I Did It - Despite Myself

Story GeniusI’m working on a new novel, so I spent time this morning freewriting on my main character’s desire and her misbelief. The misbelief is something that Lisa Cron talks about in Story Genius. John Truby might call it the character’s initial error. Other craft writers might call it a wound or a lie or fear. No matter what you call it, it’s important. You want your character to not only have a strong desire toward something, but you also want to give her something that holds her back in some way. After defining the desire and the misbelief, Cron coaches writers to create three poignant moments in the main character’s back story when the misbelief was cemented for her.Anatomy of Story As I was freewriting, it occurred to me that if I were a character in a book my desire and my misbelief would be obvious. What I wanted more than anything in my professional life was to publish a book. But deep inside, I didn’t believe that I was good enough. I didn’t believe it would ever happen.

There were several moments in my writing life that cemented my misbelief. (It should be noted that there were far more moments that encouraged me. For whatever reason, I tended to give the negative messages more weight). In my junior year of high school, I believed that because I was floored by some of my fellow students’ writing, that meant that my writing was no good. I didn’t realize that they simply had a different style than mine and I didn’t believe that I could improve. I thought writing was innate and either I was gifted or I was not. (For more on this error in thought, see this previous post and this talk by Carol Dweck.)

Fast forward to me as an adult. Decades later, I’d finally given myself permission to write and had graduated with an MFA from VCFA. When an editor complimented the second book I wrote but said that it wasn’t strong enough to be a debut, I took her word as fact and stopped querying that book. People told me that the querying process was very subjective, but I didn’t really get it.

More recently, after completing my third novel, I’d queried many agents and received many full requests. And yet, I received no offers of representation. I stopped querying that book. I had been encouraged to query more agents, but I believed that it wasn’t the right time for the book, so I stopped.

Fortunately, I love writing so much that I kept at it even though I didn’t believe a book deal would happen. I love creating stories and characters and figuring out what they will do next and how to make things hard on them. I love the idea of connecting with teens through my stories. Also, I have an incredible writing support system – from my family to my work colleagues to my writing peeps – all of whom remind me to keep at it even when I become discouraged.

Thanks to the fact that my desire was stronger than my misbelief, I did sell my young adult novel. One of my writing friends encouraged me to return to querying and after just and handful of new queries, I was offered representation by an agent who is a great fit for me and my writing. It turns out that I was wrong in the best possible way and that’s what a misbelief is – it’s the thing that tells you can’t, even though you can.

As I get back to freewriting on my character, I’ll keep working on creating a strong desire and a powerful misbelief.  But here’s the thing – we aren’t characters in books. We are real, live human beings trying to achieve our dreams. Find your support system. Don’t buy in to your misbelief. Follow your dreams. They tend not to happen on the schedule you’d like, but they often do come true.

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(Book images from Amazon.com. Dweck quote image from quotefancy.com)

Singing with Bobby

A few weeks ago, I learned that Bobby McFerrin was going to lead a CircleSong at my church. Stalwart followers of this blog will remember that I wrote a post about Bobby a few years back, after he’d been interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being. I was struck and inspired at that time by the way that Bobby talked about coaching students through fear. He tells them to open their mouths and sing for ten minutes. He tells them that about a minute in, every fiber in your being will want to stop. Don't stop, he says. Keep going.

At that time I’d been struggling a bit with my writing and had been waiting for fear to simply go away. Bobby inspired me to stay in my seat and keep showing up at the page. It seems to me that Bobby's encouragement of young singers speaks to Elizabeth Gilbert's observation of fear.

Liz Gilbert Fear and Creativity

When I met Bobby last year, I gathered the courage to tell him about the blog post. His response: “Cosmic.” So, when I learned that he was leading a CircleSong, I decided I would go – even though I have zero training in singing. For one, he’s about joy and spontaneity and creative expression. Who doesn't need that? He believes that humans are meant to sing. I believe that too. I just happen to think that my singing is best kept inside my car with all the windows rolled up. Also, did I mention that he’s Bobby McFerrin?

Having never seen or participated in a CircleSong, I walked in with two fears. One: that he would expect that we have singing experience and two: that we would sing individually.

The pews were at least half full with people when I arrived. Immediately one of my fears came true: Bobby asked everyone to gather according to their voice type. I have no idea if I’m a soprano, alto, or what. I lurked at the back of a group as he walked around singing a note and asking the group to sing it back. The group I’d chosen was way too high. I kept moving myself a few steps to the right until I felt like my voice fit in.

Fortunately, my second fear didn’t come true. We never had to sing on our own. What happened was Bobby would give each group a little piece to sing. We’d repeat it back to him until he was satisfied that we’d gotten it. Then he’d move to the next group. After all five groups were singing their pieces in repetition, he improvised over us. Though this video is not our church, the experience was a lot like this:

https://youtu.be/vALN3LZm3J4

Even though I stayed at the back of the group, I was captivated by the joy of people raising their voices together in song. After an hour, our songs took a turn toward silly as Bobby started one group repeating phrases after him that become more and more absurd until many of us burst out laughing.

When the group broke up, I slid out the side door. As I walked home in the dark of an October evening, I possessed that delicious airy feeling of having tried something out of my comfort zone and having a blast doing it. That's the thing about fear. It keeps us small. But opening our mouths and letting our voices be heard? That's when we expand and take up the space that was intended for us in this world.

(Elizabeth Gilbert quote from Pinterest. Video from YouTube).

North Country Rejuvenation

  morning on the dock.jpgThis morning is my last at the lake for this trip. The Adirondacks have received more than their fair share of rain over the last month or so and we've experienced some of that weather during our two weeks up here. On the mornings that have allowed it, I pour my coffee and walk down to the dock to take in the quietest part of the day. The gentle lapping of the water against the rocky shore and the ruffling of the leaves in the breeze accompany the slight rocking of the dock.

On the rainy days, I've scribbled out some stories and curled on the couch to read books. But most days, the weather allowed me to paddle out on my beloved red kayak. One day I saw a gaggle of geese. I wondered at the chicks' innate ability to line up neatly between two adults.

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When I walked my dog, I noted again the rock cairns that someone has created. They hold a mysterious benevolence to me.

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One sunny day, when my arms were tired from so much paddling, I hopped on a mountain bike to explore a park that we've driven past many times. What I found enchanted me. Narrow, but well-groomed trails barely held off the lush greens of ferns, firs and birch. Wooden bridges crossed bubbling streams packed with moss-covered rocks. When I learned that the park was conceived and built specifically to accommodate wheelchairs, I loved it even more.

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On July 4, we walked to the town beach to enjoy sausages grilled by the Fire Department and live music. When evening began to fall, we returned to our dock for the fireworks.

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Though this morning broke gray, the clouds are moving fast and the sun is peeking through. I hope for one more paddle before we begin to pack up for our return home. If not, I can take the peace of this place with me, knowing that I will return.

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More Alike Than Different

Maybe you’ve seen the iPhone commercial featuring Maya Angelou reciting her beautiful poem, “Human Family.” Some people seem to think that the use of the poem to sell iPhones somehow diminishes the poem. I disagree. I love hearing Angelou’s distinctive voice over the many images of human beings during the course of the commercial. Over the weekend, I was reminded of that poem. My husband and son were running the Philadelphia Half-Marathon in support of the Alzheimer’s Association. The morning broke clear and crisp and I rode my bike through our glorious Wissahickon Park to the area where the race was taking place. cresting-the-hill

Finding an excellent viewing spot just after mile 7, I parked my bike and waited for the first runners to crest the hill. Before the first runners, were the paralyzed athletes using handcycles to propel themselves up the huge hill. We cheered them on. A bit later came the leaders: three slim black men running 5 minute miles like it was no big deal. We cheered them on. Later, more runners climbed the hill. Young men and women like my son and his friend, well-conditioned from cross country season. We cheered them on. Then I jumped on my bike and parked myself at mile 12, just 1.1 miles from the finish.

zach-and-friend

Soon, I saw my son and his friend. Then my trainer. Next, my husband. I cheered them on. As I waited for my son and my husband to join me, I continued to cheer. I had watched as the participants morphed from ropey runners in tank tops and shorts to, let’s say, more round runners in running tights, long-sleeved shirts and headphones plugging their ears. The front of the pack runners made it look easy, like they could run that pace all the way to New York, if need be. The runners at the end of the pack were fighting for every step.

 

But every person out there was there for the same reason: to complete 13.1 miles that day in Philadelphia. Black, white, brown, beige and pink. Tall, short, thin, fat. Running on two legs, running on two blades, running while juggling. Propelling themselves on recumbent bikes, walking fast, walking slow, hobbling on a sore leg. Wearing race gear, wearing tutus, wearing a Captain America costume. Kids in middle school, adults well past retirement age and everyone in between. They all showed up to do the same thing. In these post election weeks fraught with fear and anxiety, I was struck by the common purpose of these 12,000 individuals and I cheered them all on. I agree with Maya Angelou. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

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Human Family

I note the obvious differences in the human family. Some of us are serious, some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived as true profundity, and others claim they really live the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones can confuse, bemuse, delight, brown and pink and beige and purple, tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas and stopped in every land, I've seen the wonders of the world not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women called Jane and Mary Jane, but I've not seen any two who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different although their features jibe, and lovers think quite different thoughts while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China, we weep on England's moors, and laugh and moan in Guinea, and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland, are born and die in Maine. In minor ways we differ, in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

Work To Be Done

One of my volunteer activities at my son’s Quaker private school is to shelve books in the library. If you know me, you know I love books. And if you know libraries, you know that they can almost always use an extra pair of hands to re-shelve the countless books that are pulled by students doing research or simply browsing. Today was my first time shelving in two weeks, which is to say that it was my first time shelving since the election. Some of the books that needed shelving today were in the 700s. There must be a teacher who annually requests a term paper on famous painters. I remember shelving these same books last year. The majority of the books were in the 200’s and 300’s – the social sciences. As I shelved the books from my cart, I also picked up random books that students had left lying in carrels. There was “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of “Americanah.” Also, a resource book about being supportive of LGBT students. (It was an older book, there was no Q in the title.) There was “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother” by James McBride. And “Black Man in a White Coat,” by Damon Tweedy about race and the medicine.

Maybe students had used these books for research projects. But I wondered if maybe they had pulled the books during a free period, when they were trying to make sense of the election upset last week. I like the idea that these books may have helped some students navigate a path that they didn’t expect.

I’ve been wondering, too, over this last week if my stories matter, if my words matter. Last week I saw a Humans of New York post featuring Barack Obama. He was asked about a low point in his career and he shared about losing badly the first time he ran for Senate. He was thinking that maybe that work wasn’t what he was meant to do. I can’t imagine Barack Obama doubting that he was intended for public service. And yet, he did.

barack-obama

The words he shared about how he got through that low point have been replaying in my mind over the last days. It is clear that there is work to be done. I just need to figure out what my role will be.

 

The Stanton Effect: Write from Experience

L. Marie invited me to post on a series of blogs focused on Andrew Stanton's TED talk Clues to a Great Story. My post is linked below the video of Stanton's talk. (BTW, there is some graphic language in the beginning of his talk. It's a great joke, though.) [embed]http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_stanton_the_clues_to_a_great_story?language=en[/embed]

The Stanton Effect: Write from Experience.

YA Dystopia: Where the Chicks Get to do the Cool Stuff

“War is peace.  Freedom is slavery.  Ignorance is strength.” I just finished re-reading George Orwell’s 1984. I say re-read because I read it once in high school (didn’t we all?) but I felt as though I was reading it for the first time because all I remembered was a white male protagonist, an oppressive regime and something about sex. Last spring I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the first time. I was surprised to realize many similarities between the two books.

Orwell’s book came first, published in 1949 and inspired by anti-Stalinist sentiment as well as the realization of the relationship of society and government to the people. Bradbury’s book was published in 1953 and was inspired by the McCarthy hearings. No matter the initial inspiration, the effect is quite similar between the two. In both books, the protagonist is a fairly unexceptional middle-aged man living in an oppressive system. In fact, in both books, the protagonist’s job is essentially the destruction of words. In the case of 1984, main character Winston “rectifies” past newspaper articles so that they agree with the current sentiments of the government. 451’s Guy Montag is a fireman, he sets fire to books, which are illegal. In both books, the main characters view their wives as vapid, shallow women with whom they are unable to connect. In both books, a young vibrant woman is the spark that sets the main character toward his path of rebellion. And both books feature a somewhat mysterious man who assists the main character in his brave act.

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

The worlds of these books are exceedingly well conceived. There is much to respect in each of them. But it’s what I didn’t see that grabbed my attention. I didn’t see myself. Reading these books made me remember why I fell in love with young adult literature. The young adult dystopias that have landed on best-seller lists and subsequently made into movies are like feminist retellings of these old classics.

Even if you don’t feel that the protags of some of the recent big sellers can rightly be called feminist, you’ve got to admit what absolute fun it is to see girls at the helms of these stories. Girls who aren’t vapid or shallow or manic pixie dream girls, but girls who shoot arrows and start revolutions, who leap from trains and save their friends, who defy what society demands in order to do what is right.Katniss

I grant you that we seem to have traded the middle-aged man paired with young nubile female for teen girl chased by two overly handsome brave boys, but still — if I’m going to read something and try to find myself, I’d much rather see Katniss or Tris than Julia or Clarisse.

I grew weary of adult fiction when I couldn’t find myself there anymore. I wasn’t in the middle-aged men having affairs. I wasn’t in the mothers unfulfilled by motherhood. I wasn’t in the working women who loved to shop. I definitely wasn’t in the Red Room of Pain. Young adult literature offered me girls as main characters, girls who worked toward what they wanted, girls who fought and feared and loved and lost. Girls that spoke to me.Tris Climbing the Ferris Wheel

At the end of the day, isn’t this what the #weneeddiversebooks campaign is all about? Every child should be able to open a book and see herself — no matter what color her skin or who she loves or where she came from. It’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t take another sixty years.

(book covers from Amazon.com, Katniss from moviepilot.com, Tris climbing the ferris wheel from pinterest.com)

The Magical Chandelier

Magical chandelier at the Writing Barn  

The title of this post has exactly nothing to do with the content except that this magical chandelier hangs outside the Writing Barn in Austin, TX, where I spent last weekend at the Art of the Sale workshop led by Siobhan Vivian and Jenny Han.

Siobhan and Jenny are talented and passionate about children’s literature; they take their work seriously, but at the same time, they aren't afraid to play. As they tell it, Siobhan and Jenny met in graduate school and have been sharing writing ever since, culminating in their recent collaboration on the Burn for Burn trilogy.

Let me take a step back to give a sense of place. If you’ve never been to the Writing Barn, it’s like a spa for writers. Owner and founder Bethany Hegedus has attended to every detail from gorgeous linens to yoga mats. Fresh coffee is available all day and the meals are both healthy and delicious. The environment, a beautifully restored horse barn, sits on seven acres of tranquility tucked into a suburban neighborhood.

This beautifully restored former horse barn provides the primary workshop space.

Just retreating and writing there would be great. Coupling that space with lectures and critiques by two successful authors was fantastic. With thoughts of the weekend occupying my thoughts days later, I thought about what was the high point for me. Certainly the one-on-one critique with Siobhan was amazing. The level of attention she brought to my pages humbled me. Their lectures were excellent, offering up experience, information and insight on the landscape of publishing today. Meals with the attendees and the authors gave us all an opportunity to get to know one another more deeply as writers, but also in addition to being writers. The highlight, though, may have been the readings. After receiving my critique, I used Siobhan's comments to revise a scene that my friend suggested I read. At first, I was a little overwhelmed. I wondered if I could hit the depth that Siobhan had suggested. But after I read the revised scene to the group, Siobhan basically said I’d nailed it.

This is why we must take the risk to put ourselves out there. And by out there, I mean sharing our work, obtaining feedback and using that information to move forward. Sure, it can be scary to share your stuff with people you barely know — not to mention two authors you respect -- but it’s difficult for to see how far you’ve come without other eyes to show you where you were before.

I'd like to say that the magical chandelier could help you reach your writing dreams, but really it's just a matter of staying in the chair, sharing work and keeping an open mind. But connecting with other writers and authors in a beautiful space doesn't hurt either.

(Chandelier photo my own, Writing Barn photo from thewritingbarn.com)

777 Challenge

Urban Art by Vexta Okay, people, I've been tagged for the adorable 777 Challenge not by one fantastic writer, but by two. First, Jenn Barnes tagged me and the other day Nicole Valentine did the same. As the first draft of this WIP isn't even complete, who knows if these seven lines will remain in the manuscript, let alone on the seventh page, seven lines down? But I'm all for fun so here we go.

The working title for this WIP is What It Looks LikeFor senior Skye Anderson, things at home suck and life at school isn't much better. Mom is too afraid of being alone to admit that her longterm boyfriend is more bad than good. If it wasn't for her little sister, Skye would be long gone by now. In the meantime, partying with the guys passes the time, even if it does go too far sometimes. But when Mom makes noises about moving in with the boyfriend, Skye knows that she can't let that happen. But what can one loser of a 17 year old do?

And now the 7 lines that appear 7 lines down on the 7th page:

"What were you thinking, hooking up with such a man whore?" Molly said, picking the olives out of her Greek salad.

Thinking? There was no thinking. "We were all just partying."

In my mind, I curled into a thumb-sucking fetal position. In reality, I projected a Teflon-coated bitch-girl, plucking french fry after french fry from the greasy container and drowning each one in red before severing it with my teeth.

 

I know that Laurie Morrison already posted hers, check it out here. And like Laurie, I'm not sure who's been tagged and who hasn't so I'm leaving it open. Happy writing, everyone!

(image is street art in India by Vexta from a NYTimes article about female street artists.)

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

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Today I returned to my local yoga studio, The Yoga Garden, after being away from yoga since May. The owner had recently renovated and this gorgeous sign greeted me upon entering the large classroom where we practice.

The teacher, who I'd never met before, focused the class on being grounded versus being in our heads. This seemed needful as I've run headlong from a relaxing month into the frenzy of the new school year. Also, this is the first September since I began writing fiction a few years ago that I'm not either attending school or working in one. During the last week of August, as September approached, I found that I was experiencing mixed feelings about days full of writing.

On Wednesday, a friend asked me how my Tuesday writing session went. I'd plopped myself in a coffee house for four hours while my son had a half day. "Terrifying." I told her. She joked that maybe I don't really want to be a writer, I just like the idea of it. I've wondered that too. More specifically, maybe I just like the coffee that comes with writing in cafes. But no, I feel the need to write fiction. Who knows why? Maybe it's the escapist element of living in a made-up world or the sense of power that comes from creating people from thin air or maybe it's the puzzling out of plot lines and character arcs. On different days, it's a bit of each of those things. I've ceased questioning the "why?"

In August, I read through one of my WIPs and I've been organizing the structure of the story, deleting some scenes and planning for new ones. This particular project has been difficult for me to nail down. I've started over about four times. In the current version, which I started about a year ago, I have over 50k decent words. That sounds pretty good, right? It's definitely something to work with -- about 200 printed pages. But when I looked at "Orphan folder (where I store deleted scenes in case I want to poach from them later), I found that I had over 25K words. Wow. So for every two words I've kept, I've tossed one.

I didn't dwell on that too much, but when that sign greeted me this morning, I grinned. I love when the Universe stops for a moment to speak to me. I'll leave you with this quote from today's daily email from The Happiness Project:

“Happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place, not for another/hour but this hour…"

- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

A Universe Conspiring

Paulo Coelho by Philip Van VolsemA couple of weeks ago on a long run I listened to Paulo Coelho’s interview with Krista Tippett for her NPR show “On Being.” I was struck by much of what Coelho said, but my week became busy and the words sifted out of my mind. Yesterday, when I donned my iPod for yet another long run, I saw that I’d forgotten to update it and the same interview sat there. Faced with a 2+ hour run, I decided to listen to the interview again. (I love music, but anything gets old after 2 hours). As it turns out, I enjoyed the interview even more the second time. You’ve probably heard of Coelho. He wrote the bestselling book The Alchemist, which has been translated into 80 languages. The book was required reading for my son in seventh grade and so I read it as well. In the book and in his life, Coelho urges people to follow their personal legends, their dreams. He says in the book that when you want something the whole universe conspires to help you.

I love that concept, even when it’s difficult for me to fully have faith in it. What I hadn’t realized from reading the book is that Coelho’s own journey was neither clear nor easy. His parents discouraged him from writing, even institutionalized him. It wasn’t until he was forty years old that he decided he must follow the dream to write. Even after writing the book, the path remained challenging. The book didn’t sell and his publisher let him go. In the interview with Tippett, Coelho shares that after the publisher let him go, he realized that he could not give up. In the interview, he says, “I have to honor my words. I have to be an example.” He found a new publisher and nearly fourteen years later, the book became a bestseller in the United States.

In the course of the interview, Coelho spoke of the difference between being a builder and a gardener. The garden, he said, never sleeps. “And it’s by its constant demands it makes of the gardener’s life a great adventure.”

The interview reminded me of something I’d read on brainpickings.org about Charles Bukowski: “…the year before Bukowski’s fiftieth birthday, he caught the attention of Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin, who offered Buk a monthly stipend of $100 to quit his day job and dedicate himself fully to writing.”

Again on brainpickings.org just yesterday morning, Maria Popova posted a letter of gratitude from Leonard Bernstein to his mentor. In it Bernstein says, “I have been able, for the first time, to concentrate completely on my main purpose, with a glorious freedom from personal problems.”

Aside from the obvious message that it’s never too late to follow your dreams, it seems that in Bukowski’s case and Bernstein’s, the universe was indeed conspiring in their favor. But you know what else? They worked hard. They showed up. They were gardeners, never resting, always tending to their creations. I can hear you protesting: but I’m not Bukowski or Bernstein or Coelho. This does not matter. You are you and you have a dream. Go tend to it.

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(photo of Paulo Coelho by Philip Van Volsem for onbeing.org; paulo coelho quote from wordsonimages.com)

Falling Forward

MLK-first-step-960x640Yesterday was my last day of work. Again. Each time I’ve been invited to work at Swarthmore College, the offer has felt like a lifeline. The first time, over ten years ago, I’d been home with my two young boys for four years and was beginning to yearn for the opportunity to use my knowledge and skills in work that didn’t involve dirty diapers or cutting food into very tiny pieces. About six years ago, the writing bug bit me hard. In truth, the bug had been dormant in my system for years. When it finally surfaced, I fell in love with creating stories and characters. Four years ago, I made the difficult decision to leave my fantastic job and embark on the MFA journey at VCFA. Little did I know that I wasn’t finished with my time at Swarthmore. My second semester at VCFA was challenging. I doubted my ability as a writer and didn’t believe that I was developing the skills needed to complete novels. I considered taking a semester off, but I wanted to graduate with my class. When my boss from Swarthmore called to ask if I’d cover my colleague’s maternity leave, I was grateful for the opportunity to return to the work that gave me confidence and a sense of belonging while struggling through a thesis and developing the story for my novel.

Throughout my third and fourth semesters, my confidence as a writer improved and I’d found a home among my fellow students and our advisors at VCFA. But as graduation loomed in the summer of 2012, I began to feel anxious that I didn’t have a job. It was not a financial worry so much as an existential worry. Who am I? What am I? I couldn’t say I was a novelist because I hadn’t sold a book. And because I hadn’t sold a book, I couldn’t validate being home writing. I’d let go of my perfect job. Serendipitously, my boss needed an extra pair of hands to assist with the counseling load and I jumped at the opportunity.

Working just two days per week, these past two years at Swarthmore provided me a needed connection to the my comfortable work world while also affording me time to tinker with my stories and be available for my kids.

As I made my way to work on my last day, the universe sent me signs that I was okay to let go. The traffic was mind-numbingly awful, reminding me of the one aspect of the job that I never did like. When I arrived at work, there was an email informing me that a senior I’d been working with for months had a job offer. A freshman I’d met with since early September had an internship and an alum who I’d corresponded with over the last year, sent a lovely email to my boss about the ways that I helped him. And all of that was before the gang took me to lunch and presented me with a super-awesome running shirt emblazoned with the Swarthmore logo.

Speaking of running, about a month ago I met with a trainer to analyze my gait. At one point, he held me by the shoulders and told me to lean forward as if I might fall. After a moment, he shook my shoulders gently. “Loosen up,” he said. “I’m not going to drop you.”

That’s how I feel today. Like I’m leaning forward, just about to fall and the universe is telling me that all will be okay. I will be held.

(Image from degreesearch.org)

My Writing Process

Welcome to my installment of the #mywritingprocess blog tour in which I share with you the joys and travails of drafting my current novel. Laurie Morrison

But first, a huge thanks you to my friend and fellow Vermont College alum, Laurie Morrison for tagging me in this blog tour. You can find her wonderful post hereLaurie Morrison has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and primarily writes contemporary YA fiction. She lives in Philadelphia, where she teaches middle school English, and loves to read and bake. She is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc. 

And now for the questions and my answers.

What are you working on?

For the last several months, I’ve been working on a paranormal young adult novel in which high school students start selling their souls to get ahead in a high-achieving suburban school. I have nearly 40,000 words and I hope to complete a first draft by the end of May.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

What my project brings to the paranormal genre is a conversation about the relationship between a teenager’s dreams and the pressure to perform and achieve. My son attends a competitive suburban high school and I’ve worked at a highly selective liberal arts college. I see students who are stressed by the perceived need to make the right choices without much opportunity to reflect on what is fulfilling to them or what they want to do. I was interested in exploring the achievement mentality slantwise.

Why do you write what you do?

Although my manuscripts cross genres, there are two common threads to all of my projects. One is that they are all geared toward the young adult market. The second is that each project explores situations in which the main characters are developing an understanding of their power as people in the world, but at the same time they are trapped by the limitations imposed by age.

How does your writing process work?

Oh, I’m so glad you asked. Many of my posts reflect stages of my process, you can check out this one written recently and this one on L. Marie's excellent blog El Space from about a year ago. I was reflecting on how I feel about the process on the very day that Laurie emailed me to ask if I’d join this blog tour; the timing seemed serendipitous so I agreed to participate. Also, I’ve never talked much about how I came to write this story.

AggieNowThe initial spark for this story, like the inspiration for so many stories, came from a “what if?” I had always been intrigued by stories that swirled around Black Aggie, a statue that used to sit in Druid Ridge Cemetery in Baltimore until she became such a magnet for hazing and vandalism that she was moved. The stories are varied, but most of them hinge on something mysterious and scary happening at midnight: Black Aggie’s eyes would glow red; if a nearby girl was pregnant, she’d lose the baby; if a person touched her at midnight, they’d die.

My love for all things paranormal and magical made me wonder: what if the stories weren’t urban legends? What if Black Aggie possessed some supernatural element and what if the local teens sought that from her? With Black Aggie in mind and with a cast of teens that lived at the edge of the cemetery where she was placed, I started writing. In the course of the writing, I learned that one of the characters in the story had become desperate for a scholarship and had sold his soul. Aha! I had the main problem of this world.

I wrote well over one hundred pages with three different point of view characters before I discovered that the character who needed to tell the story was none of those, but rather a character I'd been playing with in a short piece I'd written. With my new character, I drafted scenes as they arrived to me until I hit a wall. I needed to define the magic and rules of the world. At that point I grabbed different tools, moving away from laptop and Scrivener to paper and pencil – brainstorming, sketching, making lists, discarding ideas, revealing new ones. I returned to the story, again writing like mad until hitting another wall.

Frustrated by the experience of flying along only to skid to a stop, I created an outline with the expectation that the story would then emerge page upon page, a waterfall of words cascading from my fingertips. Reality was quite different. Each time I sat down it seemed that the story directed me toward a new path or a new revelation. At first this was fun, but lately it feels like I’m holding on for dear life, clinging to the mane of a maniacal horse and trying for all my might not to fall off and break my neck.

Doesn’t sound awfully pleasant, does it? If it feels unpleasant, it's because I’ve been fighting the process too much. Writing is humbling. When facing the blank page, I need to remember that intention and willingness are requirements, but expectations need to take a seat outside. First drafts laugh at expectations. Speaking of intention, I'll close with one of my favorite quotes from Stephen King’s straight-shooting book On Writing:

“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair — the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take names. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.” p. 99

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think the maniacal horse needs some carrots. Before I go, I will tag fellow Baltimorean and fantastic blogger, Naomi Gruer. Naomi grew up in Baltimore, was educated in New England and has settled with her husband in New Jersey where she's raising triplets plus one in the Garden State while also writing, taking photos and creating awesome projects.

(Laurie Morrison photo from lauriemorrison.wordpress.com; Black Aggie from prairieghosts.com)

Permission to Act (or at least think) Like a Child

Many times over the last few years, I’ve lamented that I didn’t start writing when I was younger. But after reading Wally Lamb’s recent interview in the March/April issue of Writer’s Digest, I think I understand why. 1013306_419367881542499_1076806972_nWhen asked about imagination, Lamb credited his wife, saying that she took care of many of the responsible aspects of their lives together, giving him space to create. He spoke of Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming A Writer, saying that Brande “thought that the fiction writer is both the child and the adult, and if you try to be the adult before you allow yourself to be the child, then you’re going to cut yourself off — you’re not going to be able to create.”

That idea made a lot of sense to me as I thought of the many years that I wanted to write but seemed unable to do so. I’d grown up quick and, without realizing it, shut down that childlike side. The more I’ve given myself over to writing in recent years, the more I’ve experienced the playful wonder that I left behind.

Lamb said that Brande went on to say “…you have to give that child — the child that is in you as a writer — the freedom initially before you can become the responsible adult.”

Amen to that! I’ve got the responsible adult part down, but letting go and allowing the childlike part of me take over? Whoa. Not easy. But it must be important because I caught a similar thread when I heard Bobby McFerrin interviewed by Krista Tippet for her show On Being this morning.

mcferrin_leadMcFerrin said that he understands that he is entrusted with a talent and that he must take care of it by doing his best. “By [doing my] best,” McFerrin said, “it means I’m myself. I’m as close to my genuine self as possible.” And the “best way to be genuine is…to be ourselves and be childlike.” McFerrin talked about coaching young people in improvisation and how he tells them not to think that they are performing, but to simply be themselves.

My interpretation is that by being our true selves, by setting aside the expectations we perceive from others or from ourselves, we can tap into our creative side. The paradox is that while we are children, we are in a hurry to become adults. Then we must work our way back toward that open way of accessing creativity that comes so naturally to children. For adults, it takes courage to open that door and see what will walk through.

McFerrin spoke of the importance of improvisation in developing courage. He tells his students to set a timer and sing for ten minutes. He warns them that by two minutes in they will need to fight all tendencies to stop. In fact, he says that every part of your being will scream for you to stop. He says to continue. Do not give up. Do it every day for three weeks.

Julia Cameron’s morning pages in her book The Artist's Way offer a parallel activity for writers. Write three pages each morning upon waking. Don’t think, don’t judge and don’t stop. In fact, Cameron's book is all about working your way back to your creative side and the workbook offers tangible steps toward building a creative life.

Another paradox of the creative life is that you need to keep showing up (be the responsible adult) in order for the creative side (the child) to show up. The good news is that once the font is opened, you won’t run dry. Maya Angelou said: "You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have."

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(Writer's Digest image from wallylamb.net, Bobby McFerrin image from onbeing.org, picasso image from rugusavay.com)

Gliding and Falling. And Getting Up Again.

IMG_2262Push, glide. Push, glide. Cross-country skiing is way easier than downhill. There’s really not much to it. Despite that fact, I had some trouble staying upright when faced with a downhill. Neither my husband nor my younger son fell a single time, while my older son and I became experts in art of the rolling like a turtle to getting back on one’s skies. (No, you're not getting a photo of that. No one should see a photo of that.) 

I didn’t let the falls get to me. The trail was beautiful and the weather was perfect. I wished that I had better mastery, but I remained happy. I believed that if I scheduled a lesson or watched some YouTube videos, I could master the downhill without falling.

This brought to mind an article I’d read recently in The Atlantic. In the article, Megan McArdle started with a humorous take on writers as the worst procrastinators, but she moved on to a serious and thought-provoking commentary on achievement mentality and talent orientation. Her description of psychologist Carol Dweck's research on  fixed mind-set individuals versus growth mind-set individuals resonated with me.

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Dweck said,"...the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. The people who relish them think that it’s something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at."

When it came to writing, I was decidedly in the fixed mind-set camp. McArdle’s article helped me see why rejection had been crippling to me — I saw it as a statement about limited talent rather than an opportunity to grow. Dweck's research also helped me understand why others writers seem to let rejection roll off -- they experienced it as a challenge to improve.

What was cool was that while reading the article, I understood I could change. In fact, I have changed. After all, I’m not a millennial just entering the workforce. I’m well past that stage and I have decades of experience to remind me that change is possible.

While cross-country skiing today, though, I realized something new about the ideas in that article. While I may have held a fixed mind-set in terms of writing, I did not think that way in terms of many other aspects of my life. When I was learning to cook, I failed miserably again and again. (Ask my husband about the first time I cooked a whole chicken. Then again - don't. It might trigger his gag reflex.) I love food and I had to feed myself so eventually I learned how to cook. Now, I’m good at it. If you don’t believe me, ask my father-in-law. Or just come over for dinner.

Okay, you’re saying, cooking is obviously a learned skill. I'll give you another example: running. Running is an area where I have some natural talent. For a long time, people have tried to draw comparisons between my commitment to running and my commitment to writing: if you had a bad race, they'd say, you wouldn’t give up running. You’d figure out what was going on and you’d work to fix it. That is true, but it never felt like a parallel to writing and now I know why. I never looked at my running from a fixed talent mind-set. Even though it was something I was good at, I believed that I could continue to develop further (until age sets in, but it hasn't yet!).

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Now I can see writing in the same light. I know that when someone finds something in my writing that isn’t working, I can go back and try again. I write the same scene several different times until I find the one that works best for the story. I can deepen emotional moments or sharpen dialogue. I can throw out whole chapters and write new ones. My written word is not carved in stone. There is no pressure for it to be perfect the first time or even the third or the thirty-third. (Well, okay, it needs to be pretty shiny by the thirty-third attempt.) The point is that I know I can improve and that allows me to feel more energized around the writing, more playful.

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As for the cross-country skiing? I love the push, glide, push, glide and because I love it and because I hate falling down, I’ll keep working on improving my approach to the downhill. After all, I know that I can improve. And I love a challenge.

The Tarot Card Reader Said So

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERALast night I went to the birthday celebration of a good friend. She'd hired a tarot card reader to do 10 minute readings for any of the party-goers who were interested. I was excited for this new experience, but I wasn't sure what to expect. The woman helped me craft a question that was open-ended but specific. We settled on focusing on the process for the book I'm currently working on. The reader instructed me to select 11 cards from the deck spread out on the table. She then laid my eleven on the table in a specific order. She said many things, all of them interesting to me, but in case you are already rolling your eyes at the idea of Tarot Cards, I'll cut to the chase. The reader observed that I've been working on the current project in fits and starts. She said that I'm treating it like a hobbyist and that if I want to finish it, I need to develop a daily habit of working on it.

Now you might be wondering if I really needed a tarot card reading to remind me to develop a daily habit of writing. Intellectually, no. But it was a sort of wake up call to me. Even though I didn't think I was treating my writing as a hobby, the way I've spent time on it lately is very much like a hobbyist. If there's time, I will write -- as opposed to the immutable time I used to give writing. The tarot card reader's comments reminded me of Ingrid Sundberg's post in which she analyzed how much time she actually spent writing. It was far less than she'd expected. Similarly, I spend a lot of time thinking about writing, talking about writing, lamenting about writing -- but comparably-speaking, very little time tapping my fingers on the keypad of my laptop.

The other day, the snow day, the clock was closing in on 2 p.m. and I still hadn't written. I had been telling myself that it was because my kids were home, but let's be real. My two sons are teenagers. I barely see them when they're home. If I was tending to their needs by making pancakes from scratch, hot cocoa and cookies, that was all me. So I told on myself. I announced that I needed to spend two hours writing and if either of them saw me wandering around, they were free to shame me back to my laptop. I also gave them my phone, reasoning that they were home and my husband was safe at work so there were no life-or-death reasons to check my email or text messages. I mean, how important is it that I see the latest 25% off deal from Eastern Mountain Sports?

My 14-year said, "That's fine, but what are you going to write about? You should have an idea about the scene." I told him what I'd planned to tackle. He said, "Okay, but don't plan all of it. The writers of Adventure Time said that you need leave space for the character do what he wants."

I love when I get pearls of wisdom from my offspring courtesy of a Buzzfeed article. I sat down and guess what? I wrote a really cool scene during that time. I can say so with confidence because the 14-year asked to read it and I got a "Whoa," which everyone knows is teen speak for "That's awesome."

Here we are at 3 p.m. on another snowy day and the words of the tarot card reader are still in my head. "You need to make this a daily practice. Otherwise, the stops and starts will drift into more stops than starts." Off I go. I think I know the scene I'll work on this time, but I'll be sure to give my character some space to walk around. Tomorrow, I'll plan to do the same. Notice that I didn't say "hope to do the same" because hope suggests that I'll do it if I can. "Plan" says that I'm going to work it into my schedule. I'll be sure to report back.

Show Up Till the Miracle Happens

51G9v6aJdtL._AA160_These past days, I’ve been under the spell of Rob Inglis’s narration of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Just yesterday, Strider appeared at the Prancing Pony: “Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits.”

That moment in the book reminded me of Rachel Hylton’s graduate lecture at VCFA. A classmate of mine, Rachel had lectured on creativity and the flow state. In the course of the lecture, she shared letters written by Tolkien in which he said that he “had at times to wait until what really happened came through.” In fact, Tolkien went on to say of writing the scene in the Prancing Pony:

“Strider sitting in the corner of the inn was a shock and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo.”

Peter Jackson nailed it, right?

Now, any of you who’ve read the books or seen the movies know what an important character Strider proves to be. And yet, Tolkien had not planned for his existence, let alone his arrival in the inn.

A few weeks ago, I skidded to stop in my current project. I’d been writing insane amounts of words until I reached a point where questions needed answering or I could not move forward. I stared at my computer for inordinate amounts of time until I finally decided that what I needed was to plot out the novel. I did that. Then, I didn’t write for three weeks.

You would think that because I’d outlined the novel, it would be a piece of cake to open the project, choose the scene that needed writing and Boom! Presto-o Change-o — Novel done! But no. Instead, there was more inordinate staring coupled with useless internet surfing for Answers. Finally, I sat myself down and told myself that I needed to write something, even if it was crap. So I did. I wrote a scene and at the end of that scene Something Happened. I had not planned or plotted that Something and yet it made perfect sense for the character and for the story. The next day I wrote a new scene and Something Else happened. Again, this Thing had not shown up in my outline.

Now, I’m no Tolkien, but I am a writer and that means being open to the process however it presents itself. Sometimes I think that there are as many ways to write books as there are people writing books. In fact, maybe there are even more ways — I’ve finished two books and they were written by very different processes. One of the many pitfalls for unpublished writers is in assuming that a published writer’s way is the One Right Way. That problem is compounded when a published writer’s narrow view is also that her way is the One Right Way.

What works for one writer may not work for another. Neither writer is right or wrong. They are simply different. The only wrong process is giving up. Take time to learn your own process for the project that is before you. Surround yourself with truthful and trusted people. Accept advice that is helpful and leave the rest behind. Above all show up and, to paraphrase Rachel Hylton, be willing to wait for Strider to appear.

(Tolkien, J. R. R, Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Print. Fellowship of the Ring book image from Amazon.com. Image of Strider from fightyourfantasy.blogspot.com)

The Unfamiliar Breeds Inspiration

Inspiration often strikes not despite the fact that it’s unexpected but because it’s unexpected, so in retrospect, it should not have surprised me to have been struck with the lightening bolt of inspiration while sitting in a Jury Marshalling Room waiting for my number to be called for a jury. Jury duty is not actually as bad as all that.

The bit of serendipity of the day showed up in the form of a woman who had recently joined our somewhat faltering writing group. Her work and parenting responsibilities prevent her from attending as often as she’d like, but the passion is there.

We waited and waited - first in one room with cushy chairs and then in a waiting area on plastic ones. We talked and talked, getting to know one another in a way that we couldn’t at our group.

The Jury Officer who ran the show took the podium and began calling names for the first of the three cases for which they needed juries that day. Neither my friend nor I were picked. We breathed relief and waited and talked some more.

Staring at a wall of names, I mused, “Look at all these names. How could I ever have trouble creating a fictional one?”

She shared with me some of the oddest names she’d come across in her time as a professor at a local university.

“My favorite of all the names,” she said, “was Basil Motley.”

“That one needs to be the star of a graphic novel,” I said.

When we sat for more waiting, I pulled out paper (because if there is going to be waiting, I’m armed with at least one of the following and frequently all three: paper, a book, a laptop).

“We’re going to write a scene with Basil Motley in it for ten minutes.”

There was a smidgen of fear in her eyes, but she bellied up to the bar and without a moment's hesitation began writing and writing.

Here’s something I’d forgotten: free writing is fun! At the end of the ten minutes, we swapped papers and giggled over the predicaments into which we’d placed poor old Basil. Not ten minutes later, the Jury Officer took the podium again and announced that we were being dismissed.

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Now, I’m not so self-centered to think that the whole point of that morning was for me to connect with a fellow writer and be reminded of the joy of writing. Nonetheless, an hour later I sat at my laptop writing new fiction for the first time in weeks. Despite all of my knowledge about writing and creativity and despite the support of friends and family members, it was time spent with a new friend in a foreign environment that offered the jumpstart that I sorely needed.

Any situation that jars you from your current state has the potential for fostering inspiration. The question is how to remain open to it.

(Jury Duty  image from thebsreport.wordpress.com via Bing.com; free write image from attorneymarketing.com via Bing.com)

Menace to Society

Where'd You Go, BernadetteMaria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette devoured me last week. A sixteen year old boy, son of a friend, handed the book to me. It had been required reading for his eleventh grade class and he'd loved it. He generally sticks to works created by Stan Lee and Alan Fine so I was intrigued. When I learned that Semple wrote for the awesome TV show, Arrested Development, I was even more eager to dive in. (In case you're interested to learn more about the author, you can find an interview of her here from the New York Times.) I'm not always a fan of epistolary-style stories, but Bernadette's incisive social commentary, the mystery surrounding her disappearance and Semple's excellent pacing kept my nose firmly planted in that book. But I'm not writing today to give a review of the book. At the time that I was reading it, I was experiencing some challenges in my own writing world. I'd decided to stop seeking representation for my completed novel and the residual effects had me seeing nothing but warts on my new projects.

At one point in the book I mention above, Bernadette, an architect who, 20 years prior, walked away from her work and a promising career sends a looooong email to a former colleague going on and on about why she hates Seattle and why she stopped designing buildings. The colleague's response to Bernadette's seven page email is this:

"Are you done? You can't honestly believe any of this nonsense. People like you must create. If you don't create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society."

A menace to society. Do you hear that all you writers, musicians, visual artists, video game designers, crazy cake bakers? Put away questions of whether or not your art has a point or whether or not it will serve some productive result out in the world. The point is for you not to go crazy or drive your family crazy. The productive result is the sense of release you feel from the act of creating.

Later that same week, I read an interview on PW with Jackie Mitchard on her new publishing house. On being a writer she said:

"'If you had a normal ego that could be satisfied by normal things, you wouldn’t be a writer.' Despite having written more than 20 books for adults and teens, she said, 'I still live with self-doubt. It’s not easier. The only thing that’s easier is that I know where to look for what I need for the story. And I know whether the story is good or bad.'"

Learning that a well-established author still experiences self-doubt after 20 books gave me hope. The doubt I'm feeling while facing my third novel is normal!

Dorothy ParkerAnd then I listened to a biography on Dorothy Parker, the doing of which was inspired by reading Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts. On the jacket of the book a reviewer noted that the book was like Dorothy Parker for teens. Parker spoke about the elements of good writing, one of which, she said is "a magnificent disregard of your reader." This, at first glance, seems at odds with much that I've learned about writing for children and young adults. We were often told to keep our intended audience at the forefront of our minds. What I take from Parker's advice, however, is to be daring. Go for the unusual metaphor, write the unexpected story, try a new structural approach. By writing with a magnificent disregard of your reader, you will turn off the internal editor, you will write with glee and in the end, you will win more readers, different readers, readers who can see that you're jumping with no parachute and they will jump with you.

On the blog Books Around the Table, Laura Kvasnosky shared this Flashmob performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony in Sabadell, Spain. Laura stated that Beethoven was deaf when he composed the symphony. Curious, I found this article about the well-known piece of music. Talk about having a magnificent disregard of your audience, apparently Beethoven's piece has stumped many a music scholar. What he did was unexpected and the result is that this is one of the most-played pieces of classical music ever, a piece of music that gives people goosebumps while also encouraging them to hum along.beethoven

What more inspiration do you need to make your art? Go and create. Do it not for the end result, but despite what might come of it. Do it because it wakes your spirit. Do it so that you do not become a menace to society.

(Where'd You Go, Bernadette image from Amazon.com; The Portable Dorothy Parker image from venturegalleries.com; Beethoven image from Slate.com)