you give up your friends, your swim team, your band, your sleepovers with friends and Pinterest cooking parties and vacations? Would you give up Dad or me?

It's a discussion we've had in our house a lot lately, this cost of achieving a dream. How much are we willing to give up to get what we really want?

Going after what I want is something I've been wrestling with in particular over the past year. This week's question - how much are we willing to give up - has put a good perspective on it for me.

I want to write. I want to be able to do that much more than I've been doing it lately, which is not enough. It always seems that life is crowding in on me, and in the back of my head, I've thought, if I really wanted this, wouldn't I make it happen?

But the fact is, there are only so many hours in a day, and there is a lot that fills those hours.

What would I be willing to give up to get what I want?

I know a writer who realized she couldn't be a full-time writer if she had a mortgage hanging over her head. So she doesn't have a big house with modern luxuries. She lives a very minimalistic life so that she doesn't need another job. I know a writer who knew if she had kids, she would never have time to write, so she chose not to marry and have kids. I know people who have married and had kids, and still walked away from them to pursue their own dreams.

Am I willing to give up my family and house? Absolutely not.

When I think about what takes up my time, it is this. My kids. My husband. My home.

I am forever doing dishes, doing laundry, cleaning floors, cooking and packing meals, running errands so there is food in the fridge, clothes that fit, band instruments that work. I carpool kids. Endlessly carpooling kids.

I do a Bible study. I pray. That gets me through each day like breathing.

I work. I work now because my oldest is looking at colleges and we need to pay those looming bills so that he has the opportunity to live out his dreams.

What is there in my day that I could trade for a few hours of writing?

Not even sleep. There's not enough of that as it is.

It was good this week to look at what fills my hours and realize that there is hardly anything there I can sacrifice. Would want to sacrifice.

For now, what steals the hours from writing are those things even more valuable to me than writing. My kids. My husband. My home.

That realization gave me a few moments of peace. And then, I wrote a few lines in my novel, and went to bed.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Long Road

This summer my family took a vacation much different than our others. Rather than spending a week in a specific place, we drove. We put 3,600 miles on our car, 4,800 in an airplane, seeing parts of the country my kids have never seen. We wanted to see Yellowstone, we wanted to hit Mount Rushmore, but more than anything, we just wanted to see the west. With the wide skies, the red rocks, the gentle hills, the open roads with no one on them for miles -- this is all so different than where we live with our forests and traffic jams and slivers of sky.

"Look at that!" we had to keep saying, nudging our kids out of their books and games. We had to constantly remind them, this isn't a destination vacation: the journey's the thing.

It's something I am realizing is true of my novel, as well. I harbor a sense of shame that it's been in the works so long. Three of the last four years have been wrapped up in this book. I should be done. Those are the words that whisper in my ear constantly. Why so long?

It's so easy to think that writing THE END, the destination of every novel, is the point.

And then I wonder, why am I so desperate to get to the end? I have no deadline. I have no agent tapping her toe, no publisher checking the mail.

I've done this before. I know what is at the end.

The end.

That's what's at the end. No more characters. No more chasing them through dark pages. No more laying at night wondering how they are going to survive, if they'll be okay. No more living in their world.

Right now, I'm on their journey with them. I have one chance to do this. One chance to travel this road, have my heart break with theirs, feel joy with them, wonder what is at the end. Not just the end of the writing, but the end of them. One chance to have them to myself before sending them out.

I know what it feels like to have the characters who have become like family to me arrive at their happy place, to be done with me, maybe before I am done with them. It's a moment filled with pride, and then days on end of missing them.

I am on the journey. And if that takes a little longer than I thought it would, a little longer than anyone else thinks it should, I'm going to savor every minute.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Memory

In 1993, my husband worked for Dean Witter and spent time in the New York offices in the World Trade Center. He was there when the terrorists set off a bomb in the basement, sitting in the restaurant on the 107th floor, the building swaying with the impact.

The power went out, and it took him hours to walk down the dark 107 flights of stairs, coming out into daylight with a thick layer of ash blackening him except for the small circle around his mouth where he'd held his handkerchief.

 It was serious, of course. It shook things up a bit. But the terrorist act was, on the whole, a colossal failure, and people seemed to move on without thinking too much about it. The ability for someone to hurt us, to really terrorize us, seemed remote.

Maybe that is why, in 2001, it both shocked us, and at the same time seemed like an inevitability we'd somehow missed.

We weren't in NY during the attacks on 9/11, and we are back in DC now, where I grew up, back where my father sat in his office overlooking the Pentagon and watched the plane barrel into the sides of it, into friends we hadn't yet made but soon would.

Not much is said outside DC about the Pentagon these days. There were not as many lives lost, of course, but also it seems there's a sense that it is less egregious to target the headquarters of national defense than it is to target a symbol of financial strength. Maybe that's not true, but it feels that way sometimes.

For a long time, there was a huge, gaping hole in New York City. We saw it once, on a trip with our kids. We stood at the chain link fence, peering through cracks in the plastic at that hole - how wide, how deep, how empty it was.

The Pentagon cleaned itself up. It patched the gaping black wound with marble white as a scar. There's now a memorial there, but it is as understated as it is solemn.

Everyone moves on.

There used to be a big memorial march. There were prayers held on the mall. There were walks that led from the Washington Memorial to the place of impact at the Pentagon. Each year, the things we do to memorialize have gotten smaller. This year, in DC, there was a moment of silence.

All we get now is a moment. And life moves on.

We can't keep ripping the wound open. I know this. We can't spend this day each year tearing at the rawness of that day.

But we should spend a little time remembering, and feeling a little less safe, each day a little less a given. Hug our kids. Call our friends. Say I love you. Say I missed you. Remember to laugh. Remember to pray. Remember to be a little more thankful for the little things that, were they to disappear, we'd realize are really the big things.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


 (I wrote this blog post sitting in the car waiting for my daughter just a little over a week ago. It seems fitting that I couldn't post it here until now... because things have been so chaotic.)

Sometimes I feel like life is blowing up around me. I wake to the house rocking and shaking, the toiletry items falling off shelves. I walk through a maze of bricks and upheaved trees and mounds of red clay, the driveway under rubble. Our kitchen and stairs are tracked with a thick white layer of dust that won't go away, no matter how often I vacuum and mop.

I don't even live in California anymore. I live in a home being renovated. And while I knew it would be difficult, while I know what it will be is worth the what it is now, I can feel my heart clenching, my blood pounding under the stress of the chaos.

Everything is chaos now. Not just the house, which has parts of the roof ripped clean off so that you can stand in a room and stare up at the stars at night, but life in general is void of the order and routine I thrive on.

Summer is usually a bit lacking in constants, but this year has been worse. Three kids, three different schedules, three different sets of activities, and I find myself most often in the car, a hundred miles a day under my belt going no further than twelve miles from my house. Back and forth, pick one up, drop one off, trying to figure out where to fit buying more milk and eggs into the equation, nearly running out of gas because the gas station is not on the way to anywhere my kids go. And other people love this kind of craziness, but my stress levels are going up and the sight of more white cement dust and red mud tracked through the foyer is about to send my blood busting out the ends of my fingertips and tips of my hair, my face in a perpetual frozen state of The Scream.

I think part of my less-than-loving attitude about all of this is that I'm not involved anymore. Summers are usually are time to reconnect as a family. During the school year, the kids are out all day, home only long enough to do homework and drop into bed, exhausted. But the summer is OUR time. Time when we get to go hang out at the pool together, do crafts together, obsess over tv shows together, go explore DC and the zoo and museums, have picnics, go to restaurants and laze over milk shakes and burgers.

But now, I'm just the chauffeur and cheerleader. I'm the alarm clock in the morning, the laundrymat for their muddy, stinky, sunblock-smelling clothes. I buy the cases of water on one end of town and drop it off at camp at the other end. I fix breakfast and pack lunches and somehow try to squeeze in a homemade dinner that is well-balanced enough to replenish the kids' energy before they drop into bed.

I am with my kids in some form all day, but I miss them. I miss when summer meant you got to kick off the high-stress, packed days of the school year and sleep in, hike along the creek, lay in the sun reading books, stay up late and watch movies together and build forts in their rooms and watch the glow in the dark stars on the ceiling until they went dim.

I miss writing. I've hardly written at all this summer. This summer, when my novel was absolutely, positively, without excuses going to be finished. I haven't even read much. No time during the day, too tired at night, a few books started but not that made me want to finish them.

All the magic has leaked out.

And yet...

I watch my daughter from the car where I am waiting for her. Her head is thrown back in laughter, surrounded by a group of equally giggling girls she hadn't known three weeks ago. She's found her place in the high school before the year has even started, happier than she's been in ages.

My son bounds to the car, asking if he can go with the guys to buy balloons and back to a friend's to spend the next hour filling them because his drumline is totally going to demolish the brass section tomorrow at the afternoon battle. I agree, because percussion rules, and I know this.

Parents stop to ask if I'll be there for the football game, if my youngest is going to help this year, too. Yes, I say, pointing to my youngest in the back seat, already decked out in her band helper t-shirt, a week early. We wouldn't miss it for the world.

Summer will end and routine will come back. The house will eventually be finished, the dust settled, the multitude of cars cramming our drive gone on to another project. I'll find time to write again. I'll probably still be in the car too much. But that's okay. My kids are there with me - most of the time my oldest now driving. And we'll crank up the radio and we'll sing along, and we'll talk about books and kids at school and band and art and politics, and everyone will be talking all at the same time, and it will be chaotic, but I will love it. This is the kind of chaos I can love.

We will eat on the run again, but together, and we'll go separate ways one last time before the summer ends and school begins. But there's one weekend left - one glorious weekend where we all will be home, after the crazy summer schedules and before the still-crazy school schedules. Maybe we'll fire up the fire pit. Maybe we'll roast some s'mores. And as long as the garage has no roof, we might as well just lay out there and watch the stars. The real ones. And maybe, if we can find a sliver of time, we might just build a fort under them.

Monday, August 4, 2014

In which I drone on about my own writing... but by special request

Quite a while ago, my friend Leigh Rourks, a fabulous writer I met at Pacific, asked me to participate in a blog tour: a fun and easy way to share your work and the work of others. The idea is to ‘hop on,’ answer some questions about your current projects, and then ‘hop off,’ passing the torch to a couple of new writers the next week.

Of course, I went dark on the blog for a while, a mix of kids-home-for-summer, a new job at work, and using every scrap of free time to try to finish my novel. Also, vacation. The blog suffered. This is not unusual these days.

Also, the questions are so short and simple in appearance, but are deceptively difficult for me to answer well.

But a promise is a promise, so here I am finally.

1) What am I working on?

A novel called LIES WE'VE TOLD. I began this under a different name several years ago, finished it up, put it away after I began school, and have come back to rewrite it the past two years.

It began as a story I needed to tell, but every draft felt flat and lifeless, and while I was compelled to write and finish it (several times), I didn't love the book. Now, in this almost completely new form, with new plots and new characters and an entirely new beginning and end, I am in love with it. Passionately, unfathomably in love with it.  

The story is told from the point of view of Kat, an abused girl who shoots her father and then flees the state, and Jackson, a teen whose parents die in a car crash and who is taken in by Kat's family. When Kat learns her mother is sick, she returns home to mend broken bonds. Before she can do that, her mother is killed, leaving Kat the main suspect in the murder and the only guardian of a brother she barely knows. It is up to Kat to find out what secrets her mom had been keeping that led to her death, even as she is falling in love with Jackson, who might hold the key to what she really doesn't want to know.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Although there is a murder and an investigation, this book is not primarily a mystery. I'd shelve it with literary fiction, the emphasis really on the internal journey of the two main narrators, the crime and its fallout merely a way to propel that journey. In that way, I suppose, it is the crime and mystery that sets this book in particular apart from other literary fiction. 

This was true of my previous novel as well. Some Kind of Normal was not a medical or science fiction, but it involved a lot of science and medicine. I like this blending of genres, this incorporating elements of other genres into what essentially is still just the journey of a character trying to figure out life. It also allows me to indulge in great amounts of research, which I find entirely fun.

3) Why do I write what I do?

 One of the things I learned at school that has really stuck with me is that we write to tell what it means to be human. I think this really is behind everything I write.I definitely don't write escapist fiction, or stories you wish you could be in the middle of. They aren't full of romance, and they don't often have happily-ever-after endings. But they are about about people I hope you can relate to on some level, people who are in situations you might never be in, but who still feel real.

There is a piece of me in everything I write. It isn't always the most obvious thing in a story, but it's a thought, an emotion, something that gnawed at me, a seed of something in my own life that grew into something entirely different but whose heart is still there.

4) How does my writing process work?   

Messily. And slowly.

Everything I've every written has had its own unique process of developing. I've tried fitting it all into some neat process, but my stories don't work that way. 

Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I start with a character that I have no idea what he's going to do. Sometimes I start with a plot idea. Sometimes I write to discover what the story is, and then have to do a million revisions to hone it to what I finally figure out it is about. 

I always write, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. 

I write when I can. Most often late at night, but sometimes in the morning, if I don't have students to tutor. Sometimes in the afternoon when my kids are doing homework. Sometimes at the counter as I'm making dinner, lysoling the laptop as needed, just because the words are there, dinnertime or no. 

Sometimes, I have to stop writing and just mull it all over. The middle of a scene will grind to a halt, or be heading in the wrong direction, and I'll just shut the computer for a few days and turn the ideas around in my head, trying things out until eventually (and usually around 1am), it all clicks. Then it becomes a race to get it all down.  

I am passing this blog tour on specifically to Hannah Bissell, another great writer (and poet extraordinaire) . BUT... if YOU want to do it, consider yourself tagged and please blog hop!! I'd love to see what you have to say, too! Let us know in the comments you're going to do it so I can make sure I swing by and read it. :)