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Shatter

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It’s summer.

My car, with which during the school year I drive the highway so often I could do it in my sleep, stays in the garage. I take long walks instead. Occasionally with my husband, less often with one of my children, even more rarely with the whole family.  We’re at the stage in life where there are games for the kids to play and friends to connect with and social media calling to them at all hours, it seems — a constant distraction. So my walks are mostly solitary. I wander the beach, watching enviously as young families build sand castles and catch minnows and play tag with the waves.

Sometimes it’s early and the parents are bleary-eyed, sipping their coffee. It feels like just last weekend that I was them, desperate for just a little more sleep, but loathe to say no to an early morning trip to the beach and donuts on the sand, when one of the hardest parts of parenting was getting them to hold still long enough to cover them with sunscreen.

I’ve taken to collecting sea glass. There’s a beach not far from us where it can be found almost by the handfuls. But I prefer a less-crowded spot a little further away, where the glass is harder to find. Some days I come home with nothing, some days with a scant two pieces. Yet somehow all the searching makes me treasure each piece more.

I keep the pieces in an old apothecary jar, spotted by my husband and one of the kids on an excursion this summer. It’s a thing of beauty, tall and curved and delicate, the glass so thin I hold my breath each time I lift it from the shelf to add another piece. It’s so large that at this rate it will take me years to fill it, and there’s comfort in that thought.

Unless, of course, it slips from my hands and shatters. A disaster I regularly imagine, each piece a wicked sharp-edged weapon beyond anyone’s skill to repair.

And yet.

This morning as I held a tiny piece of sea glass, I wondered what it once was. Bright blue, it might have come from a bottle, but it’s equally possible it was once someone’s heirloom. A beloved vase. A perfume bottle.  A frame, sun-glinted on a mother’s dresser.  The loss perhaps not heart-breaking, but mourned all the same.

And now that identical glass sits in my hand. Its sharp edges have been worn away, and time and the roughness of the waves have transformed it into something else. Something entirely different, yet still treasured.  Stripped to the very essence of what it once was and lovely all on its own.

I still hold my breath as I replace the jar upon the shelf. I still treasure it in its current form. But I’m coming to realize that sometimes, beauty can be found after the breakage too.

 

Summer

I take more photos in the summer.  I tell myself it’s because in summer, my surroundings are more scenic.  IMG_1340.JPG

Because the days are longer. Because in summer, time is slower.IMG_1441.JPG

There’s no carpool, no mad scramble to leave the house before 7, to hit the highway exactly by 7:15 to avoid the gridlock that inevitably forms, worsening every minute that I’m late.IMG_1461.JPG

But that’s not exactly it.  In summer, time is a bubble.  We pack every June for the same place I’ve gone every year since I was 19.  I buy a handful of new outfits, but wind up wearing the same three every day — cutoff jeans I’ve had since I was 30, a few sundresses, aged to the perfect softness, and workout clothes I’ve owned since before I had children.  I bring makeup, but after the first week settle for sunscreen and a good lip balm.

What we get in exchange for eschewing contemporary comfort is time.  In summer, we lose track of the days.  We have no cable, no air conditioning, no phone line, no wi-fi. We judge the days by the farmer’s markets, by trash collection, by the passing of the tides.

I hold my breath and pretend that my children are babies again.  The house is so small we wake at the same time, dreaming the same dreams of ocean and the sky. They wolf their breakfasts and disappear for the day, collecting hermit crabs,  walking the beach, tubing and running from house to house for card games, for movies, piling into a car for an ice cream run, jumping off the pier into the dark and swimming as fast as they can for the raft as seaweed brushes against their legs.  Last minute sleepovers and early morning rendezvous to watch the dawn, and knowing all the while that these smallest things, these insignificant details, are what we will remember and hold tight in the cold, aging light of fall.

Rainy Day Repast

IMG_9077It’s pouring buckets here today. Is it where you are, too? If you are looking for something to do, won’t you consider hopping over to Writer Unboxed and reading my latest blog post there? And if you get a chance, check out a few of the other posts writers have shared since mine — they are full of writerly inspiration for a rainy day.

WU Redirect With Recipe

I wrote a column for Writer Unboxed last week.  In it I remember a good friend and say good-bye.  If you have a moment, please stop by.

Merry Merry

It’s crazy how fast this year has gone.  And even crazier how fast Christmas is coming up.  If you, like me, are looking for a few last-minute gifts, here are some suggestions:

Beeswax candles from Three Sisters Farms.  We buy a pair or two of tapers every year at the end of the summer. When we burn them on those long, cold winter nights, I feel a bit as if we are conjuring back the sun.  They are beautiful and have a rich honey scent.  (Also, a gift of honey to go along with the candles would not be remiss.)

Soap by Red Antler Apothecary.  I’ve become obsessed with their root beer soap.  It smells exactly like the drink, and puts me in a good mood whenever I use it. It’s cheerful and happy, and who couldn’t use something like that to start their day?

Books.  Of course books make the best gifts!  (You were thinking I’d say something else? Come on — this is a writer’s blog.)  This year, for your dystopian-obsessed teen, check out The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski.  First in a trilogy, it’s the smart, fast-paced story of star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of a war. For your middle-schooler, I can’t say enough good things about David Barry’s The Worse Class Trip Ever and The Worst Night Ever. They are hysterically funny and at the same time absolutely gripping.  Finally, for the adult thriller junkie, consider Go-Between by Lisa Brackmann.  (Admission — this is the sequel to Getaway, which I have not read but have heard very good things about. You are probably better off starting there.) It’s an intelligent and all-too-realistic look at for-profit prisons, drug laws, and politics, with plenty of suspense to keep you turning pages and a tough talking female protagonist who may just have you believing in conspiracy theories by the end of the story.

So there — my gift to you.  (That and the picture of the Slobbering Beast.  Many, many cookies were involved in the taking of this photo.)

Happy Holidays!

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Photo by the awesome Kevin Harkins.

 

Happy almost Halloween!  I have all kinds of treats here, and very few tricks, I promise.

all-the-ugly-and-wonderful-197x300First, I’m over today at Writer Unboxed, interviewing the talented Bryn Greenwood about her novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.  Bryn is the kind of writer who takes my mind, turns it inside out, stretches it, gives it a good beating, then puts it back together so it’s never quite the same.  Her books aren’t what I would call easy reading, but they shake me up and make me think.  I’d love it if you would stop by and check her out.  (And there may or may not be a picture of her own Slobbering Beasts there too.  Just sayin’.)

51h9kbdnbjlNext,  I am sooooo happy to announce that Author in Progress, a book to which I contributed a chapter, is available for sale.  It was spearheaded by the lovely and amazing author Therese Walsh, who is a cofounder of the Writer Unboxed site.  Over the years she’s managed to pull together a tribe of writers who are supportive, kind, and just plain fun to be around.  If you are a writer in any way shape or form, published or not, the group is one of the nicest and most drama-free I’ve ever known and well worth checking out.  As is the book.  (See my subtle plug there?)  And if you aren’t a writer, but know someone who is, I promise the book makes a lovely gift.

Finally, Monday is Halloween.  So I couldn’t let this post pass by without at least one trick.  Which I played on the poor Slobbering Beast, who will be confined to his crate that evening so as not to lose his doggy mind during the constant ringing of the doorbell.  (And also to avoid any surreptitious snacking on stray candy bars.  Hey, a dog can dream.)

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Totally Johnny Depp.  Okay, maybe Johnny after a few beers.

 

Alone Again, Naturally

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I did my annual hike and cry around the hill today.  My oldest started high school last week (HIGH SCHOOL) but I was prepared, I was ready.  I dropped her off at a friend’s house so they could carpool together, and I may have welled up a little as she walked away, but no real waterworks.  Besides, I had the boy for another week — summer lite.

But the boy went off today.  Bravely, considering he’s starting a new school without his close compadre of friends, the friends who have known him almost his entire life.  So we dropped the girl off, and then jaunted down the highway to his new school, and in the rush of finding where he should be and seeing people I hadn’t seen all summer, the moment where he actually left slipped away.  And I was fine.

Until I got in the car and nobody else was there.

There was nobody to argue about what radio station to listen to, to roll their eyes when I played our summer theme (the entire Hamilton album) again, to remind me to cue up the book on tape or pass the tissues or the hand sanitizer or the box of granola bars.  And for about 15 seconds, it was wonderful.

And then I cried.

Because I can see the end, clearly now.  We’re hurtling toward it like the drop-off of a roller coaster, we’re strapped in and prepped for go and there’s no turning back, no way to get off.  Any lessons they haven’t learned (put your clothes away, make your bed, hug your brother, hug your sister, be kind, be true to you, look for the helpers in times of crisis, in times of crisis be a helper, love learning for learning’s sake), any wisdom I still have to impart, needs to be communicated now.  Because tomorrow is coming up fast.  And because my time with them, which once stretched ahead like the ocean, has become fleeting.

Friends took their kids to college this weekend.  Some to colleges around the corner from them, some to colleges hours away.  All of them are great kids, and the parents all texted me the same thing, more or less:  “He/she is so happy. They’re ready for this.”

The parents were happy as well, but sad in a way that was deeper, that a hike around the lake on a rainy day couldn’t fix.  Because parenthood is the only job where, if you do it well, if you put your entire heart and soul into it, at the end the best result you can hope for is to be let go, to become obsolete.  To watch your kids smile hugely as they walk away from you, because they’re excited and able to take on what’s coming next.  I realized today that all these past Septembers have been practice for the upcoming big one, the ones my friends are already facing.  But I think my heart has known this for years.

Which is why I’ve cried.

Past Time

Here’s something you might not know about me:  There was a time when I could debate scripture with the best of them.  I went to Catholic school for eight years, back when there were actual nuns, tough old biddies who would cut you off at the knees as soon as look at you if you gave them one ounce of lip.  So it was religion class what seems now like every day, or at least every other day, alternated with science.  It was mass every First Friday, as well as every holy day, every Sunday, and any time the nuns felt it was in our best interest.   And even after I graduated, it was CCD for confirmation, mass on Sundays and holy days right through my first year of college.

So I get the whole prayer thing.  I prayed hard and often.  I prayed for my family, I prayed for the world, I prayed for whatever special petitions we had at church.  I prayed I would pass my math test, I prayed that special boy would notice me, I prayed I would learn how to diagram a darn sentence before I had to lose another week of recess, staying in under the eagle eye of Sister Mary Rose, working on compound predicates at the black board.

I’m sure the nuns prayed too, prayed long and hard after a particularly challenging day with us.  But here’s the thing — they didn’t just pray.  They put their backs into it, each and every one, molding and shaping and very occasionally whacking our souls into shape.  It must have been exhausting work, and I loved them for it.

But it was exhausting being molded, too.  I would have loved, before one of those recess sessions, to have gone up to Sister Mary Rose and said “I prayed I would learn how to diagram this sentence, Lord! So we’re good now, right?”  and then skipped outside to be with my friends. But I knew without even trying what would have happened.  She would have pulled me back by my ponytail, sat my bony butt in the chair, and made me do the work.  So I prayed to myself, and then stayed in for what seemed like a month until I finally got it right.

The nuns knew what we’ve forgotten:  We’re not just supposed to pray.  We’re supposed to get off our butts and do the work.  I’m heartsick at seeing ‘prayers’ posted on social media yet again in the wake of a mass shooting.   Prayers aren’t doing it, people.  We can pray all we want, but prayers won’t bring back the fifty people who died yesterday, won’t do them one bit of good.  Won’t help the 32 in Virginia, the 27 in Sandy Hook, the countless others who are shot every day.  Won’t help the ones who will be shot tomorrow, or the day after that.

What WILL change things is doing the work.  The work of electing candidates who believe in gun reform, who will stand up to powerful lobbyists and say no civilian needs a weapon that can slaughter 50 people in the space of a song.  Period.

Prayer can be good.  But not by itself.   It’s past time.  Let’s get to work.

How to Create Readers

Hi there!  I’m over at Writer Unboxed, talking about a topic that is very dear to my heart — how to create readers and read more yourself.  (Hint:  It has nothing to do with balancing books on your head.)  Please stop by and let me know what you think!

 

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Tiptoeing In…

With a gratuitous Slobbering Beast shot (doesn’t he look embarrassed?) and a redirect to the Writer Unboxed site for my essay on how to find a great beta reader.  Please stop by if you get the chance!

 

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Welcome to Boredom Palace

Yikes, it’s been a while. It’s July, and we’re looking at Christmas pictures here.  It’s the blog equivalent of having a guest sit down on the dirty laundry you’ve stuffed under the couch.  How did that happen?

I’ve been meaning to write this particular post for about six months, but life, writing, raising kids — the usual — got in the way.  And I might have been feeling a tiny bit of blog burnout, too.  But I’m back! (Although not on a regular schedule.  It is July, after all.  At least for a few more days.)

So, anyhow.  One of the things I try and do when I’m not writing is read.  And six months ago I read Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or Fat Envelopes, by Madeline Levine.  I have not been able to stop thinking about it.  If you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, or just someone who likes kids, I can’t recommend it enough.

Levine, a practicing psychologist, writes about the pressures we put on our teenagers to succeed and how harmful that can be, which shouldn’t be news to anyone.  But she also talks about the definition of success — the best grades, acceptance to the most elite colleges,  landing the most exclusive, highest-paying jobs — and how that may not be right for anyone.

The whole success conversation is such a complex, crazy one.  My children go to two different schools —  a charter in an inner city, and a private school — and the differences — not in teacher devotion or skill, but in parental expectations — is mind-blowing.  The reasons are complex and include financial situations and cultural expectations  — and are of course not true across the board — lots of parents at the charter school have very high expectations for their kids, and lots of parents at the private school are very good about letting their children find their own paths, but navigating between the two institutions sometimes leaves me with whiplash.  I’ve heard about complaints from parents that the elite high school their child was accepted to wasn’t good enough, and I’ve listened to a grade schooler say that she wanted to be a doctor, but her parents think the education would cost too much money, so she’ll be a nurse instead.

I am as guilty of riding the success train as anyone.  I have asked my children (one child in particular) why they have not done better on a test score.   I have suggested that a child may not have put their best work into a project.  I’ve been annoyed when a child has gotten a lower grade than I expected.

And yes, I get that kids need to learn to do their best work, to live up to their potential.  But does everything have to be the best, all the time?

Levine’s book has an exercise that helps you bore down to what your core values are as a parent — what do you want your child to walk away with when they are grown?  I almost never do these things, but the book was compelling.  So I came up with three qualities I want my children to have as adults, that I want them to start cultivating now.  I wrote them on a sticky note and put it on the front door, so they could read them every day before school.  I figure if on any single day they have two of them, it’s a step in the right direction.

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And of course, they had a response.  (Well, one of them, anyhow.)  You’ll be happy to know I resisted the urge to correct the spelling or comment on the penmanship.  At least one of us is learning something.

Welcome to boredom palace!  Please use servant's entrance.

Welcome to boredom palace! Please use servant’s entrance.

PS.  If you’ve missed me, I’m also over at Writer Unboxed today.  Please stop by!

I love the holidays.  I love the tree, I love baking cookies and gingerbread with my kids, I love the presents, I love the peace, and I especially love the TWO WHOLE WEEKS off from school.  If we could only have snow and have it be 80 degrees at the same time, I’d be in heaven.

One thing I especially love, and have since my daughter was a baby, is making the holiday cards.  It’s one of my favorite activities, and since my oldest was little and I strapped her in angel wings, I’ve spent days each winter planning what I would do.  This sounds obnoxious, as if I’m striving to be Martha Stewart, but believe me when I say that despite my best efforts, the cards remain pretty simple and success is hit or miss.  But I finally realized this year why I love creating them so much.

Christmas cards are ALL character and NO plot.  (Ahem.  Does this sound like any author you may know?)  Each year is an opportunity to create a perfect little vignette, with no worries about rising action, microtension, or conclusions.  (Sorry, Donald Maass. I feel like I’m letting the team down.)

This year, however, my characters revolted.  After over a decade of taking direction, they’ve decided that next year, the Christmas card is theirs.  And while I’m sad I won’t be able to get to the rest of the fabulous ideas I’ve planned, I understand. (Plus, there’s always the chance they’ll forget and I’ll get to do it my way anyhow.)

So, to celebrate the end of a run, I thought I’d put together my thoughts on what makes a holiday card successful.  And if there’s some writing advice in there too, forgive me.  Just don’t listen to me on plot.

  • Pick a theme.  Even if you only use one photo, find a way to tie it to something larger.  I love using a line or two of a poem or holiday song in the greeting, and having the photo reflect what’s written. For example, in one of my earlier cards, I dressed my baby daughter in her pink tutu and snapped pictures while she twirled.  The line under the photo read “While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Just like in novels, a strong theme can carry you through.
  • Be unexpected.  One of my favorite cards from last year showed a family on the beach in bathing suits, enjoying the warm weather.  Their card read “Dreaming (NOT!) of a White Christmas.”  (And taking your reader somewhere unexpected keeps them turning pages, too.)
  • Keep it fun.  My son is notorious for looking like a Grinch in pictures.  In the past years, in desperate attempts to make it look as if we’re not torturing him, I’ve had him sit in an old-fashioned horse carriage, pull a sleigh as fast as he could on the beach, jump on a trampoline, and pelt his sister with snowballs. (Guess which activity got the biggest smile out of him?) Just like in writing — if it’s  not fun for you, it shows through to your reader.
  • Keep the photos as big as you can.  And my rule is that in general, people on my holiday list really only want to see my kids. I’d rather have one great photo of the two of them than five smaller ones of the family. And lastly…
  • Make friends with a great photographer!  I’ve always done the photos for our cards myself, but this year my friend Kevin Harkins of Harkins Photography offered to take them for me.  The results were fabulous, and such a memorable way to (possibly) end my favorite tradition. To see our card this year as well as some of the outtake photos, hop over to his blog. And tell me — do you love doing holiday cards too?  If so, tell me about your favorite in the comments!

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

NOT the Slobbering Beast, although we are working on exactly this.

NOT the Slobbering Beast, although we are working on exactly this.

When I used to show my dog in the obedience ring, I had a joke with a friend.  If a dog sat when he was supposed to down, wandered off when heeling, or  jumped out of the ring to snag a jelly donut (before jumping back in!) it was ‘handler’s error.’ Translation: my fault.

My riding instructor said something similar this week.  There are three of us taking classes together, all of us middle-aged, at different levels of experience and with very different horses. We are all having different problems, and the ray of sunshine that is my current instructor blamed it all on us.  If the horse isn’t doing what you want it to do, she said, it’s your fault. 

Either you aren’t communicating clearly enough what it is you want, you haven’t schooled on that particular issue enough, or you haven’t made it evident just how important this action is to you and committed to following through with appropriate consequences when your request isn’t met.

There are exceptions, of course — there always are — but in general, to be a good trainer or rider, you need to look in the mirror when things aren’t going your way.

It’s the same with publishing.

At Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace two weekends ago, I heard the same message over and over and OVER again from the published writers who were teaching classes: There’s always a way to get better. There’s always a way to improve. There’s always room to make your dialogue sharper, your plot more intense, your characters more believable.

Agents want to say yes.They need to say yes — their income depends on finding that next sellable book.

Editors want to say yes. They want a book that keeps them up at night, that makes them go past their stop on the subway, that has their whole department buzzing.

If they aren’t saying yes, there’s a reason.

There are exceptions, of course — there always are — but in general, to be a good writer, you need to look in the mirror when things aren’t going your way.  You need to own what you can control, need to work it as hard as you can, so that if a ‘no’ comes your way, you know it’s not because of you, because YOUR writing is tight, YOUR dialogue sparkles, YOUR plot is heart-poundingly intense.

To paraphrase writer Matt Bell (who does so many revisions on his novels he made my head hurt) you have to be in it for the work, not the glory, because the glory may never come.

Do the work.

Spring in New England

photo copyNew Englanders are a reserved bunch.  My sister-in-law down South moved to a new home at the same time I moved to where I live now.  Within a week, she had five pies on her doorstep.  Here, it took me three months to meet my first neighbor.

Which is why spring in New England is so important.  It’s the time of year when we get a little giddy, when we throw caution to the wind, when our faith through the dark winter days is rewarded. This morning I drove past a house I’ve gone by almost every single day since September, a tiny nondescript ranch a long way from better times.  But I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen it before today, when the front yard was a riot of color, brilliant sunshine yellow daffodils against the bright pink of cherry blossoms.

Someone had to plant each one of those bulbs, digging down into the hardening earth, had to imagine how the flowers would look against a tree decked in its finest.  I hope the thought gave them a quiet chuckle, hope it helped them get through what seemed like an endless winter. It’s a gray day here today, but I’m carrying that image with me as a promise that spring is really here, even if there’s not much evidence yet.

Because sometimes all you can do is hope for better, more brilliant times, for something lovely to awaken from the darkness.

What, you don't have a luna moth chrysalis and praying mantis egg sac hanging around your house, waiting to hatch?

What, you don’t have a luna moth chrysalis and praying mantis egg sac hanging around your house, waiting to hatch?

Camouflage

Camouflage

Something Blue

I was going to link to this poem today — it is one of my favorites and I try to read it every spring. But it is gray and rainy here, so I thought we needed something more upbeat.

In my family, I am notorious for becoming infatuated with a song and playing it obsessively, until EVERYONE including the Slobbering Beast groans when they hear the first few notes.  (My son recently reminded my husband how lucky he was not to carpool with us in the morning because “You don’t have to hear about Jane and that dude wearing a corset all the time. Which is just weird.” Lou Reed, wherever you are, I salute you.)

But sometimes I hit on a winner, like this one. It has become our morning wake-up song, our roll down the windows and sing on the way home from school song, our dance around the kitchen after dinner song. Play it a few hundred times — it grows on you. (And read the ticker tape at the bottom if you need a laugh.)

Enjoy.

I’ve been riding horses, off and on, since I got my first paycheck out of college. One of the reasons I can still get on and (kind of) giddyup after years away from the barn is because I had great instructors. No matter how high my rent was, or what odd expenses came my way, I almost always managed to scrape together the money for a weekly lesson. One woman I rode with for over 10 years — she helped me find the first horse I ever owned free and clear, she taught me how to fall, she even came to my wedding, one of the few times I saw her dressed in something other than boots and breeches.

Another instructor helped me regain my confidence after some bad falls. She taught me how to observe what the horse was saying, not just what I wanted him to do. A third found me my dream horse and went out of her way to bring us together. Although there were other teachers, these three are the ones who mattered the most.

I’ve moved on from that part of my life, but I still remember them all every time I climb into a saddle, and at other moments as well. I learned so much from them, some of it about riding, most of it not.

My new instructor is funny and sharp, with her own ways of teaching, her own equine hangups.  She’s threatening to get a video camera system, so she can show those of us in her class how we really look, not just how we appear in our own heads. And it’s true — the way we think we ride, straight and tall, loose and limber, isn’t the reality at all. This week, something she said reminded me of an exchange I had a long time ago with my first instructor, who had seated me on a horse that was ready to leave the ground at any moment.  She kept telling me to turn him in circles and not to throw away my outside rein.  After the fifth or sixth time, I remember snapping that I was using the outside rein just #$#$ fine, thankyouverymuch.

“Well the horse disagrees,” she snapped back. “And so do I.”

In my last lesson, the current instructor was trying to help me get the horse on the bit going forward, and suddenly, I could hear the old instructor yelling at me not to give away that rein.  From the distance of 10 years or so, it suddenly made perfect sense.  So I shortened up the rein when I was turning, kept the tension in it as we circled, and voila! I had a horse on the bit, moving forward nicely.  (At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe in lieu of videotaped evidence.)

Revisions in writing can be a bit like riding. How you think it looks, how it appears in your own head, can be radically different from what is actually on the page. If you have beta readers, resist the urge to tell them “That’s exactly what I’ve done,” if they suggest you need to tighten up the plot, increase the love interest, or ground it in a more realistic setting. Remind yourself that you’ve asked for their advice because you have respect for their abilities and judgement. Say “thank you” to them and as little as possible of anything else. Then put their comments away, along with your manuscript, for as long as you possibly can.

When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you just may see that they were right.

Such bad form, but such a happy girl!

Such bad form, but such a happy girl!

 

 

Peas and Publishing

Last week I was sitting on Rory, listening to my instructor correct some point or other in my riding, and another person in the class commented on what a lovely head set Rory had as he stood there.  His head and spine were perfectly rounded, he was mouthing the bit, and he looked like a real dressage horse, instead of a get up and go hunter. (Like this, if you are looking for a visual.)

“I know,” I said. “I can get him to relax into it when we’re stopped, but not when we’re trotting.”

You know how the second the words come out of your mouth, you regret them? I should know better to ever, EVER  tell a riding instructor I can’t do something, because they will take it personally. They will devote the rest of their lives to making sure that I can. Or at least the rest of the lesson. And this instructor is no different.

“Of course you can,” she said immediately. And I silently cursed the person who had commented as I dutifully went off at the trot to get Rory on the bit.

But here’s the thing. People call riding a conversation, and it really is. No matter how big and powerful you are, no matter how harsh your aids, you cannot make a horse do something he doesn’t want to do.  You may prevail for a while, you may get your way that day, or the next, maybe even the third, but at some point in time there is going to come a reckoning, and it is not going to be an attractive one.

Instead it’s like getting a three-year-old to eat their peas.  You ask nicely.  You mix them with a bit of honey, maybe, and you’re not surprised when they come back at you.  You give it some room and you ask again. You mix them with carrots, you use them frozen to soothe sore gums, and eventually, if you’re persistent and you really, really want it, you have a three-year-old who will eat peas.

Let us say that Rory does not like peas in any way, shape, or form.  We’d had this conversation on our own, with me kind of suggesting, in a timid way, that he might want to try them, and him spitting them back out at me hard.  No peas for him, I’d decided.

Because the other part of the conversation of riding is that once you ask a horse for something, you have to follow through. You have to mean it, to really commit, because if you don’t, then the horse has just learned that he doesn’t have to respect you.  That you aren’t serious about this, and he can ignore whatever other suggestions you might have, which can get dicey when you’re outside and you ask him to pay attention to you, not to whatever is blowing in the breeze, or when you ask him to go over a jump.

But here was my instructor, telling me to give Rory some peas, telling me I was capable of doing this, that I NEEDED to do this. So I swallowed hard, and started the conversation.

It went about like you’d expect.  Rory huffed and puffed and behaved a little bit like a punk, tossing his head hard at me and stomping sideways. It wasn’t a full-scale temper tantrum, just a little bitty one, the equivalent of a toddler dumping his dish on the floor. No real malice, just curiosity about what would happen. Nothing personal.

“You can do this,” my instructor said. “And if it helps, I’ve never known him to buck.”  It didn’t help one bit, since I have a mortal fear of bucking based on past painful experience, and whenever anyone says that it’s the equivalent of saying the Titanic had plenty of life boats.

But I stayed with it, despite the huffing and puffing. I breathed and unfroze myself from the self-protective frame I’d immediately folded into.  I kept asking, nicely, and eventually Rory got tired of putting on a show. He recognized that I meant it, and he dropped his head, rounded his frame, and looked a little bit like a dressage rock star.

After, my instructor took me aside and reminded me that I had the skill to do this.  I had the talent, even if I hadn’t used it in a decade. That I should be able to get on a horse even after 10 years and politely and firmly explain what we were going to do, and then do it. That it’s not just skill, but self-confidence too.

Publishing is a very similar conversation.  You can’t make an agent take you, you can’t make a publishing house buy your book. You can’t make readers fall in love with your story.  But you can be prepared. You can be as skilled as you possibly can be before you start that conversation. You can commit all the way to making it happen, to getting better and better, to not taking the rejection personally, but to getting back to a place of strength for the next time you ask. And the time after that. And every single time going forward. Until at last, you get that yes.

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My little girl on my big sweet non-punk horse.

Nostalgia

I went to the preschool today and remembered how much I loved this quote when my children went there, so I thought I’d share it with you.

“The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.”

Plato

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I wish all the children of the world were so fortunate.

Pick One Thing

Lately when riding, I am a hot mess. (That’s the technical term.  The actual term used by my instructor is unprintable here.) There are so many things going on — my seat isn’t balanced, my legs slide forward, my knees are jammed up against the knee roll, my reins get floppy — hence, the hot mess. (In fairness to my past riding self, it’s not all bad all the time — but compared to how I used to be, it certainly feels that way.)

This week, my instructor brought me back to basics.  She took a long whip, threaded it between my elbows and behind my back, and told me to keep it there while cantering.  Lean forward and hunch your shoulders toward your ears (my favorite riding position, apparently) and the whip pops out. Humiliation galore. (And an exciting ride if it happens to hit your horse on the way down.)

It’s an old trick, but it worked.  To keep the whip in place, I had to roll my shoulders down and lean back. Which centered my seat. Which fixed my leg. Which got my hands out of my lap and improved the way I held the reins.

One small change, and everything fell into place.

Writing is like that too.  Looking at an entire manuscript is overwhelming and can make you feel like a failure.  But if you pick just one thing to work on — your dialogue, for example, or the way you transition between scenes — one of two things will happen:

Either you’ll fix the main problem, and everything else will snap into place, or…

You’ll find out you have more work to do.  Which isn’t the end of the world, I promise.  It just means picking the next one thing. Fixing that. And moving on.

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(And if you’ve read this far, here’s a reward — one of my favorite riding videos is at the end of this page.)

Hiding in Plain Sight

Last week, after one of the constant snow storms, the Slobbering Beast and I were lucky enough to be the first ones on the trail.  No car tracks at the main entrance, no boot marks anywhere.  Bliss. We hiked in silence, the only noise the creaking of the trees, the crash of ice and of snow sliding off a branch. We took a side trail, not the main one, and about 15 minutes in the snow was covered in tracks.  Small prints — mice or maybe chipmunks — hand-like prints that could have been raccoon or skunk, and then, far off on the rocks, a large dog-like paw print with no human tracks in sight.  We didn’t linger near that one.

The Slobbering Beast was in his glory, running this way and that, investigating every scent.  It was a reminder to me that the woods are like this for him every time, full of invisible residents. They are there always, even when I can’t see the signs of their presence.

Stories are like that too, I think. All around us, hiding in plain sight, invisible until there’s a shift in our thinking, a catalyst to change how we view the world. Then they reveal themselves, ready at last to be told.

What stories will you see today?

Happy dog

Around This Time…

Saint Francis is wishing he’d been posted to a warmer clime.

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Space

I’ve finished a project.  It feels odd to type those words, because I’ve been working on it for so long. And of course it’s not really finished — it’s just resting with someone else for a bit.  I’m nervous and anxious and a bit at a loss for what to do with all this mental space.  I finish a freelance project and turn around to poke some words on my manuscript into place and remember that I’ve sent it off. I pick up a book to read and don’t have to put it down because it’s 10 p.m. and I haven’t made my word count for the day.  I can read my favorite authors again without worrying I’ll be influenced by their voices.

What will I do with all this head room?  For now, I’ll let it be.  I’m organizing my physical space — I promised myself if I finished writing this month I’d clean my office and closet (how sad is that for a motivating goal?) — and in a bit I’ll organize my brain,  too.  I’ll read plotting books, research the idea for a story that’s whispering in my ear, and maybe take a few workshops.  But for now, I’m trying to let my brain be still, let the writing muscles rest so that they’ll be ready when I need them again.

What do you do with the space between projects?Image