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!
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.
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:
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:
won’t ever have time to grow into this:
And who knows what else the world will miss?
(Tell me — how do you balance organization and creativity?)
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.
What are your fall writing resolutions?
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.)
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.