Archive for the ‘writing’ Tag
Last week my baby started first grade. Which means that from the hours of 9:00 to 3:30 each day, all of my children are now in school. When a friend recently asked me how I felt about that I answered: “Euphoric and terrified at the same time.” Euphoric because I can finally focus on finishing my novel and getting it out there. Terrified for the very same reason.
I realized how scared I really was about this on the morning my kids started school. As soon as they were out the door, I jumped on my mountain bike and headed up to the foothills near our home. I was almost to the top of the trail when a large, tawny-colored animal crossed the path ahead of me and disappeared into the trees. It had only been about 30 feet in front of me, but with the bend in the trail I hadn’t gotten a good glimpse of it. Most likely it was a mule deer. They live in these hills, and come down from the mountains in small herds to devour any unprotected vegetable garden in their path. But as it hurried away into the scrub oak, I swear I saw a long TAIL. My brain screamed MOUNTAIN LION, and I turned my bike so quickly in the opposite direction that I hit my back wheel on a rock and got a flat tire.
I hurried out of the park as fast as I could, and took the paved road back home. Unfortunately, that road took me by the cemetery, and as I walked past, pushing my bike alongside me, I noticed the vultures that nest in our city cemetery circling overhead, their great dark wings hanging heavily against the sky. “If I were writing a story,” I thought. “The mountain lion and the vultures would make really potent symbols.” I continued to ponder this. “What,” I wondered, “would they represent?”
And of course, that is when it hit me: fear. My own fear. Of failure.
I had to laugh at myself then. And laughing gave me just enough courage to sit down and write, so as soon as I got home, I pulled out my computer and got to work. Now I’m struggling through. I have to admit, it is taking a LOT of chocolate. But I am looking fear in the face and I am doing it. I haven’t seen any more mountain lions slink past, and the vultures have stopped circling overhead. I found a quote recently that I need to blow up in ginormous writing so that I can remember it if a shadow passes above me, or something heavy moves in the trees. It is by Gordon B. Hinckley and it goes like this: ”You have not failed until you quit trying.”
I’ve kept a journal for as long as I can remember. It’s a habit my mom started me on. Sunday afternoons she would hand us each our hard back, blank-paged book, our name engraved on the front, and instruct us to write something about our week. Most of my early entries were catalogs of which VHS movie we rented from Albertson’s for our weekly movie night (we rented the VCR, too) and what candy I picked to go with it. I must have really loved those movie nights.
As I got older I turned to my journal more often than Sunday afternoons, and began writing in order to make sense of my life and my feelings, like this entry from 1988: “I’m in the 6th grade right now and everything is really confusing. I don’t want to grow up sometimes.” (Don’t you just want to give that poor girl a hug and tell her everything will be okay?)
Now I am a journal enthusiast. I have journals for every trip I’ve taken, journals for each of my kids, a journal about mothering, a journal to record my spiritual journey through life, and a journal I just started where I try to write one super-positive, self-affirming statement every morning. I feel a little silly about that last one, but I’m telling you, it really makes a difference.
I also have a journal that I share with my daughter, Hattie. We hand it back and forth to each other, taking turns writing messages to each other on its secret pages. Most of Hattie’s entries start and end with, “I love you.” One even says, “I love you so much. Even better than the stars.” But last week she broke the mold with this little missive:
STOP YELLING AT ME!
Wow. Point taken. I had been yelling too much. Not just at her – at everybody. Now I had a whole new reason to be grateful for our little journal. It gave her the chance to share her feelings with me, even when they were negative. At different points throughout the journal I had offered small suggestions or corrections to her behavior, and now she was offering one to mine. I was definitely humbled. Especially when a few minutes later she stole the journal away and amended the page to read:
I’m sorry. I’ll forgive you. But can you forgive me?
I have so much to learn from her. Of all the journals I have kept over the years, I already know this one will be my most priceless. The others I have stacked away in bins and boxes, but this one will always be close by. I hope it will continue to grow and change, just like my little girl. Her birthday is this week. I can’t believe how big she is getting. She is so excited to be in the spotlight. Her last entry in the journal reads,
One more day til my birthday. Well, I guess one and a half, to be more pacific.
This afternoon I headed up to Sandy for my fourth consecutive summer as an attendee of the Writing and Illustrating for Young Reader’s Conference. It is an excellent conference, with so many interesting, inspiring, and engaging writers who share their knowledge and experience with ‘pre-published’ writers like myself. (‘Pre-published’ is a term I picked up this afternoon – as opposed to ‘unpublished’. Doesn’t it sound nicer?) However, in spite of all the writing love that goes around, a smallish-largish part of me was dreading attending the conference yet again as one of the ‘pre-published’. What is my problem that I am STILL working on my revisions? Why is it taking me so long?
Of course I know the answer to that. I have four kids, and when it comes down to it my time will always go to them first. At the beginning of this last school year, my youngest headed off to preschool two mornings a week. I was so excited to finally have some time alone to write. But I ended up volunteering at the elementary school both those mornings. When school ended, and my book was still unfinished, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Maybe I should have kept those mornings to myself.
What saved me from the burden of regret was a packet of bright blue cards that my son, Hunter, brought home from his fourth grade class on the last day of school. Thank you notes from his classmates for all the time I put into teaching them creative writing this year.
Here are some of my favorites (with original writing and punctuation):
You are my Wrighting Hero! Thank you very much!
I get to be a hero! Writing to the rescue!
Your the best in the world. You helped us a lot with our story’s. Thank you so much.
I’m a huge fan of hyperbole when it applies to me.
You are so greate. I love riteing and this really helped me. Thank you!
I’m not sure if I should be concerned about the various spellings for the word ‘writing’, but I was thrilled to know that this little girl loves to write, and that my time spent with the class helped her with the process.
You have been great and I think you made my book turn out good!
I loved this note because the boy who wrote it really did an excellent job with revisions. I was really proud of the effort he put into his book, and was glad that he saw the difference it made.
You are very pretty and thank you for the advice.
Pure gratification. I’m pretty and smart? Yay!
Thank you for taking the time to teach us to write!
I appreciated that this boy acknowledged the time that went into working with the class. There were so many nights when I stayed up late reading their stories. But when I read this last note, it was clear to me that all the time I gave them was worth it.
Thank you for giving me great ideas for my story. I hope that you liked coming to our class to incourage us to become a life long writer.
These notes were just what I needed to soothe my frustration at not finishing my novel. They reassured me that my time away from my own writing was time well spent. Maybe I’ll carry them with me to the conference tomorrow, to remind me that it is okay to still be sitting among the ‘pre-published’.
I decided to wake up at 6:30 this morning to work on my novel. For the morning people out there that might not sound like a big deal, but for me this was a desperate measure. The last few days have just been too busy to squeeze out any writing time during more reasonable hours, and summer is coming soon. I’ll have all my kids home, which I am happy about, but writing will be hard. So 6:30 was my big idea.
Or, I should say, I failed. I was still in bed at 7:30 when my three year old came into my room, dragging his blanket behind him. So I recalibrated. I decided I would make time to write after lunch. But first I had to take my six year old to the pediatrician, buy crickets for our family gecko, fill the mini van with gas, and figure out what to feed all of us. With all of that accomplished, I put my three year old down for a nap and plopped my six year old in front of Yogi the Bear. Time to write.
There was the mess: dirty soccer socks, unwashed dishes, remnant Easter candies and wrappers spilled on the floor in my kids’ bedrooms. I knew I should write. I need to write. I get cranky and depressed when I don’t write. But I also get cranky and depressed when the house is messy, and believe it or not, laundry and dishes is much easier disaster relief than novel revision. So I started to clean.
Until my phone rang. It was my writer-friend, Jen. “I need a pep talk,” she said. She’d put her toddler down for a nap so she could write, only . . .
I could finish her words. We were in exactly the same place. So we complained and commiserated. We reassured each other that our novels do NOT suck. And we promised each other that we would hang up the phone and GO WRITE.
It was just what I needed. I left the messes behind and went to my computer. I tackled my novel. I even had a couple of ah-ha moments.
Thanks goodness for pep talks. And the friends who somehow know when you need one.
I couldn’t call this “Monday’s Portrait” because Monday is over. I have four more minutes before Tuesday is gone, too. So I’ll be brief. It has been very busy here. One of my projects has been helping my son’s fourth grade class finish up their creative writing projects. I gave them each an “Editorial Letter,” this week, poor things. I tried not to be negative at all. I just gave them each an idea for changing their stories. They hate changing their stories. But I have been trying to emphasize that revising means making changes.
One of the problems I found in many of their stories is that once they got their main characters into a tough situation they didn’t know what to do next. So they would just hurry and end the story. For the girls that meant the bad guys suddenly turned good and had a picnic with the protagonists. For the boys it often involved dead bodies. Including the protagonists. This was my all time favorite:
“They all got sucked in a portal and they were never seen again. The end.”
I think this is awesome. I wish I could end all of my books this way. I even wish I could find this portal and climb into it myself. I don’t want to be never seen again, even though I think the portal people are living happily ever after, with milk and warm cookies to eat. I just want to disappear for the rest of the month and reemerge when soccer and baseball and dance and piano recitals and school carnivals and field trips and book fair and all the end-of-the-school-year-hoopla is over.
Recently the librarian at my children’s elementary school displayed a bushy-bearded photo of Walt Whitman and challenged the older students to guess the poet. My fourth grader, stumped, came home and asked me if I know who it was. The only clue I would give him was that every spring when our lilac bush starts to unfold its little curls of green, I think of these words from one of his poems: “heart-shaped leaves of rich green.” I didn’t tell him that the poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” was written as an elegy for President Lincoln. I didn’t tell him the name of the poet, and I don’t think he ever guessed it. But when he is a little older, maybe we will read Walt Whitman together, and share in the legacy that Whitman left behind.
Until recently, I considered Whitman’s greatest legacy his poetry. But I’ve been reading THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING: DEATH AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR by Drew Gilpin Faust. I started reading it last September when we took a family trip to Pennsylvania and visited Gettysburg. It was a sobering experience, visiting that battle site while reading Faust’s harrowing account of death and disease on and off the battlefield.
Faust speaks briefly of Whitman in her book. During the Civil War he traveled to Virginia searching for his brother George who was reported wounded after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Whitman found George recovering from superficial wounds, but he also found a scene of awful suffering. Faust writes:
“Whitman became a tireless hospital visitor, spending seven or eight hours each day ministering to patients. He provided rice puddings, small amounts of spending money, stamped envelopes and stationary, peaches, apples, oranges, horseradish, undershirts, socks, soap, towels, oysters, jellies, horehound candy – and love, comfort and ‘cheer.’ And he himself wrote hundreds of letters – often, he reported, more than a dozen a day – for soldiers unable to do this for themselves.”
His letters were nothing like his poems. Simple, informative. Reassuring when circumstances allowed, consoling when they did not. He knew first-hand the anxiety of loved ones searching for news from brothers, sons, and husbands, and answered their need, as well as the needs of soldiers who were wounded or dying.
I think of those letters, and their profound importance to those who received them. Word for word, is it possible that they might be more valuable than his monumental poems of life and love, war and death? The letters haven’t remained, or been canonized in great books of poetry, but for those who received them they must have been like manna from heaven.
Maybe the answer is that Whitman has more than one legacy to share. One of the genius-poet, and the other of an ordinary man doing his best to “love, comfort, and ‘cheer’”.
In last week’s post I promised more discussion about my failed attempt to finish my novel by January 24th. Like I said, I’m happy with the way the revisions are going, but in February I wasn’t feeling quite so optimistic about it. I have been working on this novel for YEARS. It has grown and developed so much, but it has also spanned all the years of my motherhood. In fact, when I started with my first critique group I missed our inaugural meeting because my oldest child had just been born. At the time, I was workshopping the same manuscript I am working on today, and in February, that newborn baby turned ten years old.
When his birthday arrived, I was already feeling like a failure for not finishing my novel. Now I began to mourn the fact that my baby had become such a big boy. Time felt like a weight on my shoulders. I didn’t seem to have any control over it. I wanted to stop the rush of years, get my book done, and hold on tight to my little ones before they all grew up.
About that time, my parents came into town and invited me to a Utah Jazz basketball game. I brought my oldest son with me, and we had fun eating nachos and cheering with the crowd. Then something entirely unexpected happened. At half-time a group of dancers came to the floor. They wore long tops and pants, and most of them had white, permed hair. They were announced as Jean’s Golden Girls, ranging between 50-93 years old. Between them they had 500 children, 1200 grandchildren, and 250 great-grandchildren. The music started, and those women started to shake and shimmy like you’ve never seen.
It took my breath away. I watched them give everything to the dance, smiles on their faces. I whooped and screamed, delighted at their performance, their joie de vivre, and suddenly I was crying. Tears streaming down my face in the middle of a loud, hot, crowded basketball stadium. I seriously wondered if I was losing my mind. I tried wiping my eyes before my mom could see and wonder about my mental health, but I just couldn’t watch those ladies without a profound emotion welling up from deep inside.
By the time their six minutes on the court had ended, something inside me had changed. I didn’t think of time in the same way – as something finite that was rushing past me, ever elusive. I saw it now as a gift to be enjoyed. Celebrated. Used for living, writing, mothering, dancing. The fear that time would pass me by no longer pressed down on me, and when the show ended with a ninety-three year old woman doing the splits in center court, I cheered louder than anyone else in the stadium.
That was over a month ago, and the weight is still diminished. I continue to ask myself, ‘Will I ever get my novel finished?’ but I know I will. Maybe not in the time frame I would like, but I am committed to it, and I will finish it. It is also true that my children will grow up much faster than I would like. And it will break my heart and make me happier than I can imagine all at the same time. But I’m going to try not to worry too much about deadlines or driver’s ed. I’m going to try and enjoy the dance.
Saturday I drove 40 minutes south for the first annual Teen Book Fest at the Provo City Library. When I arrived, the first thing I encountered was the table where high school students could register for extra credit. Before I realized what the table was for, I got in the back of the line. When I discovered it was not the line for me, I was very happy I didn’t need extra credit, and also a little sad. I loved those students. They clustered around doorways in groups of three or more, tried not to look too interested, and asked the authors questions like, “What is your favorite kind of cereal?” They were the ‘teen’ in the Teen Book Fest.
And what was I? Not the teen. Not the book. Certainly not fest, darn-it. If I hadn’t hired a babysitter to come and watch my kids for me, I might have stayed home. It’s hard to go time after time to these author events and wonder, ‘Will I ever get my revisions done? If I do, who will want to buy my book?’ But I convinced myself that I could learn something by attending, so I put on my new red pea-coat and headed out the door.
I’m so glad I did. It was wonderful to see Ann Cannon, author of The Loser’s Guide to Life and Love, and hear her read from her book. She talked about the inspiration behind Scout, the book’s female protagonist, who happens to be a closet romance-reader. For fun Cannon brought along The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book and she entertained us all by sharing some choice excerpts. I loved what Cannon said about writing characters who are real, and how a part of the author goes into what she/he writes.
I also got so much – courage, inspiration, illumination – from the panel I attended with contemporary YA fiction writers Sara Zarr (Once Was Lost), Ann Dee Ellis (Everything is Fine) and Carol Lynch Williams (The Chosen One). They talked about why they write for teens, why they write realistic stories that come with the hard-edge of truth, and the challenges they face as writers. I loved what they said about the writers who influence them, and about the importance of hope in their writing.
While I was at the Book Fest, I had the chance to speak to another local author, Ally Condie. Her new book, Matched, will be released soon. It has already received great reviews and a lot of media attention. I can’t wait to read it. I’ve heard Condie speak at other author events and admire how honest, funny, and kind she is. I loved what she said recently on the blog, throwing up words. When I read what she wrote about writing as a hobby I thought, “That is it, exactly.” So I’m going to let her words be my portrait for today – my portrait of a hobby:
At the beginning of the school year I told my fourth grader’s teacher about my writing background and offered to help with writing in the classroom. I was thrilled when he asked me to come in twice a month and teach thirty minute writing lessons to the kids. Last week was my first lesson. I decided to start at the very beginning of the writing process: the idea. We made a list on the board of all the places we can get creative ideas from if we are paying attention. The list included: people we know, things we have seen, the news, conversations, dreams, our imagination, asking the question ‘what if?’, experiences we’ve had, and memories.
I showed the kids a small pile of notebooks where I have recorded my ideas over the years. I told them the story of how J.K. Rowling was riding on a train when the idea for Harry Potter came to her. She didn’t have a pen or paper to write it down so she spent the train ride letting her imagination flow. But on her blog she wonders if she may have forgotten some of her original inspiration because she didn’t write it down.
I handed out notebooks to each of the kids. I asked them to use the list we’d made on the board, and write down ten ideas. I gave them fifteen minutes to work on their lists, and then I collected the notebooks. The next day I had so much fun reading through their ideas. The ingenunity in those notebook pages! I have to admit that I was a little bit jealous of all that unbridled curiosity and imagination.
Here are some of my favorite ideas:
What if you read a book and it really happened?
What if Earth was bigger than the sun?
What if there were no animals on the planet?
What if the sky was always blue and never had a cloud in it?
What if school was ten hours long?
A world where mathematics was the only language.
A witch who replaces Santa Claus and is even better than him.
Trampoline time travel.
A black widow spider that is five feet long.
How to train your werewolf.
A boy who is a bully and has no friends. When he is mad the sky turns red.
There isn’t one idea that is the best. They are all so good. So full of wonder, interest, and creative potential. I can’t wait to see what else will fill up the notebooks in the weeks to come.
Four weeks ago I posted about the chaos of summer, and the challenge it is to find time to be creative in my home full of busy little bodies. Here was the conclusion that I came to:
My creative life is not compartmentalized. Who I am doesn’t have to be something separate from who my kids need me to be. It is time for me to learn how to feed on chaos.
A good friend of mine, Emily, who is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the The Exponent, an online publication for LDS women, asked to repost my blog entry on the Exponent blog. I received several comments from readers, including one with a frankness that made me laugh. It went like this:
Let us know when you figure out how to feed on chaos.
I appreciated the honesty of this remark. It is one thing to say you are going to feed on chaos, it is another thing entirely to start taking it in in great mouthfulls. But this is what I have learned in the past month.
First – I am a person who needs calm and quiet when I work. I can’t set my computer up at the kitchen table and expect to get anything worthwhile completed on my novel when kids are running in and out the back door looking for more popsicles or crying over bee stings. I know that about myself. It is just how I am, and that is okay. For me, feeding on chaos does not mean completely succombing to it.
Second – I don’t need to set aside long periods of time to be productive. I used to think I needed at least an hour hollowed out from my day where nobody and nothing could disrupt me from my writing. But that doesn’t work when you are feeding on chaos. I’ve learned that ten minutes of quiet can be enough. In fact, if I get up from my computer after just ten or fifteen minutes, I find that I haven’t exhausted my creativity like I would if I sat down for an hour or longer. After ten minutes I leave my quiet office with my mind still open and reaching, and as a result ideas follow me around the rest of the day. Much better ideas than the ones that come while I am sitting at my desk, pleading with my computer screen to somehow make the words come out right.
So I feel like I have, in some measure, learned how to feed on chaos. I’m not going to win any contests for speed or productivity, but I’ve been able to be where I want to be with my family and still keep my creative self alive, and that makes me happy.