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To Thine Own Self Be True

I never used to have gray hair.  Or wrinkles.  Or a loud voice.  I do not blame these things on age.  I blame them on the little being who came to live with us almost 10 years ago.  The one who likes to jump off tall lifeguard stands (resulting in a knocked-out filling), run helter-skelter down the stairs (resulting in a scar on his chin) and bomb along on uneven pavement at 100 miles an hour.  (That’s the scar over his upper lip.  We like to pretend he plays hockey to explain it.)

You know, the little being with the Y chromosone.

We had a pretty quiet life, my daughter and I.  We read books, and took long walks, and painted and colored and managed to do all those things with a lovely stillness.  Sure, we got rowdy once in a while — who doesn’t — but we are both on the introverted side, so the rowdiness never lasted for too long before we’d settle down on the couch, cuddled under a blanket, to snuggle and look at our favorite stories.

And then — BAM — I had a boy.  And almost every day since he learned to talk, and then walk, life has been a big adventure.  He’s an extrovert, as wiggly as a puppy, and he loves to sing and whistle and in general just MAKE NOISE. Even when we are doing a quiet activity.  Which — surprise surprise — is actually no longer quiet.

He also likes to push the envelope. A lot. And he’s good at it.

There are days when I wake up and tell the universe I’ve grown quite enough spiritually, thank you. I don’t need any more parenting lessons.

And then I went to the Writer Unboxed Conference last week, which was chock-full of good writing advice by luminaries such as Brunonia Barry, Lisa Cron, Donald Maass, Ray Rhamey and Heather Webb. Meg Rosoff was there too, leading a class on voice, but all of her writing advice was lost on me after one of her comments.

She was talking about being true to yourself, even if that’s hard for other people to understand.  Meg is funny and brash and the kind of person you want to just sit and listen to – like very few people around. Then she said that her mother, who is in her 80s, still gets upset when Meg does something she doesn’t like.  She’ll say ‘You always have to do it your own way, don’t you?’

And Meg looked at the class and said “What other way should I do it?  I’m me. Of course I’ll do it my way.”

Those words hit me so hard I couldn’t think of anything else for the rest of the class. Because I’ve had that conversation with my exuberant boy more times than I care to admit.   But of course he’d do it his own way — what other way should he do it?  Mine?

Well yes, sometimes.  In matters of major safety. And public good manners.  But the rest of the time, why should I expect a nine-year-old boy to do something the way a (insert age here) adult should?

My kid is funny, and outgoing, and so energetic there are days I’d like a nap by 8 a.m. He’s the polar opposite of me in almost every way.  He has a huge heart, and a huge imagination, and every single day he stretches me as a person and as a parent.  Sometimes that stretching is painful. Sometimes, by not accepting my ‘no’ or ‘you can’t’ he makes me think about why I said no in the first place, what my answer is based on, and who it is benefiting. Sometimes he drives me to distraction and to a glass of wine.  But always, always, always, he drives me to be better — even if it’s because I wasn’t my best that day.

I want my kids to be individuals when they grow up.  I want them to think for themselves, to contribute to society, to be good parents and good citizens and just all around good people. I want them to figure out how to make the world better by seeing it in a way that no one else before them has — with their own eyes and their own hearts.  But to do that, they have to discover themselves, and discovery is an ongoing process — it doesn’t begin at age 21 when they move out of the house.

It begins now.  By doing things their own way. And sometimes as a parent, that means getting out of the way and letting them.

self portrait

self portrait

No Tricks, Just Treats!

Greetings, peeps!  With only THREE days till Halloween, I come bearing gifts!

First off, did you know that coincidentally, there are only THREE days left to register for the Unboxed Conference in Salem, Massachusetts?  That’s right — the chance to register closes on Friday.  So if you’ve been on the fence, hop over and sign up today. (For a description, visit this post at Writer Unboxed.)

Next, do you have trouble revising?  Me too.  Getting this manuscript down to a reasonable size has been a real struggle.  But I had an epiphany while watching The Incredibles.  Really.  Read all about it over at today’s post on Writer Unboxed.

Finally, I would very much like to dress the Slobbering Beast in any and all of these costumes.  But I think I need that vampire kitty.

Happy Halloween!

Letting Go

Remorse.

Remorse.

A few days ago, a friend and I met up for a hike.  Just before the trail entrance, we heard a weird noise, like the commotion of a bunch of chickens.  We stopped, tried to locate the sound, couldn’t, and continued on.

The Slobbering Beast was with us, and it’s been a bit since he was on a trail.  He was excited, bounding in giddy circles. He was even more thrilled when two other dogs showed up.  Since I didn’t know them, I put him on leash and called for their owner.   No one appeared.  We waited awhile, the dogs wandered off, and The Beast, my friend, and myself  got back to hiking.  Since we were heading into an area where there’s a lot of wildlife, I kept him on the leash and we jaunted along quite successfully until almost the end.  When the two dogs appeared again.

Still ownerless, but with something white and fluffy between them.

Yep.  A (recently dead) chicken.

I don’t know if it was the excitement of seeing his potential pals, the smell of blood, the sight of something soft and fluffy, or a combination, but The Beast lost his mind.  He hurtled a small bush and dashed into the undergrowth. He scraped through plants that might have been poison ivy.  He bumped up against several small rocks.

And since I was still holding the leash, so did I.

By this time I was prone, surfing the ground on my shoulder.  My friend was yelling, The Beast was still gallumping happily away toward the dead chicken, the two other dogs were barking a bit, and a single thought went through my mind.  Let go, you fool.  Let go.

So I did.

It’s hard for me to let go — of work that’s not working, of friends who are no longer friends, of emotions that are not serving my best interests.  So every now and then, the universe likes to remind me in the most physical way possible to move on.  It happened with riding — letting go can sometimes mean the difference between a good, clean fall and a bad fall where you get tangled up with the horse and gear — and now, since I’m not currently riding, the universe has apparently tapped The Slobbering Beast as a stand in.

I can’t control the loose dogs or the dead chickens life may throw at me.  Some days, I can’t even control The Slobbering Beast.  But I can control my response, and hanging on to something that’s not working mostly only hurts me.

Sometimes, as the song that’s playing everywhere these days says, you have to let it go.

 

 

Can Creativity Be Organized?


It may come as a surprise, but I’m not the most organized person in the world. (My husband and mother don’t need to chime in on this.)  My organizational strategies are few, but hard-won: The keys go on the hook right when I walk in the door, or I lose them. The phone goes on the charging station, or it disappears. Twice a day I walk through the main rooms of the house, starting in the left corner and working to the right, restoring whatever has escaped to its rightful spot.

Which is why sights like this:

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Creative doll house space that needs maid service

 

and this:

photo 1

Sewing corner that would make Martha Stewart cry

make me crazy.  Sometimes after a long week, I admit it — I lose my cool and yell about the mess of plastic and paper we’re drowning in.  And for half an hour, everyone under the age of fourteen scurries around, putting their laundry away and moving the toys from the floor to under the bed.

But I always wind up feeling horribly guilty about these rants. Not just because I hate to yell but because I’m torn.  Childhood should be a time when kids learn organization skills, it’s true (although I had the most organized parents in the world and not much rubbed off, so I’m leaning toward nature over nurture on this one) but it should also be a time of insane creativity.  It’s a time when kids don’t know the rules, so they have no compunction about breaking them.  They can dream big, because no one has yet told them how small their space is in the world.  They can make a mess, and create something beautiful.

It’s not just things that are over-organized, either.  Almost every minute of my children’s day is scheduled.  My youngest goes to a school where even recess now has ‘stations’ to choose from. Gone are days when kids could play tag (too rough) practice cartwheels on the grass (too dangerous) or wander aimlessly through the playground. And after school, the days of just hanging out in the neighborhood with friends or on the couch reading are over, too — the neighborhood is empty, because everyone’s at soccer practice, and if anyone’s just hanging on the couch, they’d better be studying for that math quiz.

But if everything is scheduled, everything is put away, when does serendipity strike? When do the unwashed petri dishes lead to penicillin? When does the time on the couch lead to a book that leads to a hobby that leads to a brilliant idea? When do our kids have the time, and the opportunity, to connect two unrelated things and make them sing? For that matter, when do we?

Or as Steve Jobs said:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

If you schedule every moment, if you put everything away neatly in its place, you’ll have a well-organized life, it’s true.  You may become brilliant at taking tests. But then that sewing corner may never lead to this:photo 2

 

photo 2

And this:

photo 5

Random paper clips arranged in a pattern on the floor

 

won’t ever have time to grow into this:

photo

And who knows what else the world will miss?

(Tell  me — how do you balance organization and creativity?)

Did You Miss Me?

I think, somewhere between when I opened my eyes in June and blinked in September, there was a thing called summer.  I have memories of warm beach days, dripping ice cream, hot buttery lobster rolls, the smell of suntan lotion and chlorine, but they happened so fast it’s as if I dreamed them.

On the last day of school, the top of my daughter’s head was just below eye level, my son somewhere way below.  Somehow, they both grew three inches in that blink of an eye, my daughter now juuust as tall as me.  Not taller.  I swear.

This is the first school day in eight years I haven’t cried. How could I?  Both my children went eagerly  striding into that morning, looking forward to friends they hadn’t seen all summer, to new teachers, to taking their place in the world. Which is as it should be.  There’s nary a trace of the babies they were — the pictures hanging on my walls of chubby-cheeked toddlers are so removed from the here and now it is as if they belonged to someone else. I catch glimpses of them once in a while, mostly when their older counterparts are sleeping.  They’re not gone for good, but they are vanishing fast.

A billion years ago when I started freelancing, I had one rule — the television stayed off and the computer stayed in the office. But then my babies were born, and time to write was so scarce that the laptop became a fixture on the kitchen table so I could squeeze in a line here and there, between feedings and games and cleanups.  Somehow it stayed, even when the children grew up and went off to school.

But this summer we had no internet access, so the laptops mostly stayed closed.  Less Facebook, less email, less checking of random websites.  I felt guilty not keeping up with writing groups and the blogs of my friends, but there was relief, too. And then in September, the internet and all its distractions returned.

I think it’s time to renew my old vow, and banish my laptop to the office during hours when I’m  not working.  The days are going too fast, and I want to have control over how I slow them down.  And it’s not just me who has been distracted — I see it happening now to my children, too, and I need to set a good example.  Plus, selfishly, I want as much time as I can squeeze out of them, want to glimpse those babies as often as I can, and I know the one place they’ll never be found is in the glow of a blue screen.

So my fall resolution, as it were, is to write with more intention and less distraction.  To create specific times to use technology and specific time to banish it.  To seize back the hours I’ve given to the internet and spend them as I choose, both mourning the past a little bit and looking forward to the future.

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What are your fall writing resolutions?

Wherever You Are

I hope your summer looks like this.

beach day

It’s been a crazy few weeks, with lots of good stuff, bad stuff, and holy mother of moly isn’t it summer YET stuff?  But we are on the home stretch, people!  And I’ll post one or two times more before taking a much-needed break from the internet.

So, I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks, and today’s blog over at Writer Unboxed made me decide to put it out there. (Go read it, btw, it’s an excellent, balanced view of the cranky pants contest Amazon and Hachette are having. Plus, Kevin Cronin always manages the snappy titles.)

Here goes:  My son is nine and has turned into a reader, so my life’s work is complete.  Books have lots of competition in his world — there’s soccer, baseball, throwing a random ball against the house, video games on the weekend, eating, teasing the Slobbering Beast — so I’m always trying to find books I can sneakily leave in the car that will suck him in during our morning commute.  I found one such book recently, and oh joy of joys — it was a Series. With SIX books. Which, after he read the first one from the library and proclaimed it good, I immediately set out to purchase.

By immediately, I mean he said “Great book, Mom, thanks,” and by the time the car door closed behind him I was already ordering my personal assistant to call our local bookstore. I do enough business there that Siri has it on speed dial. They opened at 9 a.m., and at 9:15 I was chatting with the sales clerk.

Me: “Hi, I’d like to order the complete set of series X. I can’t remember the author’s name, but it begins with X, and there’s six books.

Clerk: “What’s the title again?”

Me: “It’s X. Author starts with X. It’s for middle school readers.”

Long pause. “I’m not familiar with it.”

Me: “Okay, but could you check? My son really likes it and I want to order the series.”

Longer pause.  “I don’t see it on the computer. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it just means I can’t find it here. I need more information. “

Me (thinking loudly — no #$#$ it exists — my son just read one): “The title is X. The author’s name begins with X. There are six of them. It’s for middle school.”

“There’s too many authors that start with X. I can’t find it.  Sorry.”

Now, maybe what she meant was that their distributor didn’t carry this particular book. Maybe she was having an off day and couldn’t be bothered to take my information, do some research, and call me back. Maybe a $50 sale in the grand scheme of things doesn’t mean that much to her store, or maybe she’s not personally invested in her store’s success, or maybe she doesn’t like middle school stories that start with X. But I have to tell you, as a reader who has spent plenty of time and money at that shop, I was pretty pissed off. And as an author, I was appalled. What if that had been my book? A single sale of $15 may not mean much to that store, but every single copy I sell means a great deal to my future as an author.

When I finished driving I pulled over, googled the book, and found the series on Amazon. It took me less than a minute.

I’m not the only one who has had this experience.  Several friends, some authors, some not, have been kvetching about the quality of service at their local stores, how snobbery some are, how disinterested in their needs.  I’m the first to say I’ve had great experiences and support from this store and others like it — but the taste I’m left with after this is a bit sour.

I support indie bookstores. But they need to do more than just tell me Amazon is killing their business and how unfair that is.  They need to give me a reason to shop with them. Every single time. Because if they make it hard, it’s far, far too easy to go somewhere else.

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